IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 11, May 10 to May 16, 1999


by John M. Frame

Much theological energy has been spent on the interesting question of whether there are suitable analogies in our experience for describing the Trinity. The question is probably not as important as it is interesting. God never tells us that we must come up with any such analogy. Rather, he simply presents the truth in Scripture and calls us to accept it on faith.

Nevertheless, teachers of the word of God have the general task of teaching the word to others in the clearest and most cogent way possible. Certainly Scripture warrants the general practice of using illustrations and analogies in teaching. Thus, although we are not commanded specifically to find analogies of the Trinity in human experience, the search is certainly justified.

The problem is that the doctrine of the Trinity has historically defied attempts to expound it according to analogies. Some such attempts have resulted in destructive heresies. The Trinity is very mysterious, and study of it requires particular caution. The suggestions I make below are not intended to carry dogmatic weight. I am only suggesting possibilities, some suggested by others, some from my own reflection.

1. Models

Historically, theologians have sought basic models in creation for understanding the Trinity. Essentially there are two kinds of models. The first is the nature of the human mind, the second the nature of human social relationships.

The first type of model is especially connected with the name of Augustine, who expounded it at great length. He finds unity and three-ness in the faculties of the mind: intellect, memory, will. He also explores the phenomena of self-knowledge, in which we find the unitary person functioning in three ways: the knower, the known, and the knowledge. (I would reformulate according to the categories of my book The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God: the subject, the object, and the internalized norm.) He also explored the nature of self-love: the lover, the beloved, and the love between them.

Thomas Aquinas, although he insisted that the Trinity was a matter of faith, not natural knowledge, nevertheless made the above concepts of self-knowledge and self-love into a virtual proof for the Trinity, starting with the data of natural reason (i.e. the existence of God and His attributes of knowledge and love).

The problem with these analogies, of course, is that they do not account for the New Testament data, in which the persons of the Trinity are actual centers of consciousness, entering into various transactions with one another: the Father sends the Son, the Son prays to the Father, the Father answers the prayers of the Son, the Father and Son together send the Spirit. Indeed, the Augustinian/Aquinas type of model veers toward Sabellianism, a heresy which began in the western, Latin-speaking church, and which has historically posed a particular danger to the Latin tradition of theology. Certainly Augustine and Aquinas were quite aware of that danger and sought to avoid it in various ways, by various detailed distinctions. But when you stand back and look at the big picture they present, the dangers become apparent.

The difficulty is to get sufficient distinction into a model based upon the individual human mind. If you try to emend the model to include such distinction, you might consider the pathology of multiple personality in human psychology, popularly described in “The Three Faces of Eve” and “Sybil.” In these cases, there do seem to be distinct persons living in one body. The different personalities may have different talents, different levels of knowledge, different levels of maturity, and they may behave very differently. Some of them may be ignorant of the existence of the others. Yet in some situations these have been “integrated,” eventually, into one personality.

Of course, in many respects, multiple personality is a very poor analogy of the Trinity. For example, the mutual ignorance among the multiple personalities, indeed their frequent multiple hostility, shows something very different from the harmony of Father, Son and Spirit. But if we consider a situation in which there are distinct personalities which are entirely conscious of one another and in complete harmony, one might have a promising illustration.

We all display different “faces” to the world. We use different vocabularies with different people; we write in different styles. Our sense of humor often varies depending on whom we are with. This is not just play-acting (as on a fully Sabellian analogy). In these variations we display different aspects of ourselves.

Indeed, there are various situations in which we hold internal conversations — conversations that are not redundant, but actually informative. Consider situations when we try to conjure up memories of things. The memory is part of us, but it is also something for which we search. Consider the phenomenon of dreaming: part of us creates the dream; another part observes, and is sometimes surprised by what transpires. Have you ever had the experience of dream reading? One part of you creates a text; another part of you reads it. Thus you dream that you are reading. And there are, we are told, various transactions that take place within us from right brain to left brain and vice versa. Sometimes (often, to be sure, in pathological cases) one part of the brain hears a voice produced by another part.

Again, conceive of a mind which has infinitely more complexity than the human mind, but which is perfectly harmonious and self-aware. Perhaps then you will have something approaching an adequate analogy of the Trinity.

