Christian doctrine of God (part 4)

This is part 4 in a series by Torrance scholar Thomas Noblesummarizing Thomas F. Torrance's The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons. For other posts in this series, click a number: 1, 2, 3.


In the third chapter we thought about the three conceptual levels. We must now give further thought to the notion of perichōrēsis. Athanasius provided the theological basis for this coinherence by elucidating Jesus’ teaching in John, particularly, ‘I am in the Father and the Father in me.’ He refined and deepened the concept of the homoousion. The specific term, perichōrēsis, came later, but he asked how the one can be contained (chōrein) in the other and the other in the one (C. Arian, 3:1) and pointed out that it would be inappropriate to think of this in accordance with the way material things can contain one another. In his Letters on the Holy Spirit, he showed that we must think of this coinherence as applying equally to the whole Trinity. Hilary put forward the same teaching with reference to John 14:10. (De Trin. 3:1). Gregory Nazianzen used the verb perichōrein to speak of the relation between the divine and human natures of Christ. The verb chōrein means ‘to go’, or ‘to make room for’, or ‘to contain’. The first use of the noun perichōrēsis is found in a work by an unknown writer attributed to Cyril of Alexandria and later quoted without attribution by John of Damascus (De fide orthodoxa, 1:8). Pseudo-Cyril refers to Nazianzen’s statement that the Godhead is undivided in divine Persons due to the identity of their being rather like three suns cleaving to one another without any separation and giving out one conjoined light.

Perichōrēsis has essentially a dynamic not a static sense. Since God is Spirit, and God is Love, we must understand it in a wholly spiritual and intensely personal way as the eternal movement of Love of the Communion of Love which the Holy Trinity ever is within himself. The Holy Spirit is in himself the enhypostatic Love and the Communion of Love in the perichoretic relations between the Father and the Son. As such he is the ground of our communion with God in the Love of the Father and Son. This was the theme developed by the Apostle John in his epistles which had such an impact on Augustine. It corresponds to the way in which Epiphanius of Salamis spoke of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit as three enhypostatic Persons eternally grounded and whole coinhering in one another while remaining other from one another. It corresponds to the thought of Cyril of Alexandria in his view of the living and dynamic coinherence within the Holy Trinity. He brought together the emphasis of Athanasius on the one Being of the homousial Trinity with Nazianzen’s conception of an indivisible but internally differentiated Trinity of real hypostatic relations continuously and actively subsisting in the Godhead. ‘The mystery of perichōrēsis brought the Church’s interpretation of God’s revealing and saving acts to is supreme point.

We noted that perichōrēsis is not a static but a dynamic concept referring to an eternal movement in the Love of the Father, the Son and Holy Spirit for one another. But it is not a speculative concept. It expresses the soteriological truth of the identity between God himself and the content of this saving revelation in Jesus Christ and by the Holy Spirit. Together with the homoousion it helps us to read back the interrelations between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the economy of salvation into the eternal relations immanent in the one Being of God. On the other hand, we cannot but formulate it in fear and trembling with adoration and awe, recognizing the poverty and inadequacy of the language we use.

We must now draw out several important implications.

1) Perichoresis and the Wholeness of the Holy Trinity [173]

Perichōrēsis reinforces the fact that the Holy Trinity may be known only as a whole. God’s self-revelation is a self-enclosed novum which may be known and interpreted only on its own ground and out of itself. This means that our knowing of God engages in a deep circular movement from Unity to Trinity and from Trinity to Unity since we are unable to speak of the whole Trinity without already speaking of the three particular persons or to speak of any of the three Persons without presuming knowledge of the whole Triunity. In our apprehension of God’s trinitarian revelation in its intrinsic wholeness we rely on subsidiary awareness of the particular Persons and in our explicit apprehension of each particular person, we rely on an implicit awareness of the whole Trinity. This is precisely what peri-chōrēsis tells us, that God is only known in a circle of reciprocal relations.

It is in the refining and developing of the homoousion in application to the Trinity as a whole through the concept of perichōrēsis that it became fully confirmed that no divine Person is who he really and truly is, even in his distinct otherness, apart from relation to the other two. Since each divine Person considered in himself is true God of true God, the whole God dwells in each Person and each Person is the whole God. No one Person is knowable apart from the others. 

