4 Bad Analogies for the Trinity

The trinity is an essential doctrine to the Christian faith. It is so important that to deny the trinity is to deny Christianity. Yet, the trinity is mysterious. The word trinity is not in the Scriptures, but is a word used to describe the three in one God revealed in the Bible. Before we look at a few bad analogies that many often use to try to illustrate the trinity, we need to first understand the doctrine itself. As we examine the scriptural witness we see three truths that make up the doctrine of the trinity.

  1. God is three persons (Mt 3:13-17)
  2. Each person is fully God (Phil 2; Acts 5:3-4)
  3. There is one God (Mk 12:29)

I do not have the time or space to exhaustively demonstrate in scripture these truths, but the Biblical witness teaches these three truths consistently about God. Over the course of church history there have been several heresies that have cropped up that deny one of these three truths. They've always led to error and have been rejected by the church. Since these bad analogies tend to lead to a heresy, we will examine the main three areas of heresy concerning the trinity.

Trinitarian Heresies

Modalism

Modalism teaches that the trinity is not three distinct persons, but just different modes that God reveals himself to human beings. So under modalism, God acts as the Father in the Old Testament, the son in the Gospels, and the Spirit in Acts and the Epistles. Modalism teaches that one God just changes forms or modes over the course of scripture.

Modalism is a heresy because it denies the distinction of God. God does not just change forms but exists as three persons in unity. In scripture we see explicit trinitarian references, especially at Jesus' baptism where the Father speaks, the Spirit descends, and the Son is in the water. All three persons exist at the same moment in history. Modalism denies the distinction of person in the trinity.

Arianism

Arianism is named after the heretic Arius. Arius was condemned by the council of Nicea in 325 AD. He taught that the son was at one point created by God the father. His motto was that "There was a time when the son did not exist". Jesus then becomes a created being and thus less than fully God.

Arianism clearly denies the deity of the three persons. Under Arianism Jesus is less than fully God. Unfortunately, Arianism is still around and can found within the Jehovah's Witnesses teachings. In the Scripture we see "the fullness of God was pleased to dwell" (Col 1:9). Jesus isn't a demigod or partially god. Jesus is fully God. Arianism denies the deity of each person in the trinity.

Tritheism

Few if any have every tried to teach the heresy of Tritheism, but it needs to be mentioned anyway. Tritheism denies the unity of the God-head by saying there is just three different gods. Tritheism denies that there is only one God.

Overview

1. God is three persons (Distinction)

  • Deny this Truth: Modalism

2. Each Person is Fully God (Deity)

  • Deny this Truth: Arianism

3. There is One God (Unity)

  • Deny this Truth: Tritheism

Bad Analogies

Now that we know the doctrine of the trinity and its corresponding major heresies, now we are ready to look at some bad analogies for the trinity. Many of these analogies have the best of intentions, but God cannot be described in a way we can fully comprehend or rationalize. His being is somewhat of a mystery to us. When we tend to make an analogy about the trinity we are forced to diminish one of the three trinitarian truths in order to make the analogy work. Often these analogies explicitly teach heresy.

1. The Trinity is Like an Egg

How the analogy goes:

The Trinity is like an egg. In one egg you have the white, the yoke, and the shell composing one full egg.

This analogy denies the unity of the God-head. The problem with this analogy is that an egg yoke is of a very different substance than a shell. Also, the egg is made up of three distinct and unalike parts. This analogy actually teaches the heresy of tritheism.

2. The Trinity is like Water

How the analogy goes:

The trinity is like water. Water has three states: solid, liquid, and gas. Although the water changes forms it is still H2O. Just as water changes forms so too is the trinity.

This analogy denies the distinction of the God-head. The problem with this analogy is that no one molecule of H2O can actually exist as solid, liquid, and gas at the same time. As a result the water molecule must change forms. A single molecule cannot simultaneously exist in three different states. This analogy actually teaches the heresy of modalism.

3. The Trinity is Like a Three-Leaf Clover

How the analogy goes:

The trinity is a like a Three-Leaf Clover. There are three different cloves that represent the three different persons of the trinity.

The problem with this analogy is it denies the unity of the God-head. The analogy breaks down because the three cloves are overly distinct and cannot represent the unity of God. As a result, this analogy can easily lead to tritheism in which there are three different gods which might share some like substance.

4. The Trinity is Like a Man who is a Father, Husband, and Son

How the analogy goes:

The trinity is Like a man who is a father, husband, and son. Although he is one he has different roles to different people. The trinity is like this man.

The problem with this analogy is that it denies the distinction of persons in the God-head. The analogy breaks down because I can simultaneously be a father, husband, and son to any one person. In reality, I change my role depending on who I am interacting with. As a result, this analogy actually teaches modalism.

The Glorious Triune God

The trinity is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended. The trinity is not a contradiction, but a paradox. God is much bigger and much greater than we can understand, and to be honest, I'm ok with that. The teaching of the trinity is clearly taught in Scripture and must be preserved as such. Here many of the creeds help us in clearly articulating the trinity.

In the words of the Athanasian Creed:

we worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.

To help you out, here is a comical and silly video that teaches about these bad analogies.

httpv://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KQLfgaUoQCw

Did I leave out any analogies? Which ones have you heard? Share your thoughts with us in the comments!