Trinitarian Analogies: Cerberus and The Trinity Box?

Cerberus and Hades
I was scheduled to debate James White in October of this year concerning the Trinity but that debate will have to be rescheduled at a later time. In that debate I intended to ask White about his analogy of the Trinity. Recently, White and William (Bill) Craig, have been discussing the frightful nature of analogizing the Trinitarian doctrine. In an earlier post in April of 2011 I was discussing the eternal begotten Son doctrine where Trinitarians do not imagine "day" to be a period in temporal space but a timeless, incomprehensible process in atemporal space. I noted that Trinitarians "invoke a philosophical conclusion and then avoid explaining how that is so at all cost. In fact, every example or analogy of the Trinity will fail as has been repeatedly demonstrated (e.g. three headed dog Cerberus used by William Craig and J.P. Moreland in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview)." I have also discussed the Trinitarian argument using 1x1x1=1 here.

In a recent podcast responding to White's criticism of the Cerberus analogy (Greek mythological creature pictured above) Craig once again asserted the Cerberus analogy but rejects and denounces it as inadquate a few moments later. Craig indicates he is simply trying to explain his views in a comprehensible fashion. It is wise to admit that no analogy is perfect and is only good as far as it goes but a three-headed dog seems to be a non-starter. It seems that White and Craig both affirm and acknowledge this despite the analogy comparisons between them. Conversely, Unitarian philosopher Dale Tuggy contends God is analogous and has criticized White and Craig here.

In a video on March of 2012, criticizing Craig for his analogy, ironically White also produced his own. Surprisingly, Craig does not offer criticism of White's analogy which is called the Trinity Box. He does indicate that all analogies fall short but indicates that using them does help to make progress towards understanding the affirmations of the Trinity.

The Trinity Box? The name sounds like an upcoming video game by Sony but it is actually White's attempt at analogizing the "revelation" of the Trinity. White has rightly criticized Trinitarian philosophers and apologists for referring to Cerberus. But what of his Trinity Box which he posits in their place? As Craig points out there is nothing wrong with positing an analogy or using thought experiments to get a point across. If one realizes the limits of the analogy this is fine and well but I get the impression White feels the Trinity Box is a little better off than Cerberus. I must admit Cerberus is about as bad an analogy that I have ever heard but the Trinity Box is not any better or successful by any measure. 

White qualifies his analogy by saying that he believes God is the only being who exists as the Trinity. Therefore, there is nothing which is completely analogous to the Trinity. But as Craig does he also sees the limited benefit of analogies. The Trinity Box is a homemade illustration consisting of a little black box with an opening on one end and three on the other. Plug the cord into the electrical outlet and bingo--the revelation of the Trinity. 

Actually, one end shows one opening of white light and the other has been made as to only show the three primary colors (red, green and blue). See the graphic above. That seems a little arbitrary but he explains that the white light in the light spectrum is analogous to the divine nature of God. Yet, the one white light in the Trinity Box can also be seen as red, green and blue. Thus God (white light which must represent His being) is revealed as three colors (red, green, and blue) or three persons (Father, Son and Holy Spirit). White contends in this analogy the revelation of the Trinity does not reveal something new but shows us something we simply have never seen before. White considers this analogy to be more fitting to the revelation of the Trinity as the three divine persons are believed to be eternally pre-existing and equally sharing in the divine nature.

In the graphics above we quickly see there is much more to be seen than red, green or blue. God's creation of light is not limited to three primary colors and a prism can be manipulated to produce more colors. One could ask then is there more revelation? Will we see more light in our glorified state? Perhaps, in the new heavens and new earth? For example, ultra-violet and infra-red are also colors in the light spectrum and with secondary instruments can easily be seen as well.

Which persons of the Trinity could these new colors represent? One must ask then is the revelation of God's divine nature (white light) really complete? After all, the three persons were not revealed to Abraham, Isaac, Jacob or even Moses who spoke with God and met Him face to face. Do we have a guarantee, in Scripture, that the Trinitarian revelation is complete?

Even the early and original Nicene Creed is not explicitly Trinitarian since its principle aim is Christological. This is not hopeful. Even in an embryonic creed a more explicit Trinitarianism is to be hoped for given the 1) divine inspiriation of Scripture gone before hand and 2) the conscious knowledge of the Trinity by the Bible writers (as Trinitarians must presuppose). Yet, after this original creed many more followed until a codified and articulate doctrine of the Trinity was hammered out by the Cappodocian bishops of AD 451.

Certainly this Trinity should be in later Church History literature where writers are supposedly building off New Testament concepts. Yet, many of these writers in the second century and after do not show an adequate appreciation to the Old Testament or Jewish heritage in which the Bible writers came from. The technical sense in which Trinitarians describe the Incarnation or the properties of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not found in Scripture but must come from later creeds and later formulations. Trinitarians argue from certain Bible passages and thus the Trinitarian must conclude that the Trinity is present in the consciousness of certain early Biblical writers and communities such as Phillippi or Corinth. These are necessary hermeneutical presuppositions for Trinitarianism in order for it to be an explicit teaching of Scripture. With such a knowledge repository and divine inspiration a more explicit Trinity should be found.

We should not have to appeal to frightening analogies of a dog with three heads that would scare the Pentecostal or Puritan school child. Nor to instantly contradictory arguments from nature such as the Trinity Box. As noted in prior posts and confirmed by many Biblical scholars, the Bible writers do not clearly and explicitly teach a doctrine of the Trinity. Instead, it must be pieced together, much like a quilt, from certain passages seen as applicable using the Trinitarian presupposition.


Jason Dulle said...

I have not yet been able to listen to White's criticism or Craig's response, but personally I have always liked the Cerberus analogy. As far as analogies go, I think it does a great job at explaining the concept of the Trinity--3 persons/minds in one substance--and making it sound intelligible.

What is it that you don't like about it?

Ray Haruzi said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Ray Haruzi said...

Very interesting... Thanks for

Terence Absolom said...

Great post indeed...

JN Anderson said...

Jason, interestingly some have suggested the Cerberus analogy is actually modalistic. I would disagree with you that Cerberus is intelligible. I agree it has some merit as being a feeble attempt at analogizing but how so?How does this intelligibly explain the Trinity?

This in addition to the fact that the Trinity misfires on the identity of the God of Israel. Consider the Cerberus analogy once again. Analogizing God with the dog who guards hell.

Who or What is Cerberus?
He is the guard dog of hell in Greco-Roman mythology. This doesn't help the analogy one iota. This is one reason the argument fails the moment it is asserted. To suggest this isn't repugnant in a Christian theological or philosophical system is just naive or riding the fence to be on both sides. As if there aren't other mutations in nature that have more than one head? Is there NOTHING else one could analogize without appealing to hell's guard dog, Jason? Without doubt an appeal to such a thing even if hypothetically, is more aesthetically pleasing than a dog with three heads who guards the gates of hell.

If Cerberus was to work in a unified manner to function as a guard dog the heads/consciousness' would have to function in absolute harmony. How does that happen? That is no more explained than is the mechanism that makes the three one.

But WHO is Cerberus? WHAT is Cerberus?

The analogy begs many questions. Is Cerberus a thing made up of consciousness', aspects, faculties? Where is Cerberus? Is Cerberus equivalent to each consciousness? Is Cerberus there? As in the Trinitarian model is the "being" of God a thing? Personal or impersonal?

At the end of the day analogies are only ways to think about our assertions but biblical evidence about God must guide our thinking. Is the God of Israel a what? The God of Israel is NOT a what but a who that speaks as a he. Until that premise, which I've demonstrated on this blog, is proven to be false then the Trinity and subsequently this analogy is false.

John M. said...

