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[Common Places] Pro-Nicene Theology: Theologia and Oikonomia

Categories Theology Common Places

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church. For introduction to the series, see this first post.


The individual terms theologia and oikonomia have long histories of their own in classical Greek, but the first time we find these two terms paired in Christian writing is in the work of the famous theologian and exegete Origen of Alexandria (died c. 254). He speaks in the 18th of his Homilies on Jeremiah of God speaking “theologically about himself, and [not about] his plan (oikonomia) for human matters” (18.6.3). Whereas theologia concerns the nature of God, God’s oikonomia refers to God’s concern for and ordering of his creation, specifically the incarnation of the Son. When we speak of oikonomia, we also speak of the manner in which God reveals himself and speaks in a manner that reaches and draws us to him.

Students and devotees of Origen took up this distinction. Half a century after Origen’s death, Eusebius of Caesarea begins his famous Ecclesiastical History by telling us he needs to speak of the “oikonomia and theologia of Christ.” Eusebius goes on to discuss who the Word of God is, his titles and origin, his relationship to the Father. This is all “theology.” Eusebius then discusses the appearances of the Word in the history of Israel (the “theophanies”), the Incarnation, the manner in which God educated and chastised humanity to prepare them for the coming of Christ. All this is God’s “economy.”

Eusebius offers us this pairing only once, and we next meet it in the famous “Cappadocian” theologians Basil of Caesarea, Gregory Nazianzen, and Gregory of Nyssa. Toward the end of his own Against Eunomius, written c. 365, Basil comments on Acts 2:36 “…God has made this Jesus, whom you crucified, both Lord and Christ.” He uses the distinction (against his opponent Eunomius) to argue that the reference to the Son being “made” is only with reference to oikonomia; the Scripture speaks only of the Son’s becoming human, not of his nature in itself. In this case the language is used to express a principle common to pro-Nicene theologians: the careful reader of Scripture has to distinguish passages that speak of the Word of God directly from those that speak of the Incarnation and the Incarnate Word.

Gregory Nazianzen’s wonderful Oration 38 “On the Theophany,” probably delivered at Christmas or Epiphany 380/381, celebrates “God’s coming to the human race so that we might make our way to him” (3). Gregory offers a hymn to the nature of God as containing the whole of being “like and endless, boundless ocean of reality; he extends beyond all our notions of time and nature, and is sketchily grasped by the mind alone…” Gregory reflects on the difficulty of comprehending God—“the only thing completely comprehensible about it is its boundlessness” (7)—the same for Gregory as its simplicity. Then, suddenly, Gregory changes tack: “so much for our present philosophical reflections on God. For this is not the time for such things, since our present task is to speak not in terms of theologia but of oikonomia” (8). In this passage theologia is again reflection on God as such, of God’s nature. But oikonomia? In what follows Gregory sets out first the need for the Good to pour itself out in the creation of that which could receive its gifts. He speaks of the angelic hosts and other intelligent spirits, then of the material world, then of the human being within the material world, as one who could join both realms. After the fall God disciplined humanity, and his ordering culminates in the sending of the Son into flesh from the Virgin: “O new mixture! O unexpected blending!” (13). Oikonomia here indicates God’s dispositions, his activity in ordering all that is external to God.

The distinction is then used on occasion by later Greek theologians—Maximus the Confessor and John Damascene, for example—and crops up again from time to time in the history of theology until it becomes extremely popular in writing of the past thirty years. Latin theology has its own way of expressing the same distinction.

It is worth noting what this pairing is not. It is not an opposition between what we need to know centrally as Christians and material of a more speculative nature. To understand the divine economy we need to know who has taken flesh for us, we need to know theologia. In turn, to understand how we should speak about God we need to know something of the manner in which God reaches down to us in order to draw us up. Attending to the “economy” provides an education in God’s love, and an education in how God addresses us in terms that will reach us—and hence in the path our thought and speech must take if we are to ascend back toward the divine being.

This distinction is also not an opposition between that which Scripture teaches and that which we know only by abstraction. In the examples we have given Scripture draws us into reflection on both theologia and oikonomia. Without understanding one we cannot grasp the other. Scripture speaks in many places of the divine being and relations, in the New Testament that which has been revealed through the history of Israel is then focused anew and deepened through Christ’s teachings, through his actions, and through the inspired witness of gospel writers and the apostles. The work of collecting, organizing, comparing Scriptural statements and reflecting on them individually and together is a work to which God calls and draws us as part of the resurrection of the mind that he effects (theological thinking is a gift, not a burden or a sin!).

And, finally, this distinction is not the same as the modern opposition between the “immanent” and “economic” Trinity. That distinction is, as I think Bruce Marshall has shown particularly clearly (see his essays in The Thomist 74 (2010) and in the Blackwell Companion to Modern Theology), a nineteenth-century distinction that leads us down paths best and fairly easily avoided. Scripture gives us the materials to talk about the Trinity, God as God simply is; Scripture also enables us to talk about God’s plan for revealing himself and God’s plan for redeeming; there is no Trinity revealed “in the economy” distinct from the Trinity that is the one God. As the Catechism of the Catholic Church has it: “Through the oikonomia the theologia is revealed to us; but conversely, the theologia illuminates the whole oikonomia. God’s works reveal who he is in himself; the mystery of his inmost being enlightens our understanding of all his works.”


Lewis Ayres (DPhil, Oxford University) is Professor of Catholic and Historical Theology at the University of Durham. He is the author of Nicaea and Its Legacy: An Approach to Fourth-Century Trinitarian Theology and Augustine and the Trinity, along with many essays and edited works.


Common Places is a regular column on the Zondervan Academic blog with a focus on systematic theology. The loci communes or “common places” of Christian theology, drawn out of the Scriptures and organized in a manner suitable to their exposition in the church and the academy, have functioned historically as common points of reference for theological discussion and debate. This column will focus upon the classical loci of systematic theology, not as occasions for revision, but as opportunities for entering into the ongoing conversation that is Christian systematic theology. We invite you to join and dialog with us on the first and third Thursdays of every month. For more about Common Places, read the column introduction.

Our current series, Pro-Nicene Theology, offers doctrinal and exegetical entries to the key tenets of basic Trinitarian orthodoxy as developed in the early centuries of the church.

Michael Allen and Scott Swain, editors

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