Inter-Embracing and Perichoresis – Dr Marty Folsom

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Intra-Embracing and Perichoresis      Dr. Marty Folsom

Describing “One God in three persons” does not automatically connect us to relating to that God who engages us. Yet, knowing and being known by this God is the central task of the biblical story. We are invited by the Jesus in the Bible to share this life, to abide in the shared love of the Triune God, and to share a koinonia that makes joy complete by the work of the Spirit. To that end, we wrestle with words to describe the reality of God’s way of being that it might encircle and enliven ours.

The Bible declares there is One God. This is not a natural knowledge based in an observation of the material world; it is God’s own self-testimony. We encounter that “One God” who is a given in the Bible, attested to in the Old Testament proclamation, “Hear oh Israel, the Lord our God is one God.” There are not three Gods; there is One God. These three Persons become more obvious in the New Testament, but in the Old Testament are seen in the Creator Father, the awaited Messiah, and the Spirit of God who weaves in and out of the story from the first breath of creation.

The New Testament still affirms One God. Yet Jesus refracts like a prism—revealing Himself as God, unveiling that He is One with His Father, and promising that the Spirit will come to be the ongoing Agent as God. The whole of God will still be dwelling in us. The three revealed by Jesus as Father, Son, and Spirit are the One God. To confess, “I believe in the Father” is already to confess that He has a Son. The Oneness of God is not without distinction as three Persons; yet each Person is absolutely inseparable from the others.

How can we describe this relational unity? The word perichoresis is a term used to explore the idea of a unified God as three inter-penetrating Persons who cannot be separated. In reading John Zizioulas this week, I found he uses the term inter-embracing as an explanation of perichoresis ( I would like to make a few comments.

To maintain the unity of God’s being, I would change inter- to intra-. Inter- designates that a relation between two or more elements has space for betweenness. Intra- designates that something is internal to one thing or being. We need strong images of the integrity of the Trinity. So if we say intra-embracing, we more clearly maintain the one inseparable life of the God that is indivisible, not able to be divided, and we exclude a “between” that implies that this unified life is not essentially connected.

I really like the –embracing component. This word feels more personal, tender, intentional, and depicts holding the other with love. This is more intimate than some other images. Mutual interpenetration can almost feel invasive, an entry without necessarily implying fondness and care. Similarly, co-indwelling or mutual indwelling, while having a sense of continual abiding in each other, does not give a sense of the love that fills that indwelling. These terms do hint at the mutual abiding described in John 15, focused there mostly between Jesus and humans. Co-inhering also has the feeling of existing together, but not inescapably extending their love as the essential manner of divine existence.

To embrace is, no doubt, a human term. But it images an act that fulfills an intent to know and love the other. That image reflects the Gospel of John, with the Father and Son knowing and loving each other as the One God. We need language that can allow us to be grasped by that reality. The loving unity that exists in God’s internal embrace is one from which we derive a picture of the Church of Jesus Christ as a harmony of diverse persons. By sharing God’s life, we are then invited to an inter-embracing of each other as we are in Christ by the Spirit as the Father’s children.

Oliver Crisp speaks of perichoresis as a theological black box (Oliver D. Crisp, PROBLEMS WITH PERICHORESIS, Tyndale Bulletin 56.1 (2005) 119-140). His concerns are with articulating a proper theology of perichoresis for the two natures of Christ, as well as describing the Persons of the Trinity. He is skeptical as he engages the philosophical problems he and others see. For him and other critics, the bottom line is that God is mysterious and we are making claims too bold. There is also a concern that theologians take ideas from human experience and project onto the internal relations of the Trinity—this is in philosophy, a human wisdom used to describe God, not theology. We can confidently affirm that we do not want to project human ideas onto God. We also cannot see philosophers as the final arbiters of the use of theological language. Jesus has an agenda to make known His Father and the love they share in order to enter their life as our new home. The Spirit brings us into that. All consequent thinking that seeks to realize that in life is merely a discovery and response to Grace as God’s personal presence. We do not need definitions or descriptions that do not produce the dynamic of entering into the life so graciously offered.

My desire is to find contemporary language that reflects the biblical language. The Father is in the Son and the Son is in the Father. They concurrently love each other. They are not the same person; they are distinct while they are One. We can leave plenty of room for mystery here, but also affirm that they are personally and knowingly inseparable with a unique love that is constituted by and sustained in this relation. They have a love that both goes out to the other in an embrace, as well as receives the embrace of the other. This personal activity of solidarity never disappears. The One God, including the Spirit who is the Spirit of the Father and Son, together confirm their participation in this one life of love.

Why all this clarification? I look for terms that depart from the abstract realm of ideas and open a door to what the Bible seems to intend—our abiding in the love of the One God as Christ is in us and we are in Him. His act of restoration for humanity embraces us into a relation that is derivative of God’s life, and shares it as a gift—the Grace of God’s own embrace now comes to us. Until we can use this language of intra-embracing for God and inter-embracing for us, overcoming the “separating between” of sin, we will be left in abstractions about God and our communion with God and one another that will not connect. I am not trying to project onto God, be philosophically naive, or claim to have finally captured the essence of God’s being. We need to keep developing our language as a tool of communication to help us read the Bible, engage in prayer, and live in community. God has communicated with us in Person, and because God has revealed Godself as a being in relation, the intra-embracing in God’s life becomes extra-embracing towards us. In the coming of Christ to bring us to the Father, and in the activity of the Spirit who opens us to be embraced by the One God, we are invited into a life of love so that we receive the promise of the One who said, “And we will come to them and make our home with them” (John 14:23).