Tuesday, May 25, 2010

"When I Hear the Word 'Perichoresis,' I Reach for My Revolver."

Father Anonymous loves to preach; it is one of the few pleasures in life which he finds both legal and unalloyed. Each year, however, the church's calendar provides him three opportunities to reconsider this position: Transfiguration, Ascension, and Trinity.

They are observances of fundamental importance, but they are also -- let's face it -- homiletical challenges. To modern ears, one sounds purposeless, one sounds cheaply theatrical, and one is by its nature a combination of two words largely hostile to the modern churchgoer: "medieval" and "doctrine."*

Those readers who are preaching come Sunday, as the Church celebrates the Trinity, have a number of strategic choices before them. One is to exegete the texts with no purposeful reference to the feast. A bit cowardly, though, isn't it? Another is to delve deeply into the (ahem) substance of the ancient controversies -- offer a learned rebuttal to the Eutychians and Monothelites. Or failing that, to tell a sweet, largely invented story about some anonymous French monk composing the creed which was later named for Athanasius. In fraternal frankness, we humbly suggest that the moment of opportunity for this approach has passed. There is just one old lady in your congregation who really cares, and you shouldn't indulge her.

Another approach, particularly popular among those who have finished seminary in the last half-century, may be to talk about "perichoresis." It is, after all, a good old-fashioned patristic word. On top of that, it means "dancing," which always makes the feminists and liberals-in-general happy. And it does provide the opportunity to lay out a model of the Trinity which can, at the very least, give the average churchgoer something to carry home to lunch.

But a word of caution. In an essay some years ago, quoted at the excellent Faith & Theology blog, Reformed theologian (and noted classroom Lutheran-basher) Bruce McCormack warned about the tendency to expand perichoresis beyond its historic use, so that it no longer describes the action of the persons of the Trinity alone, but also of human beings, or the whole creation:

Perichoresis … is rightly employed in trinitarian discourse for describing that which is dissimilar in the analogy between intra-trinitarian relations … on the one hand and human-to-human relations on the other. Nowadays, we are suffering from ‘creeping perichoresis,’ that is, the overly expansive use of terms – which have their home in purely spiritual relations – to describe relations between human beings who do not participate in a common ‘substance’ and who, therefore, remain distinct individuals even in the most intimate of their relations.”

—Bruce L. McCormack, “What’s at Stake in Current Debates over Justification? The Crisis of Protestantism in the West,” in
Justification: What’s at Stake in the Current Debates, ed. Mark Husbands and Daniel J. Treier (Downers Grove: IVP, 2004), p. 111.

The blog post is well worth reading, for a brief string of thoughtful comments both pro and con. We take no particular position on this, except to sympathize with our fellow preachers as they are given ten or twelve minutes to say something worth hearing about the deepest mysteries of God.
*(Yes, we hear your howls, however pedantic, and respond with pedantry of our own. The doctrine is patristic, but the feast is medieval. Prior to the 14th century, there were local celebrations of the Trinity, but no universal observance -- indeed, one was specifically rejected by Alexander II on the quite reasonable grounds that the Church's worship always celebrates the Trinity.)


Gillian said...

In one of the most ironic moments of my theological training to date--which is saying quite a bit!--I got a "4"(out of 4) on the Theology and Missiology General Ordination Exam of the Episcopal Church solely b/c of Bruce McCormack and his Anglican-bashing, which was just as strong as his Lutheran-bashing, if slightly less frequent b/c there are fewer examples of historical Anglican/Lutheran debates to riff on. This year's ST question was on the doctrine of the Atonement: 3 phrases pulled from the BCP which evidenced 3 different views of the Atonement. "A. Describe the theology of atonement represented by each numbered quotation above and distinguish one from another.
B. How does this variety of theologies reflect the Anglican theological tradition? In what ways is this dimension of our tradition important and useful today?

I had taken BLMcC's Atonement course, which was equivalent to a PhD seminar in the topic by Episcopal standards. And since he was rather opinionated that some views of the atonement (cough Barth cough cough) were the best and the rest, including my own, were at best 'deficient,' I had ample practice at a) teaching myself, b) explicating, and c) defending a more Anglican POV. A defence which felt futile, frustrating and demeaning at the time, but finally paid off 15 years later, when it was still so vividly etched in my memory I could spout it back for 3 pages on my GOE paper.

Father said...

Kinda takes ya back, don't it?

I never had the pleasure of having BLMcC use my own confessional tradition as a tackling dummy on the practice fields of Reformation football. Weighing my options, and never being much inclined to systematics, I concluded that my best option was to get off the Dinky at 8am, after working a 12-hour overnight shift in Manhattan, and spend 3 hours with a different but well-known Reformed theologian, in those days regrettably off his antidepressants. Studying Aquinas.

It was not the easiest semester of my life, but to this day I have never once regretted it.

mark said...

On topic: Why not a brief but insightful talk on why the "Athanasian" creed has been left out of the ELW? That could include a few fibs about the anonymous "French" monk.
Or, I suppose, you could wander off into speculation about Charles Williams' brushing up against perichoresis with his coinherence. ;)

Father said...

Has it really? Really? No, that's not possible. Let me run and check my copy ....

Huh. I'll be damned. Or anyway, *somebody* will. It's in the creed.

Anonymous said...

I, too, was stunned to discover that the Athanasian Creed was left out of the ELW. There is so much extraneous crap in there. (Honestly, who is going to reference the Small Catechism from the ELW? And in a font no one over 21 can read?)


Pastor Joelle said...

I have no problem leaving Athanasias and his creed on the shelf or at least in Adult Sunday school but out of the liturgy.

I realized in Adult Sunday School last week that we have to stop copping out with sermons on the Trinity that simply say "oh it's a mystery...we can't explain it" when my class was quite shocked when I had to tell them that actually the example of an apple is really not a good explanation of the Trinity. (Wait --is Jesus or the Holy Spirit the peeling?) I could go on, but again I hate to waste it here, when I plan to blog about this myself. Stay tuned...maybe tomorrow

Pastor Joelle said...

I actually LIKE the idea of the small catechism being in our worship book. Better than the Athanisian creed.

Father said...

I want them both, and could make good use of them both. But I would trade them in a heartbeat for an un-monkeyed-with psalter.

mark said...


Soulbuick02 said...

The Athanasian creed was perfect reading fodder for so many of us youngsters during long sermons. Maybe AF can print a nice pew insert?

Pastor Joelle said...

I'm doing it. I'm putting Perichoresis in my sermon. Tell your wife to hide the revolver.