Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Illustrating the Trinity

This past week, for Trinity Sunday, I preached a sermon on the Trinity from John 8.  During that sermon, I talked about how the common Trinity analogies are actually examples of anti-trinitarian heresies which have long-since been condemned by the Church.  Afterward, I was asked by one of our brightest young theologians if, after all my error bashing, I could go on the affirmative to provide maybe just one helpful analogy or illustration of the Trinity that wasn't, in the end, heretical.
I told her that most theologians teach that no natural analogue exists, but that I'd think and study further.
Well, after more thought and study, the answer is: more of the same.

One of the greatest theologians among the early Church Fathers, Gregory Nazianzen [a 4th-century contemporary of Augustine, who - though he seemed to have been aware of their shortcomings - was a bit more loosey-goosey with Trinitarian analogies] said these words after evaluating several of the common Trinity analogies:

I have concluded that there is no solid ground upon which to stand my mind in these analogies.  In order to consider the Object I am trying to better understand [God], I must completely accept one part of the analogy while rejecting the rest.  In the end, it seems best to me to abandon the images and shadows [analogies], because they are deceitful and fall very short of the truth.  Instead, clinging myself to the holier way of thinking, I rest upon few words and by the guidance of the Holy Ghost  I make the light which I have received from Him my final friend and companion.  
I journey through this world to persuade everyone else, to the best of my ability, to worship Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the One Godhead and Power.  To Him belongs all glory and honor and might for ever and ever.  Amen.

Both Melanchton and Calvin said: "We do better to adore the mysteries of Diety than to investigate them."  [Servetus take note.]

But though I don't have a better analogy, [although those 3 Agent Smith guys from The Matrix have been on my mind a lot] I do have something.  The best example I know of is not an analogy, but an illustration - it is the Trinity Seal.  Several years ago, our congregation adopted this as our church logo.  Historians attribute it to Augustine.  It is an ancient means of visualizing the very abstract concept of triunity with an accuracy and simple precision that any egg, Jaffa cake, or water example can't hold a candle [flame, light, heat ... uh, nope] to.

So I have challenged the children of our congregation to color the printed Trinity seal logo on the cover of last week's bulletins and I hope to have a bunch of bulletins this Sunday along with a bunch of budding orthodox Trinitarians.


Michael R said...


I've been thinking about this a lot over the past two years after noticing what I believe is an illustration that fits the doctrine. I think the issue is a lot simpler than we've made it out to be. The part we're all stuck on is that we're trying to illustrate a non-physical reality with physical models. I just recently made my first blog post, but it's about this very topic. I look forward to discussing it with you.

Grace be with you,

Michael R said...

Sorry, I felt like it ought to post a summary of the illustration here for discussion. I should have gone to bed earlier last night. A larger examination of it is posted at the link I posted late last night.

God says that he is one (Deuteronomy 6:4). Now think for a moment about the concept of "one." If you try to define the concept of one numerically, you would start by writing a vertical line as follows:


But that symbol by itself has no meaning until you assign it value. It must equal something. Where could we go from there? We might try saying that it equals itself. So:


But if you've taken a course in logic you'll recognize that as circular reasoning. A thing defined as itself doesn't tell you what that thing actually is. Let's take it a step further. Every number that exists has a denominator of 1. So:


Here we have a complete relationship that no other number can satisfy. This relationship makes 1 unique, and so defines it. If we tried any other number,

-1 / -1 = 1
0 / 0 = Undefined
2 / 2 = 1
infinity / infinity = Undefined

As you can see, no other number can be self-existent (denominated by itself) without reducing to something other than itself. But let's look at the definition for a moment.


Here we have the number 1 expressed as three operands: Numerator, Denominator and Result.
Each operand is equal to the whole value of the expression as well as to each other.
There is only one value of 1 expressed.
The expression is defined by a form of the word "to be" (a Being)
The Numerator is a concept that "just is."
The Result is a concept whose value is generated (begotten) by the Numerator.
The Denominator is a concept that logically follows from the equation.
Furthermore, the Denominator is the active force that seeks out the meaning of the Numerator and reveals that meaning as the Result.
The equation 1/1=1 is an eternal concept: there can never be a moment when the statement is untrue.
Each of the three operands is dependent on the other two for its existence, meaning they are equally important. The moment one exists the others must exist. They are co-eternal, even though the Result derives its entire value from the Numerator.

Now go read all of the doctrinal statements about the Trinity. Sound familiar?

By the way, the expression can be re-written: 1=1x1.
What happened when Jesus was baptized? The Holy Spirit came and equipped him with power for ministry. The purpose of that ministry was to bring glory to the Father.

All of this is not to say that the number 1 is God, but that God uses the attributes of that number to explain his nature.

I haven't found this illustration ever used before, but I realized it one day while I was sitting in a math class (My mind wanders in weird directions). I hope it helps. I cannot be certain that this illustration is perfect, but I haven't found any errors in it yet. I'll gladly drop it if ever I do find an error, but I think it's more helpful than many of the physical illustrations offered by people.