Drawing The Trinity

This week I downloaded an app called ‘Draw Something’.  Basically it’s Pictionary with friends over the internet.  You doodle a picture with your finger and send it across and they have to guess what on earth your incomprehensible scribble is meant to be.  Pretty fun.

But imagine for a moment that the suggestion for what you had to draw came up as… The Trinity.  Where would you start?  How do you visualise the invisible God?  How do you put to paper (or the screen of your iPad) the most mysterious and mind-bending truth in all our Christian beliefs?  That there is only one God but this God eternally exists as three distinct Persons.  How do you draw the Trinity?

That’s actually a question I was asked this week in church: “I’d like to draw some pictures to explain the Trinity to children.  What pictures would you use?”

My answer was that I’d use pictures mainly to show what the Trinity isn’t.  Because God is unique in the universe He’s made and no drawing could do Him justice.  No diagram can sum up the majesty of the Trinity or really get close to having a crack at it.  But if you use pictures to show what the Trinity is not then that can help clear up some misunderstandings.  We had a little chat and I basically apologised for not being much help.

But then, lo and behold!  What do I see online this week from the same people who brought you the books of the Bible set out like the periodic table?  An attempt at drawing a diagram to explain the Trinity.  Take a look below and then I’ll offer my comments on it.

Download the higher resolution version here.

I think this is a really helpful picture.  Once you’ve worked out how to use it, the little triangley arrow one halfway down is especially good.  And it’s great to see them say why a lot of popular pictures of the Trinity fall down, like water, ice and steam.  The truths it’s putting across are excellent and really clear.  There’s a lot to learn from it and I like it a lot.  Hence my immediate response was to post it here.

But I wonder what you make of the ‘one good illustration’?  See any potential issues with it?  Maybe I’m being nitpicky but I think it has the same issues as the traditional three-interlocking-rings picture for the Trinity.  Let me explain.

This picture has been used for centuries.  After all, it makes for a lovely necklace.  And it’s great to show the connection between the three and that they are inseperable, etc.  But the problem is it’s too much like a Venn diagram; the kind of diagram you use to show two (or more) seperate things and then show the areas where they overlap.  In the picture below, you’ve got A and you’ve got B and then you’ve also got a special bit which is both A and B.

Apply that to the 3 rings above and what you get is the Father, the Son and the Spirit, but then a big chunk at the bottom which is the Son plus the Spirit but not the Father, as well as two little bits above it left and right which are the Father plus the Spirit but not the Son and the Father plus the Son but not the Spirit.  So it’s communicating the idea that there are bits of God which each Person of the Trinity aren’t part of.  Not good!  Cos then Jesus isn’t fully God.

And the most dangerous idea is that little triangle in the middle – surely that little nugget is the only bit which all 3 Persons share.  It wouldn’t be a massive leap to say that little triangle is the only bit which is really, truly, fully God and we should worship that bit most of all!  The ‘one good illustration’ has a circle in the middle which is similar and could become our ‘proper’ extra concentrated bit of God.  That kind of idea has been put forward in the past and it tries to look beyond Jesus, the Father and the Holy Spirit to see the essential God-ness behind them so they can worship that instead.  Hmmm.  Also not great.  (Understatement.)

All really tricky stuff.  But worth nitpicking over so that when we talk about God, what comes into our heads is the God who is really there as revealed in the Bible, rather than a cheap knock-off based on a wonky diagram.  These are some of the kinds of issues that theologians and the rest of us have been wrestling with for centuries.

So how do you take what the Bible tells us about God and make it more tangible and explainable?  My solution is to say what I said by the welcome desk at church last Sunday – there is nothing and nobody in the universe like God so any pictures or diagrams are only going to mislead us or minimise His awesome uniqueness.  But if you show a picture and then discuss how it’s sort-of-right and sort-of-heretical then maybe we’ll grow in understanding and appreciation for our Trinitarian God in all His brain-expanding heart-warming hugeness.  (I hope so, otherwise this blog post was a waste of time!)

Let’s praise God that He is beyond our attempts to scribble Him down.  Let’s worship Him because He is personal and relational and the links between the Father, the Son, the Spirit and us (!!) are deeper than can be expressed through lines and circles on a page.  And let’s decide now that if we ever get ‘The Trinity’ come up in Pictionary, we’ll pass.

What pictures have you come across to help you understand the Trinity better?