Human Images of the Trinity that are Static (pt. 3)
God as Government
One government with three branches—the executive, judicial, and legislative—is another image my students have sometimes cited. The advantage of this image is that the three parts of government are all equal, so one is not subordinated to another. Together they comprise the government. The disadvantage is each branch is only a third of the government.
Further, while one is positing a political image, hearers might be tempted to think of the triumvirate of rulers Rome attempted after the assassination of Julius Caesar, but that would be a mistake. Not having learned the lesson of war among equal rulers with separate wills from the example of Alexander the Great’s generals falling out with each other and plummeting into a struggle for supremacy, this phrasing might evoke such an example of three separate and possibly conflicting wills rather than the one will of God shared in three distinct persons in perfect harmony. Each person contains all the fullness of the Godhead, being not simply a complementary third of deity but together comprising one God. Maybe the phrasing “who are the one God” rather than “within the one God” might work better to avoid sounding like a triumvirate.
GOD AS AN ARMY
This difficulty of maintaining a sense of equality among the Trinity also emerges when we image God as an army. As one student noted, “All are soldiers in the same army, but with different rank.” God is indeed called the Lord of “Hosts” (saba’, “host, army, troop, host of heaven [angels or stars]”) in many passages in the Old Testament, for example, in David’s prayer in 2 Samuel 7:26, when he announces people will extol God with this name. But is this image accurate for the Trinity?
In 2008, at a yearly conference of the Evangelical Theological Society (ETS), the president of the ETS spoke on the theory of rank in the Godhead. He made the following statement:
One characteristic [among the inflexible ordering among the Trinitarian persons]is apparent over and again. The taxis among the Trinitarian persons is marked unequivocally and eternally by an inherent authority and submission relationship that defines, as much or more than any other biblical category does, what constitutes the distinctiveness of the Father, the Son, and the Spirit. Yet, because of strong resistance by some contemporary theologians to this notion of an eternal authority-submission structure to Trinitarian relations (e.g., Kevin Giles, Millard Erickson, Tom McCall, Keith Yandell), I’ve been led to conclude that what we have here is nothing less than the proverbial elephant in the room Without question, one of the most widely attested biblical themes, especially of the Son’s relation to the Father, is one in which the Father, qua (as; in the capacity of) Father, initiates, commands, governs, sends, and in every way directs the Son and his activities, while the Son, qua Son, for his part knows nothing of self-initiative but rather seeks in all he does to do the will of his Father. The Spirit in all of this supports, upholds, and honors the Son in his mission and work, seeking to fulfill the will of the Son, who in turn seeks to carry out the will of the Father The Father is Supreme in Position and Authority among the persons of the Trinity as the Grand Architect, the Wise Designer of Creation, Redemption, and Consummation.
Is this what we saw in Athanasius’ use of taxis? Did the guardian of orthodoxy and great defender of the Creed of Nicea in his 110 uses of taxis ever interpret the Bible to teach Christ had a lower rank than God the Father? No.
 Karl Feyerabend, Langenscheidt Pocket Hebrew Dictionary to the Old Testament: Hebrew- English (New York: McGraw Hill, 1969), 281.
 Bruce A. Ware, “Christian Worship and Taxis within the Trinity,” address given at the 60th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Society, Providence, Rhode Island, November 20, 2008. https://equip.sbts.edu/ SBJT-V16-N1_Ware, accessed Dec. 15, 2021.
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?
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:
- 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.