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