Why do analogies for the Trinity fail?

If you’ve ever tried to give an analogy, you’ve likely experienced immediate correction from some well-meaning soul, showing you how your analogy fails. This is even more common for any time a Christian tries to give an analogy to explain how the concept of the Trinity plays out. No matter what kind of analogy you try to give, you can be accused of committing some heresy. That said, I think analogies can still be useful for discussion of the Trinity, if for no other reason than that they show us ways the Trinity “isn’t”.

My wife has a really difficult time appreciating analogies (for anything, not just the Trinity). For example, if I were trying to explain what an apple is to a child who has never had one, I might say something like, “an apple is like an orange, but it’s red, and crunchy!” My wife’s response would likely be, “but apples aren’t a member of the citrus genus!” We’ve had this discussion different times now, about how the purpose of an analogy is not to perfectly convey every aspect of something, but instead, to help the person understand some certain quality of the thing being described. To see what I mean, imagine you gave an analogy that was perfectly similar to the thing being described, and was in no way dissimilar… you would just be describing the thing, and not giving an analogy!

Analogies of the Trinity all lead to heresy

When it comes to the Trinity, I think the reason every analogy quickly becomes a heresy is because of the ways that the analogy is dissimilar to the Trinity. If you’ve never seen the video about all the analogies for the Trinity, I recommend it. Other than the fact that it’s hilarious, it makes some really interesting points, and helps the viewer understand different heresies, and how we can properly describe the Trinity. Here’s a link for you to check it out.

Analogies can help us figure out what something is NOT

While all these analogies do commit some heresy, I think we still learn through this process. Historically, there have been philosophers that have tried to do what’s called “negative theology” (also called “apophatic theology”), and in some cases, they believed the only way to truly do theology was doing it negatively. Basically, the idea is that when we describe God, we should speak of what He is “not”, instead of what He “is”, because He’s too far beyond our comprehension to define properly. While much of the philosophy written would be controversial for our purposes, here’s an example that we can hopefully all (somewhat) understand. Is it proper to say that God is outside of time? Perhaps it is, but perhaps it’s not. This positive statement may very well be false (or at least partly false), because God is so difficult to comprehend. When trying to describe God’s relationship to time, it might be more appropriate to do it negatively, by saying that God is not limited by time. We end up saying a similar sort of thing, but it doesn’t commit us to further implications that may not be true.

When applying the concept of negative theology to these Trinitarian analogies, I think it’s helpful.

By looking at how the analogies fail, we can better understand what God is “not”, and in a sense, we do gain some understanding of the nature of God. As an example, a common analogy to describe the Trinity is that of water (it can be a solid, liquid, and gas). The problem with this analogy is that it falls prey to the fallacy of modalism.

The idea behind modalism is that the Father, Son, and Spirit are all God, but they are God “at different times”, or something like that. One form of this heresy is when people say that God “used to be” the Father during Old Testament times, and then “became” Jesus and died for us, and that God “is now” the Holy Spirit, dwelling in all of us. This is heresy, because God doesn’t describe or reveal Himself in this way, and instead, all three members of the Trinity are equally present at the same time (for an example of this, look at Jesus’ baptism in Matthew 3). So by looking at the water analogy for the Trinity, we actually do better understand the nature of God, if we look at it in terms of negative theology (I.e. understanding what God is not).

Analogies are not supposed to perfectly describe something

All that said, I think there’s another way analogies for the Trinity are helpful, and it comes back to the point I opened this blog with. Analogies aren’t supposed to perfectly describe a thing; they’re only purpose is to help bring understanding to some specific aspect of a thing. So for example, the water analogy for the Trinity is helpful through negation (the members of the Trinity are not instantiated at different times), but it’s also helpful in itself as an analogy. The purpose behind the water analogy is to help the person understand that one thing can, in a way, be three things. As long as you follow it up by showing how it’s not a perfect analogy, and does commit a heresy, the analogy can be doubly helpful by showing the person the nature of three being one, and also by showing how the members are all actively present together.

Photo by Olga Stalska on Unsplash

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