Trinity Analogies

Yesterday was Trinity Sunday, the day when preachers cower and hide away from the challenge of trying to explain the Trinity (God: Father, Son & Holy Spirit).

I felt challenged by a few updates on Twitter yesterday. The first read:

Well, I’ve been invited to preach at a local church next Sunday and as they didn’t have a Trinity service yesterday, and because I’m feeling brave (or stupid), I’m going to preach on the Trinity.

The other tweets read as follows:

If you’ve been going to church for a while I’m sure you’ll have heard some of the many analogies used to help explain the Holy Spirit. Here’s my incomplete list – just from memory:

  • Egg: shell/White/yolk
  • Water: ice/steam/liquid
  • Jaffa Cake: sponge/chocolate/orange jelly
  • Man: worker/husband/father
  • Apple: skin/core/pulp
  • Human: body/soul/spirit
  • Three blade propeller
  • Three leaf clover

So:

  1. How would you critique these analogies?
  2. Would you add any other analogies to the list?

But my main question is this:

Is it helpful to use these analogies, even knowing that they are imperfect representations of the Trinity?

Discuss…

21 Comments

  1. My take on it is on i-church at the moment (it’s not a long read).

    http://www.i-church.org/gatehouse/index.php?page=182

    The examples where the persons are represented as the same thing seen differently – ice/water/steam and husband/father/son – are modalism and as the tweeter above says this is a misrepresentation of the doctrine which is 3 distinct personae.

    I think the doctrine is important in terms of understanding Jesus’ divinity, and I think the simple well known examples like a clover leaf work the best.

    However it’s also a mystery!

    • Thanks Pam – I read your post earlier.
      I totally agree that it’s a mystery – and certainly wouldn’t want to remove that aspect of it.

      I understand the argument that the water/ice/steam example is modalism, but should that discount it from being used at all. Is sufficient to say this is a way of understanding one aspect of the Trinity using an illustration that people can grasp? Any attempt I make to explain the Trinity or the doctrine of salvation (or anything for that matter) will be imperfect at best. Does that mean I shouldn’t bother?

  2. I heard a talk on the Trinity a while ago which discussed the use of analogies in a way which I found helpful.
    The speaker said that analogies or illustrations were rarely useful in describing the Trinity, however it was possible to look at things on earth and see the Trinity reflected in some small way. So for example, to say that the Trinity is just like marriage (with two individuals becoming one unit bound together by love) would raise all kinds of issues where each member of the godhead is thought of as an entirely separate entity only bound in a sort of confederation. However, to say that in marriage we see something of the godhead reflected would be more accurate (ie marriage helps us to understand what it means to live relationally, to love, to seek honour for another, to create etc).
    The speaker considered marriage to be the most helpful of the Trinity illustrations as it takes into account the relational aspect of the godhead in comparison to the ones you’ve listed.
    Don’t know if that makes sense, but I found it helpful when I heard the talk a few years ago.

    • Hi Cara – thanks for your comment.
      Yes, the explanation does make sense. I didn’t make it clear in the post, but I’m thinking this through with my Youth Minister hat on, considering specifically how I should teach young people about the Trinity. So whilst I understand your example, it’s not one that the young people will so easily grasp. Important to remember the relational aspect of the Trinity and ensure that I get that across, in addition to whatever illustration I may use, thanks.

  3. Hi, thanks for alerting me to this post (and for your use of my “modalism” tweet!).

    Using analogies for the Trinity reminds me a little of this XKCD cartoon. ;-)

    One of the most helpful observations I’ve come across on the Trinity was made in this post on a Lutheran blog in 2008:

    One of my pet biblical theories since coming out of seminary is that NT theology is thoroughly baptismal. The doctrine of the Trinity, of course, is the baptismal doctrine, as seen in Matthew.

    Without baptism, the Trinity becomes an ideology rather than an identity. Rejecting or accepting the Trinity becomes a matter of to what degree one understands and appropriates a theory. Having a God is understood as subscribing to a certain theory about a deity, thinking about divinity in the right way. But as a baptismal doctrine–which is how Matthew presents it to us–confessing the Trinity and being baptized into Christ, being part of this New Covenant people, become the same thing, as much as having YHWH as your God and being a circumcised member of Israel were the same thing.

    The confession and the sacrament are inseparable; having God as your God and being sacramentally defined as a member of his people are identical.

    In other words, the importance of the doctrine of the Trinity isn’t in having an intellectual understanding of it, but in entering into the life of the Trinity through baptism and faith. (IIRC, C.S. Lewis makes a similar point concerning the Trinity and prayer.)

    My feeling is that preachers would better spend their time talking about the Christian life as life “in” the Trinity – talking about the intertwining work of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in our lives – talking about the Trinity as something we experience rather than as something we understand. To say we pray “to the Father, through the Son, by the Holy Spirit” tells us more about the Trinity than any analogy ever could.

    • Thanks John – the Baptismal focus has been really helpful. I’ll ponder that further…

      My feeling is that preachers would better spend their time […] talking about the Trinity as something we experience rather than as something we understand.

      I’d go along with that – very succinctly put. But I’m a Youth Minister and whilst I don’t want to remove the mystery of the Trinity, I believe it would be foolish to simply say to young people that they won’t understand it and instead must experience it. I’m trying to find the balance between a basic ‘understanding’ (such as can be known) and ‘just experience it for yourself’.

