This article briefly considers first the positive foundations of the doctrine and then its theological formulation.
Positive Foundations. By the term circumincession theology understands the mutual immanence and penetration of the three divine persons. Circuminsessio (circum-in-sedere: to sit around) stresses rather the passive, somewhat static aspect of the doctrine, whereas circumincessio (circum-incedere: to go, to move around) looks at it from the dynamic angle of movement. The earliest usage was of a corresponding Greek word, περιχώρησις, by St. Gregory of Nazianzus (middle of fourth century), not in a Trinitarian but in a Christological context, to signify the mutual immanence of the two natures in Christ (Epist. 101; Patrologia Graeca, 37:182; see perichoresis; christological). In its present Trinitarian meaning it was first used by St. John Damascene in the eighth century (De fide orth. 1.8; Patrologia Graeca, 94:829). However, the doctrine itself has deep roots in Scripture: "… believe in the works, that you may know and believe that the Father is in me and I in the Father" (John 10.38; 14.11; 17.21). These three Johannine texts have traditionally been understood by Catholic (J. Knabenbauer, A. Wikenhauser, J. Leal) and Protestant (C. Barret, W. Hendriksen) exegetes in the sense of a mutual divine immanence between Father and Son. Explicit scriptural basis for the mutual penetration of the Holy Spirit and the other two Persons is lacking (1 Corinthians2.10, often quoted, is inconclusive).
Formulation. St. Thomas (Summa Theologiae 1a, 42.5) admirably synthesizing the two conceptions, Latin and Greek, explains circumincession by the unicity of the divine nature (Latin) as well as by the very origin of the Persons (Greek).
The divine nature, numerically one, is conceived by Latin theology as the common ground (in its theory with a certain unavoidable logical priority over the Persons) where Father, Son and Holy Spirit meet. The common bond of the only divine essence, which is equally possessed by all three, necessarily links all three. Besides this unity of nature, there is a perfect fusion of personal rational activities: the three Persons cannot but think, decide and act together, with all these divine acts flowing down the very same channel of the divine nature.
The Greek background is different: less static, more vital and dynamic. For a Greek the primary datum is not nature but Person, throbbing with life, communicable life. Each Divine Person is irresistibly drawn, by the very constitution of His being, to the other two. Branded in the very depths of each one of them is a necessary outward impulse, a centrifugal force, urging Him to give Himself fully to the other two, to pour Himself out into the divine receptacle of the other two. It is a "reciprocal irruption" (Cyril of Alex., In Jo. 1.5; Patrologia Graeca, 73:81), or unceasing circulation of life. Thus, each Person being necessarily in the other two, unity is achieved not so much on account of the unicity of a single passive nature but rather because of this irresistible impulse in each Person, which mightily draws them to one another.
One has here two different explanations, substantially identical, yet rich and colorful in their variety, of the same divine circumincession. Probably the best formulation of this mysterious reality is that given in the West by the 11th Council of Toledo (675), which, with an unmistakable oriental ring, teaches that the mutual relations, binding the Persons and referring them to one another, are the deepest root of the doctrine (H. Denzinger, Enchiridion Symbolorum 532). In the beatific vision "it will be granted to the eyes of the human mind, strengthened by the light of glory, to contemplate the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit in an utterly ineffable manner, to assist throughout eternity at the processions of the Divine Persons, and to rejoice with a happiness like to that with which the holy and undivided Trinity is happy" ("Mystici Corporis Christi," Acta Apostolicae Sedis 80).
See Also: trinity, holy, articles on; nature; person (in theology); processions, trinitarian; relations, trinitarian.
Bibliography: a. chollet, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50) 2.2:2527–32. m. schmaus, Lexikon für Theologie und Kirche, eds., j. hofer and k. rahner, 10 v. (2d, new ed. Freiburg 1957–65) 8:274–276. t. de rÉgnon, Études de théologie positive sur la Sainte Trinité, 4 v. (Paris 1892–98). a. deneffe, "Perichoresis, circumincessio, circuminsessio," Zeitschrift für katholische Theologie, 47 (1923) 497–532. l. prestige, περιχωρέω and περιχώρησις in the Fathers," Journal of Theological Studies, 29 (1928) 242–252. Patrologia Graeca, ed., j. p. migne, 161 v. (Paris 1857–66). pius xii, "Mystici Corporis Christi," Acta Apostolicae Sedis 35 (1943) 193–248.
[a. m. bermejo]