2) Perichoresis and Distinctions within the Trinity [175]

The concept of perichōrēsis deepens our understanding of the hypostatic distinctions within the Trinity. It does not dissolve the distinctions but shows that it is precisely through their reciprocal relations with one another that the three divine Persons constitute the very Communion which the one God eternally is. However, perichōrēsis has much to say about the order or taxis which obtains between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit in their relations with one another. They all coexist hypostatically in the Communion of the Holy Trinity without being confused with one another or differing from one another in their homousial Being.

On the other hand, perichōrēsis asserts the full equality of the three divine Persons. Nazianzen and Didymus the Blind drew attention to the variation in order in the triadic formulations in Scripture. The New Testament refers to each Person as ‘Lord’ or Yahweh. In all but the incommunicable properties they share completely and equally. The Synodical Epistle of the Fathers of Constantinople spoke of ‘one Godhead, Power and Being of the Father, and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit,’ this setting aside Arianism and Sabellianism.

On the other hand, perichōrēsis affirms the real distinctions between the divine Persons by providing a frame in line with the order given in Baptism into the Name of the Father, the Son and the Spirit. This priority in order or Monarchy of the Father must not be taken to imply a priority or superiority in deity. It refers to the fact that ‘the Son is begotten of the Father, not the Father of the Son’, the order manifest in the incarnation. There is an irreversible relation between Father and Son. But the Father is in no way the deifier of the Son and is not Father without the Son. The Son is not less than the Father but is in himself true God of true God, for as St Paul tells us, ‘It pleased the Father that all the fullness of God should dwell in him.’ The inner trinitarian order is not to be understood in an ontologically differential way but only to the mysterious ‘disposition or economy’ which they have among themselves within the unity of the Godhead. They are fully and perfectly equal. 

A problem arose here in the Cappadocian theology of the post-Nicene era. They helped the Church to have a fuller understanding of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in their distinctive ‘modes of existence’ or ways of origination (tropoi hyparxeōs). On the other hand, Basil and his brother Gregory drew a rather dualist distinction between the transcendent Being of God which is quite unknowable and the uncreated energies of his self-revelation. This shifted the weight of emphasis from the Nicene doctrine of the identity of Being to one of equality between the Persons and the concreteness to the differentiating particularities in accordance with their modes of existence. But the way Basil tried to defend this had the effect of playing down the truth embedded in the Nicene homoousios of the oneness between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, that what God is now towards us in the economy of redemption he ever was antecedently in his intra-divine life. Consonant with his reservation about the identity of the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity is the rather strange fact that Basil never referred to the Holy Spirit as God or homoousios.

However, Basil considered that the defence of Nicene theology required a clear distinction between ousia and hypostasis since their identity was used by Sabellians and Eunomians. The Cappadocians used the argument that ousia has the same relation to hypostasis as the general or common to the particular. They were apt to identify ousia with physis or nature and so tended to give ousia an abstract generic sense and hence impersonal. They were charged with thinking of God in a partitive or tritheistic way, three Gods with a common nature, which of course they rejected. They sought to avoid the charge by anchoring the oneness in the Father as the Origin or Principle of Cause, the Archē or Aitia of divine unity. They spoke of the Son and Spirit deriving their distinctive mode of subsistence (tropoi hyparxeōs) from the Fount of Deity (pēgē theotētos). They went further and spoke of the Son and Spirit deriving their being (einai) and deity (theotēs) from the Father considered as a Person (hypostasis) not ousia – a divergence from the teaching of the Nicene Council. The implication was that it was the Person of the Father who causes, deifies and personalizes the Being of the Son and of the Spirit and even the existence of the Godhead. As Didymus pointed out however, if one speaks of the generation of the Son and procession of the Spirit from the Person of the Father, this is not to be equated with the causation of their being, but only with the mode of their hypostatic differentiation.

This centring of divine unity upon the Person of the Father rather than the Being of the Father introduced ambiguities and gave rise to difficulties regarding the procession of the Spirit. But the immediate problem is the distinction drawn by the Cappadocians between the uncaused or underived deity of the Father and the caused or derived deity of the Son and the Spirit. As Nazianzen pointed out (Orat. 43: 30, 43), this implied superiority or degrees of deity, a relation of superiority and inferiority. Cyril would have nothing to do with a generic concept of ousia or causal or subordinationist relations within the Holy Trinity (ref. to PG 75.128 & 75.721, 733, 744, 769). 

