How often do you use analogies when trying to explain things? I’ll bet you do it more often than you realize.
An analogy involves a comparison between two things, usually for the purpose of explanation or clarification. Analogies are an important part of human thinking. In fact, logician Patrick Hurley says “Analogical reasoning may be the most fundamental and most common of all rational processes.”1
When it comes to the Trinity, some theologians see the pursuit of an analogy as highly problematic, but I think it’s natural that Christians would seek an appropriate analogy to help explain or clarify this vital doctrine. Yet some analogies are stronger than others.
Some time ago a person approached me on social media and asked about analogies for the Trinity. I present the question here along with my reply. I hope you’ll find the topic stimulating.
I know most analogies for the Trinity reflect a heresy, accidentally or otherwise. This is one I thought of and I’m wondering if it’s fallacious.
Humans are often thought of in a dualist nature, but I see a trinitarian nature in us: our soul (mind, will, emotions) = the Father; our physical bodies = the Son; and our spirit = Holy Spirit. One Being, three distinct aspects/persons. Given that we are created in his image and using the principle that God puts most/all spiritual truth in a parable form in creation, it seems that this would be an obvious idea.
A related question I’ve always had is, What is the difference between soul and spirit? Scripture seems to distinguish between them, but that difference is not obvious to me after much meditation.
Greetings. Many Christian theologians today are wary of using any analogies for the Trinity. The reason for caution is that God’s triune nature is unique. So, as you said, some of the analogies seem to have more in common with heretical views (tritheism, modalism, etc.).
However, human beings are made in God’s image—as you note—thus it seems that we can find ways to understand God’s nature by judiciously using analogical reasoning. Analogies by nature contain both similarities and dissimilarities (like and unlike) so virtually all analogies have weaknesses.2
St. Augustine (354-430), who is known for using psychological analogies, postulated a trinitarian analogy of the human mind consisting of intellect, memory, and will. Unfortunately, I’m not sure anyone today thinks of the mind in exactly that three-component way.
Some Christians propose—like you have—that a single human being is composed of body, soul, and spirit (called trichotomy). However, I think you can make a strong case that the Bible uses soul and spirit interchangeably and that everything the soul does the spirit does, and everything the spirit does the soul does. Compare Jesus being troubled in soul (John 12:27) and in spirit (John 13:21).3
Analogies I use with caution include the Augustinian reflection concerning love: the Trinity is analogous to a loving human family (the Father the Lover, the Son the Beloved, and the Holy Spirit the love that flows from them4). I also think threeness and oneness are evidenced in a triangle and unity and diversity are seen in the universe. A trinitarian analogy I’m working on is comparing the three persons in the Godhead to the three transcendentals: the true, the good, and the beautiful. It’s a work in progress.
I hope I’ve helped you think through the issue. Thanks for raising a stimulating topic.
Some Christian thinkers are wary of trinitarian analogies—and with good reason—because many are closer to heretical views. I personally agree with St. Augustine on the matter but attempt to proceed cautiously. Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft says this about analogies: “Analogies are extremely useful, even essential to human thinking.”5
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Patrick J. Hurley, A Concise Introduction to Logic, 12th ed. (Samford, CT: Cengage Learning, 2015), 524.
In logical terms, analogies are best thought of as being strong or weak rather than being good or bad.
For a helpful biblical discussion of the positions of trichotomy and dichotomy, see Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Academic, 1984), chapter 23, 472–86.
See Gerald Bray, “8 Things We Can Learn from Augustine,” Crossway (website), posted November 16, 2015.
Peter Kreeft, Socratic Logic: A Logic Text Using Socratic Method, Platonic Questions, and Aristotelian Principles, 2nd ed., ed. Trent Dougherty (South Bend, IN: St. Augustine Press), 102.