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2. Theology and Providence (Oekonomia) in Western thought



2. Theology and Oekonomia in Western thought

We examined the roots of Western thought, which are linked to Latin - to Latin-speaking - theology. Latin-speaking theology made its appearance with the North African authors.  First and foremost was Tertullian, followed by other, equally predominant ones, such as Cyprian and later, Augustine.  The appearance of western theology is therefore linked mainly to the appearance of a language - a form of expression.  This form of expression, this language, was not a simple matter of words; rather, it carried with it an entire mentality. And we have already pointed out those characteristics.

The first characteristic is the concern for morality, for the praxis that was linked to the Roman perception in general, which always judged every single thing on the basis of its usefulness - mostly on the basis of the result that its presence will incur - and not like the ancient Hellenes, who chiefly focused their interest on the principle of each thing that would explain its existence ontologically.  We mentioned characteristically that the difference between a Roman and a Hellene - when in the presence of a table - will be for the Hellene to seek the nature of the item like a scientist (because science has its beginnings in Hellas), and to discover what makes it what it is, and not something else. He will pose the ontological question of "why is it?" or "Why is it not?" and "Why is it this, instead of something else?" These concerns do not preoccupy the Roman. (The distinction between Roman and Hellene is mine).  The Roman will pose the question "Of what use is this table?" The reason/logos of its being is not sought in its nature; it is sought in its utilization.  When we use this table, we can write on it, or we can combine it with other tables, in order to somehow organize its existence so that it will incur or render a certain result.  To the Westerner therefore, the result is what is more important. As well as an overall faith in God.  In Christ, in his entire religious experience, everything in his thought is linked automatically to usefulness - whether it is the subjective kind for the individual, or the objective kind, more broadly, for society.

[RELATIVE COMMENT BY O.O.D.E. We must again make a distinction here, about which 'Roman' we are referring to. The Roman identity - according to fr. John Romanides - had merged with the Hellenic one.  The "Rhomioi" were nothing more than Hellenic-speaking and Hellenic-mannered  descendants of the Romans. An image that helps to better understand this is that Romanity had the Roman as its "Father" and Hellas -the Hellenic civilization- as its "Mother".  Thus, the antithesis that the Reverend John of Pergamon has presented here is essentially an antithesis between the Latin-speaking (but also Frank-influenced) 'Roman' and Romanity's 'Roman'.  The former is merely a remnant (in name only) of the actual and dynamically evolving Roman identity. It is a "back-stepping" towards the idolatrous Roman identity.  Apart from the aforementioned, it is worth noting that the question of usefulness but also of practicality has certain positive results in Theology also.  The Psychotherapeutic nature of Orthodoxy, as stressed by fr. John, was one of the reasons that the Faith was adopted by the Romans: i.e., precisely because it also led to the improvement of conditions in society.

In the framework of this perception, we have the second element that characterizes Western thought, and that is the huge emphasis that it places on institutions.  An institution is definitely the guarantee that one has for the usefulness of a certain object, and naturally, the notion of institution also embodies the notion of organization.  When this table is placed within a framework combined with other objects, with another table, or a chair, then an organized whole is created, and that is the beginning of institutionalizing - especially when one can extract a useful result from that whole.  An institution therefore acquires central importance in Western thought. We need to also stress, that because of his practical placement and his interest in praxis, the Westerner, with his Roman, western mindset, looks to History as well as to the developments of History, in order to find the significance even behind religious experience and faith. History thus becomes extremely significant. Morality, institution, History, are the three basic elements that the Roman spirit carries inside it, from the beginning.  It does not have to do with the Franks; it is far older. 

