EPISCOPAL CHURCH IN THE STATE OF NEW-YORK, IN TRINITY
CHURCH, IN THE CITY OF NEW-YORK, ON
THURSDAY, OCTOBER 1,
PRINTED AT THE PROTESTANT EPISCOPAL PRESS,
No. 46 Lumber-Street.
MY BRETHREN OF THE CLERGY,
IT is part of the momentous duty which every Presbyter, at his ordination, solemnly promises to discharge, "to be ready with all faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the Church all erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word." With this sacred obligation, is imposed on the Bishop the superior duty of both "privately and openly calling upon and encouraging others to do the same."
Among the "erroneous and strange doctrines contrary to God's word," which from the first has infested the Christian Church, and which is propagated at the present day and in our own country, with no small portion of talent and doubtless of honest zeal, is that which assails the very foundations of Gospel verity, and demolishes the best hopes of frail, sinful, and guilty man, by denying the Trinity of persons in the Godhead. On many accounts it has appeared to me expedient to avail myself of the present opportunity of "calling upon and encouraging" you, my brethren of the Clergy, as well as of the Laity in their proper sphere, "with faithful diligence to banish and drive away from the Church" a doctrine than which there is none more "contrary to God's word."
This duty perhaps will be best discharged by your solicitous and judicious efforts to remove the most formidable obstacle to the reception of the doctrine of the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, produced by the desire to bring this doctrine within the compass of human reason. The propositions are not unintelligible, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost each possess the divine attributes, and that as there is but one God, these three divine persons must be united in the same divine and eternal substance, the Son deriving his existence from the Father, so that he is said to be begotten of the Father, and the Holy Ghost deriving his existence from both, so that he is said to proceed from them.
There are propositions to the investigation of which human reason is not competent, and which therefore we should simply and humbly receive as facts revealed to our faith. When indulging the arrogant curiosity of the human mind, we attempt to account for them, we transcend the powers and transgress the limits of reason, and render more obscure and perplexed a subject which it is utterly impossible to comprehend.
The principal source of every objection to the doctrine of the Trinity is this reprehensible desire to be "wise above what is written," and to bring to the level of the human understanding that infinite and divine Mind whom by searching none can find out.
Thus it is said, that as three cannot be one, it is impossible that the Father can be God, that the Son can be God, and that the Holy Ghost can be God, and yet that there can be but one God.
It is indeed true, that numerically three cannot be one—and that in regard to human things and human persons, three distinct things and three distinct persons cannot he united in one essence or nature. But who will be warranted in applying the same affirmation to that divine mind, the very characteristic of which is that it is utterly inscrutable? Shall we presumptuously mount up into the Heaven of heavens, approach the ineffable essence of the Divinity, and say that the Godhead cannot subsist in three persons, each possessing the same divine attributes, and all united in the same infinite and eternal substance? What do we know of this divine essence except as it is revealed?
The very truth, which the objectors to the Trinity assert, that God is the uncaused cause of all things, infinite and eternal, spiritual in his essence, and possessed of all perfection, is equally incomprehensible with the Trinity of persons in his nature. An uncaused cause of all things—a being produced by no other being! Is not this proposition contrary to all our experience? Is it possible for us to comprehend it? A being infinite—no limits of nature, of existence, of operations—A being eternal, who has never ceased to exist, who will never cease to exist! How is human reason lost when she launches forth on this boundless and fathomless ocean? A being spiritual in his nature! Who hath seen or can see a spirit—who can understand what a spirit is except that it is something divested of corporeal properties? A being pervading all space; measuring time and eternity; capable of effecting by a single act the annihilation of that universe which by a single act he created; possessed of a purity which dims the brightness of the heavens, and of a goodness which immeasurably transcends the concentered goodness of the most exalted seraphs, of all the races of intelligent creatures! Well may human reason ask—How is all this possible? And yet because man, confined to this little spot of earth, whose feeble powers cannot account for the smallest particle of that earth which binds him to its surface; because he cannot see how all this is possible; shall he therefore say that it is not, that it cannot be—that there is not, that there cannot be a God, an uncaused cause of all things, an infinite, eternal, self-existent spirit, who, boundless in his perfections, made and governs all? Alas, atheism is the dreary gulph into which those must be drawn who will not believe any thing concerning God which they cannot comprehend. They will not believe that the one divine nature subsists in three persons, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, because they cannot see how this is possible. Consistency requires that they must disbelieve the existence of an infinite, eternal, spiritual, perfect being, the uncaused cause of all things; because this is equally inscrutable. Nay, they must disbelieve their own existence; because this is full of mystery. They must reject the real existence of the objects which surround them; because for the mode of existence, and for the phenomena of any one of them, they cannot account.
