“Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 1: Theologia and Oikonomia


[M]en have erred through a want of careful examination or consideration of the whole tenor of the Scriptures, and have endeavored to transfer those things which are said of Jesus Christ according to the flesh, to that substance of His which was eternal before the incarnation, and is eternal. (Augustine, On the Trinity, Bk. 1, Ch. 7.14)

In my earlier post, “Subordination of the Son, Ligonier, and the ‘Economic’ Trinity”, I noted how the revised Ligonier Statement on Christology included the phrase, “We deny the eternal subordination of the Son to the Father in the ontological Trinity,” apparently in response to the previous Summer’s Eternal Subordination of the Son (ESS) debate.  I noted that I was momentarily encouraged by this, but was then immediately struck by the fact that everyone on every side of the debate agrees with this statement as well!  Even the most visible proponent of ESS, Wayne Grudem, argues,

This truth about the Trinity has sometimes been summarized in the phrase “ontological equality but economic subordination,” where the word ontological means “being.” If we do not have ontological equality, not all the persons are fully God. But if we do not have economic subordination, then there is no inherent difference in the way the three persons relate to one another, and consequently we do not have the three distinct persons existing as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit for all eternity. For example, if the Son is not eternally subordinate to the Father in role, then the Father is not eternally “Father” and the Son is not eternally “Son.” This would mean that the Trinity has not eternally existed.

This is why the idea of eternal equality in being but subordination in role has been essential to the church’s doctrine of the Trinity since it was first affirmed in the Nicene Creed, which said that the Son was “begotten of the Father before all ages” and that the Holy Spirit “proceeds from the Father and the Son.” (Systematic Theology)

(Earlier in the text, Grudem defines the economic Trinity: “The ‘economy of the Trinity’ means the different ways the three persons act as they relate to the world and […] to each other for all eternity.”)

While there is so much wrong with these statements, what I would like to note here is: (1) Grudem, while fully endorsing the Eternal Subordination of the Son, would also fully agree with the words of the Ligionier statement; (2) Grudem believes that subordination properly resides within the eternal Trinity as economically conceived; and (3), he believes that this is the position of the Nicene Fathers, that there is subordination in the “economic” Trinity but equality in the “ontological” Trinity.

I wish I could say that this is all peculiar to Grudem, but in fact, many, even the majority, of those participating in last Summer’s Trinity debate also agree that subordination is appropriately applied to the Trinity as economically conceived. To iterate quotes to demonstrate this from many on both sides would be easy, but voluminous, and I promise this post will already be too long.  Having engaged in this debate for months, I hear it at least twice a week, “we deny ontological subordination and only believe in economic subordination!”

The problem, as I stated in the last post, is that there are too many definitions and variant uses of “ontological” and “economic” at play for a statement such as Ligonier’s to constitutively rule out the supposed Subordination of the Son that has been called into question.  This has lead each participant to see His position as orthodox, with lofty origin in the Fathers, and yet all still disagreeing on what is and isn’t biblical and orthodox subordination of the Son. I believe there are three major use classes of “economy” at play in the current debate and that it is of utmost importance to discuss them separately and on their own terms as they relate to ESS:

Class 1: The “economy” as in the oikonomia employed by the Church Fathers in contrast to the theologia.  The Greek word oikonomia is a compound of oikos, roughly translated “household,” and nemein, which may be translated as “management” or “stewardship”. Thus it is most common to translate the compound as simply “economy”, as in home economics and the general ordering aright of family, home, and property including the notion of arrangement or ordered dispensation. We will discuss the Church Fathers’ use fully below.

Class 2: The “economy” as in the Economic Trinity, “the activity of God and the roles of the three persons with regard to creation and redemption,” as contrasted with the Immanent Trinity, “the Trinity in itself, without regard to God’s works of creation and redemption” (via Ligionier).  The latter is the Trinity considered in se, as God is in His inner most life and being and the former as He is considered ad extra in His works and operations revealed in history.

Class 3: The ESS usage of “economy,” which includes all of Class 1 Economic Trinity, but also illicitly includes the internal, interpersonal, relations of the Trinity.

My goal in this series is to assess the value of casting the Eternal Subordination of the Son controversy in terms of Economic vs. Ontological/Immanent Trinity.  Is there value in employing the line that divides economy and ontology to also demarcate biblical, Nicene, subordination from unbiblical, unorthodox, subordination? We will begin by clarifying use Class 1, economy as oikonomia in the Fathers, and in the next posts assess the value of Class 2 with reference to ESS as well as the (frankly) profound absurdity of Class 3.

Introduction to Part 1

Much of the confusion surrounding Eternal Subordination of the Son and the Economic Trinity is that it has become very common, pervasive even, to assume that our modern definition of the Ontological/Economic (or Immanent/Economic) conceptual distinction finds its genesis in the Church Fathers, particularly the Nicene and Pro-Nicene, and that the distinction of theologia and oikonomia equates in principle to our modern usage.  We see this in most popular level explanations, e.g., Dr. Daniel Treier’s explanation of the duo on the Third Millennium Ministries education site:

The distinction between the economic and the immanent or ontological Trinity is the distinction that corresponds to the early church’s distinction between theology proper and economy – between God in himself and what we can say about God in himself apart from creation – and God engaged with his creation – God administering his purposes in the world that he has made. (Ontological and Economic Trinity)

We find it in the most respected Nicene scholars, such as Lewis Ayres, who discusses Gregory Nazianzen’s Oration 38 and concludes: “Oikonomia here indicates God’s dispositions, his activity in ordering all that is external to God” (“Theologia and Oikonomia”). We also find it in some of my favorite Trinitarian theologians, e.g., Fred Sanders: “The fathers reached for this pair of terms [theologia and oikonomia] to make the crucial distinction between God’s own eternal nature, on the one hand, and God’s actions toward creation, on the other hand” (“Theology and Economy in the Scripture”)[1].  This conflation is even enshrined in the Catechism of the Catholic Church, 236:

The Fathers of the Church distinguish between theology (theologia) and economy (oikonomia). “Theology” refers to the mystery of God’s inmost life within the Blessed Trinity and “economy” to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life. 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.

