The Doctrine of the Trinity: Three Perichoretic Persons

trinityA few weeks ago I began a three part series on the Trinity. The first post affirmed God’s oneness. The second began to explicate how the one God is three persons. Today, I finish my series by looking at how the one God in three persons lives and moves in the world he created.

In Perfect Motion: How the Father, Son, and Spirit Work in the World

Because God created the world outside himself, creation is not a part of God. Yet, God in his omnipresence is present to bless, or curse, or to sustain his creation. In all places, at all times, and without diffusion of his deity or fluctuation of his power, God is active in the world.

However, as a triune God, each member of the Trinity performs a unique but unified role in creation. Together Father, Son, and Spirit created the universe; they preserve the cosmos; and they effect salvation for all the ones whom the Father gave the Son before the foundation of the world (see John 17). In short, their external activities are as harmonious, congruent, and seamless as their internal essence.

Two Word Pictures

There are biblical reasons for believing this truth, but let me begin with two word pictures that are used to help approximate God’s triune action. First, theologians have often used the word ‘perichoresis’ to speak of the inner-penetration of the Trinity. The compound word combines peri- (“around”) with chorein (“to make movement from one place or position to another”), from which we get the term choreography. In other words, to help expound the relationship of the Trinity, you might compare Father, Son, and Holy Spirit to a perfectly tuned dance partners. The only trouble with this analogy is that it makes the Trinity sound too much like three disparate persons, instead of one God. This is the weakness of ‘social trinitarianism.’

The second analogy is that of speaker, voice, and effect, where the Father speaks, the Son is the Word spoken, and the Spirit is the empowering effect of the Spoken Word. This word picture draws on Genesis 1 where the Father brings the world into existence by means of his Spirit (Gen 1:2) and his word (Gen 1:3). Later Scripture speaks of creation coming into formation by the Word (John 1) and the Spirit (cf. Ps 33:6). This example portrays how the triune God works in perfect unison and distinct action to bring about creation. The same thing is true with preservation and salvation.

Setting the stage with these two examples, we can look at the Scriptures to ascertain whether or not dancing and dramatic speech have any resemblance to the God of the Bible. We pick up the last two points of the proposition—God is three persons.

5. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit work together to create the cosmos, sustain life, and redeem the church.

In different ways, each member of the Trinity is described as creating, preserving, and redeeming. That is, in the Bible, there are numerous passages that speak about creation, preservation, and salvation and assign these actions to only one of the members of the Trinity. Individually, each member as God is capable of creation, sustaining, and saving. Collectively, all of them are involved in each element, and as further study would show, each member plays a different role.

CREATION

Revelation 4:11 (cf. Genesis 1:1; Acts 17:24; 1 Corinthians 8:6; Hebrews 11:3)

Worthy are you, our Lord and God, to receive glory and honor and power, for you created all things, and by your will they existed and were created.

Colossians 1:15-16 (cf. John 1:3; Hebrews 1:3)

He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him.

Job 33:4 (cf. Genesis 2:7; Psalm 33:6; 104:30)

The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life.

PRESERVATION

Acts 17:26-28

And he [‘God’ in v. 24] made from one man every nation of mankind to live on all the face of the earth, having determined allotted periods and the boundaries of their dwelling place, that they should seek God, and perhaps feel their way toward him and find him. Yet he is actually not far from each one of us, for

“‘In him we live and move and have our being’;

as even some of your own poets have said,

“‘For we are indeed his offspring.’

Colossians 1:17 (cf. Hebrews 1:2)

And he [Christ] is before all things, and in him all things hold together.

Job 34:14-15 (cf. Job 32:8; Psalm 104:29)

If he [God] should set his heart to it and gather to himself his spirit and his breath, all flesh would perish together, and man would return to dust.

SALVATION

Ephesians 1:3-6

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved. 

Ephesians 1:7-12

In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of our trespasses, according to the riches of his grace, which he lavished upon us, in all wisdom and insight making known to us the mystery of his will, according to his purpose, which he set forth in Christ as a plan for the fullness of time, to unite all things in him, things in heaven and things on earth. In him we have obtained an inheritance, having been predestined according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will, so that we who were the first to hope in Christ might be to the praise of his glory. 

Ephesians 1:13-14

In him you also, when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation, and believed in him,were sealed with the promised Holy Spirit, who is the guarantee of our inheritance until we acquire possession of it, to the praise of his glory.

TRIUNE ACTION IN JOHN’S GOSPEL

In John, we also find Scriptures that speak of Father and Son working together for the salvation of mankind. More particularly, John mentions that Jesus does everything that he sees the Father doing—things like judging (8:16), protecting (10:27-30), speaking (12:48-49).

