As mentioned in part one of The Trinity Series, the doctrine of the Trinity can be fundamentally explained like this: There is one God. God is three distinct Persons. Each Person is fully and equally God.
There are not three gods, but one God. The triune God eternally exists and expresses himself as three distinct persons with one essence. One God in three persons–the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.
Now, let’s be honest. This is tough enough to understand. But how do you begin to explain this complex truth in a simple way that others can grasp? How do we avoid misunderstanding the Trinity? What are the consequences of getting it wrong?
Jesus was a master at teaching complex truths in simple ways. He would often teach in parables which use common, every-man, every-day, examples to illustrate and communicate complex truths. Any good teacher knows that an effective way to take complex truths and communicate them in a simple way is through the use of illustrations, metaphors, or analogies.
While analogies can be helpful, every analogy has limits and eventually breaks down. There is never a purely 1:1 correlation. Analogies regarding the Trinity generally do well to clarify one aspect while confusing others. Meaning most analogies used to illustrate the Trinity often equally communicate what the Trinity is and is not. Both are valuable. By using analogies to illustrate the Trinity, they can help skeptics better understand the Trinity. They can also help Christians understand how to avoid heresy and stay firmly planted in a biblical understanding of the triune God.
Let’s look at three common illustrations and two better ones.
THREE ANALOGIES TO AVOID: How to Get it Equally Right and Wrong
The first popular analogy describes the Trinity to be like H20, one substance that takes three different forms–ice, water, steam. The strength of this analogy is that it highlights that all three members of the Trinity share one essence. However, it fails to show three distinct parts existing at the same time as water cannot exist in all three states at the same time. This analogy illustrates the heresy of modalism which argued that there was one God who revealed himself in different modes. But God could only take one form at a time. The baptism of Jesus (Matt. 3) clearly describes all three distinct members of the Trinity–Father, Son, and Spirit–existing at the same time in the same place.
The second popular analogy depicts the Trinity as like a man who is at once a son, husband, and father. One man with three different aspects of himself based on who he is relating to (dad, wife, or son). Though better than the illustration of H20, it also fails to show the distinctness of the Trinity as each aspect cannot exist independently.
The third common analogy, attributed to St. Patrick of Ireland (5th century), states that the Trinity is like a three leaf clover with three separate leafs connected by one stem. The strength of this analogy is that it highlights the separateness of the three parts, while still remaining a unified whole. However, it fails to show three truly distinct parts capable of functioning independently of one another. In essence, it illustrates that each member of the Trinity is partially God, but not fully God. And they cannot act independently of one another. This analogy illustrates the heresies of Arianism and polytheism.
TWO ANALOGIES TO USE: How to Get it Mostly Right
The first helpful analogy was attributed to St. Gregory of Nazianzus (4th century) and later St. John of Damascus (7th century). The Trinity is like the sun–God the Father is like the sun itself, Jesus is like the light that illuminates the sun and creation, and the Holy Spirit is like the heat from the sun which warms and affects creation. The strength of this illustration is that all three elements are separate and independent elements of one sun. However, it could be said that the light and heat are bi-products or creations from the sun. Even though I recognize the limitations of this illustration, it has proved the most helpful to me personally.
The second helpful analogy was attributed to St. Augustine of Hippo (5th century). He explained that the Trinity is like the mind’s ability to remember, to understand, and to will. Say someone is in a conversation and would like to insert a fact they learned to support their argument. They would first have to have understood the words of the fact, then will themselves to recall the fact, and then actually remember it. When you desire something, you must understand what you are desiring, and you must remember that you are desiring. The strength of this illustration is that the acts are distinct and can never be fully separated from the mind. (Jonathan Edwards (18th century) would later develop this analogy further, explaining that the Trinity is like a person’s personality–the intellect, will, and emotions.)
ONE WORD OF CAUTION
In the end, all analogies, metaphors, and illustrations break down. There is no 1:1 comparison with a triune God. But some analogies are better than others depending on to whom you are speaking. It’s ok and can even be helpful to use analogies to help others better understand that one God exists and expresses himself in three distinct persons. Just remember where and how they break down. Sometimes explaining where analogies fail is just as important as how they succeed.
By: Jeremy Winters