Have you ever heard someone, trying to be helpful, make a comparison of the Trinity with something here in the world? Maybe you’ve heard one comparing the three-in-one Godhead to states of matter like solid, liquid, and gas? Or a man being a father, son, and grandson? Or maybe three ingredients making up one substance? Well meaning as that may be, such comparisons are always insufficient and actually dangerous. Here’s a personal rule (that ought to be a universal rule): if the words “the Trinity is like” are followed by anything other than “nothing we can comprehend or explain by human logic,” there’s a good chance what follows after is going to be wrong, if not an outright heresy from church history.
The Godhead, Christology, etc., is one of my favorite subjects to ponder and teach. If you’re a long time listener to Words of Grace or you catch our sermons from Flint River, you already knew this. I love to teach what the Bible DOES say about our God. It’s exciting. You can never find a bigger subject to talk about. As such, in light of the difficulty we have understanding the nature of the Trinity, some reach to earthly examples. When I was in college, I recall an esteemed pastor make such a comparison that at the time, I thought made some sense. Little did I know it was actually the verbiage of an ancient heresy! Ouch! My firm advice to anyone, preacher or otherwise, is to leave this subject where scripture does. God’s ways are as high above our ways as the heaven is above the earth. There’s no earthly example you can come up with, regardless of how clever you perceive yourself to be, that is good enough or safe. Stick with scripture. Where it goes, go. Where it is silent, cease from speaking. You can’t get deeper or more explanatory than the inspired Word.
Think about this. The word is FULL of examples, word pictures, comparisons, parallels, etc., to help us understand salvation. It’s compared to an espousal, a birth, an adoption, a redemption, a creation, a resurrection, a translation, a court ruling, and even livestock (sheep) and agriculture (a vine). Examples galore. Guess how many examples and metaphors we have in the Bible for the Trinity? Zero. Because God cannot be compared with anything, being God.
So what does the Scripture present about God? The Eternal Godhead exists as Father, Son/Word, and Holy Spirit/Ghost. God the Father is not God the Son or God the Spirit. God the Father is God. God the Son is not the Father or the Holy Spirit. God the Son is God. God the Spirit is not God the Father or God the Son. God the Spirit is God. And, there is but One God, not three Gods. There are three persons in the Godhead. Yet each One of the persons of the Godhead is God. God the Father, Son, and Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal. God the Father, Son, and Spirit are of the same substance. And again, there’s only one God. Confused? You should be – you can’t understand the eternal nature of God. Embracing your inability to comprehend this subject is actually required for Biblical soundness and orthodoxy.
So what sort of “The Trinity is like” comparisons do I have in mind? Here’s a list of false notions about the Godhead, including both heretical doctrines and bad parallels. This is not intended to be encyclopedic or exhaustive.
Denials of Christ’s Sonship
Some of the earliest attacks on the makeup of God come from deniers of Christ’s eternality. Gnostics believed Jesus was a lesser deity. Arians believed the Son of God to be a created being. Occasionally, even in today’s time, one will deny Christ’s eternal Sonship. We’re quick to defend Christ as God’s eternal Son here at MTZ. This is indeed a matter of fellowship.
In short, Christ is the Eternal Son of God. Our forefathers would say He is Eternally Begotten by the Father, meaning that while that Father/Son dynamic does clearly exist, there was never a point in eternity where the Son had a beginning or became the Son of the Father. We call this doctrine “eternal generation.” Sometimes, a person who doesn’t understand that term will assume it denies Christ’s eternal nature or alludes to His eternal subordination. It does not. In fact, the term is historically used to fight those who actually deny the eternal nature of Christ.
Historically, both Gnostics and Arians denied Christ’s fundamental nature. In modern times, this error is held by Jehovah’s Witnesses and Mormons.
Modalism, also called Sabellianism, is a view born out of a denial of Trinitarianism. In modern times, it manifests itself in Oneness Pentecostalism. To the modalist, God exists in the mode of the Father, or the Son, or the Holy Ghost but never all at once. They would say He revealed Himself to us in one of those modes, but there aren’t a Trinity of persons. A Oneness adherent leans heavily on the One part of 1 John 5:7, while disregarding the Three. This is unbiblical. Remember, God the Father, Son, and Spirit all make appearances at Jesus’ baptism. That doesn’t happen if Modalism is correct.
