INBOX QUESTION: “Hello Chinaka, I’m a catechist, and since tomorrow is Trinity Sunday, I’ve been thinking of better illustrations to represent the Trinity. A friend gave me this idea “the Holy Trinity is like a Father, Husband, and Son at the same time. (I don’t know if this is correct). Also, I’m bothered as to why the word ‘person’ is attributed to the Trinity (for example, three ‘persons’ in One God). If God is divine, why do we attribute the word ‘person’ to him? Thanks, as I look forward to your response. I need to explain to my Catechumens tomorrow. Kindly reply as soon as possible. Thanks.”
Dear Catechist, thanks for the salient question you raised. I would quickly like to point out that the Holy Trinity is NOT like a Father, Husband, and Son at the same time, nor is the Holy Trinity like an egg with three different parts (this too is a common error). This is certainly wrong. I’ll link you up with other possible errors (or heresies, as the case may be) regarding the doctrine of the Holy Trinity.
To begin with, the mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the “central mystery of our faith” (Catechism of the Catholic Church 234). It is, therefore, the most fundamental. If we get it wrong, then everything else gets obscured or perverted. The Catechism of the Catholic Church (CCC) summarizes the Trinity in this way: “We do not confess three Gods but one God in three persons, the consubstantial Trinity. The Divine Persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire (…) In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature” (cf. CCC 253). These three persons – Father, Son, and Holy Spirit – exist together in complete unity, with no separation, as one divine being. If one of the persons were not there, then we would not have God.
As to your question, I will expose briefly some major heresies regarding the Trinity, which would help and guide us from misrepresenting the Trinity with false illustrations, and consequently, answer your questions. Please, take your time and read along.
TRINITARIAN MAJOR HERESIES
Heresy is an emotionally loaded term that is often misused. It is not the same thing as incredulity, schism, apostasy, or other sins against faith. The Catechism of the Catholic Church states, “Incredulity is the neglect of revealed truth or the willful refusal to assent to it. Heresy is the obstinate post-baptismal denial of some truth which must be believed with divine and Catholic faith, or it is likewise an obstinate doubt concerning the same; apostasy is the total repudiation of the Christian faith; schism is the refusal of submission to the Roman Pontiff or of communion with the members of the Church subject to him” (CCC 2089). Hence, to commit heresy, one must refuse to be corrected. A person who is ready to be corrected or who is unaware that what he has been saying is against Church teaching is not a heretic. Therefore, a person must be baptized to commit heresy. Let us consider the following:
Modalism heresy teaches that the Trinity is not three distinct persons, but just different modes that God reveals himself to human beings. So under modalism, God acts as the Father in the Old Testament, the Son in the Gospels, and the Spirit in Acts and the Epistles. Modalism teaches that one God just changes forms or modes over the course of scripture. Modalism is a heresy because it denies the distinction of God. God does not just change forms but exists as Three Persons in unity. In Scripture we see explicit Trinitarian references, especially at Jesus’ baptism where the Father speaks, the Spirit descends, and the Son is in the water. All three persons exist at the same moment in history. Modalism denies the distinction of the Persons in the Trinity.
Arianism is named after the heretic Arius. Arius was condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD. He taught that the Son was at one point created by God the Father. His motto was that “There was a time when the Son did not exist”. Jesus then becomes a created being and thus less than fully God. Arianism clearly denies the deity of the three persons. Under Arianism Jesus is less than fully God. Unfortunately, Arianism is still around and can found within the Jehovah’s Witnesses teachings. In the Scripture we see “in Him (Jesus), the fullness of God was pleased to dwell” (Col 1:9). Jesus isn’t a demigod or partially god. Jesus is fully God. Arianism denies the deity of each person in the Trinity.
