This term (and its Latin equivalent, ‘circumencessio, circuminsessio‘), refers to the mutual indwelling, or coinherence, of the persons of the Trinity.
We rightly distinguish between the persons of the Trinity – Father, Son and Holy Spirit. They are distinct, but not separate. Each indwells the others. They interpenetrate one another. Their operations are inseparable.
In popular thinking, perichoresis is often understood in terms of ‘dance’. The attraction here is that this enables the concept to be pictured – dramatised, even. But we need to go further than this, for the divine persons should not be understood as merely ‘around’ one another, but rather ‘within’ one another.
Donald MacLeod explains:
‘Crudely put…: the three persons occupy the same space. Where the One is, the Other is. They co-inhere in each other. They live in and around and through each other. They move together. They sit together in the centre of the same throne. They are, each, the centre of that one and the same throne.’ (A Faith To Live By)
As Kevin DeYoung writes:
‘[It is] not that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit waltz in step with each other, but that they coinhere in such a way that the persons are always and forever with and in one another, yet without merging, blending, or confusion.’
S.M. Smith (EDB, 2nd ed.) quotes Karl Barth:
‘The divine modes of being mutually condition and permeate one another so completely that one is always in the other two.’
The Puritan Thomas Goodwin referred to
‘the three persons as a “society among themselves” whereby there is complete happiness among, rejoicing in, glorifying of, and speaking to each other.’ (In Beeke & Jones, A Puritan Theology, p90f)
Beeke & Jones add:
‘One passage that the Puritans frequently turned to was Proverbs 8:30 (“Then I was by him, as one brought up with him: and I was daily his delight, rejoicing always before him”), which they understood christologically to describe the intratrinitarian relations from eternity. Goodwin turns to this passage in order to highlight the mutual joy that each person finds in the others. In particular, the Father delighted that He had begotten such a Son as the Son of God, one coeternal with Him. Thomas Manton likewise refers to this passage and speaks of the “mutual familiarity, delight, and complacency which the divine persons have in one another.” Not only is there a complete knowledge of and delight in one another, but the persons of the Trinity share alike in the divine sovereignty that is theirs by right (Rev. 3:21). To summarize, this communion between the three persons has reference to the co-indwelling, co-inhering, and mutual interpenetration of the three persons; each person shares fully in the life of the other two persons.’ (p91)
The term has been applied not only in Trinitarian theology but also in Christology. Here, it refers to the interpenetration of Christ’s divine and human natures. According to Smith, the Cappadocian fathers explained this in terms of fire (Christ’s divine nature) causing iron (Christ’s human nature) to glow.
Moltmann ‘contends that because of the perichoresis of the divine in the human it can and must be affirmed that God suffered in the death of Christ.’ (Smith)
Scott McKnight writes that Trinitarian perichoresis helps us to understand what love really is. He applies this to marriage:
‘If this is who God is and what God is, we have another dimension of love. Since God’s relationship is “perichoretic” and since our love participates in God’s way of loving, then marital love is “perichoretic.” That means, above all, that marriage is a relationship of mutual indwelling and interpenetration. Divorce destroys perichoresis, our indwelling of one another.’ (The Sermon on the Mount, p95)
In church life
Donald MacLeod writes:
‘This has clear implications for our church life. Members of the church co-inhere with each other in a similar way. You cannot have a church in which each member is a closed circle. Instead, each member is a circle involved in the circle beside it and positioned in a vast spiritual magnetic-field which links her to every other single member in the body of Christ. If you meet a single believer, you meet the whole church. Every other believer is somehow involved in and linked to that believer. This is a shadow of the profounder reality that where one divine person is, the other divine persons are. Equally, where Christ is, the church is; and where the church is, Christ is.’ (A Faith To Live By)
In addition to the works cited, see:
Theological Primer: Perichoresis (Kevin DeYoung)