Project Canterbury

The Work of Christ in the World

Four Sermons Preached before the University of Cambridge
On the Four Sundays Preceding Advent in the Year of Our Lord 1854

By George Augustus Selwyn, D.D.
Bishop of New Zealand, Formerly Fellow of St. John's College, Cambridge

Cambridge: Macmillan, 1855.


JOHN VII. 16, 17.

My doctrine is not mine, but his that sent me. If any man will do his will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God.

IT seems to have been the intention of the University, in the establishment of these Preacherships, to extend as widely as possible the range of her religious teaching, by inviting her non-resident members to come in from their distant posts to contribute their stores of experience for the instruction of her students. No plan, I think, could have been adopted more likely to secure our theological system from narrowness of mind and party spirit; and to stamp it with the character of catholic truth and comprehensive charity. It is a peculiar advantage of the highest value, that the annual course of instruction given from this place should include the fresh thoughts and mature experience of all classes [1/2] of preachers; that our students should at one time profit by the deep research and exact learning of a professor, and at another time listen to the pastoral love and practised sympathy of a parish priest; and sometimes to a long absent member, who comes back, like myself, from far distant parts, to tell what the power of God's Holy Spirit had done in heathen lands, and among the multitude of the islands of the sea.

It seems then to be the duty of each preacher in his turn to endeavour to fill in his own part in the great outline of Divine knowledge, not intruding himself into the province of others, or aiming at anything for which he has not been qualified, either by the direction of his studies, or the range of his ministerial duties. Those whom God has not gifted with much learning, may still fulfil their calling by speaking forth words of truth and soberness.

The inexhaustible abundance of the word of God and the infinite variety of the works and duties of the ministry, give ample scope for such a cycle of preachers, in which each comes in his turn to tell what the Spirit of God has enabled him to learn, or what the power of Christ has enabled him to do.

And when we consider the audience which assembles here, this cycle of preachers acquires a far greater and more practical importance. For the congregation is not composed merely of learned [2/3] men, who meet together to communicate one to another their treasures of mature wisdom, or to ponder well every new interpretation of Holy Scripture, or definition of doctrine. There are many here, who in a few months will diverge from this centre into all the active and influential duties of life. There are those here to-day who in a few years will be statesmen, judges, legislators, magistrates, bishops, cathedral canons, parish priests, missionaries to the heathen. There is scarcely an office in Church or State, the Throne only excepted, which may not be filled hereafter by some one who is here to-day. The comprehensive character of the congregation is a consideration scarcely less important than the catholic nature of the subjects to be taught.

This mixed character of our University congregation, made up as it is of all the elements of our social and national life, seems to prove that it would be highly inexpedient to look upon these Sermons simply as affording an opportunity for refined Biblical criticism, or profound analysis of doctrine. And yet, in a place like this, devoted to intense study, where men of the highest intellectual power are constantly pressing on to new discoveries, and extending the field of knowledge, it is not unnatural that Theology should be viewed in the same light as physical science, that is, as a search after something [3/4] new, rather than an application to the heart of truths already certain, and of revelations already complete. Out of this whole congregation there will be very few who will be able to take their place in the forefront of theological inquiry; but there are evident doctrines, and homely duties, which are necessary to all, and yet are apt to be neglected from their very simplicity; thoughts that shine forth from Holy Scripture, like the jewels from the breastplate of the High Priest, conceived in the infancy of the Church, and belonging to an age when the multitude of them that believed were of one heart and of one soul; and when it was with learning, as with the manna in the wilderness: "He that gathered much had nothing over, and he that gathered little had no lack*:" [* 2 Cor. viii. 15.] when unlearned and ignorant men were gifted with a "mouth and wisdom, which none of their adversaries were able to gainsay or resist:" and when men of learning resigned their excellence of speech and wisdom, and "determined to know nothing but Jesus Christ, and him crucified+." [+ 1 Cor. ii. 2.]

