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Sermon 23:  Faith without Demonstration 
by John Henry Newman 
[Note:  Preached on Trinity Sunday.]
"Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." John iv. 48.

WE are now celebrating the last great Festival in the course of Holy services which began in Advent; the Feast of the Ever-blessed Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, whose mercy has planned, accomplished, and wrought in us "life and immortality." And the present Festival has this peculiarity in it,—that it is the commemoration of a mystery. Other Festivals celebrate mysteries also, but not because they are mysteries. The Annunciation, the birth of Christ, His death on the Cross, His Resurrection, the descent of the Holy Ghost, are all mysteries; but we celebrate them, not on this account, but for the blessings which we gain from them. But today we celebrate, not an act of God's mercy towards us, but, forgetting ourselves, and looking only upon Him, we reverently and awfully, yet joyfully, extol the wonders, not of His works, but of His own {328} Nature. We lift up heart and eyes towards Him, and speak of what He is in Himself. We dare to speak of His everlasting and infinite Essence; we directly contemplate a mystery, the deep unfathomable mystery of the Trinity in Unity.

Doubtless, from that deep mystery proceeds all that is to benefit and bless us. Without an Almighty Son we are not redeemed,—without an Ever-present Spirit we are not justified and sanctified. Yet, on this day, we celebrate the mystery for its own sake, not for our sake.

On this day, then, we should forget ourselves, and fix our thoughts upon God. Yet men are not willing to forget themselves; they do not like to become, as it were, nothing, and to have no work but faith. They like argument and proof better; they like to be convinced of a truth to their own satisfaction before they receive it, when, perhaps, such satisfaction is impossible. This happens in the sacred subject before us. The solemn mystery of the Trinity in Unity is contained in Scripture. We all know this; there is no doubt about it. Yet, though it be in Scripture, it does not follow that every one of us should be a fit judge whether and where it is in Scripture. It may be contained there fully, and yet we may be unable to see it fully, for various reasons. Now this is the great mistake which some persons fall into; they think, because the doctrine is maintained as being in Scripture by those who maintain it as true, that therefore they have a right to say that they will not believe it till it is proved to them from Scripture. It is nothing to them that the great multitude of good and holy men in all ages have held it. {329} They act like Thomas, who would not believe his brother Apostles that our Lord was risen, till he had as much proof as they, and who said, "Except I see and touch for myself, I will not believe." And they are like the Jews whom our Lord reproves in the text, saying, "Except ye see signs and wonders, ye will not believe." They call it an enlightened, rational belief to demand for themselves proof from Scripture before they believe; and they think that any other admission of the doctrine is blind and superstitious, and unacceptable to Almighty God.

And when, perhaps, we have gone so far as to indulge them, and to profess that we are willing to prove the doctrine from Scripture to their satisfaction, and that, as a previous step to their believing and worshipping, then they meet us with such shallow and high-minded questions as the following:—"Where in Scripture do you find the word Trinity?" "Why do you insist upon it, if it is not in Scripture?" Again, "Where is the Holy Ghost expressly and plainly called God, in Scripture?" Again, "Where does Scripture speak of One Substance, Three Persons, as the Athanasian Creed speaks? Where does Scripture say that the Son and the Holy Ghost are uncreate? where, that 'the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal?'" And so they go through the whole of our Divine faith, carping, objecting, and traducing, even though they do not mean it; and all for this—because they will be judges themselves what is in Scripture and what is not; what necessary to salvation, and what not; what words are {330} important, and what not; what sources of instruction God has given besides Scripture, and what not.

Now, on such conduct, I observe as follows:—that they who think it unreasonable to believe without proof, are surely unreasonable themselves in so thinking. What warrant in reason, what right have they, to say that they will not believe the Creed unless it is proved to them to be in Scripture? They profess to act by reason. Well, then, I ask them, Is it according to reason to say, that they will not believe the Creed without reasons drawn out to their satisfaction from Scripture? I think not; I think I can prove that it is not. I think a very few words will make it evident, that they are unreasonable and inconsistent in refusing to believe before they see the Scripture proof.

