Why Analogies And Illustrations Of The Trinity Fail

Michael writes to say that he recently read an article I wrote in 1999 on the Trinity and to ask if I’m willing to consider an analogy for the Trinity.

I reply:

Honestly, no. All illustrations of the Trinity end up in heresy (usually modalism). When I taught the doctrine of God course I used to keep a list.

  1. The Egg
  2. Ice, water, vapor
  3. 3 headed man
  4. Augustine’s: Lover, beloved, love (God is not three faculties of one soul, but three persons
  5. Pie (3 slices)
  6. Sun, heat and light
  7. 1 x 1 x 1 = 1
  8. Triangle: 3 sides and one triangle
  9. Circle
  10. One person bearing multiple relations simultaneously (aunt, mother, sister)
  11. Shamrock
  12. Electromagnatism: light is a wave and a particle and has an associated magnetic wave always present with it but they’re inseperable
  13. The Trinity is like Playdoh, one can take some apart but it’s the same Playdoh
  14. Apple (skin, core, fruit)
  15. Fidget spinner
  16. 3-D Cube

There’s a simple reason they don’t work: The Trinity, as such, isn’t like anything in creation. True, we humans are image bearers but nothing in creation serves as an analogy for the Trinity because the Trinity is a doctrine of special (biblical) revelation not nature or reason. That’s not to say that it’s not reasonable to believe the Trinity (it isn’t! See the article linked above) but only that it’s not revealed in nature per se, i.e., the doctrine of the Trinity cannot be deduced from nature. All analogies from nature are necessarily natural, ergo they’re invalid.

The desire to find analogies in nature for the doctrine of the Trinity is understandable but it’s misguided. Scripture teaches us what we can know about God from nature:

For what can be known about God is plain to them, because God has shown it to them. For his invisible attributes, namely, his eternal power and divine nature, have been clearly perceived, ever since the creation of the world, in the things that have been made. So they are without excuse (Rom 1:19–20; ESV).

Paul affirms what can be known about God from nature: his existence and some of his attributes, “namely his eternal power and divine nature” can be perceived from nature. This natural revelation we must also affirm against those (e.g., Barth and oddly even some conservative Reformed and evangelical writers) as truth. God does reveal himself in nature but there are limits. Paul teaches the Trinity explicitly but not here and not from nature. We cannot know him savingly from nature. In classical Protestant categories, after the fall, what we know about God from nature is law or bad news. Thus, we confess in article 14 of the Belgic Confession:

And being thus become wicked, perverse, and corrupt in all his ways, he has lost all his gifts which he had received from God, and retained only small remains thereof, which, however, are sufficient to leave man without excuse; for all the light which is in us is changed unto darkness, as the Scriptures teach us, saying: The light shines in darkness, and the darkness did not apprehended it; where St. John calls men darkness.

The Good News of Jesus’ incarnation, life, death, and resurrection for the justification (free acceptance with God for the sake of the crediting of Jesus’ righteousness to those who believe, received only through resting, trusting in Christ and his finished work for sinners) is only found in Scripture. Using this categorical distinction we should say that the doctrine of the Trinity belongs to special revelation (holy Scripture) along with the two natures of Christ, the incarnation, the obedience, righteousness, death, resurrection, and glorious bodily return of Christ. Thus, in article 9 of the Belgic, where the truth of the Trinity is demonstrated, the Reformed churches do not appeal to nature but to Scripture.

As a matter of method, if the doctrine of the Trinity were evident from nature then why not the doctrines of the two natures of Christ or the atonement or perichoresis or justification or glorification? To say that is rationalism (reason over Scripture) and eventually to universalism. Again, both ancients and moderns have been tempted to take this path at times but the church universal has always rejected it because it is not taught in Scripture nor confessed in the catholic creeds (Nicene, Athanasian, Apostles’) and Reformed confessions.

At bottom, the answer to this question is a matter of keeping reason in its ministerial place and Scripture in its ruling place.