On this simple ground of Holy Scripture and of the Primitive Church, there may then be a place in your cycle of university instruction for the simpler teaching of your parish priests, or of colonial and missionary clergymen. We can add [4/5] nothing to your store of learning; but we may bring some fresh instances of the Divine love, some deep experience drawn from the fountains of the human heart, some glimpses of primitive Christianity granted to the servants of God in their lonely mission field, like the tidings of a new-born Saviour given to the shepherds who kept watch over their flocks by night. It is this hope, and this alone, which has emboldened me to come here to-day, and I pray God that the hope may not be vain.

No one, I think, can rise up in this place to address such a congregation as this without a sense of responsibility both for what he says and for what he leaves unsaid. Words spoken here many years back, and especially by one now gone to his rest* [* Rev. Hugh James Rose.], still linger in my mind. Will anything that God may enable me to say, have a like effect, and so requite the debt which I owe to those who have gone before me? In the midst of this gathering together of mature learning and of youthful energy, will God enable me to sow a seed, which will not be lost, when I shall have returned to my distant Islands, and to the simple worship of my native congregations?

Who can doubt the power of this engine to work for good, when he sees that the great religious [5/6] movements of the present age have sprung from the Universities?

Whether it be the great revival of spiritual and personal religion, the renewal of the Image of Christ Himself, of which our own University was the center; or the restoration of the Bride of Christ to her own place of reverence in the hearts of Christians, of which the sister University was the appointed instrument; both alike, the Spirit and the Bride, the spirit of true religion, and the reverence for the Church, testify the power of these great national institutions to concentrate within themselves the feelings of zeal and energy which God has kindled, and then to dispense them far and wide to clergy and people.

But when I come here to offer up my thanksgiving for this double blessing of pure evangelical religion, and of apostolic order, which has been felt by us in the most distant parts of the world; I am aware that many here are thinking more of the errors and excesses into which some zealous partizans of either cause have run, than of the blessing conferred upon the Church at large by the movements themselves. With such questions as these I feel that I have nothing to do. We have seen men reputed to belong to various sections of the Church, come out among us, with the same pastoral love of souls, and the same lively care for [6/7] the conversion of the heathen, and without inquiry into their shades of opinion, we believed their doctrine to be of God, because they seemed to do the will of Him that sent them.

I cannot pretend to speak with the same confidence of the state of feeling here at home, but in the course of a long journey in almost every part of England, I seem to have observed, in the great majority of the clergy, a desire to give up all controversial bitterness, and to devote themselves with earnestness to the great work which lies before them.

It has pleased God to awaken a zeal among us, which our elder brethren in the ministry speak of with astonishment, when they compare it with the indifference of former times. A great and visible change has taken place in the thirteen years since I left England. It is now a very rare thing to see a careless clergyman, a neglected parish, or a desecrated church. The multiplication of schools may well be made the subject of special thanksgiving to Almighty God. The teaching of our public schools and universities has risen to a far more religious character. Even our cathedral system, the last to feel the impulse of the spirit of the times, has put forth signs of life, while many were predicting its extinction.

The natural result of this awakened zeal has been to extend the limits of inquiry, and to give a [7/8] new value, never recognized before, to more subtle points of doctrine, and more minute rules of practice. By the law of spiritual forces, the pressure on one point is communicated through every narrow orifice, and to the most remote channels. Each man, in his own line of research, feels the force of the whole moving power, and thinks that Christianity itself and the very existence of the Church depends upon the one little point which he has elaborated for himself. We are apt to forget that in the other chambers in the house of God, there are fellow-workers with ourselves, all actuated by the same spiritual life, all pressed by the same conscientious obligation, all working to the same end, but not in the same exact line, or by the same process; we forget in short that simple rule of St. Paul" "there are diversities of gifts, but the same Spirit: and there are differences of administrations, but the same Lord. And there are diversities of operations, but it is the same God who worketh all in all*." [* 1 Cor. xii. 4-6.]

