Doctrine of Trinitarian Perichoresis

When dealing with the unparalleled majesty of theology proper, there is little doubt concerning the enigmatic nature of the Triune God as described in the Holy Scriptures. To engage in the study of who God is, is perhaps the greatest privilege that our Lord has ever bestowed on mankind. The great reformed theologian, Herman Bavinck, begins his work on the doctrine of God by stating that, “Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics. The truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension”.[1] Although Bavinck initiates his discussion on the doctrine of God with this reality, the incomprehensible aspect of God’s nature should not hinder anyone from pursuing further knowledge. In truth, the God of the Bible has revealed Himself to His creation so that He receives the glory and praise He well deserves.

One of the major themes throughout redemptive history is that God has revealed Himself to be a monotheistic being, yet also, three persons. Essentially, Scripture testifies to the fact that God is a tri-personal being. This of course is a concept that perhaps the human mind will never comprehend, but one that can be spoken of and discussed with great enthusiasm due to God’s revelation of Himself. The focus of this essay will tend towards the doctrine of the Trinity and how it is that the three persons of the Trinity interact with one another as pertains to being, within creation, and in redemption. This concept of interaction between the persons of the Godhead has been termed perichoresis along with many other synonymous names, but for the purpose of this composition perichoresis will be referred to throughout.  The course will be as follows: a basic introduction of what the doctrine of perichoresis seeks to portray, why an understanding of perichoresis matters, scriptural insight concerning perichoresis, and a brief section of practical implications for the Church. Though theological ground should very well be gained in this discussion, by no means will this doctrine be exhausted by this writing alone. Ultimately the full understanding of perichoresis lies within the being of God, and the only morsel of information that humanity can know concerning perichoresis is what is revealed in the Holy Scriptures.

Defining the Doctrine Perichoresis

Before the doctrine of perichoresis can be understood properly, there must be an understanding of the biblical testimony regarding the divinity of each of the persons of the Trinity. That is to say, it must be assumed that the Father is God, the Son is God, and the Holy Spirit is God (Is. 45:6-7, John 8:58, Acts 5:3-4).[2] Once the divinity of each person is identified and understood then the truth of the perichoretic nature of God begins to surface. Douglas Kelly, author and theologian, defines the doctrine of perichoresis in this way, “Father, Son, and Holy Spirit inhere in one another and coexist, entirely, and perfectly in one another, so that where one is, the others are, and what one is involved in doing, the others are also involved in doing”.[3] The Scriptural testimony, as will be discussed in more detail shortly, pertaining to Kelly’s statement is abundantly clear (Gen. 1:1-2, 1 Pe. 1:1-2). The distinct persons of the Holy Trinity labor mutually to bring about specific results in both creation and redemption; however there needs to be a sense of caution when dealing with this truth. It is of vital importance that the persons of the Trinity are kept distinct in their actions and not somehow confused. If the persons of the Trinity are not viewed as distinct, the result may be something of theological heresy that simply cannot be accepted on a biblical basis.

While the above information is necessary knowledge, it is not enough for understanding the doctrine of perichoresis as presented in Scripture. The distinctness of the divine persons is maintained by the fact that there are three distinct persons in the Godhead who occupy distinct roles throughout redemptive history. In reality however, the synergistic action of the three persons is an immense testimony to the unity of the three persons. Consider what John Frame, professor of philosophy and theology, has to say on the matter:

The concurrence of the three persons of the Trinity in all that they do is a profound indication of their unity. There is no conflict in the Trinity. The three persons are perfectly agreed on what they should do and how their plan should be executed. They support one another, assist one another, and promote one another’s purposes.[4]

Within the Godhead there is complete agreement on what is to be done and how to act. Though a distinction between the three persons must be preserved, it must be noted that to totally separate any one of the three persons from the other two would do irreconcilable damage to the being of God. The persons of the Trinity are distinct but also unified. There would be no such circumstance in which any of the three divine persons would, or could, act contrary to what the others are doing. If this did happen, God would then cease to be God, rendering the testimony of the Holy Scriptures to be untrue. To summarize then, it is essential that when speaking of the perichoretic nature of God that there is a clear distinction between the three persons, but also an emphasis on the unity of the three. Again, Douglas Kelly sheds light on the issue:

The whole undivided essence of God belongs equally to each of the three persons. That is, the divine essence is not “divided” among the three persons, but is wholly with all its perfection in each one of the persons so that they have a numerical unity of essence or being. And yet, they are still three conscious persons, not just one being.[5]

Certainly the complexity of God’s nature is by now apparent. However, this is how the Holy Scriptures portray God. To believe in a version of God rather than the one who is described in the Bible is to forfeit the doctrine of perichoresis. No other faith system has a doctrine of God quite like Christianity. To acknowledge any other description of God would be to comfort oneself in a theological sinkhole that ends in complete misery and despair. At best, one would end up with the god of deism which does not care much for its creation as it would tend not be involved in the historical affairs of its creation. Another plausible solution is that of polytheism, but this offers no real promise. Polytheism leads to confusion and humanistic thinking which provides no answers for problems of humanity. With this in mind, the next stop on our journey is to answer the question of why the doctrine of perichoresis matters.

