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Sermons by the Late Rev. Cornelius R. Duffie, A.M.
Rector of St. Thomas' Church, New-York.
To which is Prefixed, A Memoir of the Author.

New York: T. and J. Swords, 1829.

Volume One

Sermon XXII. The Doctrine of the Trinity.

[A Sermon for Trinity Sunday.]

St. Matthew xxviii. 19. Go ye therefore and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.

THE former part of this verse occupied our attention on the festival of Whitsunday. [See Sermon xx.] From the success which accompanied the command, "Go ye and teach all nations," you were then called upon to consider the attestation given to the truth of Christianity, in the miraculous outpouring, and long-continued supernatural influence, of the Holy Ghost, sent from the Father agreeably to the promise of the Son. And since we had thus presented to our view a threefold agency of divine power, in Jesus Christ, the Son of God, who left the world to go to the Father, in the Father to whom he ascended, and in the [318/319] Holy Spirit, the Comforter, whom the Father was to send in his name, it is with great propriety the Church devotes this day to the contemplation of the ever blessed Trinity.

The doctrine of the Trinity, or the belief in one God, existing in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, as it has been maintained at all times and in all places, and by the great body of the universal Church, is most clearly the doctrine of Scripture, when received in its integrity, and interpreted with candour, and is set forth and summed up in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds,

The importance with which this and its kindred Gospel doctrines have been regarded from the beginning, and the opposition which they had to encounter in the early ages of the Church, which were so fruitful of heretical opinions, gave rise to the formation of these creeds, the last of which originated in the council of Nice, in the year of our Lord 325; and received its present form in that of Constantinople, in 381; and the first of which is by some, though perhaps without sufficient proofs, carried back to the apostles themselves.

It was to have been expected, and it seems to have been wisely permitted by the Great Head of the Church, that on the first promulgation of Christianity, all those objections which start up in the human mind, either against the revelation itself, [319/320] or against the peculiar doctrines which it inculcates, should at once, or at least as soon as the religion began to attract general attention, be arrayed in hostility against it. According to this expectation, we find that by the middle or the close of the fourth century, after Christianity had been publicly established, and brought into the view of the world, by being made the religion of the Roman empire, almost all the objections of infidelity which have since been a thousand times revived and repeated, had already been urged with all the force of argument of which they were susceptible, and though invested with the super-added charm of novelty which now they no longer possess, had been most triumphantly confuted and exposed. And also that almost all those perversions of the Gospel, those false and erroneous doctrines which have since distracted and divided the Church, had received the stamp of heresy at the hands of the apostles and their successors, in those first and purest ages, when the stream of Scripture knowledge flowed uncorrupted from its sacred fountain, and when divine truth could easily be distinguished from human error.

The most material part of the Apostles' Creed, was certainly used from the apostles' times, and was probably comprised in these words, "I believe in God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost." This was evidently a proper avowal of faith for them to make, who, when they were [320/321] received into the Church, were baptized in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." But as the simplicity of this creed gave opportunity to some to put upon the words unscriptural and erroneous constructions, it became necessary, from time to time, to exclude such constructions, wherever they obtained, by a fuller and more definite exposition of the true belief. This accordingly appears to have been done at different and successive periods, until to the first form of simple assent succeeded the present Apostles' Creed, and those others which I have noticed. The difficulty, however, of expressing any doctrine in words which should be so definite as to be incapable of being perverted, the necessity of often elucidating what has been already defined, and the danger of going astray in the multitude and fulness of exposition, and thereby occasioning those very errors which it was intended to refute, all these difficulties, increased by the nature of the subject now before us, (one so far above our reach,) fix a limit to minute definition, and make it safest, in reference to so sublime a mystery, to speak in few words, and "to press closely in the footsteps of Scripture." Our Church has, therefore, adopted only the two forms of creed which I first noticed, (the Apostles' and the Nicene,) which we are assured "may be proved by most certain warrants of the holy Scripture."

[322] The doctrine of the Trinity in unity, as set forth in those creeds, and founded upon the apostolic commission, is proposed by the Church in like manner as it was received, as a matter of pure revelation; and it would seem, therefore, that the only question among those who acknowledge the Scriptures, should be, whether the doctrine be therein contained or not; and that upon this fact alone the belief or rejection of it should rest.

But this is not the true state of the case; for there are those who profess to receive the Scriptures, who invalidate all arguments brought from them in favour of this doctrine, by asserting that it is unreasonable, and cannot be understood; and they set out in their examination and judgment of Scripture truth with this previous position, that they cannot be required to believe any thing true which they do not thoroughly comprehend. Whatever the Scripture reveals, therefore, which their reason does not readily embrace, they insist must either be rejected as not being a part of the original revelation, or must be so construed as to fall in with their own conception and views of things. In other words, instead of bringing reason to be enlightened and instructed by the standard of revelation, they bring revelation to be adjudged by the standard of human reason.