As such, I believe it would behoove us to make a diligent search of the Fathers to grasp exactly how they use the conceptual distinction theologia and oikonomia, with a view toward finding clarity in our discussion of the supposed Eternal Subordination of the Son.  I also believe this must be a thorough (read lengthy) investigation in order to leave no doubt as to the Fathers’ intentions, capturing as much of the semantic range as possible. Last, I believe it will become perfectly clear that the Fathers in no wise use theologia/oikonomia to be a distinction describing the Trinity as “the mystery of God’s inmost life within” in contrast “to all the works by which God reveals himself and communicates his life.” In fact, I don’t believe the Fathers’ distinction even relates to the Trinity at all, except tangentially, but is primarily a Christological distinction.

[A couple of notes on what follows.  First, I use “Fathers” throughout in a colloquial way, like an evangelical, not distinguishing between “Father” or “Doctor” or the like.  Second, I will intersperse commentary among the quoted passages only as necessary to add clarity or needed emphasis.  Further, I use “oikonomia” and its translation “economy” interchangeably throughout as I have not altered the translations as I have received them, but only occasionally added the Greek in parenthesis where needed. Last, there are many places within the works of the Fathers where “oikonomia” (and its cognates) is simply translated “incarnation” (and its cognates), so I have quoted these instances sparingly in order to reduce unneeded repetition.  I have also left out many uses where it is contextually clear that the use does not relate to the Godhead, Persons thereof, or relations thereof; e.g., in relation to actual household management, appointed offices in the Church, or even something like God’s “plan” generally considered.

One more: yes, this is long.  Skim as necessary.  The point is to be as comprehensive as possible to assure the reader (and the skeptic)—eliminating all room for doubt—of what the Fathers actually meant by theologia and oikonomia. Feel free to read only the introduction and conclusion and pop back into the body as needed to ameliorate doubt.]

  1. First and Second Century Fathers: Ignatius, Justin Martyr, Dionysius, and Clemente of Alexandria

Ignatius (35-108)

Hence worldly wisdom became folly; conjuration was seen to be mere trifling; and magic became utterly ridiculous. Every law of wickedness vanished away; the darkness of ignorance was dispersed; and tyrannical authority was destroyed, God being manifested as a man, and man displaying power as God. But neither was the former a mere imagination, nor did the second imply a bare humanity; but the one was absolutely true, and the other an economical arrangement. Now that received a beginning which was perfected by God. Henceforth all things were in a state of tumult, because He meditated the abolition of death. (The Epistle of Ignatius to the Ephesians, Ch. XIX)

Justin Martyr (100-165)

The goat that was sent away presented a type of Him who taketh away the sins of men. But the two contained a representation of the one economy of God incarnate. For He was wounded for our transgressions, and He bare the sins of many, and He was delivered for our iniquities. (Fragment XI)

Dionysius (d. 171)

And as, by voluntarily enduring the death in the flesh, He implanted incorruptibility in it; so also, by taking to Himself of His own free-will the passion of our servitude, He set in it the seeds of constancy and courage, whereby He has nerved those who believe on Him for the mighty conflicts belonging to their witness-bearing. Thus, also, those drops of sweat flowed from Him in a marvellous way like great drops of blood, in order that He might, as it were, drain off and empty the fountain of the fear which is proper to our nature. For unless this had been done with a mystical import, He certainly would not, even had He been the most timorous and ignoble of men, have been bedewed in this unnatural way with drops of sweat like drops of blood under the mere force of His agony.

Of like import is also the sentence in the narrative which tells us that an angel stood by the Saviour and strengthened Him. For this, too, bore also on the economy entered into on our behalf. (Exegetical Fragments 2, The Gospel According to Luke)

Clemente of Alexandria (150-215)

“Beware lest any man spoil you of faith in Christ by philosophy and vain deceit,” which does away with providence, “after the tradition of men;” for the philosophy which is in accordance with divine tradition establishes and confirms providence, which, being done away with, the economy of the Saviour appears a myth, while we are influenced “after the elements of the world, and not after Christ.” For the teaching which is agreeable to Christ deifies the Creator, and traces providence in particular events, and knows the nature of the elements to be capable of change and production, and teaches that we ought to aim at rising up to the power which assimilates to God, and to prefer the dispensation as holding the first rank and superior to all training. (The Stromata, Bk 1, Ch. 11)

From the very first century of the church we see the concepts theologia and oikonomia being employed, not to distinguish the immanent, internal, in se aspects of the Trinity in contradistinction to His works toward creation and redemption ad extra, but rather, “God being manifested as man, and man displaying power as God”. Beginning with Justin Martyr, the authors’ intentions were clearly to display Christ as absolutely true God (not imagined) yet nevertheless true man—the latter not diminishing the former because it is an arrangement of economy, a condescension that does not put any limit on the reality of the Godhead.  In the incarnation of the Christ, true God (theologia) meets true flesh (oikonomia). In Dionysius we read of “the economy entered into on our behalf” as Christ “voluntarily enduring death in the flesh” and of Him “taking to Himself of His own free-will the passion of our servitude”. Last, and quite notably, Clemente of Alexandria warns against vain philosophy causing men to see the “economy of the Saviour” as a myth, while he is discussing the passage, “ For in him the whole fullness of deity dwells bodily” (Col. 2:9).

(For more uses of “economy” in Clemente, see The Stromata, Bk 2, Ch. 5 & Bk 6, Ch. 6)

  1. The Early Latin Fathers: Tertullian and Hippolytus

By way of introduction to these two Latin authors, the bracketed nature of their use of oikonomia (in most cases) must be noted, since it will be seen nowhere else in the vast corpora of the Fathers’ works. Due to the specifics of their early, even primordial (to be kind), conception of the Trinity, “economy” throughout largely refers to the “three-ness” of the Godhead as opposed to His true inner unity; the Son and Spirit “cause” and “introduce” plurality into God.  For both teachers, the Father is the Monarchia and the original God wilst the Son and the Spirit are produced by the Father, He giving a portion of His eternal substance to each as they proceed from Him.  The Son and the Spirit appear to have come in to existence (or been revealed?) for the delegated purpose of creating and redeeming. Thus God remains one, but is economically three, the latter not diminishing the former as it is by an economical arrangement that the Son is God as well as the Spirit.

