Is Using No Images for the Trinity the Best Policy?

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from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity
by William David Spencer

Since 1992, I have been starting off the Trinity sessions of my first systematic theology course each year asking students what images and illustrations they use when they teach in their churches or in their homes. Each time a student would introduce an illustration new to me, I would write it into the growing list in my lecture notebook. I became more intentional on taking a sounding of my student views and, as a result, made up a simple, four-question survey:

  1. What illustration or image do you tend to use when describing the Trinity?
  2. Does this differ if you are talking to a child, an adult, or someone well-schooled in the faith like a seminarian or pastor? If you use different illustrations, what do you prefer in each case?
  3. Do you prefer images that move or change (e.g., are fluid), have parts (e.g., are static), or something else?
  4. What do you like to emphasize about God’s nature in your illustrations? What limitations do your images have?

I also inquired about their ethnic background, and that was it. I was only trying to sample what was reflected in various churches, since my students are multicultural adults, and many are already pastoring or helping pastor ethnic churches when they arrive at Gordon-Conwell’s Boston campus. Furthermore, I wanted to include contemporary students’ ideas along with scholarly and early church perspectives.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when one of my Brazilian students handed back the survey with one line scrawled on it: “I don’t use one. It’s a mystery.” A Nova Scotian Acadia Divinity College student expanded the reason for rejecting images: “I do not, but I might say something like: A number of people will use various illustrations. However, to my knowledge, they all lead to heresy if they are pushed at all. If you find one helpful, that is fine. Do not rest your faith on it or think that it accurately pictures the Trinity.” This student, who signed his name, was serving as a denominational representative and had obviously been thinking over the dilemma when he added some thoughtful advice: “Then I give ten-second versions of the egg; clover; man, father, husband; source, score, sound; pie.” For kids, he recommended two images, “egg and man-father-husband, but with qualification,” and for general preference, “I prefer music because it is less physical. I prefer non-physical images (abstractions)” stressing “unity (oneness).” Still his first preference was not to use any images at all. Back in Boston, a Caucasian student who picked “water as solid, liquid, and gas” as the preference did not extend that image to children, deciding to protect them against imagery. That student explained, “I probably wouldn’t use an illustration for a child—just describe three persons living together as one, leaving the mystery in place.”[1] (Of course, that is itself an image.)

More and more recently, I began noticing a surprising dearth of images and illustrations both in my student survey replies as well as in the majority of recent books, which are often straightforward doctrinal discussions (including those with reader-friendly contractions).

One of our own pastors shared with me his concerns. He felt that analogies don’t tell us anything deeply profound about the Trinity because they are balancing two referents with often only a single connection between them. So, one sees the connection but doesn’t really learn anything deeper about either referent that is being compared. The connection’s information, while interesting, is shallow.

His concern here is clearly distortion, and in theology that means heterodoxy. The theme of avoiding heresy as a reason for discarding the use of images has come up repeatedly as a reason not to use images at all in describing the Trinity. Many students have returned blank surveys, which was a mystery to me. What I wanted to learn is what they initially brought to class: what they had been taught and what they were themselves teaching.

Some of this mystery began to disappear when several students (and even some colleagues) began pointing me to “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” Hans Fiene’s entertaining, clear, and provocative cartoon that illustrates this point: “The problem with using analogies to explain the Holy Trinity is that you always end up confessing some ancient heresy. Let the patron saint of the Irish show you what I’m talking about.” And show us it does, with two rural cartoon rustics confronting the saint with a plea to explain the Trinity, then charging him with one heresy after another for each image he uses.[2]

But that a proclivity toward thinking use of analogy leads to heresy is not the only concern my students shared. Another recurring theme, expressed succinctly by a Korean student, was, “God is a mystery. We cannot understand how one God can be three.” In lieu of imagery, this well-read student settled for a rather interesting explanation: “God is multidimensional. To adapt one used by C. S. Lewis, the Father is the One to whom we pray, and the Spirit is the One who extends our prayer from the Son to the Father.” Another reason to avoid imagery language suggested to me by several students was that the problem with analogy is that some minds just don’t work that way. It’s hard to keep all analogy out of one’s language, however.

On the whole, what unites the responses is a pronounced emphasis of caution to the point that use of imagery is basically absent in their thinking. I’ve already noted that such hesitations and objections are not just limited to many of my students. Many contemporary theologians simply expound their doctrinal slants without using any illustrative language at all. But the state of this affair is more than that. When some inventive theologian does introduce imagery, as the highly creative Roderick Leupp does in his refreshing book The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, the reception may be a frosty one. Contextualizing his book in the popular culture of 2008, he wrote:

Trinitarian metaphors and remembrances can be multiplied almost without end, to the point of edification for some and distraction for others. Some of these are by now virtually enshrined in catechetical instruction: the Trinity “proven” by water existing in the three conditions of liquid, solid and gas; an egg’s shell, white and yolk bestowing a breakfast homily. It takes no great theological imagination to see oneness flowering into threeness and triplicity converging to unity here, there and everywhere. Would these trinitarian images be convincing or, if not that, at least inviting?

