The Trinity is the Christian doctrine that teaches that God is triune, or one God in three distinct persons. Although the word “Trinity” does not appear in Scripture, the concept is clearly taught. Jesus commanded His followers to baptize disciples “in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit” (Matthew 28:19). Paul closed his letter to the Corinthians saying, “The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ and the love of God and the fellowship of the Holy Spirit be with you all” (2 Corinthians 13:14). Even in the Old Testament, when God created mankind, He said “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Genesis 1:26). This plural nature of God being three distinct persons is consistently shown in Scripture. And yet Scripture also teaches that God is one. Deuteronomy 6:4 clearly states, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” Jesus reiterated that thought when He said, “I and the Father are one” (John 10:30). Paul, in writing to the Corinthians also said, “Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of service, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who empowers them all in everyone” (1 Corinthians 12:4–6). So although God is three distinct persons of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, He is also only one unified Godhead.
Many people have tried to explain this divine mystery using a variety of illustrations over the centuries. Unfortunately, every earthly example we have falls short, in some way, of fully encapsulating God’s triune nature. In fact, when these inferior illustrations are taken at face value and applied to God, they can actually lead to heresy, or incorrect understanding of God. However, since incomplete earthly examples are all we have, following are a few illustrations of the Trinity that have been used throughout history.
One popular story relates that Saint Patrick used a clover to teach the Irish about the triune nature of God. The clover has three leaves that branch off from one stem. He explained that just as the clover is one plant with three leaves, so too God is one God with three persons. However, one clover leaf on its own is not the full plant, whereas Scripture teaches that each of the persons of the Trinity is in Himself fully God. So the clover plant, while helpful as an illustration, is not an exact replica of God’s triune nature. Other popular illustrations of the Trinity along the same lines are an apple with its outer peel, inner flesh, and centralized seeds; or an egg with its shell, white, and yolk. These illustrations refer to one item, made up of three parts; but each part on its own does not constitute that item so these illustrations fall short, too, because they lend themselves to the misunderstanding called partialism.
Similarly, the sun has been used as an illustrative example of the Trinity because it gives off three different types of rays providing light, heat, and radiation. All these rays come from the same sun and without any of the three, the sun would cease to be the sun. However, light rays or radiation rays or heat rays by themselves do not constitute the sun so this example falls short in the same way as the clover, egg, and apple. The same is true for the example of the universe being made up of space, time, and matter because each element on its own is not the universe.
One illustration that avoids the partialism pitfall of the previous examples is the three states of matter of H2O. As a solid, H2O is ice; in liquid form, it’s water; and in its gaseous state, H2O becomes steam. Regardless of the form in which it is found, the chemical makeup remains the same. However, the three states of matter illustration falls short because ice, water, and steam cannot coexist in the same space and time. Father, Son, and Spirit do coexist and commune together. They also remain distinct whereas ice becomes water and water becomes steam and vice versa. But the Father never becomes the Son, nor does the Son turn into the Spirit—that misunderstanding is called modalism. So the three states of matter example breaks down farther.
Another illustration of the Trinity has to do with light: The Father being the source, the Son being the way, and the Spirit being the power. In this illustration, the Father decides or decrees there should be light, the Son flips the switch, and the Spirit is the electricity giving power to the light. The source of the idea was the Father, it was implemented by the Son, through the power of the Holy Spirit. In this example, however, none of the actors are united as one, but rather remain three separate actors working toward the same goal. But the Bible teaches that the Godhead is one, so this illustration fails to encapsulate God’s triune nature as well.
Perhaps the least flawed illustration we have of God’s triune nature is a musical chord of three notes. The three distinct notes work together to make one melodious sound, existing in the same time and space, and unified in purpose while remaining separate and distinct. Each note on its own fills the auditory space and creates a beautiful sound, and yet when combined with the other two notes continues to make a unified melodious sound that fills the auditory space while remaining distinct from the other two. So this example comes close to showing how God’s triune nature exists.
Others have tried to represent the Trinity visually. Some have used a simple equilateral triangle where the three persons of God are represented by each side of the triangle. The triquetra uses three congruent interwoven arcs to display the same idea while bringing to mind God’s infinite nature. It is pictured below.
There’s also the Shield of the Trinity (Scutum Fidei) where the word “God” is in the center and Father, Son, and Spirit are written outside with lines saying “is” connecting each one to the center and lines reading “is not” connecting each to the other. It is pictured below.
Because God is divine and infinite, our limited, human minds will never fully or completely understand His nature (Job 42:3, Isaiah 55:9). Each illustration we have for the Trinity fails to fully encapsulate God’s triune nature. However, sometimes, these examples can help us engage our minds on this complex topic and help increase our understanding of God, as long as we recognize the pitfalls of each example and return to Scripture as the only reliable source of understanding who God is.