AT THE MATRICULATION OF STUDENTS
GENERAL THEOLOGICAL SEMINARY
Evening of Advent, Sunday, Nov. 29th, 1840,
IN ST. PETER'S CHURCH, NEW-YORK.
BY BENJAMIN T. ONDERDONK, D. D.
BISHOP OF THE DIOCESE OF NEW-YORK
PUBLISHED BY THE REQUEST OF THE MATRICULATING STUDENTS.
To the recently matriculated Students of the General Theological Seminary of the Protestant Episcopal Church in the U. S.
The publication of this sermon is at your request. This was not the less welcome, because unexpected by me. It indicates, as I conceive, principles and feelings on your part, in intimate connection with the true interests of evangelical piety. I express this sentiment, because convinced that the views taken in this discourse lie at the foundation of true vital godliness. Thankful, therefore, to the only source of all good spiritual influence, that you have had grace to be thus minded, I dedicate to you these few pages, adding my humble faithful prayer, for you and your brethren of the Seminary, that you may be led into all truth, and kept in all godliness; and especially prepared for the momentous trusts, and awful responsibilities, which you have in view.
Your affectionate friend and preceptor,
BEN. T. ONDERDONK.
New York, December 3, 1840
ST. JOHN, 17: 21.
THAT THEY ALL MAY BE ONE.
It can hardly be necessary to say that this is a part of our Lord's devout and earnest prayer for his followers, at the institution of the Holy sacrament of his Supper. It is one of the most striking and interesting of the very many passages of Holy Writ, which urge to Christia nunity as a leading principle and a cardinal duty, in the evangelical system. Indeed so leading and so cardinal is it there represented, that indifference to it, and causeless interference with it, may well be considered as among the most grievous hindrances to evangelical piety, and therefore to christian purity of character, both in individuals and in the church as a body. Viewed in the full light of all its legitimate bearings and connexions, it may be regarded as the great conservator of the faith, holiness, and virtue of the gospel, and as placing christians, both individually, and in their corporate capacity as the church, in that position in which it is the revealed will of the Holy Ghost that the blessed influences of His grace should do their benign and happy work of conferring holiness and spiritual elevation of character in this world, and meet preparation for the eternal glories and felicities of the world to come.
On an occasion, then, of such solemnity as the present, when young men, who feel justified in cherishing the awfully momentous desire to be put, in due time, into that ministry which has in charge the building up of God's people in all that can promote their sanctification here and salvation hereafter, are about to take upon themselves the solemn vow of fidelity to the rules and requisitions by which the church, in this her duly appointed and authorised Seminary, would advance their preparation for so weighty an office and responsibility—on such an occasion, I say, as the present, which we have been wont to endeavor to improve to the consideration of principles and views proper to so solemn an act, and [5/6] the great objects and purposes with which it is connected, I know of no subject more proper to be deeply and seriously considered, than this truly sacred and comprehensive one of christian unity. None is more fraught, to the christian minister, with suitable dispositions, affections, views, and motives in his duties; none to the church, with more that enters into the very essence of its scriptural character and usefulness; none to the world, with more that has a bearing upon its true interests and welfare; none to individuals, with surer means of advancement in the genuine faith, holiness, and virtue of the gospel.
To my brethren, then, generally now present, to you especially, beloved young friends of this Seminary, and still more especially to those of you who are about, as did your seniors before, to bind yourselves by a solemn vow, to fidelity in the preparation here required for the holy ministry, I commend, for your serious practical consideration, the subject of Christian unity. And may He who prayed that all his followers might be one, guide your reflections by his blessed Spirit, and by the same Spirit lead your understandings to a true judgment, and your hearts to humble and devout submission and devotion to the truth!
It will, of course, be impossible to enter on the particular proof of all the propositions which may be advanced in the course of my remarks on this interesting subject. I must not unfrequently draw conclusions from premises supposed to be granted.
