Sermon 24. The Mystery of the Holy Trinity Seasons - Trinity

"Go ye, therefore, and teach all nations; baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost. " Matt. xxviii. 19.

[Note 1] {343} THAT in some real sense the Father, and the Son, and the Holy Ghost are They whom we are bound to serve and worship, from whom comes the Gospel of grace, and in whom the profession of Christianity centres, surely is shown, most satisfactorily and indisputably, by the words of this text. When Christ was departing, He gave commission to His Apostles, and taught them what to teach and preach; and first of all they were to introduce their converts into His profession, or into His Church, and that by a solemn rite, which, as He had told Nicodemus at an earlier time, was to convey a high spiritual grace. This solemn and supernatural ordinance of discipleship was to be administered in the Name—of whom? in the Name (can we doubt it?) of Him whose disciples the converts forthwith became; of that God whom, from that day forward, they confessed and {344} adored; whom they promised to obey; in whose word they trusted; by whose bounty they were to be rewarded. Yet when Christ would name the Name of God, He does but say, "in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost." I consider, then, that on the very face of His sacred words there is a difficulty, till the doctrine of the Holy Trinity is made known to us. What can be meant by saying, in the Name, not of God, but of Three? It is an unexpected manner of speech.

Now even if it were merely said, "of the Father and the Son," there would surely be a difficulty in the terms of His command. We might indeed suppose that He meant thereby to denote the Supreme Lord of all, and the instrument and mediator of His mercies in the Dispensation then commencing (as we read of the Israelites "believing God and His servant Moses," and "worshipping the Lord and the king," David); but surely even then it would be strange and inexplicable that Christ should say, "the Father and Son," and not "God and the Son," or "God and Christ," or the like; whereas the Name of God does not occur at all, and the two words used instead are what are called correlatives, one implies the other, they look from the one to the other. There is no mention of a Fount of mercies and a channel, and that, towards man the recipient; but it is like the statement of some sacred doctrine which has its meaning in itself, independently of man or of any economy of mercy towards him. And the force of this remark is increased by our Lord's making mention, in addition, of the Holy Ghost, which much confirms this impression {345} that the Three Sacred Names introduced have a meaning relatively to each other, and not to any temporal dispensation. Did the text run, "in the Name of God, Jesus Christ, and the Comforter," I do not say that this would have overcome the difficulty, or that it would be satisfactory to interpret it of an Author of grace and His instruments; but at all events there is far more difficulty, or rather an insuperable difficulty in such an interpretation of the text, taken as Christ actually spoke it. And then, considering that if there was one boon above another which a convert might naturally claim of an Apostle, it was to know whom he was to worship, whose servant he was to become, who was to be his God, now that he had abandoned idols—(as, for instance, Moses said, "When I come unto the children of Israel, and shall say unto them, The God of your fathers hath sent me unto you, and they shall say to me, What is His Name? what shall I say unto them?" and Almighty God acknowledged that the request was right by granting it; and as Jacob said, "Tell me, I pray thee, Thy Name?" and as Manoah said, "What is Thy Name?" and as, in accordance with these instances, St. Paul said to the Athenians, "Whom ye ignorantly worship, Him declare I unto you");—I say, with these considerations before us, we might have expected that there would have been in the Baptismal form a clear and simple announcement of the Christian's God, such as this, "In the Name of the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ," that is, unless the Catholic doctrine of the Holy Trinity be true. If indeed so it be, as the Church has ever taught, that the Father, Son, and Holy {346} Ghost are the One God into whose service Christians are enrolled, then good reason that They should be named upon the convert on his initiation. In that case there is no difficulty; the sacred form of words precisely answers to the worshipper's question, "What is Thy Name?" to the Apostle's promise, "Him declare I unto you:" but on the supposition, which impugners of the doctrine maintain, that by "Son" is meant a man, and that the Holy Spirit is not God and not an intelligent person at all, certainly a great and unexpected, and (I may say, humanly speaking) unnecessary obscurity hangs over the first act of the Gospel teaching.

