An Oldie but a Goodie, or, Perichoresis has Nothing to Do with Dancing!

I was reading something the other day, whether online or in print I do not know—God knows. But I was reading something—whether online or in print I do not know, but God knows—and I saw a reference to perichoresis as a “divine dance.”  Naturally, my blood boiled, my hairs stood on end, and I was filled with righteous indignation (as is my custom whenever I read such a description).  So rather than scream I went searching Bryan L’s now defunct “The Art of Procrastination” for a comment I left a while back on this very topic.  I couldn’t find it, but Bryan was good enough to search his comments and locate it for me, so I will now, after a short setup, reproduce my former pearls of wisdom for my surely kosher (= swine free) audience.  One commentator named Adam asked about the Cappadocians referring to the Trinity as “encircling creation in a cosmic dance.”  I responded:

I don’t think so. I’ve spent the last hour or so looking through the writings of Gregory of Nazianzus, Gregory of Nyssa, Basil, and Athanasius, and I haven’t been able to find anything in the indices or main bodies of text about a “cosmic dance.”

The Cappadocians and Athanasius spoke of the perichoresis (coinherence) of the persons of the Trinity and modern feminist and liberation theologians (e.g., Moltmann, LaCugna, Boff, et al.) have taken this teaching and described in terms of a dance metaphor, but in all I have read from the fathers on perichoresis I can’t see this idea supported. I’d welcome a reference if you come across one.

I will say this though, the Cappadocians and Athanasius all saw the Father as the fons divinitatis (fount of divinity), so they recognized an order in the Trinity wherein the Father was first.

Adam then quoted Clark Pinnock (RIP) as saying: “Gregory Nanzianzus captured the the mystery of triune life using the image of the dance (perichresis), [sic] translated by Latin writers as “circumincession.” The metaphor suggests moving around, making room, relating to one another without loosing [sic] identity.”  My response, which is the purpose of this post, was the following:

That’s pretty much what I suspected. What Pinnock has done is take something that Gregory of Nazianzus said and applied a meaning that he did not intend to it. Gregory of Nazianzus used the verb perichōreō (as opposed to the noun perichōrēsis which wouldn’t be used until much later) in a Christological context (as opposed to a Trinitarian one) where he was arguing for the two natures (i.e., divine and human) to exist simultaneously in the one person of Christ. This occurs in Epistle 101: To Cledonius the Priest Against Apollinarius and he said:

For the words, The Second Man is the Lord from Heaven; and, As is the Heavenly, such are they that are Heavenly; and, No man hath ascended up into Heaven save He which came down from Heaven, even the Son of Man which is in Heaven; and the like, are to be understood as said on account of the Union with the heavenly; just as that All Things were made by Christ, and that Christ dwelleth in your hearts is said, not of the visible nature which belongs to God, but of what is perceived by the mind, the names being mingled like the natures, and flowing into one another, according to the law of their intimate union. (NPNF2 7:440, bold mine)

Verna Harrison offers a different translation of the bold portion in the article “Perichoresis in the Greek Fathers” in St Vladimir’s Theological Quarterly, 35/1 (1991), 53-65.

“Just as the natures are mixed, so also the names pass reciprocally into each other by the principle of this coalescence.”

I don’t have access to the Greek so I can’t check to see why each translator chose what they did, but I like “reciprocally” here. I think it gets at the heart of perichōrēsis which describes a mutual indwelling. Now Pinnock (among others) get the whole “divine dance” thing from the word perichoreuō (from the prepositon peri + the verb choreuō) which means to “dance around (or about).” What the feminist theologians and liberation theologians have done is taken this verb and its imagery and substituted it for what the fathers actually used.

Catherine Mowry LaCugna who prefers “the image of divine dance” notes that the “philological warrant for this is scant” (God For Us, 271-272). Jürgen Moltmann says: “We arrive at the same result if we use the Greek verbs perichoreo and perichoreuo. These then describe the mutual resting in each other and their shared ‘round dance‘. But semantically, perichoresis is derived from perichoreo, not from perichoreuo.” (Experiences in Theology, 318). They acknowledge that the words are not the same but they want to make them express the same concept, although originally they expressed no such concept.

What’s more is that perichōrēsis in its Trinitarian use was worked out from those passages of Scripture referring to the Father being in the Son and the Son in the Father. Jesus’ purpose in making such statements was to show unity, nothing more. There can be unity without having to posit the pop-theological idea of a “divine dance” where everyone is mutually submissive.

The problem is this: certain folks have an agenda to push and if they can show that the Trinity is the prime example of their agenda then they figure it has some credence. My concern is not about feminism, or liberation theology, or the gender debate, but rather my concern is for Trinitarian dogma. All of those things can be argued for without reference to the Trinity, so if the Trinity isn’t seen as some mutual divine dance where everyone (or no one) leads, it shouldn’t much matter.

And that, my friends, is gospel truth!


12 thoughts on “An Oldie but a Goodie, or, Perichoresis has Nothing to Do with Dancing!

  1. I don’t see the point of your argument against this “dance”. Who cares if some people like to think of the Trinity in such beautiful imagery…

  2. Mike: I’d ask you to read the post again and try to see my point. I don’t care if people think of the Trinity as three persons dancing in a circle (I personally think that’s stupid but that doesn’t matter). The point is that perichoresis doesn’t have anything to do with dancing and yet some people claim that it does. It’s based on bad philology and people use the metaphor to suggest a view of God that fits their views of various human relationships. That’s what I’m arguing against.

    Fr. Robert: You got it.

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