1. I would ask, in the first place, whether we reason and prove before we act, in the affairs of this life? For instance, we are bound to obey the laws; we know that we shall get into great trouble if we do not; that if we break them, loss of property or imprisonment will be the consequence; so that it is of great importance that we should obey them; and we know that these laws are not always obvious to common sense; so that at times, a person may break them with the best intentions possible, if he act upon his own private notions of right and wrong. Accordingly, every now and then you find persons, under particular circumstances, alarmed lest they should be unawares breaking the law; and what do they then do? they consult some one skilled in the law, who has made the law his study and profession. It never occurs to a man so circumstanced to buy law books, {331} and to make out the truth of any important matter for himself, though it is really contained in law books. No; neither in ordinary nor in extraordinary matters does he trust his own judgment how the law stands. In ordinary matters he thinks it safe to go by the opinion of men in general; in extraordinary, he consults men learned in the law;—feeling too vividly how much is at stake to trust himself. It is not that he doubts, for an instant, that the laws of the land are put into writing, and are to be found in law books, and might be drawn out of them; but he distrusts himself. He distrusts, not the law books, but his own ability. There is too great a risk,—too much at stake,—his property, his character, his person, are at stake. He cannot afford, in such a case, to indulge his love of argument, disputation, and criticism. No; this love of argument can only be indulged in a case in which we have no fears. It is reserved for religious subjects. Such subjects differ from all other practical subjects, as being those on which the world feels free to speculate, because it does not fear. It has no fears about religious doctrine, no keen sensibilities; it does not feel, though it may confess, that its eternal interests are at stake. It suspends its judgment; for what matters it to the world whether it makes up its mind on a point of religion, or no? It can afford to say, "I will not believe till I see proof in Scripture for believing," though it does not say, "I will not believe lawyers till I understand the law," because it sees clearly and feels deeply that the law of the land is a real power, and that to come into collision with it is a real disaster; but it does not see and feel that "the {332} Word of God is quick and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit, and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart." Men well understand that they will be sure to suffer from human law, for all they cannot judge of it by themselves, on the ground that they can, if they choose, get other competent men to judge for them; but they cannot be made to feel that they will hereafter have to answer for having been told the truth, however, or from whatever quarter they were told it,—at Church, or from teachers, or from religious books. They act as if it were no matter what they knew, unless they came to know it in one particular way, through Scripture.

Now, surely, this parallel holds most exactly, unless one or other of two things could be shown,—unless we have reason for thinking, first, that it matters not what we believe; or, secondly, that no faith is acceptable in the case of individuals which does not arise from their own personal inferences from Scripture. Let, then, grounds be produced for either of these two positions,—that correct faith is unimportant, or that personal faith must be built upon argument and proof. Till then, surely the general opinion of all men around us, and that from the first,—the belief of our teachers, friends, and superiors, and of all Christians in all times and places,—that the doctrine of the Holy Trinity must be held in order to salvation, is as good a reason for our believing it ourselves, even without being able to prove it in all its parts from Scripture; I say, this general reception of it by others, is as good a reason for accepting it {333} without hesitation, considering the fearful consequences which may follow from not accepting it, as the general belief how the law stands and the opinion of skilful lawyers about the law is a reason for following their view of the law, though we cannot verify that view from law books.

2. But it may here be said, that the cases are different in this respect,—that the commonly-received notions about what the law of the land is, do not impose upon our belief any thing improbable or difficult to accept, but that the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity is mysterious and unlikely; and, therefore, though it is reasonable to go by what others say in legal matters, it is not reasonable to go by others in respect to this doctrine.

Now, on the contrary, I consider that this mysteriousness is, as far as it proves any thing, a recommendation of the doctrine. I do not say that it is true, because it is mysterious; but that if it be true, it cannot help being mysterious. It would be strange, indeed, as has often been urged in argument, if any doctrine concerning God's infinite and eternal Nature were not mysterious. It would even be an objection to any professed doctrine concerning His Nature, if it were not mysterious. That the sacred doctrine, then, of the Trinity in Unity is mysterious, is no objection to it, but rather the contrary; the only objection that can plausibly be urged is, why, if so, should it be revealed? Why should we be told any thing about God's Adorable Nature, if incomprehensible He is, and mysterious the doctrine about Him must be? This, it is true, we may ask; though can we ask it piously and reverently? how {334} can we be judges what He will do on such a point? how can we, worms of the earth, and creatures of a day, pretend to determine what is most suitable to Him to tell, what is best for us to know, when He condescends to reveal Himself to us? Is it not enough for us that He speaks to us at all? and cannot we consent to leave Him (if I may so express myself) to speak to us in His own way? Whether, then, He will reveal to us any thing about His own Nature or no, our reason cannot determine; but this it can determine, that if He does, it will be mysterious. It is no objection, then, I repeat, to the doctrine, that it is mysterious; and it is no reason, therefore, against receiving it on the general belief of others, that it is mysterious. It is not more improbable that that doctrine should be what it is, than that the law of the land should be what it is; and as we believe the testimony of others about the law, without having studied the law, so we may well receive the doctrine of the Trinity on the testimony of our friends and superiors, our Church, all good men, learned men, and men in general, though we have not learning, attainments, or leisure sufficient to draw it for ourselves from Scripture. It is not stranger that the testimony of others should be our guide as to the next world, than that it is our guide in this.

This is the first answer that I should make to this objection; but now I will give another, which will open the state of the case more fully.

