Saturday, November 12, 2022

Is Using an Illustration to Teach About the Trinity the Wrong Thing to Do?

 sun ray ping image

Since 1992, by way of introducing the doctrine of God and the varieties of views on the Trinity that have emerged throughout doctrinal history, I, Bill, 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 note it down. As can be imagined, a lot of repetition followed, but images new to me, some of these acquired in their churches or invented by these creative students, themselves, would join the list, The point of this lively exercise was to start with an engaging class discussion before I backed up my dump truck of knowledge and let all the wisdom in my lectures slide onto this captive audience.

You can imagine my surprise, then, when recently one of my Brazilian students handed back the survey with one line scrawled on it: “I don’t use one. It’s a mystery.” Shortly after, a Nova Scotia Acadian student (in my wife’s class at Acadia Divinity School, where I was simply helping out, but whose gracious students agreed to answer my survey) expanded the reason for rejecting images: “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.

Back in Boston, a “Caucasian” student who picked “water as solid, liquid & gas” as the preference, did not extend that image to children, deciding to protect them against imagery, explaining: “I probably wouldn’t use an illustration for a child – just describe the 3 Persons living together as one, leaving the mystery in place.”

A Chinese student wrote, “I seldom use those images. I know someone uses water, ice and steam. Some use different parts of a tree. But I had a hard time us[ing] them and I am not comfortable using them.”

For the majority of my students, with no special emphasis on ethnicity, increasingly, the theme of avoiding heresy dominates as the reason for discarding the use of images in describing the Trinity, as one “Caucasian” student announced: “I’ve started avoiding metaphors since all too easily they fall into heresy.” And, yet, this student confessed, “I sometimes draw a triangle and write the names of the person of God,” but assured me in a parenthesis, “I used to most often use the clover, but stopped.” As for talking to a new believer or child: “I wouldn’t use an image/metaphor if talking to someone well-schooled. I’d be more tempted to use one with someone new to the idea or a child.” But, immediately, the answer to the preference for kinetic or static images was qualified: “Again I try to avoid images – but probably static,” and added, a closing caution: “All the illustrations break down and trivialize the paradox!” Back and forth, back and forth, this student went, but settled for including a clear rejection of the use of images or illustrations in the answers to all four of the survey questions.

Some students struggled as did this one, but other students did not struggle, just writing “no” at the top of the survey page or handing back the survey blank without answers of any kind. By 2021, when I completed the research for my latest book, Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity, I was seeing at least 1/3rd of my class avoiding images, and, if I weighed in how many did not return the survey, I realize we may be up to half the class rejecting the use of illustrations for the Trinity.

These students are not surly. Not at all. They are affable, conscientious, caring Christian leaders who hand in class evaluations, and self-evaluations (answering honestly and often evaluating their work more severely than I do). They have heart-felt opinions and deep convictions. Mature, they often work two jobs, rear families, and pour themselves out for others. They are cordial with each other, very appreciative of me, hand in to the school glowing evaluations of the course, and constantly email me with questions and observations, sometimes sending me data they think I might find interesting on topics we are covering. Many have continued to keep in contact with me over the decades.

But on answering questions on the use of illustrations for the Trinity, I am running into a shutdown.

So, how was I to understand this unusual neglect for what seemed to me an important question: how do they teach or preach the Trinity to the people whom God has entrusted to their care?

One Sunday, I mentioned these hesitations to one of my fellow pastors at Pilgrim Church in Beverly, Massachusetts,[1] and he shared with me his own concern. 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, he sees as shallow. His concern here is that analogies distort, and in theology distortion means heterodoxy.

But why now? Such issues have been presumably hanging around since God began to self-reveal to people on Day 1 of humanity’s creation eons ago. Why this sudden current widespread intent to put illustrative language on the short list for deep-sixing? 

Some of this mystery began to disappear when this co-pastor, various students, and even some academic colleagues began pointing me to the Lutheran Satire “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies,” an hilariously entertaining, extremely clear, polemically provocative, compellingly creative, thoroughly caustic, and quite iconoclastic cartoon that teaches 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.”[2] 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.

How effective is this three minute and forty-nine second attack on illustrative language, condemning its use as a gateway to heresy?[3] By April 7, 2022, “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” could boast 1, 677, 377 views, since its posting on March 14, 2013, and currently the YouTube site appears to have ceased counting at 1.7 million when I accessed it on November 9, 2022.[4] Ballooning when it was linked by Pinterest,[5] it has been picked up and posted by so many churches of both Calvinist and Arminian persuasions, para-church ministries, and individuals; that its influence is mind-boggling. The impact of this cartoon has spread like a spilled can of paint. It has inundated the web.

