“The Trinity is like…” Talk about a dangerous way to start a sentence. As Christians, we believe strongly in the strange and paradoxical truth that in some way, God is both one God and yet also exists three co-equal, co-eternal persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. This is a deep mystery. Certain details of how this works will always be beyond the furthest limits of human understanding.
Of course, that’s not always a helpful thing to say around skeptics and curious new believers. They want answers that make sense to them. So naturally we try to use analogies. This is, in my opinion (though with the support of many Reformed theologians), a bad idea. Analogies for the Trinity have a huge flaw: the reality of the Trinity is so unique that all analogies will fall in line with some heresy or another.
Speaking of heresies about the Trinity, I should explain the two main kinds of heresies possible. The first group is called modalist or Sabellian heresies. In this kind of heresy, there is really only one person of God, and He acts or reveals Himself in different ways, modes, or means at different times. Sometimes He interacts with us as Father, other times as Son, and other times the Spirit. Some heresies in this group would say that God was the Father, then became the Son, and then became the Spirit. The defining point of these heresies is that God only exists as one person, and the Father, Son, and Spirit are all basically different aspects or parts of that person.
The other kind of heresy you can fall into with the Trinity is tri-theism. Tri-theism is simply a belief in three Gods. There are many ways of looking at the Trinity which basically say there is the Father God, the Son God, and the Spirit God, all separate beings who work together in creation and salvation history. This is also a serious heresy, since all tri-theism violates the basic creed of God’s earliest covenant revelation: “The LORD your God is One.”
So, here’s where analogies fail. All analogies for the Trinity end up basically agreeing with one of these two kinds of heresy. Want some examples? Here they are:
- The Trinity is like an egg. This analogy says the members of the Trinity are like an egg: an egg has shell, white, and yoke while being one egg. But this acts like the members of the Trinity are basically just parts of one person, which would be a Sabellian heresy. Or, for that matter, you could interpret this analogy as a tri-theistic heresy, since the shell, white, and yoke are each totally different materials.
- The Trinity is like the three states of water. This analogy uses ice, water, and water vapor to explain the three members of the Trinity. Three forms but one substance. This is a blatant modalist heresy, since in this case the one substance of water just switches between different forms. Honestly, this is practically textbook modalism.
- The Trinity is like mustard. Just one word, man: tri-theism. At best.
- The Trinity is like someone being husband, father, and employee. This analogy is totally modalist, trying to make the different roles of one normal person comparable to one God substance existing eternally as three persons.
- The Trinity is like three-in-one shampoo. I’m sure that sounds silly, but I didn’t come up with this one. Using three-in-one shampoo for the Trinity is basically tri-theistic, saying the Trinity is like three totally different substances mixed in one container.
I could go on, but the basic point should appear by now. Trinity analogies inevitably line up with one heresy or another. This happens because nothing we can see, touch, or understand is actually anything like the Trinity.
Here is where I drag in quantum physics. See, in quantum physics there is something called the Heisenburg uncertainty principle. According to this principle, having equally precise knowledge of both a particle’s position and the particle’s momentum (think “speed” for simplicity if you don’t understand) is impossible. The more you know one of them, the less you know the other. The only ways to precisely measure a particle’s position throw off the momentum too much to measure both, and the only ways to precisely measure a particle’s momentum make nailing down the location impossible. So there’s a trade-off: the more you drill into a particle’s position, the less knowledge you have of the momentum, and vise-versa. If you want to know both at the same time, you have to be content with only a very imprecise and vague knowledge of both.
I think the Trinity ends up in a similar situation. Our God is has revealed Himself both in one-ness and three-ness. Yet there is a trade-off in how precisely we can understand these two realities. The more we try to nail down God’s one-ness, the more we lose sight of His three-ness. The more we try to nail down God’s three-ness, the more we lose sight of His one-ness. If we want to balance these two realities Biblically, we find ourselves with no choice. We cannot try too hard to analyze or analogize, or we will end up seeing a God who is basically all one-ness and no three-ness (modalist/Sabellian heresy), or a God who is basically all three-ness and no one-ness (tri-theist heresy). If you want to have a God who is truly both three and one, who is three-in-one, we have to check our normal reasoning and analogies at the door. All we can do is humbly bow at God’s self-revelation.
This, of course, is the necessary way of faith. If we believe in a God who is greater than we are, we have to accept that sometimes truths about Him are greater than any truths we understand, and He cannot always fit into the categories and ideas we are used to. So how else can I conclude but to use the praise of the Apostle Paul?
Oh, the depths of the riches both of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable His being and untraceable His essence! For who has known the nature of the Lord? Or who has ever explained Him? Or who has ever understood Him, and deserved to be renowned? For from Him and through Him and to Him are all things. To Him be the glory forever! Amen.