Theological Importance of God’s Perichoretic Nature

While adhering to a correct definition of the doctrine of perichoresis is vitally important, perhaps even more essential is to have an accurate knowledge of its significance to the Christian faith. Early in the New Testament Church’s history, the development of theological orthodoxy pertaining to the nature of God was at the forefront of major concern. Throughout the third and fourth centuries A.D., the Christian Church entered into much debate about how Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit relate to the Father. It was during this time that the Christian Church witnessed major heretical movements emerge that have much to do with the present discussion. One of the key systems to surface during this time is known as Modalistic Monarchianism (Modalism). The church historian David Wright describes the beliefs of the Modalistic Monarchians in this way:

It was anxious to emphasize the divine unity or ‘monarchy’. They claimed that God existed in different ‘modes’, but only in one more at any one time. God’s different names—Father, Son and Spirit—described the different roles he played at different times.[6]

The Monarchians in this instance were trying to protect the doctrine of God from the heretical Gnostic ideas of the time by stressing the unity of the Godhead. However noble their cause may have been, by stressing unity in the Godhead in such a way the Monarchians actually created more theological problems than they solved. By adhering to the position that God took on three separate “modes” of existence, rather than focusing on the distinction between the three persons, the Modalistic heresy is guilty of confusing the divine persons which ultimately lead to additional heretical beliefs such as Patripassianism; a view that argued that the Father suffered on the cross as the Son.[7]

Another one of the many theological systems to materialize during this era would be the Arian movement. The Arian controversy is one of significant importance to the Christian Church due to the amount of attention it caused. Alister McGrath, lecturer of theology at Oxford University, defines the Arian thought in this way:

Arius emphasizes the self-subsistence of God. God is the one and only source of all created things; nothing exists which does not ultimately derive from God…The Father is regarded as existing before the Son. “There was when he was not”. This decisive affirmation places Father and Son on different levels, and is consistent with Arius’ rigorous insistence that the Son is a creature.[8]

Those who were partial to Arian thought focused on passages of Scripture that seem to indicate a creaturely status of Jesus (Prov. 8:22, Col. 1:15). However, the Arians did not consider the whole testimony of Scripture as it pertains to the Triune nature of God. Just as the Monarchians were guilty of misunderstanding the relationship between the persons of the Trinity, the Arians too followed suit by placing an extreme emphasis on the distinction of the three persons. In doing so the Son, and ultimately the Holy Spirit, was separated from the unity of the Godhead rendering Him no more divine than an angel of sorts.[9]

As has been displayed, the Modalistic and Arian analysis of God completely destroys the concept of perichoresis. In the Monarchian description the distinction of the persons is eliminated, while in the Arian view the unity within the Godhead is removed. While these two unbiblical views of God were not the only systems to surface, they do provide a brief description of how important the doctrine of perichoresis is to the church. The Christian Church struggled for several years over issues such as these only to arrive at the truth of the perichoretic doctrine. If there is ever a denial of God’s perichoretic relationship, theological heresy will most definitely result. There are however at least two reasons to accept the validity of the perichoretic view of God over the two mentioned above. The first reason is an argument from the biblical notion of true personality as found in the Godhead. The New Testament presents God in such a way that there is definite communication between the three divine persons. This communication between the three screams for a truly personal God who is a relational being. The second deals with the scriptural witness as to how the three persons of the Trinity act in relation to one another in creation and redemption.

