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The Perichoretic Church

Regarding the proper use of perichoresis to describe the unity of the church, Miroslav Volf strike just the right balance (against those who would paint him as a simplistic social trinitarian). He claims that “It is not the mutual perichoriesis of human beings, but the indwelling of the Spirit common to everyone that makes the church into a communion corresponding to the Trinity, a communion in which personhood and sociality are equiprimal” (After Our Likeness, 213).

What makes the church an image of the divine perichoresis of the Trinity is not that human beings qua human being interpenetrate one another in a way analogous to the trinitarian relations. Rather it is that the church, as the community indwelt by the triune God through the Spirit’s presence in each believer and in the Eucharist, brings about a pneumatic union of all ecclesial persons in the event of the church’s gathering. Because the same Holy Spirit indwells all Christians, all Christians are unified “in the Spirit”, being knitted together at the utmost level of intimacy and closeness. The church is a perichoretic community for this reason and this reason only.


  1. Evan wrote:

    I have learned to be hesitant about the topic of perichoresis ever since the draft of an article I wrote on Augustine’s trinity was at one point rather straightforwardly marked by the reviewer in bold red ink, “This is not perichoresis” in a place where I had identified something or other as such.

    I tend to read Volf in the simplistic social trinitarian terms that you mention, so it’s good for me to digest the point that you make here. It seems, however, that the ecclesiology you are trying to articulate here (while I quite agree with it) is not so obviously “perichoretic”. From what I’ve read, there seem to be two rather distinct uses of the term “perichoresis”- The mutual indwelling/interpenetration of the three persons of the Godhead, and the communion between Father and Son by virtue of the bond of love who is the Holy Spirit (the second of these conceptions seems to me to pop up more in modern Reformed theology in particular- I don’t know whether this is significant or not).

    What Volf seems to articulate here is the second explanation of perichoresis, or perhaps a combination of the two where the first is imaged in the Church by way of the second.

    I’m not convinced, though, that a pneumatological ecclesial unity like this is actually a perichoretic unity. There was an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology about this in 2006, which focuses on the Johannine literature and points out that there is no articulation of perichoresis by John even though he is often used for this purpose (you cite his high priestly prayer yourself in the first post on perichoresis).

    So, I think that while these conceptions of trinitarian doctrine and ecclesiology are closely tied, I’m also suspicious that too much is being conceived as “perichoresis” or “perichoretic” when such an attribution isn’t justified. But as I say, these days I hesitate before speaking about the concept of “perichoresis” for the precise reason that it is so often misused, so I welcome correction. These are just some hesitations that I have.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 7:15 am | Permalink
  2. Halden wrote:

    Evan, who was this article by? Clearly it seems to me that the matter is definitional. If the Spirit indwells all Christians, constituting them as the church, there is a sense in which the Spirit is “internal” to the church and that sort of personal interiority, must in some sense actualize the church’s participation in the trinitarian perichoresis since the Father, Son, and Spirit are always “in” one another in all their actions by virtue of their perichoretic unity.

    So, whether or not the church’s unity in the Spirit can rightly be called “perichoretic” comes down to an issue of definitions. All I was saying is that since the Spirit indwells the church, the church in some sense participates in the perichoresis of the Trinity. Whether this means the church is “perichoretic” or not is ultimately a matter of definition rather than substance, as you basically note above.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:25 am | Permalink
  3. Evan wrote:

    Here’s a link:

    While I agree that much can be said substantively even given differences of definition, precision in these matters is also important (your discussion with Hill on the analogia entis runs along the same lines). I think this is why I remain suspicious of Volf with regard to his social trinitarianism… he may be more careful in clarifying the bases of his views on the Church or the Trinity, but if he comes to the same conclusion regarding perichoresis or sociality, I don’t see how it is merely a matter of definitions rather than substance.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:34 am | Permalink
  4. Halden wrote:

    Well, here is what Volf says about the possibility of describing human sociality in terms of perichoresis:

    “In a strict sense, there can be no correspondence of the interiority of the divine persons at the human level. Another human self cannot be internal to my own self as a subject of action. Human persons are always external to one another as subjects.

