SPEAKING OF THE TRINITY: METAPHORS FOR THE MYSTERY
by Jerome Van Kuiken
“The Trinity is the cross upon which the mind is crucified.” This warning from Russian Orthodox thinker Anthony Ugolnik highlights a basic problem Christians face. I confess belief in the Trinity: that God is both one and at the same time three. But can I make any sense of this confession? Can I explain my belief to others – as a pastor, to my congregation? As a friend, to my friend who is a Jehovah’s Witness? As a father, to my daughter Hannah?
As a matter of fact, Hannah had the Trinity explained to her when she was only four years old – but not by me. Driving home from church one Sunday, I was startled when a voice from the car seat behind me recited, “It’s a shamrock. It’s a metaphor: God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost; one God, three persons.” Astonished, I realized that Hannah had picked up these lines from the VeggieTales video Sumo of the Opera, which had a spot about St. Patrick!
This experience offers a solution to our problem of thinking and speaking about God. Ugolnik is right: we can’t fully wrap our minds around the Trinity. After all, we’re talking about God! But metaphors, symbols and such give us ways to talk about the Trinity so that people get an inkling of what we’re saying. In the spirit of St. Patrick, then, I offer here a sampler of word-pictures of the Trinity, meant to help those caught between a shamrock and a hard place.
Not Separate, But Equal. The logic behind the shamrock metaphor goes like this: just as one shamrock has three look-alike leaves, so the one God has three persons who are alike in character, power, and glory. Roman Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson takes this idea a step further by comparing God with DNA. The shape of DNA is a double helix: two strands of genetic material woven together to form the building block of all biological life. Now imagine DNA with an extra strand, Johnson says – a triple helix that’s the greatest source of life ever! That’s what God is like: three equal persons who together give life to everything. Word-pictures like these fit well with Bible passages that describe Christians as being baptized in the one name shared equally by the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19); equipped equally by the same Spirit, Lord, and God (1 Corinthians 12:4-6); and blessed equally by the One on the throne, his sevenfold Spirit, and Jesus Christ (Revelation 1:4, 5 NLT).
Different Can Be Good! But just because all three members of the Trinity are equal doesn’t mean there aren’t differences between them. A favorite object lesson for children compares the Trinity to the yolk, white, and shell that make up an egg. Longtime Methodist evangelist and educator Jon Tal Murphree uses the illustration of a musical chord composed of three different notes. The Bible itself teaches that God the Father planned our salvation, Jesus Christ died to purchase it, and the Holy Spirit applies it to our lives (Ephesians 1:3-14; 1 Peter 1:2). We’re also told that the world comes from God the Father, through the Lord Jesus Christ (1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 1:2), and by the power of the Spirit of God (Genesis 1:2; Psalm 104:30).
A number of metaphors from church tradition beautifully picture how the different persons in the Trinity and their various roles work in harmony for our good. Do you like to talk? Then maybe you can relate to this metaphor: Psalm 33:6 reads, “By the word of the Lord the heavens were made, and by the breath of his mouth all their host” (ESV). The Hebrew word for “breath” in this verse is the same word translated “Spirit” elsewhere. Also, John 1:1-3 speaks of Jesus as “the Word” by whom everything was created. So in Psalm 33:6, you have the Speaker, the Word he speaks, and the Breath/Spirit by which he speaks – a biblical picture of the Trinity at work.
Do you ever talk to yourself? Do you ever answer back? If so, then you and your thoughts are having a conversation within your mind or spirit. It’s as if you’re more than one person while you’re in dialog with yourself. You can probably see where I’m going with this: in the Trinity there is God (the Father); there is his Spirit, who knows his thoughts (1 Corinthians 2:11); and there are his thoughts themselves, which the Bible identifies with Jesus, God’s Wisdom (Proverbs 8:22-31; 1 Corinthians 1:24, 30) or his Idea (John 1:1, Cotton Patch Version).
Do you enjoy nature? Yet another metaphor envisions God the Father as the sun, which reigns over the earth from the heavens above with great power and such splendor that we can’t even look directly at it (1 Timothy 6:15, 16). Christ is the sunlight that comes down from heaven to earth, making life and sight possible (John 1:4, 6; 2 Corinthians 4:6; Hebrews 1:3). The Holy Spirit is the invisible heat and energy given off by the sunlight. All this may change what you think of when you sing, “You Are My Sunshine”!
