Berkeley on God and Miracles

While reading Berkeley for a paper at the end of this last semester I’ve just come out of, I found a number of fascinating passages on miracles, apologetics and so on. I thought I’d select a few of them and paste them here. I copied the first one, but lost my place, so I don’t remember exactly where to find it.

“It may indeed sometimes be necessary that the author of nature display his overruling power in producing some appearance that doesn’t fit his ordinary pattern of events. Such exceptions from the general rules of nature are just what’s needed to surprise and awe men into an acknowledgment of the divine being; but then they aren’t to be used often, for  if they were they would fail to have that effect. Besides, God seems to prefer •convincing our reason about what he is like through the works of nature, which reveal so much harmony and ingenuity in their structure and are such plain indications of wisdom and good-will in their author, to •astonishing us by anomalous and surprising events into believing that he exists.”

“But this will be urged:
Miracles, at least, become much less striking and important on your principles. What must we think of Moses’ rod? Rather than its really being turned into a serpent, was there only a change of ideas in the minds of the spectators? Are we to suppose that all our saviour did at the marriage-feast in Cana was to influence the sight, smell, and taste of the guests in such a way as to create in them the appearance or mere idea of wine? The same may be said of all other miracles. On your principles they must all be regarded as merely cheats, or illusions of the imagination. To this I reply that the rod was changed into a real serpent,
and the water into real wine. That this doesn’t in the least contradict what I have elsewhere said will be evident from 34–5. But this business of real and imaginary has been
already so plainly and fully explained, and so often referred to, and the difficulties about it are so easily answered by what I have already said, that it would be an insult to your
understanding to explain it all over again here.”
~Principles, 84

Remember that Berkeley is an idealist, and this passage makes sense. It is curious that Berkeley’s definition of Miracle involves purpose, so that one might be inclined to think that no event can be a miracle unless it is recognized, or at least possibly recognized, as a sign-post pointing to God.

“Alciphron: Miracles would indeed prove something. But what proof have we of these miracles? Crito: Proof of the same kind that we do have—the only kind we can have—of events that occurred long ago and far away. We have authentic accounts passed down to us from eye-witnesses whom we can’t conceive to have been tempted to deceive us by any human motive whatsoever. ·Why can’t we?· Because in giving these accounts they were acting contrary to their interests, their prejudices, and the very principles in which they had been nursed and brought up. These accounts were confirmed by the unparalleled razing of the city of Jerusalem, and the scattering of the Jewish nation, which is an enduring testimony to the truth of the Gospel, particularly of the predictions of our blessed saviour. [For example: ‘And when ye shall see Jerusalem compassed with armies, then know that the desolation thereof is nigh.’ Luke 21:20] Within less than a century these accounts were spread throughout the world, and believed by great numbers of people. They were also written down, translated into numerous languages, and handed down with the same respect and consent of Christians in the most distant churches. ‘Don’t you see’, said Alciphron, staring straight at Crito, ‘that all this depends on tradition? And tradition, believe me, gives only a weak hold: it is a chain whose first links may be stronger than steel and yet the last ones weak as wax and brittle as glass. Imagine a picture copied successively by a hundred painters, each copying from the one before; how like the original will the last copy be? How lively and clear will an image be after a hundred reflections between two parallel mirrors? That’s how like and lively I think a faint vanishing tradition will be at the end of sixteen or seventeen centuries. Some men have a false heart, others a wrong head; and even when heart and head are both good, memory may be treacherous. Something gets added, something omitted, something varied from the truth; and the •cumulative result of many such additions, deductions and alterations through the centuries—the •bottom line—is quite different from what the tradition started with.’ Crito: We can know ancient facts by •oral tradition or written tradition; and a written tradition may be either •private (kept in the hands of particular men) or •public (recorded in public  archives). Now, as far as I can see all these three sorts of tradition agree in attesting to the genuine antiquity of the Gospels. And they are strengthened by supplementary evidence from rites instituted, festivals observed, and buildings—churches, baptistries and sepulchres—put up by ancient Christians. Granting that your objection holds against oral tradition on its own, I can’t think it is so difficult to transcribe faithfully. And once something has been put in writing, it is secure against slips of memory, and can with reasonable care be preserved intact for as long as the manuscript lasts—which we know from experience can be more than a thousand years. . . . A tradition of more than sixteen hundred years needs only two or three links in its chain [he gives an example]; and despite the great length of time, those links may be very sound and unbroken. And no reasonable man will deny that an ancient manuscript may be as credible now as when it was first written. We have it on good authority—and anyway it seems probable—that •the first Christians were careful to transcribe copies of the Gospels and Epistles for their private use; and that •other copies were preserved as public records in many churches throughout the world; and that •portions of them were constantly read in their assemblies. What more  could be said to prove the authenticity of the writings of classic authors, or ancient records of any kind? Alciphron turned to Euphranor and said: ‘Silencing an adversary is different from convincing him—don’t you agree, Euphranor?’
Euphranor: Oh yes, they are different.
Alciphron: But what I want is to be convinced.
Euphranor: It’s not so clear to me that you do!”
~Alciphron, Sixth dialogue


“Crito: And aren’t •miracles, and the •fulfilment of prophecies, joined with •the excellence of its doctrine, a sufficient proof that the Christian religion came from God?”


About tylerjourneaux

I am an aspiring Catholic theologian and philosopher, and I have a keen interest in apologetics. I am creating this blog both in order to practice and improve my writing and memory retention as I publish my thoughts, and in order to give evidence of my ability to understand and communicate thoughts on topics pertinent to Theology, Philosophy, philosophical theology, Catholic (Christian) Apologetics, philosophy of religion and textual criticism.
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