John 8:16, 29

Yet even if I do judge, my judgment is true, for it is not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me. . . . And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”

John 10:25-30

Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.”

John 12:44-49

And Jesus cried out and said, “Whoever believes in me, believes not in me but in him who sent me. And whoever sees me sees him who sent me. I have come into the world as light, so that whoever believes in me may not remain in darkness. If anyone hears my words and does not keep them, I do not judge him; for I did not come to judge the world but to save the world. The one who rejects me and does not receive my words has a judge; the word that I have spoken will judge him on the last day. For I have not spoken on my own authority, but the Father who sent me has himself given me a commandment—what to say and what to speak. And I know that his commandment is eternal life. What I say, therefore, I say as the Father has told me.”

Theologically, this truth is called the “inseparable operations of the Trinity” (opera Trinitatis ad extra indivisa sunt). It is vitally important for formulating a right view of the Trinity, and it is most beautifully captured in Ephesians 1:3-14 (see above), where Paul in one glorious run-on sentence speaks of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit and their interrelated yet distinct aspects of redemption. Ephesians 1 is the locus classicus for each members particular work in salvation: In love, the Father predestines the salvation of his children. By his incarnation, the Son purchases by his blood the ones whom the father has elected. By his indwelling presence, the Spirit preserves (for eternity future) those whom the Father has predestined (in eternity past) and the Son the purchased (in history).

6. God’s visible actions in history reveal his invisible triune nature.

This final point derives from Fred Sanders illuminating work on the Trinity, The Image of the Immanent Trinity: Rahner’s Rule and the Theological Interpretation of Scripture. In his book, Sanders traces the history of interpretation of Karl Rahner’s famous dictum: “The economic trinity is the imminent trinity and vice versa.” Critiquing a number of wrong appropriations of ‘Rahner’s Rule,’ Sanders argues that the economic Trinity (the God who reveals himself in history) is the image of the immanent Trinity (the triune God who stands outside of time and space). HIs argument is compelling and worth considering (see my review).

The following verses show aspects of God’s work in history that ‘image’ the Trinity. (See also Augustine De Trinitas 4.24, 29, 32)

John 5:19-29

So Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, the Son can do nothing of his own accord, but only what he sees the Father doing. For whatever the Father does, that the Son does likewise. For the Father loves the Son and shows him all that he himself is doing. Andgreater works than these will he show him, so that you may marvel.For as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, so also the Son gives life to whom he will. The Father judges no one, but has given all judgment to the Son, that all may honor the Son, just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent him. Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.

“Truly, truly, I say to you, an hour is coming, and is now here, when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God, and those who hear will live. For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. And he has given him authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man. Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment.

John 17:1-5, 22-26 (cf. John 12:28; 13:32)

When Jesus had spoken these words, he lifted up his eyes to heaven, and said, “Father, the hour has come; glorify your Son that the Son may glorify you, since you have given him authority over all flesh, to give eternal life to all whom you have given him. And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent. I glorified you on earth, having accomplished the work that you gave me to do. And now, Father, glorify me in your own presence with the glory that I had with you before the world existed.

The glory that you have given me I have given to them, that they may be one even as we are one, I in them and you in me, that they may become perfectly one, so that the world may know that you sent me and loved them even as you loved me. Father, I desire that they also, whom you have given me, may be with me where I am, to see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world. O righteous Father, even though the world does not know you, I know you, and these know that you have sent me. I made known to them your name, and I will continue to make it known, that the love with which you have loved me may be in them, and I in them.”

In the end, while we cannot see the God who is invisible, we can see the image of the invisible God, Jesus Christ (Col 1:15) and we can see how the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit have manifested themselves in redemptive history. Because of the veracity of God’s self-disclosure, we can have great confidence that the Triune God of history (the economic Trinity) is the same as the Triune God of eternity (the immanent Trinity). With this confidence, we can make true statements about God by means of his revelation in space, time, and text (the Bible).

With this confidence, we can make true (albeit incomplete) assertions about who God is in himself (ad intra) because we can (by the Spirit’s help) perceive who God is in the world (ad extra). Of course, there is always room for understanding this better, but we leave this examination of the Trinity, confident that that God who has revealed himself in Jesus Christ is the One, True and Living God. And simultaneously, our confidence is chastened by the fact that finite men cannot perceive an infinite and eternal Trinity apart from his grace, illumination, and willingness to be known.

Praise God he has revealed himself and has chosen not to be silent. He is the God who has spoken—the Father who speaks, the Son who is the Word, and the Spirit who leads us into all truth about the Triune God. May we ponder these things anew and worship God from whom all blessings flow.

Soli Deo Gloria, dss

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