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Larry Perkins Ph.D.

The Dance is Not Perichōrēsis

In several recent publications various authors have sought to support arguments related to the understanding of the Trinity by stating that the Greek noun perichōrēsis (cognate verb perichōreō) signifies dance or dancing. For example, George Cladis states that “Perichoresis means literally ‘circle dance’.”[1] Eugene Peterson concurs: “The dance is perichoresis, the Greek word for dance.”[2] In her discussion about the Trinity, Catharine LaCugna discusses various analogies “used to depict perichōrēsis.” But she finds them too limiting. Instead she suggests “this is why the image of ‘the divine dance’ has been used to translate perichōrēsis. Even if the philological warrant for this is scant, the metaphor of dance is effective. Choreography suggests the partnership of movement,…”[3]

But does perichōrēsis mean “a circle dance” and does the cognate verb mean “to dance”? The fact is that these terms have nothing to do with dancing. Liddell and Scott indicate that there are two distinct Greek verbs:

perichōreō means to go around. perichōrēsis is defined as ‘rotation’.[4]

perichoreuō means to dance around.[5] No cognate noun is listed.

So there is no warrant for suggesting that perichōrēsis has any connection with dancing in Greek Classical Literature.

Perhaps, though, it may have come to mean this and so the church fathers had this sense in mind when they applied it to the Trinity? A scan of the information revealed in Lampe’s A Patristic Greek Lexicon, however, is not encouraging:

perichōreō means “interchange” when used in reference to the two natures of Christ and “interpenetrate” when it describes the actions of the members of the Trinity. A similar range of meaning is found for the cognate noun.[6]

perichoreuō is also listed with the meaning “dance round”, but the primary references are found in Pseudo-Dionysius Aeropagita (5th century) and these uses are not related to the Trinity per se. Also, Lampe only lists three occurrences, whereas for perichōreō he lists many occurrences, both Christologically and in relation to Trinitarian discussions.

Again, we find no evidence that suggests perichōreō has anything to do with dancing.

St. John of Damascus (8th century) used perichōrēsis in his Exposition of the Orthodox Faith to describe how the members of the Trinity relate to one another. For example, he says “they are made one not so as to commingle, but so as to cleave to each other and they have their being in each other [kai tēn en allēlais perichōrēsin echousi] without any coalescence or commingling.” However in this context he makes no use of the analogy of dancing to explain this relationship. Augustus Strong indicates that “theologians have designated this intercommunion by the terms perichōrēsis, circumincessio, intercommunication, circulation, inexistentia.”[7]

What can we conclude from this? It seems that some writers have confused perichoreuō (dance round) with perichōreō (interpenetrate). Although the verbs sound similar and are spelled somewhat similarly, they have two quite different meanings. The primary lexica for Classical and Patristic Greek give no indication that perichōreō was ever used to describe the motions of dancing. Catharine LaCugna is right so far as she goes to say that “the philological warrant for this is scant.”[8] It is in fact non-existent.

If a person desires to use the metaphor of dance to describe the mutual interactions of the persons of the Trinity that might be useful and appropriate. However, one cannot justify the use of such a metaphor by trying to connect it with perichōreō. That tune will not play. Nor should one pretend that the term “choreography” in some sense relates to perichōreō. Again, there is no etymological relationship whatsoever. Perichoretic dancing is a modern invention that does not come from the meaning of the underlying Greek term or its use in the Church Fathers.

 

Larry Perkins, Ph.D.

December 8, 2006.


[1] George Cladis, Leading the Team-Based Church (San Francisco: Jossey-Bass Publishers, 1999):4.

[2] Eugene Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Eedrmans, 2005): 44-45

[3] Catharine LaCugna, God For us: The Trinity and Christian Life (San Francisco: Harper-San Francisco, 1973): 271. Peterson refers to her publication in footnote 15 of his volume and quotes from page 272 as support for his understanding.

[4] Henry G. Liddell and Robert Scott, A Greek-English Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1966):1394

[5] Ibid., 1393.

[6] G.W.H. Lampe, editor, A Patristic Greek Lexicon (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1968):1077-1078.

[7] Augustus Strong, Systematic Theology (Valley Forge, Penn.: Judson Press, 1974):333.

[8] Op. cit., 271.

2 Responses to “The Dance is Not Perichōrēsis”


  • Hi Larry, thank you for your thoughtful reflections on “perichoresis”. We may not come to agreement about some things regarding this term, but I thought I would comment on your post. It seems to me your concern is not so much whether or not the persons of the Trinity are in dynamic relationship (movement, giving, sharing, exchanging) but whether or not they are “dancing.” So, the concern is more about an English word than a Greek word, since perichoresis definitely implies movement. As you note, John of Damascus, who is after the classical (Liddell and Scott) and patristic eras of the church, used this term to describe the three persons of the Trinity as “cleaving” to each other — implying movement. I personally drew upon the work of Dr. Shirley Guthrie in “Christian Doctrine” to be helpful as well as Maroslov Volf (“After Our Likeness”) at Yale Divinity who both use the term “perichoresis” to mean a dynamic relationship of the persons of the Trinity that imply movement rather than a static state. Guthrie goes so far as to call it a dance, which I found intriguing, and believes the word can sustain that definition. However, whether or not we agree on that, I find John 1:1 to be interesting: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was WITH God…” “With” here is “pros” which implies movement. Other Greek words, as you know, could have been used (and are used elsewhere) to describe a more static “withness” but here John uses “pros” implying movement. So, many of us, looking at this verse and many others, conclude that the Godhead is in dynamic movement, sharing, giving, extending, inviting, reaching out, reaching in — rather than just…well…sitting still. And some of us describe this movement as “dance”. But, if that word feels offensive or too modern, then certainly other terms can be used to describe a God who refuses to sit still, either internally or externally. Regards, George Cladis

  • Thank you for your response. I appreciate the clarification. I have no issue with the Trinitarian relationship being described in a dynamic fashion as you indicate. Nor am I offended by the notion that this relationship may appropriately be described as “dancing,” despite my Baptist heritage! My point was simply that the term “perichoresis”, to the extent that I have been able to determine, did not mean “dance”, which seems to be the implication of some modern writers when they use this term in reference to Trinitarian discussion. So by all means we can use the analogy of “dance” to describe metaphorically such Trinitarian relationship, but I think it is not correct, if this was the intent, to suggest that the Greek term perichoresis means “dance”. Lampe in his Patristic Greek Lexicon does cite numerous examples of the use of the noun and cognate verb in the writings of John of Damascus. If I have misunderstood your intent, my apologies, but this is how it seemed to be expressed in your publication.

    I hope this clarifies my concern.

    I will not comment on the proposed interpretation of “pros” re John 1:1 as this was not discussed in the article. However, I will need to think more carefully about that proposal.

    And again, thank you for your response.

    Larry Perkins

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