UPDATE: David Murray writes an answer to a question posed at the recently-concluded 1013 Ligonier Conference: “How can I explain the Trinity to a small child without moralistic illustrations or logical arguments that go over their head?” There’s really no explanation of the Trinity that doesn’t “go over our head,” children or adults.
These past couple of Lord’s Days, we’ve been discussing the doctrine of the Trinity in our Sunday class. Unavoidably, natural analogies have been mentioned as a way of explaining this doctrine, especially to young children. But there are many doctrines such as the Trinity that are impossible to explain from our human experience.
Carl Trueman, in his Tabletalk article, “Problematic Analogies and Prayerful Adoration,” explains:
The problem with such an analogy — indeed, with any analogy — for the Trinity is that it is actually more misleading than helpful. What it describes is not really something akin to the biblical Trinity but rather to the ancient heresy of modalism … My point is that analogies for the Trinity are unhelpful because the Trinity is absolutely unique. There is no analogy to the created world that is more helpful than it is misleading … The doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation guard that mystery [of God] because they state biblical truth in a way that is not reducible to the categories of our finite minds.”
There are two very popular analogies that have led many evangelicals way back to two ancient heresies: modalism, attributed to 3rd century theologian Sabellius; and partialism, also taught since the early church.
["Orthodox" might ring "Eastern Orthodox" bells to many. But orthodox simply means "right praise" or "right doctrine." So being an orthodox Christian means affirming "right" doctrine, which accords with God's Word, as against heresies which are false teachings. The word heresy comes from the Greek word hairesis, which means a "sect" or "division" or "faction" (1Cor 11:19); or an outright "destructive" teaching (2Pet 2:1). In 1 Corinthians 11:19, Paul warns the church, "There must be factions among you in order that those who are genuine among you may be recognized." Factions are a means of separating heresy from the "genuine" or orthodox.]
There are two activities guaranteed to teach Trinitarian heresies to our children:
1. Portage Glacier Field Trip
All natural analogies fail to explain the Trinity on two basic fronts: first, all three Persons exist eternally and simultaneously; second, all three Persons are of the same substance as the Father (Nicene Creed). Why is this water-ice-vapor analogy modalist? First, the same glass of water cannot exist as a glass of ice or a glass of vapor at the same. The same glass would only exist as water at room temperature, only as ice at freezing temperature, and only as vapor at boiling point. It is impossible for this glass of water to be a glass of ice and a glass of vapor at the same time! The ancient church formulated these words in the Athanasian Creed (about 6th century):
And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three persons are co-eternal, and co-equal.
But modalism says that God the Father is the only one who has existed from eternity. God the Son only existed when he was born in Bethlehem (or in another heresy, in his baptism). And God the Holy Spirit only began his work at Pentecost. According to T. D. Jakes and all modalists, the three Persons are only manifestations or modes of the one Person of God. Against all orthodox teachings about the Trinity, modalism teaches that the three Persons existed sequentially not simultaneously. A fatal consequence of this teaching is patripassianism, which teaches that God suffered and died on the cross!
Second, although all three states of water consist of the same elements hydrogen and oxygen, they possess different properties, both those visible and invisible to the naked eye. We briefly cite a few of these differences: they exist at different temperatures. Furthermore, the energy of their molecules is different: water molecules move freely; ice molecules are “frozen” in place; and vapor molecules move rapidly.
2. Sunny Side Up Cooking Class in Sunday School
The egg analogy fails even more miserably against two orthodox teachings. First, God is not made up of parts. This begs a bit more explanation than modalism. God declared himself to Israel as one,
Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one (Deut 6:4 ESV).
Paul Helm expounds this doctrine in his Foreword to James E. Dolezal’s God without Parts: Divine Simplicity and the Metaphysics of God’s Absoluteness (Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2011):
For in being the Creator, and not a creature, or creaturely, God does not depend for his existence on operations or forces working upon him. He is not fashioned or the product of parts forming themselves into a unity in an arbitrary fashion. He is necessary, self-existing. This means, for example, that God is not composed of elements that are more ultimate, in a logical or metaphysical sense, than he himself is. It is by attention to such considerations that the doctrine of simplicity has been developed, in order to safeguard that divine sovereignty and transcendence to which Scripture richly testifies. Divine simplicity is not the doctrine that God has no features, an infinite tabula rasa. Nevertheless he has no parts and so is not divisible.
