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Revisiting Perichoresis

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.


  1. Dave Belcher wrote:


    I wonder if you might be able to send me an email…I have a question (j dot david dot belcher at gmail)…I’ll comment on this in a little bit…I think this is really good. I just want to read it a bit more closely and process some of the things I’ve been working through. Peace.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 5:53 pm | Permalink
  2. Hill wrote:

    You are maligning the analogia entis here. A “transcendental mark of being common to both God and creation” is precisely what analogia entis is set against. It is what allows us to speak about creation in terms of divine attributes without making the sort of error you describe here.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 6:24 pm | Permalink
  3. Halden wrote:

    Hill I’m aware that Hart defines the analogia entis differently (through a nice rhetorical move). Here I’m only talking about how Gunton is arguing for a “trinitarian analogy of being.” That need not apply to other thinkers who deploy the concept differently.

    However, would you deny that the analogia entis entails that we can make metaphysical statements about God on the basis of what we see/experience in creation? No matter how we slice and dice it, it does seem to come down to that.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 8:37 pm | Permalink
  4. Hill wrote:

    I don’t think that is actually the essence of analogia entis. It just happens to allow us to speak about God on the basis of what we see and experience in creation (and in fact this is unavoidable, no matter who you are and what metaphysical scheme you happen to follow) without succumbing to the sorts of problems you are worriede about. We will necessarily speak analogically about God in some crude sense. It is understanding God (or being if you will) as Himself analogical that makes this possible. Thinkers who deploy the concept in a way that is unfaithful to the established tradition of the concept (something with patristic authority, or at least patristic coherence) ought not to be considered to be deploying “analogia entis.” I should say, I know nothing about Gunton or his project, but what you describe isn’t really analogia entis, even if it involves some concept of analogy. I think simply put, my point is that analogy is unavoidable, and it is only in the analogia entis that we can understand how it is not irredeemable as a mode of talking about God.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 9:26 pm | Permalink
  5. Hill wrote:

    I also don’t think Hart’s characterization is a rhetorical move. He simply understands the concept in all of it’s conceptual, historical, hermeneutic and exegetical complexity, which is a rare thing among modern theologians. It’s actually really hard to understand. I happen to buy it, and it is still at the limits of my ability to comprehend, which is perhaps necessarily true, and even appropriate.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 9:28 pm | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Analogy, to be sure is somewhat unavoidable at a lingustic level, but that is quite different that saying that the analogy of being as specified in certain segments of the tradition is the only way to make the use of analogical langauge make sense. In fact I think such a statement would be quite impossible to substantiate. Jungel give a perfectly cogent explanation of analogical language in his God as the Mystery of the World which is not dependent on the analogy of being.

    But regardless of how complex the tradition of the analogy of being is, if the analogy of being entails the perspective that we are able to make metaphysical statements about God’s being on the basis of what we observe in creation, then it inevitably implies that there is some sort of trancendental commonality, or “mark” of being that God and creation both share, which makes the analogy possible.

    In other words, despite Hart’s assertion to the contrary (and he doesn’t do anything more than assert it), I fail to see how the analogy of being does not simply analogize God and creatures under the category of being. This, in itself, does not mean the analogy of being is wrong, only that this is just what we are in fact dealing with.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 9:39 pm | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Also, I don’t really know what it means to say that God’s being is, in itself, analogical. In fact I don’t even know if the concept is coherent. What would it mean to say that God, in se is analogical? Analogical to what?

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 9:47 pm | Permalink
  8. Hill wrote:

    Your last two comments suggest to me that you don’t fully understand Hart on this point. I don’ t know what else to say. I wish I could attempt to explain this better, but like I said, it’s hard.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 11:16 pm | Permalink
  9. Hill wrote:

    I definitely does not imply transcendental commonality. That is precisely what it avoids.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 11:17 pm | Permalink
  10. Halden wrote:

    I realize that Hart says this. I’ve read the book twice. I just don’t find any actual explication for why this is the case in his work that goes beyond the level of rhetorical assertion. Nor do I really think its fair to impute inability to understand to someone in the face of disagreement without explanation. I think I understand Hart fairly well, actually.

