Poor Analogies and Illustrations Used to Teach the Trinity Which May Teach Heresy Instead

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(Volume 25, Issue 6, November 2019)

Without question, the Trinity is one of the most complicated, mysterious and difficult doctrines for God’s people to comprehend.  The core doctrine of Old Testament Judaism was monotheism as expressed in the Shema in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel! The Lord is our God, the Lord is one!” And while there are scattered references to the three members who composed the Godhead in the Old Testament, those references are better understood in the light of New Testament revelation.  We look back now with clarity and recognize the Father, Son and Holy Spirit all are present prior to the incarnation, but it is doubtful that many Old Testament saints grasped the idea of a Trinity, at least not with the precision that Christians do today.  So it is not surprising that when the Patristics attempted to understand and define the Triune God that there was much confusion and difference of opinion. When the dust had settled and the creeds, such as Nicene, Athanasian, and the Apostle were inked, a definition for the Trinity had been formulated that all true Christians would accept.  A representative definition would be: “Within the one Being that is God, there exists eternally three coequal and coeternal persons, namely, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.”[1]

Given the almost incomprehensible nature of the Trinity, Christians have expended great efforts to understand and explain the Triune nature of the Godhead. This is especially true when well-meaning believers try to teach mind-expanding subjects such as this one to children.  At such times it is not unusual for a Sunday school teacher or parent to turn to illustrations to try and unravel and simplify the Trinity.  Illustrations are often helpful in explaining difficult concepts since like a window, they let in the light to illuminate the substance. In regards to the Godhead, the church has, throughout the ages, offered analogies drawn from common experience to attempt to crystalize our understanding. The problem with such analogies is that the Trinity is unlike any other reality with which we are familiar.  As a result, the analogies suggested lead not only to lack of clarity but often to heresy. Below we will identify some of the well-known analogies used for the Godhead, and demonstrate where they have historically led some astray.

Water:  The Godhead has been compared to water which can take various forms such as liquid, ice, and vapor.  So too, the illustration suggests, God takes on various forms.  Of course this picture, rather than enhancing our comprehension of the Godhead, instead leads to one of the oldest of the ancient heresies, modalism. Modalism attempted to explain God as one person (monotheism) who appears at different times in one of three distinct modes. In the Old Testament, He demonstrated Himself as the Father. But during the incarnation, He was in the form of Jesus.  When Jesus left this planet, God returned to the earth in the form of the Holy Spirit at Pentecost.  Modalism is compelling to some because it carefully protects monotheism, but it does so at the expense of the recognition of three unique persons within the Godhead, as clearly taught in Scripture. Some examples include: while God is one, we read of three separate persons at Jesus’s baptism. We find Jesus praying to the Father, and promising to send the Holy Spirit. He commissions His followers to make disciples in the Name (singular) of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit (three persons). Concerning our salvation, the New Testament tells us that the Father loved the world and sent His Son (John 3:17).  But it was the Son who came and died for us (Mark 10:45).  Still, it is the Holy Spirit that regenerates us, giving believers new life (Titus 3:5). Such examples of one God existing in three persons are prolific in the New Testament. The water analogy, therefore, breaks down because while water can take on different forms, such as ice, vapor, and liquid, it cannot take on all these forms at once. Thus water works well as an analogy for modalism, but not for Trinitarianism.   Presently the United Pentecostal Church is the chief example of modalism as it denies the Trinity and identifies with the slogan “Jesus Only.”

Man: Another example of modalism is the analogy of a man who could fulfill various roles such as a husband as well as a father and as an employee. In this illustration God is not three in one, He is one person living out different roles. Unlike the water illustration in which water is supposed to explain God as existing in different modes at different times, the man analogy has God not taking on different forms but living out different roles. Again, this example grasps monotheism but distorts the concept of three persons who make up the one God. It would be another version of modalism.

Egg: The egg has been one of the more popular illustrations of the Trinity an egg would be made up of a shell, a yoke and an egg white, yet it is one egg, and thus supposedly demonstrates the one God manifested in three persons.  But what this analogy does is to divide God into parts.  For example, an egg white is not an egg, it is one element of an egg, but it takes all three elements to make one egg.  Transferred to the Godhead, this illustration teaches that each member of the Trinity is God only when united with the other members.  Thus the Son on His own would be less than God, and the same is true of the Father and Holy Spirit.  This is known as the heresy of partialism. The Bible does not teach that God is made up of parts but is simple (or one) in nature. The egg analogy could also lend itself to subordinationism which denies that each and every person of the Godhead possesses the fullness of deity. In addition, subordinationism has fueled the concept that the Father is superior to the other members, even to the point of being fully God while the Son and Spirit are not. One of the earliest heresies and the one for which the Council of Nicene was convened was Arianism, which taught subordinationism to the extent that the Son and the Spirit were created beings, and while (g)ods in a sense, were inferior to the Father. Today Mormons and Jehovah Witnesses continue to teach Arianism. Some who teach subordinationism have gone so far as to claim that each member of the Trinity is one-third God and the fullness of God is realized as the three parts are united. None of these ideas represent the God of Scripture. The egg analogy sadly better illustrates these different forms of falsehood than it does the nature of the Triune God. This is especially true when the illustration is pressed to the point of recognizing that the three elements comprising an egg are all of very different substance.  The shell is nothing like the yoke for example.  Yet the Nicene Creed speaks of Son as of the same essence as the Father.  Therefore, the egg is actually counterproductive in attempting to explain the Trinity.

Clover: Often attributed to St Patrick who supposedly attempted to explain the Trinity via a shamrock, which is in the clover family.  The clover is a single plant with one stem and three leaves.  When applied to the Trinity the analogy falls short of teaching a triune God and teaches something closer to tritheism.  Tritheism is a form of polytheism with the understanding that there are three Gods in the Godhead. Orthodoxy demands that there is one God consisting of three persons. The shamrock illustration breaks down because it denies the unity of the Godhead in that the three leaves are distinct.

The Mysterious and Magnificent Triune God

Other analogies have been suggested such as the sun, which is a star with gives off both light and heat, and the Triangle with is one structure with three sides.  But they all suffer the same fate. The real problem with using analogies to explain the Trinity is that all analogies fall short of the true essence of His Person, and as a result, they actually distort who He is. It is most difficult for modern western-minded people to accept that some things simply cannot be totally explained to our satisfaction. The Triune essence of God is a doctrine that no one would have invented and therefore finds its source wholly in divine revelation. The Trinity is a mystery beyond our comprehension and such mysteries lie restless in our hands.  We want to solve the enigma and make sense out of what seems to us illogical, and so we seek illustrations to aid our understanding that unfortunately mutilate the truth.  Yet, the Trinity is not a riddle to solve but a truth to embrace.  We embrace it on the basis of faith as it has been revealed in Scripture.

by Gary E. Gilley, Pastor/teacher, Southern View Chapel

*This article first appeared in Voice, September/October 2019, a publication of IFCA International, and used by permission.  I highly recommend Voice for excellent articles on a variety of theological and practical church and Christian related issues.

[1] James White, The Forgotten Trinity, Recovering the Heart of Christian Belief, (Minneapolis, Minnesota: Bethany House Publishers: 1998), p. 26.

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