Nor let it be objected to Catholic believers, that there can be no greater obscurity than a mystery; and that the Sacred Truth which they confess is a greater perplexity to the convert than any which can arise from considerations such as I have been insisting on. For the point I have been urging, is the improbability that our Lord should introduce an obscurity of mere words, with none existing in fact, which is the case in the heretical interpretation; and that He should prefer to speak so darkly when He might have spoken simply and intelligibly; whereas, if there be an eternal mystery in the Godhead, such as we aver, then, from the nature of the case, there could not but be a difficulty in the words in which He revealed it. Christ, in that case, makes no mystery for the occasion; He uses the plainest and most exact form of speech which human language admits of. And this deserves notice; for it may be extended to the details of this great Catholic doctrine, of which I propose presently to give some brief account. I {347} mean that, much as is idly and profanely said against the Creed of St. Athanasius as being unintelligible, yet the real objection which misbelievers feel, if they spoke correctly, is, that it is too plain. No sentences can be more simple, nor statements more precise, than those of which it consists. The difficulty is not in any one singly; but in their combination. And herein lies a remarkable difference between the doctrine of the Holy Trinity, and some modern dogmatic statements on other points, some true, and some not true, which have been at times put forward as necessary to salvation. Much controversy, for instance, has taken place in late centuries about the doctrine of justification, and about faith; but here endless perplexities and hopeless disputes arise, as we all know, as to what is meant by "faith," and what by "justification;" whereas most of the words used in the Creed to which I have referred are only common words used in their common sense, as "Lord" and God," "eternal" and "almighty," "one" and "three;" nor again are the statements difficult. There is no difficulty, except such as is in the nature of things, in the Adorable Mystery spoken of, which no wording can remove or explain.

And now I propose to state the doctrine, as far as it can be done, in a few words, in the mode in which it is disclosed to us in the text of Scripture; in doing which, if I shall be led on to mention one or two points of detail, it must not be supposed, as some persons strangely mistake, as if such additional statements were intended for explanation; whereas they leave the great Mystery just as it was before, and are only useful as {348} impressing on our mind what it is that the Catholic Church means to assert, and as making it a matter of real faith and apprehension, and not a mere assemblage of words.

And first, I need scarcely say, considering how often it is told us in Scripture, that God is One. "Hear, O Israel," says Moses, "the Lord our God is one Lord." "To us there is but one God, the Father," says St. Paul. Again, "One Lord, one Faith, one Baptism, one God and Father of all." Again, "One God, and one Mediator between God and men." [Deut. vi. 4. 1 Cor. viii. 6. Eph. iv. 5, 6. 1 Tim. ii. 5.] Now, it may be asked, in what sense "one"? for we speak of things being one which really are many; as Scripture speaks of all Christians being made one body; of God being made at one with sinners; of God and man being one Christ; and of one Baptism, though administered to multitudes. I answer, that God is one in the simplest and strictest sense, as all Scripture shows; this is true, whatever else is true: not in any nominal or secondary sense; but one, as being individual; as truly one as any individual soul or spirit is one; nay, infinitely more truly so, because all creatures are imperfect, and He has all perfection. In Him there are no parts or passions, nothing inchoate or incomplete, nothing by communication, nothing of quality, nothing which admits of increase, nothing common to others. He is separate from all things, and whole, and perfect, and simple, and like Himself and none else; and one, not in name, or by figure, or by accommodation, or by abstraction, but one in Himself, or, as the Creed speaks, one in substance {349} or essence. All that He is, is Himself, and nothing short of Himself; His attributes are He. Has He wisdom? this does but mean that He is wisdom. Has He love? that is, "God is love," as St. John speaks. Has He omnipresence? that is, He is omnipresent. Has He omniscience? He is all-knowing. Has He power? He is almighty. He is holy, and just, and true, and good, not in the way of qualities of His essence, but holiness, justice, truth, and goodness, are all one and the self-same He, according as He is contemplated by His creatures in various aspects and relations. We men are incapable of conceiving of Him as He is; we cannot attain to more than glimpses, accidental or partial views, of His Infinite Majesty, and these we call by different names, as if He had attributes, and were of a compound nature; and thus He deigns in mercy to us to speak of Himself, using even human, sensible, and material terms; as if He could be angry, who is not touched by evil; or could repent, in whom is no variableness; or had eyes, or arms, or breath, who is a Spirit; whereas He is at once and absolutely all perfection, and whatever is He, is all He is, and He is Himself always and altogether.

