The Bible says some strange things about the life of the Trinity. For instance, the Father dwells in the Son at the same time that the Son dwells in the Father. The Father is home to the Son, while the Son is home of the Father. As fourth-century theologian Hilary of Poitiers put it, Father and Son envelop one another and are simultaneously enveloped by one another.
Since the early centuries of the church, Christian theologians have used the word perichoresis to describe this reality. The term—meaning “mutual indwelling"—has been used almost exclusively to describe the relationship between the divine persons in the Trinity and the intertwining of the two natures in the one person of Jesus Christ. For Hilary, perichoresis was too mysterious to be anything but divine.
Recently, some theologians have extended the concept to created realities. Other theologians, however, worry that the extending goes too far. When the idea is used outside its traditional contexts, it loses meaning, they argue. A main concern is that the application blurs the distinction between Creator and creation. Princeton’s Bruce McCormack, for example, diagnoses a case of “creeping perichoresis,” which sounds like a pretty serious condition.
Well, I’ve contracted the condition. But I caught it from the New Testament, which employs the concept of mutual indwelling rather stretchily. Though the term is never used in Scripture, the concept appears more frequently that we often realize, particularly in the Gospel of John. When Jesus talks about mutual indwelling, he stresses the similarities—rather than the dissimilarities—between the relationship of the Father and the Son, the church’s relationship with him and the Father, and Christians’ relations with one another. All this helps us to understand not only the God we worship, but also who we are and what we experience on a day-to-day basis.
Our In/In Relationship
Jesus asks the Father that all his disciples “may be one . . . just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us” (John 17:21). The Son is “in” the Father. At the same time, the Father is “in” the Son. And Jesus prays that the unity of the disciples would be like—“even as”—the unity of the Father and Son. Christians form an earthly image of the Triune fellowship. Jesus prays that the disciples will be brought into the perichoretic fellowship of the Father and Son. Our unity with the Father and Son is also an “in/in” relationship. On one hand, the disciples are in the Father and Son. On the other, Jesus is in the disciples, and the Father is in Jesus. Disciples of Jesus are brought into the fellowship of the Father and Son in the Spirit, and by being brought into that divine communion they are brought into mutual indwelling with one another.
While Christ is home for believers, believers are equally a dwelling place for Christ. “I have been crucified with Christ,” Paul says, and “Christ lives in me” (Gal. 2:20). The mystery that Paul preaches is “Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Col. 1:27). Elsewhere, Paul says that the Spirit, not Christ, dwells in us (2 Cor. 1:22; Rom. 5:5). This forms the background for Paul’s claims that believers are “temples,” dwellings places, of God in the Spirit (1 Cor. 3:16; 6:19).
Believers are in Christ. Christ is in them. The Spirit is in them, and they are in the Spirit. Believers dwell in and are indwelt, enveloping the Spirit who dwells in them even while they are enveloped by the Spirit in whom they have all blessing. Of course, humans don’t become God. The relation of the disciples to the Father and the Son is not identical to the relation of the Father and the Son. But, again, Jesus stresses similarities, which I think give us reason to use perichoretic to describe these relations.
Objections to stretching the concept of mutual indwelling don’t arise primarily from within Trinitarian theology per se. They have to do with our understanding of creation, how we use human language to talk about God, and what it means for God to reveal himself to us.
Many of Scripture’s descriptions of God are applications of created realities to God: God is Rock (Ps. 18:2), Light (1 John 1:5), Sun (Ps. 84:11), Shield (Prov. 30:5). And his relation to humanity is describable in terms of human relations: he is King (Ps. 47:7), Father (Isa. 63:16), Lord (Deut. 6:4), Husband (Isa. 54:5).
No one believes that God is a literal rock. No one thinks that saying “God is light” suggests he has a constant velocity of 186,000 miles per second. No one attributes every aspect of human fatherhood to God the Father. Christian teaching recognizes that these are figural expressions. And when we apply words like exist to God, we have to reckon that he exists in a way different than we do. God exists as Creator and source of existence, while human existence is created and dependent.
Still, the biblical writers exhibit no anxiety about using figures and analogies from creation. Nowhere do we find any hint that figural expressions are incapable of telling truth about God. Of course, the Bible describes God in created terms because the Bible was written to and for creatures. But it doesn’t suggest these descriptions are an unfortunate accommodation to pathetic human weakness. Rather, Scripture claims that many of these terms are God’s own self-descriptions (Gen. 15:1), and supposes that human language can speak of, name, and describe God accurately.
Why, then, is Scripture unconcerned about the problems that have preoccupied theologians for many centuries? Perhaps the biblical writers were theologically naïve. Perhaps they hadn’t fully acknowledged God’s transcendence, so they didn’t realize that their crude language was less adequate than the refined categories of philosophy. Scripture seems to suggest otherwise.
The same Isaiah who trembles in awe before God’s majesty describes him without embarrassment as a Lord who sits on a throne wearing a very long robe (Isa. 6:1). Here we find transcendence and figurative description side-by-side. Both transcendence and the robe seem important to Isaiah.
I believe the Bible is unselfconscious about its theological language because of the assumed view of creation and human nature, and therefore of human language. All created things were made by God, designed according to his wisdom. All creation is communication from God about God (Ps. 19). God made rocks and intended them to display aspects of his glory. God created humans in his image to be suitable icons of his character. God oversaw the formation of human families and polities, so that “fathers” and “kings” depict in various ways how God relates to his creation, to human beings, and to his people. He designed the world so that fathers and sons would point toward the eternal Father who loves his eternal Son. God created everything to communicate of himself.
If created things were intended to communicate something about God, and if God is the Creator who knows and governs his universe, then there is no impropriety in calling God Rock, Sun, and Father, or in suggesting that there are analogies between father-son relations and the eternal relation of the Father and Son. There is no obstacle to suggesting that divine relations are mirrored in human relations, that marriage is a living figure of the covenant between Christ and his church, or that there might be an analogy between friendship and divine mutual indwelling. Biblical descriptions of God attribute created qualities to God because the world and humans reflect who he is.
God’s Life Displayed
All this opens the possibility that we might discover perichoretic fingerprints—traces of the Trinity—throughout the creation. We are freed to imagine the world in terms of relations of mutual penetration and indwelling. Once our eyes our opened, we see it everywhere. That may mean that “creeping percihoresis” afflicts the eyes first of all. It may mean, though, that we are seeing the imprint of God’s life in his creation—which is what we’d expect if he is the Creator who has created his creation as an expression of his own eternal glory.
Let’s start with something basic, my relationship with the world outside myself. I am not the world, and the world is not me, but neither I nor my world exists independently of the other. World and self are not only mutually dependent, but they are mutually dependent in a peculiar way. I’m in my world—moving, acting, changing—but I can be in the world only if edible, drinkable, breathable bits of the world come into me. My life in the world is sustainable only if the world comes to be in me, only if there is a continuous interchange between the two. What is true of physical life is true of intellectual and emotional life. I learn when the outside comes in, when I see and hear and smell and touch, when I receive from teachers and traditions and books.
My interchange with the world of other people has a similar shape. I started life living inside another human being, and that other human being penetrated me too: Mom’s food and drink and air and nutrients and blood were mine. Even after I separated from Mom, I still occupied her life, and she mine. My identity, my emotional instincts, my verbal and physical habits, my deepest desires, were stirred up from outside, not only by my mother but also by my father, brothers, and various others. The things that make me me didn’t come from me. I am who I am because others have poured themselves out in word and friendship, so as to live in me. At the same time, my mother was the woman she was partly because she was mother of me. I was internal to her identity as mother.
Time exhibits this form. Past, present, and future are distinct, yet there is no experienced time except as they fold back onto and flow into each other. Past events reverberate into the present; objects made in the past occupy my world now. If the past didn’t occupy the present there would be no present. My future commitments determine what I do today. I would not experience time at all if this interfolding were to cease, if I was left with only a succession of disconnected presents. I wouldn’t even be able to recognize change if I didn’t have some memory of what was, so as to compare it to what is. Time is perichoretic, or it is not time as we know it at all.
Language is a complex interknotting of word and world. Language is a human tool for understanding and acting in the world, and as soon as we speak or write we translate world into word. Saying “swan” brings the white feathered, black-footed, and elegant winged thing into language. World occupies word. Words exist only because sense penetrates sound and sign, and because sign and sound make their home in meaningful ideas. Words occupy world. Sequences of words only make sense because each word makes room for words that follow, and because the words spoken in the past continue to dwell in the present. Literary texts are what they are by the indwelling of other literary texts in quotation, allusion, and echo.
Sound and music are perhaps the clearest illustration of the pattern I’m describing. Sounds exist quite literally within other sounds. A single note on the piano is “indwelt” by its overtones, and at the same time sounds through those overtones. Each tone of a chord provides a setting for every other, and in a melody line each note, like a word of a poem, falls silent to make room for the next—but that falling-silent lingers in the memory and air. When we sing, we form a community of sound, each voice singing the same song, soprano setting the context for bass even as bass frames soprano. When we sing, each singer sings through others, literally vibrating the flesh of her nearest neighbors. Music is perhaps our most elaborate, and most lovely, clue to the nature of the universe and the hopes of human society.
The classic doctrine of the Trinity illumines the world we live in, helping us to discover clues to the Trinitarian life within creation. Not only that, a perichoretic imagination of the world and human existence works itself out in truly Christian ethics. Others indwell our lives; therefore we ought to open our lives hospitably to them. We indwell the lives of others; therefore, we ought to see others not as obstacles to our plots and projects but as potential homes in which we can dwell together. A world of mutual interpenetration implies an ethic of hospitality, welcome, invitation, companionship, centered on a common table. The world created by our Triune God is a world organized by and for love.
And when we get to that point, Jesus’ prayer comes back into focus: Jesus calls us to be one even as the Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father, to live as humans in a way that displays the very life of God.
Peter J. Leithart, president of Theopolis Institute and adjunct senior fellow of theology and literature at New Saint Andrews College, is the author of Traces of the Trinity (Brazos Press, 2015), from which this article was adapted. Used by permission from Brazos Press, a division of Baker Publishing Group.
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