So, let’s take a moment and examine how exactly “St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies” works its logic as a biblical argument:

In this video, two cartoon characters, self-identified as illiterate 5th century Irish peasants,[6] ask St. Patrick to explain the Trinity. St. Patrick, as an icon, replies with discursive, declarative language: “There are three Persons of the Trinity: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Yet there is only one God.” When they claim not to understand, the spokesperson, Donall, asks for an analogy. When St. Patrick accommodates by summoning up the water image, how it can be found in three forms, “liquid, ice, and vapor,” these illiterate peasants turn erudite and reject that illustration as modalism (an ancient heresy speculating the one God appearing from time to time in one, two, or three temporary manifestations or modes but not existing in three coequal and coeternal Persons, as historic orthodoxy teaches.). St. Patrick then turns to the analogy of the Sun: “the star and the light, and the heat.” This they dismiss as Arianism, claiming the light and heat are creations and therefore not God. St. Patrick’s third attempt, the three-leaf clover is dismissed as “partialism,” a God in three thirds being suggested. The fourth analogy, “how the same man can be a husband and a father and an employer” is repudiated as modalistic, and the fifth, “the three layers of an apple,” as “partialism,” again at which St. Patrick gives up and just quotes the Athanasian Creed. This is finally acceptable. No figurative analogies anymore, but simply declarative statements somewhat similar to St. Patrick’s opening attempt. The difference apparently is that this final statement is from an historically orthodox creed.

Now, what do we make of this approach? Well, first of all, we need a bit of reality check about its dismissal of all analogies as prone to heresy.

St. Patrick didn’t make up the analogy of the Star sun in our sky and its radiance as depicting the relationship between the Father and the Son. The writer of Hebrews was inspired to reveal that.

For the writer of Hebrews, the illustration of the sun and its radiance pictures Jesus glowing with God’s Shekinah glory, a radiance shining with the brightness from the Godhead, the Source from whence Jesus Christ came. The illustration is appropriate. How salutary and nourishing to our spirits is God’s light in us, as the vitamin D of the sun is nourishing to our bodies.  No wonder this image became so popular in the early church. 

For Athanasius, the great early church theologian and defender of the seminal statement of Christian orthodoxy, the Creed of Nicaea, this analogy illustrated a key part of his argument for equality in the Godhead, the Son of God sharing equal substance with the Father. Athanasius employed this defense of Jesus Christ’s deity all throughout his critique of the Arian and Semi-Arian councils and their creeds, which denied the Son’s full deity and equality with the Father. Athanasius writes: “The illustration of the Light and Radiance has this meaning. For the Saints have not said that the Word was related to God as fire kindled from the heat of the sun, which is commonly put out again, for this is an external work and a creature of its author, but they all preach of Him as Radiance, thereby to signify His being from the substance, proper and indivisible, and His oneness with the Father. This also will secure His true unalterableness and immutability; for how can these be His, unless He be proper Offspring of the Father’s substance? for this too must be taken to confirm His identity with His own Father.”

Athanasius sees Hebrews’ illustration supporting his point: “Speak not of two Gods but of one God; there being but one Face of Godhead, as the Light is one and the Radiance…the sun and radiance are two, but the light one, because the radiance is an offspring from the Sun.” So, he reasons, “not more divisible, nay less divisible is the nature of the Son towards the Father.” “The godhead” is “not accruing to the Son,” as if the Son had to acquire divinity![7]

For Athanasius, divinity is a property of the Son, not a continual acquisition, as he explains, “the Father’s godhead being in the Son, so that he that hath seen the Son hath seen the Father in Him; wherefore should not such a one be called One in substance?[8]…and God’s Offspring, what should we fittingly and suitably consider, but the Word, and Wisdom, and Power? which it were a sin to say was foreign from the Father, or a crime even to imagine as other than with Him everlastingly.”[9]

Athanasius realizes this illustration of the sun and its radiance is “mean indeed and very dim” when imaging God, but it does lift our eyes above our nature. And by doing so, Athanasius declares, “Who can even imagine that the radiance of light ever was not, so that he should dare to say that the Son was not always, or that the Son was not before His generation? or who is capable of separating the radiance from the sun, or to conceive of the fountain as ever void of life, that he should madly say, ‘The Son is from nothing,’ who says, I am the life, or ‘alien to the Father’s substance,’ who says, He that hath seen Me, hath seen the Father?[10]

So, with what are we left here? Are we going to be served one more installment in the Donnall and Connall saga, where these animated theologians take Athanasius to task, correcting his own use of the sun and radiance imagery by demanding he stick solely to the discoursing words of the Athanasian Creed (based on Athanasius’s own teaching)? Reducing the acceptable explanation of the Trinity to reciting the words of the Athanasian Creed (or any creed) clearly counters the practice of Athanasius himself who, as we see, employed the analogy in Hebrews 1:3 as a major component of his proof that Jesus did indeed share substance with the Father and was God in the flesh.

