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Re-viewing perichoresis

In an essay in the forthcoming book, The Great Tradition–A Great Labor, Edith Humphrey makes some interesting comments about the nature of the much-mentioned term in trinitarian theology, perichoresis:

Contrary to the common wisdom, the term perichōrēsis does not come from the root noun chōros (meaning “chorus,” as in Greek tragedy, or “dance”) but from chōra (meaning “place”). Perichōrēsis therefore means “going around and beyond one’s place” or “making room for.” The word refers to the reciprocity, alternation and interpenetration of the Persons of the Trinity. It was not meant to evoke anything so frivolous as a democratic round-dance, but is used to describe the great mystery by which Persons of the holy Trinity occupy the same “space,” yet are “near and towards” each other, in their distinctness. So the talk that we hear in some places about the “dance of the Trinity,” and our entering blithely into that dance, is mistaken.

Interesting stuff, though I’m sure there would be some who would debate the etymology. Regardless, though, it seems to me that Humphrey’s characterization certainly has more theological merit.


  1. WTM wrote:

    I hope TFT got a hat-tip for that.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:27 am | Permalink
  2. adamsteward wrote:

    Glad to hear someone taking on the “dance of god” blather, but arguments from etymology really don’t carry much weight. #JamesBarr

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:38 am | Permalink
  3. MFB wrote:

    I made a perichoresis/inter-penetration joke at a bachelorette party this past weekend. It was not well received.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:46 am | Permalink
  4. WTM wrote:


    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 10:54 am | Permalink
  5. Halden wrote:

    Stay committed to the bit, Melissa. If we give up trinitarian/penetration jokes what is left to us?

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:11 am | Permalink
  6. Halden wrote:

    Yeah, I don’t think her argument is really from etymology so much as she’s trying to say that this is how the term was actually used by those who came up with it.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:12 am | Permalink
  7. adamsteward wrote:

    We’ll be no different from the animals then.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:48 am | Permalink
  8. James wrote:

    This is raised by Gunton and I think other social trinitarians pretty regularly. Gregory Nazianzen first uses “chorein” in the sense of each person in the Trinity “making room for” = “containing” the other two. The dancing metaphor supplies rich homiletic fodder, but is entirely spurious from a philological perspective.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:50 am | Permalink
  9. WTM wrote:

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 12:11 pm | Permalink
  10. CaboTennisDude wrote:

    Is Wipf & Stock going to publish The Great Tradition–A Great Labor?
    If so, when?
    If not, do you know who is?
    Thanks in advance.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 12:51 pm | Permalink
  11. Halden wrote:

    Yes, we are. It should be out in the next few months, but there’s no solid street date yet.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 12:53 pm | Permalink
  12. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    I don’t have a problem with understanding the Trinitarian life, and our participation in it, in terms of dancing. If only because both Thomas Merton and Herbert McCabe have employed the analogy, I think we should keep it in the inventory of ways we try to talk about the Trinity. It conveys delight, celebration, and movement, as well as difference-within-unity. I agree that it can be “blather,” as Adam says, and it can be “frivolous.” But so can any other way of talking about a mystery. “Making room for” is certainly a bore.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 1:16 pm | Permalink
  13. CaboTennisDude wrote:

    Great! Good for you guys. Thank You.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 1:25 pm | Permalink
  14. dbarber wrote:

    What, exactly, would be the difference? Going around and beyond one’s place, leaving room for … isn’t that dancing?

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 1:42 pm | Permalink
  15. Tiny Fat Kiwi wrote:

    I think Edith’s trying to describe krunking without revealing that she knows what it is.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 2:05 pm | Permalink
  16. Spencer wrote:

    haha…i think you mean krumping…krunk usually refers to being high and drunk at the same time which would be a bit more of a stretch for perichoresis unless you went with “party” logic

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 2:47 pm | Permalink
  17. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    Because a word’s etymology determines the meaning of a word. Sorry, James Barr still lives in me.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 3:26 pm | Permalink
  18. R.O. Flyer wrote:

    And by “lives” I hope you recognize that there is a subtle distinction between bios and zoe.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 3:32 pm | Permalink
  19. I’m with Gene on this one. And I wonder if Humphrey is going after the likes of Elizabeth Johnson and her triple helix, more than say, Balthasar or Rahner.

    Wednesday, October 13, 2010 at 11:26 pm | Permalink
  20. kim fabricius wrote:

    Yes, it’s not like Humphreys is telling us anything we don’t know. And there can be a whiff of intellectual sanctimoniousness about puritanical etymologists who gottcha the dancers with their semantic mistake. Christ, if the personae aren’t pirouetting, the next thing you know they won’t be drinking either, and they’ll end up playing golf.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 1:23 am | Permalink
  21. polihronu wrote:

    Oh, the American disdain for finesse! Speaking of the trinitarian dance as based on the term perichoresis IS a sign of ignorance. I have no problem with a dancing God. But why dance around the technical issues? And then, how can a “dancing God” theologian (or preacher, usually not the same thing) still hold to an atemporal view of God? You can’t dance without time. You can only dance (and feud over etymologies – btw, there is no doubt on the etymology of perichoresis) within time. Finesse? Screw it!

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 3:48 am | Permalink
  22. Marvin wrote:

    Why, just this week, my theology professor posted this on Blackboard:

    “I myself believe a lot of the recent “excitement” about the doctrine of the Trinity is a tool of the devil to distract both the church and its theologians from matters of far more urgent significance.”

    Care to discuss?

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 8:53 am | Permalink
  23. Gene McCarraher wrote:

    Marvin — First, what does your theology professor consider “matters of far more urgent signfiicance”? I ask because people who raise objections to pondering allegedly “less” urgent and significant matters are really just registering anti-intellectualism — something of which academics can be as guilty as anyone else. Moreover, I think what one believes about the Trinity has an impact on what one thinks and does regarding “matters of far more urgent significance.” It seems obvious to me that what we believe about God is always of great mundane importance.

    Polihronu — True, you can only dance in time (and in space). But it is an analogy, after all, one of many we need to have which don’t all gibe together very well — they’re not supposed to, since that reminds us that God is a mystery.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 9:16 am | Permalink
  24. Richard Matcham wrote:

    Only last Sunday did I mention “Trinitarian perichoresis” in a sermon. I wasn’t thinking of a dancing Trinity when I said it, and for me, it was the best bit of the service – because I said it!! At least reading these posts it shows I’m not the only odd-bod out there. Cheers people!!

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 10:08 am | Permalink
  25. Byron Smith wrote:

    Stop having sex; it might lead to dancing.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 10:11 am | Permalink
  26. Hill wrote:

    Analogies aren’t allowed around here, Gene.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 10:16 am | Permalink
  27. Geoff wrote:

    Only for baptists, Byron… and only if they are standing.

    Thursday, October 14, 2010 at 4:14 pm | Permalink
  28. Bobby Grow wrote:

    As I recall TFT in his “Christian Doctrine of God” says the same thing. I wonder if Humphrey has been reading TF, and if she credits him for her thinking on perichoresis?

    Friday, October 15, 2010 at 1:08 am | Permalink
  29. Craig wrote:

    I am sorry. I do not believe in perichoresis: it might lead to dancing.

    Saturday, December 25, 2010 at 8:49 am | Permalink

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