THE HOLY TRINITY.
Go ye, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.
S. Matthew xxviii. 19.
Trinity Sunday, 18721.
It is a common remark, that Trinity Sunday differs from other festivals which retain a place in the Calendar of our Church in this respect, that, while they commemorate facts, it commemorates a doctrine. The contrast might perhaps be better stated, by saying, that, while they commemorate facts occurring in time, facts cognisable by the senses, facts of external history, it alone commemorates a fact which transcends all experience, which is of no special time or place, which is eternal in the heavens. 1 Preached before the Lord Mayor and the Judges.
For, if this doctrine be a mere speculative opinion, a metaphysical definition in scholastic dogma, and not a living truth, then this day's anniversary is an idle, unmeaning solemnity, which it would be well to abandon at once and for ever.
But here, in the parting words of our Saviour, in the deed of bequest to the disciples, in the charter of inauguration of His Church, stands the command, that all henceforth who are incorporated into the family of God, all who claim the privilege of sonship in Christ, shall, as they sink beneath the water in which they bury their past lives, their corrupt affections, their worldliness, their impurity, their dishonour, from which they emerge to fresh hopes and privileges, to a new and regenerate life—that they shall, at this momentous crisis, be incorporated, not as our Version inadequately gives it, 'in the name,' but as the stronger expression of the original requires, 'into the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Ghost.' Is this an idle form of words—this, which was first enjoined as the parting legacy of Christ to His Church, this which in obedience to His command is pronounced over each one of us at the great crisis of our lives? If not, what docs it involve? What does it mean—this coordination, this union, this commemoration of Three in One?
But. besides being different in kind, Trinity Sunday was also a much later institution than our other great Christian festivals. The doctrine indeed was fully recognised. It was enunciated in Christ's own baptismal formula; it was taught by the fathers; it was systematized in the creeds. But still it was not specially commemorated. It was seen to be involved in all the main historical facts of the Gospel, the Incarnation, the Resurrection, the outpouring of the Spirit, and therefore it was regarded as underlying all the great Christian anniversaries. Christmas, Easter, Whitsuntide, were all alike witnesses to the Holy Trinity. So long ages elapse. To the mediaeval Church we owe the institution of this festival. It is even said that this was especially an English usage, that an English archbishop first established it as a regular anniversary, and that from England it spread throughout the Western Church. It had a precarious, fluctuating recognition before; it was a local, but not a general festival: it was celebrated sometimes before, sometimes after, the great cycle of Christian seasons, before Advent or after Whitsuntide. At length it was generally adopted, and definitely fixed in its present position, as the crowning anniversary of the Christian year.
And rightly so fixed. For, if we have followed the course of the Christian seasons, we have been
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led to the very threshold of such a commemoration. Without this termination to the series, we should experience a sense of incompleteness, of inadequacy. On Septuagesima we were invited to contemplate the marvels of creation: we were bidden to cast our eyes backward to the first beginnings of all things, and forward to the final consummation of all: this vast universe in its origin, in its plan, in its destination, is one mighty chorus hymning with myriad voices the glories of its Creator, Architect, Father. To the thoughtful mind the marvellous discoveries of science would add a richness and a fulness to the voice of the Church. The minute organisms revealed by the microscope, and the intricate relations analysed in the laboratory, the distant worlds traversed by the astronomer, and the countless ages recorded by the geologist, all swell the triumphant strain, which rises from far and near, from present and from past, to the throne of Heaven—the song of praise and thanksgiving to Him the Eternal, Him the Omnipotent, Him the Invisible, Him the Beginning and the End.
Thus our thoughts were directed, first of all, to God the Father, the Creator. Then came the season which is dedicated especially to the Son. The two great historical facts in the life of the Incarnate Word were brought before us in succession. Good Friday and Easter Day directed our thoughts to the Passion and the Resurrection—the crowning act of transcendent love, and the crowning revelation of infinite hope. We were taught, how God sent down His Eternal Word, Who was with Him from the beginning, to become man, to die as man, that He might rescue mankind from sin, to rise as man, that He might be the first-fruits of a glorified humanity. This was the anniversary of the revelation of God the Son, God the Redeemer.
