Perichoresis: That word does not mean what you think it means

I am reading Alan Jacobs, A Theology of Reading: The Hermeneutics of Love right now, part of an attempt to make me a better reader, since I study and teach texts. What follows is perhaps not the hermeneutics of love, but I hope it is at least helpful? To soften it, I do think Jacobs has written an interesting, if at times challenging (I am more a philologist than literary critic) book. Sometimes I wonder why we need to work our way through Bakhtin to reach the end of the journey, but I imagine it is all worth it.

Anyway, in his discussion of Bakhtin, Jacobs mentions the Russian critic’s Orthodox background (even if Bakhtin was not himself particularly orthodox), and after a brief nod to theosis writes:

Moreover — and this is a still more important point for our purposes here — the God in whose image we were made and are being remade is a Trinity, that is, an intrinsically relational being. Here again we must invoke a doctrine that, although not unique to Orthodoxy, is characteristic of it: perichoresis, the eternal loving dance in which the persons of the Trinity are intertwined. To become deified … is to learn to practice with our neighbors the perichoretic movements that are so awkward for fallen human beings. (63)

There are two weaknesses here, one which this section shares with the preceding paragraph about theosis, and which is entirely forgivable, since no one can read everything. I shall quickly dispense with the first weakness, which is a lack of deep engagement with Orthodox thought on these points. Jacobs is neither a professional theologian nor, indeed, Orthodox. His métier is English literature and literary criticism. And he knows that body of literature very well. To complain that he does not reference Zizioulas on the Trinity or any of the Russian spiritual masters or contemporaries of Bakhtin discussed in Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers would verge on the petty. It would have been nice to see such engagement, nonetheless.

Then again, perhaps such engagement may have saved him from the other weakness, which is an error of fact.

Perichoresis is not about dancing, despite many westerners thinking so (most recently Richard Rohr).

The first place I learned that this word is not about dancing was Edith M. Humphrey’s book Ecstasy and Intimacy, her last book as an Anglican (she is now Orthodox). She phrased it very well, and if my notes were with me instead in a shipping container in the port of Vancouver, I’d share her thoughts with you. Alas.

Anyway, the O in perichoresis is long, not short (an omega, not an omicron). If this were about the ‘divine dance’ (into which we are allegedly invited in the minds of some), the O would be short. Instead, it is related to the verb choreo, translated by the big, fat Greek dictionary (affectionately known as LSJ) variously, depending on context. The most relevant of the brief definitions:

make room for another, give way, withdraw

after Homer, go forward, advance

to be in motion or flux

have room for a thing, hold, contain

The related verb perichoreo:

A.go round, “σὺ περιχώρει λαβὼν τὴν χέρνιβα”  Ar.Av.958π. τὴν Ἑλλάδα Thalesap. D.L.1.44.
II. rotateAnaxag.912.
2. to be transferred to, come to in succession, “ἡ βασιληΐη π. ἐς Δαρεῖον” Hdt. 1.210 ; “ἡ ὀργὴ π. ἐς τό τινων μίασμα” D.C.40.49.

The noun derived therefrom in Classical Greek is given by LSJ simply to mean ‘rotation’. This is obviously not exactly what Greek theology means while talking about the inner life of the Most Holy and Undivided Trinity. From what I can tell, when the word was used by St Gregory of Nazianzus (possibly the first to apply perichoresis to the Holy Trinity), it referred to mutual coinhering or mutual indwelling.

Thus, the choreo has to do with making room, and peri, literally ‘around’ as a prefix, has to do with the mutuality of the three. The point is not that the three divine Persons are dancing and making room in the divine dance for each, as cute and happy that image is. That is actually a very poor analogy, especially given the apophaticism of St Gregory in other places, that is, given his insistence on divine incomprehensibility and the utter unlikeness of God to us.

Rather, it has to do with the divine ousia, the essence of God Almighty, whereby that which the Father is, so also is the Son, and so also is the Holy Spirit. Whatever one does or is, so are the others. They have a single nature, substance, essence, and thus, although three persons, they mutually coinhere in perfect love. They do not ‘dance’ and let the other have room to dance. It is more intimate than that.

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Some quotes from Vincent of Lerins

Just because.