But when I consider the opportunities of sound instruction in religious matters possessed by the congregation before me, and especially the advancement therein which may be supposed to have been made by the young brethren particularly concerned, I trust I may apply myself mainly to the work of pressing acknowledged principles, to their just inferences and conclusions.
It has pleased God, from whom only spiritual and eternal good can flow, to ordain a particular method in which he engages to impart that good for the sanctification and salvation of mankind. In order, therefore, to the enjoyment of a reasonable and evangelical hope of these blessings, they must be sought in this appointed way. This way is faithful union and communion with a society divinely established, and distinguished in Scripture as the church or body of Christ. By being duly admitted its members, men are placed in the covenant-relation to God, in which he gives them, on certain conditions, a title to the benefits of Christ's mediation. The means and pledges of this title [6/7] being effectual, are the sacraments, services, and ordinances of this church. For the administration of these, a divine commission was originally given to certain men, and has been handed down, in the way established for that purpose, to the present day. The spiritual and eternal blessings of redemption, therefore, are to be sought through the sacraments, ordinances, and services of the church, thus administered. And what, on this subject, is the duty of one, is obviously the duty of all. Hence arises an important department of christian unity, or all seeking the mercy of God, which all require, in the one way which he has ordained—all waiting on the one ministry which Christ has appointed, in devout application to the sacraments, services, and ordinances of his church.
Unity is represented in Scripture as an essential characteristic of this church. It is the "one body" in which the sanctifying and saving influences of the "one Spirit" are to be experienced—the "one hope" of our "calling" cherished—"one Lord" adored—"one faith" maintained—"one baptism" of regeneration enjoyed—"one God and Father of all, who is above all, and through all, and in" us "all," to receive the homage of his covenant-people. It is the one church which is the pillar and ground of the truth; and through the ministry of which, established "for the perfecting of the saints," and "the edifying of the body of Christ," we are to be kept from being "carried about with every wind of doctrine, by the sleight of men, and cunning craftiness, whereby they lie in wait to deceive," and "grow up into him in all things, which is the head, even Christ, till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ."
Such is the Scriptural view of the nature and benefits of the church. These can be attached to it, not by any inherent virtue which it may possess, or moral influence which it may exert, as an association of men formed by them for holy purposes; but only by the positive appointment of God himself. It is His pleasure that the church should be his instrument for promoting these ends; and that in order to the enjoyment of them, so intimately connected with the due service of their God and Saviour, and with their own spiritual and eternal good, no merely moral or spiritual affection is sufficient; but men must seek them in the way thus marked out—through this one church, which stands alone among all communities of men, however holy the design of others, or however pure the intent, or upright the means, in their prosecution [7/8] of that design—which stands alone, among all communities of men, as the body to which the promises are made.
It becomes then a matter of serious inquiry—and not as the profaneness of the world would brand it, one of inferior moment, unconnected, or but loosely connected, with the precious truths and duties of the gospel, and even unfavourable, if much heed be given to it, to their godly influences, and their vital efficacy—it becomes a matter of serious enquiry, as serious as God's authority, Christ's atonement, and the holy Spirit's promised renewing and sanctifying influences, can make any subject, how are we to know that we are in this church, and thus in the appointed way of mercy and salvation; in other words, what is essential to constitute any particular community of christians a part of this one church, and thus a participator in its privileges and blessings. Is that communion, every one should seriously ask, to which I belong of this character?
This is a question of fact, and is to be determined, not by any principles of religious unity which we may deem holy, interesting, or useful; but solely by such as have the clear warrant of the word of God.
Now it is obvious, by the fullest testimony of that word, that this one church, of which such glorious things are spoken on its inspired pages, is an outward and visible society. Consequently, no bond of union merely internal can make a man, or a body of men, a part of this church. Their faith, their experience, their affections, may be in perfect unison with those of the true members of the church, and yet they will not be thereby placed among their number; for connection with a visible community must be visibly effected and preserved.