Scriptural Testimony Concerning Perichoretic Personality

One of the most remarkable characteristics that the Bible assigns to God is His personality. Scripture testifies that God interacts with His created order, and in doing so, He communicates openly to humanity who is made in His image (Gen. 3:9, Ex. 3:4, Matt. 3:16-17, Rev. 21:1-4). God’s direct communication to humanity is indication that God is a relational being and always has been throughout eternity. The great Christian systematician, Louis Berkhof, quotes William G. T. Shedd on the matter:

Shedd bases his argument on the general self-consciousness of the triune God, as distinguished from the particular individual self-consciousness of each one of the Persons in the Godhead, for in self-consciousness the subject must know itself as an object, and also perceive that it does. This is possible in God because of His trinal existence. He says that God could not be self-contemplating, self-cognitive, and self-communing, if He were not trinal in His constitution.[10]

One of the central motifs of the Christian faith is that God is the archetypal figure of one who possesses true personality. Humans who are personal beings by nature are created in the image of the truly perfect personal God. The Bible portrays God as the essence of what it means to be personal. However, in order for one to express any sort of personality there must be personal interactions with other(s) that would constitute a personal being themselves. In these personal interactions with others one is able to recognize who they are in relation to the other. Perhaps in the case of humanity, personal interaction confirms that those who are involved in personal communication are of the same human nature, but also distinct from one another at the same time. One is able to know that they are of the same race of humans, but also a distinct person interacting with another. This same concept must be applied to God but in a divine way. If God is to be viewed as the supreme essence of personality, then God must have been involved in some sort of divine communication throughout eternity; hence a Trinitarian doctrine of God is much needed where both unity and distinction are equally applied.

Logically speaking, the concept of personality and the need for a Triune God makes perfect sense, but Scripture should also attest to this notion. It should come as no surprise then, that the Bible does in fact support the impression of a divine communication between the Persons of the Trinity. The words of Jesus’ high priestly prayer in John 17 describe communication between the Father and the Son. In Matthew 3:16-17, the Father is seen as speaking in high regards about His Son “with whom He is well pleased”.[11] There is also testimony from the Apostle Paul in Romans 8:26-27 where the Holy Spirit is found to be interceding on behalf of the Christian making petitions before the Father. Surely it can be assumed that there is some sort of divine communication happening in this moment. Though these examples are minute in number, there are many more instances throughout Scripture where divine communication takes place between the Persons of the Trinity.

Another feature concerning the personality of God is the fact that though the Persons are distinct, Scripture also conveys a strong unity between the three. In John 10:28, Jesus advocates that the Father is in Him and He in the Father. Paul in Romans 8:9 demonstrates that both the Father and the Son are in the Spirit while the Spirit is in them. John 14:9 claims that to see Jesus is to see the Father, and in John 10:30 Jesus makes the astonishing assertion that He and the Father are one. In John 14:18, Jesus promises that He will not orphan His people but will rather “come” in the Spirit to be with them. At this point, there should be a complete sense of awe in light of how God has revealed Himself. Truly, the perichoretic nature of God is extraordinary. Within the tri-personal being of God there is both unity and diversity; the three are very distinct, but also united to one another. Apprehending this morsel of scriptural knowledge gives leeway into the next topic of interest; namely how the three divine persons of the Trinity act in relation to one another in creation and redemption. To supplement what has been considered already with what is to come should create an even greater sense of majesty pertaining to the triune God.

Scriptural Testimony Concerning Perichoretic Action

The second of the two arguments concerning the perichoretic nature of God has much to do with the first, but advances the former to a more theologically practical argument. From above, the personality of God has been well established, but more information is needed to understand how the doctrine of perichoresis is revealed in Scripture. To gain this valuable insight, a discussion of how God works perichoretically in creation and redemption will be of enormous help. Conceivably the most excellent display of creation takes place in the beginning of Genesis where the Bible opens with God being the ultimate reason for the existence of the universe and everything it contains.

In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth. The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the surface of the waters. (Gen. 1:1-2).

In the opening verses of Genesis there is already evidence of the perichoretic action of God among the three persons of the Trinity. In order to grasp what is being taught in these two verses, some biblical exegesis is necessary. By the verification of the rest of Genesis chapter one, there is no doubt that God spoke into existence everything from nothing (Gen. 1:3-26). Generally, the “speaking” into existence of everything is attributed to the Father, but the work of the Son and Spirit must not be forgotten. In the opening chapter of John’s gospel, John states that:

In the beginning was God and the word was with God and the word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through Him, and without Him was not anything made that was made. In Him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1:1-5).[12]

John argues for Jesus being the very word of God that existed with God throughout eternity, and is Himself God. John also attests to the fact that “all things were made through him” indicating that Jesus was also present and involved in the creation of the universe. Paul also admits of Christ when he states, “For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him” (Col. 1:16). Paul too, advocates Christ as Creator. Along with the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit was actively involved in taking part in creation. Verse two of Genesis chapter one states that the Spirit, “was hovering over the surface of the waters”. Scripture does not give a detailed description of what exactly the Spirit is doing by His hovering, but obviously He is not inactive. One detail describing God’s new creation is the fact that it was “formless and void”. Knowing this detail may make all the difference in understanding what the Holy Spirit was doing when He was hovering over the new creation. Again, Douglas Kelly weighs in on this issue:

