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Explaining the Holy Trinity Using Analogies

Updated: Oct 25, 2021

Note: For more information about explaining the Holy Trinity using Analogies, and a much more sober analysis than I get give in a short blog post, check out: Francis J. Hall's Theological Outlines. It is from this work that I drew most of the material of this article from.

Explaining the Holy Trinity

A certain YouTube page created a famous video titled "St. Patrick's Bad Analogies" (which can be found here), in which the historic St. Patrick meets charming villagers who deride him based on the analogies which he uses in the process of explaining the Holy Trinity. Though I find the video to be hilarious and often show it to friends and quote the famous "that's Modalism Patrick!" We can come away with the wrong idea (which I see often put forward), that ALL analogies are bad, and ought never to be used. There are some issues with this approach, which I will lay out in this article.[i]

The human mind in learning learns from those objects which we encounter in everyday experience. That is how learning works. For example, if I were to teach you about a unicorn, I would tell you that it is a horse with a horn in the center of the head. That two concrete, experiential realities, "horse" and "horn" would come together to form a theoretical reality "unicorn." That is how all learning works, except on a much higher scale. To speed up the process we have utilized language (signs which point to objects of experience) which speeds up this process and allows for the expression of the theoretical in a much easier way, yet it is always grounded in the experiential.

Due to the aforementioned truth, to reject all analogies and illustrations in explaining the Holy Trinity is impossible. For, if there were no analogies or illustrations analogous to the Trinity, we could come to no knowledge of what a "Trinity" is, it would be absolutely unknowable and there could be no revelation of it because it would be completely foreign in all respects. I could not be writing an article about the Trinity right now, God could not reveal His Triune nature to us in Scripture, and we could not place our faith in the Triune God if analogies and illustrations were impossible.

Another truth that leads us to this conclusion is the scriptural data itself. For, "Father," "Son," and "Spirit," are indeed analogies used by Sacred Scripture itself in explaining the Holy Trinity. What they do is they illustrate some truth to us, i.e. that the Son is begotten of the Father, and that the Spirit is spirated from the Father through the Son. This illustration surely could be taken to the extreme just as any other illustration could. I could reason, like Arius, that a Father is before a Son therefore there was a time when the Son was not. But this is clearly not the case. Could we then say to the Apostles "that's Arianism Patrick!" Of course not! For, there is a proper circumstance and application of this illustration/analogy of "Father and Son." We ought to be careful that we are not condemning good analogies, properly applied and understood. There is no such thing as a perfect analogy, especially when we are speaking of something like the Trinity, where mystery reins, therefore we ought to be careful to seek clarity and give clarity of the extent and limitations of one's analogy. If this is done, it may be used.

Further, historically, good and Orthodox theologians made free use of analogies in explaining the Holy Trinity. There never was such an aversion to ALL analogies in Church History as there is today, where many seek to throw all analogy away (which is impossible), or take a Biblicist approach and only use the analogy of Father, Son, and Spirit. In order to give some good ammunition for giving good, solid Trinitarian analogies, I will give the three general categories of Analogy that the Fathers used.

Examples of Analogies for Explaining the Holy Trinity

First, in explaining the Holy Trinity, there are those analogies which illustrate the unity of the Trinity, even amongst the processions which occur. A common way to illustrate this was that the Son's procession is as a light that produces light, which made it into the Nicene Creed, "light of light.”[ii] Tertullian used the illustration of the sun, the sun's rays, and the warmth which it produces,[iii] though St. Gregory of Nazianzus takes issue with it.[iv] Tertullian and St. Augustine both use the illustration of the root, tree, and fruit, the root proceeding from the tree, and the fruit also (all of which are one being), and the fountain, river, and stream, which all are one water, the river flowing from the fountain, and the stream from the river.[v] Now, the limit of these analogies is that it shows us a distinction between the persons of the Trinity while upholding the Substantial Unity, and showing processions. Where this falls short is that if not qualified and taken as a 1-to-1 impress of the Trinity, it makes the three persons of the Trinity into three modes of existing, i.e. this does not make enough of a distinction between the persons. But, if one makes those distinctions and warns the hearer where not to take these analogies too far, they can be used, and with a combination of the others can be used fruitfully.