How might a Modalist explain his views? One common comparison is that of states of matter. A modalist might say that the same water molecule might exist in the state of frozen ice in one climate, a liquid in another climate, or even water vapor in a warm climate. The problem? It’s the same molecule. There are Three persons in the Godhead. While it is true these three are of the same essence, nature, persona, and substance, it’s also true that there are three persons, not just one. This example is used by Non-Modalists all the time too, by the way. But it’s incorrect and should not be used by Trinitarians.
Similarly, one might say the same man could be a son, a father, and a grandfather all at the same time. In my case, there are actually 5 generations of Winslett men living in the world. So I am a grandson, a son, myself, a father, and a grandfather. Sometimes people use the “three roles” comparison in attempt to be helpful but I’m sure you see the problem (at least, you ought to). The problem is, that man who bears those roles is but one man. He is not three persons. He is one person with three roles. This example falls short.
In brief, polytheism is the view that the Trinity is actually three gods. This is error, as the Bible is emphatic there is but One God. While a Oneness person might lean too heavily on the One, a Polytheist leans too hard on the Three, without taking into consideration the One. While Jesus was not the Father and spoke of and to the Father, He would also say He and His Father were one. That is, one God.
Partialism teaches that the three persons combined make up the one God. This fails to take into consideration the fact that each person of the Trinity is fully God (as emphasized above). The Father, Son, and Spirit are NOT respectively 1/3 God. Three persons make up God. But God is not divisible. This is often and clearly revealed in Scripture. When the Apostles called Jesus Lord, they literally used a term Jews substitute for the Divine name Jehovah. When Thomas said Jesus is his Lord and his God, he’s referring to Jesus as God incarnate. Jesus wasn’t 1/3 God. He is God.
The comparison I once heard that, unbeknownst to the speaker, taught partialism is as follows. The comparison was made that God was like three ingredients in a shampoo bottle (please, for all that’s sacred and Holy, don’t compare the God of the universe to a shampoo bottle…). As it was said, a shampoo product has shampoo, conditioner, and body wash. But it’s one product. The problem? Well, this is partialism. Shampoo is not body wash. Conditioner is not body wash. Yet each person of the Trinity is God (singular). This also violates the doctrine of Divine Simplicity, that God cannot be divided into parts. Suffice it to say, this is a bad comparison and we should avoid it.
Reinventing the Wheel
While we are not creedal, being historic Baptists, we would be fools to disregard church history. Most of these battles, along with verbiage and comparisons, have been fought long ago and remain settled, period. An observation: Because of a controversy two decades ago among our people in which a certain Baptist confession was misused with a strong Reformed Presby “creedalism” spirit, many of our preachers began shunning the study of ancient confessions and creeds. Again, we’re not creedal. If you’re unfamiliar with the term, spend some time on Google reading what that means. But knowing what ancient creeds such as the Nicene and Athanasian taught about this subject could really help us not repeat the same blunders and errors of church history.
Years ago, a preacher heavily shunned creeds and confessions. Then in a discussion, he made the comment that Jesus was subject to “the lust of the flesh, lust of the eyes, and pride of life” but never acted on it. I was aghast because that was actually one of the tenants of Arianism, which denied the impeccability of Christ (Google that term too). Jesus was tempted in all points, yet without sin, but was impeccable. This brother wasn’t an Arian, but that statement was Arianism. A little study could have helped prevent such. But frankly, it’s no wonder such a mistake could be made if we’re actively criticizing the study of church history and creeds. As I recently blogged regarding the ingredients of communion bread, we don’t exist in a vacuum. We didn’t come from nothing. Learning history helps us not repeat its mistakes.
I’d encourage looking into church history and historic controversies, including creeds and confessions, to learn how people phrased these concepts. It’s much safer than reinventing the wheel and risking a historic heresy.
The Trinity is Like…
The Trinity is like…
…nothing you can explain with an earthly example. You’re ALWAYS on safe ground if you simply proclaim what the Bible says about it. And you’re generally safe learning how to apply what the Bible says through the lens of church history and historic controversies.