Wrestling with the Trinity: Truth, Myth or Metaphor?

Copyright Steve Wall (Flickr)

My first run-in with trinitarian theology happened sometime around the fifth grade when my Sunday School teacher tried to explain the concept in a way that prepubescent boys would understand.

He failed miserably. He used a water metaphor. If three individual drops of water are put into a bowl, he said, they become one, but there are still three drops of water in the bowl. Most of us in the classroom were confused. For a long time, I chalked up his failure to communicate the Trinity to his shortcomings as a teacher and theologian for preteens. Now, years later, I realize the problem wasn’t him. It was the entire concept.

To many outside Christianity, the Trinity seems a lot like polytheism or at least tritheism, some kind of divine triumvirate as it were. If we can manage to bracket momentarily all the theological loopholes and dodges we have been taught, we have to admit that these critics have a point. To be honest, the Trinity is one of those extrabiblical or inferred concepts, like penal substitutionary atonement, that makes less sense the more it is analyzed. To the uninitiated, it can seem like a fanciful myth Christians have created rather than sound theology.

Over the years, I’ve encountered any number of explanations for the Trinity. That there aren’t three divine beings, but just three modes of one being — the same thing in different form or manifestation. Or, conversely, that there is just one mode of three beings — different beings unified in thought and action. St. Patrick, legend tells us, used a shamrock to illustrate it, and the early church fathers explained it as a divine dance, perichoresis.

I’ve been over the different traditional explanations time and again. But just as when I was a fifth-grader, each explanation I encounter today still seems to lack something, and it can even be difficult to square trinitarian concepts with Jesus’ own profoundly human interactions with God in the gospels. The point of the Trinity, I’ve been told, is that the basis of God is relationship, perfect harmonious relationship, to which the church should aspire.

I think this is a compelling interpretation, but how difficult is it, exactly, for Godhead to be in relationship with each other when each is always agreeing with itself? That’s not how most of us experience relationships — free of conflict, disagreements and compromise. I can’t help but wonder if this lens of understanding the Trinity with its eternal divine agreement of will and purpose is rather disempowering to those who slog it out in marriages, friendships and parishes with the tenacity, resilience, debate, disagreement and compromise that real relationships require.

So, no, in such cases, I don’t believe in the Trinity.

But, then again, I do.

To me, the Trinity is a metaphor by which finite beings can understand a piece of the infinite mystery called God. It is the metaphor that directs us toward each other rather than away, the metaphor that keeps us from tarrying too long on the mountaintop where it is safe. And it is a beautiful, profound metaphor that has more power than whether the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are actually dancing around heaven and earth in perfect harmony, whether they are sprouting leaves from the same shamrock stem, whether they are droplets of water that exist together and separately.

And, truly, this is all theology really is — a metaphor that points to something beyond it, something it fails to grasp completely, but that at least tries to grapple with.

This is the problem with theologians who try to use metaphors to explain what is already a metaphor, or when theologians attempt to parse the exact nature of the metaphor. A metaphor of a metaphor only muddies things more. In essence, the Trinity is a metaphor about relationships. It is a metaphor that directs us toward each other rather than away, a metaphor that keeps us from retreating into solitude whenever relationships grow difficult.

Problems occur, though, when we begin to use the metaphor to exact a precise definition or formula for what and who God is. That’s not a what metaphor does. A metaphor isn’t meant to be believed in. Rather, it is an arrow pointing toward something ineffable behind it.

The metaphor of the Trinity isn’t meant to explicate God, but to guide us toward what it means to be more fully human. The trinitarian metaphor doesn’t tell us about God. It tells us about ourselves.

So, when I say the bit about the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the Nicene Creed, I suppose there is a part of me that doesn’t believe in it literally as some might expect. Yet, I confess the Trinity with a clear conscience, because I believe in that to which this metaphor points, because I believe in what the metaphor says more than what it is.

Essentially, the Trinity says what our sacred text says at its opening creation myth: that it is not good for humans — or God for that matter — to be alone; that meaning is created in community and through relationships; that we do better as creatures when we join hands rather than raise fists.

May they and I be confident that the Trinity isn’t real at all, but that it is more than real.

About David R. Henson

David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalists. He ordained in the Episcopal Church as a priest. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student.

  • Lee Harmon

    I agree; perhaps a metaphor that needs another metaphor to explain it needs an overhaul.

  • ieh

    What if:
    St. Patrick pulled, quite randomly, a rarer four-leaf shamrock.
    Would like to hear that story…….