And, finally, on Sunday last we were invited to commemorate that great manifestation, when the infant Church was baptized with the Holy Ghost and with fire, as the historical revelation of the third Person in the Blessed Trinity, Whose mysterious, impalpable influence is diffused through the hearts and consciences and intellects of men, prompting in them whatsoever is true, whatsoever is pure, whatsoever is honest, whatsoever is lovely, in theology and in science, in contemplation and in feeling and in active life. This is the celebration of God the Spirit, God the Sanctifier, on Whitsunday.
And now we are asked to sum up all these lessons in one, and to realise the Unity of the Eternal Godhead, under this threefold Personality, Septuagesima, Easter, Pentecost, all unite in this day's commemoration.
What then, we ask, is the purpose of Trinity Sunday? What is the proper use to make of it? What lesson, or lessons, ought it to leave behind?
I. First of all, it is a witness to the importance of beliefs. And is not such a witness needed at the present time? To hear men talk, one would suppose it an acknowledged axiom, that the ideas, the sentiments, the opinions, of individuals or of society exercised no influence at all on their well-being. It is not uncommonly, though loosely and thoughtlessly said, that, while it is important what a man does, it does not matter what a man thinks. If this means nothing more than that the mere adherence to certain dogmatic forms, which do not touch the man's heart and do not influence the man's life, is nothing worth, then it may be accepted. If it means only that God alone—the All-Seeing—can read the workings of a man's heart, and measure the degree of guilt attaching to false opinion, that it is idle and presumptuous in us to anticipate His verdict, then too we need not find fault with it . If it is merely another way of expressing the fact, that men's actions are often very much better and often very much worse than their professed or even than their genuine opinions, then also we may concede the point; for daily experience confirms it. But if it is intended to assert—and in a loose way this does seem to be its intention—that, while a man is responsible for his actions, he is wholly irresponsible for his thoughts; that he need not give himself any concern whether he has right or wrong opinions, or no opinions at all, on moral and religious questions; that such opinions are powerless, or almost powerless, so far as regards any effect on the man's life and conduct; that society at large has no interest in securing right views or in correcting wrong views, because neither the one nor the other has any practical bearing on its welfare, because men would act very much as they act now, whatever views they might hold—if this be its intention, then it is a doctrine which we must repudiate with all the energy and all the indignation and all the strength which we can command, as the most dangerous of all heresies, destructive to individuals and to commonwealths, a flat denial of the truth-seeking instincts of our nature, a direct contradiction of common experience and of universal history.
For does not history teach us, that nations and societies have been profoundly and lastingly influenced by the ideas, the beliefs, which they have adopted? Dynasties have come and gone; institutions have flourished and have decayed. But a religious belief, a moral idea, surviving all changes, living and fructifying, has influenced for good or for evil successive generations, aye and successive races, of men. This silent, invisible thing, which we call an idea, has been found more potent far than all the elaborate machinery of states, and all the complex appliances of society. Nay, have we not seen how, at its mere touch, elaborate systems have melted away and time-honoured constitutions crumbled into dust? Imponderable though it be, on whatsoever things it has fallen, it has ground them to powder.
And, when we pass from the effects on society to the effects on individuals, we cannot say that these are small. It is true that you may often see a man, who seems destitute of any definite religious beliefs, whose speculative opinions, if logically carried out, would tend to moral indifference, exemplary and upright in his private life, a conscientious man of business, a patriotic citizen. But trace his career back, and what do you generally find? Why, that his habits have been formed under religious influences which he has since renounced; that a standard has been set to him by early principles, from which he has since broken loose; that his character, in short, is the result, not of the opinions which he now holds, but of the opinions under which he was brought up. It is only in the second generation that the effects of unbelief make themselves felt. The first rises superior to its worst influences by virtue of antecedent training. The next is brought up in its atmosphere, and the poison diffuses itself through the moral system. It is a patent fact, though a grave moral enigma, of which revelation indeed promises a future and final adjustment, but which present experience nevertheless teaches to be painfully true, that 'the fathers eat sour grapes, and the children's teeth are set on edge.' It was not the heated imagination of a Christian preacher, but the calm and deliberate opinion of a rationalist philosopher, which pronounced it to be the universal teaching of history, that ages of scepticism and unbelief have always been ages of moral decay.
Therefore it is not indifferent, you citizens and patriots, for the welfare of the state and of the society in which you live, what religious opinions you hold yourselves, and what you disseminate among others. It cannot be unimportant, you fathers and mothers, for the well-being of your children, whether or not you educate them to believe in a God, Who is a righteous Father and a loving Redeemer and a sanctifying Spirit.
It is not unimportant—nay, it is vastly important —even if you look only to their welfare here. And, as for the hereafter, God be your witness, as God shall be your judge.
There are two false views of creeds. One of these I have already described. It attaches no importance to beliefs, and therefore to creeds, as the expressions of belief. It regards them with cold indifference, perhaps even with supercilious contempt. They are not practical, and therefore they are not worth considering. This is the spirit of the Sadducee.
The other view is directly opposed to this, and yet it is hardly less dangerous. It affects to set the highest value on creeds, and it ends in degrading them. We may look upon creeds as rigid forms of words, to be carefully learned, to be tenaciously maintained; and nothing more. The spirit may be wanting, while the form is jealously guarded. We may hold them vastly important, not because they contain the expression of eternal truths—truths, which sinking into the heart and pervading the spirit will permeate and leaven and purify the whole life of the man—but only because they have been handed down, because we find them there. We may treat them as though they had some magical value, independently of their reception into the heart; they are not appropriated; they are simply worn; worn as phylacteries, worn as badges of doctrinal superiority, and flaunted in the face of others, as a reproach to their heterodoxy. This spirit it is, which reproduces the Pharisees of old; this it is, which by a natural reaction, evokes and encourages the indifference and the coldness of the Sadducee.
But the Spirit of the Gospel, the Spirit of Christ, is alien alike from the one and the other. Creeds are important to us; they are important, not for the condemnation of others, but for the edification of ourselves; they are important, not because the repetition of any form of words—however sacred and however true—can act as a theological charm and avert the consequences of a selfish heart or an immoral life, but because, duly apprehended, they teach us the true nature of God, and His work for us and our relations to Him; and so teaching us, act as a regenerating influence, detaching us from our corrupt passions and our paltry ambitions, and drawing us from earth to heaven.
There are two main influences, by which society is moulded. The one of these is its laws and institutions; the other is its ideas and sentiments and beliefs. We are under no temptation, as citizens and as Englishmen, to disparage the former of these. Individually, and collectively, we are reminded every day and every hour how much we owe to them— our lives, our property, our freedom of action, our opportunities of progress, our material well-being in its manifold aspects. Without them, we should be utterly helpless; we should be left at the mercy of blind chance. But they do more than this. Not only our material, but also our moral welfare is very largely and beneficially influenced by them. Laws are wholesome restraints upon us; they supply a valuable moral training. They also serve as moral landmarks—rough landmarks, it may be, but highly valuable as far as they go.
And to-day, when the chief administrators of our laws, and the leading representatives of public order, are present in this congregation, we shall not be likely to ignore or to underrate our obligations to this influence. But if the ceremonial of to-day is intended, as I cannot doubt it is intended, to teach us any lesson at all, it must surely be this; that law renders homage to a higher power; that it acknowledges its own imperfections; that it looks up to those eternal principles of duty and order and self-restraint, which are the expression of the mind of God, as the Great Original, of which it is only a partial, shadowy image, the Fountain-Head, from which it derives its truest inspiration. In short it bears testimony to the importance of belief.
And indeed history is our witness, that not even the most perfect administration of law, and the most complete elaboration of political machinery, can save society from utter degradation and ruin, if this higher principle be wanting. This truth has been vindicated at infinite cost to a sceptical world, but it has been vindicated signally and beyond dispute. The Roman Empire—the most elaborate organisation and the vastest power, which the world has ever seen— fell at length—fell, and how great was its fall, we know. At the very moment, when her great lawyers had elaborated that marvellous system of jurisprudence which has been the special bequest of Rome to an admiring world; at the very moment, when the cornice had been placed on the edifice of her political institutions, and the franchise, gradually extended, was at length granted to all the subjects of that vast empire; then, just then, unmistakable signs of decay appeared. She was seen to be tottering to her fall. And this, because despite her admirable laws, despite her political institutions, her moral principles were eaten away. She had ceased to believe in any higher power, who vindicates those principles. She was rotten at heart. This is a lesson surely, on which we Englishmen may do well in this age to ponder.