Ever since the world began, God has been pleased to require of men, not merely an internal and spiritual, but also an outward and bodily worship. And this clear indication of the divine mind should be a sufficient answer to all the cavils which man's weak and vain judgment, in its ungodly resistance of the Holy Spirit's will and wisdom, may raise against the binding obligation on a truly christian conscience, of forms and order in religion. Indeed such is human nature, and thus so fully do providence and grace harmonize in our heavenly Parent's care for our best interests, that without external form and order, and that observed, not merely voluntarily, but for conscience-sake, true evangelical spirituality cannot be maintained. It will either evaporate, and leave nought behind but a dull lifeless residuum, christian but in name, infidel in reality; or run loose in all the demoralization, and ungodly influences [8/9] of confused and untrammeled excitement. While man is in the body, he must, to be the true and consistent servant of God, act upon a religion of outward form and rule, as well as of inward affection and devotion.
Union, then, with the Church, by conformity to its outward characteristics, is essential to the true service of God, the maintenance of the vital piety of the gospel, and the seeking, with any warranted hope of success, of the great and precious blessings designed by the mediation of our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. These characteristics of the church, it appears from Holy Scripture, understood according to that best rule for interpreting it, the Catholic principles and usages of the first christians, are its ministry, sacraments, and worship. Where these are, according to the institution of Christ and his apostles, and are maintained in connection with the true faith, there is the church in its evangelical soundness.
To determine, then, whether we are in that true christian unity which is formed by union with the Church of Christ, we must bring the ministry, sacraments, worship, and faith, of the body of christians of which we profess membership, to the test of Scripture and primitive catholicity. If they accord with these, in being members of that community, we are members of the one, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic church.
Of course the catholicity of this body, or its extension over the world, requires that it be divided into distinct portions or branches. Each of these is to preserve its unity with the others, and with the whole, by preserving the divinely appointed ministry and sacraments, maintaining worship on the principles of the gospel, and holding and dispensing the true evangelical faith.
With these essential characteristics, the different national branches of the Catholic church, it appears from Holy Scripture and ancient authors, are competent, respectively, to make all needed arrangements for their special government and discipline. The great principles of christian unity, however, require that they maintain among themselves a holy fraternal intercourse, and cherish for each other that mutual confidence and affection, becoming fellow-members of Christ, which will secure the recognition by each of the official transactions of the others.
The ministry of the Christian church having, by its Divine Head and Lord, been divided into three orders, with the chief pastoral relation, supremacy in government, and the power of conveying the ministerial commission, confined to the first, it follows that each branch of that [9/10] church must, in order to its completeness as a member of that body, and thus its preservation of true christian unity, have this highest and most essential grade of the ministry. We accordingly find that the greatest stress was laid upon this in the first and purest days of christianity. The Bishop—this chief officer of the church—was considered essential to its very being, and communion with him, acknowledgement of his pastoral superiority, and submission to his legitimate authority, inseparable from true religion.
The particular district over which each Bishop presides, and the manner of his election, have always been regulated by the authority of the church; and thus the particular member of the highest ministerial grade under whom each minister and member of the church is placed, duly and orderly determined.
Every such district or diocese forms, in a scriptural and primitive qualified sense of the term, a distinct church. A union of such of these churches as exist in the same nation, or larger region of country, under a common liturgy and system of internal government, and in councils, synods, convocations, conventions, or the like, has been, from primitive times, a wholesome regulation tending to promote harmony and mutual benefit.
Christian unity, therefore, on Evangelical and primitive principles, requires that individuals be admitted into the church by the sacrament of baptism, and maintain communion with it by uniform and consistent attendance on the services of its proper ministry; that the several branches of this church maintain allegiance to their respective Bishops; and that all, in humble and uncompromising reception and adoption of the great Catholic principles of the church, submit also to such regulations of order and discipline as may, with due authority, be ordained.