Tertullian writes, “the Father is the entire substance, but the Son is a derivation and portion of the whole, as He Himself acknowledges: ‘My Father is greater than I.’” (Against Praxeas, Ch. 9). Nevertheless, “the Trinity, flowing down from the Father through intertwined and connected steps, does not at all disturb the Monarchy, whilst it at the same time guards the state of the Economy” (Against Praxeas, Ch. 8).  This introduction of the notion of economy was used as a cannon against their Patripassian foes, for it allowed them to maintain the Godhead of the Son, the one-ness of the Godhead, and block the necessity of the Father being on the cross with the Son.

I do not intend to try to parse these men’s nascent Trinitarian theology here, but rather hope that as we read the following we have enough perspective to pinpoint their use of “economy” over against our modern use.

Tertullian (155-240)

We, however, as we indeed always have done (and more especially since we have been better instructed by the Paraclete, who leads men indeed into all truth), believe that there is one only God, but under the following dispensation, or oikonomia, as it is called, that this one only God has also a Son, His Word, who proceeded from Himself, by whom all things were made, and without whom nothing was made. (Against Praxeas, Ch. 2)

The simple, […] who always constitute the majority of believers, are startled at the dispensation (of the Three in One), on the ground that their very rule of faith withdraws them from the world’s plurality of gods to the one only true God; not understanding that, although He is the one only God, He must yet be believed in with His own oikonomia . The numerical order and distribution of the Trinity they assume to be a division of the Unity; whereas the Unity which derives the Trinity out of its own self is so far from being destroyed, that it is actually supported by it. They are constantly throwing out against us that we are preachers of two gods and three gods, while they take to themselves pre-eminently the credit of being worshippers of the One God; just as if the Unity itself with irrational deductions did not produce heresy, and the Trinity rationally considered constitute the truth. We, say they, maintain the Monarchy (or, sole government of God). And so, as far as the sound goes, do even Latins (and ignorant ones too) pronounce the word in such a way that you would suppose their understanding of the monarchia (or Monarchy) was as complete as their pronunciation of the term. Well, then Latins take pains to pronounce the monarchia (or Monarchy), while Greeks actually refuse to understand the oikonomia, or Dispensation (of the Three in One). (Against Praxeas, Ch. 3)

For we, who by the grace of God possess an insight into both the times and the occasions of the Sacred Writings, especially we who are followers of the Paraclete, not of human teachers, do indeed definitively declare that Two Beings are God, the Father and the Son, and, with the addition of the Holy Spirit, even Three, according to the principle of the divine economy, which introduces number, in order that the Father may not, as you perversely infer, be Himself believed to have been born and to have suffered, which it is not lawful to believe, forasmuch as it has not been so handed down. (Against Praxeas, Ch. 13)

[…]inasmuch as only One God and One Lord was ever read of (in the Scriptures), and His entire Economy would be involved in obscurity, which has been planned and arranged with so clear a foresight in His providential dispensation as matter for our faith. As soon, however, as Christ came, and was recognised by us as the very Being who had from the beginning caused plurality (in the Divine Economy), being the second from the Father, and with the Spirit the third, and Himself declaring and manifesting the Father more fully (than He had ever been before), the title of Him who is God and Lord was at once restored to the Unity (of the Divine Nature). (Against Praxeas, Ch. 13)

(For more instances of oikonomia in Tertullian, see Against Praxeas, Chs. 2, 8, and 9. They are all consistent.)

Hippolytus (170-235)

Hippolytus, as noted above, shares roughly the same theology of the Trinity, but he also introduces the “economy” as the arrangement of the Son coming in the flesh, much like the Greek Fathers before Him and those he is in dialog with.  This may be because the introduction of the Son in His flesh is partly constitutive of the plurality within the Trinity, along with creation, and is useful in repelling the Patripassians.  There is indeed indication of this below.

For who will not say that there is one God? Yet he will not on that account deny the economy (i.e., the number and disposition of persons in the Trinity). (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 4)

But if he desires to learn how it is shown still that there is one God, let him know that His power is one. As far as regards the power, therefore, God is one. But as far as regards the economy there is a threefold manifestation, as shall be proved afterwards when we give account of the true doctrine. (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 8)

These things then, brethren, are declared by the Scriptures. And the blessed John, in the testimony of his Gospel, gives us an account of this economy (disposition) and acknowledges this Word as God, when he says, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” If, then, the Word was with God, and was also God, what follows? Would one say that he speaks of two Gods? I shall not indeed speak of two Gods, but of one; of two Persons however, and of a third economy (disposition), viz., the grace of the Holy Ghost. For the Father indeed is One, but there are two Persons, because there is also the Son; and then there is the third, the Holy Spirit. The Father decrees, the Word executes, and the Son is manifested, through whom the Father is believed on. The economy of harmony is led back to one God; for God is One. It is the Father who commands, and the Son who obeys, and the Holy Spirit who gives understanding: the Father who is above all, and the Son who is through all, and the Holy Spirit who is in all. And we cannot otherwise think of one God, but by believing in truth in Father and Son and Holy Spirit. For the Jews glorified (or gloried in) the Father, but gave Him not thanks, for they did not recognise the Son. The disciples recognised the Son, but not in the Holy Ghost; wherefore they also denied Him. The Father’s Word, therefore, knowing the economy (disposition) and the will of the Father, to wit, that the Father seeks to be worshipped in none other way than this, gave this charge to the disciples after He rose from the dead: “Go ye and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost.” And by this He showed, that whosoever omitted any one of these, failed in glorifying God perfectly. For it is through this Trinity that the Father is glorified. For the Father willed, the Son did, the Spirit manifested. The whole Scriptures, then, proclaim this truth. (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 14)

He remained therefore, also, after His incarnation, according to nature, God infinite, and more, having the activity proper and suitable to Himself,— an activity growing out of His divinity essentially, and manifested through His perfectly holy flesh by wondrous acts economically, to the intent that He might be believed in as God, while working out of Himself by the flesh, which by nature is weak, the salvation of the universe. (Against Beron and Helix, Fragment 3)

But in whom is God except in Christ Jesus, the Father’s Word, and the mystery of the economy? And again, exhibiting the truth regarding Him, he points to the fact of His being in the flesh when He says, “I have raised Him up in righteousness, and all His ways are straight.” […]And in saying, “God is in thee,” he referred to the mystery of the economy, because when the Word was made incarnate and became man, the Father was in the Son, and the Son in the Father, while the Son was living among men. This, therefore, was signified, brethren, that in reality the mystery of the economy by the Holy Ghost and the Virgin was this Word, constituting yet one Son to God. (Against the Heresy of One Noetus, 4)

He was altogether in all, and everywhere; and though He filleth the universe up to all the principalities of the air, He stripped Himself again. And for a brief space He cries that the cup might pass from Him, with a view to show truly that He was also man. But remembering, too, the purpose for which He was sent, He fulfils the dispensation (economy) for which He was sent, and exclaims, “Father, not my will,” and, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” (Fragments, 3, St. Hippolytus, Bishop and Martyr, in his Homily on the Paschal Supper.)

