Question

Water, as liquid, ice, and steam is one substance in three different forms. This seems like a reasonable explanation of the Trinity - one God, three persons. But a friend told me that I shouldn’t describe the Trinity as such. He couldn’t explain why. Please explain.

Answer

The Christian faith is not unitarian, which is believing that the one divine nature is possessed only by a single person. The Christian faith is not polytheistic which means it doesn't confess many individual gods that each have their own individual divine nature. Christians confess that God is one in essence and three in person.

Describing the Trinity as liquid, ice, and steam is a heresy called modalism, which teaches that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are three modes of existence for the one God. Here are some reasons why such an analogy is incorrect:

(1) Water cannot be liquid, ice, and steam at the same time, all the time.

God is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit at the same time, all the time. God can’t change, but liquid, ice, and water can. God does not go through three separate states, rather is three separate persons who coexist as the same essence who is God.

(2) The interactions of liquid, ice, and steam are self-destructive to one another.

Liquid and steam melt ice. Steam can boil water and ice. Ice can change the temperature of water and steam. This implies that the Trinity is self-destructive and can change.

(3) Liquid, ice, and steam don’t have an eternal relationship between them.

The Trinity has an eternal relationship of love between them, while liquid, ice, and steam don’t.

(4) Liquid, ice, and steam are created things.

God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit aren’t created things, rather are spirit and self-existent, not created.

(5) Liquid, ice, and steam have different purposes.

The ontological Trinity is one in purpose and will, while ice is cold, steam is hot, and water can be either hot, cold, or lukewarm. Thus, they have and serve different purposes.

Another bad analogy I’ve heard is that of an egg. Eggs are one, yet comprised of a yolk, shell, and albumen (white of the egg). But each part of the egg is only one portion of the whole. Therefore, each part of the egg isn’t the essence of the whole.

Still another uses the sun, but the sun is comprised of the sun itself and its light and heat. But the light and heat are creations of the sun. This is like the false doctrine of Arianism which claims that the Son and Spirit are mere creations of the Father.

God is self-existent (aseity). So, using analogies of created things to describe the Trinity always ends in heresy.

Answer by Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr.

Dr. Joseph R. Nally, Jr., D.D., M.Div. is the Theological Editor at Third Millennium Ministries (Thirdmill).