“The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” Ever heard that? Or how about this, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” Or, how about this, “The doctrine of the trinity is like a person who is a father and a son and husband.
We all like a good object lesson. We use them to help illustrate difficult to grasp concepts. And many times they can be helpful. They can make concrete what would otherwise be hopelessly abstract. But they can also miss the mark. And every object lesson that attempts to illustrate the mystery of the triune nature of God does just that. It misses the mark and leads to a false conception of God. So, if you are thinking of using an object to teach the doctrine of the trinity, use it to teach what the Trinity is not!
Three of the most frequently cited heresies (or false conceptions of God) that these popular analogies lead to are modalism, tritheism and subordinationism.
- Modalism (i.e. Sabellianism, Noetianism and Patripassianism): The belief that God is one God who shows himself in three different ways, sometimes as the Father, sometimes the Son, and sometimes the Holy Spirit. It describes God in purely functional terms. When he is saving the world on the cross, he is called Jesus. When he is convicting the world of sin, he is called Holy Spirit, and when he is creating the world, he is called Father. The error here is that this is contrary to what we believe: one God who eternally exists in three persons, not modes of functionality. It is not one God with three names, but one God in three persons. Stemming from Modalism, Patripassianism believed that the Father suffered as the Son.
- Tritheism: The belief that we have three Gods, all who share a similar nature, but not the exact same nature. In this, the nature of God is either distinguished or divided, which destroys the unity of God. We don’t believe in three persons who share in a species called “God,” but three persons who share in an identical, united nature.
- Subordinationalism: This is a subset of tritheism, but deserves its own category. In other words, if you are a subordinationalist, you are also a tritheist by definition, even if you don’t recognize it. The subordinationalist says that there is one God in three persons, but the essence of each person exists in a hierarchy. For example, many believe that God the Father is the greatest and the most powerful. Coming in second is God the Son, followed by the second runner-up, the Holy Spirit. Orthodox trinitarianism confesses an essential equality among all the members of the Godhead. None are greater in essence than the other.
So, here are some very common object lessons to avoid and the error they lead to.
- The Trinity is like a three leaf clover. This is a form of tritheism. Each leaf of the clover is a separate leaf. It does not share in the same nature as the other leafs, but only has a similar nature. In the Trinity, each member shares in the exact samenature.
- The Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration. Ice, steam, and liquid are examples of the same nature whichat onetime or another has a particular mode of existence. Sometimes it is liquid, sometimes it is ice, and sometimes it is steam. God is not sometimes Son, sometimes Father, and sometimes Spirit. He is eternally each, always at the same time.
- The Trinity is like a man who is simultaneously a father, son, and husband. This is an often used illustration, but it only serves to present a modalistic understanding of God that is false. Father, son, and husband only describe various functions of one person. Each function cannot exist in a simultaneous relationship with each other, can’t talk to each other, and cannot exist in an eternal relationship with each other.
- The Trinity is like an egg. This is most definitely tritheism. While the egg is one, each of the substances that makes up the parts (shell, white stuff, and yoke), are most definitely distinct. The yoke is completely separate in nature from the shell.
- The Trinity is like a person who is one, yet has a spirit, soul, and a body.This one, can commit either a tritheistic or modalistic error, but cannot be used to illustrate the orthodox definition of the Trinity. It is modalistic in that the spirit, soul, and body are three functions of one conscience or person. But it can also be tritheistic when one considers that the spirit is not theexact same nature as the body.
Proper Trinitarianism is about a delicate balance between the unity and diversity in the Godhead. Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal. Ever wonder what a good example of that delicate balance looks like?
Meet the Athanasian Creed below. It is historically attributed to Athanasius (who lived in the 300s AD), but, for reasons I won’t go into now, it was probably not written by him. This creed, beautifully captures the incomprehensibility of God’s triune nature.
“Whosoever will be saved, before all things it is necessary that he hold the catholic (Christian) faith. Which faith except every one do keep whole and undefiled; without doubt he shall perish everlastingly. And the catholic faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the Persons; nor dividing the Essence.
For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one;the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal.
Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost.
The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated.
The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited.
The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal.
And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal.
As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite.
So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty.
And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty.
So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God.
And yet they are not three Gods; but one God.
So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord.
And yet not three Lords; but one Lord.
For like as we are compelled by the Christian truth; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic (Christian) religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords.
The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten.
The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten.
The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding.
So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts.
And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another.
But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal.
So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.
Furthermore it is necessary to everlasting salvation; that he also believe faithfully the Incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ. For the right Faith is, that we believe and confess; that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man; God, of the Substance [Essence] of the Father; begotten before the worlds; and Man, of the Substance [Essence] of his Mother, born in the world. Perfect God; and perfect Man, of a reasonable soul and human flesh subsisting. Equal to the Father, as touching his Godhead; and inferior to the Father as touching his Manhood. Who although he is God and Man; yet he is not two, but one Christ. One; not by conversion of the Godhead into flesh; but by assumption of the Manhood by God. One altogether; not by confusion of Substance [Essence]; but by unity of Person. For as the reasonable soul and flesh is one man; so God and Man is one Christ; Who suffered for our salvation; descended into hell; rose again the third day from the dead. He ascended into heaven, he sits on the right hand of the God the Father Almighty, from whence he will come to judge the living and the dead. At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies; And shall give account for their own works. And they that have done good shall go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire. This is the catholic (Christian) faith; which except a man believe truly and firmly, he cannot be saved.”
Got all that? It is always best to remember that the Father is God, the Holy Spirit is God, and the Son is God, but they are not each other. Confused? Good! You should be. Here is the advice that Saint Augustine gave to some of his students as they studied the doctrine of the trinity. “Lest you become discouraged, know that when you love, you know more about who God is than you could ever know with your intellect.” When you solve the mystery, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that Christians have sought to avoid.
For some other bad analogies check out this satirical video from “Lutheran Satire”