(See also Treatise on Christ and Antichrist, 4.)

Though their Trinitarian theology (if you can even call it that) is certainly not orthodox, it is plain that Tertullian and Hippolytus used the notion of oikonomia to refer (1) to the arrangement of plurality within the on Monarchia of God, and (2) to refer to the arrangement of the Son in His flesh.  In both cases, the interest is to maintain the unity and full deity of God while introducing doctrines that might seem at odds, such as three-ness and suffering—both powerful tools against the Patripassians, but both short of the coming Nicene orthodoxy.  But neither in line with our modern notions of economy.

  1. Early Third Century Greek Fathers: Origen and Gregory Thaumaturgus

Origen (184-253)

John the Baptist, when predicting that the Son of God was to appear immediately, not in that body and soul, but as manifesting Himself everywhere, says regarding Him: “There stands in the midst of you One whom ye know not, who cometh after me.” For if he had thought that the Son of God was only there, where was the visible body of Jesus, how could he have said, “There stands in the midst of you One whom ye know not?” And Jesus Himself, in raising the minds of His disciples to higher thoughts of the Son of God, says: “Where two or three are gathered together in My name, there am I in the midst of you.” And of the same nature is His promise to His disciples: “Lo, I am with you alway, even to the end of the world.” And we quote these passages, making no distinction between the Son of God and Jesus. For the soul and body of Jesus formed, after the oikonomia , one being with the Logos of God. (Against Celsus, Bk. 2, Ch. 9)

“God, then, could not admit of such a change.” Now it appears to me that the fitting answer has been returned to these objections, when I have related what is called in Scripture the “condescension” of God to human affairs; for which purpose He did not need to undergo a transformation, as Celsus thinks we assert, nor a change from good to evil, nor from virtue to vice, nor from happiness to misery, nor from best to worst. For, continuing unchangeable in His essence, He condescends to human affairs by the economy of His providence. (Against Celsus, Bk. 4, Ch. 15)

We stated, indeed, in what precedes, that it was not as if awakening from a lengthened slumber that God sent Jesus to the human race, who has now, for good reasons, fulfilled the economy of His incarnation, but who has always conferred benefits upon the human race. For no noble deed has ever been performed amongst men, where the divine Word did not visit the souls of those who were capable, although for a little time, of admitting such operations of the divine Word. (Against Celsus, Bk. 6, Ch. 78)

Gregory Thaumaturgus (213-270)

For the Lord of glory appeared in fashion as a man when He undertook the economy upon the earth; and He fulfilled the law for men by His deeds, and by His sufferings He did away with man’s sufferings, and by His death He abolished death, and by his resurrection He brought life to light; and now we look for His appearing from heaven in glory for the life and judgment of all, when the resurrection of the dead shall take place, to the end that recompense may be made to all according to their desert. (A Sectional Confession of the Faith, 6)

And when the Gospels or the Epistles, therefore, are read, let not your attention centre on the book or on the reader, but on the God who speaks to you from heaven. For the book is but that which is seen, while Christ is the divine subject spoken of. It brings us then the glad tidings of that economy of the Saviour, which is worthy of all praise, to wit, that, though He was God, He became man through kindness toward man, and did not lay aside, indeed, the dignity which was His from all eternity, but assumed the economy that should work salvation. It brings us the glad tidings of that economy of the Saviour worthy of all praise, to wit, that He sojourned with us as a physician for the sick, who did not heal them with potions, but restored them by the inclination of His philanthropy. (The Second Homily on the Annunciation of the Virgin Mary)

Note how in Origen, the soul and body of Jesus are joined with the Logos “after the oikonomia”.  Note also that the concept is used to explain how God could be unchangeable yet condescend and enter human affairs as a man, having thereby “fulfilled the economy of His incarnation”.  And I can’t put a heavy enough emphasis on the “to wit” in the sentence from Gregory: “It brings us then the glad tidings of that economy of the Saviour, which is worthy of all praise, to wit, that, though He was God, He became man.”

  1. Early Nicene Defenders: Athanasius and Hillary of Portiers

Athanasius (296-373)

Though embattled on every side in his day, Athanasius looms large in the development of orthodox Trinitarian theology.  It was he that framed the debate in the Fourth Century as “Nicea vs. the Arians” and it was he that argued indefatigably for the orthodoxy of the Nicene formulations.  More often than not, when Athanasius used “oikonomia” it simply meant “incarnate”, so we have not included many of these passages below in order to avoid unnecessary redundancy.

But it is important to note that in the first quote below, “oikonomia” is actually contrasted with the Son’s act of creation, so far is this ad extra work of the Son from being part of His oikonomia. He contends, contra the “Arians,” that it was not according to the divine nature of the Son that the Scripture says that all things were delivered to Him by the Father, but rather according to His manhood, for all things were always His—He created all things.  Thus as Creator, acting ad extra in history, He is not acting according to the oikonomia, but rather in His Incarnation.

