—Published in Fides et Humilitas, no. 3 (2016): 164–166

Charles C. Twombly's work on John of Damascus comes in an era in which not only the Damascene's perspective on perichoresis is lost and misunderstood, but the entire enterprise of perichoretical theology has been falling into pieces. This text represents a critical, but also engaging presentation of John of Damascus’s theology on the subject.

Twombly has three main sections that clearly show how he wants to see John and the interpenetration of the three persons in the Trinity. The sections are on the relationship of perichoresis and the Trinity, the person of Christ, and Salvation. However, even before diving into these sections, Twombly spends great energy and time on the apophatic theology of John of Damascus. Even though there is great truth in the idea that God is fundamentally transcendent in John, the Damascene, it seems that Twombly pushed some of the readings of John too far. Twombly was eager to say that this means that John is pervasively apophatic. To be fair, however, he also understands that apophatic theology does not imply a total unknowability of God. He sees that “through the manifestation of the Son an his revelation of the Father and bestowal of the Spirit, all that can be known is given to us.” (p.15). However, the amount of energy spent discussing the possibility of an apophatic theology seems to divert the reader.

Twombly's efforts in demonstrating John’s classical Trinitarian Theology pay high dividends. In this first section, the reader encounters articulations of the extra-calvinisticum and a solid, but embryonic defense of dyothelitism. The Orthodox Faith is a forgotten gem in terms of trinitarian Theology. For example, Twombly does an excellent job by demonstrating how plurality of persons does not imply plurality of wills in the Trinity. His basic premise in this section is to show that John of Damascus used the concept of perichoresis as a shorthand word that encapsulates some of the Nicene confession (p.42). Another example of John's classical trinitarian theology is defense of inseparable operations and divine simplicity. Without simplicity, for John of Damascus, then “God would be composed of many things, he would not be simple, but compounded, which is impious to the last degree” (p.33).

In the second section of the book, Twombly enters into more precarious territory. How is one to elaborate on perichoresis and the person of Christ? Does the hypostatic union borrow any of the Nicene conceptions of hypostasis? According to Twombly, perichoresis “in relation to the Trinity [Nicene conceptions] summed up and gave condensed expression to a centuries-long development that integrated insights drawn from Chalcedonian Christology with those of Cappadocian theology” (p.53).

Overall, Twombly navigates well through John of Damascus’s work. Twombly even recognizes the idea that the perichoretical relation is not that mutual by appealing to the Orthodox Faith when John says that the human nature cannot interpenetrate the divine (p.54). Also, he notes how the divine penetrates the human only via omnipresence. Anything that goes farther than this is to run the risk of residing outside the Orthodox Faith.

However, as Twombly searches more for a different meaning for perichoresis, he ends up finding one in John of Damascus. It is, however, debatable if John really expanded the meaning of perichoresis to mean an indwelling of the hypostatic union. When John speaks of deification of the will (p.83) via union, it seems to refer to a communication of grace, rather than an infusion of the natures.

Mixed feelings can arise from the last section. Participation and perichoresis have never been used to mean the same thing in theological vocabulary. Twombly recognizes that even John of Damascus did not use those terms in such manner (p.94).

A quick evaluation seems to give the impression that the term perichoresis would be better applied to the Trinitarian relations only. Twombly's interpretation of John by saying that perichoresis is a word that sums up “what binds [the persons of the Trinity] together, inseparably, in common substance, action, and so on, is ‘their existence in one another,’ their mutual indwelling” (p.32). This seems to exclude an application of perichoresis to other areas of theological studies.

The Orthodox Faith will continue to be a valuable source for Christian theological investigation. Overall, Twombly's research is thorough and engaging. This will be a valuable contribution to the field of perichoresis.

Bibliographical Information

Charles C. Twombly. Perichoresis and Personhood: God, Christ, and Salvation in John of Damascus Princeton Theological Monograph Series. Eugene, OR: Pickwick Publications, 2015. Pp. 114. ISBN: 978-1-62032-180-5. $18.00 [Paperback].
About the Author:
Rafael N. Bello

Rafael N. Bello is a Ph.D. candidate at Southern Seminary.