T. F. Torrance on Perichoresis (Mutual Indwelling of Persons within the Trinity)

Torrance wants to go beyond the category of substance and applies the term perichoresis (πε�?ιχώ�?ησις, co-inherence, inter-penetrating and mutual indwelling) to highlight the dynamic, spiritual and intensely personal relationships in the Trinity. We are reminded of the model of indwelling love proposed by Augustine. Perichoresis refers to that eternal love between the Father (lover) and the Son (beloved) and the Holy Spirit (Spirit of love that binds both the lover and the beloved).

T. F. Torrance on Perichoresis (Mutual Indwelling of Persons within the Trinity)

Ng Kam Weng

It may be noted that Nicene probably was focusing on the generic meaning of ousia (substance) or homoousia(of same substance) since its immediate concern was to refute Arianism which asserted the Son did not share the same nature/substance as the Father. But theologizing beyond the Nicene context requires a deepening of the term to include the dimension of numerical identity for the term homoousia. Such was what Athanasius discovered when he sought yo draw out the theological significance of Nicene in framing an adequate doctrine of Trinity.

Torrance shares Athanasius’ concern when he warns against a dangerous analogy that can arise if we restrict the term ousia to its generic meaning: The analogy of three different people having a common nature/substance. This analogy gives a distorted picture of the Trinity, where each person only has a portion of the common substance. In turn, the ‘substance’ may also be taken to be a fourth part of the Godhead.

Torrance argues that Athanasius’ understood the Nicene Creed to be teaching about the absolute identity of being (ή ταυτότης τής ο�?σίας) between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. For Torrance, Nicene’s teaching of absolute identity rules out the dangerous analogy mentioned above. At the same time, Nicene does not rule out the idea that internal differentiation characterizes the one Being of God in the form of an eternal Communion in Being between the three divine Persons and insists that the three Persons (hypostases) cannot be estranged from one another, alienated in being, and individually separated from one another like created things.

Torrance builds on Prestige’s earlier insight to define precisely his Trinitarian terms, that is, ousia refers to ‘being’ not simply as that which is but to what it is in respect of its internal reality, while hypostasis refers to ‘being’ not just in its independent subsistence but in its objective otherness. It does not define a relationship in terms of the general and the particular, but in terms of the subject and object. In Torrance’s words, “God one and the same identical ‘substance’ or object, without any division, substitution or differentiation of content, is permanently presented in three distinct objective forms. It is one in content and consciousness, but three to contact and apprehension.”

“The main point that should be taken from this account is that while both ousia and hypostasis describe ‘being’ as such, in the Trinitarian formulation ‘one Being, three Persons’, Being or ο�?σίαis being considered in its internal relations, a Person or �?πόστασιςis being considered in its otherness, i.e. in the objective relations between the Persons. In the case of the Father, this would amount to a distinction between the Father considered absolutely, as he is in himself, and the Father considered relatively to the Son, although of course it is one and the same Fatherly Being that is being considered absolutely in se as ousia and relatively ad alium as hypostasis.”

But Torrance goes further to highlight the relational ontology of the Trinity.

The one triune Being of God is to be thought of, then, as essentially and intrinsically a mutual movement of loving self-communication between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, an intensely personal Communion, an ever-living ever-loving Being, the Being for Others which the three divine Persons have in common. To say that God is intensely or inherently personal does not mean, of course, that he is a Person in the relational sense of the three particular divine Persons in their otherness or objective relations to one another, but rather that God is a fullness of personal Being within himself, just as he is full of Love within himself. He is not less personal, any more than he is less loving, in his one indivisible Being as whole God (őλος Θεός, Athanasius’ expression) than he is in each Person who is true God of true God and is in himself as the Son or the Spirit whole God (őλος Θεός) as well as the Father. He is perfectly One in Three and Three in One. That is the one transcendent personal Being of God who is the creative source of the personal communion which in his outgoing love for others he wants to establish between himself and us. Due to its inherently reciprocal nature, however, we cannot have communion with all three, for they are who they are precisely as one indivisible Being, three inseparable Persons/three inseparable Persons, one indivisible Being.” p133

Torrance wants to go beyond the category of substance and applies the term perichoresis πε�?ιχώ�?ησιςco-inherence, inter-penetrating and mutual indwelling) to highlight the dynamic, spiritual and intensely personal relationships in the Trinity. We are reminded of the model of indwelling love proposed by Augustine. Perichoresis refers to that eternal love between the Father (lover) and the Son (beloved) and the Holy Spirit (Spirit of love that binds both the lover and the beloved).

