Orthodox Outlet for Dogmatic Enquiries Christian Dogmatics and About God

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II. Basic principles of Patristic teaching

4. Discerning between «Theology»  and «Providence (oikonomia)»


       The question of the “Provident” Trinity’s affiliation to the eternal Trinity was also related to the Filioque issue.  The following observations on this point are basic ones.  First of all, the Fathers had stressed that the essence of God is altogether inconceivable, unthinkable and incomprehensible, and, for the Fathers of the East, it is also without participation, that is, one cannot participate in the essence of God.  According to the West, the Scholastics and Aquinatus, it is possible to participate in the essence of God.  Therefore, from this aspect, we can discern the difference between “theology” and “Providence (oikonomia)”.  If “theology” were to concern itself only with the essence of God, then there would have been no problem, because, the essence of God is something incomprehensible and as such, we would have no theology on the essence of God.

But theology, as a field of reference to God as He is throughout eternity, is juxtaposed to Providence (oikonomia), which preoccupied itself with the Trinity - the Triadic form of God’s existence. Therefore, we cannot say that here we have an absolute opposition, and that we have nothing to say; We can speak of the persons of the Holy Trinity, and not only can we speak of them, but – more importantly – we can participate in the life of the three Persons.  It is the life that God has precisely invited us to participate in, through our theosis: our participation in the life of the Trinity, by partaking of the filial, loving association between the Father and the Son.  And that is what Christ did: he brought to this world, to us, this relationship between the Father and the Son.  And He said to us “now you are also a part of this relationship, and my Father shall acknowledge you as His sons”.   This is the ultimate gift of adoption. It is thus, that we enter the Triadic life of God.

       Here, there is no room for negation.  One must be careful here, because lately, we have begun to flirt somewhat excessively with Negation, as Lossky for example did.  There are very many dangers in this theory of Negation.  With regard to the essence of God, there is no doubt whatsoever that we have Negation. Nobody can talk about the essence of God.  But to confess our faith in the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit, that is not Negation; we know that God is Father, Son and Holy Spirit.  With regard to the persons, we have affirmation; and it is not only a logical and intellectual affirmation because we have confessed it as such; it is a participation, an existential participation, in which we partake of these personal associations of God.  With the Holy Trinity, there is no room for negation, except perhaps during the use of analogies, none of which are befitting the Holy Trinity.  When we wish to describe the Trinity with human analogies, the analogies will inevitably stop somewhere, as in the analogy of the three (separate) persons etc.

       Since we can, therefore, make mention of God per se with regard to His Triadic existence and not His essence, then the question is posed as to whether our reference to the Trinity in God’s eternal existence is supported by, or rather reveals, the same relations and the same attributes that are revealed in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’.  Let us take Augustine for example. When he gives a definite hypostatic attribute to the Logos by naming Him “God’s Knowledge”, then whenever the Logos reveals Himself within the ‘providing’ Trinity, within ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, He must, above all, reveal Himself with this hypostatic attribute of His, namely Knowledge.  In other words, this will be the revelation or the cognitive means by which we may reach God.   And in fact, during the 2nd and moreso in the 3rd century, the meaning of Logos was conveyed in this sense.  The Son’s relating to the Logos in the Gospel of John, gave rise to Justin and a number of other contemporary writers to see in the Person of Christ the cognitive means by which we could reach God. That is why he placed all philosophers within this “seminal” logos as he named it:  They are all participants of expression, therefore the attribute of the Son is a revelatory means for the cognizance of God.  At the same time, the Holy Spirit manifests itself with other attributes, such as the attribute of communion, hence the Holy Spirit presents God as a communion.

       Now, whether the Holy Spirit and the Logos have these attributes in Their hypostases eternally, or they take them on for our sake during ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, is a delicate and very significant issue.  The Greek Fathers avoided giving definite hypostatic attributes to the Persons of the Holy Trinity, because if they did what Augustine did by giving hypostatic attributes, we would then have to say that whatever God is in His eternal existence (for example that He is the Logos), this would also apply during ‘Providence (oikonomia)’. In this way, we would arrive at a compulsory ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, because if the Son were the Logos of God, or the cognizance of God, then this cognizance must also permeate ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, in order for God to be recognized.  He would perforce have to be carried over to ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, through the Son.  In Mediaeval times, the question had been posed as to whether any other of the Persons of the Holy Trinity could become incarnate. The answer given by some was that this was possible; there was no logical necessity for the Son alone to become incarnate.  Other contemporaries (and more recently Rahner and other western theologians) claimed that only the Son could have become incarnate, because He alone is the Logos Who makes God known. Within God Himself eternally, God recognizes Himself through the Son – the Logos. Therefore if God wants to make Himself known to us as well, in Providence, He must again use this instrument of knowledge that He has, i.e., the Logos.  This choice is subsequently a compulsory one that incarnates the Logos. It is not free.

