Images of the Trinity

God in the Light –  Back in High School we did an experiment in science class wherein we took three slide projectors (more common in those days) and shined three circles on the wall, one Red, one Blue, one Green. As we brought the three circles together on the wall (like the diagram at right), lo and behold, at the intersection the color was white. Somehow, in the one color (white) three colors were mysteriously present. I saw one but knew there were three. (By the way, don’t try it with paint, it only works with light).  It was one but it was three. I saw it but it was still mysterious. In later years, I thought, “This is something of an image of the Trinity: One God yet three persons mysteriously present. One, yet three.”

Ex ore infantium – Not long ago, one of my nephews was showing his smarts when he suddenly declared to his father and my brother, “Hey Dad, you’re a father, and you’re a son, and you’re a brother.” Hmm….thought I, an image of the Trinity. I know, you may say it’s dangerously close to modalism. But it really isn’t modalism, for while my brother is a father he does not cease being a son. While he is my brother he does not cease to be a father. He does not switch modes, he is one at all times and yet three at all times. Not a perfect analogy, no analogy is perfect, otherwise it would not be an analogy. But here too is a glimpse of the Trinity.

Scripture too presents images and pictures of the Trinity. Interestingly enough most of  the pictures I want to present are from the Old Testament. Now I want to say, as a disclaimer, that Scripture Scholars debate the meaning of the texts I am about to present, that’s what they get paid the big bucks to do. Let me be clear to say that I am reading these texts as a New Testament Christian and seeing in them a Doctrine that later became clear. I am not getting in a time machine and trying to understand them as a Jew from the 8th Century BC might have understood them. Why should I? That’s not what I am. Further that is not my job and what I get paid the big bucks to do. I am reading these texts as a Christian in the light of the New Testament, as I have a perfect right to do. You of course, the reader are free to decide if these texts really ARE images or hints of the Trinity from your perspective. Take them or leave them. Here they are:

1.Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness…  (Gen 1:26) So God speaks to himself in the plural: “let us….our.”  Some claim this is just an instance of the “Royal We” being used. Perhaps but I see an image of the Trinity. There is one (God said) but there is a plural (us, our). Right at the very beginning in Genesis there is already a hint that God is not all by himself but is in a communion of love.

2. Elohim?? In the quote above, the word used for God is Elohim. Now it is interesting that this word is in a plural form. From the view point of pure grammatical form Elohim means “Gods.”  However, the Jewish people understood the sense of the word to be singular. Now this is a much debated point and you can read something more of it from a Jewish perspective here: Elohim as Plural yet Singular. My point here is not to try and understand it as a Jew from the 8th Century BC or a Jew today might understand it. Rather, what I observing is that it is interesting that one of the main words for God in the Old Testament is plural, yet singular, singular yet plural. It is one, it  is plural. God is one, yet he is three. I say this as a  Christian observing this about one of the main titles of God. I see an image of the Trinity.

3. And the LORD appeared to [Abram] by the oaks of Mamre, as he sat at the door of his tent in the heat of the day.  He lifted up his eyes and looked, and behold, three men stood in front of him. When he saw them, he ran from the tent door to meet them, and bowed himself to the earth,  and said, “My Lord, if I have found favor in your sight, do not pass by your servant.  Let a little water be brought, and wash your feet, and rest yourselves under the tree,  while I fetch a morsel of bread, that you may refresh yourselves, and after that you may pass on — since you have come to your servant.” So they said, “Do as you have said.”   (Gen 18:1-5).  Now this passage from a purely grammatical point of view is very difficult since we switch back and forth  from singular references to plural. Note first that the Lord (singular) appeared to Abram. (In this case Yahweh  (YHWH) is the name used for God). And yet what Abram sees is three men. Some have wanted to say, this is just God and two angels. But I see the Trinity being imaged or alluded to here. And yet when Abram address “them” he says, “My Lord” (singular). The “tortured” grammar continues as Abram asks that water be fetched so that he can “wash your feet (singular) and that the “LORD” (singular)can  rest yourselves (plural). The same thing happens in the next sentence where Abram wants to fetch bread that you (singular) may refresh yourselves (plural)   In the end the LORD (singular) gives answer but it is rendered: “So they said.”  Plural, singular….. what is it? Both. God is one, God is three. For me, as a Christian,  this is a picture of the Trinity. Since the reality of God cannot be reduced to words we have here a grammatically difficult passage. But I “see” what is going on. God is one and God is three, he is singular and yet is plural.

4.  In the year that King Uzziah died I saw the Lord sitting upon a throne, high and lifted up; and his train filled the temple. 2 Above him stood the seraphim; each had six wings: with two he covered his face, and with two he covered his feet, and with two he flew. 3 And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory. (Is 6:1-3)  God is Holy, Holy and yet again, Holy. Some say this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy” but as Christian I see more. I see a reference to each of the Three Persons. Perfect praise here requires three “holys”, why? Omni Trinum Perfectum (all things are perfect in threes) why? So, as a Christian I see the angels not just using the superlative but also praising each of the Three persons. God is thee (Holy, Holy, Holy) and God is one and so the text says, Holy  “IS the Lord.”

5. In the New Testament there are obviously many references but let me just refer to three quickly. Jesus says, The Father and I are one (Jn 10:30). He says again, To have seen me is to have seen the Father (Jn. 14:9). And, have you ever noticed that in  the baptismal formula Jesus uses is “bad” grammar? He says, Baptize them in the Name (not names as it grammatically “should” be) of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (Matt 28:19). God is One (name) and God is three (Father, Son and Holy Spirit).

Feel free to add to this list of  images for the Trinity, both biblical and natural.

This video is longish (22 Minutes) but the priests interviewed present a lot of good material.

30 Replies to “Images of the Trinity”

  1. The processional was a Trinitarian hymn – 1st verse about the Father, 2nd verse about the Son, 3rd verse about the Holy Spirit. We sang only two verses because by the end of the second the priest was at the front of the church. After Mass I suggested to Fr A that he walk more slowly during the processional so that the Holy Spirit could get his due. He looked at me as if I had three heads.

    1. I remember something similar happened to me at the Seminary. I was organist and played the opening hymn. I had not thought to consider that this was a Trinitarian hymn. Hence, the priest had reached the altar and I stopped after two verses. One of the seminarians sitting in the choir loft where I was playing leaned over and said to me: “Heretic.” I smiled as it suddenly occured to me that I had neglected the verse to the Holy Spirit. Omni trinum perfectum

  2. From childhood I loved this image of the Triune God. I’ve always felt there a piece of God inside me (Holy Spirit?). The essence of God permeates everything. If God were the universe, He is reflected in every atom. Of course, all earthly analogies fail in the end because God is not of this world.

  3. The triad is the fundamental unit of harmony in western music. It is occurs naturally and is discovered in the overtone series. It is an amazing example of unity and diversity—one chord, three notes. There are two versions of the triad that are consonant—major and minor. Whether a triad is major or minor depends entirely on the middle note: if it is lowered a half step, the triad becomes minor; if it is raised a half step, the triad is major. Could it be that the lowering is a picture of the passion of our Lord? And the raising an expression of His resurrection? Minor: Jesus was crucified. Major: Jesus has risen. Just a thought…

  4. Hello Monsignor:

    I’ve read your blog posts for a while now. I’m particularly fascinated, though not surprised, by your ability to engage popular culture in an orthodox manner. May God continue to bless you with this ability!

    One image that I’ve considered “easy” to grasp is that of water. I’m not sure where I read it – as I won’t pretend to have conceived of it by myself – but it goes something like this: water is still water whether in the form of ice, liquid water, or steam. Someone once told me that it’s not a perfect analogy because they can’t all exist at once. That may be true for long periods of time, as we know that God is eternal and perhaps even outside of time, but I can bring a glass of iced water into a sauna or steam-room and debunk that claim for at least a few minutes. 🙂 I like the image of water better than other chemicals because of the life-giving, life-sustaining, and without-which-life-non-existant properties of water.

    Please keep up the good work.

    In Christ,

    Matthew Wade

    1. Nice. I am most in touch with his expression that our words of God are muddled words indeed. God is other and cannot be reduced to words. Though we must use them it is a necessary evil

      1. Glad you liked it. The first line, which I did not explain in the post, has quote marks around it:

        “The Supreme Ultimate contains three”—

        That is because those words (the muddled words indeed!) are a quote from a Confucian thought that Wu Li knew from the Monograph on Pitchpipes and Calendrical Affairs which is a Han Shu formulation that he was familiar with.

        The translator of the poems, Jonathan Chaves says, “In describing the Han Shu formulation as “muddled”, Wu Li in his poem intends to distinquish the Christian revelation of God as three distinct persons sharing one essence from the [Confucian] idea of a primal unity self-evolving into the multiplicity of the variegated universe.”

        So the “muddled” words for Wu were those of Confucian thought. How’s that for interesting?

        What I find fascinating about Wu Li is that he steps completely out of the mainstream thought of Chinese culture because he grasped the truth of the Way and realized that it was whole, where neo-Confucianism was not.