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. Timely as always; I’m taking the church through the Athanasian creed at the moment, encouraging them to avoid analogies..Something of a first for the creedless and confessionless Baptists, (I’m sure a number had never even heard of the Athanasian Creed before) linking to our Lord’s Day studies in John 1.

  2. Hahaha! You’re right, Dr Clark … Analogies do *not* work for the Trinity …(!)

  3. You also forgot William Lane Craig’s 3 headed dog but, that might be covered by a 3 headed man.

  4. Thanks DavidW! For the record, I was also going to link to that hilarious video, but you beat me to it!

    Pah-treck; seriously now Pah-trick… that’s become an inside joke in our family.

  5. Dr. Clark wrote: “The Trinity, as such, isn’t like anything in creation. True, we humans are image bearers but nothing in creation serves as an analogy for the Trinity because the Trinity is a doctrine of special (biblical) revelation not nature or reason.”

    GW: I agree that all analogies and illustrations for the Trinity taken from nature end up in heresy, at least when left unqualified or taken to their logical end. (I confess to having used the H2O water-ice-steam analogy for illustrative purposes, but have tried to be careful to immediately point out its inadequacy and its tendency toward the heresy of modalism.) I also agree that the “doctrine” of the Trinity is a doctrine of special revelation, not of natural/general revelation. But at the same time, would you not agree that the God revealed by natural revelation is precisely the same God revealed in special revelation — namely, the trinitarian monotheistic God of Holy Scripture — and not some unitarian monotheistic divinity? After all, if natural revelation presents us with a unitarian deity, whereas special revelation presents us with a trinitarian deity, would that not pit natural revelation against special revelation? And as natural revelation via the created order manifests, reflects and “declares” the Divine unity (“the heavens declare the glory of God”; “what may be known about God is plain to them through the things that are made”; etc.), could we not infer that natural revelation would also, in some sense or to some degree, “declare” the Divine plurality as well? (For example, we can observe both unity and diversity within the created order. Could we not say that on a created level this reflects or bears testimony to the Unity and Diversity within the Godhead?)

    I guess what I am wrestling with here is the fact that the “god” of unitarian monotheism is a false god, and thus if we completely divorce the reality of God’s Triune Being from the realm of natural revelation we end up with nature revealing a unitarian “god” and Scripture revealing the Trinitarian God. But this would be like saying that natural revelation is a false revelation, since it gives us a false (unitarian) god. So, while I agree that the developed “doctrine” of the Trinity is found only in Scripture (and even there it is only gradually revealed in the process of redemptive history culminating in the Incarnate Christ), I think we have to be careful not to give the impression that natural revelation somehow reveals a different God than does special revelation. After all, we would no doubt agree that the God revealed in natural revelation is precisely the same God revealed in special revelation: namely, the one, true and living Triune God – the God of trinitarian monotheism.

  6. Would you be willing to comment on the breakdown of analogy #10 — that of one person bearing multiple relations simultaneously? Does the breakdown occur because that individual cannot be all those things to any one person?

    • Hi Valerie,

      I intended but failed to reply earlier. The problem with #10 is that though the Trinitarian persons do indeed bear distinct relations to each other, they do so as three persons, not one person. The analogy in #10 fails because it is a form of dynamic monarchianism. God is not one person who bears multiple relations, he is one God, in three persons. No analogy captures this truth. All analogies cheat by omitting one or another. That cheating leads to heresy, in this case, the heresy that God is one person with multiple relations.

  7. One thought I wanted to share, although it’s absolutely true that no analogy can explain the Trinity, that doesn’t mean they aren’t helpful. In fact, I’ve found that analogies are extremely helpful because they fail. In discussing analogies for the Trinity you will almost immediately get to the most common mistakes people will make in their understanding of the Trinity. This is especially true of believers who are unfamiliar with or have never really thought about the Trinity. You can almost bank on the fact that they will think of the Trinity as modalism or partialism. Analogies helps bring this error to mind quickly and then demonstrates why it fails.

    On a side note, the best analogy I have found is time. Time is past, present and future. All exist simultaneously (particularly in the scientific understanding of space-time). But are distinct.

Comments are closed.