Ask any children’s Sunday school teacher what the most difficult thing to teach is and he will almost certainly tell you: “The doctrine of the Trinity, that God is one but exists in three persons.” Ask them how they do it and you will probably find them outlining an analogy: “God is like water, ice, and steam” is one of the more popular.
The problem with such an analogy — indeed, with any analogy — for the Trinity is that it is actually more misleading than helpful. What it describes is not really something akin to the biblical Trinity but rather to the ancient heresy of modalism. The detailed problems of this heresy, which sees God as one and as turning from Father into Son and then into Holy Spirit, need not delay us here. My point is that analogies for the Trinity are unhelpful because the Trinity is absolutely unique. There is no analogy to the created world that is more helpful than it is misleading.
Another area where Christians are wont to use analogies is that of the incarnation. Here the analogies often flow the other way: the created realm is not used to explain the incarnation so much as the incarnation is used to explain some aspect of the creation. Thus, some have argued for an incarnational analogy as a means of understanding how the divine and the human relate to each other in the doctrine of Scripture, given that the Bible has both human and divine authors. There is no monopoly by one party in the church. Liberals have used this notion; but so did the orthodox Dutch theologian Herman Bavinck. Others have used the analogy to explain the relationship of Christ to culture. Still others have used it as a means of explaining how the eternal God works in the flux of history through providence.
There are theological arguments pro and con for these various uses of the incarnational analogy, and I will not rehearse them here. I want rather to make a simple point relating to these analogies from the perspective of the church’s praise: the Trinity and the incarnation are unique, and that is why the church had to develop particular and precise means of articulating them. We should also remember the dynamic that drove the debates that led to these formulations: Christian worship. The early church needed to know what she meant when she declared: “Jesus is Lord.” and why she baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. If analogies therefore serve to reduce the uniqueness of God and the incarnation, they will eventually shape the church culture in ways that impact our worship. Whatever the problems with popular uses of theological analogies, the key practical issue is the way such watering down of uniqueness will also water down the church’s praise.
Vital to worship is the acknowledgment of the vast difference that exists between God and His human creatures. Part of that difference is the fact that He is the Creator and Sustainer of all that is, while we are creatures and sustained in our being by God. Part of it is moral: He is holy, but we are sinful. Part of it has to do with salvation: He is the gracious Savior, and we are vessels of grace. In all three categories, mystery and incomprehensibility provide the backdrop to His action in history.
The doctrines of the Trinity and the incarnation guard that mystery because they state biblical truth in a way that is not reducible to the categories of our finite minds. The result of that for the Christian is surely not to be confusion but adoration. The failure of our intellects to penetrate these mysteries is vital to our Christian lives because that very failure is what drives us to our knees in gasps of adoration, praise, and wonder.
My conviction is that analogies blunt this. By reducing the distance between creation and God, they somehow make Him more manageable, more amenable to our ways of thinking, and thus take some of the urgent spiritual hunger away from our praise and adoration. This is not to argue for fideism, to say that the more mystical our faith, the greater our praise. But it is to say that there is an appropriate place for mystery and uniqueness that must be maintained if our worship is to be truly Christian. The task of the teacher is not to explain the Trinity or incarnation, or reduce them to creaturely categories; it is rather to point to the splendor of the same as a means of provoking awe and wonder in the congregation.
When we talk of God, we should remember we walk on holy ground. We can go only so far before we have to stop and fall on our faces in adoration. As Gregory Nazianzus, an early church father, said of God as Trinity: “Every time I think of the One, my mind is drawn to the Three; yet every time I think of the Three, my mind is drawn to the One.” He could not explain the Trinity; he could simply worship and adore the Three in One and the One in Three. The mystery, the boundary of incomprehensibility, was to him a reminder that he was not God. The maintenance of such a boundary is crucial. Let us not allow any attempt to communicate the faith to become by accident a means for domesticating the faith.