It is at this point that the concept of perichōrēsis proved decisive. It ruled out any notion of a ‘before’ and ‘after’ or of degrees of deity and set the doctrine back on the basis laid by Athanasius of coinherent relations and undivided wholeness in which each Person is ‘whole of whole’. But it nevertheless reinforced the strong hypostatic and personal distinctions which the Cappadocians had developed so fruitfully. It restored the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without any subordinationism and restored the biblical, Nicene and Athanasian conception of the one Being or Ousia of God as intrinsically personal.

When we consider the order of the divine Persons in this perichoretic way, we think of the Father as first precisely as Father but not as Deifier of the Son and Spirit. We think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Archē of Deity, not as Source (Archē) or Cause (Aitia) of the divine Being of the Son and the Spirit, but simply that he is not a Son. No room is left for a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism. ‘My Father is greater than I’ is to be interpreted not ontologically but soteriologically and economically as Nazianzen, Cyril and Augustine understood it. The subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the obedient servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations. [contra Barth?] While the Father is first in order, the Father, Son and Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness so that there may be appropriate variation in the trinitarian order.

3) Perichōrēsis and the Divine Monarchy [180]

Perichōrēsis has far-reaching implications for our understanding of the divine Monarchia. We saw that it reinforces the fact that the Holy Trinity may be known only as a whole. The self-revelation of God as triune is a self-enclosed novum which may be known and interpreted only on its own ground and out of itself. Hence our knowing of God engages in a perichoretic circular movement from Unity to Trinity and from Trinity to Unity. This means that we understand the Monarchy of God not in a partitive way by moving linearly but in the same holistic way as we know the Trinity.

‘Father’ was constantly used in two cognate ways with reference to the Godhead and the Person of the Father. They were never separated, but the Cappadocians elided them. At the same time, their way of distinguishing ousia as a general concept from hypostasis as a particular concept imported a shift (at least for two of them) from the central significance of homoousios as the key. They thus threw the emphasis on the three Hypostaseis as individual modes of existence united through the Monarchia of the Father and having their Being in common: three Hypostaseis, one Ousia. The main thrust of their teaching was to make the uncaused Person of the Father the Cause or Source of the Deity and of the personal Nature of the Son and the Spirit. This general trend weakened the Athanasian axiom that whatever we say of the Father we say of the Son and the Spirit except ‘Father’. 

For Athanasius, the idea that the Father alone is Archē, Principle, Origin or Source in this sense was an Origenist concept. Athanasius held that since the whole Godhead is in the Son and the Spirit, they must be included with the Father in the one originless Source or Archē of the Holy Trinity. Admittedly, the Cappadocian way of expounding the one Being helped the Church to have a richer and fuller understanding of the Three Persons in their distinctive modes. However, this was done at the expense of cutting out the real meaning of ousia as being in its internal relations and of robbing ousia of its profound personal sense as found in Athanasius, Epiphanius and Hilary. Moreover, the Cappadocian interpretation concealed a serious ambiguity. It meant the rejection of subordinationism, but from another point of view, it implied a hierarchical structure within the Godhead. Yet it was the Latins who stressed even more strongly the role of the Father as the principium et fons totius Deitatis.

The formulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at the Council of Constantinople was certainly indebted to the Cappadocians, however it did not follow their line in grounding the unity of the Godhead in the Person of the Father. It rather reverted to the doctrine of the Son as begotten of the Being of the Father as laid down by Athanasius and further clarified by Epiphanius. It would be further developed by Cyril of Alexandria. For Athanasius, his doctrine of the Trinity was embedded in his understanding of the homoousion. He certainly thought of the Father as Archē and Aitios, but not Aitia or Cause of the Son. While the Son is associated with the Archē of the Father, he cannot be thought of as an Archē existing apart from the Son. Thus while accepting along with the Cappadocians the formulation of One Being, Three Persons, Athanasius declined a view of the Monarchy in which the oneness of God was referred to the Father alone or to the Person of the Father. The Monē Archē or Monarchia is identical with the Trinity, the Monas with the Trias. The Monarchia or Monas is essentially and intrinsically trinitarian in the inner relations of God’s eternal Ousia.

