3 Ways NOT to Share the Trinity


November 11, 2013 by mattfradd


The mystery of the Most Holy Trinity is the “central mystery of [our] faith” (CCC 234). It is therefore the most fundamental. If we get it wrong, then everything else get’s obscured or perverted.

Since the mystery of the Trinity is “the mystery of God in himself” (CCC 234), humility is required here.

A mystery, it has been said, is not something that is unknowable, but infinitely knowable. That may not be true of some things we call mysteries, but it is of God.

But just because we cannot fully understand something doesn’t mean that we cannot understand errors about that thing.

For example, Jesus Christ is the most mysterious person who ever lived, but correcting someone who says that Jesus was a woman, or that Jesus wasn’t a Jew, does not reveal a lack of humility.

Since the Trinity is the most fundamental and essential teaching in the “hierarchy of the truths of faith,” we ought to stamp out errors wherever we find them.

With that said. Here are three ways not to share the Trinity, and three way to share it.

1.The Trinity is like how a man can be a Son, Father, and Uncle

Nope! This analogy commits the heresy of modalism. Modalism is the false belief that God is one person who has revealed himself in three forms or modes.

Though a man may be a son, father and uncle, he is not three persons as God is, but one person who has three titles. Another popular but false analogy is the following: the Trinity is like how water can be ice, liquid and steam. This again commits the heresy of modalism. God does not go through three different states. The Persons of the Holy Trinity can co-exist; the different forms water may take cannot. Water cannot be ice, liquid and steam at the same time. It may be between two stages such as when ice is melting, but this isn’t coexisting, it’s transforming.

2. The Trinity is like a three leaf clover

This commits (or could at least lead one to believe) the heresy of Tritheism. Tritheism divides or distinguishes the nature of God, and in so doing “creates” three gods.

A three leaf clover has three separate leafs. The middle leaf, for example, does not share in the same nature as the other two leafs, but only has a similar nature. In the Trinity, each member shares in the exact same nature. The key here is understanding that we don’t believe in three persons who share in a species called “God,” but three persons who share in an identical, united nature. “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.”[1]

3. The Trinity is like an egg: yellow yoke, white yoke, and shell

This commits the same error as number 2. While the egg is one, it has three substances (yellow yoke, white yoke, and shell) which make it what it is. Each of these things are distinct. The shell is completely different in nature from the yellow yoke.

3 ways to explain the Holy Trinity

Though it’s tempting to use an analogy to help our children better understand who God is, ultimately, they all fail. I don’t mean that they fail to fully communicate the Trinity (all analogies fail to fully communicate what they’re trying to convey), I mean that they fail to capture the correct definition of the Trinity, and it’s better that our children not fully understand who God is than to have a false understanding of him.

For this reason I don’t use analogies for the Trinity. The closest I get to “dumbing it down” for my kids is by 1). A simple conversation about being and person. 2.) A simple diagram, and 3). The Athanasian Creed.

1. The conversation

Me: Liam, what is a person?

Liam: I dunno.

Me: A person is someone who can potentially say “I.” Is a statue a person?

Liam: No.

Me: So there are some beings, like statues, which are not persons, right?

Liam: Right.

Me: What about you, are you a person?

Liam: yes.

Me: Okay. So a statue is a being with 0 persons. You are a being who is 1 person. God is a being who is three persons. Make sense?

Liam: Not really.

Me: Good.

2. Diagram


3. Athanasian Creed

Here it is in part, and it’s BEAUTIFUL!:

We worship one God in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. Neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Substance.

For there is one Person of the Father, another of the Son, and another of the Holy Ghost.

But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son and of the Holy Ghost is all One, the Glory Equal, the Majesty Co-Eternal. Such as the Father is, such is the Son, and such is the Holy Ghost.

The Father Uncreate, theSon Uncreate, and the Holy Ghost Uncreate.

The Father Incomprehensible, the Son Incomprehensible, and the Holy Ghost Incomprehensible.

The Father Eternal, the Son Eternal, and the Holy Ghost Eternal and yet they are not Three Eternals but One Eternal.

As also there are not Three Uncreated, nor Three Incomprehensibles, but One Uncreated, and One Uncomprehensible. So likewise the Father is Almighty, the Son Almighty, and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not Three Almighties but One Almighty.

So the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not Three Gods, but One God.

So likewise the Father is Lord, the Son Lord, and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not Three Lords but One Lord.

For, like as we are compelled by the Christian verity to acknowledge every Person by Himself to be God and Lord, so are we forbidden by the Catholic Religion to say, there be Three Gods or Three Lords.

The Father is made of none, neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, norcreated, but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father, and of the Son neither made, nor created, nor begotten, but proceeding.

So there is One Father, not Three Fathers; one Son, not Three Sons; One Holy Ghost, not Three HolyGhosts.

And in this Trinity none is afore or after Other, None is greater or less than Another, but the whole Three Persons are Co-eternal together, and Co-equal. So that in all things, as is aforesaid, the Unity inTrinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped.

He therefore that will be saved, must thus think of theTrinity.

Read the whole creed.

[1] Council of Toledo XI (675): DS 530:26.