On the other hand, if we avoid giving a definite content to the attributes of the Persons, and of course do not relate the Logos as God’s cognitive instrument, then why should only the Son become incarnate?  We have no logical answer, no compulsory logical argument that could convince anyone that only the Son could become incarnate, simply because He alone has that attribute. Instead, we attribute it to freedom, inasmuch as the Son said, “yes” to the Father freely, and that He took on this mission ( Providence (oikonomia) ) upon Himself.  We are thus moving within a realm of freedom and not in an atmosphere of logical necessity. Otherwise, if we were to give a positive content to the hypostatic attributes, we would necessarily be moving along the lines of logical need with regard to ‘Providence (oikonomia)’.

       When the issue of the Filioque is expanded on, you shall see how both Augustine and Aquinatus indeed supported the argument that if the Son and Logos are the cognizance of God, and the Spirit is the Love of God (note Augustine’s argument which Thomas repeats), then the Spirit’s origin must be eternally dependent on the Son also, because (as stressed by Augustine) cognizance precedes Love; you cannot love something that you do not recognize.  This is a gross mistake, as analyzed in the relative chapter; at any rate it gives rise to a logical argument, a logical requisite.  If you cannot love something that you do not know, then God cannot love Himself, without prior cognizance of Himself through the Son, and this can be so, only if based on the association between memory and cognizance, which enables, specifies and realizes the Mind’s cognitive ability, which is God.  It is only on this basis that Love – the Spirit - can be constructed. You can understand how, in this way, we are dealing only with logical necessities when we give a positive content or positive attributes to the hypostases. And, by avoiding to give this definitive content, the Greek Fathers are simultaneously introducing an air of freedom to all the important questions such as “why does the Son become incarnate, and not the Spirit?”

       However, this means we cannot fully relate the Trinity of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ with the eternal Trinity of Theology. There is a certain difficulty here. If we do not associate it, we risk claiming that in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, God did not give nor did He show His true Self, but that He was somehow hiding something from us; that He did not tell us who He actually is. Hence, we cannot say that the Theological Trinity is one thing and the Providing Trinity is another.  We must state that the Trinity is one and the same. Then where is the difference?

  The difference is that for the Theological Trinity we cannot say anything definitive as regards the content of the personaes’ attributes. We have an element of negation here. For the “Providing” Trinity we have positive things to say about the attributes of the Persons, but this is only because these Persons have freely undertaken these kinds of attributes within Providence. That is, if the Son appears as the revelation of the Father (he that has seen me has seen the Father), this does not mean that in the eternal Trinity the Son necessarily has this function and attribute.  If the Spirit appears as love and communion to us, and as that which creates the bond of love within the Church, which builds the church etc., it doesn’t mean that within the Theological Trinity the Holy Spirit has the same function. Because by the same reasoning, we could say that the Crucifixion of the Logos is similarly a part of the eternal, Theological Trinity. Just as the Son undertakes a ministration, an attribute, a relationship that He did not previously have eternally, thus the Spirit and all the other attributes of Christ that we see in Providence are not extensions of the Theological, eternal Trinity. These are attributes taken on by the Persons freely, for our sake.

At this point we must make another important observation, i.e., it is precisely because these attributes have to do with ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ and not theology, the differentiation of these attributes must be limited to ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ only, and that when we refer to theology, we cannot make such differentiations, i.e., to say that the One is Love and the Other is Knowledge.  None of these can be said with regard to theology.  So, what does this mean?  It means that at the level of theology, all actions - because they are in fact actions – are uniform, and simultaneous.  They diversify, at the level of Providence.

Let us take the Love of God.  We cannot say that Love is a characteristic of only One person.  We must say that Love is the common characteristic of all Persons. Like every other action, it springs from the Father. “The Love of God and our Father”. It participates in this action, just as the Son and the Spirit participate in the one essence and the one action. And the action is common.  Every action coming from God is common to all three Persons. It is only when we reach the level of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ that the differentiation begins, and the distribution of attributes and responsibilities. In Theology, we cannot do this at the level of the eternal God.

This is equally important with regard the to the unison of God; not from the aspect of essence for which we can say nothing, but from the aspect of action. Because as you know, it is by the action of God that He communicates with us and we with Him.  Saint Gregory Palamas made this distinction between essence and action. It is of course an older one, it dates back to the Cappadocians, but it was systematized and exploited further, and the purpose of this distinction was to keep the essence of God unaffected by ‘Providence (oikonomia)’. That is, God was to maintain His transcendence, during His actions within Providence.