    • Mahjong2012

      Three leaf, but I don’t believe any of it so…. I am only here because my friend is a pastor and I love him… not the religion…

      • axelbushing

        beyond be-leaf?

  • http://www.facebook.com/rose.akerman Rose Akerman

    The belief in a “trinity” was solidified when the Emporer Constantine decided it should be. He came from a polytheistic culture, and believed himself to be a god.. so he didn’t have any problem with there being a trinity.

    • Texasdoc

      Rose, please expand your bibliography beyond Bart Ehrman and Dan Brown.

      • David R. Henson

        I expect a more courteous dialogue on this subject. If you care to expand your own comments beyond such pettiness, I’d welcome it. I believe we can disagree respectfully.

      • Jeff Fletcher

        Hello, Texasdoc- I don’t mean to intrude on your dialogue with Rose but I thought I’d offer some bibliographical info… When Jesus Became God by Richard Rubenstein is a good place to find some historical background on the Arius/Athanasius conflict that serves as a backstory to Nicea. Also, the Jesus

      • Jeff Fletcher

        sorry… the Jesus Wars by John Jenkins.

      • Jeff Fletcher

        AD 381 by Charles Freeman carries the them forth from Constantinople as well. You can’t separate the trinity dogma formation from politics.

  • Telehope

    The author could appear clearer, if s/he gives a historical review to show why certain people say certain things about trinity.

  • Texasdoc

    It is hard to know even where to begin when criticizing this essay. To the author I would simply say, you are clearly unaware of the rich theological tradition surrounding trinitarian theology and all of the nuances regarding the nature of analogical language concerning God. To whoever is responsible for publishing this stuff I would simpl say – seriously?

    • http://www.facebook.com/rose.akerman Rose Akerman

      You seem unaware that there is a “rich theological tradition” of perhaps even longer duration of “unitarian” theology. The trinity was adopted as the political decision of it’s time which united and strengthened Christianity.

      • Texasdoc

        You nailed it! I’ve never read any of the primary source material relevant to this issue. Nor have I heard your perspective before. How original and full of insight.

      • David R. Henson

        I expect a higher level of respectful dialogue here, TD. There’s no reason for insulting language and sarcastic retorts you are demonstrating here.

      • Texasdoc

        You are right, and I apologize for the sarcastic tone. However, I was really surprised when I read this essay, and I agree with Robert Hunt above when he suggests that it betrays ” failure of theological education, or a failure of self-disciplined thought, but not of the doctrine itself.”

        The Triune God is, indeed, a mystery. However, the doctrine of the Trinity, in its classic formulation, was always intended to guard and protect the mystery of God. It does not need to be tinkered with or apologized for. Certainly, we can make progress in theology, even in Trinitarian theology, but progress cannot be achieved if we do not know where we have been. There is no need to re-invent the wheel and make the same mistakes over and over again.

        Theologians have, for millennia, understood that Trinitarian language is “analogous” language. As such, our language about God can be true to God’s self-disclosure in scripture without exhausting the mystery. Augustine himself wrote that “a comprehended God is no God at all.” And of course, Augustine believed that God is Triune.

        What astonished me most about this essay, and about the comment by Rose, was the authoritative tone used. This is why I could think of little else to say besides – “seriously?”

        How can you speak so authoritatively about such things? Even on the issue of Constantine and Nicea, do you know how vast and sophisticated the literature on this subject is? Have a little humility when speaking about such things, and I will refrain from the sarcasm. Actually, I will refrain from the sarcasm and lack of humility regardless of your response, but a little humility from you when writing essays about God’s nature would be much appreciated, as well.

      • David R. Henson

        In the post, I move from wrestling with a sense of concreteness with the Trinity that pervades much of Christianity to a sense of metaphor and mystery. I am essentially moving from a position where the Trinity is used as concrete reality to a position where the Trinity is a metaphor that points to something ineffable behind it. That is the narrative movement in the post.

        I am not engaging in a literature review on the subject, but offering an exceptionally brief blog post on my engagement with it. (Notice I move from fifth-grade to my now post-graduate self in the ordination process — it’s a lot of ground that I skip to make a simple point, admittedly. I can’t rightly engage the vast literature on it in a 600-word post whose intention is narrative in nature)

        As far as I can tell, we actually agree on that point: that attempts to move theology and language about God outside of the realm of metaphor (or analogy if you prefer … they are the same thing) is indeed arrogant, that our theological language cannot exhaust the mystery of God.