The second type of model is taken from interpersonal relationships on the human level. This is often called “social trinitarianism.” Social trinitarians cite as their theological mentors, not Augustine, but the Cappadocian Fathers who, one generation younger than Athanasius, secured the acceptance of trinitarian orthodoxy at the council of Constantinople of 381. These were Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa. Augustine began with the unity of God and tried to find pluralities within the unity; the Cappadocians, on the other hand, started from the three persons and sought to describe various kinds of unity among them. They began by describing the Father, and his various motives for eternally begetting the Son and for sending forth the Spirit.

The great strength of social trinitarianism is the weakness of individual trinitarianism: the transactions between the divine persons in the Scriptures. Its weakness is the difficulty of finding adequate unity among the persons to justify a confession of monotheism. As Sabellianism was a danger to Western theology, so tritheism (particularly in its Arian form) was a danger to the Eastern theologians. Here, as with the individual model, I think that godly speculation can have an edifying function. For it may be that among human beings there is more unity than appears on the surface. Things could be said about ESP experiences and statements of recent scientists (supposedly based on subatomic physics; certainly I cannot verify it) that all minds may be united at a deep level. But more significantly, we should reflect on the solidarity of the human race in Adam and of the elect in Christ. Certainly this solidarity is federal and representative. But is that all? The representative model has always been troubled by the specter of arbitrariness. Certainly God has a right to appoint Adam as my representative, but does that appointment have any basis in God’s justice and wisdom? I suspect that representation is rooted in something deeper than itself. I am not impressed with Shedd’s attempt to base this solidarity in a kind of Platonic realism, or the attempts of others to draw metaphysical conclusions from our seminal presence in Adam’s loins. But I can’t avoid the conclusion that at some level the human race (and its successor, the Christian church) is far more “one” than might appear on the surface.

When we are in heaven, no doubt we will retain our individual characteristics. But the earthly family will be transcended by the people of God, so that there will be no more marrying or giving in marriage. And the unity among that family will be greater than that of the earthly family: a union that will take away any potential grief over the loss of sexual pleasure. No doubt we will share knowledge and talents on a scale unprecedented in this life. Could such a social system be an adequate analogy of the Trinity? It does seem to me to point in that direction.

2. Vestigia

Vestigia Trinitatis are the marks of God’s trinitarian character found in the creation. If all of creation reflects God’s invisible nature, his power and glory, is there any way in which creation reflects the Trinity as such?

Certainly there are many phenomena what are three in one sense, one in another (or, more broadly, one-and-many). Saint Patrick’s shamrock is as good an example as any. But are there also phenomena which can be specifically related, in edifying ways, to the Trinitarian unity and diversity?

Van Til regards all the world as such a vestigium, in its remarkable diversity-in-unity, which has baffled philosophers through the years. They have wanted to see the universe as one, in order to gain a comprehensive knowledge of it. If knowledge is available to man, they have reasoned, it must be amenable to a single system of rational explanation; and in that respect it must be one. However, it must also have enough diversity to leave something to be explained! That diversity, to the secular philosopher, must be, because of its very diversity, ir rational. Thus the secular philosopher is frustrated, trying to assimilate irrational data to a rational system. Van Til says that the world is one and many, not because it is both rational and irrational, but because it reflects the unity and diversity in God. As such it is not possible for humans to know exhaustively either its rational structure or its irreducible diversity. But we can know in part, as we submit our thoughts to God’s revelation.

I would add that in Scripture there are many triads that reflect God’s Trinitarian nature. The “Lordship attributes,” for example, correspond to the Trinitarian persons in this way: the Father is the planner (authority); the Son accomplishes (control); the Spirit applies (presence). Thus continues the scheme of triads I have developed in The Doctrine of the Knowledge of God and in other places. Note also the pattern of Jesus’ offices (prophet, priest, king), and the major benefits of salvation (justification, adoption, sanctification).

I have speculated on other phenomena in creation that also might suggest the relations among the persons of the Trinity. Vern Poythress has suggested the scientific distinctions between particle, wave and field and has applied them to linguistics (Kenneth Pike’s contrast, variation, distribution). Note also: 1. The three major human life systems: circulation, respiration, brain-nervous system. 2. The primary colors of the cathode-ray tube: red, green and blue. 3. The dimensions of height, width, length. 4. The nine dimensions of some recent physical theory: a trinity of trinities. 5. Husband, wife, child in the family. 6. Intention, action, response. 7. Pietism, Doctrinalism, Social Action as different emphases within the Reformed churches. 8. I, IV, V, the primary chords in music. 9. Human personalities, some of which emphasize the demand for justice, others the expression of feelings, still others the commitment to action. These are components of all of us, but different people tend to stress one or the other.