Explaining the Trinity (or at least trying to)


Mind that I’ve never read Sheed’s explanations on the matter but I do know the traditional illustration of the Trinitarian concept (is, is not…).

I was just thinking about how to explain the Trinity to the man on the street and it occurred to me that Saint Patrick’s explanation with the shamrock might not cut it with non-Irishmen. A halved mango is close too (skin, flesh, seed) but is somewhat inadequate (not that anything really is adequate in explaining such a concept). The three states of water (ice, steam, fluid) is pretty good.

I was wondering if it would be proper to explain the Trinity by way of an atom. An atom is a single unit of matter, and yet is comprised of three components, protons, neurons and electrons. The atom IS because of those three, and yet those three are an atom because they are one.

Would this make sense? Inputs would be greatly appreciated.


Each of these components is distinct, and, while on their own would not comprise an atom, they can stand alone. I don’t think this is too good of an analogy.:shrug:


The ice, water, vapor analogy can bite you. It more closely resembles modalism than the trinity.


Thanks for the input Tim. Very insightful. I was trying to approach it from the point of view of the average joe who knows a bit of science. Any suggestions for a scientific alternative, yet popular enough to be known by the average guy?


Hmmm… Good point Cleopas. I thought it was a good example because those three are one, but it might lead to erroneous thinking down the road. Plus everyone knows the three states of water so I thought the general populace might find it easy to digest.

Any alternatives you could suggest?


I think the human person forms a good analogy, actually. We have a physical component, a mental component, and a spiritual one. Someone who has met you could see a picture of you and say, “that is Joe (or whatever your name happens to be, I’ll just use Joe).” Someone who knows you particularly well could read something you have written and say, “That sounds like something Joe would say.” It’s hard to come up with an analogy for the spiritual part, though…:shrug:


Or if it was someone who doesn’t initially believe in souls or spirits, maybe physical, mental and emotional?

That looks like Joe. That sounds like how Joe would think or say things. This bouquet of roses is so Joe.



I believe C.S. Lewis once wrote “the best analogy for a thing is that thing itself.”


Strange that you should ask.

I was revisited by two JWs yesterday… always an exciting (not inciting) event.

Their topic of choice yesterday was the Trinity. We discussed their version of Gen, where they added the word “a” to God, thereby rejecting Jesus as God.

I asked them if there were any other of the 100 translations of this verse, besides theirs, that included “a”. No answer from them.

Anyway… I thought I would try this for them:

"Well, Jim (the JW gentleman), personally I have never been comfortable with the shamrock example… lose a leaf, and it still lives on.

So let me offer another analogy… If you will, picture a mirror in space… just the mirror. Then imagine the God stands in front of this mirror. What He sees is a direct image of Himself. Not Himself, yet a perfect image of Himself. Jesus. He has the emotion of true love for what He sees, and the image reflects back that smile of love. That “emotion” might be the Holy Spirit, for purposes of this analogy. None of the 3 can exist, in this analogy, without the other two."

Well, Jim was uncomfortable, and offered this:

“When I was in a Catholic grade school, I asked a nun to explane the Trinity to me. She said she could not. She told me to ask the priest when he came in. Well, the priest came, and called me out in the hall, put his hand on my shoulder, and said 'Son, I cannot explain the Trinity… you must just trust me that it is true, for it is a mystery… and you must have Faith to believe.”

I could only say… “Jim, that answer was as good as any you will ever hear.”



Very nice story MrS! I just love these first-hand accounts. I personally haven’t had the pleasure of someone coming up to me here in New York and challenging me on the tenets of my belief. Believe me when I say I’m itching for the opportunity though.

Some people definitely will come away unsatisfied with the Mystery explanation though. It’s like we can’t even explain what we’re willing to die for. Maybe that’s one of the things that turned Jim away from the faith.


Most trinitarian analogies fail because they implicitly divid God into parts, and God has no parts. Persons are not parts, but relations. And persons are not distinct beings, but hold their ‘being-ness’ from their underlying nature, which is in God’s case, the one divine nature.

I still prefer Frank Sheed to any analogies.


What is Sheed’s explanation? Is that the one Karl Keating always says is “the best explanation of the Trinity” he’s ever heard?