It is easy to see how Christian zeal thus tends to religious strife, by the error of confounding the general blessing of the Spirit of God with the private and special mode in which that blessing may have been obtained. One who has felt his soul raised up to heaven by the harmony of cathedral [8/9] worship, goes forth and denounces the services of the parish-church as cold and defective; another, whom God has enabled to pray with the spirit in the simple words of the Liturgy, condemns the cathedral service as formal and ostentatious. Each man, in that state in which he has experienced the power of the Spirit of God, believes his own rule of worship to be not only the best, but the only safe way of life; and the next step to feeling it useful to himself, is to attempt to enforce it upon others. And thus there is nothing so minute which does not become a new occasion of strife. Music, vestments, rubrics, services, architecture, even gestures of the body and tones of the voice, become elements of discord to rend the peace of the Church.

Still more, when the same spirit of awakened zeal has led to greater earnestness in seeking after truth; and when the highest intellectual powers have been bent upon the deepest mysteries of the faith, then men straightway take pen in hand to attempt to describe that inward radiance of faith, and that unspeakable grace which blesses and sanctifies every act of their worship, and especially that highest of all mysteries, the blessed sacrament of the body and blood of Christ. And these new definitions of doctrine they would impose upon others because they have been felt as [9/10] a comfort by themselves; not content with that statement which our own Liturgy has carried to the utmost bounds of language, that when we receive the holy sacrament with a penitent heart, and lively faith, when we spiritually eat the flesh of Christ, and drink his blood; we dwell in Christ and Christ in us; we are one with Christ, and Christ with us.

But the effect of such questions, thus overstrained, is not to unite men with Christ, but to separate them from their brethren. A doctrine overstated or couched in ambiguous language, calls forth immediately a thousand incompetent tribunals. Men of excited minds on either side rush at once into the deepest mysteries of the Christian faith. None of the combatants seem to pause for a moment to consider that the place whereon they stand is holy ground. And can this be the seeking for truth? Is it not rather to darken counsel, by words without knowledge?

Questions, like those which now agitate men's minds, must be tried by the balance of the sanctuary, or they must be left untried. The coarse and clumsy processes of human law cannot analyze the ethereal elements of the doctrines which link together the life that now is with the life that is to come. To bring in aliens from other professions to judge on legal grounds alone of the meaning of [10/11] words, which can have no meaning at all, but by their inward power and application to the heart, would be to deny to the Church, which will hereafter judge angels, the power to judge herself. Or, to leave to private judgment to determine the true doctrine of the holy Eucharist, would be as if each limb of the body had power to define the law of membership which unites the whole. Communion, by its very nature, is the subject of all others, the least open to private interpretation.

It seems then most desirable that the awakened zeal of the Church should be followed up by a revival of the powers of her tribunals of Doctrine. An authority (at least equal to that by which our Articles and Liturgy were framed), is needed to decide, whether the increase of knowledge in the present day will allow of stricter definitions, or greater fulness of language. By that tribunal, and by such a standard only, can these subtle controversies be tried. At present we are engaged in a petty strife, which can only fret, and sting, and irritate, without deciding anything or convincing any one. And then, as a just retribution for our lack of charity, we are told that we are unfit to deliberate; in other words, that the spirit of counsel has departed from us; and that the Church, which has received the promise of truth, cannot even inquire what truth is.

