Some Highlights from Perichoresis and Personhood

Charles C. Twombly’s Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus is a must-read for those who wish to plunge the depths of Trinitarian theology, Christology and our union with Christ in salvation. With the recent surge of discussions and publications around the Trinity, and noting the “virtual non-existence of extensive work on the theme of perichoresis (p xi), Twombly’s book makes a significant contribution toward filling this gap by setting his sights on the invaluable work of John Damascene (circa 675 – circa 749CE).

My reason for picking up this book is because I was seeking a greater precision on the term perichoresis as it applied to my readings on the Trinity and Christology. While the term is used regularly (mainly in Trinitarian studies), there is considerable ambiguity when it’s used and only a dim light shines on its import. One attempt breaks the term apart showing that “peri…means ‘around,’ and chorea…means ‘dance.'” Thus, perichoresis refers to the “interrelatedness of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit” and can be understood as a “divine dance” where the “Three-in-one participate in a never-beginning, never-ending movement in harmony.” This is helpful, but still vague.

After a substantial and important “Introduction” (Chapter 1), the book takes shape by way of three major divisions: “Perichoresis and the Trinity” (Chapter 2), “Perichoresis and Christ” (Chapter 3), and “Perichoresis and Salvation” (Chapter 3), followed by an Epilogue that sums the work and urges creative ways of deploying perichoresis into additional theological themes. What follows are some highlights from the first of the three major sections, though what is offered here hardly gets off the ground with what is written there. Other posts on the remaining sections will follow (see here).

Perichoresis and the Trinity
As applied to the Trinity, perichoresis (mutual indwelling) entails “union without confusion” or “identity and difference.” As Twombly says “intrinsic to any theological use of the term perichoresis, regardless of the context, is some sort of relationship” (p 11) and perichoresis is the chosen term used to describe the unique relationship that exists amongst the hypostaseis (persons) of the one Triune God.

Any preliminary work on the quest to apprehend the incomprehensible Triune God must embrace our conceptual limitations, says John Damascene. Though the created order, Scripture, revelation of the Son, and witness of the Spirit have been given to us, they only partially reveal God’s being to us. “God’s nature is fundamentally unknowable” and “God remains beyond our reach” (p 15).

The oft-used mechanism of analogy falls short in explicating God’s Triune nature, since the sheer qualitative uniqueness of God exposes the chasm between the Creator and the created order. After all, “creation comes forth, not out of God’s own substance but is made out of nothing and is therefore out of that which is not God” (p 17). Thus, creation can only point to God’s existence, and that by way of inference. Sans Scripture, and the presuppositions that are shared about it, creation remains a “barren source” of information about the nature and character of God. Since “there is no way of reasoning backwards from creation to the character of God’s ousia,” the mind, unaided by an established interpretation of Scriptural revelation, is only capable of grasping some amorphous uncaused cause of the universe (cf., pp 23-24).

Likewise, while humans create, they do so out of existing materials, whereas God creates out of nothing. Where humans beget in time and only with the help of another, God begets eternally and single-handedly. Even Scripture is remiss in giving a complete picture of God’s nature and character. While Scripture affirms that God is powerful, just, good, et al., the line between what God does and what God is remains so thin that we’re left with the external operations of God while the inner nature of God’s being remains hidden. As a simple, indivisible being God is not a composite of those qualities to which Scripture points, because God has no “parts.” Moreover, Holy Writ intimates an apophatic theology telling us more about what God is not, than what God is in his essence. God is not finite, not created, not limited in power, not with a body, et al. (cf., p 22).

Historically significant and theologically rich is Twombly’s observation that as Chalcedon (5th Century) utilized language to show “how things brought together in union could nevertheless remain distinct” in relation to Christology, so too did John Damascene (8th Century) employ those same conceptual constructs to explicate a theology of the Triune God (p 28). Thus, we are enabled to know more of God by way of our knowledge of Christ. This is only fitting, since Christ reveals God (Matt 11:27).

With regards to the ontological Trinity, Twombly notes that “will and operation … reside in the common nature or essence and not in the hypostaseis individually.” In fact, “the only thing that really distinguishes the three hypostaseis from one another is the manner of their respective origins. What binds them together, inseparably, in common substance, action, and so on, is ‘their existence in one another,’ their mutual indwelling that is summed up by the single word, perichoresis” (pp 31-32).

Aside from the direct hit on the monothelite controversy in which Christ was said to have two wills (dyothelitism), this distinction amongst the hypostaseis, viz., their origin, combats modalism. How so? John Damascene declares that the hypostaseis “are one in all things save in the being unbegotten, the being begotten, and the procession” (p 37, note 93 for reference). We know this by way of revelation but how this is so remains a mystery.

Nevertheless some explanation cries out and Twombly notes: The Father is “ontologically prior” (not chronologically since the Son is eternally begotten) and, therefore, has no cause. There’s no sense in which the Father existed before the Son, since that would entail a time in which the Father was not father. Any point at which the Son was suddenly begotten would entail some change in God, which is impossible for an immutable being. The Son, on the other hand, does have a cause, but since the same substance and will is shared with the Father, then, coextensively, the Son is eternally begotten (not created). The Spirit eternally proceeds (that is, not begotten) from the Father and through the Son (contra the West and the filioque addition) as the Son “imparts” or “communicates” the Spirit on behalf of the Father (pp 38-39).

Though almost four centuries separated Chalcedon and John of Damascus, and much debate continued in the centuries between, it was the language of Chalcedon that provided the conceptual framework for John of Damascus to articulate how perichoresis “functions then as a summing up, a condensation, of an important aspect of the doctrine of the Trinity expressed in Chalcedonian terms” (p 42). Perichoresis serves to unite “the one ousia with the three hypostaseis without confusion, blending, mingling, composition, change, or division of substance” (p 45). The divine dance of perichoresis illustrates “how three might be one and how both variety and unity can characterize the same divine reality” (p 46).


Chapters 1 and part of Chapter 2 may be searched and read via Google Books.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *