By Neil Earle
A pastor asked his church: “Is God the happiest being imaginable?”
Logically, and academically, the congregation was constrained to say, Yes.
He asked another question: “But isn’t God not just happy but joyfully, zestfully and radiantly happy?” Again, the group was constrained to answer in the affirmative.
The pastor paused for his punch line: “Then what’s wrong with the churches?”
It’s a good question, especially when we consider perichoresis. Perichoresis? What’s that you say? Perichoresis is one of those Greek theological words it’s good for Christians to know about, a word along the lines of agape, logos, Philadelphia, caritas, etc.
Perichoresis as a teaching is the brainchild of one John of Damsacus, a bright Christian thinker who lived in the early 700s AD. He popualrized the term but the teaching was there all along. He explained more fully how the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit exist as one and yet three. He described it as a mutual interdependence or a “mutual indwelling” of each in the other and the other in each. Something only God could do.
If this seems mystical and mysterious, well – it is, a little. But the concept is also very biblical. Think about how often similar themes are sounded in John’s Gospel. For example, there is Jesus giving his final prayer in John 17. Speaking of his fondest wish for the church Jesus said, “That all of them may be one, Father, just as you are in me and I am in you. May they also be in us so that the world may believe...I in them and you in me – so that they may be brought to complete unity” (verses 21-23).
Earlier Jesus had said, “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you…Anyone who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love him and show myself to him…and my Father will love them and we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:20-23).
These are precious and warm gold nuggets of Scripture, some of Jesus’ most personal and intimate teaching. Yet we don’t give them as much attention as we should because they seem so…well, so wooly, so intangible, so “out there” as we say today.
I know. I used to feel that way myself. But it was not like that for the Greek Christians who had the privilege to hand on the New Testament writings. They had a word for this complete intimacy of unity that Jesus spoke about and that word was – you guessed it – perichoresis. Let’s listen to a fine Anglican theologian explain how all of this fits. “Perichorseis,” says Alistair McGrath, “refers to the manner in which the three persons of the Trinity relate to one another. The concept of perichoresis allows the individuality of the persons to be maintained, while insisting that each person shares in the life of the other two” (Christian Theology: An Introduction, page 298).
What makes the idea so valuable is that Christians are able to be faithful to the testimony of Scripture that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit – the Baptism formula – and yet believe that God is ONE. There is a mutual interrelationship so close that it is compared to the sun and its brightness. When you look at the sun what do you see – the sun or the brightness? Answer – it is pretty much the same except there is a distinction. So Christians were able to explain as early as the 200s that God is One and in some wonderful way he is three.
McGrath cites the fact that Christians like to use the phrase “community of being.” And this, he says clearly, has implications for human relationships, for the church in the world and the church among itself. Perichoresis is a community of being, says McGrath “in which all is shared, united, and mutually exchanged. Father, Son and Holy Spirit are not three isolated and diverging compartments of a Godhead, like three subsidiary components of an international corporation. Rather, they are differentiations within the Godhead, which become evident within the [working out] of salvation and the human experience of redemption and grace.”
At Christ’s baptism the Spirit descended upon Jesus as a dove while a voice from heaven said, This is my beloved Son (Matthew 3:16-17). Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Paul told Christians: “Because you are sons, God sent the Spirit of his Son into our hearts, the Spirit who cries out, Abba, Father” (Galatians 4:6). There it is again 1, 2, 3. long before it was formalized by the Council of Nicea in 325 AD.
In practical terms perichoresis confirms what all Christians sense and feel—that our God is a relational being. That is why relationships are so important in the body of Christ and how the church – apt reminder for Black History Month – is supposed to be one in Spirit all around the world.
But there is one other marvelous thing about Perichoresis. The word can be broken into two parts – peri (Greek: about, through) and choresis, from which we get the word “choreography” The relationships among the Godhead are not static and solemn but – as the pastor described – like a form of dance in which there is mutual, joyful interaction, happiness brimful and running over. Thus, in some ways, to be a Christian is to be invited to a divine dance, a dance that has been going on for all eternity.
Come on, everyone. Let’s get in step with the music.