The language of perichoresis, bearing a long pedigree in trinitarian theology, has fallen on hard times of late. Part of this is certainly due to the way in which the concept has been over-used in many recent works in trinitarian theology. Colin Gunton has offered perhaps the most sophisticated use of perichoresis in attempting to construct a trinitarian theology of creation and redemption. Gunton argues that, not only can perichoresis be used analogically to describe the nature of human personal relations one to another,but can in fact be understood trancendentally as a mark of all created being. Gunton argues, on the basis of sort of perichoretic metaphysic that “reality is on all levels ‘perichoretic’, a dynamism of relatedness.” (The One, the Three, and the Many, 165.)
Gunton is unique among contemporary theologians in that he has built an entire project in theological ontology on the basis of understanding perichoresis as a transcendental mark of being. This has brought him plenty of criticism, primarily focusing on the claim that perichoresis, properly understood only describes God’s own immanent reality as Trinity. We cannot simply “read” the divine dynamic of perichoretic unity from God onto created relationality.
I think, however, that the criticisms of projects like Gunton’s which use perichoresis as a sort of trancendental miss the mark. The problem is not that Gunton illegitimately extends a divine concept to human relationality. To presuppose that divine qualities are inherently opposed to created being is to make a fundamental theological mistake, namely that the divine attributes are simply the negations of the human. There is no prima facie reason why the dynamic of perichoresis could not be legitimately applied in an analogical manner to describe human patterns of relationship simply because it is an attribute of the triune God.
The real problem with Gunton’s account is the way he seeks to deploy the language of perichoresis, not the fact that he seeks to use such language. The problem is that Gunton sees the point of connection between the divine interanimation and interpenetration and human relationality in a transcendental mark of being common to both God and creation. In short, what makes Gunton’s project problematic is not that it uses perichoresis, it is that it utilizes the analogia entis to establish a general category of “perichoreticness” to describe creation and divinity (p. 141).
We would do better to understand perichoresis as a quality of divine action than as a transcendental mark of being as such. What is helpful about this conceptuality is that it grounds our understanding of perichoresis and its implications for how we understand redeemed human sociality in God’s action extra nos. God’s economic action in the world manifests the characteristics of the divine interpenetration and interanimation of the divine persons. When God acts in the world, God’s actions have the shape of perichoresis: spaciousness, hospitality, structural openness, superabundant gift-giving. Because God is eternally a communion of persons who exist in a perfect actuality of making space within themselves for one another, God’s action in the world manifests the same shape. Thus, it is appropriate to describe the ecclesial communion of the church as a perichoresis, not because it is a transcendental mark of being, but because the church exists by virtue of God’s divine act of constituting it. The church manifests the shape of the divine perichoresis because the church is the dwelling place of the trinitarian persons, not because of any sort of transcendental human sociality.
There is nothing whatsoever wrong with talking about the church’s unity as being perichoretic (in line with Jesus’ language in John 17:21ff). What is crucial is that such descriptions of the church’s status as the earthly-historical analogate of the trinitarian perichoresis be grounded in God’s triune act of constituting the church as a radical novum in the world of fallen communality.