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The Shamrock and the Trinity: Why not?

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March 17, 2013 by mattfradd


Is the three-leaf clover a good visual aid for the trinity

Is the three-leaf clover a good visual aid for the trinity

The first Vatican council defined as dogma that we can know God exists by reason, wholly apart from divine revelation:

If anyone shall say that the One True God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known by the natural light of human reason through created things; let him be anathema (First canon on revelation).

Although reason, unaided by divine revelation, can understand some things about God, there is much it could not and would not (like the Trinity) unless God chose to reveal it.

“Our vision of the face of God” writes Pope John Paul II, “is always fragmentary and impaired by the limits of our understanding. Faith alone makes it possible to penetrate the mystery in a way that allows us to understand it coherently” (Fides Et Ratio 12). 

The Trinity

The Catechism teaches that, “The Trinity is One. We do not confess three Gods, but one God in three persons, the ‘consubstantial Trinity’.

The divine persons do not share the one divinity among themselves but each of them is God whole and entire: ‘The Father is that which the Son is, the Son that which the Father is, the Father and the Son that which the Holy Spirit is, i.e. by nature one God.’

In the words of the Fourth Lateran Council (1215), “Each of the persons is that supreme reality, viz., the divine substance, essence or nature.” (CCC 253)

The reason I don’t use the three-leaf clover as a teaching aid to explain the trinity is that it has a fatal flaw; namely, it has parts! God does not. Jesus (or the Spirit, or the Father) is not three a part of God, he is God “whole and entire.”

Tritheism

The three-leaf clover can therefore mislead a person, especially a child, into falling into the heresy of Tritheism. Tritheism was (and is) a heresy which taught that the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit were three distinct Gods who shared a similar nature rather than the truth of there being one God in three persons who share an identical nature.

Teaching Tool

If you’re looking for a teaching aid to help your children understand the Trinity, I’d suggest using the image below:

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8 thoughts on “The Shamrock and the Trinity: Why not?

  1. […] If anyone shall say that the One True God, our Creator and Lord, cannot be certainly known Go to the Source: Matt Fradd   […]

  2. ajb says:

    Do you have any concrete images or metaphors you do use for teaching?

    • Mike McPherson says:

      I always use a cube to teach the trinity. The cube is the Trinitarian God, but a cube is made up of 3 dimensions, height, length and width. Each represents one person of the trinity, but all three together make up a cube, you cannot separate the three dimensions or else it ceases to be a cube.

  3. kacee says:

    You’ve illustrated the concept of the Trinity wonderfully, for it is a truth that’s almost beyond the limits of my understanding! At least you’ve helped me grasp it through the “natural light of human reason.” Faith definitely does the rest!

  4. camostar says:

    I still love Ambrose Bierce’s comments on the Trinity: “In religion we believe only what we do not understand, except in the instance of an intelligible doctrine that contradicts an incomprehensible one. In that case we believe the former as a part of the latter.”

  5. Good image. It’s very easy to speak incorrectly about the Trinity because God is mysterious and many of our analogies fall short.

  6. Darran says:

    Are you sure a shamrock would really inspire tritheism? I would understand what you mean if the three petals were split off from the stem. That is, if they were three individual petals, but the symbol of the shamrock is meant to be of three natures yet wholly united and identical in one nature. Your last image is identical to the shamrock, think of the “God is” in the centre being represented by the stem. The three petals being the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and the gap between them being the “is not”. This is the longstanding traditional lesson from the shamrock, it includes the stem.

    Though you are right in thinking that it isn’t a perfect analogy of the Trinity, we can’t have a perfect analogy as it can’t be possible for us to understand or explain using finite words or images. By that I mean, we can’t make three drawings or woodcarvings that are made wholly of the EXACT same particles that are contained in each other, without failing to represent it in three parts (since mathematical laws limit us to a digit of 1) or without being forced to use different, similar matter to make them into three parts which automatically defeats the nature of the Trinity. It’s beyond the laws of our universe to represent such a thing.

    God revealed the Trinity to us not that we would understand (unlike other Divine Revelation that we can understand) but instead that we know it and accept it. If we could understand God in His very Self, we would be God. The old story of St Augustine is fitting:

    ———————

    St. Augustine was walking on the beach contemplating the mystery of the Trinity, when he saw a boy in front of him who had dug a hole in the sand and was going out to the sea again and again and bringing some water to pour into the hole. St. Augustine asked him, “What are you doing?”

    “I am trying to bring all the sea into this hole,” the boy replied with a sweet smile.

    “But that is impossible, my dear child, the hole cannot contain all that water” said Augustine.

    The boy paused in his work, stood up, looked into the eyes of the Saint, and replied, “It is no more impossible than what you are trying to do – comprehend the immensity of the mystery of the Holy Trinity with your small intelligence.” The boy then disappeared and Saint Augustine realised that he was talking to an angel.

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