This is what the Holy Spirit is doing in brooding (hovering), moving back and forth, impregnating life and meaning into the mass. His was the preparatory work for leading over from the inorganic to the organic (Parenthesis mine).[13]

While Scripture attests to the Father “speaking” creation into existence through the word, who is Jesus, the Holy Spirit is giving life and meaning to the brand new creation of God. The Holy Spirit is communicating His divine energy to creation giving to it new life. It is quite amazing to see how the perichoretic aspect of God’s nature is introduced from the beginning of history. The three persons of the Trinity are in unity when it comes to what each should do when creating, but they keep three distinct roles that are all three as equally important. Where one is, the others are also. Not just one person is involved in creation, but all three.

Along with the action of creation, all three persons of the Godhead are also involved in redemption. Perhaps to get a complete picture of how a Trinitarian work of salvation is depicted in Scripture, a separate discussion of each Person’s divine role is the most excellent way to proceed. Traditionally salvation has been described as the plan of the Father, the action of the Son, and the application of salvation by the Holy Spirit, and it seems as if Scripture would advocate this assumption. Early in Genesis, after man sinned against God, God promises to send a champion on His behalf. Consider Genesis 3:15, “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel”.[14] This sending of a Savior to rescue a sinful humanity is clearly fulfilled in the New Testament when John in his gospel writes:

For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him (John 3:16).[15]

Scripture, then, undoubtedly supports the traditional notion that the Father sent Jesus, His Son, into the world. However, this sending is not the end but only the beginning of salvation. Traditionally the accomplishing of redemption has been applied to the work of Christ. Scripture as well makes mention of this aspect. Paul cites in his first letter to the Corinthian Church that Christ died for the sins of His people:

For I delivered to you as of first importance what I also received: that Christ died for our sins in accordance with the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day in accordance with the Scriptures, and that he appeared to the twelve (1 Cor. 15:3-5).

Paul’s witness in this passage is strong for supporting the traditional view of Christ accomplishing salvation. However, Paul’s remarks from his letter to the Corinthians are supported from the very words of Jesus Himself. John quotes Jesus as saying at His moment of death, “It is finished”, which is indication that Jesus was referring to the completion of salvation (John 19:30). As a result, the traditional notion of Jesus accomplishing salvation is brilliantly upheld in Scripture. Along with the Father and Son, the Holy Spirit too is involved. Generally the action of the Holy Spirit in salvation has to do with the application of salvation that was planned by the Father and bought by Christ. A passage of Scripture that gives much attestation to this fact is in the third chapter of John’s gospel when Jesus is confronted by Nicodemus. Jesus makes the surprising statement that no one can enter into the kingdom of God unless they are “born again” (John 3:1-15). Perplexed by this statement, Nicodemus begins to question Jesus about His intended meaning. Jesus answers by stating:

Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God. That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not marvel that I said to you, ‘You must be born again.’ The wind blows where it wishes, and you hear its sound, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit (John 3:5-8).

According to Jesus, spiritual regeneration (as pertaining to salvation) is an action performed by the Holy Spirit as is traditionally noted. Salvation then, is an act of the Triune God where each of the three persons are involved in the process of redemption. Again, the point must be stressed that there should be no confusion or separating of the divine persons when involved in acting in human history. Each of the three person’s contribution is unique, but equally important for the pouring out of salvation on God’s people.

It seems to be the case then that the doctrine of perichoresis is absolutely biblical. In light of the heretical theologies discussed above, there is simply no ground biblically to adhere to either one. In the case of the Monarchian heresy, the unity of the Godhead is stretched to the extreme forcing a confusion of the divine persons in the Godhead. As for the Arian position on the matter, the separation of the divine three has been over emphasized resulting in outright error. As has been clearly taught by examining the personal interactions of the persons of the Trinity and how they work together in creation in redemption, one is able to conclude that a perichoretic definition of God is warranted. To argue otherwise would be detrimental to possessing a correct view of God. However, there is still one last component that needs to be expounded upon, and that is how the doctrine of perichoresis affects the church of Christ.