And from not perceiving this they of the sect of Arius, Eusebius and his fellows, indulge impiety against the Lord. For they say, if all things were delivered (meaning by “all” the Lordship of Creation), there was once a time when He had them not. But if He had them not, He is not of the Father, for if He were, He would on that account have had them always, and would not have required to receive them. But this point will furnish all the clearer an exposure of their folly. For the expression in question does not refer to the Lordship over Creation, nor to presiding over the works of God, but is meant to reveal in part the intention of the Incarnation (tes oikonomias). For if when He was speaking they were “delivered” to Him, clearly before He received them, creation was void of the Word. What then becomes of the text “in Him all things consist” (Col. i. 17)? But if simultaneously with the origin of the Creation it was all “delivered” to Him, such delivery were superfluous, for “all things were made by Him” (Joh. i. 3), and it would be unnecessary for those things of which the Lord Himself was the artificer to be delivered over to Him. (Expositio Fidei, In Illud Omnia, S:1 This test refers not to the eternal Word…)

Again, in the next passage, we see that the “Economy” is the Son’s “visitation in the flesh,” and the “Economy which He then sustained” for a time, making Him lower than the angels:

(7). And the Apostle’s own reason for saying, so much better than the Angels,’ was not any wish in the first instance to compare the essence of the Word to things originate (for He cannot be compared, rather they are incommeasurable), but regarding the Word’s visitation in the flesh, and the Economy which He then sustained, he wished to show that He was not like those who had gone before Him; so that, as much as He excelled in nature those who were sent afore by Him, by so much also the grace which came from and through Him was better than the ministry through Angels . For it is the function of servants, to demand the fruits and no more; but of the Son and Master to forgive the debts and to transfer the vineyard. (Four Discourses Against the Arians, Bk. 1, Ch. 13.59)

These passages are in strict compliance with Athanasius’ hermeneutic of the Double Account that he so often instructs his readers to follow:

Now the scope and character of Holy Scripture, as we have often said, is this,— it contains a double account of the Saviour; that He was ever God, and is the Son, being the Father’s Word and Radiance and Wisdom ; and that afterwards for us He took flesh of a Virgin, Mary Bearer of God , and was made man. And this scope is to be found throughout inspired Scripture, as the Lord Himself has said, Search the Scriptures, for they are they which testify of Me .’ (Discourses Against the Arians, 3.26.29)

For the Fathers (and we will continue to demonstrate this) the distinction of theologia and oikonomia directly parallels the Double Account.

Hillary of Portiers (310-367)

But perhaps it may be held to confirm the Son in His confession of ignorance that He says the Father alone knows. But unless He had plainly said that the Father alone knows, it would have been a matter of the greatest danger for our understanding, since we might have thought that He Himself did not know. For, since His ignorance is due to the economy of hidden knowledge, and not to a nature capable of ignorance, now that He says the Father alone knows, we cannot believe that He does not know; for, as we said above, God’s knowledge is not the discovery of what He did not know, but its declaration. The fact that the Father alone knows, is no proof that the Son is ignorant: He says that He does not know, that others may not know: that the Father alone knows, to shew that He Himself also knows. If we say that God came to know the love of Abraham , when He ceased to conceal His knowledge, it follows that only because He did not conceal it from the Son, can the Father be said to know the day, for God does not learn by sudden perception, but declares His knowledge with the occasion. If, then, the Son according to the mystery does not know the day, that He may not reveal it: on the other hand, only by the fact that He has revealed it can the Father be proved to know the day. (On The Trinity, Bk. 9, 71)

Here we see a common argument of heretics rebuffed; though it may seem that the Son is not God, or is less of a god, the expressions are according to His human nature, i.e., the “economy”, and not according to theologia.

  1. The Cappadocian Fathers: Basil of Caesaria and Gregory Nazianzen

In the following, two of the greatest champions of Pro-Nicene theology state outright the distinction of theologia and oikonomia.  They tell us exactly what they mean by “economy”: the Son in the condescension and dispensation of His incarnate Nature.  We also see exactly what they used the distinction to accomplish, viz., to maintain the full deity of Christ while maintaining His full humanity, accounting all that is deified and lofty in the Scripture to the former and all that is lowly in the Scripture to the latter. “Everywhere the Holy Ghost secures our conception of Him to save us from falling in one direction while we advance in the other, heeding the theology but neglecting the economy, and so by omission falling into impiety”. The distinction is stressed that we may “learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead” and “not remain permanently among the things of sight, but rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature (oikonomia)” and thereby not fall into heretical misapprehensions the Son of God.

Basil of Caesaria (329-379)

It is perfectly well known to every one who has the least acquaintance with the meaning of the words of the Apostle that he is not delivering to us a mode of theology but is explaining the reasons of the economy, for he says “God hath made that same Jesus whom ye have crucified both Lord and Christ.” Thus he is plainly directing his argument to His human and visible nature. (Conveyed by Theodoret of Cyrus, Dialogue III The Impassible)

Here we enquire why when he had said “one God” he was not content, for we have said that “one” and “only” when applied to God, indicate nature. Why did he add the word Father and make mention of Christ? Paul, a chosen vessel, did not, I imagine, think it sufficient only to preach that the Son is God and the Holy Ghost God, which he had expressed by the phrase “one God,” without, by the further addition of “the Father,” expressing Him of Whom are all things; and, by mentioning the Lord, signifying the Word by Whom are all things; and yet further, by adding the words Jesus Christ, announcing the incarnation, setting forth the passion and publishing the resurrection. For the word Jesus Christ suggests all these ideas to us. For this reason too before His passion our Lord deprecates the designation of “Jesus Christ,” and charges His disciples to “tell no man that He was Jesus, the Christ.” For His purpose was, after the completion of the economy, after His resurrection from the dead, and His assumption into heaven, to commit to them the preaching of Him as Jesus, the Christ. Such is the force of the words “That they may know Thee the only true God and Jesus Christ whom thou hast sent,” and again “Ye believe in God, believe also in me.” Everywhere the Holy Ghost secures our conception of Him to save us from falling in one direction while we advance in the other, heeding the theology but neglecting the economy, and so by omission falling into impiety. (Letter to the Caesareans)

Thus we have had our approach to the Father through Him, being translated from “the power of darkness to be partakers of the inheritance of the saints in light.” We must not, however, regard the economy through the Son as a compulsory and subordinate ministration resulting from the low estate of a slave, but rather the voluntary solicitude working effectually for His own creation in goodness and in pity, according to the will of God the Father. (On The Holy Spirit, Ch. 8)

(See also Letter CCXIV To Count Terentius)

Gregory Nazianzen (329-390)

