Friday, April 11, 2008

Perichoresis in the Gospel According to John

I'm due to preach this Sunday on John 14:7-14. In that remarkable passage, Jesus tells Philip that to see him is to see the Father because he is in the Father and the Father in him. Jesus also explained that he performed sign-miracles because the Father who dwelt in him did the works. Here we are given a remarkable insight into the relations between the Father and Son in the Trinity. Theologians speak of this as the co-inherence of the persons of the Trinity or perichoresis. The Father, Son and Holy Spirit each occupy the same divine space. Each shares the same eternal being. The Father dwells in the Son and the Son dwells in the Father. Father and Son dwell in the Spirit, who in turn indwells the Father and the Son. John of Damascus reflects on this with great precision and care,
"The subsistences dwell and are established firmly in one another. For they are inseparable and cannot part from one another, but keep to their separate courses within one another, without coalescing or mingling, but cleaving to each other. For the Son is in the Father and the Spirit: and the Spirit in the Father and the Son: and the Father in the Son and the Spirit, but there is no coalescence or commingling or confusion. And there is one and the same motion: for there is one impulse and one motion of the three subsistences, which is not to be observed in any created nature." (An Exposition of the Orthodox Faith Book I, Chapter 14. Properties of the divine nature (see full text here).
The biblical revelation of the co-inherence of Father, Son and Holy Spirit gives us an window into the intimate and loving communion that exists between the persons of the Trinity. Each is not merely with the other, each is in the other. The life of each one is bound up in the life of the others. Donald Macloed suggests that the one flesh union of husband and wife in marriage, which itself reflects the union between Christ and the church gives us small hint into the meaning of perichoresis. But he knows that human analogies and even the analogy of Christ and the church can only take us so far.
"The appropriateness of the marriage metaphor stems from the fact that marriage is a real confluence of two distinct lives; and that, at its most intense moments, it point to a deep human striving towards a degree of appropriation, penetration and mutuality which remains unattainable and yet always beckons. In the divine existence, there are neither physical nor mental barriers to complete co-inherence. The mutual understanding is complete; the experience of love is complete; the sharing is of common purpose is complete; the co-operative involvement in creation and redemption is complete." (The Person of Christ, IVP, 1998, p. 141 & 142).
Such is depth of the divine perichoresis that the external acts of the Trinity are undivided. Each shares in the work of the other, although each makes a distinctive contribution to the divine acts. That is why Jesus said that the Father who dwelt in him did the miraculous works. On one level, they were the acts of the Son as he turned water into wine, caused the lame to walk, opened the eyes of the blind and raised Lazarus from the dead. But on another level, the Father who indwelt the Son was working in and through him. We should not overlook the role of the Spirit. According to Luke 4:18ff (following Isaiah 61:1), Jesus was anointed by the Spirit to "open the eyes of the blind" and so on. In each of Jesus' works, the Father and Spirit were also active.
In terms of the work of redemption, the Father gave up his Son to suffering of the cross. The Son also gave himself for us when he offered himself to God by the eternal Spirit. That is why there was no division in the Trinity when the Father forsook the Son at Golgotha. Father and Son remained one in being, love and purpose even as it pleased the Father to bruise his Son and put him to grief for our sins. The mystery of divine perichoresis remained intact. Maybe we could even say that the perichoretic union was never more completely expressed than when God was in Christ reconcling the world to himself. The Son went to the cross that the world might know that he loved the Father (John 14:31). The Father loved the Son becasue he laid down his life for us (John 10:17).
Because of their co-inherence, to know one person of the Trinity is to know the others as well. The Father is the Father of the Son and cannot be known apart from him. The Son comes to us as one sent by the Father. The Spirit is the Spirit of the Father and the Son, who brings us into fellowship with God in Christ. The one God comes to us in his threeness and the three persons are disclosed as the one God. That is why Jesus said to Philip, "He who has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, 'Show us the Father'?" (John 14:9). This brings us to the words of Gregory of Nazianzus, that so greatly delighed John Calvin,
"No sooner do I conceive of the One than I am illumined by the Splendour of the Three; no sooner do I distinguish Them than I am carried back to the One. When I think of any One of the Three I think of Him as the Whole, and my eyes are filled, and the greater part of what I am thinking of escapes me. I cannot grasp the greatness of That One so as to attribute a greater greatness to the Rest. When I contemplate the Three together, I see but one torch, and cannot divide or measure out the Undivided Light." Orations 40.41 (here).
Jesus said, "believe the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in me, and I in him." (John 10:38).
Almighty God, to Thee
Be endless honours done,
The undivided Three,
And the mysterious One:
Where reason fails, with all her powers,
There faith prevails, and love adores.
(Isaac Watts, 1674-1748)

No comments: