Date of this Version

April 1999

Document Type

Journal Article

Publication Details

Harrison, Peter, (1999) ‘Prophecy, Early-Modern Apologetics, and Hume’s Argument against Miracles’, Journal of the History of Ideas 60, pp. 241-57.

©1999 John Hopkins University Press. All rights reserved.

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Abstract

[Extract]: "What we have said of miracles may be applied, without any variation, to prophecies; and indeed, all prophecies are real miracles, and as such only, can be admitted as proofs of any revelation." 1 David Hume's celebrated account of miracles concludes with an elegant symmetry: the argument against miracles applies equally to prophecies, and thus the twin supports of revealed religion are demolished. For the most part commentators have taken Hume at his word, focusing their attentions on his probabilistic argument against belief in breaches of natural laws and assuming that if this argument is effective against miracles, it will apply equally to prophecies. Treatments of the arguments of section ten of the Enquiry concerning Human Understanding thus concentrate almost exclusively on the miraculous.

In this paper I shall argue that both Hume and his commentators have tended to overlook the distinctive features of prophecy. Hume's chief objection to miracles--that one is never justified in crediting second-hand testimony to miraculous events--does not necessarily apply to the argument from fulfilled prophecies as it was understood in the eighteenth century. I shall further argue that at least some of the apologists for Christian revelation against whom Hume directed his arguments were aware of the kind of reasoning which Hume was to mount against the miraculous, and of the immunity of prophecies to this kind of attack. If we consider Hume's arguments in their historical context, then, we shall discover that not only do they fail to counter the argument from prophecies but that they were known to have failed.

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