The Unillustratable God

What do the following things have in common? An egg . . . a pretzel . . . water . . . a man . . . and Aquafresh toothpaste.

The answer? Each of these has been used as an illustration of the Trinity. An egg has three parts—a shell, a yolk, and a white—but it’s all one egg. A pretzel is one long finger of dough twisted into three loops. Under the right conditions, water can simultaneously exist in three different modes: solid, liquid, and gas. A man can be somebody’s father, another person’s son, and another person’s husband—three different names and roles, but one person. And triple-protection Aquafresh strengthens teeth, fights cavities, and freshens breath—thee distinct functions all in one unique toothpaste!

These illustrations of the Trinity have something else in common: they all illustrate heretical views of the Trinity. Not a single illustration of the Trinity communicates what the Bible and orthodox Christianity teach about the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Every single illustration falls short, often leading to misunderstanding, confusion, and a false doctrine of God.

The true doctrine of the Trinity states that there is but one God, but in the unity of that one Godhead, there are three distinct (not separate), co-eternal, and equally divine Persons: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. The Father is fully God; the Son is fully God; the Spirit is fully God. However, the Father is not the Son; the Son is not the Spirit; and the Spirit is not the Father. While there is equality of divine essence, each Person of the Trinity functions in a unique role in His relationship to creation and to each other.

Common pitfalls with regard to the doctrine of the Trinity include: 1) separating the three Persons into independent gods; 2) collapsing the three names into a single Person; 3) divvying up divinity in a way that makes each Person one-third God; or 4) distinguishing the Persons so that the Father is God in the proper sense, while the Son and Spirit are lesser generated beings.

Both the egg and pretzel illustrations divvy up divinity, so each part represents only one third of the whole. The water and man illustrations best fit the heretical view that Father, Son, and Spirit are different modes or names for a single Person. And the Aquafresh illustration? Let’s not even go there.

A Historical Warning

Anybody who has been exposed to church history will recall the heretic Arius of Alexandria. He was the presbyter who taught that the Son was a lesser being than the Father, and that there was a time when the Son did not exist. Arius also insisted that the Son was of a different essence than the Father, but was still the highest of the created beings and co-creator of the universe. Only in a relative sense could the Son be called “a god” by humans. In most respects, the view of the Arians is similar to that of the Jehovah’s Witnesses today. The false teachings of Arius were condemned as heresy at the first ecumenical council of Nicaea in AD 325. From that council we have the Nicene Creed, which confesses Jesus as having “the same essence” as the Father, “God from God, light from light, true God from true God.”

Arius fell into his heresy partly because he built his doctrine of God around faulty illustrations of the Trinity set forth by several teachers before him. For example, Dionysius of Alexandria, who died in AD 263, taught that the Father, Son, and Spirit were all co-eternal and fully God, but he used illustrations and analogies of these relationships that communicated inequality. He said the relationship of Father and Son was like that of a shipbuilder and a ship, or a farmer and a vine. Arius later appealed to the illustrations of Dionysius and other teachers of the third century for his heretical view on the relationship of the Son and the Father.(1) In short, the misleading illustrations of Dionysius and others helped confirm Arius in his heresy.

The same thing can happen today when we attempt to illustrate the Trinity with pretzels, pizzas, or apple pies. It just doesn’t work because every illustration grossly distorts the truth.

The Unillustratable God

I’m a fan of making theology simple, but if it means distorting and twisting the doctrine of God, forget it. I like the view of Irenaeus of Lyons at the end of the second century. After exploring all the various possible explanations for the Son’s “generation” from the Father, Irenaeus urges us to leave the mysterious matter unresolved. He writes:

If any one, therefore, says to us, “How then was the Son produced by the Father?” we reply to him, that no man understands that production, or generation, or calling, or revelation, or by whatever name one may describe His generation, which is in fact altogether indescribable. Neither Valentinus, nor Marcion, nor Saturninus, nor Basilides, nor angels, nor archangels, nor principalities, nor powers possess this knowledge, but the Father only who begat, and the Son who was begotten. Since therefore His generation is unspeakable, those who strive to set forth generations and productions cannot be in their right mind, inasmuch as they undertake to describe things which are indescribable.(2)

I don’t know about you, but I like the fact that Christians believe in a God who is utterly indescribable, incomprehensible, and unillustratable. Think about it: would you really want to worship and serve a God whose very essence can be accurately described by an egg, a pretzel, or a tube of toothpaste?

Let’s teach the doctrine of the Trinity accurately. That means dropping all illustrations of the Trinity from your teaching, because every illustration only distorts the unillustratable God.

NOTES:

(1) See Aloys Grillmeier, Christ in Christian Tradition, vol. 1, From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451),
trans. John Bowden, 2d rev. ed. (Atlanta: John Knox, 1975), 157–158.

(2) Irenaeus, Against Heresies 2.28.6.

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