Analogies and the Trinity

A minor dispute erupted on my FB page when I linked to an article criticizing the use of a fidget spinner as an analogy for the Trinity. That article says, “The truth is that the unfathomable and Most Holy Trinity cannot be explained with a mere analogy,” which is true, but which may give insufficient credit to what analogies can do for us in discussing the Trinity.

We know things either by experiencing them directly or by learning how they are like (or unlike) things we have experienced directly. For example, I know what chicken tastes like because I have eaten it many times, and I know what fish tastes like for the same reason. Frog legs, they tell me, taste like something midway between fish and chicken. (I’ve had them once and don’t remember.) So I know directly what chicken and fish taste, and I know what frog legs taste like mostly by comparison, which is to say by analogy.

When it comes to knowing the Trinity, we have an insurmountable difficulty. The Trinity is utterly unlike anything in the realm of our natural experience; those saints who have been favored with a mystical experience of the Trinity found themselves completely unable to describe it. Thus all analogies for the Trinity as a whole fail quickly. The Trinity is not like a shamrock, nor ice/steam/water, nor how you act differently around different people, nor a fidget spinner, nor a triangle.

“Aha!” you may think, “don’t we see a triangle used all the time in discussions of the Trinity?” Indeed we do, but the triangle is not itself meant as an analogy for the Trinity. Instead, it is meant to show the interior relationships of the Trinity–and these interior relationships do have analogies within our experience.

520px-shield-trinity-scutum-fidei-english-svg(From Wikimedia Commons)


First, we know what it means to say that “X is Y,” and we know what it means to say that “X is not Y.” So when we say that the Father is God, and the Son is God, and the Spirit is God, we have an understanding of each of those statements, even if we don’t see how they fit together. Similarly, when we say that the Father is not the Son, the Son is not the Father, the Father is not the Spirit, the Spirit is not the Father, the Son is not the Spirit, and the Spirit is not the Son, we have an understanding of what each of those statements means, even if we don’t grasp how to combine them with the statements that the Father is God etc.

Likewise, we can grasp the nature of at least some of their relationships. The Son is not the Father and the Father is not the Son precisely because of their relationship to each other. The Father is the Father because He has a Son, and the Son is the Son because He has a Father. This father/son relationship is how we distinguish between these two Persons, and it is the only way to distinguish between them.

The relationship of the Spirit to the other Persons is more complex. The technical term is that the Spirit proceeds by way of spiration, which basically means breathingĀ (cf. the word respiration). Since the Father does not have a human body, and since the Son only has had one since the Incarnation while the Spirit proceeds eternally, this can’t refer to physical breath. But whatever it means, this relationship of spirating/being spirated is what distinguishes the Spirit from the Father and the Son.

St. Augustine provided a series of analogies for the individual Persons, based on the human psyche, such the mind, its knowledge, its love (De Trinitate, XIV), but he notes that they are “immeasurably inadequate” ideas (ibid., XV).

We can, therefore, grasp to some degree the individual concepts behind the doctrine of the Trinity, but we cannot comprehend the whole. All attempts to provide a metaphor for the whole either improperly split God into pieces or erase the distinctions between the Persons.

Returning at last to the fidget spinner: What in the true idea of the Trinity outlined above does it help us grasp? The number 3, and nothing more. It doesn’t help us gain any understanding of the mutual relationships which constitute the only real distinctions between the persons, and it is positively misleading in the way it encourages us to envision the Three as One God, and when it’s spun, blending the pieces into one circle, the distinction between the Persons disappears. Better no image at all than one which tells us nothing that we didn’t already know and suggests much that is wrong!

I want to be clear that I’m not attacking anyone who uses bad analogies; I’ve missed my share of comparisons too.

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