I suppose, then, there is no one who has not heard of, and no one but would be shocked at seeing, what is called an Atheist, that is, a person who denies that there {335} is any God at all. We should be shocked, not from any unchristian feeling towards the unhappy man who blasphemed his Maker and Saviour, but, without thinking of him, we should feel that Satan alone could be the author of such an impiety, and we should be sure that we had close beside us a very special manifestation of Satan. We should be shocked to think how very low human nature could fall, when it so yielded to the temptations of Satan. Such would be our feelings, and surely very right ones; yet, perhaps, the unhappy man in question, quite unconscious himself of his great misery, as unconscious as persons who deny the doctrine of the Trinity are of theirs (for this is the property of Satan's delusions, that the men seized by them do not suspect that they are delusions), I say, this man, altogether unconscious what a mournful object he was to all believers, might begin to argue and dispute in his defence, and his argument might be such as the following:

"You tell me that I must believe in a God, but I want this doctrine proved to my satisfaction before I believe it. It is very unreasonable in you to deal with me in any other way. Nay, you have gone against reason in your own case, in that you believe. For which of you has ever set about proving that God exists? which of you has not believed it before proving it? You believe it because you have been taught it. But prove to me the truth of this doctrine from the world which we see and touch, from the course of nature and of human affairs, and then I will believe it."

Now is it not a very happy thing that men are not accustomed to speak in this way? Why, if so, {336} all our life would be spent in proving things; our whole being would be one continued disputation; we should have no time for action; we should never get so far as action. Some things, nay, the greatest things, must be taken for granted, unless we make up our minds to fritter away life, doing nothing. But to return to the particular case before us;—should we think ourselves weak and dull in not seeking proof that God exists before believing in God, or the man in question miserable in needing it? Yet, if he persisted, and was of an acute and subtle mind, is it not plain, that abundant as is the evidence of God's existence, providence, power, wisdom, and love, on the face of nature and in human affairs, yet it would not at all be easy to prove it to him, not merely to his satisfaction, but to our satisfaction either. Clearly as we should feel the evidence, we should not be able to bring out the proof so as to come up to our own notions what a proof ought to be, and we should be disappointed with our own attempt.

For, let us see how this man would argue,—(after all, I scarcely like to say what he would urge, lest I should speak in a way unsuitable to this sacred place; and yet it may be useful to hint at one or two things, by way of showing how much we should be bound in consistency to admit, if we grant a man need believe nothing for which he cannot be given a clear and convenient proof,)—he will say then thus:

"You tell me that there is but one God; and you tell me to look abroad into the world, and I shall see proofs of it. I do look abroad, and I see good and evil. {337} I see the proof, then, of two gods, a good God, and another, evil. I see two principles struggling with each other." This shocking doctrine has before now been held by those who were determined to prove to themselves every thing before they believed; and when it is a question of argument and disputation, blasphemous as it is, much that is plausible can be said for it. For evil certainly has a kingdom of its own in the world; it seems to have a place here, and to act on system. Even Scripture calls Satan the god of this world; not meaning that he is really god of it (God forbid!), but that he has usurped the power of it, and seems to be god of it. If, then, every one is bound to prove his faith for himself before believing, then he is bound, not only to prove for himself the doctrine of the Blessed Trinity from Scripture, but he must first prove from the face of the world the doctrine of the Unity; and, as in the first case, he will, unless properly qualified, be in great risk of perplexing himself and denying that God is Three, so will he, in the latter, run great risk of denying that God is One. And it is to be feared that it is only because men have the doctrine of the Holy Trinity to speak against, that they do not speak against the doctrine of the Unity; they will doubt and cavil about something or other; and were revealed religion not before them, then they would speak against natural religion, as in other times and places they have already done.

Again; the deluded man I am supposing will continue his bad arguments as follows: "You tell me that God is almighty; now you may prove Him to be mighty, but how do you prove Him to be almighty? You cannot {338} prove more than you see, and you must be all-seeing to judge of what is almighty." Again, "You say that God is infinite; but all you can know on the subject is, that the Intelligence that created the world surpasses your comprehension; but by how much, whether infinitely, you cannot know, you cannot prove." Again, "You tell me to believe that God had no beginning; this is incomprehensible; I do not know what you mean; I cannot take in the sense of your words. It is as easy to believe the doctrine of the Trinity in Unity, as that God had no beginning. And there is less proof for it than for the doctrine of the Trinity; for, at least, there is proof in Scripture for that doctrine, but what possible proof can you pretend to bring from the face of the world that God was from everlasting?"

