Recently, in honor of the holiday I suppose, I have seen the following video circulating. The premise is that St. Patrick offeres several analogies for the trinity: (1) the trinity is like ice, liquid, and vapor, (2) the trinity is like the sun, light, and heat, (3) the trinity is like a three leaf clover, (4) the trinity is like a man who is husband, father, and employer, (5) the trinity is like the three layers of an apple.
In response to his analogies, two “common Irishmen” berate St. Patrick for offering them heresies. 1 and 4, they say, are Modalism. 2 is Arianism. 3 and 5 are Partialism. Eventually, St. Patrick accepts his defeat, exclaiming that the trinity “cannot be comprehended by human reason but only through faith.” He then goes on to advocate for the Athanasian creed.
The video is cute, funny, suitably profane, and wrong.
Let’s start out with the most basic problem. The reason that the analogies are castigated as heresies is that they do not perfectly describe the relations of the Godhead. Well, big surprise. They are ANALOGIES. Analogies do not perfectly describe the thing they refer to.
Imagine the following conversation.
Person 1: “The relationship between them began to thaw.”
Person 2: “You are wrong, their relationship did not begin to drip. Thawing things drip. Their relationship did not drip, therefore it cannot be the case that their relationship was thawing.”
This exchange would be absurd, and it would be clear to any competent English speaker that Person 2 just does not understand how analogies work. The point is, OF COURSE analogies do not perfectly describe their referent. That is the nature of being an analogy. The problem is that the objectors in the video are objecting to the analogies for being analogies.
Take the particular objections now.
They objectors claim that analogy 1 (the trinity is like ice, water, and vapor) is Modalism. Modalism is the position that God is one person who occupies different roles or modes at different times. Is this what the analogy has stated? By no means. It is entirely possible for ice, water, and vapor to exist simultaneously. It is one substance in three states. This is not Modalism. In fact, it is pretty darned close to the classical formula for the trinity: one substance, three persons. It is not a perfect representation of that formula, but again, it is an analogy.
What about numbers 3 and 5. Here the objectors claim that the analogy is representative of Partialism. One major problem with this claim is that there is no historical heresy named Partialism. (The video hints at this by attributing this heresy to Voltron – not the subtlest of tells). The objectors define the heresy as the denial of three persons in the trinity, and the claim that there are instead three parts to the trinity. Unfortunately for their argument, the analogy has claimed no such thing. Of course the leaves of a shamrock are not persons, but it is an analogy.
Now, why is this worth arguing about? It has to do with “St. Patrick’s” exclamation when he gives in to these rather poor arguments. He abandons reason and throws himself on faith. In the end, this video is a really well done piece of propaganda for the Lutheran view of the contradiction between reason and faith. That is well and good enough. It was created by Lutheran Satire. But many of us who are watching the video should realize that this is not our tradition. Roman Catholics and United Methodists, for instance, do not view a fundamental contradiction between faith and reason. For us the trinity is a mystery.
God is, in Anselm’s lesser used definition, “greater than anything which can be conceived.” But this does not mean that our reason does not participate in the divine reason. We are not limited to silence and confession in the face of the divine. We have a faith that seeks understanding. As we seek this we can (indeed must) deploy analogies, metaphors, etc. in order to become clearer in our understanding of the God that we worship. These will, as analogies are, be imperfect. But that is part of the ongoing discussion. We should not, so quickly abandon the substance of our search and embrace fideism.
So my advice today. Get yourself a shamrock and think about how it is like (and not like) the trinity!