Updated: Sep 6, 2022
Tofin Creations — Unsplash
Every kid in Sunday school thinks he knows all about God. You know, that bearded guy on the throne who looks something like Zeus, right? And then there’s Jesus, God’s son. But He’s God too, right? And who’s the Holy Spirit? Is He Jesus’ side-kick? Or what?
Wait a minute.
An essential factor lacking from those concepts is the relational quality of God. Meet the Holy Trinity.
The Trinity, one way Christianity attempts to define God, is difficult and tricky to explain. The best explanation I heard when a kid was, ‘You have to have faith.’ They couldn’t explain faith either.
The Holy Trinity, Blessed Trinity, in Christian theology, is the union of three persons; the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, in one Godhead. Three distinct persons? One God? The Trinity is a paradox, an apparent contradiction, a mystery unexplainable in words.
The Athanasian Creed reads: “We worship one God in trinity and the trinity in unity,” (neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.)
Regardless the language, words are abstractions of the reality they attempt to describe. The word is not the thing. The word ‘water’ can never quench your thirst. One will inevitably fall short when using concrete terms to describe the spiritual.
Without getting too technical, I quote from ‘Explaining the Trinity,’ by Tim Staples, “As St. Thomas Aquinas explains, and Scripture reveals, the Son (Jesus) is uniquely “begotten” of the Father (cf. John 3:16; 1:18). He is also said to proceed from the Father as “the Word” in John 1:1. This “generative” procession is one of “begetting,” but not in the way a human being “begets” another human being. This is an intellectual “begetting,” as a “word” proceeds from the knower while, also remaining in the knower. Thus, this begetting of the Son occurs within the inner life of God. There are not “two beings” involved; rather, two persons relationally distinct, while ever-remaining one in being.”
Got that? Words have their limits.
Any time you try to put God into a box, that isn’t God.
That said, I will briefly explore common analogies used to clarify this difficult concept. This essay is not intended as an exhaustive analysis of the concept. The curious may pursue this much more deeply than I can here. (Please forgive any rhetorical lapses. I am not a theologian.) The three most common analogies one encounters are: the Trinity as an egg (shell, yolk, white), the Trinity as water (ice, liquid, and vapor) and the Trinity as a man (father, son, and spouse). These are considered flawed and even heretical. Though imperfect, they do create a picture of the unexplainable.
The egg analogy fails because it denies that each person of the Trinity is of the same eternal essence. It falls into the heresy of tri-theism. Some people falsely claim the Trinity is a form of poly-theism.
The water and the man analogy each fail due to the denial of three distinct persons. Water cannot be ice, liquid and vapor all at once. The man analogy captures the relational aspect. He can be each of those persons at once, but not to everyone all at once. And it is dependent on externals. The man is not a self-contained father, son and spouse. These analogies are examples of modalism.
In a fourth analogy, St. Augustine conceived of the Trinity as three functions of the mind: to be, to know, and to will. He said each of these depends on the others, so the three are unified.
To be, to know, and to will
Quoting again from ‘Explaining the Trinity,’ by Tim Staples, “In God we see the Father — the “being one” and first principal of creation and life in the Godhead — the Son — the “knowing one” — the Word who proceeds from the Father — and the Holy Spirit — the “willing one” — the bond of love between the Father and Son who proceeds as love from the Father and Son.
“The weakness inherent here, is that our knowing, being, and willing are not each infinite and co-extensive as the persons of God are. They subsist in one being — in us, but they are not persons.” Also, while elegant, this analogy fails by being too abstract. It lacks the vivid clarity of effective analogies. It also introduces time into that which is outside of time. A circle, composed of three parts — a center, a radius and a circumference.The fascinating book, ‘A Beginner’s Guide to Constructing the Universe,’ by Michael S. Schneider, inspired my favorite analogy of the Holy Trinity, the circle. A circle consists of three parts, a center, a circumference and a radius. The radius is a line reaching from the center to the circumference. Its length is constant. The circumference cannot exist without the center.
St. Aquinas might say ‘the center begets the circumference’. Each part of the circle is distinct, yet unified and essential to the whole.
Each part implies the full circle by mutual inter-dependence. The radius could not exist without the circumference and the center. The center implies a circumference and vice versa. That relational aspect reflects the essence of a circle, and also the Holy Trinity.
Whether the circle spans the universe or rings a finger, it has a center. Regardless how great or small, a circle has a consistent shape, a circumference and a radius.
A true circle is true now, in the past and always.
In his book, Schneider only mentions the Christian Trinity as an example of the number three. The chapter explores how the number three (3) appears throughout nature, human culture, language and idiom. It is not a religious book.
The drawing of a circle with its three part structure struck me as a perfect analogy to the Holy Trinity. The only improvement might be a sphere, which is a circle in three dimensions instead of two. Either encompasses us all.
Explaining the Trinity, by Tim Staples. https://www.catholic.com/magazine/online-edition/explaining-the-trinity
Definition of the Trinity: https://www.dictionary.com/browse/trinity?s
© John K. Adams 2020. All rights reserved.