Epiphanius took essentially the same line, understanding the whole undivided Trinity, not just the Father, as the Monarchia. He did not speak of the three divine Persons as ‘modes of existence’ but as ‘enhypostatic’ in God. His conception of the homoousios as applying to the Trinity as a whole deepened the notion of the coinherence of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. He did not share the Cappadocian way of tracing the unity of God back to the one uncaused or underived Person of the Father. He held the whole Trinity to be the Principle or Archē of the oneness of the Godhead. Hence he laid immense emphasis upon the full equality, perfection, eternity, power and glory of the Father. Each of the divine Persons is fully, equally, and perfectly Lord and God.

So also Augustine: ‘There is so great an equality in the Trinity that not only the Father is not greater than the Son as regards divinity, but neither are the Father and the Son together greater than the Holy Spirit; nor is each individual Person, which ever it be of the thee, less than the Trinity itself.’ (De Trin., 8, Preface)

Epiphanius did more than any other to clear away problems that had arisen and prepare the ground for the ecumenical consensus at Constantinople. This is somewhat different from what is found in the usual textbook tradition. It was upon the Athanasian-Epiphanian basis that classical Christian theology developed into its flowering in Cyril of Alexandria. In our day, it is upon the Athanasian-Epiphanian-Cyrilian basis, together with Gregory of Nazianzus, that doctrinal agreement has been reached between Orthodox and Reformed Churches. The conception of perichoresis played a crucial role:

There are no degrees of Deity in the Holy Trinity, as is implied in a distinction between the underived Deity of the Father and the derived Deity of the Son and the Spirit. Any notion of subordination is completely ruled out. The perfect simplicity and indivisibility of God in his Triune Being mean that the Archē or Monarchia cannot be limited to one Person as Gregory the Theologian pointed out. 

4) Perichōrēsis and the Procession of the Holy Spirit [185]

The doctrine of the one Monarchy together with the doctrine of the perichoretic interpenetration puts our understanding of the one indivisible Being of Communion of the Holy Trinity on a deeper basis as procession from the one Being of God the Father which is common to the Son and the Spirit. ‘The Father’, when considered absolutely, refers to the Godhead, that is to the one Being (ousia) of God, but when considered relatively refers to the Person (hypostasis), the Father of the Son. The conflation of these two senses by the Cappadocians gave rise to serious difficulties in which they replaced the Nicene ek tēs ousias tou Patros with ‘from the Person of the Father’ (ek tēs hypostaseōs tou Patros). This meant that procession is regarded as taking place between different modes of existence or relations of origin. This is hardly satisfactory since it falls short of affirming the homoousion of the Spirit. They did however reject the notion that the Spirit is to be regarded as created by God. The problematic role they gave to the Person of the Father vis-à-vis the Son and the Spirit provoked the ex Patre Filioque clause in the West.

Western churchmen felt obliged to hold that the Spirit proceeds from the Son as well as the Father. Otherwise they thought that the Son would be regarded as subordinate to the Father. Following Augustine, they held this in a modified form according to which the Spirit is understood to proceed from the Father principally (principaliter). Eastern Churchmen felt that the filioque implied two ultimate Principles or Archai and opted for the formula from the Father only (ek monou tou Patros). This implied a distinction between the eternal procession of the Spirit from the Father and the historical mission of the Spirit from the Son. Does this mean that the sending of the Spirit by the Son is not grounded immanently in the eternal Being of God? Frequently associated with this is the Basilian and Palamite distinction between the divine Being and the divine energies. This tends to restrict knowledge of God to his divine energies (energeiai) and rules out knowledge of God in his divine Being. It also implies that to know God in the Spirit is not to know God in his divine Being but only to know the things that relate to his Nature (ta peri tēn physin). This appears to be influenced by a dualism from the Origenistic tradition, driving a wedge between the inner Life of God and his saving activity in history. This does not appear to take seriously the Nicene homoousion, and to operate with a homoiousion of the Spirit, precisely the subtle error which Athanasius attacked in his Letters to Serapion. A dualistic approach of this kind detracts from a realist doctrine of the Holy Spirit and a realist conception of the homousial and perichoretic interpenetration of the three divine Persons. Any disparity of disjunction between the Holy Spirit and God the Father is ruled out by the Constantinopolitan form of the creed in stating that the Spirit is the Lord and Giver of Life and is to be worshipped and glorified. God communicates himself to us not just something of himself. The Council of Constantinople affirmed that the Spirit is of one and the same being of the Father and proceeds from the Being of the Father. 