    I understand however if you find this issue too complex to try to engage in this sort of forum.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 11:24 pm | Permalink
  11. Hill wrote:

    I really don’t intend that as a slight. I’d probably make a fool of myself and would certainly use more time than I have to spend on the matter to try to get in to it. I think all I’d like to say is that we make metaphysical statements about God’s being. There’s no avoiding that. I don’t think the point of analogia entis is to undertake that endeavor where other theologies don’t. The way I understand analogia entis is that God’s relationship to himself has a certain character, and this character is the character of analogy. So basically, analogy is just a word for something deeply mysterious about the relationality of the trinity. Because this is how God relates to himself in the trinitarian life, it is by extension, how he ultimately relates to us, and hence, how we relate to him. That is an incredibly crude formulation and in need a lot of qualifications, but this is the sense in which God himself can be understood to be analogical. And this is not starting from something called “analogy” and then putting God in the category of “things that possess analogy.” It is starting from the relationality revealed to us in the trinity, calling that analogy, and moving forward from there.

    My intent wasn’t to question your ability to understand this. I think there is just some sort of rhetorical charity that you are failing to extend to Hart. I’m not sure exactly where or how, though. It’s not as though we have opposite opinions on the matter, I just think there is a disconnect somewhere.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 11:34 pm | Permalink
  12. Halden wrote:

    I think I understand what you are saying, and i won’t press you too far in light of your (probably very wise) trepidation about trying to specify some of this stuff. I guess my question would go to what we mean by this sort of mysterious inter-trinitarian relationality. What is it about the quality of those relations that lends them to being described as “analogical”? Why is that a good descriptor? And how does that description of God as analogical lead us to describe it under the rubric of an analogy of “being”?

    And my other question would be one of history (which of course we can’t answer here). Does Aquinas really mean what Hart describes when he relates his theory of analogy? I think some important questions are often glossed over on that front. I think we do have to recognize that Hart, as an Eastern Orthodox theologian is borrowing heavily from Western theology and being highly innovative and eclectic in his project, especially in his adoption of the analogia entis vis a vis his appropriation of Gregory. The sort of analogical thinking he utilizes is not native to the Orthodox church at all and his synthesis represents something that is new and different, not merely a re-presentation of some latent notion of the analogia entis. That is precisely why I find it worth engaging.

    Thursday, September 25, 2008 at 11:42 pm | Permalink
  13. Hill wrote:

    This only heightens my expectations for Hart’s next book. Along the lines of your last paragraph, I think he sees himself as bridging gaps between theological schools and modes of thought that are conceptually interconnected, but that have, for specious confessional reasons, been pitted against one another. He makes some very compelling cases, especially in bringing Gregory in conversation with Augustine. Likewise, he rightly emphasizes the often over looked point that Pseudo Dionysius is the most cited theologian in the work of Aquinas. While I generally think that there is something to the apparent novelty of Hart when compared to the more directly confessional tendencies of most modern theologians, I think a good bit of that has to do with categories like “Eastern Orthodox theology” and “Western Scholasticism” which are basically polemical constructions. I think he will deal with a lot of this in his next book.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:14 am | Permalink
  14. Dave Belcher wrote:

    Hill, you said: “We will necessarily speak analogically about God in some crude sense” (my emphasis). Really? Necessarily? This is, in fact, what is being confused, I think, when we place analogy in the Godhead — or when we suggest that God himself speaks the analogy, or something (pace Hart). At least for Aquinas (and yes, from Dionysius’ triplex via of causalitatem-remotionem-eminentiam), analogy is a creaturely modus operandi. It is for this reason that Ralph McInerny says, “analogy is [itself] analogical.” Recall that there are “other ways” of speaking — equivocation, univocation… (which to me already says analogy is not indeed a “necessary” way of speaking!)

    I agree with Halden that to place analogy in the Godhead, or to say “God is analogously” (which are tantamount to one another), is incoherent. Essentially, by making analogy the “interval,” the infinite qualitative and quantitative distance between God and creatures (the “ontological difference is analogy”), and thus requiring that this “mediation” be a mediation within the Godhead or the immanent Triune relations (since God is), is Hegelian at best. Nate Kerr has commented here before that it is essentially Arian! (something I also agree with)


    Ok. Let me reiterate that I think what you are trying to do is right, especially this: “[W]hat 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.” I think in the discussion above with Hart, what you say here, “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,” would in Hart morph in that last clause to: “the created order manifests the same shape” (in a kind of emanationist sense of hierarchical mediation). Yes? And that would indeed be to make some sort of “transcendental commonality” on the very basis of analogy. Isn’t that Hart’s entire basis with the stuff on Bach and music and the “infinite capability” of counterpoint in the created artifice?

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 12:38 pm | Permalink
  15. Hill wrote:

    I only call it necessary because speaking univocally or equivocally about God seem to be far less desirable. We presume to speak about God in some limited fashion. In so far as we do so in an appropriate way, we do so analogically. You might not agree, but that’s what I was going for. Necessarily was probably the wrong term. I would curious to hear proposals on how else we might speak about God.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 1:23 pm | Permalink

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