Charles Twombly: Perichoresis and Personhood

I had intended to read On the Orthodox Faith by St John of Damascus before reading, and reviewing, Perichoresis and Personhood by Charles Twombly. Given that the latter work seeks to exposit the former, this seemed to make sense. But it’s been over two years since Dr Twombly graciously sent me a copy of his book. Last week I finally decided I could not delay my reading of Perichoresis and Personhood any longer. The great patristic summa will simply have to wait. The Damascene, I am told, is a patient saint.

Let me state at the outset that I found Perichoresis and Personhood a pleasure to read. Not only does Dr Twombly display a firm command of his subject, but he also writes clearly and well. Given the complexities of the topics he addresses, lucidity is most welcome.

Perichoresis (often descriptively rendered as “coinherence,” “interpenetration,” and “mutual indwelling”) has become a popular term in modern theology, especially in trinitarian reflection, but the theological notion can be traced back to the early Church Fathers. St Athanasius, for example, tells us that the Son is omnipresent throughout creation, because “he is in the Father, and the Father is in him” (ad Serap. 2.13.2). Commenting on the words of our Lord, “I in the Father, and the Father in Me,” St Hilary of Poitiers acknowledges that reason cannot fathom the claim that the Father and Son “reciprocally contain One Another, so that One should permanently envelope, and also be permanently enveloped by, the Other, whom yet He envelopes”; but “what man cannot understand, God can be” (de Trin. 3.1). St Cyril of Alexandria may also be cited in this regard. So while the notion of mutual indwelling, grounded in the consubstantiality of the divine persons, enjoys a minor role in early Christian theology, the term perichoresis only begins to be used by theologians after the Council of Chalcedon, appearing not in reflection upon the trinitarian relations, as we might expect, but in reflection upon the relation between the divine and human natures of the incarnate Christ. In the seventh century John Damascene appropriated the word and made it central to his understanding of God, Christ, and salvation.

Each loci—God, Christ, salvation—receives a chapter in Perichoresis and Personhood. Twombly provides sufficient historical background to put the contributions of the Damascene in doctrinal context. Even readers unfamiliar with the patristic debates will find the monograph accessible and helpful. I commend to you Charles Twombly’s little (did I mention little?—it’s only about a hundred pages long), affordable, and learned book.

(Go to “St John of Damascus on the Holy Trinity”)

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