The Trinity Is...


How would you answer the question, “what is the Trinity?”

You have probably heard answers given by way of analogy. So for example, “The Trinity is like an egg. An egg has three parts (the shell, the white, and the yolk) but these three are one egg.” Or perhaps you’ve heard the water analogy, “The Trinity is like water in its different forms, vapor, frozen, and liquid, but still water.” Analogies can be helpful when trying to describe certain things, but when trying to describe God, they inevitably fall short (sometimes they can actually misrepresent how God has revealed himself). Despite this, analogies to describe the Trinity have always been used, even by the greatest theologians. St. Augustine who said regarding the doctrine of the Trinity, “… in no other subject is error more dangerous, or inquiry more laborious, or the discovery of truth more profitable,” (On the Trinity, I.3.5) likened the Trinity to the mind of man which has the capacity to know and love. (On the Trinity, IX) 

According to Khaled Anatolios, analogy has been one of the greatest frameworks for understanding the Trinity in the Christian West. In the introduction to his book, Retrieving Nicea, he notes that there is another real danger to the use of analogies to describe the Trinity, besides their inadequacy when it comes to describing God. This danger is that God becomes something we classify rather than adore.

Going beyond skirmishes over which analogy is most adequate, one has to question the whole approach in which analogies become the primary location of trinitarian meaning. When the meaning of trinitarian doctrine is located principally in some particular creaturely analogue, it becomes separable from other aspects of the Christian mystery. Instead of trinitarian meaning being embedded in the whole nexus of Christian faith, it tends to be reduced to the features of the analogue itself… At the very least, the doctrine of the Trinity is then in danger of becoming simply another item in the list of Christian beliefs. Thus the Christian would be someone who believes that God created the world from nothing, that Jesus rose from the dead, and that God is in some way like a shamrock leaf (or human consciousness, or human relationships).

What is Anatolios saying here? He is saying that the emphasis on analogy to describe the Trinity can often lead us to separate the doctrine of the Trinity from all of the Christian life. God becomes something we try to explain, more than someone we try to adore. This certainly does not mean that we can’t use analogies, or that we can’t say things about the Trinity (we should stick to what Christians have said before us in the Ecumenical Creeds of the church), but it does mean that we must not separate the mystery of the Trinity from the whole of the Christian faith. We worship Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, The Trinity, One in Essence, and Undivided. Less to be explained (especially when the explanations lead us into speculation) and more to be adored! This is why in our worship services, we call upon the Trinity through prayer, and song.

What is the Trinity? If the first thing that comes into your mind when you consider that question is an egg, or an ice cube, then perhaps you too have fallen prey to the danger that Anatolios highlighted. The doctrine of the Trinity should be embedded in our worship, and in “the whole nexus of our faith.” We should spend more time adoring the Trinity than we do speculating about it, searching for earthly analogies. Therefore, the Triune God is to be worshipped! “We worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance,” and this adoration encompasses every aspect of our faith.

Adriel Sanchez