Thus we must ever commence in all our teaching concerning the Holy Trinity; we must not begin by saying that there are Three, and then afterwards go on to say that there is One, lest we give false notions of the nature of that One; but we must begin by laying down the great Truth that there is One God in a simple and strict sense, and then go on to speak of Three, which is the way in which the mystery was progressively revealed in Scripture. In the Old Testament we read of the Unity; {350} in the New, we are enlightened in the knowledge of the Trinity.

And here, let it be observed, that we have a sort of figure or intimation of the sacred Mystery of the Trinity in Unity even in what has been now said concerning the Divine Attributes. For as the Attributes of God are many in one mode of speaking, yet all One in God; so, too, there are Three Divine Persons, yet these Three are One. Let it not be for an instant supposed that I am paralleling the two cases, which is the Sabellian heresy; but I use the one in illustration of the other; and, in way of illustration, I observe as follows: When we speak of God as Wisdom, or as Love, we mean to say that He is Wisdom, and that He is Love; that He is each separately and wholly, yet not that Wisdom is the same as Love, though He is both at once. Wisdom and Love stand for ideas quite distinct from each other, and not to be confused, though they are united in Him. In all He is and all He does, He is Wisdom and He is Love; yet it is both true that He is but One, and without qualities, and withal true again that Love is not Wisdom. Again, as God is Wisdom or Love, so is Wisdom or Love in and with God, and whatever God is. Is God eternal? so is His wisdom. Is He unchangeable? so is His wisdom. Is He uncreate, infinite, almighty, all-holy? His wisdom has these characteristics also. Since God has no parts or passions, whatever is really of or from God, is all that He is. If there is confusion of language here, and an apparent play upon words, this arises from our incapacity in comprehension and expression. We see that all these separate statements must be {351} true, and if they result in an apparent contrariety with each other, this we cannot avoid; nor need we be perplexed about them, nor shrink from declaring any one of them. That simple accuracy of statement which would harmonize all of them is beyond us, because the power of contemplating the Eternal, as He is, is beyond us. We must be content with what we can see, and use it for our practical guidance, without caring for the apparent contradiction of terms involved in our profession of it.

A second illustration may be taken from the material images which Scripture condescends to employ. We read of the eye of God, and the arm of God. Now we know that man has an eye and an arm as really parts of him, and not as figures; but let us suppose for a moment that his body were made spiritual, what would be the consequence? What really would follow we cannot say, for it is beyond us; but, since a spirit has no parts, we may conceive that all those separate organs of man's body which at present exist, instead of having a local disposition in it any longer, and of springing out of it by extension, would be all one, though all distinct still. A spiritual body might possibly be all eye, all ear, all arm, all heart; yet not as if all these were confused together, and names only; not as if henceforth there were no seeing, no hearing, no working, and no feeling, but because a spirit has no parts in extension, and is what it is all at once. And I notice this, because it shows us that things may really exist in a subject which we are contemplating, though they look like ideas only or notions created by our own minds. As a body need not be supposed to lose eye {352} and hand by becoming spiritual, but its organs might exist in it as truly as before, because it was a body, but in a new manner, because it was spiritual, so as to seem like mere abstractions or unreal qualities; so may we suppose that though God is a Spirit and One, yet He may be also a Trinity: not as if that Trinity were a name only, or stood for three manifestations, or qualities, or attributes, or relations,—such mere ideas or conceptions as we may come to form when contemplating God;—but that, as in that body which had become spiritual, eye and hand would not be abstractions after the change, since they were not so before it, nor would eye necessarily be the same as the hand, though the body was all eye and all hand; so (if we may dare to use human illustrations on this most sacred subject), the Eternal Three (I do not say in the same way, for I am not attempting to explain how the mystery is, but to bring out distinctly what we mean by it), in like manner I say, the Eternal Three are worshipped by the Catholic Church as distinct, yet One;—the Most High God being wholly the Father, and wholly the Son, and wholly the Holy Ghost; yet the Three Persons being distinct from each other, not merely in name, or by human abstraction, but in very truth, as truly as a fountain is distinct from the stream which flows from it, or the root of a tree from its branches.

