Don’t Confuse the Persons or Divide the Substance
What the Bible teaches about the Trinity is beautifully summarized in the Athanasian Creed: “we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the persons nor dividing the substance.”
First, we must not confound or confuse the three persons in God. The Father is not the Son or the Spirit. The Son is not the Father or the Spirit. The Spirit is not the Father or the Son.
Second, we must not divide the substance. God is one. The Father, Son, and Spirit are of the same substance. There aren’t three substances, natures, or parts in God.
Several common illustrations for the Trinity are dangerous because they confuse the persons or divide the substance. They mislead people to think about God in ways that are not just wrong, but actually heretical. A heresy is not just a false belief; it is a belief that amounts to a denial of Christianity (see “Be Careful What You Call Heresy“).
Illustrations that Divide the Substance
First, the illustration of an egg divides the substance. It goes like this: one egg has three parts—the shell, the yoke, and the white. The problem with this is that the shell, yoke, and white are parts of the egg. Each part is only one-third of the egg. This leads people to think about the Father, Son, and Spirit as three parts of God. But the Father is not one-third of God; he is fully God. The Son is not one-third of God; he is fully God. The Spirit is not one-third of God; he is fully God. The illustration of an egg divides the substance and promotes a heresy called partialism (notice the root word “part”). Not only that, but the mystery of the Trinity should cause us to worship, and I don’t feel very worshipful when someone tells me that God is like an egg! This illustration is no better than saying that God is like a flower with three parts: a stem, leaves, and petals.
Second, the illustration of a three-leaf clover also divides the substance. It promotes the same heresy of partialism. The three leaves are three parts of the clover. Each leaf is only one-third of the clover. This illustration is no better than saying that God is like a pizza cut into three slices.
Illustrations that Confuse the Persons
Third, the illustration of a water molecule confuses the persons. It goes like this: One water molecule can be liquid, water, or gas, but it’s still one water molecule. The problem with this illustration is that liquid, water, and gas are three states or modes of water. A water molecule cannot be liquid and gas at the same time. Liquid water changes into gas when it evaporates, or into a solid when it freezes. The Father, Son, and Spirit, however, are not three modes of God. The Father, Son, and Spirit exist at the same time. The Father never turns into the Son or the Spirit. The illustration confuses the persons and promotes a heresy called modalism (notice the root word “mode” or “state”).
Finally, the illustration of a man with three roles also confuses the persons. I once worked at a grocery store and a oneness Pentecostal came through my line. Oneness Pentecostals deny the Trinity. The man (let’s call him Bob) explained to me that God is a lot like him: Bob is one man, but he is a husband, a father, and an employee. When Bob goes on a dinner date with his wife, he’s in husband mode. When Bob plays with his kids, he’s in father mode. When Bob goes to work, he’s in employee mode. But he’s one person. This is once again the hersy of modalism. Husband Bob, father Bob, and employee Bob can’t talk to each other, because they are the same person! This illustration confuses the persons and is a very dangerous illustration.
How to Teach the Trinity
If you have used any of these illustrations before, you might wonder, “How then do I teach the Trinity?” Here are a few tips.
First, avoid illustrations as a general rule. Most illustrations are unhelpful, misleading, or even dangerous. Masterful teachers can use illustrations well, but it’s generally best to avoid them. God the Creator is not exactly like anything in his creation.
Second, know your audience. Children and new Christians don’t need to learn as much about the Trinity as adults and mature Christians, because they aren’t ready or able to think about some of the “hard things” in the Bible (see 2 Peter 3:16). In my catechism for young children, I include what I think most young kids should know:
5. How many gods are there?
6. How many persons are there in God?
7. Who is the first person in God?
Answer: The Father
8. Who is the second person in God?
Answer: The Son
9. Who is the third person in God?
Answer: The Holy Spirit
10. Who made all things?
Answer: God the Father
11. Through whom did God make all things?
Answer: The Son and Spirit
20. Who did God send to save us from sin and death?
Answer: His only Son
21. Who is the Son of God?
Answer: Jesus Christ
22. Who gave baby Jesus to Mary?
Answer: The Holy Spirit
28. Where did Jesus go?
Answer: To his Father in heaven
37. Who else did God send to save us?
Answer: The Holy Spirit
This catechism will soon be available in print with beautiful illustrations from Brent Vernon.
Third, notice from the questions and answers above that teaching on the Trinity should include teaching on the works of the Trinity. We know that God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit because God the Father sent the Son to die on the cross and sent the Spirit to live in our hearts. The gospel is the best “illustration” of the Trinity.
Fourth, help people to see the persons in the Bible. For example, go to the story of Jesus’s baptism in Matthew 3:16–17. Point out that the Father speaks from heaven—he’s the first person in God. Point out that the Son is in the water—he’s the second person in God. Point out that the Spirit takes the form of a dove—he’s the third person in God. Then reemphasize that these three persons are one God.
Finally, emphasize that we are already immersed in the Trinity. We pray to the Father in the name of the Son with the help of the Spirit. We are baptized in the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. We sing “holy, holy, holy, God in three persons, blessed Trinity.” We can know, love, worship, and adore God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That’s who God is.