  • three trunks growing together to form one tree
  • two men walking as one and huddled under a single umbrella
  • knife, fork, spoon—all dedicated to the singular quest for food
  • three young girls, arms linked, falling over backward in one motion
  • three boys, on the porch together, all eating green apples and sharing common talk
  • three squirrels frolicking on the same tree branch

To some observers, then, there may be a hidden trinitarian hand in nearly everything. This hiddenness may often rise to conscious view and intelligible articulation. When one of today’s leading rock stars, Bono of the group U2, commends the Beatles’ “intoxicating mix of melody, harmony and rhythm” and concludes that their mastery of these three dynamics is the greatest balance “that has ever been, before or since,” one may revel in yet another demonstration of God’s triunity in a most unlikely place. Or maybe not.[3]

For my part, I think his images do show “great theological imagination,” and he extends that vivid imagination throughout this well-written book, even when giving his own warning to keep these images in line within orthodoxy, as we see in this mix of caution and conjecture:

The Christian calling is not to ingenious speculation about how God can be three and yet one, one and yet three, but is rather a firm adherence to the truth of the incarnation, and a glad acceptance of the benefits of the Father’s eternal Word appearing in flesh in Jesus Christ and a sturdy resolve to transform the world in the power of the Holy Spirit.

Yet the singular story of the gospel is played out by three Actors who are themselves the beginning and the ending of salvation history.[4]

For some scholars, however, even expressed caution does not appear to be enough to excuse the use of imagery for God, as we see in the brilliant Indian scholar Peter Phan’s response:

Trinitarian theology has arguably, depending on where one stands, benefited or suffered the most from the use of metaphysics and analogies. To begin with analogies, they range from homespun images of the triangle or the shamrock or father, mother, and child to the so-called psychological models devised by Augustine or Dorothy L. Sayers to contemporary scientific models (e.g., particle, wave, and field). Currently there is an excess of creativity in devising analogies for the Trinity, from the so-called vestigia Trinitatis [Latin plural of vestigium, “footstep, step; footprint, track; trace, vestige; moment, instant,” e.g., footprints of the Trinity] so that any triad, however artificial and accidental, is harnessed for an illustration of the Trinity.[5]

Phan asks “whether there are criteria by which to judge the legitimacy and value of the analogies used for God.” And he poses a series of insightful questions: “Are analogies derived from humans as imago Dei preferable to those taken from the material world? If so, what are the criteria to judge their usefulness and where are they to be found? Are they to be exclusively based on the Bible or to be determined philosophically?” What follows is an interesting discussion of the appropriateness and legitimacy of various philosophical and methodological approaches to the Trinity.

So, this brief representative sample of outspoken opposition tells us not only that caution is essential in using illustrative imagery to explain the Trinity, but perhaps the whole idea is misguided, dangerous, and a doorway to heresy we had better not enter.

Such a message should be taken seriously, but before you cease using imagery to describe the Trinity, it is worthwhile to pause and reflect. What would help us cut a swath through this dense forest and find a path where we can lead those we serve, teach, or pastor to solid ground? In the old tales, travelers searched for a light, a beacon by which they could discern a way through dismal swamps and find higher ground. Our best road forward is to see what the certain guide to faith and practice, the Bible, tells us Jesus did, since we model on him as the Second Adam who shows us the right way to handle words and works.

[1] After three classes of written student surveys (2017–2019), fifty-three were completed from among African Americans (9), Caribbeans or Jamaicans (3), a Haitian (1), Latinos/as (5), Chinese (Asians) (6), Koreans (4), a Native American (1), Caucasians (16), and no race mentioned (8). In this sample, twenty-three (43 percent) preferred images for the Trinity that moved, and fifteen (28 percent) preferred static images. Many images recur in different cultures, such as ones using water; human roles; a triangle; the human as soul, spirit, and body; and music. The three-leaf clover occurred only among Caucasians and one Chinese, and the egg only among Caucasians and those who did not indicate any race. Of course, a larger sample would be needed to make any cultural pronouncements. I also warmly thank the members of my fall 2020 Theology Survey I class, who opted to critique this book and whose suggestions guided my revisions.

[2] Its own website,, posted on March 14, 2013, in 2020 boasted 1,354,929 views. A follow-up to it, “Saint Patrick: The Musical” (posted March 17, 2019), already boasts 101,148 hits, while the original has been picked up by Episcopal Church Memes, Catholic Exchange, Massachusetts’ Byfield Parish Church, Road to Emmaus Abington, Pennsylvania’s Holy Trinity Lutheran Church, and on and on. In short, with well over two million hits and more websites signing on every month, it’s safe to say it’s gone viral.

[3] Roderick T. Leupp, The Renewal of Trinitarian Theology: Themes, Patterns and Explorations (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2008), 9.

[4] Leupp, Renewal of Trinitarian Theology, 10.

[5] Peter C. Phan, “Systematic Issues in Trinitarian Theology,” in The Cambridge Companion to The Trinity, ed. Peter C. Phan (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011), 13–14; John C. Traupman, The New College Latin and English Dictionary (New York: Bantam, 1966), 330.

This post is adapted from Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity by William David Spencer. This title was released on November 15, 2022. 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:

  • 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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