Please bear with me as this is my first post:)

I like this question and I think Augustine helps me to understand/explain this. He starts with his formulation of the Nicene doctrine. (On Christian Doctrine)

  1. The Father is God
  2. The Son is God
  3. The Holy Spirit is God
  4. The Father is not the Son
  5. The Son is not the Holy Spirit
  6. The Holy Spirit is not the Father
  7. There is only one God

The first 3 are the identified names from the Bible
The second 3 distinguish each from the other two
The third statement insists on monotheism. Reasonably solved to me as God is omnipotent, all-knowing, infinitely wise and perfect. If there were two Gods that were omnipotent, all-knowing and infinitely perfect, then they would be the same thing. Or, one God.

The Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are of the same “Essence,” but are different by their relations to one another. The Son is begotten from the Father. The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son, etc.

So, how does one try to understand this seemingly problematic equation of 1+1+1=1? I like the analogy of self love. I assume you love your self. So in that statement you get the following “Trinity sign.”

You love yourself:

  1. There is you “the lover”
  2. There is you “the beloved”
  3. There is “love”

They are “one” and yet distinguished from one another.

Triad of self-knowledge:

  1. You Remember who you are
  2. You Understand your self
  3. You have a Will to do these things.

You wouldn’t say you have multiple minds to do each of these things. Yet each is distinct.


A good Duel not triune natural analogy may be a magnet…

there is North and a South. they both have individual properties, the both have distinct functions, but you cannot have one without the other. It is impossible to just have a north, or just a south

However, both together make a magnet…

You cannot have a magnet with out both aspects…

Now, that being said…

like all analogies, it will have problems… but just something to help in explaining…

In Christ


I would suggest reading the book “Theology for Beginners,” by Sheed. Almost by definition, it is nearly impossible to adequately discuss the trinitarian nature of God in such a format as an internet forum.

The key is first to make a distinction between ‘person’ and ‘nature’ and what we mean by each term. When I speak of someone as a person, I likely have in mind that person in his or her entirety–body, soul, spirit, personality [which, incidentally, is not equivalent to ‘person’], nature, activities, etc. But ‘person’ is not actually separate from my human nature, but an expression of it.

God has but one divine nature, which is expressed fully in three persons–not three separate entities, rather three relationships within the divine nature.

However, if I go on, the thread will get too long. By all means, read the book to do justice to the concept.


I’ve always liked using flame.

God used so many images of fire in the OT.

Flame is made of 3 things: Fuel, Heat, and Air.

Fuel, like the father, preceeds the other two. Move the fuel, the flame will go. So the rest proceed from the fuel.

Heat is the part that is visible (the radient part in the visible spectrum) and can be felt. (communicates to us through our senses)

Air is everywhere but flame only appears when the fuel and heat are present.

Lose any one and you have no flame.

Also flame can warm, cook, destroy, enlighten, … I find the analogy fails in some areas (as any analogy does) but something to contemplate during an adoration hour.


I would like to attempt to offer a useful analogy…let me know how it works.

The Holy Spirit emanates from the relationship–the mutual and perfect love–between the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit, being generated by such a perfect love, takes on a person-hood of its own. Therefore you have a relationship: the Father as a lover who is beloved by the Son, the Son as a lover who is beloved by the Father, and the Spirit as the love between the two.

Therefore it might be useful to draw an analogy between a husband and a wife (yay for Theology of the Body!). The husband is a lover to his beloved wife, the wife a lover to her beloved husband, and so great is their love that it takes a person-hood in the form of a child. Their essential unity arises from their mutual love: husband and wife become one flesh, and the child is in union with them being one flesh with the mother, who is one flesh with the husband.

It is still an imperfect analogy. It remains difficult to stress the unity of substance between the members of a family when compared to the unity of substance between the persons of the Trinity. Yet, I have always found this to be the most effective tool in helping to understand the Trinity. The Trinity is not a “thing”, it is a “relationship” that is profoundly inter-personal and intra-personal.

Remember St. Augustine’s experience with the boy at the shoreline: it is just as impossible to fill a whole in the sand with the entire ocean as it is to understand the mystery of the Trinity.


Excellent. Yes this is what I remember reading the explanation for the Trinity to be. Thanks very much jtfarley!


I really like this analogy Nathan! It is beautiful and touching at a fundamental level. Granted it’s not perfect but it’s certainly based on what God truly is, which is Love.


What about color? Would this work?

Visible color essentially appears as a single expression - we shall call it white. However, white consists of three equally distinct visible colors – three colors that are togther one. Or perhaps better still one color that can be seen in relationship as three equal yet distinct parts colors. Nevertheless none ever being separate from the other, and each equally existing and sharing in the full expression of white.

And interestingly, every other color emanates from these three that are one.

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