If we probe behind this to the implications of the Nicene homoousion and the Athanasian doctrine of coinherence we find a different situation governed by the conception of the Monarchia consisting of three perfectly coequal and coeternal enhypostatic Persons in indivisible Communion. What is crucial here, as Athanasius taught, is that the Spirit and the Son coinhere in one another. The Spirit is from the Father but from the Father in the Son. Since the Holy Spirit is of the Being of the God, he could not but proceed from or out of the Being of God inseparably from and through the Son. For Athanasius, the proceeding of the Spirit from the Father is inextricably bound up with the generation of the Son from the Father, but it would not be reverent to entertain the question how. Thus the problem of the so-called ‘double procession’ did not come into the picture. Hence Athanasius’ application of the homoousion to the Spirit had the effect, not only of asserting that the Spirit is also of one Being with the Father, but of implying that the procession of the Spirit is from the Being of the Father, and not from the Person (hypostasis) of the Father. For Athanasius, both the Son and Spirit are of the Being of the Father so that the idea that the Spirit derives from the Being of the Son just did not arise.

In line with this, Epiphanius thought of the Spirit having personal subsistence not only ‘out of the Father through the Son’, but ‘out of the same Being’, ‘out of the same Godhead’ as the Father and the Son, for the Holy Spirit is ontologically (ousiōdōs) inseparable from the Father and the Son. The Holy Spirit belongs to the inner Being of the one God and to the constitutive internal relations of the Godhead. He is central to the Triunity of God. Thus it may be said that the Holy Spirit proceeds as Light from Light from both the Father and the Son (refs. to Epiphanius). It was in these terms that Epiphanius put forward the credal statement, including the crucial clauses taken up by the Council of Constantinople in 381: ‘We believe in one Holy Spirit, the Lord and Giver of Life, etc.’ 

The original Tome promulgating the Creed was lost, but we know from Theodoret that the Council spoke of the Holy Spirit as ‘one and the same Being (mias kai tēs autēs ousias) as the Father and the Son.’ In dropping the words ‘God from God’ (which might be taken to suggest as difference between derived and underived Deity) the Council laid all the stress on ‘true God of true God.’ The three divine Persons do not share their distinguishing properties, but they do share completely and equally in the one homogeneous (homogenēs or homophyēs) Godhead.

It is when we apply the concept of perichoresis rigorously that it becomes possible for us to think through and restate the doctrine of the procession of the Spirit from the Father in a way that cuts behind the problems that divided the Church over the filioque. If we take seriously Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity in which all three Persons are perfectly God and in which all three interpenetrate and contain one another, then we cannot but think of the procession of the Holy Spirit from the Father as being through the Son. In proceeding from the Being of the Father, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the one Being which belongs to the Son and the Spirit as well as to the Father. Thus the procession of the Spirit cannot be thought of in any partitive way, but only in a holistic way was ‘whole from whole’ (holos holou). That means proceeding from the wholly coinherent relations of the three divine Persons within the indivisible Being of the One God. Both expressions, ‘from the Father and Son’ and ‘from the Father through the Son’ are in order. But this is not so if the Monarchy is limited to the Father, nor if there is a distinction between the underived Deity of the Father and the derived Deity of the Son and Spirit, nor if the Holy Spirit does not belong equally with the Father and the Son in their two-way relation with each other.

The effect of this is to cut behind the division between East and West over the filioque. [191] It does not allow of any procession of the Spirit from the Father and the Son alone, as if the Spirit himself did not belong to the Father-Son relationship. Nor does it allow for any procession of the Spirit from two different Principles, Origins or Archai. It does allow for the procession of the Spirit from the Father through the Son, but this means through the Son who has one Being with the Father, and so out of the Communion of the Father with the Son and the Son with the Father which the Holy Spirit is.  We do not have a two-way relationship between the Father and Son in which the Spirit is some kind of connecting link, but with an active three-way or perichoretic relationship between Father, Son and Holy Spirit. 

This approach is reinforced by the truth that since God is Spirit, ‘Spirit’ cannot be restricted to the Person of the Holy Spirit, but must apply to the whole Being of God. Thus the Spirit is to be thought of as proceeding from the Being of God the Father which as Spirit he himself is.


