Tuesday 20 August 2013

Are Analogies for the Trinity Useful, Biblical or Helpful?

Following the writing of my chapter in "Engaging with Keller" on the Trinity, I have been surprised to read that some people have no problem with analogies of any kind for the Trinity. A young man called Daniel Wells has blogged on each chapter of the Keller book and pretty much rejected most things written by each contributor. In critiquing my chapter, which he did not like, he writes: "In conclusion, while I am not necessarily endorsing Keller’s use of the ‘divine dance’ analogy (I think a theological endorsement of a poetic metaphor is somewhat strange), I don’t think a case has been made to show that is undermines or contradicts the ecumenical creeds. Ultimately, I think it is okay for me to teach my children, my church, or an unbeliever about the Trinity by pointing to an aspect of creation and use it as an analogy for the Godhead (so long as it is intelligible)".

Now this kind of comment is not uncommon among well-meaning Christians and it reveals to me, a significant doctrinal downgrade, most especially on the doctrine of the Trinity. I wrote this in the book "Engaging with Keller" on page 98: "We have to be honest. The Western Evangelical church can hardly be credited with top marks for its approach to the Trinity". The popular use of analogies for the Trinity clearly demonstrates an unhelpful approach to defining the triune God. Three of the most common analogies for the Trinity that I have come across are an egg, water and a man.

* An egg which has three parts; the shell, the egg white and the yoke. The Nicene Creed states that "I believe in ... one Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, the Only-begotten, Begotten of the Father before all worlds, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; of one essence with the Father, by whom all things were made". The Westminster Confession states: "In the unity of the Godhead there be three persons, of one substance, power, and eternity; God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit (2:3)". Now as we think of the egg analogy, the three constituent parts of the egg are not of the same substance; the shell is made of one thing, the white of something else and the yoke of another substance. Therefore we conclude that the use of an egg analogy for the Trinity is not only unhelpful, but it is thoroughly unbiblical in asserting that there are three persons of different substances. In effect it is a Tritheist analogy which is heresy.

*Water, which can be found as ice, liquid or steam. These are three different states of the same substance, so this appears closer to what we would need to describe the Trinity, but does it really? As we think through this analogy, again it fails miserably, because it teaches with good intentions by a teacher no doubt, that there is one substance with three different and variable states which can change into something else. Liquid can become steam or ice can become water thus teaching inter-changeable roles or states. But, the three persons of the Trinity do not exist like that. The Father is eternally the Father and he has never been the Son. Similarly the Holy Spirit cannot become the Son or the Father. The three persons are distinct. The Westminster Confession summarises this truth plainly: "The Father is of none, neither begotten, nor proceeding: the Son is eternally begotten of the Father: the Holy Spirit eternally proceeding from the Father and the Son" (2:3). Again this analogy of water is wholly unbiblical and it contradicts the historic Trinitarian Creeds.

* A third analogy I have come across is that of a man. One who may have three roles, yet be the same person; a father, a son and also a husband. What more shall I say? You will have already applied your own powers of logic on this fallacy and concluded "Stop, I cannot stand it!". This analogy teaches the heresy of modalism where there is one God with three different faces. This is plain wrong.

As we have briefly found in this blog post, analogies from Creation which are projected onto the Trinitarian being of God are not useful, they are unbiblical and not helpful. On the surface, they may appear to be beneficial, but upon closer inspection they actually teach false ideas concerning God. The new covenant name of God is "The Father, and the Son, and the Holy Spirit" Matthew 28:19 and this one name distinguishes the three persons. May we pray for a recovery of true trinitarian doctrine that is faithful to historic creeds and confessions in order to provide the church with valuable boundaries for the church's doctrine, apologetics, teaching and worship.

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