Friday, 9 November 2007

Creeping perichoresis

When I hear the word “trinitarian” being used as a cheap slogan, I wince. But when I hear the word “perichoresis,” I reach for my revolver.

Indeed, some theologians have found their vocation in perichoreting everything that moves! In the quote below, however, Bruce McCormack sums up some of the problems that arise from the ubiquitous application of this term:

“Perichoresis … is rightly employed in trinitarian discourse for describing that which is dissimilar in the analogy between intra-trinitarian relations … on the one hand and human-to-human relations on the other. Nowadays, we are suffering from ‘creeping perichoresis,’ that is, the overly expansive use of terms – which have their home in purely spiritual relations – to describe relations between human beings who do not participate in a common ‘substance’ and who, therefore, remain distinct individuals even in the most intimate of their relations.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “What’s at Stake in Current Debates over Justification? The Crisis of Protestantism in the West,” in Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), p. 111.


Halden said...

Interestingly enough, Peter Leithart quotes the exact same paragraph here, though with quite a different response.

Personally, I'm not scared of using a sort of analogical perichoretic langauge to talk about the "mutual interiority" that comes about in the church where we are "members of one another", provided we always remember that we are one "in the Spirit." Our unity is the spiritual unity of grace and election, which comes to us from outside, the extra nos movement of the grace of the Triune God.

WTM said...


It is precisely in your reference to 'analogical' use that the truth is to be found. What we must do with these technical terms is first ensure that we thoroughly understanding them in their proper context, and then - if we are to employ them outside that context - we must make perfectly clear the analogical sense in which we are using them. In what way is this term functioning differently in this different context?

Personally, I find that much of the trouble with theological language like this comes when they cease to be technical terms - which is the context in which they were coined for theological use - and employed as rhetorical terms.

Biran said...

haldon, while your quote is accurate the original meaning of "mutual interiority" finds its origin in the reciprocal and dialetical understanding of the Greek word "kartion". I would suggest that you read one of Larry Rudworth's fine essays, particularly his magnus opus Karl Barth's Source of Kartion: A Deviation?.

This hasn't been topped in my estimation.

Halden said...

I agree Travis, if we are going to say that the church is in some creaturely analagous sense "perichoretic" we have to be sure we are not saying that church and Trinity are somehow one in the same way.

Admittedly, this whole endeavor does make one wonder about the utility of such analogical terms in theology, but I still think there's a place for it.

Nate W said...

Wait, since when has it been established that human beings "do not participate in a common 'substance'" and "remain distinct individuals"? It's my understanding that a sizeable chunk of the Orthodox tradition says just the opposite. I think the jury's still out on that whole "common substance" question.

Drew said...

I'm not commenting on the theological aspects here.

However, I think it's worth noting that the epoch in which we live - the epoch of the blog, of wiki's, of techno-communication economies, of globe spanning media empires that have as much influence as nation-states, enables and proliferates 'the overly expansive use of terms' - what is a blog if not a collection of quotations coming from a whole bunch of different contexts? It's the economy of 'cut and paste' right?

So we should endeavour to blog in such a way as to encourage putting things back into their context, rather than dislocating them?

(By the way, I think Faith & Theology does this very well)

Travis said...

So refreshing to read this, Ben.

::aaron g:: said...

Ben, I'm not sure how much you read the Jesus Creed blog, but do you think Scot McKnight "perichoretes everything that moves"?

David said...

For those interested in getting a precise re-orientation to usage of "perichoresis" in the patristic fathers, I highly recommend the following important article. (Don't let the date fool you. Prestige is still one of the best, in my opinion).

Prestige, Leonard. “PERICOREO and PERICORESIS in the Fathers.” Journal of Theological Studies XXIX (1928): 242-52.

David Guretzki

Geoff Smith said...

McKnight certainly came to my mind. But his pericoreting everything to death comes from his view of the atonement as starting in God's pericoresis. Since creation started there, then atonement started there as God is love(ing eternally) this God would act to bring his creation back into that same kind of relationship. So, at least he isn't just hijacking a technical term, but he is a New Testament scholar who sees in the concept an important way of understanding God's manner of acting based on God's way of being. (from my reading of him anyway)

In Mere Christianity Lewis, without using the term, talks about becoming a part of this pericoresis as individuals loved by God.

I really don't like the term, nobody knows what you're talking about when you use it in south Texas. And in some parts of Texas you really may get somebody reaching for a revolver for using a word like that. "'yergaylikeJesus' what'd you just call Jesus?"

Ben Myers said...

That's a hilarious comment, Geoff! And Aaron, the answer is No: I don't usually read Scot's blog, so I wasn't specifically thinking of him. But there are plenty of other perichoreters out there!

Charles Twombly said...

Readers may find my 1992 Emory University dissertation illuminating here. It's entitled "Perichoresis and Personhood in the Thought of John of Damascus." It may not be the last word on the subject, but I believe it clears some the undergrowth away and places the term in much clearer perspective. Responses welcomed.

Charles Twombly said...

Follow up on my previous comment: The later Eastern Fathers (Maximos, John Damascene, etc) used the term "participation" to set forth our relationship to God, Christ, the Body of Christ, etc. "Perichoresis" was reserved for the interpentration/mutual indwelling of the three hypostases of the one God and the two natures of the one hypostasis of the incarnate Logos. If we followed their lead, some of our "problems" would dissolve.

Michael J. Pailthorpe said...

you have a revolver?!

Charles Twombly said...

My comments above, posted in 2008, now have embodiment in a real book published by Pickwick (Princeton Theological Monographs Series 216) under the title, PERICHORESIS AND PERSONHOOD, GOD, CHRIST, AND SALVATION IN JOHN OF DAMASCUS. Perhaps my book will help slow down the "creeping" a bit and open up some helpful doors to boot.

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