On Trinitarian Analogies: How God is Like an Atom
Starting late last year I ran a short series of articles on the doctrine of the Trinity. My aim was to demonstrate the value of deep and rich theology for Christian living. So we considered the implications of God’s threeness and oneness for understanding ourselves as those made in God’s image, as well as the significance that the Father, Son, and Spirit are of the “same substance.” I won’t revisit those themes below, but I will return to first article in that series, where we considered Trinitarian analogies.
The Danger of Trinitarian Analogies
Most of us are familiar with Trinitarian analogies—whether it’s the triple phase of water or a three-leaf clover. And few would deny that each have significant shortcomings. Thus, as I wrote, there are at least two dangers when it comes to Trinitarian analogies: “[We] 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.” Trinitarian analogies tend to domesticate and objectify God.
You might argue that this is an inevitable risk in theologising, which is the case. Only when it comes to God’s nature I believe we should be especially careful of what Helmut Thielicke calls the “psychology of the possessor.” In other words, if we reduce God within our finite and conceptual frame, the danger is that we’ll love him as we might do a pet or a piece of art, rather than the divine community of persons who made us.
Thus Trinitarian analogies should be handled extreme care, if at all. Our hearts are better off losing themselves in the mystery of God’s self-revelation than neatly systematising it. You and I are invited to embrace the divine community. We do this by faith, which though full of assurance should never be presumptuous (Hebrews 11:1). This is perhaps especially true when it comes to knowing God as Trinity.
Now, at the risk of undoing this caution regarding Trinitarian analogies, I would like to put one forward. I came across it while preparing to teach about the Trinity, in Gerald Bray’s God Is Love. However, unlike most Trinitarian analogies, this one is more of an illustration. That is, it sheds some light without oversimplifying God’s Trinitarian nature. Furthermore, the analogy helps us think about the apparent Trinitarian development between the Old and New Testaments.
The Trinity and the Split Atom
Gerald Bray writes: “To understand how we can hold both the biblical revelation of the one God and the existence of three divine persons without contradiction, we may perhaps venture to compare the picture of God that we find in the Bible with what we know of the atom. Viewed from the outside, an atom is one and indivisible. It cannot be reduced to anything else, and it exists in perfect simplicity and unity.”
I’m no physicist, but that makes sense. Though we cannot see atoms with the naked eye, for many years scientists—possibly going as far back as the pre-Socratic philosophers—viewed the atom as not only the smallest unit of matter but also insisted that it was indivisible. Considering God’s Trinitarian nature, then, the analogy fits. There is one God, singular and indivisible.
Yet, especially at the incarnation and later sending of the Holy Spirit, it becomes clearer that the one God is also three persons. Thus, Bray continues: “When the atom was split, it revealed a world of energy that had previously been unknown. Similarly, when we enter into the inner life of God, we see him in a way that we did not previously imagine.”
There is much to admire in Bray’s Trinitarian analogy, if that is what you want to call it. As is the case in the Gospels, particularly John, Bray says that we meet God in the person of the Son. This encounter is deepened with the coming of the Spirit, who indwells believers in a profoundly personal way.
“Enter the Inner Life of God”
The Christian is someone who is invited into the divine community, the Trinity. As Q4 of the New City Catechism puts it, “God created us…to know him, love him, live with him, and glorify him.” Too often we make that knowledge of God into a kind of textbook faith, feeling that the better we understand God’s nature the more we know him. But for all their anatomical knowledge, your doctor doesn’t know you the same way that your best friend, parent, or spouse does. It’s no different when it comes to God. Before the Trinity is a mystery to be understood, God is a lover to be embraced.