Egg? Man? Water? The Sun? Which is a Trinity?: Trinitarian Analogies Falsify the Trinity

Analogies of the Trinity: Inadequate and Misleading

by Ibn Anwar, BHsc (Hons), MCollT

Throughout the ages, Christian thinkers, theologians and apologists have tried to come up with a solution to unpack the enigmatic Trinity and finally make it comprehensible but to no avail. One of the most common ways that Christian missionaries or apologists try to make sense of he Trinity is by proposing analogies and these analogies are more often than not an appeal to natural phenomena and things. Never mind the absurdity of trying to encapsulate the transcendent with a natural phenomenon or entity, the method has been greatly criticised by theologians as misleading. Most, if not all, analogies that make use of the natural world typically end up with not the Trinity but with heresies like Modalism (Sebellianism), Tritheism or Subordinationism.

One of the earliest analogies used to explain the Trinity is the Sun, its rays and the heat that the Sun emanates. Simply looking at it without putting on one’s critical thinking, the analogy does seem reasonable, but when one analyses it, the whole thing breaks down to Subordinationism. The heat and the Sun are both directly derivative of the Sun and so if the Sun is the Father and the Rays are the Son and the Heat is the Holy Spirit, then both the Son and the Holy Spirit are derivative of the Sun making them subordinate to it. At this point it is helpful to have the Trinity formula clearly stated in our mind. That will allow us to better determine whether any given analogy fits the Trinity. What is the Trinity? According to the fully developed concept that now stands as standard and mainstream doctrine, the Trinity means ‘One God in three Persons’ or ‘Three Persons in One God.’ To state it in another way, there is One God and this One God has three Persons in it and each Person is not a fraction of that One God but is rather fully God in and of itself’ therefore, One God equals the Father who is fully God, the Son who is fully God and the Holy Spirit who is fully God. Now that we have good definition of the Trinity, let’s put the Sun analogy to the test.

1. Sun = God

2. God = Father, Son and Holy Spirit

3. Sun = the Father, Sunlight = the Son and Heat = the Holy Spirit

4. The Sunlight is not the Sun. It is what the Sun produces. The heat is not the Sun. It is what the Sun produces. If the Father is the Sun, then the Sun cannot be Sunlight because the Sunlight is the Son and the Father is not the Son and if the Sun is not the Son, then the Son is not God since we began the equation identifying the Sun as God.

5. If the Sun is accepted as a correct analogy of the Trinity, then the Trinity becomes tritheism.

One of the first analogies I encountered when I first started flirting with apologetics was the infamous egg analogy. So in this analogy, you have one egg but this one egg is only an egg when it has the yoke, the white and the shell. Does it work for the Trinity? As we have seen with the Trinity definition above, each Person of the Trinity is supposed to be completely and fully God. If egg is the substitute for God in the analogy, then to make the the analogy fit the Trinity, the yoke must be said to be the full and complete egg, and the white must also be said to be the full and complete egg and the shell must be said to be the full and complete egg. That would give you three full and complete eggs. One egg has three fractions of constituents; the yoke is a fraction of the egg, the white is a fraction of the egg and the shell is a fraction of the egg and each fraction is, in reality, of a different substance and so in the end, to use this analogy the person inevitably falls into tritheism.

Another favourite analogy that evangelists like to use is the analogy which states that a Man can be a Father, Husband and Son. The problem with this analogy is that it cancels out the distinction that is required in the Trinity between the Persons. In this analogy one person alters his mode of character or role depending on who is being interacted with and that collapses the Trinity, which has three persons, into only one person that operates in three different functions or modes. Such an image would lead to nothing short of modalism.

One of the classic analogies that has been used for more than a century is the Mind, Body an Soul analogy. This is supposed to reflect the Trinity as Man is said to exist in three states: the mind, the body and the soul. This analogy falls short of the Trinity because the three individual parts may exist independently of each other. An insane man is devoid of mind but has body and soul. A dead man has neither mind nor soul, but he has his body. And a soul can theoretically subsist without the body in the realm of the dead. Also, the mind, the body and the soul are each small fractions of the whole, i.e., the body is not the man, the mind is not the man and the soul is not the man. The man is the combination of each part together. Therefore, to compare the Trinity to this analogy leads to a form of tritheism. In the Christian publication called ‘the Church Monthly’ which was in circulation in the nineteenth century and edited by the lawyer John Cotton Smith and the Episcopalian bishop of the Diocese of Iowa, Reverend Dr. William Stevens Perry, this analogy is addressed and dismissed by Episcopalian priest Reverend William Reed Huntington as totally inadequate:

“Let us try some of the current illustrations by this ordeal. It is sometimes said that there is a Trinity in man, body, soul, and spirit, and these three are one. If in Symbol No. 2 we substitute for the word Carbon, in the centre, the word Man, and at the vertices write Body, Soul, and Spirit, the inadequacy of the comparison becomes manifest. We can indeed read round the perimeter of the figure without misstatement, because

Body is not Soul;
Soul is not Spirit;
Spirit is not Body.