Now should any one be tempted to say that this is dark language, and difficult speculation to set before a Christian people, I answer that it is not more dark and difficult than the sacred mystery which is our great subject today; that it is in fact but the exposition of {353} the sacred mystery as the Church has received it; that I am not engaged in defending the Creed of St. Athanasius, but am stating its meaning; and, My Brethren, that you may well bear once in the year to be reminded that Christianity gives exercise to the whole mind of man, to our highest and most subtle reason, as well as to our feelings, affections, imagination, and conscience. If we find it tries us, and is too severe, whether for our reason, or our imagination, or our feelings, let us bow down in silent adoration, and submit to it each of our faculties by turn, not complain of its sublimity or its range. And now to proceed:—

We hear much in the Old Testament of those attributes of God of which I have already spoken. His omnipotence: "I am the Almighty God; walk before Me, and be thou perfect." Self-existence: "And God said unto Moses, I Am that I Am: thus shalt thou say unto the children of Israel, I Am hath sent me unto you." Holiness: "Who is like Thee, glorious in holiness, fearful in praises, doing wonders!" His mercy, and justice, and faithfulness: "The Lord, the Lord God, merciful and gracious, long-suffering, and abundant in goodness and truth, keeping mercy for thousands, forgiving iniquity, and transgression, and sin, and that will by no means clear the guilty." Awful majesty: "That thou mayest fear this glorious and fearful Name, the Lord thy God." Truth: "His truth endureth from generation to generation." Omnipresence: "If I climb up into heaven, Thou art there; if I go down to hell, Thou art there also." Omniscience: "The eyes of the Lord are in {354} every place, beholding the evil and the good." Knowledge of the heart: "Thou only knowest the hearts of the children of men." Mysteriousness: "Verily Thou art a God that hidest Thyself, O God of Israel the Saviour." Eternity: "Thus saith the High and Lofty One that inhabiteth eternity, whose Name is Holy." [Gen. xvii. 1. Exod. iii. 14; xv. 11; xxxiv. 6, 7. Deut. xxviii. 58. Ps. c. 4; cxxxix. 7. Prov. xv. 3. 2 Chron. vi. 30. Isa. xlv. 15; lvii. 15.] These are some out of numberless announcements in the Old Testament of the Divine Attributes; and though every thing concerning the Supreme Being is mysterious, yet we do not commonly feel any mystery here, because we see a sort of parallel to these attributes in what we call the qualities, properties, powers, and habits of our own minds. We are endowed by nature and through grace with a portion of certain excellences which belong in perfection to the Most High,—as benevolence, wisdom, justice, truth, and holiness; and though we do not know how these attributes exist in God, nay how they exist in ourselves, yet since we are ourselves used to them, and cannot deny their existence, we are not startled when we are told they exist in God. But there are certain other disclosures made to us concerning the Divine Nature, even from the first page of Scripture, and growing in definiteness as Revelation proceeds, of which we have no image or parallel in ourselves, and which in consequence we feel to be strange and startling, and call unintelligible because we are not used to them, and mysterious because we cannot account for them. Thus in the history of the creation we read: "The Spirit of God moved upon {355} the face of the waters;" who shall say how this awful intimation is to be interpreted? who but will "desire to look into" such deep things, yet be silent from conscious weakness, till he hears the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, which explains to him the inspired text by revealing the mystery? Again we read, that, when Jacob had wrestled with the Angel, "he called the name of the place Peniel," for he had seen God's Face or Countenance, "and," he adds, "my life is preserved." And Almighty God promised Moses, "My Presence shall go with thee, and I will give thee rest." And again Moses asks, "I beseech Thee, shew me Thy Glory. And He said, I will make all My Goodness pass before thee ... thou canst not see My face, for there shall no man see Me and live." And we are told that "the Lord revealed Himself to Samuel in Shiloh by the Word of the Lord." And the Psalmist says, "By the Word of the Lord were the heavens made, and all the hosts of them by the Breath of His mouth." And Wisdom says in the Proverbs, "The Lord possessed Me in the beginning of His way; before His works of old. I was set up from everlasting, from the beginning, or ever the earth was ... I was by Him, as one brought up with Him; and I was daily His delight, rejoicing always before Him." And in the prophet Isaiah we read, "Awake, awake, put on strength, O Arm of the Lord;" and again, "I have covered thee in the shadow of My Hand." [Gen. i. 2; xxxii. 30. Exod. xxxiii. 14-20. 1 Sam. iii. 21. Ps. xxxiii. 6. Prov. viii 22, 23, 30. Isa. li. 9, 16.] Now any one such expression once or twice used might not have {356} excited attention; but this mention of the Word, and Wisdom, and Presence, and Glory, and Spirit, and Breath, and Countenance, and Arm, and Hand of the Almighty is too frequent, and with too much of personal characteristic, to be dutifully passed over by the careful reader of Scripture; and in matter of fact it did, before Christ came, attract the attention of Jewish believers, as is proved to us most clearly by some remarkable passages in the books of Wisdom and Ecclesiasticus, to which I need not do more than allude [Note 2].