It may be said, that our senses satisfy us of the existence of external objects, and consciousness of our own existence. But the Scriptures reveal also the Trinity of persons in the Godhead, and the Scriptures being inspired, their testimony is infallible. For the argument refers not to those who disbelieve the Scriptures, not to those who admit that the Trinity, if there revealed, should be implicitly received, but to those who assert that it cannot be there revealed, and that if there revealed, it still cannot receive their assent, because they cannot comprehend it—that is, they cannot determine how the Father can be God, the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, and yet these three be united in one God. They reject this fact because they cannot comprehend it—they cannot conceive how it can be. In fair and unavoidable consistency, they must reject every other fact, however attested, for which they cannot account; their own existence, all existences; for all existences defy in some respects human comprehension. Into what a dark abyss of scepticism are they plunged!
Utterly fallacious then—as tremendous and impious as it is fallacious, is the assertion of the impossibility of the Trinity of persons in one God, because it is not possible for human reason to comprehend this truth.
But it is asserted, that this principle of receiving doctrines, even though we cannot comprehend them, is the very principle by which certain tenets are vindicated which are utterly abhorrent to human reason, to the legitimate attestation of our senses, and to the acknowledged and correct feelings of our nature. Thus it will be maintained, that on this principle we cannot argue against the doctrine that the Almighty has from all eternity decreed infallibly and unconditionally the perdition of a portion of the human race, from the repugnancy of this doctrine to his moral perfections, and to all the feelings and conclusions of our minds. And further, even the doctrine that the bread and wine, of the Holy Eucharist, when blessed and consecrated by an authorised Priest, become changed into the person of our Lord, body, soul and divinity, abhorrent as this tenet is to our senses, our reason, and our feelings, it will be said we must also implicitly receive, on the principle of believing what we cannot comprehend.
But what is the true state of the case? The doctrine of the Trinity respects solely a subject not within the province of human reason. It is a subject which she cannot investigate, and in relation to any thing concerning which, therefore, she cannot pronounce that it cannot be true, merely because she cannot see how can it be true. "God is in Heaven and we upon earth; therefore," in relation to his Divine nature our thoughts as well as " oar words should be few;" confined implicitly and absolutely to what he has made known concerning his unsearchable essence. But his moral perfections are legitimate subjects of human reasoning. God himself in his holy word appeals to our ideas and views of these perfections in vindication of his counsels and dispensations, "Come and let us reason together," is in these respects frequently his language. We have no difficulty in forming an idea of the attributes of justice and of goodness; and we cannot be called on to believe any doctrine concerning the Divine Being, which plainly, and directly, and necessarily contravenes these attributes which he possesses in the most perfect degree. That evil should exist in the world; and that, without any agency of our own, we should suffer under this curse of our nature, this "dire cause of all our woe," are facts which though hi some measure unaccountable, are not absolutely and necessarily irreconcilable with the perfections of the Being who made us. The present evil world is only that threshold of our existence, which is the scene of our probation, and in which evil is mysteriously overruled to work our good. It will be succeeded by a bright and perfect world. And in this final state of our existence all will be made inconceivably and eternally happy by the gracious scheme of Divine grace and mercy, except those who wilfully, obstinately, and perseveringly transgressed here, and on this account only, have in the nature of things made themselves miserable hereafter. But remove from the present world its character as a state of probation; refer the condition of men in it not to themselves, but to the Being who made them; determine their eternal destiny, not by their conduct in life, but by a decree of the Almighty which from eternity adjudged them to perdition—and you cast the cloud of despair over the present world; you involve in tremendous horrors the prospect of the future; and looking up to the throne of the Eternal you see cruel, arbitrary, malignant power, and not justice and goodness, wielding the sceptre of the universe. A doctrine so plainly, palpably, necessarily contradictory to reason, cannot be true; and blessed be God, it is not revealed in the Scriptures of his truth.