Practical Implications for the Christian Church

One of the key elements to understanding humanity is to realize that humans are created in the image of God (Gen. 1:26-27). Be that as it may, being created in the image of God also means that there are mere glimpses of the perichoretic God found in the human race, and this insight has profound implications for the Christian Church. John Frame has this to say:

Certainly there are senses in which believers can never be one as the persons of the Trinity are one, and yet Jesus calls us into the oneness of the Father and the Son (John 17:22). Clearly Jesus does not intend to erase the distinction between the Creator and the creature. But the concept of mutual glorification suggests an important way in which Christians can be like the members of the Trinity: we, too, are called to defer to one another in this way, to glorify one another, to be disposable to one another’s purposes—that is, to love one another as God loved us.[16]

Perhaps the most important implication for the Christian Church today is to be unified in the faith while at the same time adhering and using the spiritual gifts that God has given to His people (1 Cor. 12:12-31, 2 Tim. 1-2:2). Though unified through the work of Christ, each individual of the Church is unique and as equally as important. The white collar medical doctor is not any more or less important than the blue collar construction worker, but they are unique and have the opportunity to express their gifts to the glory of God in a specific way that God has provided. As the church of Christ, all Christians are united in one faith to one Triune God, but each Christian is gifted differently. In this way the church should live in unity and in diversity. Perhaps the greatest testimony of this truth will be found in the eschaton when a great multitude of Christians who are diverse will be worshiping in unison before the one throne of God (Rev. 19:1). For the Christian Church to forfeit its knowledge of God’s perichoretic relationship would be a tremendous loss of theological wealth.

Conclusion

Though a detailed discussion of the doctrine of perichoresis has been developed, the statement made by Herman Bavinck in the beginning still reigns true. “Mystery is the vital element of Dogmatics. The truth which God has revealed concerning himself in nature and in Scripture far surpasses human conception and comprehension”.[17] While ultimately no person can gaze into the intricate workings of the perichoretic Godhead, ultimately what God has revealed to humanity concerning Himself is well more than enough to keep the human mind wondering for an eternity to come. All discussion concerning the inner nature of God should only be done according to what Scripture testifies to in its presentation of these truths. May the perichoretic Triune God of creation and redemption be glorified through what has been discussed in this composition.

 

 

WORKS CITED

Bavinck, Herman. The Doctrine of God. Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1977.

Berkhof, Louis. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1939.

Frame, John. The Doctrine of God. A Theology of Lordship, ed. John Frame, no. 2. Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002.

Kelly, Douglas. Systematic Theology Course Study Guide. :.

———. “Creation.” . PDF Transmitted. Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC.

McGrath, Alister. Historical Theology An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998.

Wright, David F. Introduction to the History of Christianity. Edited by Tim Dowley. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002.


[1] Herman Bavinck, The Doctrine of God (Carlisle: Banner of Truth, 1977), 18.

[2] All Scripture references are taken from the English Standard Version (ESV), unless otherwise noted.

[3]  Douglas Kelly, Systematic Theology Course Study Guide (: , ), 40.

[4] This is a great reference tool to have for any library. Also, the aspect of the three persons promoting one another’s purposes will have significant influence on the practical implications of perichoresis. John Frame, The Doctrine of God, A Theology of Lordship, ed. John Frame, no. 2 (Phillipsburg: P&R Publishing, 2002), 694-695.

[5] Kelly, Systematic Course Study Guide. 42-43

[6] Wright, David F, Introduction to the History of Christianity, ed. Tim Dowley (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2002), 113.

[7] Ibid.

[8] Alister McGrath, Historical Theology An Introduction to the History of Christian Thought (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 1998), 48.

[9] It is argued that modern day Jehovah’s Witnesses are nothing more than Arians resurfacing in today’s society. The Jehovah’s Witnesses, too, believe that Jesus is a created being who is not to be equated with God.

[10] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: WM. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co, 1939), 84.

[11] Matthew 3:16-17 is perhaps one of the most beautiful pictures of the Trinity to be found in Scripture. It is in this passage that the full distinctions and full unity of the three are clearly defined.

[12] It is interesting that John speaks of Christ as the light and that darkness cannot overcome it. In the Genesis account there is light before the sun actually exists, but Scripture attests to the fact that God is light! (1 John 1:5). The relationship between creation and redemption is extraordinary to consider, but due to length and time restraints a thorough discussion of it cannot be accounted for at this time.

[13] Douglas Kelly, “Creation,” , pdf transmitted, p. 11, Reformed Theological Seminary, Charlotte, NC.

[14] Often referred to as the “First Gospel”, this passage is the first indication in Scripture that God would send a Savior to a fallen humanity.

[15] C.f., Isaiah 9:6-7, John 1:9, Luke 1:26-38, Acts 2:22-25, 2 Cor. 4:6

[16] Frame, 696. Frame mentions the idea of mutual glorification in his quote which has everything to do with perichoresis. It is sometimes used as a synonym for perichoresis but describes a specific part of perichoresis; namely, the glorification of each of the three persons by one another.

[17] Bavinck, 18

 

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3 responses to “Doctrine of Trinitarian Perichoresis”

  1. Alvito says :

    Excellent

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