In his book Perichoretic Salvation: The Believer’s Union with Christ as a Third Type of Perichoresis, James D. Gifford, Jr. offers the larger theological community a revision of his doctoral dissertation at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary. With the growing landscape of studies on union with Christ, especially within the broadly Reformed tradition, it is not uncommon to think, “I’ve already read this,” or “What does this piece add to the already extensive literature on union with Christ?” However, neither of these can be fairly applied to Gifford’s work, as it is a refreshing take on the subject-matter and is filled with obvious and appreciated conviction. What at first could seem like yet another unimportant academic journey into increasingly obscure minutia is, in fact, quite profound and full of significance for the identity and life of the Church. Gifford has recognized a gap, for few contemporary writers on union with Christ explore the ontological depths of union with Christ, a topic that deserves the Church’s attention precisely because it highlights the urgency of the New Testament’s appeal to live worthily of the Lord. After all, in the Epistle to the Colossians, it is on account of the headship of Christ that the body of Christ is called to wisdom and right living. It is this missing organic connection that typifies the problems in thinking and living with those false teachers vying for the attention of the church in Colossi. Similarly, union with Christ undergirds Paul’s logic in 1 Corinthians 6:12–20, where he pleads with his readers not to defile the temple of the Holy Spirit. Thus, it is fitting to explore why and how union with Christ can sit at the heart of these issues; amid these questions, it is also fitting to ask what in order to ascertain the nature of the union.
It is this latter question—what—that Gifford seeks to answer. Actually, Gifford’s what is never in question: union with Christ is a perichoretic relationship between Christ and believers. What is in question is whether Gifford is on to something. As an evangelical doing evangelical theology, then, there is no better place for him to start than with Scripture. Chapter 2, the first of his content chapters, explores the New Testament passages that are widely-accepted as alluding or referring to union with Christ. However, not to fall to the frequent critique leveled against evangelicals, Gifford also has a mind for tradition. Thus, in chapter 3 he turns to an evaluation of the history of union with Christ, beginning with Irenaeus and moving chronologically to contemporary theologians. In this section, his aim is to examine the ways in which past theologians have talked about union with Christ in order to gauge the ontological what of previous formulations of the nature of union with Christ. From there, in chapter 4, the final content chapter, Gifford turns to the constructive, drawing upon and examining three important biblical images related to union with Christ—covenant, marriage, and adoption—to show how they encapsulate the perichoretic what-ness of a believer’s union with Christ. Finally, in chapter 5, Gifford concludes his study by highlighting a number of areas in need of reexamination with perichoretic salvation in mind, most notably, Christian epistemology and ethics.
The structure of the book is fairly straightforward—biblical to historical to constructive—considering the apparently radical claim of the proposal. After all, though often ignored or forgotten as a theological category, perichoresis has historically been reserved to speak first of the interrelations of Father, Son, and Spirit in the Triune God; it has helped explain the orthodox Christian confession of monotheism while simultaneously professing Triune existence of the one God. Second, perichoresis has been used with reference to the Chalcedonian understanding of the hypostatic union: two natures (divine and human) united but unmixed in the one person Jesus Christ. With these two referents in historical discourse, is it not potentially dangerous to speak of mere humans not named Jesus as joined to God in this way? Or, as I initially asked and periodically rephrased throughout my literary encounter with Dr. Gifford, what is to be gained by introducing perichoresis into examination of the what-ness of the believer’s union with Christ? The structure anticipates just this question, for it is an attempt to move from the sola scriptura that evangelicals have historically wished to uphold, to the traditional that evangelicals have more recently begun to recapture, before finally doing the systematic work and constructing the positive claim.
But is the structure successful? Before addressing this question, we should situate precisely what Gifford wishes to say (and not to say) when he calls the believer’s union with Christ perichoretic. Drawing from the first and second “types” of perichoresis—i.e., the Triune and the Chalcedonian—Gifford argues that perichoresis is ultimately about “mutual indwelling without loss of individuality” (8). In the case of the Trinity, the first “type,” we have the purest instance of perichoresis, for Father, Son, and Spirit are able to indwell each other and participate with one another without an “ontological gap”: there is no asymmetry that results from an ontological deficiency by any one of the members because all are true God of true God. Indeed, this allows a full, unmediated participation in each other’s being. The second “type” also exemplifies the mutual indwelling and participation, though in this case, there is an ontological Creator-creature gap, for the human nature of Jesus Christ is incapable of indwelling the Son in the unqualified sense of the first type. Therefore, this second type of perichoresis is qualitatively different from the first type, though the beauty and mystery of the incarnation allows for mutual indwelling and participation in the person of Jesus Christ. In both of these types, there is no loss of identity. It is in neither of these senses that Gifford refers to union with Christ as perichoretic. Rather, he refers to this last form as a “third type” of perichoresis. Again, there is a qualitative and quantitative drop-off from the second type, and it is even more asymmetrical than the second type, but it is, nevertheless, a perichoretic relationship of mutual indwelling and participation (25–27).
Yea or Nay?
Returning to the question of success, it is to this end that the structure labors: is it fitting to refer to the believer’s union with Christ as a third type of perichoresis? Clarifying at every step and continuously assuring his readers that perichoresis “is able to hold together two different persons or natures in union and distinction without either absorption or separation” and that the “third type of perichoresis guarantees the unity and diversity in the soteriological union” (167), Gifford successfully demonstrates that among the New Testament writers, especially John and Paul establish just this relationship of mutual indwelling and participation without ontological confusion in the union between Christ and each believer. Further, his extensive reading in the tradition established that while perichoresis had not thus far been used to describe this union of Christ and believer, it very well could have in light of the language of those ranging from Irenaeus to Augustine, Luther and Calvin to Gunton and Torrance. Lastly, Gifford compellingly showed that the very images used by Scripture in Old and New Testament—covenant, marriage, adoption—call for an understanding of the believer’s union with Christ in something like a perichoretic way, even a “third type” of perichoresis. In other words, in the final analysis, Gifford’s work is a success.