Analogy, and especially Trinitarian analogy, gets a bad rap in theology. See, for instance, St. Patrick’s Bad Analogies. Trinitarian analogies, it is said, always end up in some kind of heresy, whether modalism, Arianism, or something else. I’d like to offer some resistance to this criticism on the grounds that it misunderstands the way in which analogy works. 1
To do so, I’m going to use Gregory of Nazianzus as whipping-boy. I’m going to do this in part because it’s convenient, and in part because I have an enormous admiration for Gregory as a theologian and literary artist, so no one can accuse me playing favorites.
Toward the end of the Fifth Theological Oration, “On the Holy Spirit,” Gregory says the following about analogy, beginning with water:
XXXI. I have very carefully considered this matter in my own mind, and have looked at it in every point of view, in order to find some illustration of this most important subject, but I have been unable to discover any thing on earth with which to compare the nature of the Godhead. For even if I did happen upon some tiny likeness it escaped me for the most part, and left me down below with my example. I picture to myself an eye, a fountain, a river, as others have done before, to see if the first might be analogous to the Father, the second to the Son, and the third to the Holy Ghost. For in these there is no distinction in time, nor are they torn away from their connection with each other, though they seem to be parted by three personalities. But I was afraid in the first place that I should present a flow in the Godhead, incapable of standing still; and secondly that by this figure a numerical unity would be introduced. For the eye and the spring and the river are numerically one, though in different forms.
Arthur James Mason notes that “eye” here means “the ‘mouth’ out of which the spring issues.” Gregory goes on to criticize solar analogy:
XXXII. Again I thought of the sun and a ray and light. But here again there was a fear lest people should get an idea of composition in the Uncompounded Nature, such as there is in the Sun and the things that are in the Sun. And in the second place lest we should give Essence to the Father but deny Personality to the Others, and make Them only Powers of God, existing in Him and not Personal. For neither the ray nor the light is another sun, but they are only effulgences from the Sun, and qualities of His essence. And lest we should thus, as far as the illustration goes, attribute both Being and Not-being to God, which is even more monstrous.
And another having to do with light:
I have also heard that some one has suggested an illustration of the following kind. A ray of the Sun flashing upon a wall and trembling with the movement of the moisture which the beam has taken up in mid air, and then, being checked by the hard body, has set up a strange quivering. For it quivers with many rapid movements, and is not one rather than it is many, nor yet many rather than one; because by the swiftness of its union and separating it escapes before the eye can see it.
XXXIII. But it is not possible for me to make use of even this; because it is very evident what gives the ray its motion; but there is nothing prior to God which could set Him in motion; for He is Himself the Cause of all things, and He has no prior Cause. And secondly because in this case also there is a suggestion of such things as composition, diffusion, and an unsettled and unstable nature…none of which we can suppose in the Godhead.
But one of course finds the use comparisons in other writers of impeccable Trinitarian orthodoxy, such as Gregory of Nyssa in The Great Catechism, or, with his own set of analogies, Augustine in On the Trinity. One could compare also the popular use of the “Trinitarian triangle”:
Such a triangle, which is itself an analogy, is found, for example, in Fred Sanders’ delightful book The Deep Things of God.
The use of such word-pictures, or, in the last case above, geometry-pictures, is not all that surprising. We are seeking to gain some kind of understanding of the Unlimited through the limited means available to us. Gregory of Nazianzus is himself aware of the difficulties entailed in speaking about the infinite and incorporeal God in finite, human language. In the third oration, which is the first oration “On the Son,” Gregory makes the following concession:
But Monarchy is that which we hold in honour. It is, however, a Monarchy that is not limited to one Person, for it is possible for Unity if at variance with itself to come into a condition of plurality; but one which is made of an equality of Nature and a Union of mind, and an identity of motion, and a convergence of its elements to unity— a thing which is impossible to the created nature— so that though numerically distinct there is no severance of Essence. Therefore Unity having from all eternity arrived by motion at Duality, found its rest in Trinity. This is what we mean by Father and Son and Holy Ghost. The Father is the Begetter and the Emitter; without passion of course, and without reference to time, and not in a corporeal manner. The Son is the Begotten, and the Holy Ghost the Emission; for I know not how this could be expressed in terms altogether excluding visible things. (Oration 29.2)
Gregory wrestles in this passage with the human side of talking about God–that is, of theology–even while he will go on to criticize analogy in the final theological oration.
Perhaps this limitation on human speech is due to the gulf dividing creature from creator and the necessity of using the finite means of language to describe the infinite God. Thomas Aquinas, for instance, argues that all talk about God–all theology–is analogical in the nature of the case:
Univocal predication is impossible between God and creatures. The reason of this is that every effect which is not an adequate result of the power of the efficient cause, receives the similitude of the agent not in its full degree, but in a measure that falls short, so that what is divided and multiplied in the effects resides in the agent simply, and in the same manner; as for example the sun by exercise of its one power produces manifold and various forms in all inferior things. In the same way, as said in the preceding article, all perfections existing in creatures divided and multiplied, pre-exist in God unitedly. Thus when any term expressing perfection is applied to a creature, it signifies that perfection distinct in idea from other perfections; as, for instance, by the term “wise” applied to man, we signify some perfection distinct from a man’s essence, and distinct from his power and existence, and from all similar things; whereas when we apply to it God, we do not mean to signify anything distinct from His essence, or power, or existence. Thus also this term “wise” applied to man in some degree circumscribes and comprehends the thing signified; whereas this is not the case when it is applied to God; but it leaves the thing signified as incomprehended, and as exceeding the signification of the name. Hence it is evident that this term “wise” is not applied in the same way to God and to man. The same rule applies to other terms. Hence no name is predicated univocally of God and of creatures.
