The Trinity Doesn’t Dance

There are lots of blog posts and articles and books which paint a touching picture of the Trinity dancing; Father, Son and Spirit weaving together in the eternal music of heaven. It’s a image of beauty and harmony and sometimes, the author will extend the picture by saying that we humans, or even the whole of creation, is drawn into the divine dance. The basis of this idea is in an old Greek word that the Church Fathers used to describe the Trinity – perichoresis – from which we get our word choreography.

It’s a beautiful image, isn’t it?

Except that it’s a complete modern fabrication!

Though perichoresis may sound a bit like choreography, there is no relationship between the two words at all. Choreography is derived from another Greek word, choreuo, which (strangely enough) means ‘to dance’. Perichoresis is derived from two different words, and essentially means ‘indwelling’.

So why does this matter? Why am I getting all heated about an obscure bit of Greek etymology? Don’t I have better things to do on a Monday morning?

Why, if people find the image of a dancing Trinity helpful, should I allow a bit of linguistic sophistry to get in the way?

There are three things here. Firstly, Christianity is a revealed religion. We are simply not free to go around making up our own images and ideas about God, just because we find them helpful. There is nothing in Scripture that suggests God dances. What we have done is taken a Greek word that aims to capture the complexities of the Triune relationships revealed in Scripture, imagined that it actually means something that it doesn’t, added a large slice of post-modern wish-fulfilment and ended up with an image of God which appeals to us. I’m not saying that this is heretical, but it is certainly the way that heresies are developed.

Secondly, if a writer says that perichoresis means dancing they are showing that they can’t even be bothered to check a Greek word in a dictionary, or even on wikipedia. Why would you trust someone like that for your theology of the Trinity?

Finally, when Christian writers say things that fly in the face of fact, we are in all sorts of trouble. In a world where politicians and advertisers spin and lie, the church needs to be a place that people can turn to for truth and accuracy. If we can’t even speak accurately about the God we believe in, can we be trusted on other issues?

This rant has been inspired by this review of Richard Rohr’s new book, the Divine Dance.

Edit: a number of people on Facebook seem to be getting annoyed because I am criticising Richard Rohr. I’m not. The writer of the Gospel Coalition blog criticises him and if you have issues with what he writes, please take it up with him and not with me. I’ve been meaning to blog on this subject for ages but it was only when I read this review (which I came across because of an interest in Trinitarian theology) that I was inspired enough to actually write something. The point of this post is a geeky one about the misuse of language.

6 thoughts on “The Trinity Doesn’t Dance

  1. “Christianity is a revealed religion. We are simply not free to go around making up our own images and ideas about God, just because we find them helpful.” – I couldn’t agree less. Is not the very act of speaking about God making up images and ideas about him? The more I look in to Bible translation, the more it seems to me that it is filled with flaws, bias, opinion, and so our own images and ideas about God. Truth and accuracy are impossible goals in any attempt to understand or interpret God.

    The idea of the “divine dance” is actually something that resonates deeply with a deeply emotional experience I believe I had of God. For me, it’s a very true, helpful and valid way of understanding the ever present relationship between the divine. So for me, it doesn’t fly in the face of fact at all. It might not be a literal translation, but since when have we been relying on that fully? There are so many aspects of scripture that we don’t translate entirely literally for very good reason – so why this? is it so wrong in a postmodern world to try and find a postmodern answer?

    1. Having worked in Bible translation all of my adult life and being very aware (more so than you, in all probability) of the limitations of translation, I reject out of hand the caricature that translations are full of “flaws, bias, opinion, and so our own images and ideas about God”. Translations are not perfect, but to reject them out of hand in the way that you do is unfair. I assume that you now read the Bible in the original languages!

      That being said, I’m not sure what Bible translation has to do with my post anyway. Perichoresis is a term from Patristic theology, not the Bible. Even then, the problem is not one of translation, it is confusing one word for another. “Work” and “walk” are very similar sounding words, but that doesn’t mean that you can swap one for the other because you happen to like the idea, but that’s exactly what people who say perichoresis means dance are doing.