On the polyvalence of Scripture:

But here some one perhaps will ask, Since the canon of Scripture is complete, and sufficient of itself for everything, and more than sufficient, what need is there to join with it the authority of the Church’s interpretation? For this reason — because, owing to the depth of Holy Scripture, all do not accept it in one and the same sense, but one understands its words in one way, another in another; so that it seems to be capable of as many interpretations as there are interpreters. For Novatian expounds it one way, Sabellius another, Donatus another, Arius, Eunomius, Macedonius, another, Photinus, Apollinaris, Priscillian, another, Iovinian, Pelagius, Celestius, another, lastly, Nestorius another. Therefore, it is very necessary, on account of so great intricacies of such various error, that the rule for the right understanding of the prophets and apostles should be framed in accordance with the standard of Ecclesiastical and Catholic interpretation. (ch. 5)

Don’t preach heresy!

To preach any doctrine therefore to Catholic Christians other than what they have received never was lawful, never is lawful, never will be lawful: and to anathematize those who preach anything other than what has once been received, always was a duty, always is a duty, always will be a duty. (ch. 25)

Heresy is poison:

They have, in fact swallowed a quantity of poison — not enough to kill, yet more than can be got rid of; it neither causes death, nor suffers to live. O wretched condition! With what surging tempestuous cares are they tossed about! One while, the error being set in motion, they are hurried wherever the wind drives them; another, returning upon themselves like refluent waves, they are dashed back: one while, with rash presumption, they give their approval to what seems uncertain; another, with irrational fear, they are frightened out of their wits at what is certain, in doubt whither to go, whither to return, what to seek, what to shun, what to keep, what to throw away. (ch. 49)

They do, in fact, what nurses do when they would prepare some bitter draught for children; they smear the edge of the cup all round with honey, that the unsuspecting child, having first tasted the sweet, may have no fear of the bitter. So too do these act, who disguise poisonous herbs and noxious juices under the names of medicines, so that no one almost, when he reads the label, suspects the poison. (ch. 65)

The goal of church councils:

Finally, what other object have Councils ever aimed at in their decrees, than to provide that what was before believed in simplicity should in future be believed intelligently, that what was before preached coldly should in future be preached earnestly, that what was before practised negligently should thenceforward be practised with double solicitude? (ch. 59)

Looking for orthodoxy with Vincent of Lérins

So on the weekend, I read Vincent of Lérins’ Commonitorium. This fifth-century (ca. 432-440) text is famous for stating that catholic truth is that which has been believed always, everywhere, by all. This is probably all most people ever hear about the text, quoted with swelling chest by a certain breed of traditionalist, queried with raised eyebrow by those who are pretty sure this is a pretty useless approach to finding truth in real life.

I, personally, was more interested when he got talking about Christology. (No big surprise there!) But, since Vincent is more famous for his quest for catholic truth, I’ll write a pair of posts about the Lerinian monk, starting with the quest for orthodoxy.

First, the early fifth-century context. I’ve written about it a bit more fully here, but what you need to know is that monasticism is kicking off in a big way in southern Gaul (southern France) where Vincent lived, a few decades after the death of St Martin up north in Tours (Tours, on the Loire, is on the cusp of northern Gaul — they still have wine, though!). The island of Lérins (near Cannes and the beach) was a major centre for the ascetic life, and several Gallic bishops started off their ecclesiastical careers as Lerinian monks. Down the coast from Lérins is Marseilles, and around this time John Cassian’s famous works on the ascetic life were being published.

The predestinarian debate is going on in Gaul, starting to enter the phase where people we today call ‘semi-Pelagian’ are being challenged for not being Augustinian enough, including Cassian, Vincent, and the future abbot of Lérins and bishop of Riez, Faustus. Fun fact: All three are saints, so maybe we should cool our heresy-hunting predestinarian horses. Anyway, this debate leaves little trace in Vincent.

Vincent is more concerned about Christology. Off in Ephesus, the Bishop of Constantinople, Nestorius, had been condemned as a heretic in a council led by Cyril, Bishop of Alexandria, about which Vincent has knowledge. The condemnation of Nestorius at Ephesus in 431 is not, of course, the end of the story, not even for the 430s. Various letters are going back and forth, East and West, about the easterners who reject Cyril’s council, until a reunion between Alexandria and Antioch happens in 433, although there’s still some simmering on both sides afterwards.