Second, in explaining the Holy Trinity, there are those analogies that are drawn from the composition of man, as the image of God. Through these, we can conceptualize how there is a unity of being, yet a tripersonal existence in God. The activity of the soul in classical, philosophical psychology is divided into affection (feeling), intellect (thinking), and the will (willing), wherein three clear distinctions are being made of activity ad extra (outside), yet there is one principle of action ad intra (inside), that is, the mind exteriorly acts in three distinct ways, yet it is still one mind. This offers a good illustration that informs us of the Unity in Trinity and the Trinity in unity. Yet, there is one person in the human soul, not three, which demarcates the limit which we ought to push this analogy. St. Augustine brings forward many others to chew on, "memory, understanding, and will; mind, word, and love thereof; idea, contemplation of it, and love of it; object, seeing it, and attending to it, or image, memory, and attention."[vi]

Third, in explaining the Holy Trinity, there are those analogies that are drawn from relations in nature. St. Basil uses the example of the colors within the rainbow,[vii] there are also the examples of the three dimensions of space (height, length, and width), and the three conceptions of time (past, present, and future). Pseudo-Dionysius interestingly uses the example of three lights in a dark room that emanate a single light (think of an overhead light that uses three light bulbs).[viii] Other examples we can think of are three species of animals in a single Genus, or the three states of matter (gas, liquid, and solid). We must again remember, that if we have a solid definition of the Trinity, as defined in the Athanasian Creed, we can explain and use these analogies with great fruit. Even though these especially may not seem to be “good” analogies, they can relate certain portions of the Trinitarian doctrine to those listening.

All of these example illustrations are with fault of some sort and are of unequal value, the Scriptural illustration of “Father and Son” comes with much less baggage, and much less qualification is necessary, than, let’s say, the idea of the Trinity as a triangle, which is a common artistic illustration. We inevitably use illustrations, unless one has a strong Philosophical background that can conceive of Hypostasis, Ousia, and all of the other terms necessary to understand Catholic Trinitarian doctrine. But, even then the use of illustrations and analogies was necessary to teach them those terms in the first place, therefore, it is inevitable that illustrations and analogies come into one's mind. The key is to be disciplined, to consider and contemplate an analogy used, accept it for where it offers a glimpse into this great mystery, and reject where it does not. By using many analogies, highlighting different aspects of this doctrine, and filling in the gaps where others fail we can have a more holistic account of it.

I will leave off with a prudent warning from Fr. Francis J. Hall against improperly using illustration and analogy in explaining the Holy Trinity:

"Humanly produced analogies can never afford a basis of definition of divine mysteries. Their proper use and value lies wholly in their confirmatory suggestiveness. At best they simply help us to receive the terms of revelation without being disturbed by the antitheses of thought and insoluble problems which these terms obtrude upon the attention of critical minds. The problems defy our efforts to solve them, but when we perceive that partially analogous antitheses and insoluble problems are exhibited in common experience, we become less inclined to regard the seeming oppositions of trinitarian doctrine as affording warrant for its rejection. Furthermore, the human mind is so constituted that imagination plays an important and necessary part in assisting the reason to apprehend and assimilate even the most abstract truths—truths which are not in their own nature capable of being actually represented by the imagination."[ix]

Ave Christus Rex!


Photo credit: Stained glass window depicting doctrine of the Holy Trinity in Latin, by Nancy Bauer

[i] For more information about this subject, and a much more sober analysis than I get give in a short blog post, check out: Francis J. Hall, The Trinity, Dogmatic Theology (London; New York; Bombay; Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910), 276–288. It is from this work that I drew most of the material of this article from.

[ii] Justin Martyr, Dial., 56; Origen, de Princip., I. ii. 7; St. Dionysius Alex., Ep. ad. Dion., 3, 4; St. Athanasius, c. Arian., II. xviii. 33; III. xxvii. 36. Tatian, To the Greeks

[iii] Apol., 21; adv. Prax., viii.

[iv] Theol. Orat., v. 31–33.

[v] Tertullian, Adv. Prax., viii.; Augustine, de Fid. et Symb., 17.

[vi] Throughout Augustine's De Trinitate, found in Francis J. Hall, The Trinity, Dogmatic Theology (London; New York; Bombay; Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910), 282.

[vii] St. Basil, Epis., xxxviii. 4, 5.

[viii] Pseudo-Dion. Areopagite, Divine Names, ch. ii.

[ix] Francis J. Hall, The Trinity, Dogmatic Theology (London; New York; Bombay; Calcutta: Longmans, Green, and Co., 1910), 285.

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