In their book The Cult of the Virgin: Catholic Mariology and the Apparitions of Mary, Elliot Miller and Kenneth Samples investigate the nature of Catholic devotion and in particular various Marian apparitions. The book is divided into two parts, the first looking at Catholic doctrine regarding Mary and the second looking at apparitions. In their final chapter, they offer an Evangelical response to the apparitions they had described previously. Below, I will take a look at their response and note how their objections are undermining for Christianity.
A Priori Rejection
Miller and Samples begin by noting that, before even evaluating the nature of supposed Marian apparitions, that an evangelical cannot accept them as true apparitions of the Mary of Scripture. This is because “To accept these apparitions is to accept an unbiblical view of Mary.” They claim rejecting a priori the claims of Marian apparitions is equivalent to the Catholic Church’s claim that for any apparition to be true, it cannot contradict Catholic doctrine.
Just as the Catholic Church uses an objective criterion for accepting or rejecting apparitions (conformity to Catholic teaching: Scripture and Traditions), the Protestant does so also. For the Protestant the phenomenon must conform to Scripture (especially to those central truths rediscovered and emphasized in the Reformation). Protestants, then, are no more closed minded (apriorism) to supernatural manifestations than are Catholics; we merely use a different, and from our perspective, more appropriate criterion. (emphasis theirs)pg 127
One difference between what Miller and Samples are doing and what the Catholic Church is doing is that the Catholic Church is asking whether a supposed apparition allegedly occurring to one of its own faithful can be accepted among its faithful. The Catholic Church does not claim as a matter of methodology that miraculous claims of other religions must be dismissed because of the falsity of the theology of those alleged miracles. In fact, the Catholic Church doesn’t evaluate miracle claims of other religions at all.
A second difference is that the Catholic Church claims to have divine authority to determine the what is and is not part of the apostolic faith. Thus, it is entirely internally consistent for the Church to reject things which it sees as contrary to its own teaching. Samples and Miller by contrast make no such claim for their own authority. No doubt, they would say that Scripture is a binding authority which defines the faith. Scripture however didn’t write The Cult of the Virgin; Miller and Samples did. Miller and Samples would admit that they could err in interpreting scripture. Thus, they would have to admit the possibility that they are wrong when they say the Mary of Lourdes is not the Mary of Scripture. The Catholic Church would admit of no such possibility. Thus, there is no equivalence to what the Catholic Church does and what Miller and Samples do.
The task of Samples and Miller should be to evaluate these alleged apparitions on the basis of the evidence, not to simply dismiss them. Consider applying Samples and Miller’s a priori rejection of miracle claims to Christianity itself.
It would be completely consistent with Samples and Miller’s method for a first century Jew to reject the miraculous claims of a supposed Messiah because accepting such claims would be in their view to accept “an unbiblical view” of Messiah. After all, the Messiah was widely expected to overthrow the Romans and restore the Kingdom of Israel. Even Christ’s most close followers expected this of Jesus and asked him when it would happen even after he resurrected (Acts 1:6). Clearly such an attitude by Samples and Miller undermines Christianity itself if it is applied consistently.
Work of the Devil?
When Miller and Samples move on to providing explanations of the Marian apparitions, the first possible explanation they offer is that Marian apparitions are the work of Satan. Obviously it is true that Satan or some demon could appear to someone and pretend to be Mary. This may in fact happen in some cases. However, once again, such an objection can and indeed was raised against Christ himself. Christ’s own exorcisms for instance were, according to his opponents, works of Beelzebub (Matt. 12:24). Thus, this explanation is by itself unhelpful. What is needed is an investigation of each apparition to see the truth of the matter. Just as one cannot just dismiss Christ’s miracles on the basis of their supposed demonic origin, so too can one not simply dismiss Marian apparitions on this ground without looking into the details of the apparition.
