The following paper will examine the central truth of Trinitarian doctrine known as perichoresis. Reflection will be given to how a doctrine of perichoresis functions within understandings of the existence and work of God. Further reflection will examine the wider implications that such thought may have in our corporate life as Christians.
Definition of the term
The term perichoresis has been defined as, “A term used in the theology of the Trinity to indicate the intimate union, mutual indwelling, or mutual interpenetration of the three members of the Trinity with each other.
Description of the Concept
The break down of the term seems to include the prefix Peri which means “around” and the stem chorea being related “to dance”. The perichoretic relationship within the Trinity is not best conceived of as a static state of being, but rather as a dynamic relationship. Like dancers in a performance there is a constant movement of overture and acceptance, each person envelops and encircles the others.
Perichoresis describes the ongoing mutual self-giving, and mutual indwelling within the divine community of the persons of the Trinity. It emphasizes that each divine person harbors the others at the center of his being. An English language alternative term is indwelling. It denies that each member of the Trinity is a separate and independent person. “For in the divine life there is no isolation, no insulation, no secretiveness, no fear of being transparent to another.”
Key Biblical Texts
I do not ask for these only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one, just as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me. (John 17:20-21)
Again Jesus spoke to them, saying, "I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life." So the Pharisees said to him, "You are bearing witness about yourself; your testimony is not true." Jesus answered, "Even if I do bear witness about myself, my testimony is true, for I know where I came from and where I am going, but you do not know where I come from or where I am going. You judge according to the flesh; I judge no one. Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.
If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me; but if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, that you may know and understand that the Father is in me and I am in the Father." Again they sought to arrest him, but he escaped from their hands.
Philip said to him, "Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us." Jesus said to him, "Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'? Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.
Theological reflections of perichoresis in relation to the oneness of God
In the Old Testament, the exclusive worship of God bears testimony to Israel’s understanding that is essential to the proper understanding of God. The classic passage in regard to the oneness of God is Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The LORD our God, the LORD is one.” The biblical language of God being one is in harmony with a variety of theological constructs.
God’s oneness is characterized by his uniqueness (Unitas Singularitatis). There is an absolute distinction between the Creator and the created; there is God and there is everything else (material and immaterial). God’s oneness is also characterized by his simplicity (Unitas Simplicitatis). God in His perfection is not susceptible to divisions. God “is infinite in being and perfection, a most pure spirit, invisible, without body, parts, or passions”. Commenting on this A.A. Hodge stated, “For an essential division in the one Godhead would in effect constitute two Gods; besides, the scriptures teach us that the Christian Trinity is one undivided God . . .” Finally, it can be said that God’s oneness is found in his mutual indwelling (perichoresis). The very life and activity of God is a triplicate interchange of self-giving; one life indwelling the life of another as one invited and welcomed in loving hospitality.
Theological reflections of perichoresis in relation to the works of God
Perichoresis is frequently thought of in an ontological context but we should not disregard its relevance to the works of God. Our knowledge and experience of God is within the realm of creation and perhaps more beneficial to examine perichoresis in light of God’s work of creation and redemption.
His work in Creation
All three persons are involved in all the works of God in and for creation. The Father (Gen 1), the Son (John 1:3;Coll 1:16), and the Spirit (Gen 1:2, Psalm 104:30) are involved in the work of Creation.
His work in Redemption
In the work of Redemption, covenant theologians have written on an intra-Trinitarian covenant sometimes called pactum salutis. This is to say that the work of redemption is in some way the work of each person. The Father elects some to salvation before the foundation of the world, the Son provides atonement for their sins, and the Spirit regenerates them so they can have faith in Christ, and sanctifies them throughout their lives.
Theological implications for the corporate life of Christians
The doctrine of perichoresis has a direct, and tangible application to the corporate life of Christians. There are some things we can take from our understanding of perichoresis such as the church being one body united, and the church as a relational being.
The Church as one
Just as there is only one God there is also only one Church – his body. As Ephesians 1:22-23 teaches us,
And he put all things under his feet and gave him as head over all things to the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.The Church, as it is the body of Christ, is one. Ephesians 4:4-6 reads,
There is one body and one Spirit—just as you were called to the one hope that belongs to your call— one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.Consider 1 Corinthians 12:12, “For just as the body is one and has many members, and all the members of the body, though many, are one body, so it is with Christ.” The Church is a singular body made up of many members. Romans 12:5, “So we, though many, are one body in Christ, and individually members one of another.” Like the perichoretical relationship of the Trinity, the church, with its many members, are but one body in unity.
The Church as a relational being
Just as in the communal relationship of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit share in perichoresis, the Church is to be marked by a loving relationship between one another in the body. We [the Church] are all members of Christ’s body. In John 3:34, Christ gives us a “new command” to love one another. “As I have loved you, so you must love one another.” The three persons of the Trinity have perfect love for one another in their perichoretical relationship. And like this relationship, God calls us to be devoted to and honor one another (Rom 12:10), serve one another (Gal 5:13), bearing with one another (Eph 4:2), to live in harmony, being sympathetic, compassionate, and humble to one another (1 Pet 3:8). The scripture is replete with exhortations and admonitions to treat one another in a godly manner. In this way, and by doing this, the church reflects the perichoresis of the triune God.
There are a few conclusions we can draw from our study of perichoresis. One, the Trinity is indeed best conceived of as perichoresis rather than a static or separate state of being. Two, the very essence of God is relational. God is said to be love, and that love necessitates relationship within the Trinity. The church in all its mutual functions, relationships, and movements is in this sense perichoretical like the Triune God it serves. Recognizing the Godhead as a relational community of loving members, the church can model its relations with one another in the body. The church would do well to strive for such a unity as to reflect the perichoresis of the Trinity.