  • The Holy Spirit ever is from the same Being of the Father and the Son, for God is Spirit.
  • He is the Spirit of the Son, but in the midst of the Father and the Son, from (ek) the Father and the Son, the third in name.
  • The Holy Spirit is from both (par’amphoterōn), Spirit from Spirit, for God is Spirit.  [191: refs to Ancoratus 7,8 and Haereses 74,8]

Athanasius (C. Arian. 1:46): ‘I, being the Father’s Word, I give to myself become man, the Spirit, and in him I sanctify myself become man, so that henceforth in me who am the Truth…all may be sanctified.’  Note that the Son gives the Spirit to us from out of himself as eternally his own, i.e. out of the fullness of his divine Being.

Cyril of Alexandria: ‘The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son (ek Patros kai Huiou) for he belongs to the divine Being and inheres in it and issues from it substantially (ousiōdōs).’

When we say, ‘from the Father and the Son,’ or, ‘from the Father through the Son,’ we mean ‘from the community of Being of the Father and the Son,’ or ‘from the Communion between the Father and the Son which the Holy Spirit himself is.’ It is then the conception of perichoresis according to which Father, Son and Spirit mutually indwell one another that must be allowed to govern our understanding of the procession of the Spirit.

The question must be asked whether the difficulties over the procession of the Spirit arise from the fact that we do not know what ‘proceeding’ (ekporeusis) really means any more than we know what ‘begotten’ means. We do not really know what ‘father’ and ‘son’ mean. As Nazianzen said, they stand for relations, real relations in God which transcend our finite comprehension. What do ‘procession’ or ‘spiration’ mean? What is theologically significant is that they speak of a distinctive relation of the Holy Spirit to the Father different from the distinctive relation of the Son to the Father. The divinely given terms are irreplaceable ultimate terms denoting ineffable relations and referring to ineffable realities. We cannot more offer an account of the ‘how’ of these divine relations than we can define the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. When we speak of the begetting of the Son or the proceeding of the Spirit we have to suspend our thought before the altogether inexpressible, incomprehensible Nature of God. Athanasius: ‘Thus far human knowledge goes. Here the cherubim spread the covering of their wings.’ Basil: ‘We confess to knowing what is knowable of God, and yet what we know reaches beyond our apprehension.’

5. Perichōrēsis and the Coactivity of the Holy Trinity [194]

It is very easy when using technical terms like homoousion, hypostatic union, and perichōrēsis to think concepts rather than the realities denoted by them and to lapse into a static mode of thought. The terms acquire an authority in themselves, a determinative function, as if only what can be reduced to conceptual expression can be true. Rather we must think through the concepts to the realities of truths they are meant to intend.

The biblical and patristic concept of the Being or ousia of God is concretely personal and dynamic. The compound homoousion was used to express the oneness in Being and Act between the incarnate Son and the Father. God’s triune Being is his Being-in-Act and his Act is his Act-in-Being (Barth): his activity is inherent in his Being (enousios energeia – Athanasius).  We are now to consider the co-activity of the Father, Son and Spirit with the help of the concept of perichōrēsis.  

The concept of perichōrēsis is presented to us in the mutual indwelling of Father, Son and Spirit in the Fourth Gospel, but this has to do with the miraculous works of Jesus and the works of God the Father. The message of the Gospel is grounded in the complete coinherence in being and act between the Father and the Son. The self-revelation of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit takes place as the Word and Work of Christ are integrated in his Life and Being. The threefold coactivity was summarized by St Paul in Rom. 11:36 and Eph. 4:6 and this was paraphrased in the Council of Constantinople: ‘For one is the God and Father, from whom are all things, and one Lord Jesus Christ, through whom are all things, and one Holy Spirit in whom are all things.’ There is significance co-ordination and unity of Being (ousia) and Activity (energeia) in the Holy Trinity from the Father through the Son and in the Holy Spirit although the distinctive mode of operation by each of the three is maintained, indicated by the prepositions. The middle term ‘through’ indicates that there is no separate activity of the Holy Spirit in revelation or salvation in addition to or independent of the activity of Christ. Everything hinges upon his concrete mediatorial activity in space and time.

The proper evangelical understanding of the procession of the Spirit is very important for two reasons. (1) Our participation in the economic Activity of God depends on the inseparable relation of the Spirit in his Being and Activity to the incarnate Being and Activity of Jesus Christ. (2) The truth of the Gospel is ultimately grounded in the oneness of the historical mission of the Spirit from the incarnate Son with the eternal outgoing of the Spirit from the Father. If the ontological bond between the historical Jesus Christ and the Father is cut then the substance falls out of the Gospel. But if the ontological bond between the Holy Spirit and the incarnate Son of the Father is cut so that there is a discrepancy between the economic Trinity and the ontological Trinity, i.e. between the saving activity of the love of God in history and the transcendent activity of God in eternity, then we human beings are left without hope. As Athanasius argued, the homoousion of the Son and the homoousion of the Spirit belong inseparably together. Neither can be maintained without the other. Note his comment on the benediction of II Cor. 13:14.