Western thought goes through a critical phase during the 5th century, precisely when the [OODE Note: WESTERN] roman empire collapsed; along with it, the [OODE Note: WESTERN] roman institutions also collapsed, and naturally, together with the people's trust in institutions.  That was precise, critical moment that Augustine appeared.  And Augustine made his mark on the course of Western thought, with the help of neo-Platonism.  That is, he proposed that what is of importance is man's about-face, towards his inner self, towards the underlying self; that is, self-examination, introspect, and consequently the discovery of one's self, of one's underlying self, which thereafter leads Western thought to this day to its major accomplishments, its major characteristics.  Psychology - chiefly with the form it took with in-depth psychology, is Historically unthinkable without Augustine.  As we said, Augustine is the first in the West, but also the only one, because in the East there is no-one like him, who writes Confessions (because he sees the relationship with God through the prism of personal self-awareness).  Conscience acquires a central significance - the meaning of 'person' has now become in the West the underlying self, which can think and has an awareness of others and of the self. Self-awareness now begins, which develops very quickly, even after the Enlightenment.  In fact, all the in-depth psychology is the fruit of that new trend that Augustine started, which however also rescued the Westerner because he hinges on institutions.  But institutions continue to survive - but still as a typical characteristic of Westerners - except that now, whenever institutions disillusion them or are depreciated and the people naturally lose their footing (because all institutions are subject to deterioration), they have the potential to seek a new form of institution, a new institution.  They create revolutions and they change institutions.  Revolutions are also a characteristic of Western man. It is characteristic, that revolutions in Europe take place wherever institutions are unable to survive.  For example, in England there are no revolutions. England has a certain way of changing its institutions before they deteriorate and she thus survives - she does not undergo any revolutions.  Revolution is a characteristic of the trust placed in an institution; in other words, we want to rely on the institution; we aren't satisfied with this one, so we make another; but we would never consider abandoning it altogether.  Nevertheless, in the West there is also another outlet - the one provided by Augustine. And that outlet - of turning towards our inner self, into the dark compartments of the self, of the underlying element - gave rise to Western thought to cultivate even greater achievements, which are familiar to us.

And when we say "westerners", let us not fool ourselves! They are none other than us! We need only look at our literature, our poetry, our music: everything is western, because everything is linked to those achievements that the West has been drawing over the ages, because of the re-orientation that Augustine gave them.  The topmost of those achievements (apart from politics, which we said was precisely the changing of forms and structures and institutions through revolutions) is of course Romanticism, which is also a major achievement of the West.  Romanticism is that juxtaposing of a subject opposite Nature.  The awareness of a preponderance of the one or the other is of no importance.  Romanticism can produce admiration of the subject - man- and a subjugation, a depreciation of Nature. All these things infiltrate the Westerner's blood and theology is also carried away by them.

Therefore, Romanticism, psychology, mysticism are the [OODE Note: WESTERN] Christian characteristics, which again are linked to a psychological impact, a psychological experience. Note again that we are Westerners here also to a large degree, because this suggestion by the subject's emotional experience has infiltrated our religious experiences.  And it has infiltrated mainly in the form of pietism, which again is the offspring of western thought, and which pietism -in the form of sentimentality- is the placing of man's relation to God at the level of the heart, i.e. of emotion - of the experience in this sense.  The experience that we Orthodox stress so much is also an invention by Westerners. By studying all Westerners, that is what one can discern, and is able to see that the experience springs from there and is greatly linked to pietism.  So the issue is what kind of experience we mean and also what we mean by the term 'experience',  in order to juxtapose the Orthodox perception of 'experience' as compared to the Western one.  Now, this mystical experience is, precisely, the result of the turnabout to Western thought which Augustine had introduced.  This examination of my own self, the awareness of experiences and pietism, can take on the form of moralism, to which the experience and the praxis of the individual is always linked. What the individual does is what determines everything. That is why the West eventually took certain dilemmas to a theological level - why they are perpetually within a theological speculation.