This christian unity, besides being conscientiously maintained, should be guarded and strengthened by all good christians—by the general consistency of their character and conduct. Schism, or a violation of this unity, by separating from the church, or causing parties in it, is declared in Scripture, and was held by the primitive christians, to be a great sin, and therefore inconsistent with a sincere christian profession. This sin may indeed be committed under circumstances rendering it more the misfortune than the fault of its subject, and therefore—there is the delightful persuasion—be recommended, for Christ's sake, to the forbearance and mercy of the great Judge. But still, it is a sin; for the word of God declares it such. And upon the just and allowed principles of both [10/11] religious and moral law, whatever abets or encourages it, partakes of its sinful nature. The conscientious preservation, then, of christian unity will lead to that consistency of deportment which withholds all encouragement to departures, in ministry, sacraments, worship, doctrine, or discipline, from those which are connected with the unity of the Catholic church, and of that branch of it to which, in the course of Providence, we may be united.
And besides the edification of her members, and their preparation for heaven, for which the church was established, she also appears from holy writ to have been designed as God's instrument for extending true religion, and increasing its influence in the world. The genuine spirit of christian unity, therefore, will dictate such efforts for this great and good purpose as promote her efficiency therein; strengthen her legitimate bond of union; and maintain the connection, established by God himself, between her and the religion of which she is the appointed guardian and dispenser, and of the blessings and rewards of which she is entrusted with the means and pledges.
To the advancement of principles like those now maintained, there is often opposed the objection that they do not suit the present day; run counter to the general principles, views, and feelings of the religious public; and violate the liberal judgment which we should form concerning the spiritual character and state of our fellow men.
The principles, views, and feelings of the present day are entitled to just the same consideration as those of any other period. They are the judgments of weak and fallible men. They are to be compared with the only rule of right judgment, the will and word of God. If they accord with it, they are right, and to be maintained; if not, they are wrong, and to be rejected. No popularity should gain for them any favour. No apparent holiness or loveliness of character in their advocates, and no extent and brilliancy of success in their operations, should interfere with the most impartial and strict judgment of them by the test of Scripture, and of primitive Catholicity as the Scripture's best interpreter.
But it would perhaps be difficult to say what exactly are the prevalent opinions of the present day touching christian unity. Sometimes they appear in a very tenacious adherence to sectarian distinctions of no great moment; sometimes in indifference to all distinctions, as if none were of more importance than others; and sometimes in a singular union of the most solicitous regard for those distinctions [11/12] with zealous and plausible efforts to make those not holding them believe that they, as well as other distinctions, are non-essential and unimportant, and may, therefore, be as well embraced as any.
The truth, however, probably is, that the most prevalent ideas on this subject are very vague. Co-operation in any favourite religious object, is thought sufficient to constitute christian unity; and the withholding of such co-operation sufficient to incur the reproach of hostility to it.
Such, under various modifications, are the opinions of men on a subject on which God has thought fit to decide. They have their warm and able advocates. They call to their aid talents, eloquence, wealth, and influence. They invite, they urge, they compel. They appeal to conscience, to popular favour, to love of personal importance. They plead authority. They dazzle with brilliant exhibitions of extensive and successful operation. They offer in their behalf plausible applications of even the exhortations, warnings, promises, and threatenings of the word of God.
Who can withstand all this?
There may still be those—although a little sect every where spoken against—who wish to pause, and like the Bereans of old, examine the Scriptures, whether these things arose or no—whether, after all, this is right, and as it should be. There may be those who, not taking for granted all that is said in favour of modern improvement, still venture to think that they who lived the nearest to Christ and his apostles, and when the church was purified, as in a furnace, by the fire of persecution, best knew the will of Christ, and best illustrated it in their principles and lives. There may be those who, on this account, studying the Scriptures by the light of primitive catholicity, would bring every thing to their test. Such—whatever frowns they may incur, and whatever imputatious opposition to the true spirit of the gospel may heap upon them—remembering that there was a time when the imposing popularity of that opposition led to the saying, as a common proverb, The world on one side, Athanasius on the other—may feel themselves compelled to believe that now, as often heretofore, the christian world is carried away with delusion, and its views of christian unity, are modern and unscriptural. Having sought, they feel themselves constrained to walk in, the good old way which shows this unity to consist in the one church, served by the one ministry, holding the one faith, and one in its adherence to the sacraments and worship of the gospel. Therefore, in this one [12/13] church to worship God, learn His will, and seek the sanctifying and saving influences of His grace; and to endeavor to promote its increase and prosperity, and, through it, to disseminate the knowledge and influence of true religion; are, in their esteem, essentially connected with the preservation of christian unity, and the possession of the true christian spirit.
