Why analogies of the Trinity fail

 
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It is a great joy to teach children the deep truths of the Christian faith. I can still recall moments when eyes have lit up with understanding or when brows, furrowed with concentration, have released as God’s truth has sunk deep into the minds and hearts of the children in the room.

However, the joy of teaching deep truths does not take away from the complexity of the task. Children’s ministry leaders know all too well the difficulty of having to work hard with language in order to communicate to our youngest sisters and brothers in the faith. Children’s lower vocabulary and gradually developing sense of abstract concepts provide particular challenges to ministry teams.

For this reason, I encourage children’s leaders to develop appropriate metaphors, analogies and other ‘shorthand’ for concepts that they will be using frequently with children. For example, using ‘important leaders’ instead of ‘Pharisee’ is helpful. Likewise, accompanying the word ‘sin’ with the active movement of ‘turning our back on God’ helps communicate that sin is a state of being and a posture of the heart, more than just the ‘bad things’ that we do.

However, one area where metaphors and analogies fail us is when we seek to describe the Trinity.

The Athanasian Creed is one of the clearest, detailed and yet (relatively) succinct expressions of the early church’s wrestling with the doctrine of the Trinity as revealed in Scripture. The introduction to this Creed states:

That we worship one God in Trinity and the Trinity in unity, neither blending their persons nor dividing their essence.

In short, one God in three persons. This is the Christian doctrine of God.

Christians believe that there are three persons in the Godhead, and yet we are not polytheists (believing in three gods). Christians believe that there is only one divine God, and yet we are not, strictly speaking, mere monotheists. Christians are trinitarian, believing in three persons: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and yet one God. Only one divine being, and yet three distinct and identifiable persons who are all truly and fully divine.

If you’re anything like me, this all starts to hurt your head. It is no wonder that we seek to find analogies to help make this Tri-Unity of God a little more comprehensible.

Common analogies

Here are some common analogies that Christians have used about the Trinity:

  • God is kind of like water which can be ice, liquid and steam.

  • God is kind of like a man who is a father, a son and an uncle

  • God is kind of like a three-leaf clover, or a triangle; one object, but three different, identifiable leaves, or sides*

    *A nice Australian variant on this one is talking about the three stumps of a wicket in cricket.

On the surface, these analogies do seem to help. But the problem with all three analogies is they very easily fall into one of the ancient heresies that the church fathers and writers of the Athanasian Creed were so keen to distance themselves from.

Water can exist in three different states but not all at the same time. It is either liquid or steam or solid ice. But God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit all co-exist, at the same time. The Father did not cease to exist in heaven, while Jesus the Son was active on Earth. Historically, the heresy is called Modalism.

Likewise, a man can be a father, a son and an uncle, however, he is only one person. The Bible is clear that God the Father is distinct from God the Son who are both distinct from God the Holy Spirit. This therefore also falls into the heresy of Modalism.

The problem with the leaf, triangle or wicket examples is similar, but different. Here we have the three within the one, however, each ‘part’ is not a full expression of the one. One side of the triangle is just that, one side. The side is not a full triangle. However, the Bible tells us that God the Father is fully God, not just a part of God. Of course, the same is true for the Son and the Spirit. This heresy is fittingly called Partialism.

All analogies fall short and are insufficient in different ways. However, since analogies of the Trinity are seeking to help us understand the very nature of God, faulty analogies are going to result in faulty knowledge of God. Since our discipleship rests on our growing knowledge and love of God, it seems to me that we have to be particularly wary of using these poor understandings of God in the way we communicate to children.

Teaching children the Trinity

If our analogies fail us, then what are we to do?

My preference is simply to let the children sit in the wonders of the mystery of our Triune God.

Here’s a common conversation in my children’s ministries:

“The Bible tells us that when it comes to God, 1+1+1=1. If you try that in maths, you’ve definitely got the answer wrong. But you try that with the Bible and you are on your way to seeing what it tells us about God. Does your head hurt thinking about that? Yep. Me too.”

There are at least two things I am trying to communicate to the children in my ministry. Firstly, the accurate revelation of God from the Bible. Any analogy will compromise the Biblical vision of God, so I stay clear of these. Just as importantly, I am also hoping to model the humility of understanding that is required in the Christian faith. There are plenty of things in the Bible that I do understand, and I thank God for that. But God is also beyond my understanding. I thank God for that too.

Children will trust a good and loving teacher, even when they don’t understand the maths concept that is being taught. They will trust a good and loving parent, even when they don’t understand the choices of food, entertainment, or holiday destination that the parent makes. I want the children in my ministry to trust their good and loving God—Father, Son and Holy Spirit—and to see that not fully understanding his nature is not a reason to stop putting their hope and faith in him.

To learn more about the Trinity—especially the person and work of the Holy Spirit—and how to teach this to youth and children, register now for HOUSE Conference.