Legend, Delusion, Psychosis
The next possible explanation Samples and Miller offer is that the apparitions could simply legendary or they could be the result of delusion e.g. psychosis or hallucination. Undoubtedly this is the case but once again, these are precisely the kinds of objections that non Christians and many moderate to progressive Christian Biblical scholars offer against many Biblical stories. Samples and Miller simply exempt the Bible from this same criticism by noting that they are an “obvious exception” to the idea that hallucination “seem[s] to fit and adequately explain much visionary phenomena” (pg 131). As the saying goes, what’s good for the goose is good for the gander. If Samples and Miller are actually going to evaluate Catholic miracle claims objectively, they must provide some standard which they apply to the Bible and not merely exempt the Bible from their admitted and selective anti supernatural bias.
Lourdes and Fatima
When Samples and Miller finally get to evaluating the alleged apparitions of Fatima and Lourdes, they offer perhaps their worst objections. The begin by claiming that Marian apparitions “seem to be of a kind different from those found in Scripture. This is true of biblical miracles as a whole, as well as the miracles in Jesus’ public ministry.” (pg 133) How do they justify this claim? They un-ironically state:
When did Jesus ever make the sun dance or crosses spin?…[W]hen Jesus performed a miracle, it was not perceived by only a few people but by all who were present, even those who were against Jesus. In contrast many of the miracles associated with Marian apparitions seem dramatic and sensational–attention-getting if you will–the kind of miracles Jesus consistently refused to perform. This is a good reason to at least suspect the source of these miracles. (emphasis theirs)pg 133-134
It is difficult to understand how Samples and Miller fail to see the extremely obvious rejoinders to each of these examples. Is God making the sun stand still during a battle a radically different kind of miracle than making the sun move? Is the parting of the Red Sea not “dramatic and sensational”? How about the Transfiguration? Was Jesus’ miraculous appearance to St. Paul “perceived by all who were present” when Acts 9:7 explicitly says that those with him saw no one? While their other objections were wanting, this objection is almost bad enough for one to suspect it is a Catholic parody argument against Marian apparitions.
The final claim they deal with are the supposedly miraculous healings experienced at Lourdes. These, Miller and Samples claim, are possible demonic healings. Why? Because, one of them (it is unclear who) is:
[C]onvinced that millions of people, including many of the pilgrims at Lourdes, actually worship the Virgin–perhaps ignorantly, and certainly against official church teaching. This is idolatry. Where there is idolatry, satanic activity is certain.pg. 134
Yet again, no evidence is actually investigated or presented. Rather, miracle claims are dismissed because either Miller of Samples is “convinced” that Catholics worship Mary and are thus idolators. Presumably, Muslims too are allowed to reject Christian miracle claims because worshipping Jesus is, in their view idolatry.
These kinds of objections miss the point of miracles which are signs of God’s action in the world. Jesus’ resurrection was proof that Jesus was who he claimed to be. The miracles of the exodus were proof that the God of the Israelites was real with his people. Elijah’s miracle against the prophets of Baal were proof that the God of Israel was the only true God. Yet in each of these miracles, there were religious opponents of the miracle workers who, if they reasoned like Samples and Miller, could simply have dismissed the miracle a priori on theological grounds. Perhaps, Jesus worked his miracles by the devil. Perhaps every firstborn child dying was just a coincidence. Perhaps, Elijah smuggled fuel in to make his offering ignite. If Samples and Miller are consistent, they would entertain these possibilities. However, instead of being consistent, they selectively apply their standards, exempting their own religious claims from dispute.
We have looked at the arguments of Miller and Samples in their book on Marian apparitions and found their arguments wanting. Their dismissal of Catholic claims because of theology is not equivalent to the Catholic Church’s dismissal of miracles. Furthermore, virtually all of the objections they offer e.g. demonic activity, hallucination etc. are objections that can be leveled and have been leveled against Christianity. Instead of evaluating the apparitions on the basis of the evidence for or against them, Miller and Samples dismiss them out of hand in ways that are completely consistent with non Christian rejections of the claims of Christianity. Let’s hope that any Protestants looking into Marian apparitions are more open to the evidence than Miller and Samples.