Nor are this course, and the maintenance and defence of it, at all inconsistent with true christian charity; for then they would be incompatible with the spirit of christian unity.
On the subject of christian charity very erroneous ideas are entertained. Charity is due, not to sentiments and principles, but to those who hold them. If I entertain certain opinions, conscientiously believing them to be right, and another holds different opinions on the same subject, it is impossible that I should think him right too. It would be disingenuous to pretend that I did. I must believe him wrong. It is not uncharitable, but a necessary part of honesty and truth, that I do think him so. The real dictate of charity is, that, in a proper way, I endeavor to convince him of his error, and reclaim him from it. But if I say that he is wilfully wrong, and that he knows the truth, but will not embrace it; much more, if I pretend to shut him out from the hope of divine mercy, or presume to charge his error upon him as necessarily his fault rather than his misfortune, then I am uncharitable and unchristian.
Against such a spirit we should carefully guard. We wish credit for sincerity ourselves, and should be willing to extend it to others. The most correct principles, if not accompanied with a christian spirit, will be of no avail, but rather, by the gross inconsistency thus manifested increase our condemnation.
Still truth is truth, and can have no communion with error. It must be maintained and defended; and opposition to it be, by all proper christian methods, met, and if possible, defeated.
One important consideration yet remains. Our branch of the Catholic church is accused by that of Rome, of having violated, by breaking communion with her, the scriptural and primitive principles of christian unity.
On this point, ours is, of course, identical with the English branch of the Catholic Church. And were it necessary, abundant historical facts could be brought to show that the English church did not break communion with the church of Rome, except so far as a christian protestation [13/14] against the errors of the latter, and the rightful throwing off of its uncatholic usurped dominion, may be thus construed. The formal breaking of communion was on the part of the papacy. But be this as it may, the avoiding of communion with the church of Rome is a christian duty, because sinful terms of communion are imposed by that church. All who hold communion with her are therefore supposed, and must in honesty represent themselves, to give in their adhesion to unchristian doctrines and idolatrous worship. With such a church, therefore, no compromise can be made. Her communion must be renounced, or christian consistency forfeited. She has widely departed from the faith and worship of the true church. An adherence to them is a bounden duty. The reformation of the old, and not the establishment of a new church, was the object of the English Reformers. They separated from modern corruptions, that they might return to primitive purity. The falsely termed Catholic church, retaining some, had grievously departed from other characteristics of the christian church, and therefore of christian unity. Her corrupt doctrine and fellowship, consequently, were, as they should be, forsaken for the doctrine and fellowship of Christ, his apostles, and first and best followers. Separation from the former was adopted in order to union with the latter. True christian unity was preserved by the breaking of unity with an unchristian departure from the principles and spirit of the gospel.
And as we, my brethren, may cherish the humble confidence of holding that position in which true christian union is guarded against ungodly restraints on the one side, and equally ungodly laxity on the other, let us not fail in abundant gratitude to God for so unspeakable a mercy; and let our gratitude be manifested by zealous endeavours faithfully to guard, and diligently to improve it. Every departure from the scriptural and primitive purity and unity of the church, is a departure from the true spirit of the gospel, and every abetting and encouraging of such departure shares, of course, its guilt and danger. Christ gave himself for the church, and prayed most earnestly that it might be one. Let, then, its unity, purity, and prosperity, be ever subjects of our earnest desires, fervent prayers, and diligent and faithful endeavors.