Anyway: Orthodoxy. How do we know it? Obviously, it’s a hot topic in Vincent’s day, all this talk about predestination and whether Jesus was two persons or not.

The two most important things for Vincent are fidelity to Scripture and fidelity to tradition (ch. 4). He argues for the importance of tradition on the grounds that most heretics use the Bible in their defense (ch. 5). Even in small disputes, this is worth noting, as when I explained to a Presbyterian friend that episcopal hierarchy isn’t actually contrary to Scripture. (By ‘small’, I mean Presbyterians aren’t heretics.) The appeal to Scripture alone doesn’t necessarily help you against the Arian or the Origenist, does it? Thus: Tradition!

Vincent goes on to demonstrate times when you lean on antiquity when confronted by error and times when you put your weight on the testimony of the majority. He demonstrates novelty with the examples of the Donatists and Arians. The modern historian will point out that Donatists and Arians would claim that they taught nothing novel, but I do think that pure Arianism, in fact, by stating its case baldly, is a departure from antiquity, from the liturgical expression of the Church, from the (at leas) binitarian nature of biblical worship.

Donatism is actually a better example of the minority. If all the churches of the Mediterranean except for a small number in Africa go one way, are we to believe that the Africans are right? Of course, what about that time everybody was (semi-)Arian after the council of Rimini? Well, that’s why antiquity also helps. Hold them in tension, you should be able to figure it out.

Vincent also talks about why and how heresies arise. Why? Heretics are God’s way of testing the church. They are also a reminder not to be proud. Even Origen and Tertullian fell, after all. How? By not holding fast to antiquity, universality, and consensuality. By trusting in their own cleverness. Through pride. This is how heretics arise.

It’s a worthy warning for we who think ourselves clever when he pulls out Origen and Tertullian. Now, we may want to nuance both of these condemnations. (Like, was Tertullian actually a Montanist?) But still. We shouldn’t be over wise (Ecclesiastes 7:16).

The question is: What does all of this have to do with us?

First, we don’t have to reinvent the wheel. The consent of the 318 fathers at Nicaea, for example, when coupled with First Constantinople, First Ephesus, and Chalcedon, should have some weight in the question of, ‘Is Jesus fully God?’ We don’t have to recreate the doctrine of the Trinity from scratch — Athanasius, Hilary of Poitiers, and the Cappadocians have already been there and done that.

But Vincent’s approach does leave room for exploration. He has this idea of putting together your own little anthology of patristic greatest hits to help you on your way. (I suspect that this is what his Excerpta are.) He wants his readers to be delving into the works of the Fathers, not simply accepting the dogmatic formulae of the councils.

Bare dogma is not theology. It is a picture frame — sometimes a very ornate frame. Theology is the picture. (My image, not his.)

Second, this approach helps us test new-seeming ideas. I’m too tired to articulate anything here. Sorry.

The general idea is: Test the spirits. Use Scripture and tradition as tools when you come up against something you aren’t sure about. Does it fit in the picture frame of the statements from the councils? Can you find it in older writings? Is it counter to older writings? Do a lot of people in your communion believe this?

Finally, I don’t think it will work beyond the individual believer, because I’m an Anglican from Canada. I’ve already seen schisms in my lifetime because some rejected universality, others antiquity, and no consensus was available.

Anglo-Patristics

I’m sure someone has beat me to it, but I recently coined the term ‘Anglo-Patristic’ while thinking about what I would do if I ended up a theologian (instead of a philologist). Basically, as I imagined my work on dogmatic theology (not systematic, I don’t do academic systematics [whew!]), it was, in some ways, inspired by the Neo-Patristic works discussed by Andrew Louth’s Modern Orthodox Thinkers, or the Ressourcement and evangelical ressourcement stuff I’ve read — but the BCP, John Donne, and Lancelot Andrews kept invading.

So –Anglo-Patristic.

That is, it would be theology drawing deep from the resources of the Great Tradition, producing a synthesis of the Fathers on the important matters of the faith, yet bringing in resources of the Anglican tradition.

