Today I want to discuss a theological word that has become more familiar to the Evangelical and Baptist world over the last couple of decades. That word is perichoresis. I’ve spent a fair amount of time around this word and I want to share some of my findings with you.
Perichoresis is a word that describes, primarily, the relationship enjoyed by the persons of the Trinity. Though the word is not found in the Bible, and not found in theological literature until the fourth century, the concept is very biblical. Several times in the writings of John, and most notably in chapters 13-17, we see Jesus making statements like “I am in the Father and the Father is in me.” This idea of two persons mutually indwelling one another while actively participating in the other is called perichoresis.
Let me give a little historical background to perichoresis. It was a word fairly commonly used in the Greek language before its first theological usage by Gregory of Nazianzus in the late fourth century. It derives from the Greek prefix peri- (meaning “around”) and the word chora (long “o”), which means to make room. So the etymological derivation of perichoresis is “to make room around.” While the etymology of a word is not always a good indicator of its meaning, the idea of “making room for another within oneself” is a very good description of the idea of perichoresis, especially as it is used in a trinitarian context.
Ironically, Gregory’s use of perichoresis was to describe how the human and divine natures in Christ coalesce. It was not used in a trinitarian context for a while later. It receives its most complete late patristic treatment in John of Damascus’ On the Orthodox Faith in the eighth century. By the fifth century, communication between east and west, at least theologically, had slowed considerably, since eastern thinkers wrote in Greek while their western counterparts wrote in Latin. Therefore, the word perichoresis was unknown in the west until the twelfth century, when John of Damascus was translated into Latin. The word perichoresis had two Latin equivalents, circumincessio and circuminsessio, which were respectively its active (participatory) and passive (indwelling) components. Close English equivalents are coinherence and interpenetration.
John of Damascus had a great deal of influence on the Reformers, especially Calvin. If anyone has read through the Institutes, one will see several references to John of Damascus, as his On the Orthodox Faith is probably the clearest interpretation and summary of Eastern patristic doctrines we have today.
I have a special interest in the doctrine, since my dissertation topic was applying the doctrine of perichoresis to salvation. It is coming out in book form from Wipf and Stock soon. Later in the week, I’ll write another post to show some of the ways the doctrine can be applied. I want to touch on salvation in that post, but it will probably require a third post to go that far. Let me know if you are interested.