Monday, November 18, 2013

The Trinity and Metaphors

            I had an interesting conversation about, of all things, The Trinity, with my children, who are 8 and 4, last night. Now this is a subject that the most learned among us should tread carefully with, so it’s especially interesting when children are involved. Nuance is important when discussing the Trinity. Nuance is not something that most children get. My 4-year old, Lydia, brought the conversation to a halt with, “So Jesus and God are just smushed together!” We all started laughing and well, that was that. Not sure we got any closer to understanding the Trinity, but it was worth a try.
            For thousands of years, theologians and teachers have been trying to explain how the Trinity works. How can one God be three persons at the same time? This seemingly contradictory statement is the clear teaching of scripture. Again and again, God proclaims himself to be one. Again and again, we see the Father and the Son and the Holy Spirit all claiming to be or being portrayed as God. And we see them all together at one time, as they appear so clearly at Jesus’ baptism.
            So before we go any further, let’s make sure we understand the facts about the Trinity, and then I want to tell you why all metaphors fall short, often heretically short, of the true teaching of the Bible. The Bible teaches that there is only one God. The Bible teaches that this one God is found in 3 persons, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. The Bible teaches that these three persons have always existed together. The Bible also teaches that all three of these persons are fully God. But the Bible teaches there is one God. Head hurting yet? If it’s not, go back and read those last few sentences. It is no simple matter, and all attempts to make it a simple matter miss something.
            But that fact has not stopped people from trying to make it easier to understand. Over the years, we’ve seen multiple metaphors used to try to explain this difficult mystery. Let’s look a couple of them, and think about why they cannot be.
1 – One of the most popular metaphors for the Trinity is that it is like H20. H20 can be water, ice, or steam. So God can be the Father, the Son, or the Holy Spirit. But this metaphor falls woefully short of the truth of scripture, and falls into the danger of a heresy called modalism. Modalism says that God manifests himself in different ways at different times. The doctrine of the Trinity says God is always the Father, always the Son, and always the Holy Spirit. Water, ice and steam don’t add up.
2 – I’ve heard people use the idea of a man who is a father, a son, and a husband. So its one man who has three roles. But the Bible doesn’t say that God is one person with three roles. It says he is one God with three persons. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three jobs of God. They are three persons who God is. This metaphor takes away the distinctness of each person.
3 – I’ve also seen the idea of an egg used. That egg is shell, yoke and white. They’re all needed to make one God. But each member of the godhead is fully God. A yoke is part of the egg, but not the egg. Jesus is fully God, not part of God.
            Here is the bottom line when it comes to the Trinity and metaphors. Metaphors don’t work, because there is nothing else like the Trinity. This is what you would expect from time to time from God. There are certain things about God that we can see reflections of in the world, and there are certain things that we cannot, because, well, he’s God. His thoughts are not our thoughts. So until then, we’re going to all just have to kind of grope in the dark as we struggle to understand the doctrine of the Trinity. There is no real way to simplify it, and if you think you have found a way to simplify it, there’s probably a good chance that you have missed something very important about it. Let the metaphors go, and embrace the mystery.