The doctrine of the blessed Trinity is very difficult to understand. A corporeal and finite human cannot absolutely comprehend an infinite and an incorporeal God. Hence, the human mind seeks analogies to aid in easing the comprehension of the Trinity, so that the Trinity does not remain a mystery or a logical paradox. But is there a viable analogy that best illustrates the Trinity?
The egg analogy that describes the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit as the yolk, white and the shell of an egg fails because it implies the tritheistic nature of the Father, Son and the Holy Spirit (that are separate parts of the divine nature).
The water analogy that equates the presence of water in solid, liquid and vapor forms to the blessed Trinity also fails in its endeavor because it has modalistic1 overtones (ice, liquid water and steam are modes of existence; a given quantity of water does not simultaneously exist in all three states).
Then there are the Augustinian analogies for the blessed Trinity, “Augustine reasons that if we can’t catch intellectual sight of the Trinity directly, at least we can see reflections, images, or indications of the Trinity in the created realm, above all in the highest part of human beings (the mind), who are made “in the image and likeness of God” (Augustine Trinity, 231 [VII.4.12]; Genesis 1:26). In the human mind we may encounter several “trinities”, given here in the order that they somehow correspond to the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit:
- lover, loved object, the lover’s love for that object (255 [VIII.5.13])
- the mind, its knowledge, its love (272–5 [IX.1])
- the mind’s remembering itself, understanding itself, and willing itself (298–9 [X.4])
- memory, understanding, and will (374–82 [XIV.2–3)
- the mind’s remembering God, understanding God, and willing God (383–92 [XIV.4–5])
- existing, knowing that one exists, loving the fact that one exists (Augustine City, 483-4 [XI.26];cf. Confessions 264-5 [XIII.11])
These are taken to be “images” of the Trinity, with the final three being in some sense the most accurate.”2
But Augustine acknowledges the futility of his analogies, “Although he apparently considers the contemplation of these to be helpful in the pursuit of God, in the last section (Book XV) of On the Trinity, Augustine emphasizes that even these are “immeasurably inadequate” to represent God (428 [XV.6.43]). The main reason is that these three are activities which a person does or faculties a person has, whereas God “just is” his memory, understanding, and will; the doctrine of divine simplicity thus renders the mental analogies at best minimally informative. Further, temporal processes seem ill-suited to represent the nature of an essentially immutable God.”3
There are two analogies from human relationships, “The first analogy is from the realm of individual human psychology…I am a complex human person with multiple roles and responsibilities in dynamic interplay with one another…the husband, the father, the seminary professor, and the United States citizen that go together constitute me may mutually inform one another.
One problem with this analogy is that in human experience it is most clearly seen in situations where there is tension or competition, rather than harmony between the individual’s various positions and roles. The discipline of abnormal psychology affords us with extreme examples of virtual warfare between the constituent elements of the human personality. But in God, by contrast, there are always perfect harmony, communication, and love.
The other analogy is from the sphere of interpersonal human relations. Take the case of identical twins. In one sense, they are of the same essence, for their genetic makeup is identical. An organ transplant from one to the other can be accomplished with relative ease, for the recipient’s body will not reject the donor’s organs as foreign; it will accept it as its very own. Identical twins are very close in other ways as well. They have similar interests and tastes. Although they have different spouses and different employers, a close bond unites them. And yet they are not the same person. They are two, not one.
One idea in the history of the doctrine, the conception of perichoresis, is especially helpful. That is the teaching that the life of each of the persons flows through each of the others, so each sustains each of the others and each has direct access to the consciousness of the others. Thus, the human organism serves as a good illustration of the Triune God. For example, the brain, heart, and lungs of a given individual all sustain and supply each other, and each is dependent on the other. Conjoined twins, sharing one heart and liver, also illustrate this intercommunion. These, however, like all analogies fall short of full explication of the Trinity.”4
Analogies of the Trinity are helpful at an elementary level of understanding, however they are either inadequate or mislead the audience when considered in depth. The Bible uses analogies to teach us various aspects of God’s character; HE is like a rock in HIS faithfulness or HE is a shepherd in HIS care, etc. When referring to the Trinity, the Bible uses the titles of “Father” and “Son” to reveal the distinctness and the close relationship that exists in the blessed Godhead. But this analogy fails in the corporeal human level because the Father and the Son are entirely separate human beings, unlike the incorporeal God.
As William Lane Craig (& J.P Moreland) posit, God could be considered a soul (living, spiritual substance) with three complete sets of rational cognitive faculties, each sufficient for personhood. Hence, God, although one soul, would have three centers of self-consciousness, intentionality and volition. This seems to be a possible analogy that is logically coherent and comprehensible.5
But critics remain unsatisfied by this model as well, “One of the more serious problems is that it is inconsistent with the Nicene Creed. The creed opens with “I believe in God, the Father Almighty”; but proponents of the Moreland & Craig model cannot say this because, on their view, God (analogous to Cerberus) is not the Father Almighty (analogous to one of the heads, or the soul of one of the heads). Likewise, the Creed says that Father and Son are consubstantial. This claim is absolutely central to the doctrine of the Trinity, and the notion of consubstantiality lay at the very heart of the debates in the 4th Century C.E. that shaped the Nicene Creed’s expression of the doctrine. But the three souls, or centers of consciousness, of the heads of Cerberus are not in any sense consubstantial. If they are substances at all (which Moreland & Craig take them to be), they are three distinct substances.”6
So we are back to square one in the sense that analogies cannot perfectly describe the blessed Trinity. This is not unusual, for incorporeality cannot be perfectly described in corporeal terms.
The Trinity is best depicted in this visual illustration (Shield of the Trinity), which is not immune to flaws:
Although the doctrine of Trinity is essential to Historic Christianity, it is quite difficult to explain it. This saying sums it up, “Try to explain it, and you’ll lose your mind; But try to deny it, and you’ll lose your soul.”
The difficulty in comprehending or positing the Trinity need not confound a Christian. Why can we not come to terms with the fact that we can only partly understand the complex nature of God for now, “For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” (1 Corinthians 13: 12, RSV)?
1Modalism: “People such as Noetus, Praxeus, and Sabellius enunciated a quite different view of God – a unitarian view of God – which goes under various names: Modalism, Monarchianism, or Sabellianism. According to this view, the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit are not distinct persons. There is only one person who is God. Either it was the Father himself who became incarnate and suffered and died on the cross, the Son was at most the human side of the Father so to speak – the human face of God the Father. Or, alternatively, the one God sequentially assumed three roles in his relationship to humanity: first, the Father; then the Son, and then the Holy Spirit.” (Source: http://www.reasonablefaith.org/defenders-3-podcast/transcript/doctrine-of-god-trinity-part-6, last accessed on 2nd April 2017.)
2https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/trinity/trinity-history.html, last accessed on 2nd April 2017.
4Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Michigan: Baker Academic, 1998), 366.
5http://www.reasonablefaith.org/a-formulation-and-defense-of-the-doctrine-of-the-trinity, last accessed on 2nd April 2017.
6https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/christiantheology-philosophy/, last accessed on 2nd April 2017.