Now I do not see how such an objector can be answered satisfactorily, if he is pertinacious. You meet, indeed, with books written to prove to us (as they profess) the being of an Almighty, Infinite, Everlasting God, from what is seen in the natural world, but they do not strictly prove it; they do but recommend, evidence, and confirm the doctrine to those who believe it already. They do not make an approach to a complete argumentative proof of it. They are obliged to pass over, or take for granted, many of the most important points in the doctrine. They are, doubtless, useful to Christians, as far as they tend to enliven their devotion, to strengthen their faith, to excite their gratitude, and to enlarge their minds; but they are little or no evidence to unbelievers. And, in saying all this, I must not be understood to say, that the course of the {339} world does not justly impress upon us the doctrine of One True, infinite, and Almighty God;—it does so,—but that the proof is too deep, subtle, complex, indirect, delicate, and spiritual to be analyzed and brought out into formal argument, level to the comprehension of the multitude of men. And I say the same of the proof of the doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Scripture. A humble, teachable, simple, believing mind, will imbibe the doctrine from Scripture, how it knows not, as we drink in the air without seeing it; but when a man wants formal grounds for his belief laid before him in a definite shape, and has little time for reflection and study, and little learning or cultivation of mind, then, I say, he can do little better than to fall back upon his impressions instead of proof, on the belief of all around him, and on the testimony of all ages.

Let us, then, learn from this Festival to walk by faith; that is, not to ask jealously and coldly for strict arguments, but to follow generously what has fair evidence for it, even though it might have fuller or more systematic evidence. It is in this way that we all believe that there is a God. A subtle infidel might soon perplex any one of us. Of course he might. Our very state and warfare is one of faith. Let us aim at, let us reach after and (as it were) catch at the things of the next world. There is a voice within us, which assures us that there is something higher than earth. We cannot analyze, define, contemplate what it is that thus whispers to us. It has no shape or material form. There is that in our hearts which prompts us to religion, and which condemns and chastises sin. And {340} this yearning of our nature is met and sustained, it finds an object to rest upon, when it hears of the existence of an All-powerful, All-gracious Creator. It incites us to a noble faith in what we cannot see.

Let us exercise a similar faith, as regards the Mysteries of Revelation also. Here is the true use of Scripture in leading us to the truth. If we read it humbly and inquire teachably, we shall find; we shall have a deep impression on our minds that the doctrines of the Creed are there, though we may not be able to put our hands upon particular texts, and say how much of it is contained here and how much there. But, on the other hand, if we read in order to prove those doctrines, in a critical, argumentative way, then all traces of them will disappear from Scripture as if they were not there. They will fade away insensibly like hues at sunset, and we shall be left in darkness. We shall come to the conclusion that they are not in Scripture, and shall, perhaps, boldly call them unscriptural. Religious convictions cannot be forced; nor is Divine truth ours to summon at will. If we determine that we will find it out, we shall find nothing. Faith and humility are the only spells which conjure up the image of heavenly things into the letter of inspiration; and faith and humility consist, not in going about to prove, but in the outset confiding on the testimony of others. Thus afterwards on looking back, we shall find we have proved what we did not set out to prove. We cannot control our reasoning powers, nor exert them at our will or at any moment. It is so with other faculties of the mind also. Who can command his {341} memory? The more you try to recall what you have forgotten, the less is your chance of success. Leave thinking about it, and perhaps memory returns. And in like manner, the more you set yourself to argue and prove, in order to discover truth, the less likely you are to reason correctly and to infer profitably. You will be caught by sophisms, and think them splendid discoveries. Be sure, the highest reason is not to reason on system, or by rules of argument, but in a natural way; not with formal intent to draw out proofs, but trusting to God's blessing that you may gain a right impression from what you read. If your reasoning powers are weak, using argumentative forms will not make them stronger. They will enable you to dispute acutely and to hit objections, but not to discover truth. There is nothing creative, nothing progressive in exhibitions of argument. The utmost they do is to enable us to state well what we have already discovered by the tranquil exercise of our reason. Faith and obedience are the main things; believe and do, and pray to God for light, and you will reason well without knowing it.

Let us not then seek for signs and wonders; for clear, or strong, or compact, or original arguments; but let us believe; evidence will come after faith as its reward, better than before it as its groundwork. Faith soars aloft; it listens for the notes of heaven, the faint voices or echoes which scarcely reach the earth, and it thinks them worth all the louder sounds of cities or of schools of men. It is foolishness in the eyes of the world; but it is a foolishness of God wiser than the {342} world's wisdom. Let us embrace the sacred Mystery of the Trinity in Unity, which, as the Creed tells us, is the ground of the Catholic religion. Let us think it enough, let us think it far too great a privilege, for sinners such as we are, for a fallen people in a degenerate age, to inherit the faith once delivered to the Saints; let us accept it thankfully; let us guard it watchfully; let us transmit it faithfully to those who come after us. 

Copyright © 2000 by Bob Elder. All rights reserved.  
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