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16 thoughts on “3 Ways NOT to Share the Trinity

  1. cducey2013 says:

    Mr. Fradd,

    I don’t really see what the problem is with the Uncle, Father, Son modal, besides that it is of course limited by the mystery of God. How is there a problem with God manifesting Himself in different ways, as the Word incarnate, as the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, and as God the Father, to whom Christ prays in the New Testament? I honestly don’t see a problem with THAT kind of modalism. Modalism as a whole will never suffice, but understanding God as three person manifestation through a modal like Uncle, Father, and Son doesn’t seem to contradict a Christian understanding of the Trinity (I prefer to distinguish it as Doctor, Father, and Son, to show, with the first, how one’s actions rather than one’s ontology can define a person).

    Thank you for your post.

    • mattfradd says:

      Thanks. The problem is that it assumes (on conveys) that God is one person who expresses himself in three different modes. This is, as you know, false. God is not one person who expresses himself in three different modes, but on God who is three distinct persons.

  2. St. Patrick would disagree with you. He used the 3 leaf clover to help those he catechized to understand the
    Trinity. Each leaf is a part of the 1- 3 leaf clover. It shows distinction of persons but not a trio as you suggest. For it is not 3 3 leaf clovers but 1- 3 leaf clover that with the 3 leafs that make a part of the one. The total 3 leaf clover is the Divine Nature. I am not a theologian but it makes sense to me. God bless.

    • Searching says:

      i have to agree with Mark Valladao’s comment (and St. Patrick). I read this article hoping for a better way to illustrate the Trinity to a Jew who is trying to understand how the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are ONE and *not* three separate ‘gods’…unfortunately the suggestions you’ve laid out don’t really help with that….open to other suggestions if anyone has them.

    • Leanne says:

      I am with you, Mark, and apparently a heretic as well. I guess all I have is to say, “It is a mystery to me”.

  3. Bob Bledsaw says:

    I’ve had it explained in our RCIA class that the Trinity is like how H2O has three distinct phases, but is one substance; Ice, Water, Vapor. Ice alone is not explicitly H2O, just as Water alone is not explicitly H2O, just as Vapor is not explicitly H20, but all three are H2O. The problem with making analogies is that all analogies break down somewhere.

  4. Gabriel lujan says:

    It makes my head hurt. I always try to grasp this. Hard for me. But I just believe because it’s the truth revealed by God. I wish I understood. I once heard someone explain it by using the hypercube 3, 4, 5 dimension example. That one person explained by a way one tries to explain via a hypercube. Using science of quantum mechanics. That even made my head hurt more. I’ll just pray for God to help me understand him.

  5. Christopher says:

    Matt, you cite 3 easy ways to talk about the Trinity but leave the people asking what do the words “begotten” and “proceeding” really mean other than terms used to describe a “difference in the persons”? People will readily use those terms but they cant go any further about meaning of the Holy Spirit. For instance, someone will ask “What does it mean that the Holy Spirit is the love of the Father and the Son?” Other than affirming that is true they ask the meaning behind it.

    Often what happens is we are like your son Liam who after even an elementary discussion of the Trinity end up saying “I dont understand at all” and we respond “Good” as if that proves we know more when we dont either. It seems with either go back to a statement made 1700 years ago about the Trinity or end up saying if we talk in modern language use that we dont know what we mean other than stating the difference between person and nature. I realize, and accept, it is a mystery of Faith, but I would appreciate you giving us in modern language that difference and importance of the Son being Begotten and the Holy Spirit being spirated. Can you help us with that?

  6. […] Kate Edwards, Australia Inc Have Yourself a Very Deuterocanonical Resurrection – Devin Rose, IT 3 Ways NOT to Share the Trinity – Matt Fradd My Dear Grubmuck – Michelle Arnold, Catholic Answers Unintentional Fetal […]

  7. Joseph Royan C.Ss.R says:

    I think Mattfradd, attempts to convey that no analogy on the trinity can fully help us to understand the Mystery the Trinity is. Any analogy used is only an attempt… but if it does not convey fully and truly what the Holy Trinity is then it is better not to use it then for people to go with a wrong or incomplete understanding of the Holy Trinity. For long I used to preach for the feast of the Holy Trinity the Story of St. Augustine and how as he took a walk on the shore, noticed a little boy trying to empty the mighty ocean in a little hole that he made, Augustine was baffled and told the boy what a stupid and wasteful endeavour it was… that even if he would spend his life time just doing what he was doing he would never be able to empty the ocean into that hole… boy smiled and said to Augustine in turn, “that’s exactly what you have been trying to do Augustine, trying to comprehend the incomprehensible mystery of God in your tiny little mind.” That reply enlightened Augustine to give up his wasteful venture of unravelling the mystery of the Trinity. It is best to know that some things need no understanding but just believing!!!

  8. Steve says:

    It is a difficult task for children and adults to grasp. It’s even more difficult if you say where one is – they all are there – because they are seperate but they have the best communication device unknown to man.
    I like to use neopolitan ice cream as my example – still in the carton. Open the carton (God) and what do you see? Three distinct flavors – God, the Son and the Holy Spirit (you choose who is what flavor) contain in one carton (God). Kids remember – they understand better and as they grow and hopefully dive into the mystery of God – they will have a better understanding.
    The goal with children is not to confuse them more but guide them to better understanding by telling the truth in many different ways like Jesus using His parables.

  9. I use all three of those analogies, and always tell students that they are just that, analogies.

  10. I think love is what helps understand the Trinity. John Paul II showed us that the communion of love that the couple and the family forms is one of the best images God gave of himslef, to make himself knowable.

  11. […] A mystery, it has been said, is not something that is unknowable, but infinitely knowable. That may not be true of some things we call mysteries, but it is of God.…more […]

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