But what of the Trinity? Christian theologians have routinely stated that the threefoldness of the Trinity—that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, each person being wholly divine—refers to distinctions in the Godhead, not to divisions in it. All divisions involve distinctions, but not vice versa. This distinction between distinctions and divisions has been in service in trinitarian thinking a long time; it can be found, for example, in Tertullian.
To suppose that the distinction between the Father and the Son, for example, is a division between them is to suppose that the terms “Father” and “Son” denote different parts in God, each of which is separable from the other. A triune Godhead that consists of a divisible threeness would thus be made up of three parts—Father, Son, and Spirit—who together comprise it. The obvious problem with such a proposal is that it violates the biblical affirmation that God is one, which the doctrine of divine simplicity articulates. Another consequence of supposing a division between the persons is that Father, Son, and Spirit would each be part of God, and so not the whole God, and so not wholly divine (all emphasis added).
God “without parts” is affirmed by the Westminster Confession of Faith 2:1:
There is but one only, living, and true God, who is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions; immutable, immense, eternal, incomprehensible, almighty, most wise, most holy, most free, most absolute.
In his Preface to his volume, Dolezal expands on the doctrine of divine simplicity:
This curious verbiage (“without parts”) signifies the Westminster divines’ commitment to the classical doctrine of divine simplicity (DDS). It is divine simplicity that enables the Christian to meaningfully confess that God is most absolute in his existence and attributes. Adherents to this doctrine reason that if God were composed of parts in any sense he would be dependent upon those parts for his very being and thus the parts would be ontologically prior to him. If this were the case he would not be most absolute, that is, wholly self-sufficient and the first principle of all other things. Thus, only if God is “without parts” can he be “most absolute.” It is this argument that forms the central thesis of this volume: Simplicity is the ontologically sufficient condition for God’s absoluteness.
The doctrine of divine simplicity teaches that (1) God is identical with his existence and his essence and (2) that each of his attributes is ontologically identical with his existence and with every other one of his attributes. There is nothing in God that is not God. The Reformed theologian Stephen Charnock [1628–1680] explains simplicity in terms of God’s supreme existence: “God is the most simple being; for that which is first in nature, having nothing beyond it, cannot by any means be thought to be compounded; for whatsoever is so, depends upon the parts whereof it is compounded, and so is not the first being: now God being infinitely simple, hath nothing in himself which is not himself, and therefore cannot will any change in himself, he being his own essence and existence.”
So how is the egg analogy unorthodox? Because the egg is made up of three parts: shell, yolk, and white. It would not be an egg without all of these three parts. This would teach that God is made up of three parts, all three being separable. Another heretical consequence is that the Father is 1/3 God, the Son is 1/3 God, and the Spirit is 1/3 God, none of them being fully God!
Again, the Athanasian Creed says:
And the catholic [universal] faith is this: That we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity;
Neither confounding the persons, nor dividing the substance.
For there is one person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Spirit.
But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit is all one, the glory equal, the majesty co-eternal.
Second, the egg analogy violates the doctrine of equality in the essence of the three Persons. Obviously, the shell, yolk, and white possess very different physical and chemical properties, qualities, appearance, etc. They are so different and separable that all kinds of delicious food can be made out of these individual parts!
In case you think that I’m being uncharitable and judgmental in using the word “heretics,” consider the words Paul uses against the Judaizers in Galatians 3:1: “foolish” (literally, mindless), “bewitched” (lit. bewitched by an evil eye). Those who are excommunicated and apostates are called Satan’s followers (1Cor 5:5; 1Tim 1:19-20). Disorderly tongue-speakers are insane (1Cor 14:23). False teachers are ministers of Satan (2Cor 11:13-15). Paul also did not hesitate naming names of false teachers and apostates: Hymenaeus, Alexander, Philetus, Demas (1Tim 1:20; 2Tim 2:17; 4:10).
Jesus himself, the epitome of evangelicals’ “God loves everyone” byline, “lovingly” called the scribes and Pharisees some not-so-nice names in Matthew 23: hypocrites (6 times!), children of hell (v 15), blind guides (v 16), unclean, whitewashed tombs (vv 25-27), full of lawlessness (28), serpents and brood of vipers (v 33; John the Baptist too in Matt 3:7), hell-bound (v 33), and cold-blooded murderers (v 35-36).