Now since it is evident that until this objection is overcome, the strongest proofs from Scripture in confirmation of any mysterious doctrine will [322/323] be disregarded; and since, if this be removed, the proofs in favour of the Trinity are too frequent and explicit to admit of any further difficulty in candid minds; I shall occupy a part of the present discourse in considering the proper office of reason in matters that are distinctly revealed, and then show in what manner the doctrine of the Trinity is proved to be one of these.

First, then, as to the office of reason. We do not reject the exercise of reason, my brethren, in questions respecting the alleged truth of a revelation. We believe that reason is the gift of God, and that if it is intended to be employed in regulating our conduct, so as to promote our interest and our happiness in things of ordinary occurrence and of minor importance, much more is it intended to be used in reference to our most important concern, our everlasting welfare. But we believe that we assign to reason its legitimate province, when we confine it to the examination of the evidences of revelation, and to those deductions which follow from truths distinctly revealed. Reason is to ascertain whether it is God who speaks. When this is done, when it is known that God does actually speak, it is the part of reason to bow down in silence, to listen, to believe, and to obey. If revelation be true, it is as if God were present, and as if with audible voice he addressed his creatures; and surely, in such a case, to set up reason against his plain declarations [323/324] would be most manifestly and presumptuously to rise in rebellion against his authority, and to question his truth. But in answer to this, it is objected by those who oppose the doctrine before us, that they cannot believe what they cannot comprehend. This, however, is far from being the case. We believe ten thousand things which we do not comprehend. Indeed, what we know is very little, and by far the greater part of what we call knowledge, is mere belief of things which we cannot explain, but which rests upon evidence that we cannot deny. We believe that we have power to think, to walk; but we do not comprehend how the will influences either the mental or the bodily faculties. We believe that our life is sustained and nourished by our daily food; but the manner in which this result is effected we cannot explain. We believe that the herbage which clothes the fields owes its grateful verdure to the lifeless soil, though we do not understand the process by which it germinates and shoots forth. And notwithstanding we cannot comprehend how the grain of wheat rises from corruption, and waving in triumph over the bosom of destruction and death, produces from its own decay an hundred fold, yet we believe and are sure that such is the fact, and therefore we plow in confidence, and sow in hope.

Now is it not surprising, my brethren, that he who is every day forced to acknowledge this [324/325] weakness of the human faculties, this inability to explain what is submitted to his closest observation and most diligent scrutiny; and who unhesitatingly believes unnumbered things, which yet he does not understand, merely because they are avouched by the evidence of his senses; and many more because they are confirmed by the testimony of other men, should yet (forgetting that if we receive the witness of men, the witness of God is greater,) in matters which lie far beyond the scope of human knowledge, and which in their very nature are infinitely more difficult for him to examine and ascertain, make this his inability to understand, a reason for rejecting them; and that though they relate to the nature and being of him, the meanest of whose works he perceives to be inscrutable, and though they are avouched to be true by the word of God himself? Is it not indeed surprising, that he who knows not how the flower of the field acquires its colours, its fragrance, and its form, he who cannot analyze the being of an insect or a worm, should only there be bold and confident, where most he should feel his weakness, and confess the deficiency of his knowledge; that he should arrogantly presume to discuss and understand the uncreated and eternal source of all existence, and trusting to his puny and feeble powers, should think "by searching to find out God;" and not [325/326] because his revelation contradicts man's reason, for that is conclusively denied and practically refuted by the very reception which it continually meets with, but because it rises far above its largest conception, and its utmost grasp, should stamp with the epithets of impossible and incredible, what the Most High himself has made known and confirmed respecting his own nature, and the mode of his existence?

But is it not evident, my brethren, that if we attend to the suggestions of reason itself, we might infer, that any disclosure of the mode of God's existence must be past our ability perfectly to comprehend? Eternity, his most essential attribute, bids defiance to all our powers; nor can it be more difficult to believe that God exists in three equal persons, than to understand how it was that he never began to be. Besides, we are now but in the vestibule of being; "we see through a glass darkly;" and very limited are the largest discoveries that we can make of the things of the spiritual world. In the language of Scripture, "we are but of yesterday, and know nothing." And as well might we expect a child to comprehend, with distinctness, those propositions of mathematical science, which are demonstrable to the perfect conviction of maturer minds, as to suppose that we in this imperfect state, and with these inferior faculties, should comprehend him who is [326/327] the unsearchable Jehovah, and who, in the inherent attributes of a necessary self-existence, stands forth, for ever and alone, the great and eternal I AM."