And seeing, beloved brethren, that we have so great cause for thankfulness to our Lord and only Saviour Jesus Christ, that the branch of the Catholic church to which we belong is so peculiarly distinguished [14/15] by the evangelical and primitive characteristics of purity and unity, let us not fail in duly realizing the extent of our obligations and responsibilities hence arising. To whom, if not to us, are the ten talents committed? Of whom will ten talents be more justly required?
And yet what do we more than others? For zeal in evangelical faith, and eminence in evangelical piety, none should be our rivals. The efforts of our church should exceed those of every religious community around as in the diffusion of religious truth, and the promotion of the great interests of the gospel. But is it so?
We to whom such invaluable treasure is committed must give an account of our stewardship. Happy will it be for us if it can be rendered with joy. But, O! what tongue can tell the wretchedness of that condemnation which awaits neglect or abuse of so great and glorious privileges!
In unity of spirit, and in the bond of peace, let the faithful members of the church devote themselves, soul, body, and spirit, all that they are, and all that they have, example, labour, wealth, and influence, to her holy cause, and thus to that of her Divine Head; and to this end humbly seek, in all the appointed ways, and faithfully improve, in the cultivation of the faith, holiness, and virtue of the gospel, the directing, aiding, and sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit by which Christ nourishes and cherishes his church. Then that church will prove to them none other than the house of God, and the road to heaven. Its order, purity, peace, and sanctity, will be presages of those which they are to enjoy in its exalted heavenly state.
My young friends, who are now about binding themselves to the faithful discharge of the duties laid upon them by this institution of the church, and their brethren whose vows to the same end have formerly been given, will not fail, I trust, to recognize their peculiar interest in the holy topics which have now been before us. Christian unity, comprising, as it does, all that God requires in the faith, holiness, and virtue of the gospel, is the great object for the promotion of which they are now preparing. Let that faith, holiness, and virtue, as set forth in God's word, be their constant rule and measure of study and action.
You will be exposed, beloved brethren, to much temptation—and temptation often illustrating the inspired caution that satan himself may assume the form of an angel of light—to sacrifice, for this, that, or the other specious appearance of christian benevolence and unity, the true principles on this point which the word of God unfolds and [15/16] enforces. O be ye not hereby moved. Continue steadfast in those principles and views which only have true christian sanction. It is a wretched delusion to suppose that a truly evangelical character can be maintained on any other than the sound principles of the christian church. Whatever would lead you to a neglect or light estimation of these—depend upon it—is a guide which would draw you far aside from God and his Christ. True vital piety is to be found only in that surrendering of soul, body, and spirit, which embraces all the views, and is piously devoted to all the duties, which Christ has connected with his holy church. But remember that connection with that church, to be effectual, must be internal as well as outward. Soul and spirit must be there, as well as the body. The whole man must there be subject unto Christ, or the privilege of being there will awfully increase both guilt and condemnation.
Brethren, who are now about to matriculate: I most earnestly beseech you to reflect seriously upon the true character of this solemn act. It will bind you to diligent, faithful, and conscientious application to all the means provided in this Seminary for your preparation for doing what in you lies for promoting and securing the unity of the church in its ministry, sacraments, doctrines, and worship, and in the practical application of these to the holy purposes of evangelical faith and piety. Weigh well the immense work thus laid before you, and the corresponding obligations thereby involved.
Remember, too, that the spirit of true christian unity is one of modesty, deference to authority, and humble and faithful self-sacrifice. It conscientiously abstains from all that can give unnecessary offence, from all harsh judgment, from all hasty tempers, and from whatever may bring reproach upon individual christian profession, or the holy christian cause. And you should connect all these considerations with your own peculiar christian relations as accredited candidates for Holy orders, and members of a Christian Seminary. In these respects, particularly, you should remember that you are not your own. Your reputation belongs especially to the church. If in aught it is justly assailed, the church is therein implicated, and you have no right thus to involve her. The alternative, mournful as it is, is the only just one, of renouncing a connection which requires so much as the evidence of common honesty, unless by your entire devotion to the duties of students, and your conscientious avoidance of aught that can bring reproach, or cast suspicion on that character, you are prepared to pay the solemn vow now to be required of you.