    I’ll let you judge for yourself, but I think you would enjoy and benefit from reading his book. It is a really a great piece of theological writing and one of the best ecclesiologies to be written in recent years.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:42 am | Permalink
  5. Evan wrote:

    …sorry, I’m thinking on the fly here and want to take a stab at some clarification.

    I’m not trying to offer a total critique of anything that you or Volf are saying. I agree that a lot of this may be definitional, but I don’t see what is indeed definitional as insignificant. There is also a lot that I do agree about substantively, though, regarding the pneumatological aspects of ecclesiology.

    Crump’s article does speak of a “perichoretic” sense of the Church’s place in salvation… again, this gets back to some of the distinction I see between conceptions of perichoresis as (1) a Trinitarian interpenetration and (2) the specific unity of Father and Son through the Spirit.

    I am okay with the second conception, although I don’t know how appropriately that is called “perichoresis”. I am okay with the first conception, as well, but I think that it is a much more specific claim about the Trinity than is often employed in current theology (and you are careful to acknowledge as much by pointing to Gunton in a previous post). I don’t know if pointing out the second idea (of pneumatological unity) amounts to the Church being a perichoretic community. Crump’s article, I suppose, clarifies my wariness of using “perichoresis” to explain too much, even though he does employ language of perichoresis in describing Johannine ecclesiology.

    I am pretty sure that my stance on this is somewhat different than yours and Volf’s. But I think that I may disagree with some of what Crump is saying as well… he certainly isn’t making the same point that I am here. But, there you have it- I’ll leave it to others to comment further!

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:47 am | Permalink
  6. Evan wrote:

    I’ve read a chapter of Volf’s book thoroughly and otherwise engaged with him on a plundering basis- hunting for thoughts and quotes as needed for whatever I was currently working with. I should sit down with the whole thing at some point. I suspect that I would agree with a lot of what Volf says re: the Church as you’ve presented it here; where I disagree with him more is in his theology proper- on the Trinity and in his conceptions of personhood. That is, we may both read John 17 and agree on what the Spirit is doing in the Church, though we part ways in what this means for “imaging” the Trinity because of different commitments on the Trinity itself (and what “perichoresis” can be used to describe).

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:55 am | Permalink
  7. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I didn’t mean to imply that definitions are unimportant, merely to locate the discussion properly.

    I guess I don’t see how the two senses you mention are really two different things so much as two aspects of the same inter-trinitarian dynamic. It seems clear to me that the mutual interpenetration of the divine persons includes and characterized the unity of the Father and Son “in the Spirit.” In other words, perhaps I’d see the “specificity” in reverse order: the Spirit’s unifiying of the Father and Son is one “movement” if you will within the perichoresis of the trinitarian persons.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 9:58 am | Permalink
  8. Evan wrote:

    I think the difficulty of speaking about perichoresis comes from the fact that the idea of “interpenetration” is itself based on our understanding of the Trinitarian persons, a point on which there isn’t really theological consensus. Is this indwelling a unity of being between Father and Son, “mediated” by the Spirit who is Love? That’s a pill that many (including Gunton) can’t swallow. And for those who do, perichoresis doesn’t even tend to be the typical way of explaining such indwelling- perichoresis is tied much more closely to the idea of Trinitarian appropriation… not the idea of consubstantiality, but rather the idea that while Christ is uniquely Wisdom or the Spirit uniquely Love, the Trinity as a whole is fully Wisdom and Love. This conception of interpenetration is very different from that which views it more on the level of the distinct “persons”. As Trinitarian modes of being, do Father, Son, and Spirit indwell one another on the level of being? of a shared appropriation or activity? Whether or how one understands Trinitarian personhood as so many divine “subjects” is what makes it difficult to talk about perichoresis with those who understand these things differently, I think.

    But I would say, when considering such a difficult subject, even what sometimes ends up being definitional bickering helps (me, at least) mightily in clarifying what exactly the issue is.

    Friday, September 26, 2008 at 10:18 am | Permalink

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