Monday, July 10, 2006

The limitations of commonly used analogies in describing the Trinity

I have come across the concept of Trinity and the issue of how to interpret it during the Youth Fellowship in my church lately. Upon some reflections and a little bit of read up, I am penning down my thoughts on commonly used analogies I have come across so far for describing the relationship of Trinity and the limitations of each analogy.

We may define the doctrine of the Trinity as follows: God eternally exists as three persons, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and each person is fully God, and there is one God.
From Wayne Grudem’s Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (IVP, 1994), pp. 226

The confusion comes when we attempt to use the word ‘essence’ and ‘persons’ in describing the Trinity when we are not exactly sure what the words are referring to. We most commonly say God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are of the same essence (同样本质) but they are different persons (不同位格) to simplify our explanations. These two terms are embedded with meanings that we should clarify before using.

1st, the word ‘essence’ is derived from Greek word ‘ousia’. The concept of essence derives from Greek philosophy. In Plato’s Republic, he gave an example of the horse. If we have a brown horse, a black horse, a white horse, they are three different horses but what makes us recognize them as a horse? He alludes to the world of Form where the material being gets their imprint from. There is then such a thing calls ‘horseness’ which these three horses share. This ‘horseness’ is the essence they share. What happens if one of the horses loses one leg? Does the horse cease to be a horse? No. The horse still participates in the Form ‘horseness’ or has the essence of the horse. Another example we could use is the table. There are different kinds of tables, but what makes us recognize the tables as tables? According to Plato’s theory, these tables share the essence of ‘tableness’. If they come in different colour or shapes or sizes or even if one of them has three legs, they are still tables because they participates in the Form of ‘tableness’ Hence, when we say that God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit are of the same essence, we mean they share a single Divine.

2nd, the word ‘persons’ is derived from Greek word ‘hypostasis’. Its basic meaning is "that which stands beneath". It was used by, for instance, by Aristotle and the Neoplatonists, to speak of the objective reality (as opposed to outer form or illusion) of a thing, its inner reality. With regard to the doctrine of the Trinity, hypostasis is usually understood with a meaning akin to the Greek word ‘prosopon’, which is translated into Latin as persona and then into English as person. The Christian view of the Trinity is often described as a view of one God existing in three distinct hypostases/personae/persons. (Taken from

Before describing the commonly used analogies, I would like to point out that as our God transcends our dimensions, whatever analogies we use will have their own limitations. But we should know why we are using these analogies and also point out the limitations when using them.

1) The analogy of water existing in three states. Just as water can exist in three states, so God can exist as three different persons.
Fact: Below 0 degrees, water exists in one state: solid state of matter. At 0 degrees, the ice melts and water will exist in two states: liquid and solid. Between 0 to 100 degrees, the water is a liquid state. At 100 degrees, water starts to convert into steam and water will exist at two states: liquid and gas, until all the water is fully converted to steam.
Limitation of the analogy: Water exists in only one state, unless it is at triple point (i.e. at 0.01 °C and at partial pressure of 611.73 pascals) where water vapour, liquid and solid exist at the same time. However our God exists as three different persons eternally.

2) The analogy of one Bible but many different types of bibles. Just as there is one God, but existing in three different persons eternally, the analogy of the Bible will overcome the limitation of the maximum number of the existence of states of water at any one time.
Fact: There are different translations of the Bible in different languages, in different versions and based on different original manuscripts.
Limitation of the analogy: The number of translations and versions based on the original manuscript exceeded three. Even if we talked about different manuscripts which are of the same essence, we will not be able to use the analogy of manuscripts as three different forms. The same applies for the analogy of bibles.

3) The analogy of three-in-one coffee. This analogy overcomes the limitations of the number of states water can exist at any one time. Three-in-one coffee has only one essence but is made of three ingredients.
Fact: Three-in-one coffee is made up of three different ingredients: Coffee beans, sugar and cream. These three are of different essences. If we compare coffee beans between different brands, then at least we are comparing things of the same essence.
Limitation of the analogy: The Trinity though consists of three persons; they have only one essence, not three essences.

4) The analogy of a person playing the role of father, son, husband in a household. This analogy uses the three different roles played by the same person in relationship with different people. This can be contrasted to the same God playing three different roles.
Fact: The father, son, husband are the roles of one person.
Limitation of the analogy: The Trinity consists of three persons not one person and there are personal interactions among the members of the Trinity.

Are we then to stop using these analogies? In my personal opinion, I don’t think so, provided we explain why we use this particular analogy and also highlight the limitations of the analogy. Take heart as we listen to what a well-known theologian Louis Berkhof (1873 - 1957) says about Trinity:

"The Trinity is a mystery ... man cannot comprehend it and make it intelligible. It is intelligible in some of its relations and modes of manifestation, but unintelligible in its essential nature.... The real difficulty lies in the relation in which the persons in the Godhead stand to the divine essence and to one another; and this is a difficulty which the Church cannot remove, but only try to reduce to its proper proportion by a proper definition of terms. It has never tried to explain the mystery of the Trinity but only sought to formulate the doctrine of the Trinity in such a manner that the errors which endangered it were warded off." (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 89)

"It is especially when we reflect on the relation of the three persons to the divine essence that all analogies fail us and we become deeply conscious of the fact that the Trinity is a mystery far beyond our comprehension. It is the incomprehensible glory of the Godhead." (Berkhof, Systematic Theology, p. 88)

For more information on Trinity, you may want to visit

1 comment:

The Hedonese said...

Great stuffs, Art! We need to recover a trinitarian understanding of God, it's such an important doctrine that most of us ignore as too complicated (to our own loss)...

Would be great to network with you with a bunch of other sporean bloggers here