But in opposition to all these, do you reckon up for me the expressions which make for your ignorant arrogance, such as My God and your God, or greater, or created, or made, or sanctified; Add, if you like, Servant (Philippians 2:7) and Obedient (Philippians 2:8) and Gave (John 1:12) and Learnt, (Hebrews 5:8) and was commanded, was sent, can do nothing of Himself, either say, or judge, or give, or will. […]To give you the explanation in one sentence. What is lofty you are to apply to the Godhead, and to that Nature in Him which is superior to sufferings and incorporeal; but all that is lowly to the composite condition of Him who for your sakes made Himself of no reputation and was Incarnate— yes, for it is no worse thing to say, was made Man, and afterwards was also exalted. The result will be that you will abandon these carnal and groveling doctrines, and learn to be more sublime, and to ascend with His Godhead, and you will not remain permanently among the things of sight, but will rise up with Him into the world of thought, and come to know which passages refer to His Nature, and which to His assumption of Human Nature (oikonomia). (Oration 29.18)

(See also Oration 38.8)

  1. John Chrysostom (349-407)

John Chrysostom, the “golden mouthed” preacher of the 4th Century, uses the concept of oikonomia prolifically and with great apologetic skill throughout his sermons and writings.  Throughout the passages below, we will see the “economy” used for the manhood of Christ, by an arrangement of condescension, as well as the union of God and man itself (incarnation), for when Christ is clearly speaking in his flesh, yet reveals Himself as true God, this also is according to the “principle of the economy.” He speaks of Christ’s fast in the wilderness not exceeding 40 days so that none would doubt His true humanity and destroy the revelation of the economy. And he makes clear the sole cause of the economy, to offer Himself as a sacrifice out of love for man.

Of particular interest to this study is his use of the Double Account.  He does not call it such, but rather employs it as an heuristic throughout his homilies and commentaries, arguing that it is Paul’s method to speak in one way when discoursing on the Godhead and another when discoursing on the economy of Christ’s flesh, so that “without fear” we might “bear all such expressions” related to His condescension (such as subjection to the Father) without attributing such expressions to the Son in eternity.

Because of this, let me add, neither is a temple framed at once; but a regular conception takes place, and a time of nine months, and pangs, and a delivery, and giving suck, and silence for so long a space, and He awaits the age proper to manhood; that by all means acceptance might be won for the mystery of His Economy. (Homily 8, Matt. 2:2)

On this account then even He too fasts forty days, pointing out to us the medicines of our salvation; yet proceeds no further, lest on the other hand, through the exceeding greatness of the miracle the truth of His Economy should be discredited. For as it is, this cannot be, seeing that both Moses and Elias, anticipating Him, could advance to so great a length of time, strengthened by the power of God. And if He had proceeded farther, from this among other things His assumption of our flesh would have seemed incredible to many. (Homily 8, Matt. 4:1)

But what is the meaning of “Maranatha?” “Our Lord is come.” For what reason then doth he use this phrase in particular? To confirm the doctrine of the Economy: out of which class of topics more than any other he hath put together those arguments which are the seeds of the Resurrection . And not only this, but also to rebuke them; as if he had said, “The common Lord of all hath condescended to come down thus far, and are ye in the same state, and do ye abide in your sins? Are ye not thrilled with the excess of His love, the crown of His blessings? Yea, consider but this one thing,” saith he, “and it will suffice thee for progress in all virtue, and thou shalt be able to extinguish all sin.” (Homily 44, 1 Cor. 16:22)

Evil spirits encompassed us about, the Prince of this world deriding and assaulting us; the Only-Begotten Son of God came, sent forth the rays of His Presence, and straightway dispelled the darkness. The King, who is on His Father’s throne, came to us, having left His Father’s throne. And when I say having left, think not of any removal, for He filleth the heavens and the earth, but I speak of the economy; He came to an enemy, who hated Him, who turned himself away, who could not endure to behold Him, who blasphemed Him every day. (Homily 11, Phil. 3:7-10)

Next he saith, “Above Thy fellows.” But who are these His “fellows” other than men? that is Christ received “not the Spirit by measure.” ( John iii. 34.) Seest thou how with the doctrine concerning His uncreated nature he always joins also that of the “Economy”? what can be clearer than this? Didst thou see how what is created and what is begotten are not the same? (Homily 3, Heb. 1:6-8)

“That He might become a merciful and faithful High Priest in things pertaining to God.” For this cause (he means) He took on Him our flesh, only for Love to man, that He might have mercy upon us. For neither is there any other cause of the economy, but this alone. For He saw us, cast on the ground, perishing, tyrannized over by Death, and He had compassion on us. “To make reconciliation,” he says, “for the sins of the people. That He might be a merciful and faithful High Priest.” (Homily 5, Heb. 2:16-17)

“Who raised Him from the dead.” Wherefore is it, O Paul, that, wishing to bring these Judaizers to the faith, you introduce none of those great and illustrious topics which occur in your Epistle to the Philippians, as, “Who, being in the form of God, counted it not a prize to be on an equality with God,” (Philip. ii. 6.) or which you afterwards declared in that to the Hebrews, “the effulgence of his glory, and the very image of His substance;” (Heb. i. 3.) or again, what in the opening of his Gospel the son of thunder sounded forth, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God;” (John i. 1. .) or what Jesus Himself oftentimes declared to the Jews, “that His power and authority was equal to the Father’s?” (John v. 19, 27, &c.) Do you omit all these, and make mention of the economy of His Incarnation only, bringing forward His cross and dying? “Yes,” would Paul answer. (Commentary, Gal. 1:1-3)

He [Paul] speaks in one way when he discourses of the Godhead alone, and in another when he falls into the argument of the economy. Thus having once taken hold of our Lord’s Flesh, he freely thereafter uses all the sayings that humiliate Him; without fear as though that were able to bear all such expressions. (Homilies, on 1 Corinthians 15:27-28)

“But the head of the woman is the man; and the head of Christ is God.” Here the heretics rush upon us with a certain declaration of inferiority, which out of these words they contrive against the Son. […]”Nay,” say they, “it is not His being of another substance which we intend to show from hence, but that He is under subjection.” What then are we to say to this? In the first place, when anything lowly is said of him conjoined as He is with the Flesh, there is no disparagement of the Godhead in what is said, the Economy admitting the expression. (Homilies, on 1 Corinthians 11:3)

(I strongly recommend reading through Homily 8, Matt. 2:2 and 4:1; Homily 52, Matt. 15:20-21; Homily 43, Acts 20:1; Homily 2, 2 Tim. 1:8-10; Homily 3, Heb. 1:6-8; Homily 4, Heb. 2:5-7; and Homily 13, Hebrews 7:11-14 for many other great examples of Chrysostom’s consistent usage.)