The fact of the matter is that analogical language is used all through the Bible to describe God. Old Testament imagery like Rock, featured in Moses’s farewell song to Israel, where God is depicted as a rock. What does this tell us about God’s attributes? Deuteronomy 32:4 uses the image to depict the Lord’s durable perfection, justice, faithfulness, purity. Verse15 refers to the rock ( ur,צור ) of salvation (yֲšɚhuaָ יֲשןעׇה). So, rock depicts firm security in salvation, in this case foolishly rejected. Verse 18 mixes metaphors and speaks of the Rock begetting (ul) or bringing forth Israel with labor pains. [11] Verses 30 and 31 compare the superiority of Israel’s rock to defeat their enemies’ rock. The image of Rock is used throughout the Old Testament in Psalm 18, 31, 46, Isaiah 17, 51, and elsewhere. Other images in the Bible are a Fortress, a Shepherd, a husband to Israel, and many more.[12]  

The New Testament is also filled with imagery depicting our Creator as a loving father of a profligate son, a vineyard owner with criminals as hirelings, a wealthy woman in search of a lost coin, a wealthy master who is rebuked at the gracious offer to share a feast (Luke 14:15-23). In these illustrations, we learn about God’s patience, generosity, love, and quest to deliver us from destruction, as well as God’s justice and punishment at those who reject the attributes under the category of love extended to them.

And, if you want to explore this terrain further, I’ll take you on a much more thorough journey through Jesus, Athanasius, and other thought-provoking Christian thinkers’ use of illustrations to depict God correctly in my new book Three in One: Analogies for the Trinity (offered at a bargain price from Kregel Academic). 

So, what are we to conclude? For some inexplicable reason, theological speakers, despite their convictions otherwise, seem to favor the use of common clichés, dead metaphors like the proverbial “elephant in the room” or “throwing out the baby with the bathwater.” So let me say that discarding analogies is more than simply herding the elephant from the room. It’s also kicking out its keepers and tossing out all the furniture! And banishing analogies is much more than throwing out the baby and the bathwater, but also heaving out the tub, the stand, the washing nurse or mother, all that furniture, and sealing up the room of analogy when it comes to God!

If we are going to follow the Bible as our standard and Athanasius’s example as our model, we are going to have to realize that the use of imagery to describe God does not violate the biblical or historic Christian standards. The use of analogic language to describe God cannot in itself be wrong and does not necessarily lead to heresy. The way figurative language is shaped, presented, and interpreted is what can be right or wrong.

Further, quoting a creed is not a fail safe solution, as Athanasius demonstrated in his critique of the creeds of his day, starting with the Dedication Creed of AD 341 right on through a variety of deceitful creeds right up to the Council of Sirmium’s AD 357 statement that Hilary of Poitiers dubbed “The Blasphemy of Sirmium.” This creed prohibited any “mention” or “exposition” of equal substance (homousion) or even the semi-Arian “like substance” (homoiousion) in order to claim that the Father is “greater” than the Son in “honour, renown, and deity.”[13] So what is said of illustrative language, well, the same can be said of discursive and even creedal language.

Discursive, even creedal, language is no more safe than is analogy for describing God. No creed is infallible, canonical, or inerrant, even orthodox ones. We need continually to test every word against the Bible’s revelation and never give any discursive or figurative language the status of Scripture.

For now, if Athanasius, the great defender of orthodoxy, whose creed we all treasure as orthodox (that is to say “right doctrine”), followed the biblical example and carefully used a biblical illustration and other illustrations, as well, to depict God, why wouldn’t we?


[1] Rev. Dr. Robert Samsel.


[3] Since its runaway success, it has spawned a musical version, and a number of other creative cartoon videos challenging anti-Christian and heretical positions from Richard Dawkins’s atheism to the Mormons tritheism, to The Jehovah’s Witnesses’ Unitarianism. “Saint Patrick: The Musical” (posted March 17, 2019), already boasts 153, 856 hits,, posted March 17, 2019.

[4] St. Patrick's Bad Analogies,, accessed March 10, 2022.

[6].As they self-identify in a later cartoon, “Donall and Conall Learn That Jesus Isn’t Divine,”

[7] Athanasius, In Defence of the Nicene Definition 5.11 ¶ 24 (pp. 40-41); Origin, Commentary on the Gospel according to John, trans. Ronald E. Heine (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University of America Press, 1989), book 3.18.19.

[8] Ibid., 2.24 ¶52-53 (154-55).

[9] Athanasius, In Defence of the Nicene Definition, 5.8 ¶24 (pp. 40-41). Athanasius does refer to Jesus as being seen by human witnesses as “the Wisdom and the Power of God” during the incarnation, but without the Proverbs 8 reference in his On the Incarnation, rev. ed., trans. by A Religious of C.S.M.V. (Yonkers, N.Y.: St. Vladimir’s Seminary Press, 2011), ¶19 (91).

[10] Ibid., 3.10 ¶12.

[11] To translate the Hebrew text, I am using A. Philip Brown II and Brian W. Smith, A Reader’s Hebrew Bible (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2008), 356 with its helpful footnotes of Hebrew words that occur less than 100 times.

[12] F. Stevenson in his fine study Titles of the Triune God: Studies in Divine Self-Revelation notes, “We adhere to the traditional view that Shaddai is derived from the word “invariably used in Scripture for a woman’s breast,” he adds also “pap” and “teat, “referencing Schofield. He explains, “This emboldened some Bible students and preachers to speak of ‘the Mother-love of God.’” This does not suggest that God has gender, either male or female or both. It’s an analogy showing us that God’s love is a tender as a mother’s love as she nurses her child. In this way God fed Israel in the wilderness.

[13] See Henry Bettenson and Chris Maunder, eds., Documents of the Christian Church, 4th ed. (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011), 45