JN Anderson, with utmost respect for Jason Dulle, I appreciate that you don't mince words in your response here. The world will gladly sell us a counterfeit of the true living God (even "another Jesus", as we are warned of in 2 Cor. 11:4). We don't need humanistic analogies to understand who God is; we need only picture Jesus Christ, the fullness of God. Anything else is a counterfeit.

Jason Dulle said...


I listened to Craig’s podcast responding to White. As Craig noted, it is not so much an analogy of the Trinity as it is a way of illustrating the intelligibility of a single being having multiple centers of consciousness (something that many consider to be unintelligible). And I think it does a fine job of this. While I don’t think the aesthetics of the comparison should dictate whether or not it is a good analogy/illustration, I can understand the distaste the comparison can conjure up in people. Siamese twins can illustrate the same point.

Have you read the part in Philosophical Foundations for a Christian Worldview where Craig goes into detail about the illustration? I ask because it seems to me that Craig addresses some of your points. For example, who is Cerberus? Is Cerberus equivalent to each consciousness? No. In the illustration, Craig gives each consciousness its own unique name. Analogizing this to the Trinity, “Cerberus” would be equivalent to “YHWH” or “God,” and each center of consciousness within Cerberus would be equivalent to “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.”

You speak of whether God is a what or a who, and that is an important issue. But that’s an issue to bring up when discussing Trinity vs. Oneness. It is not relevant to the question of whether or not Cerberus can make intelligible certain aspects of the Trinitarian view.


JN Anderson said...

Jason, thank you for your reply. This whole ordeal with Cerberus is interesting. Servetus used Cerberus to mock the Trinity which Calvin I think despised (see Schaff vol.8, Ch. xvi). Schaff even said the analogy "shocked the pious feelings of all Christendom." Yet, today Trinitarians think it has usefulness in expressing what they actually believe. So, what Servetus used against Calvin is now what Craig is now using to support the Trinity. Here's the question then, was Servetus right, after all? lol

Also, Lidell/Scott records that Cerberus has fifty heads in Hesiod and in Euripides three heads or three bodies. Jerome even mentions Cerberus "not three headed but many headed". A.H. Strong commented on Cerberus as well suggesting, "In Horace, Carmina, 3:11, 15, Cerberus has three heads; in 2:13, 34, he has a hundred. Bréal, Semantics suggests that the three heads may be dog-heads, while the hundred heads may be snake-heads. But Cerberus is also represented in Greece as having only one head. Cerberus must therefore be a symbol rather than an actually existing creature."

JN Anderson said...

Part II:
This dog, in whatever form you suppose him to be, was to guard the gates of hades. His duty was to make sure none of those in hades could escape. None of these despicable characteristics contribute to the usefulness of such a repugnant Greek mythological figure for helping us understand the nature of God. Analogizing to God using the guard dog of hell is on its face absurd IMHO. Yet, we must press on. Apparently.

None of what I just said addresses whether or not Cerberus makes sense in light of the Trinity. If the Trinity could be understood it might work but neither the Trinity or Cerberus seems to be nailed down yet. And if we switch the dictionary, from Greek metaphysical language, back to the Old Testament the Trinity never makes it out alive. What happens with Cerberus is the potentials and possibilities of a three headed being with three conscioussness' is explored and contemplated in order to explain the very God of Israel. Attempts are made to explain how this is so. Despite the similarities between two figments (Cerberus and Trinity) of someones imagination Trinitarians, here, glibly pass by the clear statements of Scripture. The God of Israel has clearly and explicitly revealed Himself to us as a personal spirit being. A Who that speaks as a He.

I read Craig's chapter on the Trinity before I responded just to refresh my memory. I do think he does a very good job of trying to offer some explanation for such a doctrine. While I agree with him on many things and have learned so much from him over the years the problem still lingers. I don't think J.P. Moreland even looked very comfortable defending it in the video series "Is God a Self?".

