Analogies: What Are They Good For?
So recently I saw a post on social media asking if this was a good analogy for the Holy Trinity:
I will say it’s not completely bad, although I believe the picture should be labeled strawberry-vanilla-chocolate, and it should note that Neapolitan ice cream has three distinct flavors, but all flavors are the one undivided box of ice cream. By analogy the Trinity has three distinct persons, Father Son and Spirit, but are one undivided God.
The analogy actually does do a good job explaining this single aspect, and if you are trying to teach your six year old child about the Trinity, it’s probably a pretty effective analogy. Probably more effective than steam, water and ice being the same substance but in three different forms. Because six year olds are typically far more interested in ice cream than water. I can’t see it being very useful beyond that.
On the social media post many comments offered various analogies they found helpful. Others focused on what many mystics call the unknowable-ness of God and point out that all analogies must ultimately fail because ultimately God is unknowable. In reading all the comments I came to realize that we have been looking at analogies wrong the entire time. I came to this epiphany after reading on comment that we should avoid trying to liken the Trinity to human experiences not found in Scripture. While I think other analogies do have use, I do think the idea has merit. Giving pride of place to analogies from scripture is very fruitful for growing in holiness, and the very first analogy we are given in Scripture to understand who is God is that he made us male and female in his image and likeness.
Regarding the unknowable-ness of God, I think it’s important to understand what that means, because it’s not as if we don’t know anything about God. We know he is three persons in one God, and we know the names of the persons, and we even know why they have those names. Most relevant to us, we know how the relationships between the three persons is meant to impact every single action of our lives.
If you look at the picture to the right, it is not a couple dancing. It is a picture of a couple dancing. It consists of nothing more than light pixels on your screen. In contrast an actual couple is made of flesh and blood, and you can hear the music playing. The picture only has two dimensions, height and width, while a couple exists in three dimensions in space and one in time. The picture has a very limited amount of detail, while the couple has all sorts of details, not only visual but also feel, sound and smell. If we where to compare the picture to the thing it depicts, we should say the picture is of an inferior substance, has lesser dimension, and has less detail.
As readers of this blog know, I believe that ballroom dance is the image of the Trinity. In the leader, follower, and music we have the image of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. The dance couple has three dimensions in space and one in time. God has infinite dimensions of infinite size. The couple is made of flesh and blood and the sound of music but God is made of the divine substance and the divine music which utterly transcends our flesh and blood and music. The couples has a finite amount of detail, but God has an infinite amount of detail. What we term the unknowable-ness of God is in these elements- his superiority in substance, in dimension, in detail. We cannot fit into out heads the reality of four dimensions in space, much less God’s infinite dimensions. We can’t comprehend what the divine substance is. These are inherently unknowable to us.
In addition, if I lead a dance, I do not have the fullness of the dance in me. I do think I have more than one third of the dance but less than one half of the dance, because part of who the music is and part of who the follower is I am able to take in and experience. But in the Trinity, all that is the Son is experienced and known by the Father, from every angle in all the infinite dimensions. The same is true in respect to all the persons of the Trinity. If the leader, the follower and the musician were all able to take in the entire experience of the dance from all three parts and from the audience, we would be significantly closer to saying the fullness of the dance is each of the three persons of the dance in the same as the fullness of God is in each of the three persons of the Holy Trinity.
Use the Tool the Way God Designed It
Analogies are tools, and tools only fail if we use them for tasks for which they are unsuited. If you try to cut a board using a hammer, you will fail. You must use a saw. If your try to rewind time using a hammer, you will fail. If you try rewinding time using a clock, you will still fail. There is no suitable tool for doing so. If you use the proper analogy for an achievable task, then it will succeed. But some tasks cannot be done, no matter what the analogy. If you want to explain to your six year old something of the Trinity, then Neapolitan Ice Cream is a very good analogy. But if you want to better understand God so that you might more perfectly love your wife, then ballroom dance is an excellent analogy, and if you use the analogy properly you will succeed in better understanding both your spouse and God. But if what you want to do is to take in the fullness of God’s love, you will fail, for no analogy exists that will accomplish this task. Blaming the analogy for not conveying the infinite fullness of God’s love is like blaming your clock for failing to turn back time. In a sense it’s also blaming God for making an improper tool.
Won’t every analogy contain error?
I don’t think that is true. In the beginning, God made male and female in his image, and thus we are an analogy of the Trinity. Today the analogy seems flawed because as fallen, sinful creatures, the sin of the man and woman make their analogy flawed. In addition the sin of the observer means that even if the depiction by the couple is accurate, the observation may be in error. The problem though is not in the design of the tool but in the parts. Had we never fallen from grace and were free of original sin, then if we were to look at Adam and Eve in the Garden in the Spirit of God’s love, would their relationship contain error? Would their relationship cause us to misunderstand God? I think the answer is no. The analogy would contain no error whatsoever, nor would we feel the compulsion to misapply the analogy before us. C.S. Lewis explains this so well in one of his stories when his protagonist meets the first man on a world that has not fallen from grace.
It was the face which no man can say he does not know. You might ask how it was possible to look upon it and not commit idolatry, not to mistake it for that of which it was the likeness…yet there was no danger of mistaking, not one moment of confusion, no least sally of the will towards forbidden reverence. Where likeness was greatest, mistake was least possible. 
Like a skilled carpenter who knows what his drill is capable of drilling through, we would know what the analogy was meant to tell us and would not try to misapply it. No carpenter would look for a way to break his tool, nor would anyone whose goal was to grow in holiness search for a way to misapply the analogy.
Partial vs Complete Analogies
I would group analogies into two different modes: partial and complete. Our analogy of Neapolitan ice cream is a partial analogy. If we go very far into the analogy then it will cease to illuminate us and instead lead us into error. We can easily say that the vanilla connects the strawberry with the chocolate just like the Spirit connects the Father to the Son, but we can just as easily say the vanilla comes between the strawberry and chocolate and keeps them apart. We can easily divide the ice cream by flavor into the separate parts. But again, if we are using our tools correctly it would never occur to us to misapply the analogy. No analogy ought to fail us or lead us into error if we use it as God, its ultimate maker, intended. As this is a partial analogy we intend to use it in a limited fashion or in a certain situation to explain one aspect of God.
Complete analogies on the other hand really can’t lead us into error at all, and their are only a few complete analogies. One is marriages, and by extension works of art that faithfully depict marriage. By complete I don’t mean full. We previously noted that marriage cannot nor was meant to convey unknowable things such as the divine substance or the limitless dimensionality of God. Rather, Neapolitan Ice cream is like a town map, while marriage is like a globe. Neither has all the detail of the world, but one does show the full world while the other does not. The globe will not give us the experience of climbing the Alps or swimming in the Great Barrier Reef, but we will know where they are in respect of each other. Marriage will not give us the experience of the divine music of the Spirit nor of the sublime lead of the Father, but it will tell us how they relate to each other, something ice cream cannot do.
Stop looking for ways to break your analogies or to commit heresy with them and learn to trust them. I think it’s as simple as that.
 Perelandra Chapter 17