A Note on Trinitarian Analogies

There are few, if any, adequate analogies for the Trinity, because nearly every one of them inevitably leads to heresy.

Nevertheless, this does not mean that analogies for the Trinity are unhelpful and inappropriate. We simply need to realize the limitations outlined above. In short, we must not press analogies. Instead, if we constantly remind ourselves, even in hyper-vigilance, that pressing any trinitarian analogy will lead to some form of heresy, then we can be faithful to the revelation of Scripture as we explore the depth and breadth of God’s trinitarian lordship over all of creation.


I just put down Robert Letham’s The Holy Trinity, and while I thoroughly enjoyed it and recommend it as an introduction to the history and development of the doctrine, there is one gripe I can’t seem to lay down. Throughout the nearly five hundred pages of discussion, he faults theologians for using trinitarian analogies that trend toward some form of heresy—usually modalism, tritheism, or subordinationism. Augustine’s psychological analogies, Multmann’s society of persons, and Irenaeus’ portrayal of the creator and his two hands (the Son and Spirit) fit into these categories respectively. Before I get into why this bothered me, let me preface the grievance with a memory.

Years ago at one of Westminster’s Preaching Conferences, I sat in the dim auditorium and listened to Carl Trueman speak about how there are few, if any, adequate analogies for the Trinity, because nearly every one of them inevitably leads to heresy. Ice, water, and steam? That’s modalism. Three human persons from the same family? That’s tritheism. A father and his two sons? That’s subordinationism, or Arianism—take your pick depending on the severity. Even analogies that seem to elude heresy lead us in unbiblical directions. The analogy of a fire, its light, and its heat brings to mind an impersonal deity, not the tripersonal God of Scripture.

So, we leave trinitarian analogies by the wayside, right? Not quite. Trueman’s comment and some of Letham’s have led me to revisit remnants of the Trinity in the world around us, what Augustine called vestigia trinitatis, “vestiges of the Trinity.”He dedicated most of De Trinitate to surmising God’s trinitarian imprints on man’s nature. Most of Augustine’s analogies are referred to as “psychological,” meaning that they highlight trinitarian structures in a person’s internal configuration (e.g., being, knowledge, and will). Because of this, Letham suggests that Augustine’s psychological analogies may trend toward modalism; by foregrounding the unity (being, knowledge, and will are rooted in one person, not three), they downplay plurality, and at least flirt with Sabellian heresy. Is he right? Was Trueman’s rant apropos for orthodox trinitarian theology?

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