Why miracles are less important than reason – an 11th century Nestorian comments

Abu al-Faraj ibn al-Tayyib was an Iraqi Nestorian, philosopher, physician, monk and priest in the first half of the 11th century. He was a voluminous writer, who left behind him massive biblical commentaries on the Psalms and Gospels.

In his collection of Arabic Christian treatises, Paul Sbath prints a short work on miracles and philosophy, which seems well worth looking at, even today.  Here it is:

On Knowledge and Miracles
By Abū al-Faraj ʿAbdallāh ibn al-Ṭayyib, secretary of the Catholicos and philosopher

In the religion of the Christians, rational proof is nobler than miracles because rational proof is proof by which the intellect comes to grasp the truth of the claim of those who have miracles, his own investigation, the investigation of his circumstances and the circumstances of those who are making the claim, and the state of the matter with regard to the claim. Rational proof is for the elites and the philosophers and the scholars who are not led except by it, while miracles are for the masses whose breasts are not delighted by certain knowledge and who only believe what they behold by the senses. So it is clear that rational proof is evidence which convinces through knowledge and is for the elites and that miracles are evidence which convince through the senses and they are for the masses. Scriptural evidence that knowledge is nobler than miracles is from when Paul, the chosen and heavenly apostle says, “God appointed in His Church the apostles first, and after then the prophets, and after them the scholars, and after them those who work miracles, and after them those who heal the sick, and after them those who possess languages (1 Corinthians 12:28).” From this evidence it becomes known that knowledge is nobler than miracles. Then he says, “The elders who order the affairs of the Church well deserve multiple recompense, especially those who toil with knowledge (1 Timothy 5:17).”

So rational proof is rational evidence and miracles are sensible evidence. If the intellect is nobler than sensation, then rational proof is nobler than miracles.

Miracles are found in a specific place and at a specific time and among a specific people. If that place and that time and that people cease, then the miracle ceases with them. Rational proof is found in all places and at all times and among all peoples. So, knowledge and rational proof are nobler than miracles.

Thus Christ our Lord worked miracles for the common people and the masses and set forth evidence and rational proof for the excellent philosophers who are not led by miracles and make no use of them. Glory to God forever.


5 thoughts on “Why miracles are less important than reason – an 11th century Nestorian comments

  1. There always is a rational demonstration of Christianity; the alternative, which usually seems to be conformity to some subset of period values, is rarely even stated, never mind rationally defended. The Nestorians of this period were not fideists, it seems.

  2. Yeah…

    I should probably make the distinction between rational and rationalistic…rationalists are so much harder to please than simply rational people, and it does seem to be the case that this is indeed the alternative to Christianity (or at the least the only alternative to positing some definite and transcendent Good we can serve.)

  3. I think Rationalism is just a religious position for selfishness, with no special connection with reason and some excessive amounts of self-flattery.

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