Indeed, when we consider the progressive character of the human mind, we must confess that if it were possible for man to make a perfect discovery of the nature of God, and of the mode of his existence, it would be every thing but a source of felicitation; for this would place before us a final limit, a fixed and impassible barrier to any very great progress or advance in knowledge, and that manifest and visible at the very outset of our being. For if we were able now to understand the great Creator and origin of all things, how could we expect to find in any of his works, which must of course be every way inferior to himself, any thing which could long gratify the innate curiosity of the human mind, supply fresh sources of admiration, or furnish those materials of spreading thought and intellectual improvement on which the immortal Spirit, ennobled and glorified, could employ its ever active and expansive powers. And if, my brethren, this progressive character of the human mind is one of the best sources of all our pleasures, if it is the only one which can resist the weariness of satiated enjoyment; then surely, to a creature who is privileged to look forward to a boundless eternity, it should be matter of the highest gratulation to think, what [327/328] sources of wonder and admiration God has been able to provide, of wonder and admiration even to minds constituted with those faculties which we possess, in the blade of grass which springs inscrutably to us beneath our feet, and in the insect which rests upon it almost lost in living minuteness. And for one of a race of beings to whom God has given reason and the hope of a better life, so far from refusing to believe in his revealed character, because I cannot comprehend it, I would the more humbly adore and praise him, for that there are yet in reserve, in his infinity of perfection and of greatness, wonders unimagined as unrevealed, which not only man in his best estate of glory shall never be able to explore, but which even the celestial natures, angels and archangels, cherubim and seraphim, who in the highest heavens fall on their faces before him, would in vain aspire to discover or to understand.

But, my brethren, I feel as if it were an unworthy, and I would hope, to this Christian assembly, an unnecessary, task any farther to attempt to prove that in whatever relates to the character of God, reason should not be permitted to elevate its claims above revelation, that we ought to believe the word of him whose nature we can never expect to comprehend. I proceed, therefore, in the last place, to make a few remarks on the manner in which the doctrine of the Trinity is shown to be the doctrine of the Scripture.

[329] In the earliest account of God's dealings towards man, a plurality of persons is evidently alluded to. In the first chapter of Genesis God is represented, as one in conference with equal powers, saying, "Let us make man in our own image, after our likeness;" where this form of expression very clearly indicates both plurality of persons and unity of essence; in other words, that the persons are many, but the image or the likeness one. The noun Elohim, which signifies God, is also in the plural number, although joined with a singular verb; and if the whole passage, "let us make man in our own image, after our likeness," be allowed to be merely the ordinary style of power and authority, the same cannot be said of another expression which afterwards occurs, "the man is become as one of us," a form of speech which is never used in respect of one, but only of several. Again it is said, "The Spirit of God moved upon the face of the waters;" and in the New Testament, St. John, speaking of Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, declares that he was in the beginning with God, and that by him all things were made; so that here, in the work of the creation, three persons, God, the Spirit of God, and the Word, are evidently recognized and distinguished. The evidence of this great truth was also most openly vouchsafed at the very beginning of our Lord's ministry on earth; for at his baptism the heaven were opened, and the voice of the Father was [329/330] heard proclaiming Jesus Christ to be his beloved Son, and the Holy Ghost was seen descending-like a dove and lighting upon him; so that then-the three persons were distinctly introduced to the notice of men. The Father being heard in the voice; the Son, manifest in the flesh; and the Spirit discerned in the descending dove. From, many circumstances occuring during the ministry of our Saviour; from a great variety of allusions made by him; from the testimony of the prophets to his divine character; and from the several and distinct offices which he ascribed- to the Father, to himself, and to the Holy Spirit, whom he promised that the Father should send in his name; the disciples were prepared for the disclosure that there are three that bear record in heaven. The full and express assertion of this truth, traces of which are to be found in every nation of antiquity, and which we can see to have been intimated to the ancient Church, was perhaps not distinctly announced to them, in as much as on account of their strong propensity to corrupt and abandon the worship of the one true God, they were not able to bear it. It was reserved for the Gospel days, moreover, because then only could its importance and value be appreciated, when beheld in connexion with the great doctrines of the atonement, and intercession of a Divine Mediator, and the sanctifying influences of the Holy Spirit. The distinct annunciation of it, therefore, seems to [330/331] have been purposely withheld for that occasion, on which the words of the text were uttered, when the risen Lord was about to ascend into heaven; and when, having been recognized from on high us God's beloved Son, and having established his claim to be authoritatively heard, he gave his apostles this commission, "All power is given unto me in heaven and on earth. Do ye, therefore, going forth, make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost:" Thus clearly and distinctly in this authoritative and solemn commission, is the existence of three persons in the Godhead declared; and if in addition it be proved that to each of these persons are ascribed the character and attributes of God, it will only remain for us to acknowledge and believe the transcendant mystery. That the Father is God is not contested, and need not be proved. That Jesus Christ is God is virtually declared by himself in this very commission, when he asserts, "All power is given unto me both in heaven and in earth," for he to whom all power both in heaven and in earth belongs, can be no other than God. When he said to the Jews, "I and my Father are one;" and when they accused him of blasphemy for thus making himself God, though he denied the imputation of the crime, yet did he not deny the truth of the fact, which, as they inferred and alleged, his words implied; and [331/332] afterwards, in answer to the demand of Pilate, he distinctly confessed that he was the Son of God. St. John, in his Gospel, in opposition to heresies which even then began to appear, explicitly asserts, "The word was God." And St. Paul declares of Jesus Christ, whom he entitles "God our Saviour," and whose Church he calls "The Church of God," that he "is over all, God blessed for ever."