        Thanks again,

  5. I really enjoyed your post concerning the Trinity. I believe it is an excellent expression of our faith as Catholics.
    The only point I would like to make is that your explanation of “Holy, holy, holy” is incorrect. You wrote: “Some say this is just a Jewish way of saying “very Holy”…” In fact, the triple “holy” is a common occurrence in hebrew. We have, in english, the ability to say that something is “holy” or that this is “holier” than the other or that this is the “holiest” of any of them. That ability does not occur in the language of the old testament. When we read: “And one called to another and said: “Holy, holy, holy is the LORD of hosts; the whole earth is full of his glory.” in Isaiah, in literally means “Holy, holier, holiest is the LORD of hosts…” On the other hand, I can appreciate your 21st century, American english spin on the phrase.
    Thanks for a great commentary that celebrates the Trinity as fact and mystery.
    Ron Jones

  6. It’s my view that these analogies just undermine the mystery. There is an Irish story of a Catholic telling a Unitarian that a coach with three men in it was an analogy of the Trinity. “Oh no,” said the Unitarian. “You must show me one man in three coaches — if you can.”

  7. Many of us are familar with St. Patrick’s use of the shamrock to help analogize the Trinity to the Irish he evangelized. I came across a 21st century analogy in, of all places, a book about quantum physics. It seems that the reality of three, yet one is quite fundamental to the very fabric of our universe. In all of the matter of our universe, the neutrons and protons comprising each atomic nucleus are themselves each comprised of three quarks. So neutrons and protons are distinct and specific subatomic entities by virtue of the combination of their three constituent quarks.
    But now the really interesting part. Suppose, if you had the ability, you wanted to see if there could be a proton with only two quarks and you tried to remove one of the three quarks that comprise a proton. You would not be able to do it. It turns out that the energy required to pull one quark away from the other two would create a new quark and so you’d still have a proton made up of three quarks. Al Einstein described how something like this happens by E = mc2. Somewhere in the back of my head the lyrics to an old hymn we used to sing about the Trinity come to mind ” …Hail, the Holy Trinity, undivided unity …”.
    I’m sure I’m not the first person to notice this and I’m also sure that somebody else has already explained it much better. Its interesting to ponder, though, and I’m sure I’ll sing that hymn with more gusto from now on.

  8. I like the image of the waltz – two dancers moving as one, both moved by the same beautiful melody. Each dancer’s steps are different, but cooperating together they make one movement, both the dancers and music being intimately united together.

  9. You’re probably thinking, “Oh no, not the heretic again.” That God created man in Our image.” took a very long time in relative terms. The world and human consciousness had to develop over a long period in order to even be able to recognize the teachings and nature of Jesus the Christ. The presence of God Father, as omnipotent and omnicient creative Consciousness ( Being) could only be expressed through creation.”I am that I am”. Material objectivity and subjectivity was the gradual awakening of consciousness in material creation by way of dualism. It was this dualism that led to polytheism and it was the evolutionary development of human consciousness by way of evolutionary sentient experience that led to monotheism as revealed to specific individuals chosen by God through mysctical revelation which eventually led to moral law. Man’s consiousness as ego, is the ignorance (original sin) where material dualistic consciousness creates the darkness that the Light shines upon and yet man comprehendeth It not. Not even when the monotheist Israelites had made their covenant with the one God revealed in mystical experience to individuals chosen by God, (they called prophets), did the majority of monotheist comprehend God’s will. But this did prepare the world for the way of God as messiah in Jesus as Christ to reveal God’s will (Being), and His nature (Consicousness), to enliven in the world’s material dualistic consiousness, the fullness of God’s Omnipotent nature and Omniscient Consciousness, by way of the Holy Spirit – God’s transcendence throughout creation with the birth of God- the Son of Man, Jesus the Christ. It was through the consciousness of this Holy Spirit, imparted to mankind, by way of the passion of Christ in Jesus’s lif and crucifiction by mankind, that God took upon His Self the sin’s (Ignorance- darkness) of His creation. God through Jesus as the transcendent Son, made way for mankind to obtain the salvation of eternal life (the Light that shines among the darkness). In the passion of Christ( God made man and free of sin), God had created the perfection of man freed from sin, by way of man as (Jesus) forgiving his enemies and murderers and Loving them completley through His resurrection and preparing a place for them in his Consciousness (Heaven). These were outward signs in the dualistic material consiousness of the world instututed through God as Christ to give grace ” Omnicient wisdom” as hereafter imparted in the sacrement of the Eucharist through the mass. This is why prayer and worship as meditation through the “solemn” mass, as well as throughout our daily lives has to be an integral part of physical existence as well as subtle existence of the ( soul ) in order to share in the glory of God as Omniscient Consiousness. As egos, we are not God but God is us and until we come to realize this, we shall not be able to share in the eternal Life. Quantum physics comes closest to the science explaining God’s creation and the teachings of Christ as imparted to His apostles to His Church reveal the way to “do” in the material world and “Be” in His Consiousness. The Holy Trinity is but One Consiousness that is doing (objectivity) and Being ( subjectivity) in God’s Consciousness, (creation). In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. Blessed is the Lord who hath set me to sail into the mystic. I could be wrong but He is not.