        My point that you might take issue with is the notion that metaphors of metaphors (or analogies of analogies) are by their nature unhelpful. Using a metaphor to explain a metaphor is to engage in mixed metaphors, a big no-no in the writing world.

        So I argue in the post to let the Trinity metaphor of God to stand as it is, as a metaphor. I argue to allow the metaphor to point us to the mystery and not allow ourselves to get caught up in the metaphor so that we argue about the precise nature of the metaphor to the point that we miss the mystery.

        I don’t think this is arrogant at all, but affirms human’s inability to make sense of the mystery of God. You accuse me of a failure of theological education. Based on your response, I might accuse you of a failure of reading comprehension. That would be unfair, though. My guess is we actually agree on the end point — maybe not in how I get there — and you’re not giving the post a fair reading based on how you perceived the issue to be framed by the post.

        Though I appreciate you dialing back the sarcasm, I do find it ironic that you request that I have humility when speaking when you have shown none on your own in engaging with folks on this blog and have bordered on ad hominem comments. In essence, you have engaged in this dialogue as an authority — under an anonymous handle — while criticizing everyone else for having the same confidence in their thoughts, often assuming that those with which you disagree are uniformed or have not read as much as you have or a negligently ignoring it.

        You encourage me to have a little humility when engaging in complex issues with vast literature. Let me encourage you to have a little humility when engaging with complex people with vast histories, reasons and understandings.

        To judge Rose so harshly and anonymously, based on a three sentence comment, is the height of arrogance, in my opinion.

  • Reved up

    I think this essay is a great example of what it is to think through the meaning of New Testament Church theology. While I don’t agree with some of what the author has said, I am engaged to consider why. One of the reasons why I don’t agree is the concept that you can’t see conflict in the trinity relationships. But have you considered the Gethsemane story. Jesus interacts (in relationship) with the Father and the Spirit in a way that set him up to be able to go through the passion, death and resurrection in conflict with the Father and the Spirit. Tertullian spoke of the fact that the passion death, and resurrection are significant parts of the Godhead relationship. Since he is the one who gave us this ‘inferred’ doctrine, I guess it would be good to consider what he has to say about the whole thing.

    • David R. Henson

      Now I wish I hadn’t cut the two paragraphs where I discussed Jesus interactions with God like the ones you mention!

  • Robert Hunt

    There is something particularly post-modern into turning a doctrine into a metaphor about human relationships, and particularly modern about turning the effort to speak meaningfully about God into talking about the nature of our humanity. Engaging in theological reflection is first and foremost a form of worship, a way of loving God with our minds. And to do that we must begin to comprehend how God who has revealed God’s self can be in our world (and the world of our minds) while being incomprehensibly different from our world. The narrative version of reflection, and its source, is the story of Jesus within the Christian version of the story of the entire Bible. The Trinity is a formulation of the central truths about God found in that story, now expressed in the form of philosophical or doctrinal language. It is not a metaphor. It doesn’t “point” us to truths beyond words. It expresses in the only possible rational language the reality of the God revealed in Jesus Christ. This sets it apart from “extra-biblical” doctrines like that of substitutionary atonement. These doctrines were efforts to make the work of Jesus comprehensible in a particular cultural environment, and become meaningless and harmful when that environment changes. The doctrine of the Trinity is not culturally bound, but is central to authentic Christian witness about God. It may require new expressions within the limits of culture, but you cannot be Christian without it. To say “Christ saves” is to say, “God is Trinity.” A failure to draw the line from one to the other is a failure of theological education, or a failure of self-disciplined thought, but not of the doctrine itself.

    • David R. Henson

      From my reading of church history, the formulation of the Trinity was very much influenced by culturally bound questions of philosophy. All theology is a metaphor for something we ultimately cannot fully know. When you get down to it, all language is metaphor.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=100000293744012 Thomas West

        David, Once again you make an argument that is a challenge to foregone modern (+100 AD) assumptions within the family of God through Jesus Christ. I have to say it was an enjoyable read and great exercise to think about what you are positing. My only hope is that when a fellow believer in Christ read what their brother has written they have an open mind and are willing to see without fear, what their brother thinks. Who among us is the greatest disciple? None, which is why there where 12, and then 11 and not 1. Well said my friend, again it was a good read. Careful down the path though, down that path are fruitless exercises in thought because we cannot, or should not attempt to understand. Remember, we were told that we could not possibly understand things eternal, in fact we could not possibly understand things of this world, let alone the next.

