In the deep theological weeds with perichoresis and Ezekiel’s vision

Monday Musings for March 22, 2021

Good morning, Musers,

Two of the greatest lights in the 17th century, Isaac Newton and Gottfried Leibniz, were so advanced in their thinking that the existing tools of mathematics failed them. So they — independently of one another (and at the same time) — invented calculus. And because they added this new “language” to mathematics, all of the sciences advanced.

The principle here is that the need precedes the tool. Calculus was “out there in the air” so to speak. It was a natural extension of the logic and mathematics that people have been developing for millennia. Newton and Leibniz stood on the shoulders of these pioneers, and when humankind was ready (in both foundation and need) these thinkers created a new way to do math.

These kinds of things happen in virtually every discipline because all disciplines require thought. Only rarely is a human being not taking advantage of all the knowledge that has come before them. The topic I’m talking about today was not even in the vocabulary of the first-generation church. Indeed, some of our more complex doctrines took centuries to develop.

Among them was the Trinity and the dual nature of Christ. The early church father Tertullian was among the first to defend the doctrine of the Trinity, but this wasn’t until the early 3rd century. Many related issues weren’t settled until the Councils of Nicaea (325 A.D.) and Chalcedon (451 A.D.). Needless to say, it takes time to get a consensus on complex doctrines.

This means that the first-generation Church did not need to understand the Trinity. They had enough problems… being fed to the lions and stuff… so let’s take the lesson: Jesus is sufficient! God the Father said, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!” (Matthew 17:5, emphasis mine) That was good advice then, and it is good advice now.

But that’s not the end of the story. It’s up to us to figure out the implications of everything Jesus said and did, everything taught in both the Old and New Testaments, everything taught through nature, philosophy and anthropology — and make sense of it in a way that everything makes sense together! This is where doctrines come from. They are not strained philosophical ruminations. They are what we need as the mature Body of Christ.

After scholars (sort of) got “comfortable” with the idea of the Trinity, they started to postulate about how it all worked internally. The Bible didn’t say much about this directly, so the scholars had to work in Natural Theology. But — like Newton and Leibniz — they found that they did not have the language for the job. So they came up with the idea of the perichoresis… a term that limits the field of study to how things work within the Trinity.

Today’s questioner was reading about the living creatures in Ezekiel chapter 1, and he was wondering if these were (sort of) “types” of the perichoresis. He saw the “wheels intersecting wheels” as Venn diagrams, and Venn diagrams are often used to show the logic of the Trinity graphically. This was a great question… but do you see what I mean about being “in the deep theological weeds”? Your average Christian is not discussing the perichoresis!

This is why I hope you will join me for some freewheeling theology today — but relax. We won’t be developing any new doctrine. Instead, we’ll be conjecturing… which is always fun.

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