What Trinitarian Analogies Teach Us About Ourselves
At Hope City Presbyterian we’re teaching through the Westminster Shorter Catechism (WSC). Earlier this year I taught questions 5-6, on the Trinity. Starting here, I hope to develop my teaching notes into a series of short posts. My decision to do this was twofold. Firstly, there is precious little teaching on the Trinity in most churches today. Secondly, when taught, God as Trinity often remains abstract, even arbitrary. But if God is Trinity—that is, if God meets us as Father, Son, and Spirit—then surely that is how we ought to know and worship God.
This first post will examine many Christians’ preference for “Trinitarian analogies.” These are, I believe, indicative of the two shortcomings already mentioned. For instead of delighting in God’s self-revelation as Trinity—desiring to deepen our personal experience of God as three persons—many of us reduce God’s triune nature to something easily diagrammable rather than a divine community to embrace. Secondly, most of these analogies are ‘object lessons,’ unwittingly reducing the Trinity to something impersonal. Below I will briefly demonstrate why Trinitarian analogies are inadequate, before arguing that abandoning them is a necessary exercise in humility, as those God has created.
All Trinitarian Analogies Fall Short
There is no shortage of Trinitarian analogies. From an egg (yolk, white, shell) to the three phases of water, to a three-leaf clover, and more recently The Shack, Trinitarian analogies abound. Undoubtedly they are, for the most part, the result of a sincere desire to make God known—however imperfectly. But as you consider each one, Augustine’s observation in De Trinitate (5.1-2) is proven true: human language, expression, and understanding is limited. If this is true when it comes to describing a beautiful piece of art, or a sunset, then how much truer is it when we are speaking about the God who is “spirit, infinite, eternal, and unchangeable” (WSC 4)? No analogy is simultaneously precise, rich, and expansive enough.
Thus, when it comes to the Trinity, our theologising must be humble, sober, and moderate. As Calvin asks in his Institutes (1.13.21), “How can the human mind measure off the measureless essence of God according to its own little measure, a mind as yet unable to establish for certain the nature of the sun’s body, though men’s eyes daily gaze upon it?” We cannot even explain the intricacies of the created world; how much more is this true of the Creator God. Yet I worry that Trinitarian analogies tend towards the opposite, buoying the budding theologian with neat and simplistic models that only downscale and domesticate God.
We Must Approach God with Humility
Even though it ought to be a given when it comes to the theological task, humility is critical when approaching the doctrine of the Trinity. We must admit our own limitations. Attempts to explain God as Father, Son, and Spirit will only ever be feeble and finite. This recognition reinforces our creatureliness, both that we were made by God and that as our Creator he is incomparably great. It’s true, we are all fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14), bearing God’s image (Genesis 1:26-27). Yet God is both unmade and infinitely wonderful. It is both fitting and far better that we worship God in humility before we wrangle the divine persons into a reductionistic analogy. That God exists as three persons is and must always remain primarily a cause for rapturous worship and delight. This mystery is an invitation to be embraced rather than explained away.
Beware “The Psychology of the Possessor”
Flowing from the above, I would like to make another concluding point of application. Admitting that Trinitarian analogies are only ever inadequate guards the theologian against what Helmut Thielicke called the seductive delights of possession. In his Little Exercise for Young Theologians he warns, “Anyone who deals with truth…succumbs all too easily to the psychology of the possessor.” Ironically, he continues, “the joy of possession can kill love.” God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, is a truth believed without us becoming the “possessor.” Instead we humbly love the three persons, embracing the divine community. The only “joy of possession” comes from the knowledge that this God has made us his own.