Monday, December 12, 2005


I love the word perichoresis. I admit it has the appearance of a bit of theological jargon, and that most Christians have no idea what it means, so you risk sounding pompous if you use it in a sentence. I sometimes wonder if people think it refers to a skin condition - "Do you have persistent perichoresis? Try Gold Bond Medicated Powder." It is, however, a beautiful word describing the mutual indwelling of the three persons of the Holy Trinity, and it's been in my mind a lot since reading Robert Jenson's Systematic Theology v.2, where he uses it more than any theologian I've come across, and in Kyriacos Markides' The Mountain of Silence, which examines the spirituality of the monks of Mt. Athos and Orthodox theology. Perichoresis is a prominent aspect of Orthodox faith and life.

So what's so important about perichoresis? First, it has something to do with the Trinity, which is crucial in these days of shallow, evangelical "me and Jesus" Christianity. The standard definition of perichoresis comes from St John of Damascus, who was the theological fountainhead of Eastern Orthodox theology:

"The subsistences [i.e., the three Persons] dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature" (The Orthodox Faith, 1.14).

The word "perichoresis" was first used, I believe, by St Gregory of Nazianzus, one of the Cappadocian Fathers (along with St. Gregory of Nyssa and St Basil the Great - all great favorites of mine). It is a composite Greek word: peri + choreio, which means move or dance around. In other words, the Holy Trinity is a divine movement, which is called in Byzantine theology, "The Great Dance." Each person of the Holy Trinity exists in a state mutual indwelling with the other two. The One God is therefore a Holy Community of three persons marked by interpenetration, communion, and interdependence. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit move and flow and draw life from one another in a bond of perfect love.

In our time when theology is often ignored or rejected as overly-intellectual, it is imperative that we speak a defiant "NO!" to the diluting forces at work in the church. The divine perichoresis is not some esoteric concept, but is a force of great beauty and life for the church. The contemplation of the glory of the Holy Trinity is restorative, and sadly lacking especially in evangelical circles. St Gregory Nazianzus says it best:

“No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the splendor of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish them than I am carried back to the One. . . When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided light.”

The Church is a community defined by this same perichoresis. By the power of the Holy Spirit we are drawn up into the divine life, in which we move and flow and derive life, love, and spiritual power. In the words of the Apostle Paul, in the Triune Lord "we live and move and have our being" (Acts 17:28). The Church is only the Church when it is united in love with the Trinity, sharing in its perichoresis. C.S. Lewis perceptively noted that the "whole dance, or drama, or pattern of this three-Personal life is to be played out in each one of us" (The Weight of Glory, 153). I find this notion both thrilling and a source of profound peace.

"Do you not believe that I am in the Father, and the Father in me?...Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father in me" (John 14:10a, 11).

{illustration: "The Old Testament Trinity," by Andrei Rublev, ca. 1410}


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