      If you find the image of God dancing to be helpful, that’s fine. But don’t twist the meaning of words in order to support your idea.

  2. Yeah, I think it’s a bit of a harsh literal interpretation of perichoresis Eddie (when there are plenty of other things you could have nailed). There is some form of movement within the idea of peri (around) choresis (movement) that could be reasonably interpreted as a dance. I was pleasantly reminded of this imagery by a speaker at a recent conference where he used the word to suggest we make room for one another in a give/take interaction, in the way that some theologians suggest is the interpersonal interaction within the Trinity. I don’t think there’s too much to lose by imagining that as something of a dance. I’ve used the dance idea myself, written a song about it even, and preached on it (from Matthew 11:16-19 – Jesus doesn’t DANCE to our tune, we must learn to dance to His). I think it has a lot of mileage as a metaphor for our age.

    Having said that, the jury is still out for me regarding Rohr’s latest offering (which I haven’t yet read). I like some of the concepts I’ve been reading about 2nd hand and I believe we need to find new theological language for postmodern contexts that (legitimately) illustrate what God has revealed concerning themself (sic). Much more than spin, we need to find better ways to transcommunicate theology in the West.

    I wonder if the problem, as you seem to indicate, is that people take Rohr too much at face value and, through their own eisegesis, read their own universalistic spirituality into it. Although, that wouldn’t be difficult since Rohr’s appeal is rooted in his own universalist views. However, I don’t think we can afford to throw the baby out with the bathwater. There is much to be learned from this thought-leader because he is communicating God in a way that is resonating with the zeitgeist. Is it wrong? Well yes, if the focus is on the Jedi-empowering “force”. But for me, as someone with an “indigenous” or tribal heritage, who almost tangibly senses the spiritual essence of all things (without attributing worship to those things), I can see value in Rohr’s artistic imaginings (for that’s what they seem to be) – so long as the Creator-Author-Source of all is seen as the Person of God (in three Persons) rather than the force itself.

    At base, I think this book will put theological discussion back in the area of public discourse, which is a great opportunity for us to engage in fruitful dialogue rather than diametrically diss it out of hand. After all, it’s a Wycliffe MK that is made a minor star in the telling of Rohr’s story. William Paul Young is credited with reviving Trinitarian concepts through his highly theological exploration, “The Shack” (sarcasm intended). Of all I’ve read so far, I find that claim the most incredulous, and I actually enjoyed The Shack – as a thought provoking novel.

    Soli Deo gloria!
    Keeping the main thing the main thing.

    Jay

    1. That’s a strange comment, Jay. You say that there are other things I could have nailed and then you wrote something that is as long as the original post.

      I won’t pick up on your comments about Rohr and The Shack because they are essentially off topic. But I will respond to your accusation of a “harsh literal interpretation of perichoresis”.

      Firstly; I really don’t think that you can extend meaning of “perichoresis” in the way that you have done. The central meaning of “chorein” is not movement (though that is definitely part of its semantic cloud). By the same logic that you use, you could say that the Trinity plays rugby, but I’m not sure that would be helpful.

      Secondly, the problem is that people don’t use your logic anyway. They say, counter-factually, that perichoresis is related to the word that we get choreography from. It isn’t. Feel free to call me harsh, a literalist or anything else, but “choreuo” and “chorein” are different words. The high profile conference speaker you mentioned (I edited your post to remove his name), made this allusion and he was wrong. Whether you found his ideas helpful or not (and I did), the basis he built them on was shaky.

      Thirdly, I’m not a patristics expert, but I’ve not seen any of the Church Fathers (who were the ones who coined the term), use the word in the sense of dance. I’d be interested if someone who knows the field could produce a counter-example.

      One last comment. My post looked at a specific issue; the confusing of perichoresis and choreuo. It’s a geeky distinction, but I gave three reasons in the post as to why I think this is important. In your lengthy comment, you didn’t address any of this. To come back at you with your own phrase there are “other things you could have nailed”.

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