The concept of perichoresis

In this post, Paul Molnar overviews the concept of perichoresis as presented by Thomas F. Torrance in "Trinity in Unity and Unity in Trinity," Chapter 7 of "The Christian Doctrine of God: One Being Three Persons" (1996). This post was written originally for a session of the T.F. Torrance Reading Group.

Though the concept of perichoresis appears throughout The Christian Doctrine of God, it is emphasized and clarified in Chapter 7 in reference to the immanent (ontological) Trinity as Torrance understands our knowledge of God as that is shaped soteriologicallyThat in itself is an extremely important point because many people are confused about perichoresis, thinking it applies to God’s relations with us when it does not. Any such idea would make God dependent on us or confuse God with us.

As Torrance notes, perichoresis originates from the combination of the Greek words chora (χώρα, meaning “space” or “room”) and chorein (χώρειν, meaning “to contain”, “to make room”, or “to go forward”), thus indicating a kind of “mutual containing or enveloping of realities” which can be described as a type of “coinherence or coindwelling” (102). In advancing this understanding, Torrance follows both Athanasius and Hilary. Though Athanasius did not use the word perichoresis (it came later), he did put forth its basis by referring to such concepts as “I am in the Father and the Father in me” (John 14.11). Hilary, who did use the term, took perichoresis to mean "to make room for”, and "to go to” or “to contain.” 

Torrance's understanding of perichoresis contrasts with ones that confuse the term χωρέω with χορεύω "to dance" (as in the Greek word χορός or chorus), asserting that perichoresis refers to the "divine dance." Catherine Mowry LaCugna makes this mistake in God For Us The Trinity and Christian Life. where she argues that perichoresis, rather than referring to God’s inner life, refers to the “divine life as all creatures partake and literally exist in it” (274). Hence, she claims that “the exodus of all persons from God and the return of all to God is the divine dance in which God and we are eternal partners” (304). The pantheistic overtone in her remarks is obvious and become explicit when she claims “The life of God is not something that belongs to God alone. Trinitarian life is also our life” (228), and “The doctrine of the Trinity is not ultimately a teaching about ‘God’ but a teaching about God’s life with us and our life with each other” (224). 

Torrance is very clear on the first page of Chapter 7 that perichoresis refers precisely to the inner life of the Trinity. Thus, the term is meant to express “something of the mystery of the Holy Trinity in respect of the coinherent way in which the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist in one another and dwell in one another as one God, three Persons” (168). Torrance rightly insists on understanding perichoresis dynamically and not statically so that “Each Person contains the one God in virtue of his relation to the others as well as his relation to himself for they wholly coexist and inexist in one another. Human beings do not exist within one another, but this is precisely what the divine Persons of the Holy Trinity do” (170-1). 

Importantly, Torrance notes that Gregory Nazianzen used perichoresis to refer to the divine and human natures in Christ without of course suggesting that the human nature interpenetrated the divine nature. But Torrance said once this term was used to refer to the trinitarian relations mutually containing each other it could no longer be used in Christology without leading to confusion regarding the person of Christ. Whenever that happened Torrance thought it led to some form of “docetic rationalising and depreciating of the humanity of Christ” (102). 

Torrance is clear that since God is Spirit, perichoresis must be understood in a “wholly spiritual and intensely personal way as the eternal movement of Love or the Communion of Love which the Holy Trinity ever is within himself, and in his active relations toward us through the Holy Spirit” (171).

From here Torrance develops five important implications of the concept of perichoresis for the doctrine of the Trinity.

1) God is God only as he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit

Perichoresis “enables us to appreciate more fully the truth that the Holy Trinity is completely self-grounded in his own ultimate Reality, and that God’s self-revelation is a self-enclosed novum which may be known and interpreted only on its own ground and out of itself” (173).  This is an enormously important point. If Torrance is right, and I think he is, then this means we have no objective knowledge of God unless we know God precisely as the eternal Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. That is why he insists that “God is God only as he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and cannot be conceived by us truly otherwise” (174). This is extremely important because it means that the truth of our knowledge of God comes only through our encounter with Christ and through the power of the Holy Spirit uniting us to Christ and thus to the Father. This implies that all attempts by us to re-name God for social, political, linguistic, or religious reasons are exposed as false, in that they all ground knowledge of God in us instead of in the eternal Trinity! That includes the approaches by McFague, LaCugna, Elizabeth Johnson, Rahner and others.

For Torrance, while each of the Persons is fully God, it is only as the one indivisibly whole Trinity that God is truly known. Thus, “No one Person is knowable or known apart from the others. Due to their perichoretic onto-relations with one another in which they have their Being in one another, the Father is not truly known apart from the Son and the Holy Spirit; the Son is not truly known apart from the Father and the Holy Spirit; and the Holy Spirit is not truly known apart from the Father and the Son” (174).  This calls into question one of Rahner’s most basic insights which was that all concepts of God spring from the experience of the nameless. 

