4 Bad Ways to Explain the Trinity (and 1 Good One)

Few topics of discussion in the Christian faith are more confusing than the idea of the Trinity.

The God of the Bible is one God. He has one essence – one substance. In other words, one “stuffness.” However, He exists in three Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Each Person in the Trinity (or the Godhead) is fully God and fully a Person. They are equally eternal, powerful, sovereign, and worthy of worship. But they are one God.

Confusing, I know.

But this idea is central to the Christian faith. So much of what we know about what God does is wrapped up in who He is.

For instance, we know that God is perfectly loving. And the reason we know that is because the Persons of the Godhead have perfectly loved each other for all eternity.

We also know that God didn’t create humanity out of loneliness or boredom. Rather, He created us in order to bless us. And we know that because the Persons of the Godhead have perfectly blessed and exalted each other for all eternity.

So when God created us and revealed Himself to us, what He did was to invite us into the perfect goodness He has always known within Himself.

Pretty awesome, I know.

But while this idea is central to the Christian faith, it is also incredibly mysterious to us. It’s downright hard to understand. And in our efforts to grasp it, we’ve come up with a number of analogies.

Unfortunately, most of them actually give us the wrong idea about what the Trinity is. Here are four.

1. The Trinity is like H2O.

This is perhaps the most common analogy for the Trinity. God is like H2O – like water. Water can exist in liquid at room temperature. Heat it up, and it turns to vapor. Cool it down, and it’ll eventually freeze into a solid. But it’s all water.

This analogy seems to make a lot of sense, but it actually reinforces a fatal misconception about the Trinity called modalism.

According to modalism, God does not actually exist in three persons. He is one God who expresses Himself in three modes – Father, Son, and Spirit. But it’s all the same person, operating in three roles or functions. In the same way, water is all the same molecular structure, expressing itself in three different modes.

But if modalism is true, and the Trinity really is like water, then the story of Jesus (the Son) praying to the Father as recorded in the Bible seems like an awfully strange masquerade.

This error denies something central to God that makes Him God. So comparing God to water isn’t really as helpful as it seems on the surface.

2. The Trinity is like a Father Who is also a Husband, Who is also a Son.

In this analogy, God is compared to a man. A man might be a father to his children, a husband to his wife, and son to his parents. He can even be all three at the same time. Surely this is a better understanding of the water analogy!

But not really.

This analogy actually falls prey to the same error of modalism. It’s all one person, simply functioning in three different roles.

3. Trinity is like a Shamrock (or an Apple or an Egg).

The idea that the Trinity can be compared to a shamrock is largely attributed to St. Patrick. The analogy explains that in the same way that one shamrock can have three leaves on it, the Trinity has three Persons that constitute one God.

Modernizations of this analogy include that of an apple (with the peel, the flesh, and the core) or an egg (with its shell, yoke, and white).

These images fall short, because these components aren’t enough to be considered a whole on their own. If you looked at a single cloverleaf, you wouldn’t call it a shamrock. If all you had were an eggshell, you wouldn’t have a very exciting breakfast. If you only had an apple core, you wouldn’t pack it in your lunch.

But in the Godhead, each Person is fully and completely God unto Himself (even as they are all one God).

4. The Trinity is like the Sun.

This analogy explains that the Father is like the sun. The Son is like the light rays that visibly reveal the sun, as Jesus is the visible image of the invisible God (Colossians 1:15). The Holy Spirit is like the heat that the sun produces, unseen yet powerful and effective in making the sun felt.

This analogy sounds pretty good, but it is fatally flawed in that is describes the Son and Spirit as creations of the Father. This is the error of Arianism (not to be confused with Aryanism, which is also bad).

In Arianism, the Son is not eternally equal with the Father, but was the Father’s first and best creation. This would make Jesus something less than fully God.

Then How On Earth Should We Explain the Trinity?

So, I shot down a lot of images that seems to be pretty helpful. But if they give us a warped idea of what they are trying to explain, they aren’t helpful illustrations.

So what’s one good way to explain what the Trinity is?

I believe that the best way to talk about the Trinity is to simply say that God is one God, who eternally exists in three Persons. These three Persons are all equally God and all equally Persons. Yet there is only one God.

Still confusing. But still awesome.  

Still Confused?

Drop us a comment and we’ll start a dialogue!

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5 thoughts on “4 Bad Ways to Explain the Trinity (and 1 Good One)

  1. Wow! I never thought about it in that way… some of these examples I’ve never heard of. God is Great, I always try to figure out how to explain it to my Sunday school kids and they get confused which i get, how would you explain it to them?
    Love your blogs!

    1. Hey Amber!

      Yeah it’s definitely a hard thing to understand, let alone explain to little ones ! What makes it hard is that all of our analogies and metaphors fall short of capturing what the Trinity actually is.

      One thing that I’ve found helpful is using the Trinity to illustrate truths we know about God. For example, we know that God didn’t create humanity because He bored or lonely. He has been relationally fulfilled within Himself since forever. He also knows how to perfectly love us. And we know that because He’s been experiencing perfect love within Himself forever. God created us for community, since God is communal and we were created in His image. Yet there is still only one God we serve.

      So while it’s tough to make sense of the Trinity, the Trinity actually helps us make sense of so many things we believe. Does that make sense?

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