Why would anyone want this, you may ask?

Well, no matter how I go about things, I turn up Anglican. Perhaps a bit East-leaning. But Anglican, nonetheless. And when I consider the  triple schism of North American Anglicans and the impending one in England, I see the value of patristic wisdom not only for a rebirth of orthodoxy (as discussed by Thomas C. Oden) but also for a deepening of the faith within the evangelical and charismatic wings.

And, thus, maybe a way for liberals, catholics, evangelicals, and charismatics to find a richness in the Christian tradition without tearing each other apart and without jumping ship to the Eastern Orthodox, Roman Catholics, Baptists, or Pentecostals, as many are tempted to do. As many have done.

I guess because it appeals to me, I figure it would appeal to other people. To those who pray with Anglican liturgies, read Anglican lectionaries, revel in George Herbert or John Donne, who are also cognizant of being part of a rich theological tradition running from Ignatius and Clement through Athanasius and Augustine on to Anselm and Aquinas up through Hooker and Andrews to O’Donovan and Williams. For those whose spirituality includes John Mason Neale hymns and maybe also Steve Bell. For those of us who read Malcolm Guite and realise that Anglican spirituality can drink from the well of the Fathers as well as of the metaphysical poets.

An Anglo-Patristic synthesis is eminently Anglican. Nay, English, even — from Aldhelm, from Bede’s patristic commentaries, through Lanfranc and Anselm, Alexander de Hales, Robert Grosseteste, Alexander Neckham, let alone the actual Anglicans who have been immersed in the Fathers, whether Cranmer or Andrews or Jewel or Hooker or Parker, not to mention the turncoat John Wesley, on to young Anglican theologians and scholars I am glad to call my friends who study Augustine, Eustathius of Antioch, Athanasius.

If philology doesn’t work out, I know what I’ll do.

Some thoughts on McGuckin, The Path of Christianity

I’ve recently perused John Anthony McGuckin, The Path of Christianity: The First Thousand Years (IVP Academic 2017). I’ve not read the whole thing — frankly, I don’t have time, since it’s 1145 pages long and much of it is not pertinent to my current research, whether patristic or medieval, nor to my upcoming teaching in the Autumn (Latin epic and Latin verse epistolography in Autumn, and Theocritus and Greek Mythology in January).

My first thought is: What on earth students could use this as a textbook for a one-semester course on first millennium Christianity? Its 1145 pages are large with a typeface that, while not minuscule, is not large itself. Maybe students at Union Theological Seminary and Columbia are of a higher calibre than what I’ve experienced. Maybe McGuckin doesn’t actually intend you to use the whole book as a textbook; but he does intend it to be useable as a textbook.

That said, a certain amount of text is taken up by readings. So maybe it would work if you didn’t assign a separate book of readings.

In terms of coverage, it is geographically broad, but most interested in patristic and Byzantine things. Nonetheless, it does reach as far East as China and as far South as Ethiopia. There is a whole section devoted to churches outside the Latin-Greek spectrum that takes up most of the attention in church history books. The volume is divided into two sections, one that is a diachronic study of the story of the church and doctrine, whilst the other is an investigation of particular themes. McGuckin’s advice is to read part one in order but to intersperse the chapters from part two along the way, in whatever order you please.

I read a good chunk of Chapter 13 (pp. 763-789), and this chapter I recommend heartily: ‘The Bible and Its Interpretation in the Early Church’. He takes to task the modern approach to biblical studies, arguing that the ecclesial way of reading Scripture was prevalent amongst all Christians prior to the nineteenth century. I always like this kind of thing, because is the Bible is God’s revelation to humanity, then there are legitimate ways of reading it other than ‘how I read any other ancient text’, and it will also legitimately speak to us in different ways.

It seems patently obvious to me.

That’s why I do Latin and Patristics, not Biblical Studies.

The first chapter is also very good. He gives good coverage of the early movements within the Christian movement, and I would feel comfortable giving it to my students to read. His central thrust here is that the second century is one of the most important for everything that follows, and I agree.

