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I am currently studying Church Dogmatics over the summer and answering questions put by my teacher on different subjects important to theology. This is the seventh of a series of post I will publish from these studies and writings.

The phases of H2O: water, vapour and ice is sometimes used as an analogy for a Trinitarian God. Is this proper?


It is difficult to visualize the Trinity. While discussing theology in general, and the Trinity specifically, one needs, as Charles Gore puts it, “A constant tendency to apologize for human speech, a great element of agnosticism, an awful sense of unfathomed depths beyond the little that is made known” (McGrath 2011:235).

The analogy of the Trinity as the different phases of water: ice, liquid, vapour can be used to try to describe the Trinity as long as the above point made by Gore is taken into account and explained too. This is because the greatest flaw in this analogy is its connection with heretic modalism, the notion that God is Father, Son and Spirit one at a time for different modes of purpose (functional) or time (chronological). There is actually a distinction made between functional and chronological modalism, but I would say that this analogy bears resemblance to them both. This analogy may be misunderstood as functional modalism because water is always present in the form of ice, liquid water and vapour in different places and these have their different actions. It can be misunderstood as chronological modalism because when we think of water we usually think of water as either ice, liquid or vapour, not all at once.

Another misunderstanding that could arise is that some outside help is needed for God to present Himself as or exist trinitarian. After all, being liquid is the natural mode of water and cold or warmth is needed for it to change into ice and vapour.

A third (very) possible misunderstanding is that we can separate the different forms of water from each other and keep them that way: ice in the fridge, water in the bucket, vapour in the distillery. That is not the case with God.

Thus the main problem with this analogy is that it does not properly present the division of persons in the Trinity. On the other hand, with proper care taken so that these misunderstandings do not arise, the analogy can be useful since it is near our day-to-day-life. As such the analogy’s main strength is that water, ice and vapour consist of the same substance while they are at the same time different, a fact that is known and experienced by most people, young or old.

Henriksen, Jan-Olav: Guds virkelighet: Kristen dogmatikk (God’s Reality: Christian Dogmatics), Oslo: Luther Forlag 1994, page 76
McGrath, Alister E. Christian Theology. An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell 2011, pages 244f

Please stay tuned for subsequent parts!