2) Perichoresis does not dissolve, it establishes the distinctions between the three divine Persons

While Colin Gunton mistakenly claimed that Torrance flattened out the distinction of the Persons within the Trinity, Torrance actually claimed that “The concept of perichoresis deepens and strengthens our understanding of the hypostatic distinctions within the Trinity” (175).  He said “it does not dissolve the distinctions between the three divine Persons... it establishes their distinctions” in the unity of love and communion that God is as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

All three Persons do not differ as to their being but only in the order that obtains in their inner relations.  There is thus priority of the Father in the order of relations. “Hence the priory or Monarchy of the Father within the Holy Trinity 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’, which is the order manifest in the incarnation... and is reflected in the sending of the Holy Spirit by the Father in the name of the Son” (176).

Torrance thus clearly maintains what Barth obscured in CD IV/1 with his idea that there is a prius and posterius and a super and subordination within the eternal Trinity.  gainst this Torrance insists that “the inner trinitarian order is not to be understood in an ontologically differential way, for it does not apply to the Being or the Deity of the divine Persons which each individually and all together have absolutely in common, but only to the mysterious ‘disposition or economy’ which they have among themselves within the unity of the Godhead, distinguished by position and not status, by form and not being, by sequence and not power, for they are fully and perfectly equal” (176). Torrance thus firmly rejects any idea that the Father is the cause of the deity of the Son and Spirit (see pp. 178-9). This is extremely important because so many even today do not get this point.

This therefore eliminates all versions of subordinationism within the eternal Trinity. Hence Torrance claimed: “Thus while we think of the Father within the Trinity as the Principle or Ἀρχή of Deity (in the sense of Monarchia not restricted to one Person, which we shall consider shortly), that is not to be taken to mean that he is the Source (Ἀρχή) or Cause (Αἰτία) of the divine Being (τὸ εἶναι) of the Son and the Spirit, but in respect simply of his being Unoriginate or Father, or expressed negatively, in respect of his not being a Son, although all that the Son has the Father has except Sonship. This does not derogate from the Deity of the Son or of the Spirit, any more than it violates the real distinctions within the Triune Being of God, so that no room is left for either a Sabellian modalism or an Arian subordinationism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity” (180).

Consequently, the statement by Jesus in John 14:28 that the “Father is greater than I” is not to be understood “ontologically but soteriologically, or economically” (180).  And this means that “the subjection of Christ to the Father in his incarnate economy as the suffering and obedient Servant cannot be read back into the eternal hypostatic relations and distinctions subsisting in the Holy Trinity” (180).  It is just this reading back into the Trinity that has led to the many discussions of the proper relation between election and the Trinity over the last 20 years or so.

3) Perichoresis and the divine Monarchy

While Torrance maintained that Perichoresis strengthened the distinction of Persons within the Trinity, he also held that it had important implications for the divine Monarchia. Like many church Fathers Torrance appealed to Matt. 11:27 to stress that the unique Father/Son relation was closed to us and opened to us only by virtue of the incarnation so that through union with Christ in faith and through the Spirit we may know the Father through the Son.

On this basis he says: “our knowing of God engages in a perichoretic circular movement from Unity to Trinity and from Trinity to Unity, for God is God only as he is Father, Son and Holy Spirit, and cannot be conceived by us truly otherwise. This means that we understand the Monarchy of God not in a partitive way moving linearly, as it were, from one divine Person to Another, but in the same holistic way as we know the Trinity, although, as we have been trying to do, we may develop modes of thought and speech with which to bring out the distinctive individualities and objectivities of the three divine Persons, as the Cappadocian theologians sought to do while seeking to steer a way between the extremes of unipersonalism and tritheism” (181).

With this in mind Torrance notes that Father has two senses: Frist, it can refer to the Godhead. Second, it can refer to the person of the Father. At this point Torrance questions the understanding of the Cappadocians. Instead of allowing the homoousion to dictate the meaning of the Monarchia in relation to the Persons of the Trinity, they tended to make “the uncaused Person of the Father the Cause or Source of the Deity” (181). This, Torrance thinks, tended to weaken “the Athanasian axiom that whatever we say of the Father we say of the Son and the Spirit except ‘Father’” (181).  Against the Origenist idea that the Father alone was the “Principle, Origin or Source,” an idea which led to the Arian position, Athanasius “held that since the whole Godhead is in the Son and in the Spirit, they must be included with the Father in the one originless Source or Ἀρχή of the Holy Trinity” (181). This is a monumental insight because it eliminates the need for the Filioque at root. Locating the Monarchia in the Person of the Father instead of the being of the three Persons as homoousios means that they undercut the profound personal sense of ousia stressed at Nicaea in its reference to the personal relations of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

Put simply, Torrance is claiming that for Athanasius “since the whole Godhead is in the Son and in the Spirit, they must be included with the Father in the one originless Source or Ἀρχή of the Holy Trinity” (181). If theologians had followed Athanasius, then the whole problem of the Filioque never would have arisen.

