The doctrine of the Trinity is the most important, most daunting and most misunderstood doctrine in Christianity. It is the doctrine of the Trinity that separates Christianity from the other Monotheistic religions such as Islam and Judaism. That is, as theologian Karl Barth puts it, the "doctrine of the Trinity is basically what distinguishes the Christian diction of God as Christian" (Church Dogmatics I/1, p. 301).
Rowan William, Archbishop of Canterbury 2002 - 2012, builds on Barth's thought, "Trinitarian theology, insofar as it is concerned with what 'kind' of God Christians worship is far from being a luxury indulged in sole by remote and ineffectual dons; it is of cardinal importance for spirituality and liturgy, for ethics, for the whole of Christian understanding (Wrestling with Angels: Conversations in Modern Theology, p. 142).
Every Christian should know the doctrine of the Trinity as it is the basis of our belief. I do not plan to go in-depth about the doctrine of the Trinity in this post. Rather I want to do an overview by looking at three illustrations of the Trinity that are actually heretical.
1.The Trinity is like ice, water and steam. They are different forms of the same thing; H2O.
I, and I'm sure many other kids leaders, have used this illustration to teach about the Trinity. It is a lovely illustration of how three things can be the same thing. However, this is a heresy called Modalism/Modalistic Monarchianism, Patripassianism or Sabellianism. Each of these theories are essentially the same with slight differences in beliefs and location (e.g. Patripassianism id the eastern equivalent of Sabellianism).
Modalism and its variants do have good intentions. It's proponents believed strongly in the Oneness of God and the deity of Jesus.
Modalism considers God to be working in different "modes" or "manifestations." All the God-head was understood to have dwelt within Jesus from the incarnation. The terms Father and Son used to distinguish between the transcendence of God and the incarnation.Moreover, because God is Spirit, the Holy Spirit is to be understood as God in action not as a unique person.
In Modalistic thinking, God created as the Father, redeemed as the Son, and sanctified as the Holy Sprit. Modalism does not see God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit as three distinct persons.
2. The Trinity is Like an Egg. An egg is composed of a white, yoke and shell.
This illustration goes the opposite way to Modalism as it denies the unity (oneness) of the God head. The yoke, white and shell of an egg are made of different and distinct substances that are unalike. This is the heresy of Tritheism.
Tritheism is the confession of three distinct gods. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit are independent divine beings. This belief denies the Monotheism (one God).
3. The Trinity is like the Sun as the star, light and heat.
This illustration is the heresy of Arianism. Arius (and Sabellius) was one of the main teachers that the Council of Nicea ruled against and who Athanasius (who I will cite later) opposed throughout vigorously throughout his lifetime.
Arianism is the teaching that the was a time when the Son was not. It taught that Jesus was the first and most perfect of God's creation. This means, Jesus is not divine because he is created.
Orthodox Trinitarian Belief
Note: Orthodoxy is adherence to correct or accepted creeds, especially in religion.
There is no perfect illustration of the Trinity. All fall short and usually end up in Modalism. The Trinity is unique. There is nothing like it and there never will be. However we can find a firm foundation and understanding thanks to the Early Church Fathers.
In 325, the Council of Nicea, called by Emperor Constantine, affirmed orthodox belief about God and rejected the heresies that were present. As mentioned before, one of the main heresies was Arianism.
The Nicene Creed is still accepted by Protestants, Roman Catholics and Eastern Orthodox alike. The creed asserts the belief of a Triune God and details who the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit are; Three persons, one substance.
It declares that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God BUT the Son is north the Father nor the Father the Son; the Son is not the Spirit nor the Spirit the Son and the Father is not the Spirit nor the Spirit the Father.
I encourage you to read each line slowly and ponder each section of the Nicene Creed below.
The Nicene Creed
We believe in one God,
the Father almighty,
maker of heaven and earth,
of all things visible and invisible.
And in one Lord Jesus Christ,
the only Son of God,
begotten from the Father before all ages,
God from God,
Light from Light,
true God from true God,
begotten, not made;
of the same essence as the Father.
Through him all things were made.
For us and for our salvation
he came down from heaven;
he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the virgin Mary,
and was made human.
He was crucified for us under Pontius Pilate;
he suffered and was buried.
The third day he rose again, according to the Scriptures.
He ascended to heaven
and is seated at the right hand of the Father.
He will come again with glory
to judge the living and the dead.
His kingdom will never end.
And we believe in the Holy Spirit,
the Lord, the giver of life.
He proceeds from the Father and the Son,
and with the Father and the Son is worshiped and glorified.
He spoke through the prophets.
We believe in one holy catholic and apostolic church.
We affirm one baptism for the forgiveness of sins.
We look forward to the resurrection of the dead,
and to life in the world to come. Amen.
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Barth, Karl, G. W Bromiley, and T. F Torrance. Church Dogmatics. 1st ed. London: T. & T. Clark International, 2004.
Williams, Rowan. Wrestling With Angels: Conversations In Modern Theology. Grand Rapids (MI): Eerdmans, 2007.