It would appear, then, from the revelations of the Old Testament, that while God is in His essence most simply and absolutely one, yet there is a real sense in which He is not one, though created natures do not, cannot, furnish such representations of Him as to enable us easily to acquiesce in the conclusions to which the Scripture announcements inevitably lead. We understand things unknown, by the pattern of things seen and experienced; we are able to contemplate Almighty God so far as earthly things are partial reflexions of Him; when they fail us, we are lost. And as of course nothing earthly or created is His exact and perfect image, we have at best but dim glimpses of His infinite glory; and if Scripture reveal to us aught concerning Him, we must be content to take it on faith, without comprehending how it is, or having any clear understanding of our own words. When it declares to us that God is wise and good, we form some idea of what is meant from the properties and habits which attach to the human soul; when we read of His arm or eye, we {357} have some faint, though unworthy shadow of the truth in the members and organs of the human body; but when we read of His Spirit, or Word, or Presence, as at once very distinct from Him, yet most intimately one with Him,—more intimately one than our properties are one with our souls, more real and distinct than the members and organs of our bodies,—we feel the weight of that Mystery, which exists also when mention is made of the Divine Wisdom, or the Divine Arm, though we feel it not.

And this Mystery, which the Old Testament obscurely signifies, is in the New clearly declared; and it is this,—that the God of all, who is revealed in the Old Testament, is the Father of a Son from everlasting, called also His Word and Image, of His substance and partaker of all His perfections, and equal to Himself, yet without being separate from Him, but one with Him; and that from the Father and the Son proceeds eternally the Holy Spirit, who also is of one substance, Divinity, and majesty with Father and Son. Moreover we learn that the Son or Word is a Person,—that is, is to be spoken of as "He," not "it," and can be addressed; and that the Holy Ghost also is a Person. Thus God subsists in Three Persons, from everlasting to everlasting; first, God is the Father, next God is the Son, next God is the Holy Ghost; and the Father is not the Son, nor the Son the Holy Ghost, nor the Holy Ghost the Father. And God is Each of these Three, and nothing else; that is, He is either the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost. Moreover, God is as wholly and entirely God in the Person of the {358} Father, as though there were no Son and Spirit; as entirely in that of the Son, as though there were no Spirit and Father; as entirely in that of the Spirit, as though there were no Father and Son. And the Father is God, the Son God, and the Holy Ghost God, while there is but one God; and that without any inequality, because there is but One God, and He is without parts or degrees; though how it is that that same Adorable Essence, indivisible, and numerically One, should subsist perfectly and wholly in Each of Three Persons, no words of man can explain, nor earthly illustration typify.

