Lesson of the Shamrock

In pagan Ireland where people worshipped several gods and human sacrifice was not uncommon, Patrick was known to offer the people a challenge. Holding up a shamrock he would question them, “is this one leaf or three?” The people would answer him, “it is both one leaf and three.” Then Patrick could begin to explain, “it is so with God, who is Father, Son, and Holy Spirit — three persons yet one God,” and the saint would baptize converts in the same way as Jesus commands in Matthew 28:19, “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.”

Nowadays it is fashionable to object to Patrick’s explanation of the Trinity, since it the analogy does not quite measure up to the theological formulae of the creeds with mathematical precision. The Church spent a great deal of time and concentration getting their language precise, it is true. To err in one direction or another with respect to our understanding of God leads to heresy: either we begin to think of God as a monadic unity, or we venture into polytheism where three gods replace the One. The proper distinctions are important. We recognize unity of substance (what God is “made of” if you will) while asserting a diversity of persons (Father, Son, and Spirit). Yet, considering Patrick’s audience and the context of his mission work as a whole, the lesson of the shamrock is actually pretty good:

  • He uses something ready at hand — the abundant clover leaf — to propose an idea that would stick in the minds of his hearers.
  • His teaching points out a theological problem that pagan religion could not resolve — how can we attribute divine perfection to more than one god?
  • His example underscores one of Christianity’s philosophical strengths — since God is a unity in diversity, divine perfection belongs to all three persons, Father, Son and Holy Spirit, because they are one in essence.

By way of comparison, here is the section of the Athanasian Creed that concerns the doctrine of the trinity:

…we worship one God in Trinity, and Trinity in Unity; neither confounding the Persons, nor dividing the Essence. For there is one Person of the Father; another of the Son; and another of the Holy Ghost. But the Godhead of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, is all one; the Glory equal, the Majesty coeternal. Such as the Father is; such is the Son; and such is the Holy Ghost. The Father uncreated; the Son uncreated; and the Holy Ghost uncreated. The Father unlimited; the Son unlimited; and the Holy Ghost unlimited. The Father eternal; the Son eternal; and the Holy Ghost eternal. And yet they are not three eternals; but one eternal. As also there are not three uncreated; nor three infinites, but one uncreated; and one infinite. So likewise the Father is Almighty; the Son Almighty; and the Holy Ghost Almighty. And yet they are not three Almighties; but one Almighty. So the Father is God; the Son is God; and the Holy Ghost is God. And yet they are not three Gods; but one God. So likewise the Father is Lord; the Son Lord; and the Holy Ghost Lord. And yet not three Lords; but one Lord. For like as we are compelled by the Christian verity; to acknowledge every Person by himself to be God and Lord; So are we forbidden by the catholic religion; to say, There are three Gods, or three Lords. The Father is made of none; neither created, nor begotten. The Son is of the Father alone; not made, nor created; but begotten. The Holy Ghost is of the Father and of the Son; neither made, nor created, nor begotten; but proceeding. So there is one Father, not three Fathers; one Son, not three Sons; one Holy Ghost, not three Holy Ghosts. And in this Trinity none is before, or after another; none is greater, or less than another. But the whole three Persons are coeternal, and coequal. So that in all things, as aforesaid; the Unity in Trinity, and the Trinity in Unity, is to be worshipped. He therefore that will be saved, let him thus think of the Trinity.

Keep in mind, this is only the first section of the Athanasian Creed, but it is instructive, because historians have discovered that the creed itself was composed around AD 450 – 540, which is very close to the same era Patrick lived. The creeds, of course, are more philosophically precise, but to be fair to Patrick, it is much easier to recall the image of a shamrock than to remember a philosophical formula. The Trinity as an idea must be established first, and it can be used as a foundation upon which to build theology.