But we cannot read from the angles inward,

The Body is Man;
The Soul is Man;
The Spirit is Man;

for this would not be true, — body, soul, and spirit being only parts of man. In a word, the analogy sacrifices the Unity to the personalities; it is tritheistic.” [1]

Although Huntington’s analogy uses ‘Spirit’ for ‘Mind,’ the implications are the same in both cases. Huntington’s assessment of such an analogy converges with mine as we both agree that to put the three persons as three parts of a whole creates a tritheistic image and that is obviously anti-Trinitarian.

What about the H20 analogy which is an attempt to place a veneer of scientific credibility to the doctrine? This analogy says that H20 can be in solid, liquid and steam (or ice, water and steam). But this analogy mirrors Sabellianism (modalism) as the H20 chemical formula takes the appearance of one of the three forms depending on the situation. So one entity transforms itself into three different forms (i.e., modes) in different situations. That is most definitely modalism which states that God exists in three modes. In trying to salvage this analogy, a clever trinitarian or one with a background in the natural sciences may direct us to something called the triple point of a substance that comes under the study of Thermodynamics. In the triple theory, a substance like water can reach a thermodynamic equilibrium in which three three states (solid, liquid and gas) can form simultaneously. Does this improved version of the H20 analogy successfully reflect the essence and nature of the Trinity? Not so according to trained engineer and Christian theologian Dr. David T. Williams:

“This [the triple point] can justify a simply triPersonal paradigm for the Trinity but loses the full relationships that should be present. It is also perhaps too unique a phenomenon, and as it is only known to most as a theoretical possibility cannot be really valuable. It perhaps also tends to Sabellianism.” [2]

So according to Williams, though the analogy may be helpful in describing the three persons in basic terms, it does not fully capture what the Trinity is in all its facets. And even with the triple point, the improved H20 version may still reflect a modalist view of the threeness.

Other popular analogies include Cerebus, the three-headed dog of hell, which was proposed by the celebrated Christian philosopher and evangelist Dr. William Lane Craig or love (as Lover, Beloved and Love) as popularised by G K. Chesterton which Bishop Robert Baron likes to use in explaining the Trinity.

In trying to provide a soluble explanation for the Trinity, Trinitarians have been using analogies since the fourth century, but nobody has, in the past 1600 years of Trinity analogical reasoning history, been able to come up with one analogy that successfully explains and makes sense of the Trinity to the satisfactory of all. In view of this, most theologians today steer clear of using analogies, especially those that appeal to natural phenomena, and many even warn against it because more often than not, analogies tend to lead the individual into heretical conceptions of the threeness of God. The late American biblical scholar and theologian, Dr Stanley Grenz says that although analogies may be somewhat helpful, none of them has actually arrived at an acceptable representation of the Trinity:

“As early as the fourth century, Christians have proposed analogies from the natural realm to assist in our understanding the doctrine of the Trinity. Each analogy, although helpful to a limited extent, falls short of the intricacy of the Christian description of the divine reality… nothing in creation is totally analogues to the one God who is the three-in-one.” [3]

The final line in the quotation from Grenz above is very instructive as it tells us that any analogy that appeals to natural phenomena is set to fail at the very outset because nothing in the whole of creation can really be compared to the transcendent God. Even if, for the sake of argument, we were to grant that God could be three persons in one God, to try and find a true representation of that concept in God’s finite creation is a completely futile endeavour. The Bible itself explicitly says, “There is none like you, O LORD; you are great, and your name is great in might.” (Jeremiah 10:6) Isaiah 40:18 conveys the same message as the verse in Jeremiah but in a rhetorical fashion structured in a question. In view of these rather unequivocal biblical statements, one would be within one’s right to say that those that try to compare God with natural phenomena are in direct collision with what revelation says, or at least, with what those two verses say. So in their haste to make sense of a doctrine that cannot be made sense of, Trinitarians complacently disobey the very book (the Bible) that they claim to follow.

After dissecting some popular analogies used to explain the Trininity and dismissing them as misleading, Dr. Wayne Grudem, who is a very prominent theologian in evangelical circles, having served as the general editor of the ESV Study Bible and is currently Professor of Theology and Biblical Studies at Phoenix Seminary, Arizona, advises Christians against using analogies as they have all proven completely inadequate in representing the Trinity and more importantly, such analogies, have more often than not, are misleading and tend to lead to heresies. Grudem writes:

“It is best to conclude that no analogy adequately teaches about the Trinity, and all are misleading in significant ways.” [4]

Notes:

[1] Huntington, W. R. (1864). The Mystery of the Trinity paralleled in Nature. In John Cotton & William Stevens Perry (eds), The Church Monthly, Volumes 6 – 7. Boston: E. P. Dutton and Company. p. 9

[2] Williams, D. T. (2001). New Century Trinity. Nebraska: Writers Club Press. p. 203

[3] Grenz, S. J. (2000). Theology for the Community of God. Michigan: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing; Vancouver: Regent College Publishing. p. 71

[4] Grudem, W. A. (2014). Bible Doctrine: Essential Teachings of the Christian Faith. Michigan: Zondervan

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