  • Catherine

    @ Robert Hunt who writes “narrative version of reflection, and its source, is the story of Jesus within the Christian version of the story of the entire Bible”. Robert gives the key – the ENTIRE Bible. It is centered in John 1. The Word was always. Without this understanding the Hebrew scriptures make no sense. God had one plan and Christ is present throughout. Another writer on another topic wrote “It is one thing to study God. It is entirely essential to experience God”. I think that is the piece that is missing here.

    • David R. Henson

      If I’m understanding you correctly, you are saying that the Hebrew Scriptures only make sense through the lens of Johannine Christianity. If this is what you are communicating here, I register strong disagreement and think this does a disservice to Judaism, the faith to which Jesus ascribed. In essence, what this assertion seems to say is that Judaism is incomplete without Jesus as described in John 1.

      • Ed Pacht

        Well, David, as I see it, this is indeed a major difference between orthodox Christianity, of the Christianity expressed in the New Testament, and Judaism, one that simply can’t be shrugged off. Judaism, quite obviously, treats of itself as complete in itself, but Christianity has always had a somewhat different view. Jesus Himself, commenting on the Scribes and Pharisees in searching the Scriptures, is quoted as saying, “They are they which testify of me.” St. Paul often makes a similar point. One can have the highest respect for the Jewish tradition (I certainly do) and yet recognize that it indeed is not complete without Jesus as described in John 1. We can (I have) learn a great deal from Jewish teaching and practice, and, for that matter, from many other religions, but Christianity, form NT times and on, has always revolved around the person of Jesus, not so much doctrine or practice, though neither of these is to be neglected, but through worshipful relationship with his person.

        I’m no more insulting or belittling Jews in claiming that they err in leaving Jesus out than I am insulted or belittled when they do not accept Him in the role I think essential.

  • Catherine

    Considering the confusing manner the above is written, I checked your nbio.
    “David Henson received his Master of Arts from Graduate Theological Union in Berkeley, California, after receiving a Lilly Grant for religious education for journalist. He is currently a postulant for the priesthood in the Episcopal Church and writing his first book. He is a father of two young sons and the husband of a medical school student”
    As a retired educator in Language development, may I suggest that you never try to explain the Trinity to a new believer.

    • David R. Henson

      I hope to never underestimate the ability of the people in parish to wrestle with difficult and complex topics of faith.

    • MJ

      ……….. explain to a new believer? Why not? I think “trinity” as a basic concept of Christianity should be part of those creeds that each believe should get to fully understand. I really have interest in it and I want to know about it so that I can also depend it any where I find myself. The challenges concerning the mystery of trinity is getting out of hand. Please educate us more.

  • Remliw

    My own interpretations of the parts of the Christian Scriptures that have been used to develop a doctrine of the Trinity that goes beyond the testimony of Scriptures themselves are completely heretical. Thank God for the diversity of his creation!

  • http://samuelamannauthor.com/ Samuelamannauthor

    The Trinity is explained in SPIRIT AND TRUTH by Samuel Mann. If the “Father” is understood as that which existed before “things” – as described by Boehme as a “No-thing” or “Nothing” in which all exists but is not yet manifested – - then the Son is understood as the beginning of consciousness (or that through which all things were created and through which we are all connected) – - and the Holy Spirit is considered as the power or causative factor or energy within all things (as science says matter is energy) – then you have the Trinity. Jesus never claimed to be God but always referred to the “Father” as that which worked through him. Jesus was the first human to complete the cycle where the original consciousness that is the “Son” – and was contained in the body of Jesus – returned to the Father, thus establishing the Christ Consciousness for humanity. This is the meaning of the atonement or at-one-ment or the establishing of the “Way” in which every human can become one with God – something that was not possible before Jesus. SPIRIT AND TRUTH also explains the Immaculate Conception and other spiritual truths that are beginning to be recognized more frequently by individuals as the “new age” of consciousness proceeds through 2012 and beyond.

  • Jeff Fletcher

    Enjoyed the piece, Mr. Henson. You might enjoy The Metaphor of God Incarnate by John Hick.
    I agree that to try to understand the trinity as literally true makes it unintelligible. I think the true humanity of Jesus has suffered for it. I think the true beauty of Jesus is that he shows how a fully human person can be fully connected to God and shows us how to achieve our full human potential or divinization.


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