  1. Augustine (354-430)

As with most of the Latin Fathers, Augustine seldom uses the explicit language of “economy”.  It is nevertheless plain in the passages below that when he does, his use is fully in line with Athanasius and the other Pro-Nicene Greek Fathers.

For how are our eyes made whole? That as by faith we perceive Christ “passing by” in the temporal economy, so we may attain to the knowledge of Him as “standing still” in His unchangeable Eternity. For then is the eye made whole when the knowledge of Christ’s Divinity is attained. Let your love apprehend this; attend ye to the great mystery which I am to speak of. All the things which were done by our Lord Jesus Christ in time, graft faith in us. We believe on the Son of God, not on the Word only, “by which all things were made;” but on this very Word, “made flesh that He might dwell among us,” who was born of the Virgin Mary, (Sermon 38, on Matt. 20:30)

Whatever, then, you have heard stated in lowly manner concerning the Lord Jesus Christ, think of that economy by which He assumed flesh; but whatever you hear, or read, stated in the Gospel concerning Him that is sublime and high above all creatures, and divine, and equal and coeternal with the Father, be sure that this which you read appertains to the form of God, not to the form of the servant. (Tractate 36, CH. 8.15-18)

We see once again the concepts of theologia and oikonomia directly paralleling the Double Account from Athanasius. Augustine calls the “canonical rule”:

Wherefore, although we hold most firmly, concerning our Lord Jesus Christ, what may be called the canonical rule, as it is both disseminated through the Scriptures, and has been demonstrated by learned and Catholic handlers of the same Scriptures, namely, that the Son of God is both understood to be equal to the Father according to the form of God in which He is, and less than the Father according to the form of a servant which He took; in which form He was found to be not only less than the Father, but also less than the Holy Spirit; and not only so, but less even than Himself—not than Himself who was, but than Himself who is; because, by taking the form of a servant, He did not lose the form of God, as the testimonies of the Scriptures taught us, to which we have referred in the former book. (On the Trinity, 2.1.2)

We find this instruction multiple times in Augustine’s writings and throughout it seems to function in much the same way as the theologia/oikonomia of the Greeks.

  1. Fifth Century Christological Controverts: Cyril of Alexandria and Theodoret of Cyrus

There is not much new to our study in the passages below, but do note the explicit use of theologia and oiknomia as well as the Double Account—both as Christological principles employed to explain true God taking on true flesh, without the former diminishing the latter, nor the former compromised by legitimate statements describing the latter.  That the Human Nature is economically appropriated safeguards the fullness of the Deity and all that it entails. We also see again the Son of God as Creator distinguished from the Son in His economy.

Cyril of Alexandria (376-444)

“Therefore, as I said, while praising the manner of the incarnation, we see that two natures came together in inseparable union without confusion and without division, for the flesh is flesh and no kind of Godhead, although it was made flesh of God; in like manner the Word is God, and not flesh, although He made the flesh His own according to the economy.” (From Cyril’s Letter to Nestorius, Quoted by Theodoret in Dialogue II the Unconfounded)

(Apol. contra Orientales.)

For we neither teach the division of the hypostases after the union, nor do we say that the nature of the Deity needs increase and growth; but this rather we hold, that by way of an economical appropriation (kat’ oikeiosin oikonomiken), he made his own the properties of the flesh, as having become flesh.

(Quod unus est Christus.)

For the wise Evangelist, introducing the Word as become flesh, shows him economically submitting himself to his own flesh and going through the laws of his own nature. But it belongs to humanity to increase in stature and in wisdom, and, I might add, in grace, intelligence keeping pace with the measure of the body, and differing according to age. For it was not impossible for the Word born of the Father to have raised the body united to himself to its full height from the very swaddling-clothes. I would say also, that in the babe a wonderful wisdom might easily have appeared. But that would have approached the thaumaturgical, and would have been incongruous to the laws of the economy. For the mystery was accomplished noiselessly. Therefore he economically allowed the measures of humanity to have power over himself.

(Apol. contra Theod., ad Anath. iv.)

And if he is one and the same in virtue of the true unity of natures, and is not one and another (two persons) disjunctively and partitively, to him will belong both to know and to seem not to know. Therefore he knows on the divine side as the Wisdom of the Father. But since he subjected himself to the measure of humanity, he economically appropriates this also with the rest, although, as I said a little ago, being ignorant of nothing, but knowing all things with the Father. (Third Ecumenical Council: Council of Ephesus, “Excursus on Theotokos”)

Theodoret of Cyrus (398-458)

Eran.— The contest with our antagonists compels us to this, for how could any one in any other way argue against those who deny the assumption of the flesh, or of the soul, or of the mind, but by adducing proofs on these points from the divine Scripture? And how could any one confute them who in their readiness strive to belittle the Godhead of the only Begotten but by pointing out that the divine Scripture speaks sometimes theologically and sometimes economically. (Dialogue II the Unconfounded)

We declare that the divine nature is impassible;— a doctrine confessed by our opponents as well as by ourselves. How then could there be a passion when there is no subject capable of suffering? The great mystery of the economy will appear an appearance, a mere seeming instead of the reality. This is the fable started by Valentinus, Bardesanes, Marcion and Manes. But the teaching handed down to the churches from the beginning recognises, even after the incarnation, one Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, and confesses the same to be everlasting God, and man made at the end of days; made man not by the mutation of the Godhead but by the assumption of the manhood. (Letter to Aphthonius)

Know then, most godly sir, that before all things it is necessary to observe the distinction of terms, and, in addition to this, the cause of the divine incarnation. Once let these be made clear, and there will be no ambiguity left about the passion. We will therefore first, to those who endeavour to contradict us, put this enquiry. Which of the names given to the only begotten Son of God are anterior to the incarnation, and which posterior, or rather, connected with the operation of the economy? They will reply that the terms anterior are, “God the Word,” “only begotten Son,” “Almighty,” and “Lord of all creation”; and that the names “Jesus Christ” belong to the incarnation. For, after the incarnation, God the Word, the only begotten Son of God is called Jesus Christ; for “Behold” He says “unto you is born this day Christ the Lord” and because others had been called christs, priests, kings, and prophets, lest any one should suppose Him to be like unto them, the angels conjoined the title Lord with that of Christ, in order to prove the supreme dignity of Him that was born. (Letter to Bishop Timotheus)

(For more, see also Letter to Eulalius  and Counter Statements of Theodoret)

  1. Two Seventh Century Councils and John of Damascus

A few capstones on the project.  Note that John tells us explicitly what he means by “economy”: “I mean the union in subsistence by virtue of which it [flesh] was united inseparably with God the Word”.

