Human Images of the Trinity (pt. 1)—Our Bodies

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Human Images of the Trinity that are Static (pt. 1)—Our Bodies

One Person, Three Parts, and Related Images
from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity
by William David Spencer

John Calvin begins his masterpiece, Institutes of the Christian Religion, with this insight: “Nearly all the wisdom we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.” His conviction is, “Without knowledge of self there is no knowledge of God.” This is because “no one can look upon himself without immediately turning his thoughts to the contemplation of God, in whom he ‘lives and moves’ [Acts 17:28].”[1]

As if providing illustrations of his observation, my students’ surveys were filled with imagery built on some aspect of our humanity, which served for them as helpful analogical insights into the nature of the Trinity.[2] This chapter examines static analogies of humanity that depict aspects of God, such as ourselves traditionally understood as tripartite beings: a body, infused by a spirit (pneuma), the eternal breath of life God breathed into us (e.g., Gen. 2:7), and soul (psuchē), our temporal life force or self as a human being. We also look at the persons of God from our plurality in unity in groups, such as clubs, governments, armies, or businesses.


In Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins, Zaida Maldonado Pérez reports: “It was only when I attended seminary that I noticed some non-Spanish speaking believers made a concerted effort to refer to the persons of the Trinity by their functions.” Why? “The distinctions had nothing to do with tritheistic tendencies on their part,” but with their quest for “finding orthodox ways for recovering nonsexist language and metaphors for a God that has been reified as male.” So, her fellow students “focused on the economic Trinity, but they embraced the threeness.” Citing Gregory of Nazianzus, she explains, “We all understood well enough that the division in the Trinity ‘is of persons, not of Godhead.’” But though this solution of “referring to God as Creator, Redeemer, and Sanctifier” may have worked for the non-Spanish speakers, it did not work for her. Why not? “Because the Spanish language (and all Romance languages) has no neuter forms for persons and things.” And in her church, she observes, “My own experience as an evangélica was that we do not focus on distinguishing or defining the persons of the Trinity through traditional formularies that assign particular function to each.” She credits this “to our emphasis on the unity of the Godhead versus what to us may seem to be an overemphasis on the distinctions.” She also cites another evangélica who agrees, “I pray to all three [persons]as one, using the different ‘names’ at one point or another.”[3] Words do not necessarily convey the same meaning in separate languages though they may appear close enough to be cognates (words borrowed and adapted from one language to another). Further, the challenges of transfer- ring the significance of the impact of gendered language to those accustomed to non-gendered tongues is even more complex. If we have not grown up with a gendered language, it is hard to understand its nuanced issues. When one factors in that we are attempting an inter-lingual discussion on the finer points of trinitarian doctrine, to say the least, we need to proceed cautiously before we declare we understand.

In addition, assuming that because God created us in God’s “likeness” we therefore have a physical body like God’s spiritual body also does not connect with Christian orthodoxy. None of the persons of God, including the one who would incarnate as Jesus, had “a body” in eternity.[4] This wording more expresses a Mormon idea, as we can see in The Book of Mormon, Ether 3:14–16:

Behold, I am he who was prepared from the foundation of the world to redeem my people. Behold, I am Jesus Christ. I am the Father and the Son. In me shall all mankind have life (light), and that eternally, even they who shall believe on my name; and they shall become my sons and my daughters. And never have I showed myself unto man whom I have created, for never has man believed in me as thou hast. Seest thou that ye are created after mine own image? Yea, even all men were created in the beginning after mine own image. Behold, this body, which ye now behold, is the body of my spirit; and man have I created after the body of my spirit; and even as I appear unto thee to be in the spirit will I appear unto my people in the flesh.[5]

That God has an actual body is probably a misreading by the Mormons of an instance like the apparition of a hand that writes on King Belshazzar’s wall in Daniel 5:5. Verse 5:24 specifies the hand was not God’s but was sent (shālah, “to send”) by God to announce the king’s doom. Further, what Ether 3:14 means by “I am the Father and the Son” is certainly baffling, since today the Mormons’ official website declares: “While some believe the three members of the Trinity are of one substance, Latter-day Saints believe they are three physically separate beings, but fully one in love, purpose and will.” I should note here that this is why I am uncomfortable with “member” language for the persons of the Trinity. It lends itself to tritheism, which sees the three not as permanent persons of a single God but as three gods in agreement.

[1] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, vol. 1, ed. John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, LCC 20 (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 1.1.1.