Neither, on the other hand, are names applied to God and creatures in a purely equivocal sense, as some have said. Because if that were so, it follows that from creatures nothing could be known or demonstrated about God at all; for the reasoning would always be exposed to the fallacy of equivocation. Such a view is against the philosophers, who proved many things about God, and also against what the Apostle says: “The invisible things of God are clearly seen being understood by the things that are made” (Romans 1:20). Therefore it must be said that these names are said of God and creatures in an analogous sense, i.e. according to proportion.
Now names are thus used in two ways: either according as many things are proportionate to one, thus for example “healthy” predicated of medicine and urine in relation and in proportion to health of a body, of which the former is the sign and the latter the cause: or according as one thing is proportionate to another, thus “healthy” is said of medicine and animal, since medicine is the cause of health in the animal body. And in this way some things are said of God and creatures analogically, and not in a purely equivocal nor in a purely univocal sense. For we can name God only from creatures (1). Thus whatever is said of God and creatures, is said according to the relation of a creature to God as its principle and cause, wherein all perfections of things pre-exist excellently. Now this mode of community of idea is a mean between pure equivocation and simple univocation. For in analogies the idea is not, as it is in univocals, one and the same, yet it is not totally diverse as in equivocals; but a term which is thus used in a multiple sense signifies various proportions to some one thing; thus “healthy” applied to urine signifies the sign of animal health, and applied to medicine signifies the cause of the same health. (ST 1.13.5)
Or perhaps it is because all language, and not just God-language, is analogical. So Dorothy Sayers in The Mind of the Maker (emphasis mine): “All language about God must, as St. Thomas Aquinas pointed out, necessarily be analogical. We need not be surprised at this, still less suppose that because it is analogical it is therefore valueless or without any relation to the truth. The fact is, that all language about everything is analogical; we think in a series of metaphors. We can explain nothing in terms of itself, but only in terms of other things.”
Peter Leithart has recently made a similar claim: “One of the key themes of postmodernism is its emphasis on the rhetoricity or metaphoricity of all language. That, I think, is simply true, and this is a threat to truth only if we have pre-defined “truth” as literal, rhetoric-free claims.”
Take these claims about language as true or not; I’d like to suggest that the difficulty with the criticism of analogy outlined above misses the point of analogy in more fundamental, rhetorical terms: comparison, or analogy, in fact depends upon difference. Without it, there would only be identity, and the relationship of analogy would be impossible. That is, the point of analogy is precisely not to show exhaustive sameness. It is rather to point out one or more points of similarity for the purpose of illuminating a particular aspect of some object of thought or discourse.
Identity, rather than comparison, would make nonsense, for instance, of the Homeric simile. Here is one of my favorites, from Iliad 8, in William Cowper’s translation:
He said, and from the nerve another shaft 345
Impatient sent at Hector; but it flew
Devious, and brave Gorgythion struck instead.
Him beautiful Castianira, brought
By Priam from Æsyma, nymph of form
Celestial, to the King of Ilium bore. 350
As in the garden, with the weight surcharged
Of its own fruit, and drench’d by vernal rains
The poppy falls oblique, so he his head
Hung languid, by his helmet’s weight depress’d.
The simile depends on the similarity, in certain respects only, of Gorgythion to a rain-weighted poppy. Gorgythion is not a poppy. Misunderstand that, and you’re in Edward-Lear-land.
Gregory was too good a rhetorician not to know this. And, in fact, he did know it. Thus, after the cautions quoted above, he writes:
In a word, there is nothing which presents a standing point to my mind in these illustrations from which to consider the Object which I am trying to represent to myself, unless one may indulgently accept one point of the image while rejecting the rest.
And that is exactly the way in which analogy works.
At the same time, Gregory is surely right to caution us as to the partiality and limitedness of such devices, even devices that can be good to think with:
Finally, then, it seems best to me to let the images and the shadows go, as being deceitful and very far short of the truth; and clinging myself to the more reverent conception, and resting upon few words, using the guidance of the Holy Ghost, keeping to the end as my genuine comrade and companion the enlightenment which I have received from Him, and passing through this world to persuade all others also to the best of my power to worship Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, the One Godhead and Power. To Him belongs all glory and honour and might for ever and ever. Amen.
We might consider such comparisons as those outlined above as “very far short of the truth” without necessarily considering them “deceitful” or mendacious; perhaps they illuminate some aspect of the truth without comprehending it. But even where they sketch some aspect of the truth, they do not exhaust it, for the Trinity is a mystery beyond our comprehension.