Torrance opposed any Origenist suggestion of “a hierarchical structure within the Godhead” (182). He spells out how and why it is proper to think that the Son was begotten of the Being of the Father just as the Holy Spirit proceeded from the Father through the Son because of their perichoretic dynamic unity in distinction. There is therefore only one Arche within the Godhead and “not two Ἀρχαί” (183).  One could not therefore define the oneness of God by referring to the Father alone just because God is a Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity. And if that is so, then the oneness of God must be located in the being in relation of the three persons who are equal in dignity, majesty and deity.

Torrance explains that Epiphanius also held that the Monarchy was to be found in the whole Godhead and not only in the Father as the cause of the deity of the Son and Spirit. He even cites Augustine to make his point: “‘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 three, less than the Trinity itself’” (184).

4) Perichoresis and the procession of the Holy Spirit

In the fourth section, Torrance specifically focuses on the issues surrounding the Filioque. He begins by returning to his assertion that the Father refers on the one hand to the Godhead absolutely, and relatively to the Person of the Father within the Trinity. It was the “conflation” of these two senses that led to the Cappadocian mistake of regarding the Monarchy as deriving from the Person of the Father instead of from the Being of the Father as stressed at Nicaea. This approach undercut the homoousion of the Spirit in relation to the Father and Son. It is this problem that led the Western Church to unecumenically insert the ex Patre filioque into the Creed. That’s what created the impasse between East and West.

Without the filioque, the Western theologians held that the Son’s full deity would be undermined with a subordinationist view that the Son was adopted and not really God from God. Eastern theologians held that any idea that the Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son meant that there would be two ultimate principles in God. And that would undermine God’s oneness. The view in the East was defended by distinguishing the missions from the processions.  Associated with this thinking was the Basilian and Palamite distinction between the essence and energies of God. This was a problem because with this distinction we would never know God as he is in himself. We would only know his energies.  Torrance thinks this view is indebted to Origen and drives a wedge between the immanent and economic Trinity (187).  

Ultimately, this thinking detracts from “a realist doctrine of the Holy Spirit and from a realist conception of the homoousial and perichoretic interpenetration of the three divine Persons in one another in accordance with which each Person is whole God and all three are together the one Triune God” (187). This proper position was advocated by Athanasius. Here is where Torrance’s application of perichoresis to the immanent Trinity solves the need for the filioque in the first place because “The Spirit is from the Father but from the Father in the Son. Since the Holy Spirit like the Son is of the Being of God, and belongs to the Son, since he is in the Being of the Father and in the Being of the Son, he could not but proceed from or out of the Being of God inseparably from and through the Son” (188). All of this is also bound up with the generation of the Son from the Father which is a mystery that cannot be explained from the human side. So, for Athanasius, it is irreverent to ask “how the Spirit proceeds from God” (188).

Since Son and Spirit are both from the Being of God, therefore the idea that the Spirit could derive from the Being of the Son never even could have arisen. So, one could never espouse an idea that there are two sources in God for the Spirit. Torrance goes one to explain why it is such mistake to think of a “derived Deity” because the Council of Constantinople spoke of the Spirit as of one and the same being as the Father. Any notion of the Son and Spirit deriving their deity from the Father always means subordinationism (189).

So, the bottom line is that if we apply the doctrine of Perichoresis to the doctrine of the Trinity and the issues of the divine Monarchy, then we must affirm the oneness of God in his Trinity and his Trinity in his unity.  Put another way: “If we take seriously the understanding of the Trinity in Unity and the Unity in Trinity in which each Person is perfectly and wholly God, and in which all three Persons perichoretically penetrate and contain one another, then we cannot but think of the procession of Holy Spirit from the Father through the Son, for the Son belongs to the Being of the Father, and the Spirit belongs to and is inseparable from the Being of the Father and of the Son. In proceeding from the Being of the Father, however, the Holy Spirit proceeds from the One Being which belongs to the Son and to the Spirit as well as to the Father, and which belongs to all of them together as well as to each one of them, for each one considered in himself is true God without any qualification. The Spirit proceeds perichoretically from the Father, that is, from out of the mutual relations within the one Being of the Holy Trinity in which the Father contains the Son and is himself contained by the Spirit” (190). This then is one of the key points of this chapter which stresses the importance of holding to the Unity in Trinity and Trinity and Unity of the Trinity when thinking about God.