[12] But if it should be the will of God that no such tribunal of doctrine should be revived within our Church, to meet the greater delicacy of conscience, and the greater earnestness of zeal, which God has awakened among us; if while every sail is crowded upon the ship, there is to be no greater wisdom at the helm; must we go off to seek the comfort in the false assumption of a self-contradicting infallibility? and resign all use of our judgment, and all hope of counsel, because we cannot have them at present or use them to the full extent? No, there is a better comfort which we can offer to our young men now entering into life, burning to do their duty in that state of life to which God may call them. The words of the text teach us a never-failing comfort: "If any man will do the will of God, he shall know of the doctrine whether it be of God." When other tribunals fail, the best interpreter of Christian doctrine is Christian work; the inward working of faith, combined with the outward working of charity. For faith, untempered by charity, may soar too high: as if the soul, wrapped in the contemplation of its own powers, were to forget the body, and to take thought only of itself. But while faith raises us towards heaven, charity brings us down to the homeliest duties of our daily life, to the care of our children, to the instruction of the young, to ministering to the sick, to comforting the widow, to [12/13] visiting the prisoner, to reclaiming the drunkard, to the binding up of wounds, and the washing of feet: and in this region of practical duty we find our test of necessary doctrine. Whatever is really necessary to reform the sinner, to comfort the sorrowful, and to guide the dying on their way to heaven; that, and that only, is the doctrine which God calls upon every man to receive.

Thus, for instance, in our mission work, our standard of necessary doctrine is, what we can translate into our native languages, and explain to our native converts. This we know to be all that is really necessary to their salvation.

There may be a higher heaven to which some chosen servants of God may be raised: there may be unutterable words which only they can hear: visions of glory may be opened to the view of some, which are denied to others: but the range of necessary doctrine we believe to be that which is attainable by all: because the promise is to the wayfaring man, and to the simple, to the poor, and to the blind.

The comfort, then, which I would offer to every lay member of our Church in these days of undecided controversy, is this: pray for Divine grace,--cultivate your own spiritual blessings,--"covet earnestly the best gifts: and yet shew I unto you a more excellent way*." [* 1 Cor. xii. 31.] Go to the nearest [13/14] school, even among your own children, and try how much you can teach a child. Let charity bring down your mind from its intellectual flight to the level of that little child, whom you have undertaken to teach. Whatever that child can comprehend, is necessary to salvation; all beyond may be the goodly setting of the pearl of great price, but it is not the jewel itself.

And to every young clergyman I would say in like manner: Go to the bed of the dying man; some simple peasant who has read his Bible daily, and walked with God from his youth up; join with him in his last communion; hear his fervent ejaculations; witness his perfect peace; you will not doubt that he has spiritually eaten the flesh of Christ, and drunk His blood; that he dwells in Christ, and Christ in him; that he is one with Christ, and Christ with him; but to find words to define more closely that real presence, and that sacramental union, will be as impossible as to tell by what path his spirit will depart to be with his Lord in Paradise.

Brethren, let us pray for united minds. Let us set an example of Christian men, denying themselves even the luxury of controversy, to do God better service. Let us seek for increase of faith by largeness of charity. While some denounce one another, and bring railing accusations, and use [14/15] party names, let us meekly pray for the spirit of counsel; that spirit, which when it has been scared from the higher assemblies of the Church, has lighted upon the lower. Your clerical meetings, I find in every part of England, have brought together men, once thought to be of opposite opinions, and thus charity has led to counsel, and counsel has brought forth truth,. These are the signs that the Church thirsts for unity. She feels herself to be separated from Christ, while she is divided against herself. It is not the nature of the sheep of Christ to be scattered abroad. Every beast of prey may range alone, but the sheep must flock together. We have common dangers and common duties enough to bind us together in one body.

May God then give us grace to abjure all party distinctions, and all religious strife, and resting upon the broad basis of our own Articles and Liturgy in their plain and natural sense, to unite cordially, Clergy and Laity alike, in the great work which God has given us to do, a work too vast and too important to allow a single moment to be lost in unprofitable discussion. The scope of that work, reaching even to the ends of the world, it is my purpose, if God will, hereafter to sketch out; but let it suffice for to-day to recognize the duty of taking care that all our works be done with charity, to the edifying the Church to which God has [15/16] granted this outpouring of His Spirit. Better than all tribunals of heresy or boards of doctrine, will be the interest of an all-absorbing work; the expansiveness of a fervent charity; the single eye to the one great duty of life; the great cause for which God gave His Son, and for which the Son of God died. "If any man will do God's will, he shall know of the doctrine, whether it be of God." If any man has this single eye, his whole body shall be full of light.

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