The failure of analogies
This is the sixth in a series of articles on the Trinity, excerpted from “What Every Christian Should Know About the Trinity,” available by contacting the MBC or through Amazon.
In seeking to simplify the complex truth of one God in three persons, Christians sometimes resort to analogies – the comparison of two things for the purpose of explanation or clarification. While analogies applied to the Trinity seem helpful on the surface, they fail to do justice to our infinite and eternal God. Worse, “each represents an ancient heresy,” according to Nathan Jacobs, visiting scholar of philosophy at the University of Kentucky.
As Jacobs points out, Trinitarian analogies typically fall into three groups:
Parts-whole. In parts-whole analogies, the Trinity may be likened to an egg, which has a shell, egg white, and egg yolk. Each part is fully egg but not the whole egg, and thus each part is distinct from the others. As another example, the Trinity sometimes is said to be like a three-leaf clover. Each leaf is distinct from the others, but the clover is incomplete without all three. One other example, from ancient times, is that the Trinity is like a single lump of clay divided into three parts.
Parts-whole analogies are similar to the heresy of Tritheism, which takes two basic forms: (1) the belief that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three separate divine beings, and (2) that the divine nature may be divided into three parts. This reduces God to the sum of His parts.
Names. The second set of analogies applies several names to one subject. For example, one man can be a father, a son, and a husband. This analogy comes close to the ancient heresy of Sabellianism, which claimed God is like an actor wearing several masks, one each depicting the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, but with one person (God) behind them.
States. The third group of analogies identifies a single substance that may take on different states. H2O, for instance, is one compound that may be a solid, a liquid, or a gas. However, this suggests the divine nature is like a substratum that produces several distinct persons – a view that Basil of Caesarea, a third-century Trinitarian, called blasphemous.
While it’s true that a quantity of H2O may be converted to a liquid, solid, or gas, and then converted to another state, God does not swap persons within the Godhead; the Father never becomes the Son, for example. This view inadvertently mirrors modalism.
So, perhaps it’s best for us to stick with these simple truths: There is one God. This one divine being exists as three distinct, but inseparable, co-equal, co-eternal persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. These three persons always have existed in a loving relationship, and together they created the universe and carried out a plan to redeem lost sinners and restore them to a right relationship with the triune God.
While the existence of God as one being in three persons is a challenging concept, why would we expect God to be any simpler than His creation? Many biblical truths are mysterious or, at the very least, difficult to understand.
The virgin birth of Jesus, for example, is a miracle that has never been replicated. How the eternal Son of God added sinless humanity to His deity via His conception in Mary’s womb through the work of the Holy Spirit is mind-boggling, to say the least. Yet, that’s the way the Son of God condescended to become like fallen people in order to win us back, satisfying the wrath of God and extending to us His grace and mercy.
The doctrine of divine election is equally challenging. How is it that a sovereign God chooses certain individuals for salvation and, at the same time, endows all human beings with an ability to make choices for which they are held accountable? The biblical truths of God’s sovereignty and human responsibility are indisputable. And yet they have sparked more than a few vigorous debates over the centuries.
It is perhaps best for us to take God at His word, to understand as much as we are able, and then to go no further by trying to reconcile what God has revealed as a mystery. After all, as Yahweh declares in Isaiah 55:8-9: “‘For my thoughts are not your thoughts, and your ways are not my ways.’ This is the Lord’s declaration. ‘For as heaven is higher than earth, so my ways are higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts.’”
Next: How the Bible uses the word “God.”