I did not agree with every chapter I dipped into, I must admit. I think there’s more to Leo the Great’s Tome than McGuckin acknowledges, but I think most people miss what’s going on because the issue is not whether Leo is in step with the times or any of that, but, rather, cross-linguistic theology done by a Latin and the actual semantics of natura vs. physis. But most people don’t think about Latin Christology this way, seeing, as here, it as simply a re-statement of Hilarius of Poitiers and Augustine full stop. But that shouldn’t stop you from reading what McGuckin has to say here.

Likewise, I wasn’t sold on his interpretation of the Pelagian debate as manufactured by Augustinians and not actually a thing. My own position in this debate tends more towards the East, but given how much energy was expended in the initial Pelagius-Caelestius end, and then against Julian of Aeclanum, and later amongst so-called ‘Semi-Pelagians’ and ‘Augustinians’, I think something was happening here. Why is it confined to the Latin West? I’m not going to be reductive about every East-West difference, but I do suspect that gratia is not charis.

My final similar lament is simply a matter of a different reading of evidence for the Acacian Schism. McGuckin takes the standard line that it was over the Henotikon, but it is evident to me, at least, that from Gelasius’ standpoint, visible in his letters at length, it was Acacius entering into communion with Peter Mongus that was at least as important, if not more so.

Some of the translations of primary texts in the readers accompanying each chapter were a bit stilted.

In all, if you have some time, read the bits that interest you. If you have more time, read all 1145 pages. If have a lot more time, add the appendices on top.

Grace, Christology, and the disciplined life

Bernardino Luini – St Jerome in Penitence, 1525

My research has recently brought me into contact with Fulgentius of Ruspe, an African theologian who lived c. 467 to c. 532. Some say he is the greatest African theologian of antiquity post-Augustine. Fulgentius is not an original thinker. He is, however, articulate and a great synthesiser. His job is not to be original. When you read his letters, you see a man who knows what catholic doctrine is and who wants to help his correspondents understand this doctrine better.

My research interest is in his reception of Leo the Great (of course), so I’ve not actually got to the topic of this post in Fulgentius. Nonetheless, of note in Fulgentius’ corpus is correspondence with Scythian monks about Christology and the question of grace/predestination.

Normally, we separate these two concerns. Christology is a largely eastern concern on which the West does its best to be as unoriginal as possible and simply re-articulate Hilarius of Poitiers, Augustine, and Leo the Great. Grace/predestination/freewill is a western debate not often, therefore, connected to Christology. (This is a point made differently in the English translation of Fulgentius’ letters to the Scythian monks by Rob Roy McGregor [real name, I swear!] and Donald Fairbairn.)

This is related to a research question I have been toying with: Why are certain monks against Nestorianism?

Nestorianism, you will recall, is the teaching that Jesus Christ exists in two persons, one divine, one human. John Cassian, the alleged ‘semi-Pelagian’ monastic leader in Marseille (but, really, semi-Augustinian?), wrote a Latin tract On the Incarnation Against Nestorius on behalf of then-Archdeacon Leo of Rome. Mark the Monk, off in Ancyra and, later, Palestine, also wrote in Greek against Nestorianism. Third, Shenoute of Atripe, the greatest of Coptic writers, also wrote against Nestorianism.

I am uncertain about Shenoute, but Mark and Cassian also wrote about predestination and freewill, Mark in ‘On Those Who Think They Are Made Righteous by Works’ and Cassian in Conference 13. Neither is a friend to the -ism associated with Pelagius, although neither fully embraces the -ism of the Augustinians. To the Latin West as represented by Cassian and Pope Celestine I, Nestorius’ association with Theodore of Mopsuestia was damning because of Theodore’s own friendliness towards Pelagius and Caelestius.

My hypothesis runs something like this. Part of the heart of the Pelagian debate is whether or not one’s discipline is what ‘saves’ him/her. How much is enough? Is it all my own will? How responsible am I for my own righteousness? My own sin? How does my freedom interact with God’s sovereignty?

To many people, the teaching associated with Nestorius undoes the divinity of Jesus. By bifurcating the Messiah, the human is not really assumed by the divine, they argue (thus abrogating communicatio idiomatum, on which I’ve blogged). If Jesus the man has to do everything as a man, then God isn’t really saving us, and Jesus the man has no saving power. I may be missing parts of anti-Nestorian polemic. Forgive me. This certainly is not meant to represent Nestorius, I assure you.