Torrance returns to his basic theological position once more which is that all knowledge of God comes to us only from God himself (the eternal Trinity) as God reveals himself to us in his Word and Spirit in the economy.  So, he claims that the “expressions, Fatherhood, Sonship and Procession, are used not because they have been applied by us to the Godhead but because, as Pseudo-Cyril pointed out, ‘they are communicated to us by the Godhead’” (193).  They denote ineffable relations within God himself as God himself has disclosed that to us. Here Torrance makes an important point often missed in contemporary discussions of the Trinity, namely, that “we can no more offer an account of the ‘how’ of these divine relations and actions than we can we define the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit and delimit them from one another” (193). This is why, at this point, Athanasius used to say “Thus far human knowledge goes. Here the cherubim spread the covering of their wings” (193).

5) Perichoresis and the coactivity of the Trinity

 In this fifth and final point, Torrance points out that with these technical theological concepts we are not just thinking concepts in a static way. Rather, “Theological concepts are used aright when we do not think the concepts themselves, thereby identifying them with the truth, but think through them of the realities or truths which they are meant to intend beyond themselves” (194).

Torrance then develops the important idea that God’s being and acts are one and applies this to the “I am” sayings of Jesus in the Gospel of John. So, he says “Throughout this fifth Chapter of St John’s Gospel we have recorded words of Jesus concerning a oneness in act as well as in being between himself and the Father, even in respect of the ultimate acts of God in resurrection and judgment, for the Father has given the Son both to have life in himself and to do all that he the Father does. That is to say, here we are told that the message of the Gospel, the truth of Jesus, is grounded in and arises out of complete coinherence in being and act between the Father and the Son” (195).  In this sense Jesus is the Way, the Truth and the Life and there is no way to the Father except through him.

Unlike many contemporaries, Torrance is extremely careful noting that we know God in himself in knowing Jesus because there is no God behind the back of Jesus. Therefore, while “not everything that took place in the historical economy can be read back into eternity, the intrinsic oneness between the coactivity of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit in the economic Trinity and their coactivity in the ontological Trinity are soteriologically and epistemologically absolutely essential” (198-9). From here he makes these key points:

First, “the fact that in God’s eternal purpose it was God the Son, not God the Father and not God the Holy Spirit, who became incarnate for us and our salvation once for all, sets aside as evangelically and theologically unentertainable any other alternative such as the possibility that the Father or the Holy Spirit could have or might have become incarnate” (199).

Second, “in view of the complete perichoretic interpenetration of the three divine Persons and their distinctive activities in one another, the so-called ‘law of appropriations’ brought in by Latin theology to redress an unbalanced essentialist approach to the doctrine of the Trinity from the One Being of God, which obscured the evangelical approach from the economic Trinity, falls completely away as an idea that is both otiose and damaging to the intrinsic truth of Christ who, as the Word and only begotten Son of God, constitutes the one revelation of the Father and the one way by which we can go to the Father” (200). Regarding this point, Torrance noted that Barth restated the doctrine of appropriations in a way which respected the fact that our only access to the eternal Trinity is through the economic trinitarian self-revelation we meet in Christ through the Spirit (200). He then sums up his thinking with the words of Gregory Nazianzen:

“I cannot think of the One without immediately being surrounded by the radiance of the Three; nor can I discern the Three without at once being carried back to the One. When I think of the Three I think of him as a Whole... cannot grasp the greatness of the One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one Luminary, and cannot divide or measure out the undivided Light” (201).


Torrance turns to Calvin and Athanasius to sum up the whole point of the Chapter 7, and says the fact that God is a Unity in Trinity and Trinity in Unity means that the being of God is totally common to the three Persons so that with Calvin he could say: “while he thought of the whole Being of God as dwelling in each Person, he thought of each Person and of all three Persons, with their differentiating properties and in their mutual interrelations, as dwelling hypostatically and consubstantially in the one indivisible Being of God. This in solidum (as a whole) concept enabled Calvin to give firm expression to the intrinsically interpersonal cohesion of the Three in One and One in Three, in which there is no confusion or separation between the Persons” (202). Then with Athanasius, Torrance could say: “The whole Being of God belongs to each Person as it belongs to all three Persons, and belongs to all three Persons as it belongs to each Person, and so the Unity of God, utterly simple though it is, is to be understood not in an abstract generic way, nor as an undifferentiated oneness, but as the indivisible consubstantial Communion of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit” (202).