To take another instance. Our senses are the legitimate judges of the elements of bread and wine—and therefore, it is utterly impossible that these elements, remaining to our senses in all their properties the same, are in reality not bread and wine, but the body, blood, soul and divinity of our Lord. The proposition, one would think, would not be admitted except by those who had abandoned their senses and their reason.
It is not fair, therefore, to confound these opinions with the mystery of the Trinity, and to assert, that if we advocate the latter, even though we cannot comprehend it, we cannot consistently oppose the former. The distinction is obvious and admitted between things contradicting our reason, and things transcending it. Not only the divine essence, but the essences of all created things, the causes of their properties, of their peculiar constitution and mode of existence transcend the powers of the human mind; and therefore in these particulars they are not legitimate subjects of human reasoning. In all these respects we must receive concerning them, the evidence of revelation, of reason, and of our senses. But the moral perfections and character of the Divine Being, the properties of matter and of mind are within the scope of the human intellect; and in regard to them, whatever thoroughly understood, contradicts fully, absolutely and necessarily the principles and conclusions of that intellect, cannot be true—in the nature of things cannot come from the pure and divine source of truth.
We do not then call on men to receive a doctrine contradictory to reason, though confessedly transcending it, when we demand their belief on the authority of that revelation which God has made of his eternal essence, that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost are each of them God, and yet that there is but one God.
For, though the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost be each of them God, yet they subsist in the same one divine nature; and thus is preserved the unity of the Godhead. When titles, attributes, and acts are ascribed to any intellectual existence, that existence is properly called a person. In the sacred writings, from which alone we derive our knowledge of the divine nature, we find divine titles, attributes, and acts ascribed to the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost; and therefore we necessarily conclude that they are each God. But it is equally plainly revealed that there is but one God. And hence the unavoidable inference that the same one divine essence and substance is common to all the persons of the Godhead. Nor is it common in the same sense. The Father partakes of this nature of himself, underived. The Son receives it of the Father; and the Holy Ghost from the Father and the Son. So that the former is said in scripture language to "be begotten of the Father;" and in the language of the ancient creed, to be "God of God, and Light of Light, very God of very God, begotten not made." And the Holy Ghost is said to "proceed from the Father and the Son."
To this mode of derivative existence of the Son and of the Holy Ghost, it is objected that it is absurd and irrational. But have we brought under our inspection the spiritual and ineffable nature of God, so that we are authorized to assert that two of the three persons subsisting in it cannot, consistently with that nature, subsist derivatively from the first person of the Godhead? It is indeed impossible on this subject to affirm, what is or what is not absurd or irrational concerning that divine essence of which human reason knows nothing except as revealed, which cannot come under her cognizance, and where therefore her only safe and legitimate course is implicitly to receive whatever is plainly and fully made known. It is made known that the Son is "begotten of the Father;" that the Holy Ghost "comes from the Father," and is also "the spirit of the Son," and therefore proceeds from both. Why the Son is derived from the Father, and the Holy Ghost from the Son as well as the Father, and why the term "begotten" is applied to the derivation of the former and not to that of the latter are not revealed, cannot be known by us, and therefore without extreme absurdity cannot be the subject of human speculation. Again and again let us, my reverend brethren, inculcate, as the genuine dictate of reason, that concerning the ineffable nature of the unsearchable Being of beings, Him from whom all other beings proceed, himself past finding out, it is our duty to believe whatever is revealed.
And yet lamentable is the fact that not only do the principal objections to the Trinity arise from that pride of the human intellect which humbled as it constantly is in its attempts to account for things within its obvious inspection, most unaccountably and absurdly scorns to prostrate itself before the Divine Glory, but even some of those who receive the doctrine of a Trinity of persons in the Godhead, make common cause with its opponents in rejecting the eternal generation of the Son and of course the eternal derivation of the Holy Ghost, on the ground that these opinions are absurd and impossible. In the nature of things, they say, the Father must exist before the Son, who is begotten. Doubtless this is true in human relations, to which may be applied the circumstance of time, of past, of present, and of future. But to the divine mind all this is wholly inapplicable. To the all-pervading, ever enduring Jehovah "a thousand years are as one day and one day as a thousand years." The past and the future are merged in one never-ceasing present. What extreme folly, nay, what culpable impiety, to apply to the infinite God, the ever and for ever incomprehensibly existing Lord, what is only applicable to the creatures whom he spake into being; to-day existing, and to-morrow, if so it pleases their omnipotent Creator, ceasing to exist. The Godhead eternally existed, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost; the Son eternally begotten of the Father, the Holy Ghost eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son. The proposition is revealed, the proposition we understand, though we cannot comprehend how it can be true. To maintain that it is not true because we cannot comprehend how it can be true, would be worse than folly.