[2] Some examples are a Greek-Canadian student’s “body, mind, soul = one person,” “one being, three persons,” the divine “one essence, three prosopon (three realities)” as depicted in the triangle. A Haitian student saw the Godhead reflected in our “tri-part being: humans. . . have a soul, spirit, and body; that’s three different things but still one.” An African American personalized the image as follows: “Sam has a spirit, soul, and body but is not separated. His soul, body, and spirit are him. That’s Sam: three things but still one.” Another African American submitted two body-parts images: “head → eyes, mouth, ears” and “the body: head, neck, and body.” This student drew a circle with connecting arrows as follows: “Father → Holy Spirit → Son (Jesus),” depicting the relationships as a “cycle of Trinity,” noting its strength as “interwoven, connecting the cycle/interrelationship.” But its limitation is “explaining the non-hierarchical nature of Trinity.” A self-identified Latin Hispanic student wrote, “My body—I was created in his likeness, so I have a body, soul, and spirit. It’s all me, but they have different uses.” Other body parts offered in class as trinitarian imagery included one student offering one braid of hair with three strands. Another student suggested a hand with a thumb and two fingers and one brain with several lobes. While helpful by depicting a unity with three components, this image must commit selective dismissal. The hand has five fingers, while the brain image suffers from a similar numbers problem. The brain has been commonly identified as having not three but four lobes in its two hemispheres: the frontal, parietal, temporal, and occipital. I discussed in the previous chapter with Mount Rushmore the problem of four not three. So, technically speaking, for any of these examples to be adequately analogous to the three persons of the One God, we would have to ignore the fact that there are five fingers, four lobes, and four faces, and center on only three. But again, they are analogies, not allegories, so they are illustrating one simple truth: plurality in unity is evident all around us, even if the correspondence to the great, unique God is not exact. What is obvious is that this powerful analogy of a body, encompassing God’s breath of life—the eternal, noncorporeal spirit within us, or the temporal life force that animates our being—can work well in an orthodox context, revealing a filling of our being as the Trinity is filled with the perichoretic presence of the three persons who are the one God. But at the same time it is not a perfect allegory, since a body is only a container and not a conscious, dynamic, and completely unlimited spiritual entity.

[3] Zaida Maldonado Pérez, “The Trinity Es and Son Familia,” in Latina Evangélicas: A Theological Survey from the Margins, eds. Loida I. Martell-Otero, Zaida Maldonado Pérez, and Elizabeth Conde-Frazier (Eugene, OR: Cascade, 2013), 54–55.

[4] One student in class told me his pastor taught that after the resurrection Jesus had a permanent spiritual body in eternity. This apparently is a matter of debate among Christian leaders. If Jesus, after “having then discharged the office of Mediator, will cease to be the ambassador of his Father, and will be satisfied with that glory which he enjoyed before the foundation of the world,” as Calvin notes in his Institutes 2.14.3, personally, I don’t see why—as he was previously a spirit before he “became flesh” at the incarnation (John 1:14) and took on the outward form (schēma) of a servant (Phil. 2:7)—Jesus Christ would not return to the preincarnate spiritual state of possessing omniscience, omnipotence, and omnipresence in eternity. After all, if his resurrected body on earth was still located in one spot at a time, as we see in such post-resurrection passages as John 20:24–29, why would he retain that limitation and not receive his omnipresence back when he reclaims the glory of his attributes, which he emptied out in order to become our sacrifice (Phil. 2:7–8) once our redemption is completed?

[5] The Book of Mormon: Another Testament of Jesus Christ (Salt Lake City, UT: The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1968), Ether 3:14–16. Their website clearly states that the Mormons’ “Church teachings about the Godhead differ from those of traditional Christianity.”

This post is adapted from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity written by William David Spencer. If you are interested in adopting this book for a college or seminary course, please request a faculty examination copy. We will also consider requests for your blog or media outlets.

Do our images of “one God in three persons” reflect God well?

Release Date: November 15, 2022

Throughout history, Christians have pictured the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit through analogies. Such illustrations–some from the West but also from Latin America, Asia, Africa, and other places–come laden with theological ramifications that the church has rejected (heresies) or embraced (doctrines). In Three in One, William David Spencer shares a lifetime of insights from teaching within the global church, bringing fresh images and analogies of the Trinity to deepen our theological vocabulary.

Drawing from his extensive teaching in geographically and culturally diverse contexts and his artist’s passion for evocative words and visuals, Spencer offers readers a rich, multifaceted, and practical exploration of the Trinity. Alongside historical and contemporary theology and biblical studies, he considers the strengths and shortcomings of various analogies used to explain the Trinity, such as:

  • Light
  • Water
  • The Celtic knot
  • The totem pole
  • Musical harmonies
  • The human body
  • The family

Readers of Three in One will gain a personal understanding of the Trinity as well as tools for teaching about the Trinity in adult and children’s ministry contexts.



About Author

William David Spencer (ThD, Boston University School of Theology) is distinguished adjunct professor of theology and the arts at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary’s Boston campus (Center for Urban Ministerial Education). He has authored, coauthored, or coedited eighteen books, including The Global God: Multicultural Evangelical Views of God and Global Voices on Biblical Equality: Women and Men Serving Together in the Church, as well as hundreds of publications in journals and periodicals. He has served in urban ministry for fifty-five years.

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