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March 03, 2014


Brett is right. Every analogy breaks down. That does not mean that analogies are useless. Brett is right about that too.

Here is an analogy about the analogies.

We've all used maps. But maps are only analogs of the real world. What's more, the flat maps we use cannot be perfect analogs. They always distort, they are always incomplete. It is a mathematical truth that they must be so.

That does not render flat maps useless. In many ways they may even be more useful than a more perfect analog like a globe. You can't fold a globe up and put it in your glove box.

I think the same goes for the various analogies. If taken to its extreme, Brett's analogy is partialism. There are three distinct parts, the sides, but one whole triangle. It's like St. Patrick's clover. But one error that's often made about the Trinity is the claim that the doctrine is incoherent because it is impossible to have 3-in-1 and 1-in-3. Brett's analogy shows that that specific claim is false.

The best policy is to use analogies to talk about specific errors in the doctrine. And then let them go.

An error would enter in in the case of Brett's analogy if we conclude that God must be just like the triangle because we need that to answer the charge of incoherency. But if we let the analogy go just as soon as we establish that there is nothing incoherent about a unity-in-trinity and a trinity-in-unity, there is no error.

It's also worth pointing out that there are quite different analogies that equally show the incoherency charge to be false. I once used an analogy on this site that Amy initially misconstrued as an espousal of Modalism. The analogy was that the same individual can be a father, a son and a husband. This fact shows that the doctrine of the Trinity need not boil down to the assertion that 3=1, as critics may charge. It only becomes a heresy when we go on to say that the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost are in every way like the father, the son and the husband of our analogy. Which we need not do (and which I do not do).

Notice that the Triangle analogy and the Father-Son-Husband analogy both undercut the nonsense claim that the trinity implies that 3=1. They are quite different analogies in their particulars. That just goes to prove that we don't need to accept either in order to reject the 3=1 idea.

I don't know why some people (e.g. James White) have such a problem with the Cerberus analogy. One dog; three persons. What's wrong with that?

I mean, granted, God doesn't have three heads, but that's the only issue I see with the analogy.

And I guess another disanology is that the individual heads belongs to each of the persons. So one person's head doesn't belong to the other two, although one might say the whole body, minus the heads, belongs equally to all of them. But that's just knit picking.

Maybe James just objects to likening God to a three-headed dog because it's a dog, and White finds it offensive. But I don't see why it's anymore offensive than likening God to an inanimate object, like a triangle. It's just an analogy, after all. Nobody is claiming that God barks or drools.

Personally, I find it easier not to use analogies at all, but just to point out that there's a categorical distinction between a "being" and a "person." A being is a thing and a person is a kind. Some beings are persons and some beings are not person. God happens to be a being that is three persons. So…

A rock is a being, but not a person.

A human is a being that is one person.

God is a being that is three persons.

I don't see the difficulty. Here's how I explained it in a Sunday school class one time:


The problem with Cerberus is that, if you take it to the extreme, you end up with partialism. The three heads of Cerberus are three parts of the one dog. No one head is fully Cerberus. But the Father is fully God, Jesus is fully God and the Holy Ghost is fully God.

Of course, you can use the Cerberus analogy to knock-down specific challenges to the doctrine of the Trinity. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that you've got the Trinity covered.


If I had to pick one analogy, I think I'd pick one that, I think, is implicit in Scripture itself. The Speaker, The Spoken Word and The Breath of the Speaking. No one of these can exist without the others. What is more each entails the other two. X is not a speaker unless there is some word that X speaks. A sound is not a word unless it is made by a speaker. One might even go so far as to say that the speaker just is the collection of his words. And words cannot exist without the breathing out of the speaker. At the same time, in speech, breath is not mere exhalation; it is formed into words, indeed, it's difficult to see what spoken words are apart from the breathing out in speech. There is one inseparable utterance with three distinct aspects that imply each other and the utterance itself.


One problem with the venerable "Three Persons, One Substance" formula is that both the terms "Person" and "Substance" are freighted with a meaning that has changed over time. The original meaning of the word "person", or the Latin "persons", is "mask" or "character" or "role", as in a play. If you say that God is one substance and three persons in this sense, you are a full-blown modalist. If you take this analogy to the limit, the One God can change the person He is just as an actor can change roles going from one to another.

On the other hand, today, the term "person" means something like a distinct center of conscious thought and action. If you take it to mean that, you are a tri-theist. For you now believe in three almighties, not one almighty...three all-knowers, not one all-knower etc.

The problem with Cerberus is that, if you take it to the extreme, you end up with partialism.

Yes, there is that weakness. But it's the best thing I can think of to convey the "one being; three persons" thing.

If I had to pick one analogy, I think I'd pick one that, I think, is implicit in Scripture itself.

I'm not sure I understood a word of that. Ha! See what I did there?

On the other hand, today, the term "person" means something like a distinct center of conscious thought and action. If you take it to mean that, you are a tri-theist.

Oh no! I'm a heretic! I've been a tri-theist all this time and didn't know it!

What do you take person to mean? Or do you just avoid the whole "person" language when it comes to the Trinity?

The First Person of the Trinity is the one who said "Let there be Light". He's the Speaker. The Second Person of the Trinity is the Incarnate Word. The most common title of the Third Person of the Trinity literally means "breath". Wherever I see "Holy Spirit" in my English translation, I always think about how "Holy Breath" would work instead. And These three related concepts, Speaker, Word and Breath run through Scripture from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22.

As for "person". I don't have a problem with the term, but just remember its another analogy. The persons of the Trinity are neither modes of the One God, like masks in a play. Nor are they separate consciousnesses, or separate agents. For they are not three almighties, but One Almighty. They are not three all-knowers, but One All-Knower, and so forth.

The idea of person is somewhere in between the contemporary meaning and the original meaning. The closest I've ever been able to come is Dr. Strangelove, President Merkin Muffly and Group Captain Lionel Mandrake from the movie Dr.Strangelove imagine the united consciousness that played those three roles. Not a split personality, not three separate persons-in-the-contemporary-sense. Yet each role is quite different and you can't confuse the one with the other. Even if, at one point in the story, Lionel Mandrake had tried to impersonate Dr. Strangelove, you'd see that they were not the same.

Thus far, of course, we just have a form of modalism. Peter Sellers is just taking off one mask and putting on another. But suppose that we added this: there is no Peter Sellers apart from those roles. There is nothing that could exist if any one of those roles didn't exist. And the roles could not exist without each other.

Of course, this characterization of "person" is just another flat map approximation of the real world of the Trinity. It may serve you well in some areas, but it's guaranteed to go wrong if you stray too far from its intended use.

In some ways, I think I prefer the Greek term "hypostasis", because apart from "a final possessor of essential attributes" I have no attached baggage to go with it as I do with "person".

WisdomLover--that is the most astute and amazing picture of the Trinity I have ever come across. Thank you for sharing it with all of us!

Maybe this is old hat, but has everyone seen this one from Lutheran Satire (the same folks who brought us that holiday gem about Horus).

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