What then is the lesson, my brethren, which we should teach as arising from the incomprehensible nature of every thing which relates to the divine essence and mode of existence? The lesson of humility. It may be a hard, but it is an unavoidable and salutary lesson. Man as a creature ought ever deeply to feel his dependance on his infinite Creator; the dependance of his intellect, as well as of his animal life. When in regard to what appertains to that life, and to his own intellectual and spiritual nature, there is no one topic in which he does not find a limit to his speculations, is it not wonderful that he should for a moment think of scanning the counsels and nature of the ineffable God, of roaming unchecked through the abyss of the divine essence. Is it not lamentable that he should subject himself to the guilt of the most arrogant impiety in rejecting what the Eternal has revealed concerning himself, because he, man, the creature of the Eternal's power, cannot bring it to the level of his finite comprehension? My brethren, let us guard our flocks from this tremendous hazard. Let us impress on them that the only question which they are to settle is—is the doctrine of the Trinity of persons in the Godhead revealed? This doctrine was impressed upon them at the commencement of their Christian character and life. Devoted in the sacrament of baptism to the service of the God who made, redeemed, and sanctified them—they were consecrated to him as the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three titles obviously denoting three persons. Can the Father be God, as confessedly he is, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost, be creatures? Creatures associated in the same rank with the Creator, and equally receiving the solemn consecration to their service of intelligent and immortal beings! The folly of the supposition can only be exceeded by its blasphemy. Baptised as they were in the name of God, and yet baptised in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, they must believe that these three persons are God, incomprehensibly subsisting in the same divine essence.
And on no other theory can we account for the ascription in every part o the sacred volume of the names, the attributes, and the operations of Deity to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost, and of the rendering to them of homage and worship. To present to you the evidence of this truth has not been my design. The Church universal in her dispersed branches, the great body of Christians, divided as they arc on other topics, unite in "acknowledging the glory of the Eternal Trinity." The members of our Church make this acknowledgement in the language of that ancient creed, which, but little more than three centuries after Christ, a body of Bishops from every part of the Christian world assembled for the purpose of establishing on this point what had been received as the sense of Scripture, set forth as the hallowed symbol of Christian verity. Is it reasonable to suppose, that almost within the precincts of the Apostolic age, the great body of the Christian Clergy should not have been able to ascertain what had been the uniform faith of the Church received from the Apostles concerning the doctrine of the Trinity? And if they determined as a fact that from the Apostolic age, the professors of the Christian name had not only believed in one God the Father, but in the Son as "the only begotten of the Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God," and in the Holy Ghost "the Lord and Giver of life, proceeding from the Father and the Son," shall we be safe if we discard their testimony, stamped almost by Apostolic authority, and listen to the doubts and to the scoffs which an arrogant reason may cast on this fundamental doctrine of Christian faith?
Let us with affectionate and faithful diligence admonish those committed to our charge to consider what precious hopes would they then renounce, and what inestimable consolations forego. The sacred book where they are to look for the record of the mode of their salvation, unequivocally teaches that we are redeemed by the Son of God, and that by the Spirit of God we are sanctified. Are the Son, by whom we are redeemed, and the Spirit by whom we are sanctified, frail and fallible beings like ourselves? The redemption of sinners from the bondage of sin, their sanctification in all the powers and affections of their fallen nature must be an omnipotent, a divine work. The agents in it must be omnipotent and divine.
Let us then proclaim to a guilty and condemned world the Son as mighty to redeem—for his are the power and perfection of the Godhead. Let us hold forth to a corrupt and sinful world the Holy Ghost as all powerful to sanctify; for his are the truth and the grace of the Godhead. And therefore, now and evermore to the Son, and to the Spirit, with the Father, who gave the Son to redeem and with the Son sent the Spirit to sanctify us, three persons in one living and eternal God, be ascribed honor, and dominion, and majesty, and praise, and glory.