Thinking About Three-in-One

I was reading the message board in a popular apologetics forum a few weeks back and came across a question that dealt with the three-in-one nature of God. The question was from someone with a Muslim friend who was questioning whether we as Christians believe God has one “spirit” or three. Her friend’s inquiry arose from the words of Jesus in Luke 23:46, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit!”

Christians must be able to provide an answer to theists and non-theists alike, when certain beliefs we have seem to go against logic – such as the idea of “Trinity” (God as three in one). To someone outside the Christian faith, the idea of “three in one” may be hard to palate: if these Christians believe that 2 + 1 = 1, do they reserve the right to redefine all basic truths? Is this idea of trinity just a convenient construction to reconcile diverse and non-compatible scriptural claims about God? I have always felt quite comfortable with the concept of Trinity but I haven’t spent too much time polishing my explanation. Stumbling onto this question from the apologetics forum served as the catalyst to flesh out my understanding. I’m not sure if the response I provided in the moment was helpful in her situation, but she liked the response, and because I think it has explanatory power, I felt drawn to further develop the idea.

Approaching the idea of Trinity by looking at the “spirit” of each member is uniquely helpful because we may get tripped up over the idea of God (a non-physical, infinite entity) as a physical being. Jesus used analogy extensively in scripture so I believe it is fair to use an analogy to attempt to explain this situation as well:

Imagine that God is a vast, unimaginably large body of water. Floating on the top of the water are His created beings. Let’s say the beings floating on the water are flat, like leaves, and can only see upwards, out of the water. If God wanted to show himself to them, He could cause Himself to become physically distinct from Himself such as forming a steady arc of water that splashes up over His people. This correlates to God coming into the midst of His people as Jesus Christ (God the Son) to relate to them in a new way. God the Son is a distinct manifestation of the Father but has the same exact representation or essence (Hebrews 1:3, John 10:30) – an essence called “spirit”, for “God is spirit” (John 4:24) – this is why it works to look at God’s “spiritual” nature as a uniform substance, like water, in this analogy.  All water everywhere has the exact same structure and attributes (aka nature); when the created beings that are floating in the ocean, ask what they are supported in, or what the arc is, regardless of how much water they come in contact with or what kind of characteristics the water has at different times, the answer is simply “water”. (In our case, the “water” happens to relate to us personally!)

In the Luke passage, Jesus committing His Spirit back to the Father is like the arc of water falling back into the pool, but keep in mind, the arc is not being created or destroyed because the same molecules making up the arc were there before, during and after the splash. (Important, because the Son is not a created being.) And of course, if God wants to continue His manifestation in arc form indefinitely (as we believe scripture testifies to), that is up to Him. God the Holy Spirit is another manifestation of God, one that, according to scripture, remains in a non-physical form, communicates with people directly (on a spiritual level), and can come to live within His own created beings (Romans 8:9). In the body of water analogy, the Holy Spirit manifestation of God is the water that is directly acting upon the beings floating on the water, but underneath, invisible to them. Though unseen, it is supporting them as they bob on the water – a quiet signal to His presence.

All analogies break down, and two-dimensional explanations rarely fully explain the three-dimensional reality, but I hope this analogy can help those looking for ways to explain the three-in-one nature of God.

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6 Responses to Thinking About Three-in-One

  1. A simple analogy for the Trinity is a cast wheel(cast iron, aluminum, vanadium, etc) with three spokes. Each spoke is unique yet the same. Each spoke communes(conjoins) at the hub, each has the same purpose and interfaces with the outside at the rim. Of course, it is nothing like God, but if the challenge is put forth that nothing can be both three and one at the same time, it is a useful counter-example.

  2. jdplett says:

    Yes, there are several analogies in fact, but the challenge for Christians has been to come up with one that does not conflict with the attributes of God found in scripture. A three-spoked wheel or a pie cut into three pieces, while true examples of the three-in-one concept, succumb to a partialism fallacy when it comes to God – each member of the Trinity is not 33% of God, but fully God.

    • But that misses the point. Metaphor is rarely identical to the reality it wishes to explain. But the point of the metaphor here is not to say that God is like the wheel. It is merely to show that the concept of something being three in one is not illogical or unreasonable as is often sugggested.
      On the other hand, I am not sure of what you mean by the partialism fallacy. Fallacy is an error of logic, not fact, at least formally speaking. Further, it is easy to see how each member of the Trinity is fully God in the sense of wholly so, but I am not sure that the sense in which you use it it makes sense at all. I am perfectly willing to believe(and do) that there are things about God that defy our understanding, but what you are saying seems to be fallacious substantially, at its face, in the formal sense. Please explain.
      Please explain

      • jdplett says:

        True, if you are simply providing a basis to show how the concept of “3 in 1” can be coherent, the 3-spoked wheel is a positive example. You’re also right that theological frameworks that are inconsistent with scripture are not called “fallacies”, formally. From a formal perspective I should have used “heresy”. “Partialism” is one of several Trinitarian heresies including Modalism, Arianism, Tritheism, etc.
        http://lifeinchristministries.com/daily-teachings/archives/teachings.php?id=90
        With my analogy, I try to provide a picture of the three-in-one nature of God that combines necessary scriptural attributes of God and avoids scripturally inconsistent ones. As we have both noted, analogies/metaphors are rarely perfect, but there are ones that are better than others in providing a parallel to the objective reality. There may be faults in mine that I haven’t seen (and I welcome these to be pointed out), but I provide it because I think it is better than many.

        • Having read your reference above, I am even more perplexed. The whole point of using a wheel that has been cast is that it is not made up of three different parts. It is a unity. Unlike a wheel made of wood or similar materials, where the spokes are made separately then forced together by glue or fasteners and band, a casting is a single substance which appears to the observer to be made of separate parts and is not. Perhaps, you did not get the rationale behind using a casting.
          The representation is not my own, but quite old, but the use of a casting is my own to overcome the deficiency of using a multi-part wheel, that was not noticed by orthodox trinitarians who used it.

          • jdplett says:

            Yes, you’re right, I didn’t at first fully gather the implication of the “cast” nature of the wheel – that does go a long way to resolve certain issues with the wheel analogy.

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