Hume on the Real Presence

David Hume begins his discussion of miracles:

THERE is, in Dr. Tillotson’s writings, an argument against the real presence, which is as concise, and elegant, and strong as any argument can possibly be supposed against a doctrine, so little worthy of a serious refutation. It is acknowledged on all hands, says that learned prelate, that the authority, either of the scripture or of tradition, is founded merely in the testimony of the Apostles, who were eye-witnesses to those miracles of our Saviour, by which he proved his divine mission. Our evidence, then, for, the truth of the Christian religion is less than the evidence for the truth of our senses; because, even in the first authors of our religion, it was no greater; and it is evident it must diminish in passing from them to their disciples; nor can any one rest such confidence in their testimony, as in the immediate object of his senses. But a weaker evidence can never destroy a stronger; and therefore, were the doctrine of the real presence ever so clearly revealed in scripture, it were directly contrary to the rules of just reasoning to give our assent to it. It contradicts sense, though both the scripture and tradition, on which it is supposed to be built, carry not such evidence with them as sense; when they are considered merely as external evidences, and are not brought home to every one’s breast, by the immediate operation of the Holy Spirit.
Nothing is so convenient as a decisive argument of this kind, which must at least silence the most arrogant bigotry and superstition, and free us from their impertinent solicitations. I flatter myself, that I have discovered an argument of a like nature, which, if just, will, with the wise and learned, be an everlasting check to all kinds of superstitious delusion, and consequently, will be useful as long as the world endures. For so long, I presume, will the accounts of miracles and prodigies be found in all history, sacred and profane.

Tillotson’s argument against the Real Presence here is completely erroneous, since the doctrine does not suggest that the body of Christ should be sensibly present, and thus the sensible experience in question fails to provide evidence against the doctrine. A better argument would be that a doctrine about physical objects (such as the body of Christ) which is posited to make no sensible difference is inherently improbable, since it seems likely that someone would add this condition to an invented doctrine to prevent its refutation. But this argument is not conclusive, and Tillotson’s actual argument has no force at all.

As we shall see in later posts, Hume prophesied like Caiphas when he says that he has discovered an “argument of a like nature,” because his argument against miracles fails, just as Tillotson’s argument against the Real Presence fails.


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