God is Trinity. So What? (Part 4: Common Misunderstandings)

“Trinity” by unknown artist

Mistakes and Misunderstandings

Understandably and unfortunately, in the attempt to wrap our finite minds around the thought of an infinite God, we often “reduce” God (or at least our explanation of him) to concrete terms and inert systems.  We forget that God is not an object to be explained, but a relational Person to be experienced, so we box him in with words, theories, and dogma.  As mentioned in Part 2, good theology is important, but if we are not careful, our static explanations of a Dynamic Truth such as the Trinity can sway into error.

The word Trinity is actually a contraction of tri-unity.[i] It emphasizes the “three-ness” and the “one-ness” of God. Most misunderstandings and heresies tend to overemphasize one of these truths and underemphasize or deny the other. Focusing too far on God’s three-ness results in tritheism, which holds that the Trinity is composed of three distinct and separate Gods united in purpose.

Focusing too far on God’s one-ness results in modalism, which is the belief that God is one Person who throughout history has revealed himself in three separate modes.[ii]  A modalist would say that God was Father in the Old Testament (as creator and lawgiver), who incarnated Himself and became Jesus in the New Testament (as saviour), and is now the Holy Spirit (as sanctifier). One God, three appearances in history, and never at the same time. Sabellius (3rd century) purported this belief, and modalism is often referred to as Sabellianism.

A modern-day danger arises when we think of the Trinity in terms other than Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. In the effort to have inclusive God-language (i.e. language that is not gender-specific, like “Father” and “Son”), some have started to refer to the Trinity as Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. As well meaning as this is, the danger is it can easily slip into either modalism or tritheism in believing that only the Father creates, only the Son redeems, and only the Holy Spirit sustains. As mentioned in Part 3, the Triune God (Father, Son, and Spirit) is involved in all these actions.

Analogies, Metaphors, and Symbols of the Trinity

Analogies of the Trinity abound. As the doctrine of the Trinity developed through history, teachers interpreted God’s triune presence by means of several metaphors, each referring to a different way of looking at the Trinity. Check the endnotes for a description of these theological analogies.[iii]

Beyond theological metaphors, thinkers often appealed to nature in their search for a decent analogy of the Trinity. However, all analogies from nature are extremely limited and underwhelming in describing the Trinity (how could a finite example explain an infinite God?).[iv] Many static analogies, such as the egg (shell, white, yolk) or H2O (ice, water, steam) are simply well meaning tritheism (three separate parts to egg) or modalism (three different modes of water). They do not reflect the dynamic interpenetration of the three-in-one God. Even active analogies like a song in three-part harmony cannot fully capture the nature of the Trinity.

Finally, symbols have also been used in the search for some sort of representation of God. The triangle Δ, trefoil ♣ (similar to Borromean Rings), and the triquerta have all been conscripted into representing the Trinity. The visual Shield of the Trinity is not a symbol per se, but an interesting way of describing the doctrine.[v] These are all both helpful and limited, as mentioned above, and should not be seen as an explanation, but as a symbol pointing to the reality of God’s revelation of himself.


[i] Jonathan Wilson, class notes, Doctrinal Heritage of the Church (Carey Theological College, winter, 2012)

[ii] http://carm.org/modalism, accessed 2012-02-08

[iii] These metaphors tend to fall into four categories with fancy names:

  • Psychological Model: likens the unity and diversity of God to the unity and diversity of a person. Thus, as a person is comprised of Memory, Will, and Understanding (terms used by Augustine) or Intellect, Word, and Breath (John of Damascus), so God is Father, Son, and Spirit. These tend to emphasize the one essence of the triune God, and if pushed too far result in modalism (three modes of one person).
  • Social Model: Likens the Godhead to the unity and diversity of three hearts united in one purpose. This model is community oriented, and emphasizes the threefoldness of the Trinity. If taken too far it results in tritheism (three distinct Gods).
  • Economic Trinity: emphasizes the outer life of God, that his actions are Trinitarian.
  • Ontological Trinity: emphasizes the inner life of God, that he is always triune. (Ontology simply means “being” or “identity”)

See Fackre, p.50-51; Grenz, p.60-62; and Erickson, p.111-112.

[iv] Henry Thiessen (p.89) says, “The doctrine of the Trinity is not a truth of natural theology, but of revelation.”

[v] The Father is God, The Son is God, The Holy Spirit is God, God is the Father, God is the Son, God is the Holy Spirit, The Father is not the Son, The Father is not the Holy Spirit, The Son is not the Father, The Son is not the Holy Spirit, The Holy Spirit is not the Father, The Holy Spirit is not the Son


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