Why “No-Illustrations of the Trinity” Is Faulty

I know it’s dangerous to try to describe the Trinity; I’ve said as much in the past. Even when I resorted to describing one aspect of the triune God’s work (his imputed righteousness with the illustration of a pizza) I still knew I was making a mistake. Even when having a conversation with friends about one of their illustrations, I had an inkling that there was something wrong so I asked for help (and people answered). The problem is that all illustrations fall into the error of some heresy (comment thread) or another—a point that Michael Patton reinforces in his posts regarding the stupidity of using these illustrations to teach the trinity. He states that teaching the trinity “is more about giving basic principles of what it is and then shooting down illustrations about what it is not. Proper Trinitarianism is about a delicate balance between the unity and diversity in the Godhead. Christians believe in one God, i.e., one essence, who eternally exists in three separate persons, all of whom are equal.”

But I have a few problems with this no-illustration bit in that it ignores that language is essentially illustration. Let me explain.

How would someone describe me? They might talk about my features (black hair, brown skin, glasses), characteristics (funny, obnoxious, opinionated) or even my skill set (artist, poor writer); but in all this the person hasn’t really described me. You can easily envision a person that has all those things I’ve described, meet me and realize that I was nothing like the person you imagined.

Another way someone might describe me is with analogies; what I’m like. If someone said that I’m like the love-child of Spike Lee, Humpty Hump (Shock G) and Eagle Eye Cherry then you get an image that is closer to what I’m like. It describes key aspects of me but it also puts those aspects together in a way that comes closer to describing me than merely listing those aspects—even if those aspects found in the mentioned individuals are contradictory.

Of course it would be a mistake to think that even the analogy perfectly portrays me. Spike Lee, Humpty Hump and Eagle Eye Cherry can’t have a love child without a woman so that immediately rules the combination out of court; I’m Hispanic so that already differentiates from the ethnic pool (especially the Swedish bit from Eagle Eye); and you really don’t get an idea of what exactly are my key aspects. Glasses seems to be important, but you don’t know what kind. Eyes and brow combination seems to be important but you don’t know exactly how. In other words, the illustration is a horrible failure because it is prone to lead to fundamental error about The Real Me.

Now, imagine a race of aliens that we’ll call the Dordrechts. This alien race is completely non-humanoid, created on some distant galaxy and traveling in a form of travel that we haven’t conceived much less encountered. How would you go about describing them and their form of travel?

Well, you’d soon realize that your vocabulary is limited; you need new words. The information that needs to be conveyed is so tremendously unique that language has to expand to accommodate it. And yet, even while expanding that language you have a couple of ways to go. For instance, you could just name the form of travel something completely new like Gar’Ginosh Travel  which means nothing in any language but will stand for whatever form of travel the Dordechts use from now on. Or you could use language laws to try to convey the information: like Spaceo-Gravitemportation. Immediately your mind conceives of the areas this form of traveling touches on even if it is wrong (since we’ve never encountered Dordrechts Travel before). It is definitely not accurate but it’s more helpful in conveying information than saying “Gar’Ginosh Travel”.

Now when it comes to God we wind up getting a very unique picture in the Bible. God is one. There is no other God beside Him. He is supreme. And yet: God is Spirit, God is in the Flesh; Christ is God; The Holy Spirit is God; The Father is God; Christ is not the Father; The Father is not the Spirit; The Spirit is not Christ; etc. But even in this description, we know that God is describing Himself accurately but definitely not completely. God is Father insofar as everything proceeds from Him and there’s something going on in the godhead with the members but that doesn’t mean that he married someone to give birth to people—especially the Son.

The whole relationship is so unique that Tertullion started using words like trinitas to describe the unity and plurality while using the word persona to describe each of the members of the divine escence. Persona is latin for ‘human being’ and it originally meant ‘character in a drama’ and possibly drawn from the word ‘mask’ (phersu-Etruscan). Was Tertullion wrong in doing this? No, I don’t think so.

He relied on the rules of language to convey a picture of what the evidence showed (and people have subsequently drawn pictures to try to convey all the words that describe the doctrine) but it was still an illustration. An illustration that tries to draw balance, surely, but an illustration (though accurate) is not perfect1.

So what about all of those illustrations that I (and Michael and just about everyone) bashed?  I’m not too sure we should be bashing them so as to not use them. We might use them to illustrate the point but the illustration is still flawed and we should show where but I don’t think that means we have to forego the use of illustrations. In fact, what Michael is doing by negatively portraying the illustrations is in fact using those illustrations to illustrate the Godhead. In art, when we paint a scene (or whatever), we try to do something with the “empty” spaces (like the sky through the trees, or the space between superman’s arms, fists on hips) so that they don’t look unbalanced. We call that space negative space and it’s just as important to any given illustration as the content of the illustration.

So what we’re doing is illustrating the trinity and brushing out the negative space by showing what these pictures aren’t doing. The egg is a good illustration, but what it isn’t doing is showing the unity of the Godhead. Water is a good illustration, but what it isn’t doing is showing the uniqueness of each member of the Trinity. An infinite pizza is good but what it isn’t doing is showing the triune nature of the Godhead. 1x1x1=1 is good but what it isn’t doing is showing the uniqueness of each member of the trinity. Disassociative Identity Disorder is good but what it isn’t doing is showing how each member of the trinity is fully God at the same time. We use words like trinity knowing that it is a good and accurate word that conveys the doctrine in shorthand, but as a word it doesn’t perfectly describe what’s going on in the Godhead. Of course, it doesn’t fall into one of the errors of describing the Godhead (like modalism, tri-theism, subordinationalism) but neither do any of the illustrations if you allow them to illustrate only the aspect which they’re illustrating.

It would be just as accurate to say that imagine that the egg, water, space, mathematics and pizza all were part of the same family and had the same Father. That comes close to what God is like, but still falls short.


1 It would be a mistake to take from all this that because [words alone can’t convey a perfect image of a transcendent concept, and the Bible uses words, that therefore the Bible is errant]. Calvin  has made this same point in his institutes (I, xiii, 1)  when he says that God condescended to speak to Man by lisping or using baby talk. Calvin is not saying that God is speaking inaccurately, nor is he saying that God appropriated error to get his points across (reality be damned—note his points here: IV, xiv, 3); he’s saying that language tries to ascend to the heights of heavenly reality but falls short from the perfection which is God—therefore God speaks on a level we can understand. Nurses don’t babble to babies to obscure concepts, nor do they lie to them to delude concepts; they speak accurately to get the point across so that the Child can understand the concept (via learning) but does it at a level where they can masticate the words. God speaks to us accurately, correctly , truthfully (therefore all three amount to inerrantly) even if conceptually the terminology doesn’t attain to the level of what is being spoken about. God is Father—but whatever Father is here finds its ultimate reality in what God is as Father.

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