      1. I like where C.S. Lewis says, having in the course of his argument only “got to […] a Something which is directing the universe”, “I think we have to assume it is more like a mind than it is like anything else we know” (‘Mere Christianity’, I, 3). Not “a mind”, but “like a mind”.

        It seems to me, equally, not “Consciousness”, but ‘”like consciousness”, not “a (Supreme) Being”, or even “Being”, but “like…”: even “more like” is always still “like”.

        I think this is all part of what is called the language of ‘analogia entis’. One cannot do without it, one need not try to, absolutely, but one must realize its limits.

        So, I particularly like the language of St.[?] [Pseudo-]Dionysius the Areopagite, of “hyper-“/”super-“: God, One Essence/Substance/Nature in Three Persons ‘is’ “Superessential”, “Beyond Being”. This language no more escapes ‘analogy’, being ‘like’, than any other, but it can help to prevent ‘short-circuits’ like equating creaturely being-come-to-consciousness with Uncreated Superessential Divine Triune ‘Consciousness’.

        Similarly, if, having achieved Nicene Trinitarian language, we start from Divine Persons, distinct, but not detached, no less One because Three (“3 = 1”, as Vladimir Lossky puts it) and return to human persons, then one can have a human person without any need for “consciousness as ego” to be a sinful egoistic individualism, but only ‘consciousness of proper distinctness’. Lewis, again, very tentatively and exploratively, but I think quite interestingly, attempts to imagine something of this sort, with the coming of human consciousness – as very distinct from the Fall – in ‘The Problem of Pain’, chapter five.

  10. Thanks for the post. Our older son (who celebrated his 22nd anniversary of Ordination to the presbyterate today) has said that it is very difficult to give a homily on the Trinity without verging on heresy in one direction or another. And, as you mention, analogies tend to limp.
    In some cases, we can ACCEPT certain things as facts w/o understanding them. i propose that the existence of One God in Three Divine persons is one of those facts. Consider the story about St. Augustine of Hippo and the small child trying to pour the Mediterrean into a hole on the beach.
    Anyway, thanks for the post.

  11. I just found this while checking out some iconography. I thought you might like to add this to your explanations of the Trinity. Can you tell it’s from the Orthodox tradition?
    St. Spyridon was a farmer and a self-educated man. He married young and he and his wife had children. After his wife died, he gave himself totally to the service of God. He was chosen as Bishop of Tremithus and he continued to farm, giving most of what he grew to the poor. He was a champion for Orthodoxy at the 1st Ecumenical Council. He debated Arius. Arius was more skilled with words than Spyridon, but Spyridon had power. He took a brick in his hand and squeezed it. Water streamed down to the floor, while flame shot up from his hand, leaving earth in his open palm. Thus, he illustrated the truth of the Trinity and defended the Deity of Christ.
    The full article and icon may be viewed at –
    Blessings to you,
    Ron Jones (from California)

  12. What has struck me about the Trinity for a while is, that for Each to be in direct contact with the Other Two we would need a triangular shape. (The Venn Diagram illustrated above is, at least approximately, a triangle.) Then a straIght line (the shortest distance between two points) could be used to connect any One with either of the Others. So many faiths and philosophies give us a polarity which can be shown in two dimensions. Such things as good and evil; order and chaos, proven and unproven. Any of these can be shown on a single straight line in one dimension. Yet a triangle requires two dimensions for display. I believe that God, The Father, The Son and The Holy Spirit can always be trusted to take us to the next level.

  13. I’m not often this long waiting for the introspection of my thinking (except in poetry) but yesterday I thought of this page and realized a little geometry which seems to apply. Not that geometry, or any human communication, could be any more than barely adequate to describe the divine.
    Furniture seems to usually be built with four legs and can be built with as many more than four as one may wish. However; the least number of legs for stability is three. One and two legged fruniture si extremely unstable and four or more (on a plane – two dimensional surface) may rock as all the legs fail to touch simultaneously.
    Three legged furniture never rocks forth and back – the only one which is so stable that it never does does.
    Speaking of communication )first paragraph( imagine that, if one who is English speaks a language called English and one who is Ukrainian speaks a language called Ukrainian; then those who are Elohim could possibly comminucate in a “language” called a language. If there is such a language wouldn’t it be unimaginably beautiful? like a dimensionless point in space/time which instantly transforms into the language of the recipient of the communication. If began the sentence before last. Such a big little word.

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