Perichoresis (which was first used by the Capaddocian Fathers) derives from chora (χώ�?α), the Greek for word ‘space’ or ‘room’, or from (χώ�?ειν) meaning ‘to contain’, ‘to make room’, or ‘to go forward’. It indicates a sort of mutual containing or co-indwelling. The model of co-inherence stresses that each of the hypostases is a complete manifestation of the divine essence. That is to say, every divine attribute applies equally to all three hypostases: all are omnipotent, omniscient, eternal and so on. This doctrine avoids the problem of subordinationism. Gerald Bray, p.158

In these reciprocal relations between the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, the persons mutually indwell or co-inhere or wholly contain one another without diminishing the persons or obliterating their distinctions. Of course such a mode of existence is impossible for created beings, but it can be described thus of God since God who can contain all things without being contained by anything.

Torrance echoes Augustine when he writes,

Since God is Spirit and God is Love, we must understand the perichoresis 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 his homoousial relations with the Father and the Son. In this homoousial way the Holy Spirit is in himself the enhypostatic Love and the Communion of Love in the perichoretic relations between the Father and the Son, and as such is in himself the ground of our communion with God in the Love of the Father and Son (p. 171).

It must be stressed that perichoresis is not a static but a dynamic concept, for it refers to an eternal movement in the Love of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit for one another, which flows outward unceasingly toward us. It must also be insisted that perichoresis is not a speculative concept since it is grounded on our experience of salvation. The phrase “The economic Trinity is the ontological Trinity” aptly captures the truth of the identity between God himself and the content of his saving revelation in Jesus Christ and in the Holy Spirit, and thereby assures us that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ and in his Spirit he is inherently and eternally in himself. Torrance celebrates this insight when he suggests that “the basic conception of perichoresis arises out of joyful belief in Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, and out of worship and thanksgiving for the saving Love of God as Father, Son and Holy Spirit who reconciles us to himself and takes up into Communion with himself. . . On the other hand, perichoresis is a truth about the intimate relations in the divine Life which we cannot but formulate in fear and trembling, with adoration and awe, and in recognition of the poverty and inadequacy of the language we use in trying to put into words understanding of the mystery of the oneness and three-foldness of God’s self-revelation to us. We could not do this were it not for the incarnation of God’s Word in Jesus Christ and his gracious condescension to address us in human forms of thought and speech.”

The term perichoresis safeguards the equality of the Persons of the Trinity and rules out any notion of a ‘before’ and an ‘after’ or of “degrees of Deity’. This perichoretic understanding of the Trinity had the effect of restoring the full doctrine of the Fatherhood of God without importing any element of subordinationism into the hypostatic interrelations between the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit. A perichoresis where the Father, Son and Holy Spirit mutually permeate and actively pass into one another rules out of consideration any conception of the Trinitarian relations arising out of a prior unity, and any conception of a unity deriving from the underived Person of the Father.

I end with an apt summary from Torrance:

When we consider the order of the three divine Persons in this perichoretic way we do indeed think of the Father as first precisely as Father, but not as the Deifier of the Son and the Spirit… This does not derogate from the Deity of 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 subordinationalism in the doctrine of the Holy Trinity. . . . Since no distinction between underived Deity and derived Deity is tenable, there can be no thought of one Person being ontologically or divinely prior to another or subsequent to another. Hence while the Father in virtue of his Fatherhood is first in order, the Father, the Son and the Spirit eternally coexist as three fully co-equal Persons in a perichoretic togetherness and in-each-otherness in such a way that, in accordance with the particular aspect of divine revelation and salvation immediately in view, as in the New Testament Scriptures, there may be an appropriate variation in the Trinitarian order from that given in Baptism, as we find in the benediction, ‘The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God and the communion of the Holy Spirit be with you all.’ Nevertheless both Athanasius and Basil counseled the Church to keep to the order of the divine Persons given in Holy Baptism, if only to counter the damaging heresy of Sabellianism (p.180).

Useful books
Gerald Bray. The Doctrine of God IVP 1993
Thomas F. Torrance. The Christian Doctrine of God, One Being Three Persons T & T Clark 1996.