Think about this, then. God has not truly become man. He just gave a particular kind of special grace to Jesus. Jesus becomes just a moral exemplar. Regardless of what Pelagius, Caelestius, or Julian of Aeclanum actually believed, this is precisely the sort of thing their opponents were gravely concerned about. Grace is now inaccessible, really.

On the other hand, whether you are a conservative Cyrillian or a traditional Latin in the cast of Pope Leo, Jesus Christ is most assuredly completely and utterly God. You can also tell he is fully human. But in the person of Jesus of Nazareth, God has rent the heavens and come down. He has entered to the fullest into the human condition. He did not simply join himself to Jesus or have a conjunction (the sort of language used by Nestorius and Theodore). The entirety of a unique human nature was experienced by God.

Grace can flow from him to us. Prayer matters. Union with God through Christ in Eucharist, in prayer, in baptism — this is freely available to all who truly repent and turn to him. Your disciplines may not save you, but they can make you more like the man Jesus. And the man Jesus is definitely God. So God can use them in you to perfect you and draw you closer to the mystical goal that is the end of all Christian ascetic practice — union with God, Godmanhood, theosis.

I think, then, that in ascetic theology, grace and Christology are intimately united.

I’ll have to see what Fulgentius has to say.

Meditation and Intercession

Andrew Murray

I’m reading Andrew Murray, With Christ in the School of Prayer just now. It’s been my devotional book since Easter. I wish I could say I’ve taken this long because I’m savouring and applying it, but, really, I’m just distracted and lazy. Anyway, many of the major lessons in this book about intercessory prayer are really about what historically we would call ‘meditation’ (with a bit of room for contemplation as well).

Historically, the Christian tradition has meant by meditation the active use of the mind to ruminate upon some passage of Scripture or some aspect of God or some deed in salvation history. To spend time with it and immerse the mind and heart into it as a way of drawing closer to God, of uniting the mind with the heart.

Murray counsels the reader at many times that in order to unlock the promises and mysteries of prayer, we need to enter into a richer relationship with God and a fuller understanding of His person and relationship to us. For example, one of the lessons Christ teaches us in the school of prayer is that our heavenly Father gives good gifts — or even the Holy Spirit — to his children.

The meditation on this verse takes two aspects. First, meditate on the Fatherhood of God. What does it mean for God to be our Father? And what does it mean, then, for us to be his children? What sort of gifts would a good Father give? What sort of children can expect to get anything they ask from their fathers?

The answer to the last question takes us to a meditation on how we relate to God. If we are not spending time with God, or if we are consciously living in a way that displeases God, how likely is it that God will give us what we ask? And how will we know what sorts of things God is likely to give?

Think on this: If you spend no time with your father, despite his desire to be with you, but want a car for your sixteenth birthday both for the awesomeness of the car and its practicality, is he really going to give you a car? He will give you a good gift, certainly. But not a car.

This is dangerous thinking. It can lead into moralism, legalism, the belief that we can merit God’s favour. It can lead into treating God like a genie. But then — if we spend more time meditating on the character and attributes of God, more time reading Scripture and meditating on its truths and God’s actions, more time being silent before the throne of God — frankly, if we spend more time with God, we will come to know Him well, and knowing Him will protect us from all the dangerous -isms of Christian thinking.

Throughout With Christ in the School of Prayer, Murray takes us on meditations and encourages us to be silent before God as well as to meditate upon Him and upon Scripture. The more we do these things, the better we know God and the more we are conformed to the likeness of Christ. The more our wills align with His. And the more we will see our own prayers answered.

Some people like to pit different kinds of prayer against each other. I have read pieces that are harsh on evangelicals because they do not know the great riches of contemplative prayer but only wade in the shallows of intercession. I have no interest in such ways of thinking.

All prayer is united, whether supplication, intercession, meditation, contemplation, adoration.

They flow and work together, and each is part of healthy Christianity. And there are probably more evangelical contemplatives than you’d think (and they may not even know that’s what they’re doing).

So: Meditation and intercession. They work together.