Now the passages in the New Testament in which this Sacred Mystery is intimated to us, are such as these. First, we read, as I have said already, that God is One; next, that He has an Only-begotten Son; further, that this Only-begotten Son is "in the bosom of the Father;" and that "He and the Father are One." Further, that He is also the Word; that "the Word is God, and is with God;" moreover, that the Son is in Himself a distinct Person, in a real sense, for He has taken on Him our nature, and become man, though the Father has not. What is all this but the doctrine, that that God who is in the strictest sense One, is both entirely the Father, and is entirely the Son? or that the Father is God, and the Son God, yet but One God? Moreover the Son is the express "Image" of God, and He is "in the form of God," and "equal with God," and "he that hath seen Him, hath seen the Father," and "He is in the Father and the Father in him." Moreover the Son has all the attributes {359} of the Father: He is "Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the ending, which is, and which was, and which is to come, the Almighty;" "by Him were all things created, visible and invisible;" "by Him do all things consist;" none but He "knoweth the Father," and none but the Father "knoweth the Son." He "knoweth all things;" He "searcheth the hearts and the reins;" He is "the Truth and the Life;" and He is the Judge of all men.

And again, what is true of the Son is true of the Holy Ghost; for He is "the Spirit of God;" He "proceedeth from the Father;" He is in God as "the spirit of a man that is in him;" He "searcheth all things, even the deep things of God;" He is "the Spirit of Truth;" the "Holy Spirit;" at the creation, He "moved upon the face of the waters;" "Whither shall I go," says the Psalmist, "from Thy Spirit?" He is the Giver of all gifts, "dividing to every man severally as He will;" we are born again "of the Spirit." To resist Divine grace is to grieve, to tempt, to resist, to quench, to do despite to the Spirit. He is the Comforter, Ruler, and Guide of the Church; He reveals things to come; and blasphemy against Him has never forgiveness. In all such passages, it is surely implied both that the Holy Ghost has a Personality of His own, and that He is God.

And thus, on the whole, the words of the Creed hold good, that "there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost; but the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost is all one,—the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal. {360} Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost. And in this Trinity, none is afore or after other, none is greater or less than another; but the whole Three Persons are co-eternal together and co-equal; so that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped."

Lastly, it is added, "He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of the Trinity:" on which I make two remarks, and so conclude. First, what is very obvious, that such a declaration supposes that a person has the opportunity of believing. We are not speaking of heathens, but of Christians; of those who are taught the truth, who have the offer of it, and who reject it. Accordingly, we do not contemplate in this Creed cases of imperfect or erroneous teaching;—or of what may be called misinformation of the reason; or any case of invincible ignorance; but of a man's wilful rejection of what has been fairly set before him. Secondly, when the Creed says that we "must think thus of the Trinity," it would seem to imply, that it had been drawing out a certain clear, substantive, consistent, and distinctive view of the doctrine, which is the Catholic view; and that, in opposition to other views of it, whether Sabellian, or Arian, or Tritheistic, or others that might be mentioned; all of which, without denying in words the Holy Three, do deny Him in fact and in the event, and involve their wilful maintainers in the anathema which is here proclaimed, not in harshness, but as a faithful warning, and a solemn protest.

May we never speak on subjects like this without {361} awe; may we never dispute without charity; may we never inquire without a careful endeavour, with God's aid, to sanctify our knowledge, and to impress it on our hearts, as well as to store it in our understandings!

Top | Contents | Works | Home


1 Trinity Sunday.
Return to text

2. Wisdom vii. 14, et seq.; Ecclus. xxiv. 3, et seq.
Return to text

Top | Contents | Works | Home

Newman Reader — Works of John Henry Newman
Copyright 2007 by The National Institute for Newman Studies. All rights reserved.