Despite his "supposing" it is useful (593), Cerberus is not just Cerberus but a "he" or "what" that is actually and apparently simultaneously Rover, Bowser and Spike. Yet, all four--Cerberus, Rover, Bower, and Spike--have actions and person like behavior ascribed to them ("Cerberus snarled at me"). Cerberus is also supposed to have self-consciousness and rationality. How does a "what" have those? They don't persons do. I do not believe anyone who uses this analogy can actually overcome this hurdle, since it is apparent that that is four instances. Four divine ________? Craig says that this is not four because there is no other instance of the divine nature or Cerberus and Rover, Bowser and Spike are not instances of divine nature. The Trinity or Cerberus is the sole instance. Rover, Bowser and Spike are then divine because they have the nature of Cerberus (who is also acting like one person). No Unitarian or Socinian would flinch to say that Jesus is divine and might even use John 1:1 to support that argument. Jesus is not truly God in this sense, at least not in the Old Testament sense, but just divine. Or, god.

I believe there are instances of one baby with one consciousness but having two faces. Including four eyes. I think the Siamese twins is a better and more appropriate example if one is forced to such speculations. So, replace Cerberus with a "boy with two heads" or male Siamese twins. This is not even sufficient for the Trinity because there is only two consciousness' here but it gets them somewhere, I guess. Yet, even with Siamese twins the two heads of the twins are treated and recognized as two persons, or two boys, with overlapping bodies. Not just one boy. Would the parents of these twins think they only have one boy or two? I think the answer is quite clear.

JN Anderson said...

Part III:

In this case, also, Rover, Bowser and Spike are, and must be, admittedly by Craig, parts (see Craig's cat analogy, 591) of God (Cerberus). Craig explains how the three are one by mere presupposition. He, again, supposes (594), that Cerberus/God is a soul with three sets of reational faculties sufficient for being a person. Yet, this is the Trinitarian Presupposition. It has yet to be proven that God is actually three separate persons each with their own mind or consciousness. In the Old Testament, the Hebrew word for soul is used to translate or refer to a single person or a single mind--a who that speaks as a he. In Isaiah and Ezekiel YHWH refers to his own "soul" as a single self or person. We cannot merely reflect on the Biblical data, supposing Bible writers like John, to be philosophers or versed in philosophical speculations, and imposing those notions over the Scripture.

I think this analogy only further demonstrates the lack of explanatory power the Trinity doctrine actually holds. Appealing to Greek fables seem insufficient rather clearly. We should look to the record of Scripture and find that the glory of God is in the face of Jesus Christ (2 Cor. 4:4-6) not Cerberus. To know the love of God we simply look to Jesus. To know the mercy of God we simply look to Jesus. All that we need we find in Jesus.

JN Anderson said...

John M, well said. Thank you for posting.

Jason Dulle said...


Whether the Cerberus that the ancients were familiar with was always the 3-headed, single bodied dog we are familiar with is an interesting discussion, but not relevant to whether or not using the imaginative creature that we are familiar with can illustrate the intelligibility of an important feature of the Trinity.

Neither is this a matter of Scripture. Assuming the Trinity is false, Cerberus can still be a good way of illustrating that a key idea in this false notion of God is intelligible rather than nonsensical as many claim.

The fact that Cerberus is not a good figure also seems irrelevant to me. The point of comparison is not a moral one.

I don’t think there are “four instances” in the Cerberus analogy. When someone says “Cerberus snarled at me,” they don’t mean to say that Cerberus is someone separate from Bowser (who actually did the snarling). It is a reference to the thing that snarled. It was the Cerberus thing, not the Peter Cottontail thing.

As for Siamese twins, there are two persons but a single body. That is supposed to correspond to the multiple conscious persons in the Trinity who share a single divine substance. There are no overlapping bodies. The two persons, each with their own head, share the same body.

