“The doctrine of the Trinity is like an egg: three parts, one thing.” Ever heard that? How about this, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like a three leaf clover: three leaves, one clover.” Or how about THIS, “The doctrine of the Trinity is like water: three forms (ice, steam, liquid) one substance.” But the greatest I ever heard was by a guy in one of my classes. He said that he thought that the Trinity was like 3-in-1 shampoo: three activities, one substance.”
Stupid statements. Creative, but stupid. Don’t use them. Any of them. Ever.
Explanation coming… Hang with me.
Last week I taught a group of kids about the doctrine of the Trinity here at the Credo House as part of our Theology for Kids series. The ages were anywhere from 7 to 13. Though I regularly teach this subject to adults, this was the first time that I taught the doctrine of the Trinity to kids. I was surprised that it went well. It is confusing enough for adults, how much more for kids?
Teaching the Trinity, I have found, is more about giving basic principles of what it is and then shooting down illustrations about what it is not. 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.
We often employ illustrations that help us to make the ineffable, effable, the abstract, concrete. But when it comes to the nature of God, especially with regard to the Doctrine of the Trinity, illustrations should only be used to show what the Trinity is not.
Let me list the three major heresies or departures from orthodoxy with regard to the Trinity:
1. Modalism: 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.
2. 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.
3. 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.
Here is a “Trinitarianism Heresy Test Chart” I have created. Keep this by your bed.
- If equality is denied, on the opposite side it points to subordinationalism.
- If diversity is denied, the result is modalism.
- If unity is denied, the result is tritheism (or polytheism —many gods).
With this in mind, let me now cover the “stupid statements” and why they don’t pass the test:
1. The Trinity is like 3-in-1 shampoo. This can only point to modalism or tritheism. It is modalistic if you are saying the shampoo performs three functions, yet is one substance. But you can also break down the various elements that perform each function and see them separately. That is tritheism since all of the elements are not the same. They may work together to perform a specific goal, but they are not really the same substance.
2. 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.
3. The Trinity is like water. This is a modalistic illustration. Ice, steam, and liquid are examples of the same nature which at one time 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.
4. 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 same nature.
5. 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.
6. The Trinity is like a person who is one, yet has a spirit, soul, and a body. This one, like the first, 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 the exact same nature as the body (or the soul if you are a trichotomist—another lesson).
In the end, I do not believe that there are any true to life illustrations that can or should be used to teach or describe the Trinity. The Trinity is not a contradiction (i.e. one God who eternally exists as three separate Gods), but it is most definitely a paradox (a truth that exists in tension).
This graph is helpful in describing the Trinity. It is called the “Shield of the Trinity.”
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.
One more thing. I often tell my students that if they say, “I get it!” or “Now I understand!” that they are more than likely celebrating the fact that they are a heretic! When you understand the biblical principles and let the tensions remain without rebuttal, then you are orthodox. When you solve the tension, you have most certainly entered into one of the errors that we seek to avoid.
Confused? Good! That is just where you need to be.
C. Michael Patton is the primary contributor to the Parchment and Pen/Credo House Blog. He has been in ministry for nearly twenty years as a pastor, author, speaker, and blogger.
Th.M. Dallas Theological Seminar (2001), president of Credo House Ministries and Credo Courses, author of Now that I’m a Christian (Crossway, 2014) Increase My Faith (Credo House, 2011), and The Theology Program (Reclaiming the Mind Ministries, 2001-2006), host of Theology Unplugged, and primary blogger here at Parchment and Pen. But, most importantly, husband to a beautiful wife and father to four awesome children. Michael is available for speaking engagements. He can be contacted at [email protected]