How Helpful Are Analogies of the Trinity?

All analogies fall short. They can be enormously helpful at times, but sometimes we need to simply acknowledge that analogies are always limited. They help communicate profound truths in simple terms, but they may at times take us a bit too far and actually undo the intention of the analogy itself. a This is what happens when evangelicals use a variety of analogies to explain the doctrine of the Trinity.

The Trinity, Michael Bird, explains, “is not an esoteric doctrine forged in an unholy marriage of Greek metaphysical speculation and dodgy biblical interpretation.” b Our experience of God is not unitarian or tritheistic, but can only be true if it is Trinitarian. So, a biblical expression of the Trinity is essential.

We live in a day where Trinitarian religion in all its historical beauty has been lost in a sea of trivial statements about God. God, Three and One and One and Three, has become merely a side note in theological pursuit. As one pastor recently told me, “We do not need to talk about the Trinity to our people. It is too complex for them.” The Trinity is arguably the central doctrine that differentiates the Christian faith from other religious traditions like Islam and Judaism. Modern attempts to reconcile these traditions to the Christian faith is ultimately impossible. God is Three and One. He is Oneness and Community. Ancient heresies like Modalism, which teach that each person of the Trinity is merely a “mode of God’s activity as opposed to a distinct and independent person” is by and large the position of Oneness Pentecostals. Yet, most evangelicals view them as just another branch of the orthodox Church.

The nature of the Father, Son, and Spirit have never been more detached from the work of doing theology in our day. As a result of this neglect, modern Christians have attempted to re-energize the idea of the “forgotten Trinity” by providing analogies. These analogies are meant as simple illustrations. They attempt to do with simplicity what the Early Church sought to do with tremendous care and heavy qualifications.

Though the popular illustrations add a little more clarity, they end up confusing the Trinity with other heresies.  S. Michael Houdmann offers a few examples:

The egg (or apple) fails in that the shell, white, and yolk are parts of the egg, not the egg in themselves, just as the skin, flesh, and seeds of the apple are parts of it, not the apple itself. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not parts of God; each of them is God. The water illustration is somewhat better, but it still fails to adequately describe the Trinity. Liquid, vapor, and ice are forms of water. The Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are not forms of God, each of them is God.

Some have attributed these analogies to St. Patrick of Ireland. c The supposed bad analogies of Patrick was put into a comical conversation between St. Patrick and two simple men inquiring about the Trinity:

To put it simply, “The problem with using analogies to explain the Holy Trinity is that you always end up confessing some ancient heresy.”

I have found that analogies of the Trinity are a normal reaction from Christians who find themselves defensive about a complicated doctrine. But Christians ought not be defensive about such a lovely description of our God. God is not meant to be intricately analyzed like an ancient fossil, but to be adored. Any explanation of His Nature ought to be done carefully and with the qualifications the Bible provides. d God is. And that is where we must start. In the words of Fred Sanders:

Trinitarianism is the encompassing framework within which all Christian thought takes place and within which Christian confession finds its grounding presuppositions. e

The Trinity is the necessary paradigm for all thinking. It is the beginning and the end of human thought.  The Trinity is mysterious, because God is infinitely powerful and beyond human reasoning. In the end, we ought to catechize, biblicize those under our care with great care when we speak of who God is. In a nutshell, we can affirm the following essential elements concerning our Triune God:

First, the unity of one God in three persons.

Second, the eternity of the three persons.

Third, the shared and equal deity of the three persons.

Fourth, the shared and equal essence of the three persons.

Fifth, the Trinity includes distinction in roles and relationships within the Godhead.

Finally, the Trinity will always be an ineffable mystery.

In the end, the Trinity ought to lead us to worship as Isaiah did in Isaiah 6. And in that worship, we ought to imitate the seraphim who continually sing, “Holy, Holy, Holy.”

  1. For a history of “analogy,” see this  (back)
  2. Bird, Michael. Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction, pg. 92  (back)
  3. This claim is debated: http://christianity.stackexchange.com/questions/17724/did-saint-patrick-actually-explain-the-trinity-using-a-shamrock  (back)
  4. Analogies like Marriage and community are actually helpful ways to begin to understand the divine Trinity  (back)
  5. Quoted in Bird’s Evangelical Theology, pg. 124  (back)
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