Just in case you were wondering, there will be four parts in this writing series. Two weeks ago I talked about the importance of the Trinity and why God revealed this part of His nature to us. Last week I wrote about some of the mistakes people have made in history about the Trinity, and how God is inviting us home to experience eternal love. Next week I will write about how the Trinity is the only thing that makes sense when we talk about God because God is love, perfect love. This week I want to talk about some of the common analogies humans have used when trying to understand the Trinity.
Christians believe in the Trinity but, like all people, we struggle logically to understand the Trinity. I wrote it before and I will write it again: the fact that we can’t fully comprehend the Trinity counts in favor of its truth. Would you expect, as a human, to be able to understand fully the nature of God? I struggle to understand the nature of myself, and especially my wife! While the Trinity doesn’t fully fit human logic, it is the only thing that makes sense of the Bible. Even though we can’t fully understand the Trinity, many people have come up with a lot of helpful analogies. All analogies fall short, but let’s look at some of them.
Saint Patrick was known for picking up the shamrock (three-leaf clover, not four) and helping the people understand the Trinity. Biology tells us that a leaf must have a stem, but a shamrock has three clovers and one stem. So is there one leaf or three? It is both, in the same way that God is both three and one.
Saint Augustine wrote that human nature shows aspects of the Trinity. He wrote the first autobiography, and he used it as a reflection on memory itself, and how he could know his “self” from the past. This past self was different than his self in the present, but he was still “one” with his past self. Inside of a human, Augustine wrote, there is a “trinity,” consisting of memory, intellect (the ability to understand the self), and will (the ability to love and act), and yet each human is one, unified person.
Some people have used the analogy of the apple, which has a core, flesh, and skin – but this analogy falls apart and is too close to false teaching. The Father, Son, and Spirit are not parts of God; they are all eternally God, and yet there is one God because their life is eternally intersecting and united. The apple analogy doesn’t work.
The water analogy comes closer but also has some dangers. Water can exist in three states – liquid (water), gas (steam), and solid (ice). But the belief that God puts on three “masks” is false teaching (called Modalism). The truth is that the Father is always the Father, the Son is always the Son, and the Spirit is always the Spirit, and there is always one God. The water analogy can work – if you can use your imagination. Imagine that a SINGLE water molecule could exist in all 3 states at the same time. It would be a single molecule that is always liquid, gas, and solid, but water is not the same as ice is not the same as steam. (On a side note, scientists have recently created, using extreme pressure, something called “superionic” ice, which exists as liquid and solid at the same time.)
Well, there are some analogies. No analogy can work perfectly, but they can stretch our human logic to the point where we can see that the Trinity is possible and does make sense. Next week, I will write about how the Trinity is the only thing that makes sense – because God is love.