Sixth Ecumenical Council, (680/681) Constantinople III

We recognize the miracles and the sufferings as of one and the same [Person], but of one or of the other nature of which he is and in which he exists, as Cyril admirably says. Preserving therefore the inconfusedness and indivisibility, we make briefly this whole confession, believing our Lord Jesus Christ to be one of the Trinity and after the incarnation our true God, we say that his two natures shone forth in his one subsistence in which he both performed the miracles and endured the sufferings through the whole of his economic conversation (di holes autou tes oikonomkes anastrophes), and that not in appearance only but in very deed, and this by reason of the difference of nature which must be recognized in the same Person, for although joined together yet each nature wills and does the things proper to it and that indivisibly and inconfusedly. Wherefore we confess two wills and two operations, concurring most fitly in him for the salvation of the human race. (Session 16, Definition of the Faith)

Council in Trullo, a.d. 692 Quinisext Council (All Eastern)

Moreover we confirm that faith which at Chalcedon[…] which cast forth from the sacred precincts of the Church as a black pestilence to be avoided, Eutyches, babbling stupidly and inanely, and teaching that the great mystery of the incarnation (oikonomias) was perfected in thought only. (Canon 1)

John of Damascus (675-749)

Concerning the deification of the nature of our Lord’s flesh and of His will

It is worthy of note that the flesh of the Lord is not said to have been deified and made equal to God and God in respect of any change or alteration, or transformation, or confusion of nature: as Gregory the Theologian says, “Whereof the one deified, and the other was deified, and, to speak boldly, made equal to God: and that which anointed became man, and that which was anointed became God .” For these words do not mean any change in nature, but rather the economical union (I mean the union in subsistence by virtue of which it was united inseparably with God the Word), and the permeation of the natures through one another, just as we saw that burning permeated the steel. For, just as we confess that God became man without change or alteration, so we consider that the flesh became God without change. For because the Word became flesh, He did not overstep the limits of His own divinity nor abandon the divine glories that belong to Him: nor, on the other hand, was the flesh, when deified, changed in its own nature or in its natural properties. For even after the union, both the natures abode unconfused and their properties unimpaired. (An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith, Bk. 3, CH. 17)

Conclusion and Application

In conclusion to this lengthy post, I hope that it is abundantly clear that the conceptual distinction between theologia and oikonomia in Fathers is not at all the distinction we commonly refer to as the Ontological/Economic distinction.  The terms do not refer to the in se life of the immanent Trinity in distinction to the ad extra works and operations of the Trinity in creation and redemption. To the Fathers, there is no “Ontological Trinity” or “Economic Trinity”; in fact, the theologia/oikonomia distinction has nothing to do with Trinitarian theology per se.  Of course it relates to the Trinity in as much as all doctrines do, but the distinction of the Fathers’ is primarily a Christological distinction.  The theologia is ascribed to the Son in His Divine Nature and all that is entailed by His true and perfect Godhead; the oikonomia is ascribed to the Son united with His manhood and all that is entailed by the appropriation of true flesh and human soul. And the purpose of the terms is to make plain that the latter does not diminish the former since it is an arrangement, a dispensation, a condescension, keeping the Natures distinct—God and man in one Person. It is no more a Trinitarian distinction than is the Double Account.  Both are about Christ in His two natures and are intended to oppose Patripassians, Subordinationists, Nestorians, Eutychians, etc., and more importantly, to properly apprehend the teaching of our Savior in the Scriptures.

To put it in Nicene terms, the theologia is Christ considered as “the only-begotten Son of God, begotten of the Father before all worlds; God of God, Light of Light, very God of very God; begotten, not made, being of one substance with the Father, by whom all things were made”; the oikonomia is Christ considered as He “Who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary, and was made man; and was crucified also for us under Pontius Pilate.”

Unfortunately, we will have to wait for the next post to flesh out all the juicy details of this conclusion with reference to ESS.  For now, I hope we have at least clarified the discussion as it relates to the Fathers and the Ontological/Economic distinction, clearly distinguishing Class 1 usage from Classes 2 and 3.  I also think we can, without much ado, put to bed Grudem’s claim (quoted at the beginning) that the Nicene Fathers were teaching “ontological equality but economic subordination” consonant with his definition of the terms. Grudem, unfortunately, is an easy foil.  Discussing use Class 2 with reference to Eternal Subordination will prove much more involved.

Up next: “‘Economic’ Subordination of the Son? Part 2: the Pactum Salutis”


[1] But, it must be noted, Sanders does write the following in The Triune God: “At first glance, discourse about the economic Trinity and the immanent Trinity seems like simply a modernized translation of the patristic distinction between oikonomia and theologia. Just as Athanasius spoke of the incarnation of the Logos as “that which is kata oikonomia,” meaning something like “by way of dispensation” or “in carrying out the plan of God,” he spoke of the eternal deity of the Son as “that which is kata theologia,” or as referring to divinity proper. Such a distinction was crucial in resisting Arians, whose denial of the deity of the Son was expressed as seeing the Son’s incarnate mission (his oikonomia) as revelatory of his essential being (his theologia, or in their view, his lack of it). While the language of economic Trinity and immanent Trinity can be used to make that sort of distinction, on its own it tends in another direction, as can be seen by the peculiarity of its construction and by its hazy origins” (Ch. 5, “Economic Trinity and Immanent Trinity”).

6 thoughts on ““Economic” Subordination of the Son? Part 1: Theologia and Oikonomia

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