When it comes to certain biblical concepts, it’s really okay to admit, “I don’t know.” If you’re like me, you probably have a list (maybe even a big one). How God’s sovereignty and our moral agency work together. The problem of evil. The continued existence of The Bachelor. And of course, the Trinity.
Defined at its most basic level, the doctrine of the Trinity states that there is one God who exists as three persons—the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—all of whom are equally God, yet distinct from one another. How this relationship works exactly, we don’t quite know. It is a mystery, a paradox (but not a contradiction). And because it is so foreign a concept to us, we often turn to analogies to help.
- Maybe we’ll describe the Trinity as being like water, which exists in solid, liquid, and gaseous states, but is still water.
- Or we’ll say it is like a star and the light and heat which emanate from it.
- Or perhaps we’ll compare the Trinity to a family, made up of a father, mother, and child.
You’ve undoubtedly heard at least one of these, especially if you have kids. With kids, trying to use analogies just makes good sense, especially with abstract concepts. But analogies can only do so much, especially with something as mysterious as God’s three-and-one-ness, as not only do a plethora of kids books and DVDs, but a laundry list of heresies attest.
Three common Trinitarian heresies
One teacher attempted to explain the persons of the Trinity as “forms” or “modes” of existence—that at certain times, God acted as the Father, and others as the Son, or the Spirit. This heresy—called Modalism or Sabellianism (after it’s originator)—is alive and well in our own day, as taught by Oneness Pentecostal churches, and in books such as The Shack. Another teacher, Arius, tried to explain that Jesus and the Holy Spirit were not divine at all, but created beings. His heresy, Arianism or Subordinationism, is alive and well in the beliefs of the Jehovah’s Witnesses. Another heresy, Tritheism, teaches that the Father, Son, and Spirit are not one, but fully separate divine beings, which is what is taught by the Mormons.
The stuff accidental heretics are made of
Which brings us back to analogies. I love using them, but I can’t bring myself to use them when trying to describe the Trinity, whether with kids or adults. They’re just too risky and I don’t want to be an accidental heretic. For example:
- The Trinity is not like water in its three forms, because that’s modalism.
- The Trinity isn’t like a star emanating light and heat, because that’s Arianism.
- The Trinity isn’t like a family, because that’s Tritheism.
While analogies might make for entertaining YouTube videos, they make for terrible theology. The Trinity is like the Trinity. God’s nature as three and one is a grand mystery. It is incomparable—there is literally nothing else like Him in all the universe. So instead of trying a bad analogy, let’s embrace the awkwardness. We might not know how the mystery makes sense, but God knows. And sometimes that has to be good enough for us, too.