       Of course the action of God is not something that He acquires in order to enact ‘Providence (oikonomia)’; it is something that already exists.  But in Theology, whih comes before ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, this action is uniform.  During ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, it is expressed in different ways, without creating any division or distance or separation of the three Persons.

The three Persons in Providence always act in unison, but not all three do the same thing.  The action of God becomes differentiated in the sphere of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, without inducing a separation of the Persons. Where the Father is, there the Son and the Spirit are; where the Son is, there the Father and the Spirit are. They cannot part. But, whatever the Father does, is not what the Son does, etc.  All these differentiated actions of God in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ do not comprise extensions of differentiation within he “eternal” Trinity.

Western theology reached the point of relating ‘provisional’ differentiations to differentiations within the “eternal” Trinity, that is, with ontological differentiations. And this is one of the reasons that it has become theologically trapped in the FILIOQUE as well.

       The position of the Hellenic Fathers automatically creates a radical distinction between theology and ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, which was assuredly pointed out by Basil the Great (who by the way was the one who introduced this, as we have no similar formulation before him), and we shall briefly outline the history of this case.

In his work “On the Holy Spirit”, Basil the Great introduces a glorification text – or rather, defends a glorification text – which he had introduced in the Liturgy in his province, which differed to the glorification that was common at the time, and was of Alexandrian origin. The Alexandrian form was “Glory to the Father, through the Son, in the Holy Spirit”.  Saint Gregory’s glorification – for which he was obviously criticized and had to account for, by claiming that it was a very ancient form – was the following:  “Glory to the Father, also to the Son, and the Holy Spirit”. He replaced the “through” (through the Son) and the “in” (in the Holy Spirit) with “also” and “and”.

There is a theological expedience in this replacement, which he expands on, in his work “on the Holy Spirit”.  The expedience is that with the former glorification – the Alexandrian one – with its use of “through” and “in”, there is an underlying innuendo of God on the basis of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’. Because it is precisely in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ that God appears to us, or, that we recognize Him in this way: through the Son, in the Holy Spirit.  This way also contains the element of hierarchy, of classification; i.e. the Son precedes and the Spirit follows. Basil the Great wrote, for the reason that the “Spirit-militants” whom he wished to thwart used this “in” (in the Holy Spirit) as a denoting of space, so that when they said “in Spirit” in the glorification, and given that “in” presupposes space, the Spirit is therefore understood as being within creation, inside space, and therefore not within Divinity. This was a pretext, but essentially, Basil wanted to say something more.  He made this distinction that I mentioned, between the way in which we refer to God on the basis of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, and the way in which we refer to God, not on the basis of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’, but more on the basis of the Eucharist experience, during Worship.  Thus, this form of “though the Son, in the Holy Spirit” is not necessary when we wish to express the relations between the Father, the Son and the Spirit.  Take special note of this detail, as it is very delicate.

In this way, Basil the Great creates a kind of negation, as the prepositions “through” and “in” have something definite to say about the three Persons, while the “also” and “and” do not say anything positive. They simply tell us that the one is alongside the other.  In this way, Theology (in the true sense of the term) is stripped by Basil the Great, of the associations between the three Persons that is observed in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’.  And this is important, because as we shall see when we discuss the FILIOQUE later on, the Alexandrian Fathers and especially Saint Cyril of Alexandria, because they were based on this glorification, had already reached the point of somehow transferring the FILIOQUE to the eternal existence of God; i.e. the dependence of the Spirit from the Son, as if the Spirit proceeded eternally through the Son. We shall see, when we discuss the FILIOQUE, how this had a certain basis and had been partially accepted, that the Spirit proceeded through the Son, but it will require extremely lengthy explanations.  Our topic here is to stress that, according to Basil the Great, the subject of God on the basis of ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ includes associations of the Persons that are not necessarily associations that exist at the level of Theology.  That was why he made these changes to the prepositions in the glorification. He replaced them with “also” and  “and”, as a means of declaring that while we can say “through” and “in” with regard to Providence, in Theology there is another way, without the use of “through” and “in”.  Thus, he introduced a deep incision between the “Providing” Trinity and the “Theological” Trinity, without implying any other Trinity.  The conclusion therefore from the all the above is that the Holy Trinity that we see in ‘Providence (oikonomia)’ allows us to give a definitive content to the hypostatic attributes. However, it is a definitive content that we cannot extend into the “eternal” Trinity.


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Greek text

Translation by A.N.

Article published in English on: 8-7-2005.

Last update: 4-8-2005.