Illustrating the Trinity
What do a shamrock, an apple, and a fidget spinner have in common? They can all be used to illustrate the Trinity.
This past Sunday was Trinity Sunday. As Fr. Regis joked, this is the Sunday you try to avoid giving a sermon because, well, the Trinity is complicated. The Episcopal Church writes this about the Trinity:
One of the most difficult to explain, and often misunderstood concepts in the Christian faith is the belief in a trinitarian God, one God with three aspects. Often characterized as the 'Father,' Son,' and 'Holy Spirit,' the [T]rinity represents God the Father/Creator, Jesus Christ the Son and Savior, and the Holy Spirit, or the creative, inspirational force at work in the world.
It is this 'three-in-one' characterization of God that some point to as contradictory to the doctrine of there being one and only one God, that somehow Christians pray to more than one god. Christian teachings and belief however are clear on this point: there is only one God, the Creator of the universe, who has three 'persons' or aspects, inseparable yet unique parts of the whole.
There are many metaphors for the Trinity, many ways of trying to conceptualize that which is almost beyond our grasp, but for Christians it is the way we interact with these three aspects that matter most. The Trinity provides structure to our prayers, our worship services, our lives.
I’m not about to take on a subject that priests, theologians, and scholars shirk, but I thought it would be interesting to do a roundup of various images, similes, metaphors, and analogies used to illustrate and explain the Trinity. Take from them what you will.
One common symbol of the Trinity is the triquetra. The word Triquetra, meaning “three-cornered” in Latin, was originally used to refer to various triangular shapes, but today is associated exclusively with a triangle made of three interlaced arcs. This symbol predates Christianity but was adopted by the Christian tradition as a symbol of the trinity.
There are also several variations of this symbol:
This symbol is often used in Celtic traditions and is sometimes called a Celtic trinity knot.
Another well-known Celtic symbol used to illustrate the Trinity is the shamrock. Traditionally, it is said that Saint Patrick used a three-leaved shamrock to illustrate the Holy Trinity to new Irish converts during the 5th century.
St. Patrick depicted with shamrock in detail of stained glass window in St. Benin's Church, Wicklow, Ireland.
Borromean rings, a shape made by three interlinked circles and named for the their use in the coat of arms of the Borromeo family, have also been used to illustrate the Trinity, in addition to other uses.
Another early symbol, designed as early as the 12th century but used more frequently in the 15th and 16th centuries, specifically to illustrate the Trinity, is the Trinity shield or Scutum Fidei (meaning “shield of faith”). Below is the earliest known drawing of this diagram, from a manuscript of Peter of Poitier’s writings c. 1210, as well as a modern, English version. And here is a short video explaining the Trinity using the Trinity shield.
There are also several modern similes that are frequently used to illustrate the Trinity. This past Sunday, Joyce used an apple to help explain the Trinity as part of our children’s liturgy. In case you missed Joyce’s explanation, check out this brief video.
Another common illustration used to explain the Trinity is water, which may be a liquid, a solid (ice), or a vapor (steam) but is always water. And last year, you may have seen this meme about how a fidget spinner could be used to illustrate the trinity.
Nothing can fully represent the Trinity. In fact, the Trinity is itself an illustration--a way for humans to try to understand a God who is beyond our comprehension. In the end, faith is about believing in that which we cannot see and cannot fully understand. As is written in Hebrews 11:1, “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.”
Grace and peace,
A member of St. Brendan's since 2014, I enjoy being a part of this welcoming and giving community of faith. However, I am not a theologian, biblical scholar, or official spokesperson for The Episcopal Church. If you read anything on this blog that is inaccurate or contrary to the teachings of The Episcopal Church, please consider it my error and let me know! If you have questions, comments, or ideas for future blog posts, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.