Do you like working with your hands? My favorite metaphor views Christ and the Spirit as the two arms and hands of the Heavenly Father. The roots of this metaphor run back to Isaiah: In Isaiah 53:1, he calls Christ “the arm of the Lord.” Later he pictures God as carrying the people of Israel out of Egypt (63:9), and links the Holy Spirit with God’s “glorious arm” (63:11, 12 ESV). In the beginning, God’s two hands worked together to fashion the universe. Now God’s two arms are opened wide, inviting prodigal children into the Trinity’s embrace. Differences between the members of the Trinity only serve to unite them to each other and us to them.
Personal Matters. The members of the Trinity are equal, different, and united as one God. But they are also three persons. The movie Bruce Almighty and the TV show Joan of Arcadia missed this point: they both portrayed God as only one person who plays different parts. This incorrect understanding of God is called modalism, and if it were true, then there would be no interpersonal relationships within the Trinity. But look what happens at Jesus’ baptism, for instance: God the Father speaks, the Holy Spirit descends like a dove, and Jesus obeys, all at the same time (Matthew 3:13-17 and parallels). There by the Jordan River, we see all three persons of the Trinity acting in relationship to each other.
Modalism lies behind the illustration that the one God is three in the same way that I am one person who is a husband to my wife, a father to my daughter, and a pastor to my congregation. The popular object lesson that compares the Trinity with water can run the risk of teaching modalism, too. Just as H2O can be a liquid, solid, or gas, so the illustration goes, God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. But we don’t usually think of H2O as existing in all three states at once. So as not to mislead people, the best way to use this object lesson is to have a glass of cold water with an ice cube in it and plastic wrap over the top to catch the water vapor. That way, all three states are present at once, just as all three persons are present at once in the Trinity.
How can we illustrate the fact that the one God has, not just three parts, but three persons? Grotesque images of a three-headed monster or Siamese triplets joined at the heart come to mind! But Scripture gives us some better ways to picture God as three persons. In Genesis 1:27, God creates human beings in his own image. What is that image? The very next lines say that God created them as male and female, then commissions them to have children (1:27, 28). Genesis 2:24 follows up, telling us that husband and wife join together to become one flesh. How does marriage “image” God? It shows us how two persons can be united as one by their love for each other, a love so powerful that it takes the form of a third person – a child who is itself for nine months united as one with its mother. Like every other metaphor, this one has its limits: each member of the Trinity has always existed, and God is not a sexual being. But as long as we respect the metaphor’s limits, it can help us see how three persons can be united as one God.
Another classic illustration based on family relationships draws on the story of Abraham. Genesis 24 records how Abraham sends his most trusted servant to get a wife for his son Isaac. The servant travels far and returns with the lovely Rebekah. In the same way, God the Father sends his Spirit into the world to bring Jesus, the Son of God, the church as his bride.
This emphasis on God as three distinct persons has begun to influence popular culture. The Matrix film trilogy included the characters Neo (a young man who fulfills prophecy by saving his people), Morpheus (a father-figure to Neo), and Trinity (a young woman who helps Neo and even brings him back from the dead). Likewise, William Young’s bestselling novel, The Shack, allegorizes God the Father as a black woman and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman alongside of Jesus. As with modalism, though, we have to be careful not to push things too far. If modalism falls into the trap of claiming, “1 God = 1 person,” the opposite trap is to think, “3 persons = 3 Gods.” This trap is tritheism, or “three god-ism.” In Geoffrey Chaucer’s book The Canterbury Tales, one character tells a tale that shows the trouble with tritheism: Long ago and far away, two warriors fell in love with the same girl. The warriors chose to settle the issue with a duel. On the morning of the duel, the first warrior went to the temple of Venus, goddess of love, and prayed that she would give him victory so he could win the girl he loved. The second warrior prayed to Mars, god of war, for help in defeating his rival. The girl herself prayed at the temple of Diana, the virgin goddess, saying (more or less), “O Diana, you know I really don’t love either of these guys! Please work things out so I can stay a virgin and devote myself to your temple.” You see the problem: how can three different gods with three different specialties and agendas ever agree as to the outcome of the duel? The result is divine gridlock! The Trinity is not like that: the three persons together make up only one God with one plan, one will, and one moral character, who together share one life in such a radical way that each person of the Trinity doesn’t exist on his own, but only in relationship with the other two.
One Last Word About the Three. Along with my other roles, I also teach theology at a Bible college. Each year, I ask my students if they’ve ever heard a sermon on the Trinity. Very few tell me that they have. If belief in the one God as three persons is a vital part of our Christian faith, then why aren’t we proclaiming it more? I suspect that part of the problem lies in our own uncertainty about how to understand and explain our belief. It’s my hope that the metaphors I’ve shared will equip us all – pastors, teachers, parents, and the rest of us – to think and speak more clearly about the One who is, as the hymn says, “God in three persons, blessed Trinity.”