2. But Trinity Sunday is not only a protest against indifference to belief: it is also a witness to the importance of a particular belief. You are asked to-day to pledge your assent to the teaching of the Bible and the Church, first, that there is One God, Eternal, Omnipotent, All Wise and All Good; and secondly, that this One God, taking into account the inadequacies of human language and the poverty of human thought, is most correctly conceived of and spoken of as Father, Son, Spirit; Creator, Redeemer, Sanctifier; as Three in One.
This is a difficult saying, you reply. Yes, it is difficult . Could you expect it otherwise? Have you ever reflected on the nature of God at all? Are you so sanguine, or are you so inexperienced, as to suppose that, with your finite faculties, you can form any adequate conception of Him, which shall be free from difficulties; that, with your limited powers of expression, you can put that conception into language which shall not be liable to misunderstanding? A very intelligible conception indeed you may form: a very simple statement you may make. But what is the result? Your deity is either a mere man like yourself on a larger scale; or it is a pure abstraction which has no moral power at all. Then do not think lightly of the Niccne faith, even as a philosophical exposition.
But it is not as such that I ask your attention to the doctrine to-day. It is as to a living truth, which shall appeal to the hearts and mould the lives. I am not speaking as to philosophers, but as to Christian men and women.
And to Christian hearts the doctrine of the Holy Trinity says this.
It tells them first, that there is One, Absolute, Eternal Being, from Whom all things have proceeded, and unto Whom all shall return; that He dwells in the light unapproachable; that He is Infinite Power, Infinite Justice, Infinite Wisdom—above all He is Infinite Love. He is the Creator of the universe, and He is the Father of mankind. His design is stamped on the world without; His will must be the law of our life within. And He is a Person. The dream of the pantheist, even if it could be accepted by the intellect, would leave the conscience uninstructed, and the heart unsatisfied.
It tells us again that God has manifested Himself; manifested Himself in creation and in history; manifested Himself by special revelations from time to time. God the Word, God the Son, is the agent of this manifestation. As the crowning revelation of all, He became incarnate, took our nature upon Him, lived and died and rose as man. If Christ's Godhead is denied, then the union of man with God has not been effected; then our redemption is not real, and our faith is vain. The reality of our redemption carries with it the deity of our Redeemer. And we cannot conceive of an incarnation, without conceiving of a Person; we must believe in God the Son.
And lastly; it tells us, that God is present in us and about us always; that He acts upon us by this invisible Presence; that, like the pulsations of air, this mighty, unseen Influence sweeps over us, coming we know not whence, and going we know not whither; that this Presence is our teacher, our witness, our advocate, our comforter, above all our sanctifier; that so He is a Person, speaking directly to our personality, Spirit to spirit, Mind to mind.
Into this confession you were baptized, when the Threefold Name was pronounced over you. Is it, think you, a mere hard dogma, a dry scholastic form; to some a stumbling-block, to others foolishness; or is it to them that apprehend and believe, both the wisdom of God and the power of God? Is there in the ideas which it involves, nothing to instruct, nothing to exalt, nothing to regenerate, nothing to purify? God our Father, God our Redeemer, God our Sanctifier—here we have the response to all our yearnings, the cure for all our maladies, our fullest strength and our loftiest hope.
God grant, that in this life we may realise Isaiah's vision of old; that beholding the glory of the enthroned Lord, filling the temple of the world with His train, and hearing the cadence of the angelic voices, singing * Thrice Holy to the Lord of Hosts,' we may be touched by a seraph's hand with the live coal from the eternal altar, that so our iniquity may be purged and our sin taken away. Thus, when the warfare is accomplished and the toil is done, we shall pass by an easy transition from the earthly temple to the heavenly, from the prophetic type to its apocalyptic antitype; we shall share the unclouded vision and the glorious functions of those who are full of eyes within, and rest not day and night, saying,' Holy, holy, holy, Lord God Almighty, which was, and is, and is to come.'