John Henry NEWMAN, Two Essays on Biblical and Ecclesiastical Miracles. Introduction and notes by Geoffrey Rowell. Notre Dame, IN: University of Notre Dame Press, 2010. pp. 512. $40.00 hb. ISBN 978-0-268-03607-2.
Reviewed by Ryan MARR, Saint Louis University, St. Louis, MO 63103

Given the fact that most of John Henry Newman’s works are readily available online, it strikes one as perhaps a bit unwise to publish new, printed editions of his writings. Since 2000, however, University of Notre Dame Press has done exactly that, with its publication of the series The Works of Cardinal Newman: Birmingham Oratory Millennium Edition. What makes these editions worth purchasing is that each volume includes a new introduction and notes by a distinguished Newman scholar. In this latest addition to the series, Geoffrey Rowell, Bishop of the Church of England Diocese of Gibraltar, performs these duties. Besides the helpful introduction by Rowell, another incentive for buying this edition—as with the rest of the series—is the high quality binding: these books were clearly printed to last. Furthermore, the works in this series have retained the pagination of the original editions, thus making it convenient for scholars to reference Newman’s works without having to worry about whether or not their readership owns these particular editions.

While the essays on miracles are not the most well known pieces in Newman’s oeuvre, their significance should not be underrated. The question of the veracity of certain miracles was a pressing one during the Victorian era, and Newman’s treatment provides an instructive glimpse into the central features of the conversation. In both essays Newman staunchly defends the miracles that are recorded in Scripture, which for him constitute an important witness to the divine inspiration of biblical revelation. In the first essay (written in 1825-26 for the Encyclopaedia Metropolitana), though, Newman draws a sharp line between the miracles of Scripture, which he believes were given for the purpose of demonstrating the truthfulness of the revelation they accompanied, and the “ecclesiastical miracles” of later church history, which he describes as the product of superstition. In the second essay, dating from 1842-43, Newman moves away from this position, and attempts instead to demonstrate continuity between biblical miracles and the miraculous events that have continued to be a part of the Church’s history. A distinction remains however: on account of the inspired character of the biblical text, Christians can know for certain that the scriptural miracles took place, while with ecclesiastical miracles each and every case has to be judged on an individual basis, according to the evidence available.

Although Newman advocates a quite traditional stance towards miracles, his overall approach in these essays could hardly be described as fideistic. Newman displays an impressive familiarity with the skeptical writings of Hume as well as the secular utilitarians of his day. Also, in building his case, Newman draws upon a nuanced epistemology. In the way that Newman employs the principle of antecedent probability, one can even detect the early seeds of his great philosophical work, An Essay in Aid of a Grammar of Assent. If a God exists who loves the world and desires for humanity to know Him, then miracles make sense as singular revelatory events that are part of a larger providential design. Thus, Newman readily admits that to be convinced of the veracity of any particular miracle one must first be open to the idea of an intelligent Creator at work in the world. As he succinctly puts it, “A Miracle is no argument to one who is deliberately, and on principle, an atheist.”

Besides their historical value as windows into the Victorian-era arguments regarding miracles, these essays are noteworthy in that they show a concrete instance of development in Newman’s thought. Obviously, the principle of development was important in Newman’s understanding of the history of the Church, but a development analogous to the Church’s growth can also be seen in Newman’s own intellectual and spiritual journey. In regard to miracles, as Newman moved closer to the Catholic Church his evaluation of ecclesiastical miracles shifted in accord with his developing theological convictions. The way in which these essays display Newman’s development as a thinker merits their inclusion in any Newman scholar’s library. This attractive volume by University of Notre Dame Press makes it worthwhile for those who do not already own Newman’s Essays on Biblical and Ecclesiastical Miracles to purchase a printed edition of the work.

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