You have pointed out areas in which Cerberus is disanalogous to the Trinity, but that is the nature of analogies. And Craig himself has even said that this is not a 1:1 correspondence. The illustration is only intended to make one point: that a single being could be endowed with three sets of rational faculties and yet remain a single being. And I think the Cerberus illustration, or Siamese twins (with an imagined additional head/consciousness to bring the total to three), does a good job of showing that this concept is intelligible. It doesn’t show that it is true, but it does show that it is not some outlandish, impossible notion like a square circle.


JN Anderson said...

Jason, I do see how Cerberus is helpful in explaining the Trinity. Yet, this on its face expresses to us that the Trinity is a three headed monster who guards the gates of hell. Some might think this is more than apropos. lol

I might be a little hasty to say it makes much sense though. Although I get your point and agree to an extent. Maybe at first blush. Given that the counterpart is the Trinity.

Yet, if each head of Cerberus is a person of the Trinity then each head can talk and act. Is this analogous to Cerberus? Did each head have this ability? Do we even know?

Also, as Craig clearly states Rover, Bowser, and Spike or Father, Son and Holy Spirit are essentially parts of God. Rover is not God. Bowser is not God. Spike is not God. They are parts of the whole, i.e. no identity statements. Never the whole. This isn't good needless to say Biblical. Which seems to be of no interest. Especially given that the Biblical evidence doesn't even describe Father, Son and Holy Spirit as parts but as actually God. God in the Old Testament sense. Not a nature shared by three consciousness'.

This also reduces divine nature to a body. In Cerberus there are essentially four ______. You fill in the blank. Since Rover, Bowser and Spike are not identical to Cerberus then three are not divine in the same way that the other is divine. Then what kind of divine are we talking about? What is it that is shared among the three if not deity in the Trinitarian perspective?

If the Trinity is true then semantically I don't see why we can't further suggest that there are four persons in Cerberus. Cerberus is after all thought of differently in Greek literature. Why stop with three? In any Cerberus model each head of Cerberus is a person who must talk. Cerberus then is what contains the collection of those minds. Trinitarians have a choice. Call the God of Israel a "thing" or "what" the "Cerberus thing". The Trinity nor Cerberus explains the God of Israel which is a personal spirit being which is also a who that speaks as a he. God is not two or three minded. He is one.

If I was a Trinitarian I would probably appeal to the Siamese Twin argument well before I invoked the name of Cerberus in relation to the God of Israel. Even then the "body" is an organism it is not a nature or even analogous to a nature. God actually has no body as the three heads (Trinitarian persons) of Cerberus require.

If God is a person the Trinity and this analogy is false. God is one of everything that He is. God is a person. Therefore, God is one person.

I do agree that we can find some similarity with Cerberus and the Trinity. Namely in that the Trinity, after all these years, is akin to a three headed monster.

The dictionary concerning God-talk is decidedly metaphysical and philosophical. It is hard to avoid. The Old Testament should be our foundation in defining key terms such as "God".

I like what Ewart suggested early on:

"We cannot do without doctrine. but let it be continually held in the white light of His Person, and be maintained under the constant corrective of his Holy Life. Let us remind ourselves that no creed can give life; no doctrinal truth, however ennobling, can save a human soul from death. They must be saved by a Person, only a Person, and by One Person." (Name and the Book, pg. 105-106)

Anonymous said...

Why do you say, "Surprisingly, Craig does not offer criticism of White's analogy which is called the Trinity Box"? Is it necessary for Craig to criticize White's analogy? Must we assume that Christian apologists must debate with one another over who has the BEST analogy or argument? Maybe Craig simply thinks, "Hmm. Good idea Jim."
I'm neither pro-Craig nor pro-White; I'm just looking for good ideas. I'm hoping we're not expecting Christian apologists to assume an adversarial stance towards one another. Unfortunately though, I fear this is far too common in Christian apologetics.
But, maybe (hopefully) I'm reading too much into this comment.


JN Anderson said...

I wasn't trying to make too much of it Anon. I apologize if it offended you.

Adversus Trinitas

"...unless you believe that I am he you will die in your sins." (John 8:24 ESV)