For the grace and gift that is given is given in the Trinity, from the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit. as the grace given is from the Father through the Son, so we can have no communion in the gift except in the Holy Spirit. For it is when we partake of him that we have the love of the Father, and the grace of the Son and the communion of the Spirit himself (Ad Serap. 1.30).

This is deepened and reinforced with the help of the concept of perichōrēsis. This enables us to think of the Triunity of God both in terms of the mutual containing of the divine Persons and the reciprocal interpenetration of their distinctive activities and think of them in perichoretic circularity and wholeness. They are not only Triune in Being but Triune in Activity.

In every creative and redemptive act the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit operate together in fellowship with one another but in ways peculiar to each. The primary distinction is made in the divine economy in that it was the Son or Word of God who became incarnate, was born of Mary, crucified under Pontius Pilate. It is in the light of what he himself revealed about his relation to the Father and the Spirit that we are able to discern something of the way in which the Father and Spirit participated in the economy of redemption. It is in the activity of the economic Trinity that we learn something of the activity of the ontological Trinity since the pattern of coactivity in the economy us a real reflection of the pattern of coactivity in the ontological Trinity. Indeed it is more than a reflection for it grounded in it and flows from it.

We cannot say exactly what the Father and Spirit do, but we can say that they participate in ways appropriate to their distinctive natures and properties (199). And we cannot but hold that they continue to participate in the saving work of God’s Love. We can also say that Jesus Christ is the fulfilment of God’s eternal purpose for his creation, that in him all things in heaven and earth will be reconciled. We can say something of his participation as the Word and Wisdom of God in the creation of all things, and in the covenant of grace established by God as the inner basis and framework of the created order.

There are two other considerations. First, the fact that it was God the Son who became incarnate for us sets aside as theologically unentertainable any other possibility such as the Father or Spirit becoming incarnate. The actuality of God’s exclusive revelation in the incarnation decides the hypothetical question. It also rules out any suggestion that there may still be a Deus absconditus behind the back of Jesus Christ. We cannot argue theologically from what God has done to what we think he might otherwise have done. That would presuppose that there is only a transient functional and not an ontological relation between the economic self-revelation of God consummated in him and what God is antecedently and eternally in himself. That is why Karl Rahner insisted so strongly that the economic Trinity is the immanent Trinity, although as we have noted that ‘is’ may not be construed in a logically necessary or reversible way (200).   

Secondly, the so-called ‘law of appropriations’ brought in by Latin theology falls completely away as otiose and damaging to the intrinsic truth of Christ who constitutes the one revelation of the Father and the one way by which we can go to the Father. The idea that certain attributes of activities common to the whole Trinity may be assigned or ‘appropriated’ to one Person falls completely away as an idea both otiose and damaging to the truth of Christ as the one revelation of the Father and the one way to the Father. All God’s acts are acts of the Trinity in Unity and of the Unity in Trinity. Each Person acts without any surrender of his distinctive hypostatic properties so that the problem addressed by the principle of appropriations need not have arisen in the first place. This is the way Barth restated the doctrine by appropriating ‘creation’, ‘reconciliation’, and ‘redemption’ to the hypostatic distinction between Father, Son and Holy Spirit, in which the order of God’s economic self-revelation is grounded in the order of the ontological Trinity.

The perichoretic coordination and unity of God’s saving purposes have the effect of setting trinitarian theology upon a sure basis in the homousial and inter-hypostatic relations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit as they are revealed in the irreversible events of the economy of redemption. Any idea which would make the incarnation an adventitious or arbitrary event as one among other possibilities would undermine the ground of soteriological reality in the essential relation between the incarnate self-revelation of God and the Truth of God as he ever is in his Triune Being.

To close, we may recall the contribution made by John Calvin drawing on Gregory Nazianzen: ‘I cannot think if the One without immediately being surrounded by the radiance of the Three; nor can I discern the Three without an once being carried back to the One… (Orat. 40:31 and Inst. I, 13.6); ‘To us there is one God and one Godhead… three suns joined to each other’ (Orat. 31:14).