Tritheism denies the unity of the Godhead by saying there are just three different gods. Tritheism denies that there is only one God (that is, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, united as One and having the same divine substance)
1. God is three persons in One (Modalism denies this Truth)
2. Each Person is Fully God (Arianism denies this Truth)
3. There is One God (Tritheism denies this Truth)
Having analyzed the major heresies surrounding the Trinity, it is pertinent at this point to take a look at your question and see where it falls. Also, I will introduce other common false analogies which we come across on a daily basis:
FALSE ANALOGIES OF THE TRINITY
Many of these analogies have the best of intentions, but God cannot be described in a way we can fully comprehend or rationalize. His Being is somewhat of a mystery to us. When we tend to make an analogy about the Trinity we are forced to diminish one of the three Trinitarian truths in order to make the analogy work. Often these analogies explicitly teach heresy.
1. “THE TRINITY IS LIKE A MAN WHO IS A FATHER, HUSBAND, AND SON”
How the analogy goes: “The Trinity is Like a man who is a father, husband, and son. Although he is one he has different roles to different people.”
Your question falls under this analogy. The problem with this analogy is that it denies the distinction of persons in the Godhead. The analogy breaks down because I can simultaneously be a father, husband, and son to any one person. In reality, I change my role depending on who I am interacting with. As a result, this analogy falls under the modalism heresy as explained above. Thus, the Trinity should not be represented with this analogy.
2. “THE TRINITY IS LIKE AN EGG”
How the analogy goes: “The Trinity is like an egg. In one egg you have the white, the yoke, and the shell composing one full egg.”
This analogy, however, interesting and convincing as it may appear, denies the unity of the God-head. The problem with this analogy is that an egg yoke is of a very different substance than a shell. Also, the egg is made up of three distinct and parts. Besides, if we remove the shell of a boiled egg, the egg does not cease to be an egg. This analogy actually teaches the heresy of Tritheism as analyzed above
3. “THE TRINITY IS LIKE WATER”
How the analogy goes: “The Trinity is like water. Water has three states: solid, liquid, and gas. Although if the water changes forms it is still H2O. Just as water changes forms so too is the Trinity.”
This analogy denies the distinction of the God-head. With a rudimentary knowledge of Science, I can say that the problem with this analogy is that no one molecule of H2O can actually exist as solid, liquid, and gas at the same time. As a result, the water molecule must change forms. A single molecule cannot simultaneously exist in three different states. This analogy actually teaches the heresy of modalism.
Unfortunately, NO ANALOGY IS PERFECT. The Holy Trinity is a mystery that cannot be fully comprehended. The Trinity is not a contradiction, but a paradox. God is much bigger and much greater than we can understand and make attempts to illustrate and to be honest, I’m ok with that.
To the later part of your question, as to attributing the word “PERSON” to the divine being, I want you to understand that in trying to describe what is seen in the Scripture, the early Church fathers decided to use the word “Person” to describe the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. When they used the word “Person”, they didn’t mean it in the same way that we do today. When we speak of someone as being a “person”, we often mean an individual who is separate from other people, or we simply mean a human being. But that’s not how they understood it. For them, a person is being who could relate to another. Little wonder, in anthropology, we see a better way of using the word “person”; that is, man is seen as the “human person”. Thus, we can talk of “divine persons”, and this does not mean that we are making reference to humans. So, in God, there are three distinct persons. Yet, these persons are not separate from one another. They are unified in one Divine Being. Therefore, dear catechist, KINDLY IGNORE THE SUGGESTION OF YOUR FRIEND. Hence, instead of looking for illustrations to demonstrate the Trinity, kindly teach the message contained therein, like the Unity, love and communal living etc…
Therefore, the Church believes, then, that only One God exists but this God exists as a unity of Three Persons: a Trinity (FATHER, SON, AND HOLY SPIRIT). God does NOT exist as three separate beings. Instead, each person is co-equal, co-powerful and co-eternal. While each person is distinct, they are never separate from one another.
This is the faith of the Catholic Church, and we are proud to profess it.