  4. one that I have used on trinity Sunday in the past is by comparing to the frequent special offer in supermarkets – Buy one get one free – only with God it’s buy one get two free – although since doing this I am aware of a supermarket offering buy one get two free – but not very often, whilst Gods “offer” is for all time!

    • Hey Angela – thanks for commenting. It’s great to see that you’re applying your good stewardship to your theological reflection ;o)

  5. I’ve never found the analogies helpful. In my sermon yesterday I focused on our relationship with God expanding on 2 Corinthians 13 v13. My congregation seemed to find it relevant.

  6. I think they’re alright as long as you are specific about what aspect you are trying to explain about the Trinity. If you say the Trinity is a like states of water, then that’s far too broad. If you say when thinking about the substance of the triune God then you can think about the Trinity like Water, though each person may be different like Ice, Water, and Steam, they all share the same substance. Marriage and Parenthood are better illustrations again, as they are divinely invented illustrations. An earthly marriage is given to understand the heavenly marriage between Christ and the Church, and parenthood (and particularly Fatherhood) is given to understand the true Fatherhood of God for His Son (and his adopted children).

    • Thanks Mark – that’s a really helpful comment. I’m with you. It’s important to be specific about the nature of the analogy, and then perhaps to use a few to consider different aspects of the Trinity:

      – water/ice/steam = considering the substance
      – father/brother/uncle = considering roles/personae
      – three-blade propeller = considering the inseparability

      Personally I don’t find the marriage analogy particularly helpful in respect to the Trinity (probably just me though).

      Jeremy Begbie introduced me to the idea of the Trinity as expressed in a three-note chord. Each individual note is distinct from the others, but they can work together perfectly. The powerful bit for me was when he said that in a three-note chord, each note is somehow more in relation to the others than on its own – they resonate together to create a richer sound.

  7. hi ricky, good thought provoking stuff. at the church i was at on sunday the minister used the water/steam/ice analogy and also a musical one; three notes, one chord. i liked that. three separate notes all individual that can stand on their own, but joined together they create something unique.

    • Hey Simon – I’m glad the music analogy worked for you too. I’m not a musician, but can just about grasp the concept of a three-note chord ;o)

  8. I think the three note cord one is great – and can be demonstrated.

    I can see how water/ice/steam can be used without modalism but I don’t think the father/brother/husband one conveys what we mean. It’s talking about one being having different relationships whereas to me the essence of Trinity is that it IS relationship. The father/brother/husband one takes you back to the lonely old man on a cloud seeking relationships with us to ‘complete’ him in some way.

    • I find the father/brother/husband illustration really helpful when young people (especially) can’t get their head around the whole ‘three and yet one’ concept. I explain that I’m only one person, but that I am at the same time a father, a brother & a husband – each are roles I fulfil and relationships I experience. They can understand it in the context of me, and so it helps as they try to understand something of the three-in-one God. Like all the other analogies above (and any you care to mention) if you try to take them too far, they fall apart. But if you use them to explain an aspect of the nature of God, I find they can be really helpful, invaluable even.

      • I accept it was helpful for you, but I’m trying in vain to understand how it conveys something about the nature of Trinity as I’ve come to understand it!

        To me it’s 180 degrees from where you need to be to understand Trinity as a dynamic inter-relationship of three distinct personae! I think it’s because the father/son/husband idea represents ONE person relating to MANY whereas the Trinity is about three-personed God relating to one-personed me. The only way it works is to say that the same person can’t be my husband, son and father but that doesn’t get me any nearer the Trinity.

        As I said, I accept that this worked for you but it simply takes me back to the lonely old man on the cloud.

        I guess this is why we need to give people space to explore the idea for themselves.

  9. Hi Ricky, I’ve come to this discussion rather late. My question would be why do we want to find analogies of the mystery of the Trinity? Or is the bigger question: Can this mystery encourage my faith walk, obedience and service as I strive to advance His Kingdom? Maybe our response should be wonder and amazement rather than analysis.

    • Hi Peter,

      why do we want to find analogies of the mystery of the Trinity?

      Speaking personally, because I feel the need to at least try to help the young people I work with have an understanding of the Trinity. I don’t think it’s enough (particularly for the age group I primarily work with) to simply say: God is Trinity: Father, Son & Spirit. If I can find analogies which reveal *something* of the nature of God, my experience is that the young people find that helpful. [see earlier acknowledgements about this only being a tiny glimpse, not understanding in full]

      Can this mystery encourage my faith walk, obedience and service as I strive to advance His Kingdom?

      I believe so. At a recent service where I preached on the Trinity, I closed by saying that having explored the nature of God (as a perfect community/relationship) we must consider the application for us, and calling everyone to greater unity even in diversity, and greater community rather than isolation and individualism. I believe putting that into practice requires obedience to God’s call and service to one another.

      Maybe our response should be wonder and amazement rather than analysis.

      I have no problem with wonder and amazement, but for me they usually follow a period of exploration and analysis. The former without the latter can be seen as the lazy man’s approach ;o)

  10. My only observation from years of theology is that we spend so much time on the analysis that little Kingdom work happens. Now I’ll have a quick lie down.

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