That the Holy Ghost is God, St. Peter affirmed when he said to Ananias, who had lied to the Holy Ghost, "Thou hast not lied unto men, but unto God." And St. Paul, who, in the Hebrews, calls the Holy Ghost "The Eternal Spirit," says of Christians, "That they are the temples of God," because they are the "temples of the Holy Ghost." These are some of those numerous declarations which show that each of the persons in the Trinity is God; and the same thing is proved conclusively from the various instances in which the actions, the attributes, and the perfections of Deity, are ascribed to each. Still, "the Lord our God is one Lord," one in substance, power, and eternity, though three in person; and herein consists the mystery of the Trinity, In the text this mystery is asserted upon the authority of him who is the Author, as he is the Finisher, of our faith. He declares the unity of the Godhead, in that he requires men to be baptized into one name, and its Trinity, in the three [332/333] persons of whom that name consists; "in the one name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." No attempt is made to explain its difficulties, nor a single intimation given that any such exist. And if in common with all that is connected with our own existence, with the existence of a great First Cause, and with the existence of the world around us, this doctrine involves a mystery to our finite minds, yet because we know that he who has asserted it is true, we believe the fact without pretending to sit in judgment upon it. Neither can it be deemed unimportant for Christians to believe a doctrine which their Saviour has seen fit so expressly to reveal, and which he has placed at the foundation of that faith into which he will have all the nations to be baptized. Indeed, my brethren, it is interwoven, as I have already suggested, with the peculiar disclosures and most consolitary doctrines of the Gospel; and if we would know how necessary, how absolutely essential, how vital, the reception of this doctrine is, with what earnestness we should contend for it, and with what diligence guard it, we have only to observe that gradation of error, which a departure from this truth occasions, and to which the disbelief of it is the introductory step. They who reject the Trinity, reject first of all, and that of necessary consequence, the divinity of Jesus Christ, which alone gives value to the doctrine of the atonement; then they [333/334] reject the doctrine of the atonement itself; then the belief of human depravity, which made requisite the atonement; then the necessity of the influences of the Holy Spirit, by which that depravity is to be removed and overcome; then they no longer hesitate to question, to accommodate, may I not say, virtually to set aside and reject, that revelation which frowns upon these errors, until the sinful being whom Christ came down from heaven to rescue and to save, affecting a character of virtue which the Scriptures disown, and a confidence in himself which ordinary self-knowledge might lead him to distrust, denying the Lord who bought him, and disclaiming his need of grace, almost renounces, in his pride, his dependence upon God for pardon, and is emboldened in his own strength and goodness to stand up in the judgment before him; and that though God is of purer eyes than to behold iniquity, though he chargeth even his angels with folly, and has declared that he "will by no means clear the guilty." Thus, one after another, the distinguishing features of the Gospel are frittered away, and all that makes it good news to a guilty world is expunged. The record which assures us that God hath given unto us eternal life, and that this life is in his Son, is presumptuously mutilated and defaced. Christianity is reduced to a mere moral code; a system of duties without motive to perform, or sanction to enforce them. From a high and heavenly religion lifting up the heart in "thanks unto God for his unspeakable gift," telling of his inestimable love in the redemption of his Son, and in his Holy Spirit breathing the influences of divinity around us, it is transformed into a worthless and a heartless service; and deprived of all its warm and invigorating powers, stripped of its consolations, its motives, and its helps, and severed from the only sure foundation of all its hopes and all its promises, it is laid a cold, a lifeless, and a formal offering upon the altar of human reason.

Oh! my brethren, let us beware of the first approaches of that spirit of pride and of self-sufficiency, which would exalt the opinions of man above the word of God. It is the declaration of that word, "He that hath the Son hath life, and he that hath not the Son of God hath not life." As we value then our present peace and everlasting welfare, let us hold fast the profession of our faith without wavering; and if we feel that we are sinners, whom nothing less than a divine interposition could rescue and restore, let us rejoice in that Gospel creed by which we are assured, that we have God the Son for our Saviour and Redeemer, God the Holy Ghost for our Sanctifier and Comforter, and God the Father of heaven, three persons and one God, for our Protector, our Shield, and our exceeding great reward.

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