One dilemma for example would be whether the experiential or even the moral experience and reality of mankind or of one person has an effect on objective reality in religion.   For example, how much unworthiness or moral worthiness or conscientious application of the minister affects the sacrament - the objective reality of the sacrament.  As we have said, our Church has already solved this, by placing the principle of 'ex opero operato'; ie., that the sacrament is performed regardless of the worthiness of the officiator. In spite of this, Western mentality has not abandoned us entirely, which is why the issue is always raised inside us, if not in the form of doubt, then certainly in the form of a question: How is it possible for an unworthy clergyman to perform sacraments? How can we accept such a thing?  Of course we do reach the point of doubting the sacrament itself, because the dogma we mentioned hinders us; however, what does preoccupy us, is precisely the dilemma that perpetually preoccupies Western theology.  And it was Protestantism naturally that posed the dilemma very acutely, with faith in the form of a prerequisite for ecclesiastic reality. Faith was always understood in the West in that form of a personal experience - a personal, conscientious stance. Consequently, if someone, either for various reasons, or because in certain circumstances they cannot consciously live their faith, the question is immediately posed: "What now?"  Let's say for example that we have a Eucharist community, in which everyone is absentminded at the time, and no-one is praying, no-one has a conscious stance; absentminded, because as we mentioned, a person cannot always focus consciously- either because of circumstances, because the priest is illiterate and everyone is illiterate and are unaware of what the texts are talking about - then where is the reality in the sacrament? For a Westerner, this is actually an immense problem. But why doesn't it constitute a huge problem for an Easterner?  That is one of the questions that has never been answered.  These dilemmas are all based on the dilemma that Augustine had created, with the intensity that he gave to the subject, and ever since then, if one wishes to see what is Western and what is not, they would have to pose all these questions together.  But we should not believe that we Orthodox are rid of Western influences. When characteristics such as the ones mentioned acquire with us a sense of criterion, then we most assuredly are subservient to the Western spirit.

From here on, we will embark on a more specific application of these characteristics, in various sectors of theology. These sectors we can describe, approximately as follows: One is the sector of Western Theology in the ancient classical sense of the word pertaining to God. How does the Westerner tend to render the word pertaining to God, and how does an Easterner?  In practice they can't be told apart - they are blurry. But at any rate, we can say that in the Hellenic Fathers we do not have a Western spirit. In the contemporary Orthodox however, I believe we cannot assert this. The word pertaining to God is one chapter; the word pertaining to Christ is another chapter, which is closely linked to the word pertaining to God; in Ecclesiology it is another chapter and of course another one in morality and in practice, in everyday life.

We shall begin with a brief examination of the word pertaining to God. And first of all, the meaning of the term "theology" - the word pertaining to God - is per se a meaning that can be utilized in two ways.  Naturally, we cannot speak of a word pertaining to God outside of a revelation by God, which is given to us 'in Christ'. And when we say 'in Christ' we mean within History, within the incarnate Logos, the incarnated Son. Consequently, one could say that the starting point is always the observation of the acts, the energies of God within History and chiefly the act and energy of God in History which is the incarnation of the Son.  Thus, theology begins from History.  One could say that this matches the characteristic that we already mentioned, of the western man, who always looks to History in order to find God, to find the meaning of all things.

It is therefore a characteristic of western man, that he gives the Person of Christ - of the historical Christ - the importance of a central and a starting place for theology.  We should not have serious objections at this point, but we should observe the subtle difference that immediately appears when we wish to speak of God beyond History, beyond the historical Christ. Straight away here we have the problem that became known during the Patristic era, through the discernment between theology and providence (oekonomia).  "Providence" is of course God's making provision with His acts within History, and especially with the mystery of the Incarnation.  When we say oekonomia (providence), we mean the Son's providence, to which the presence of the Holy Spirit is of course also linked.  But all these take place at a Historical level, and History in the broader sense includes Creation, from the time that the world was created; ever since the appearance of that "something else" which is not God, it is from then on that we have providence. Within providencewe have Creation, as well as all the beyond-God occurrences by God. It brings into existence all of Creation, which has been given one sole purpose by God: to come into communion with Him - to attain that relationship with God, that will allow the creature to acquire divine properties, not by its nature, but from that relationship that it has with God.  From the moment that the purpose God had instilled in His creation was shaken and disorganized on account of Man's fall, it was from that moment on that oekonomia (providence) took on a specific form, leading to the Incarnation, the Sacrifice, the Cross, the Death and the Resurrection of Christ, the advent of the Holy Spirit and pursuantly of the Church - through to the End of Time and throughout the entire course of History, of salvation; this is what we call "oekonomia" (providence).  We can of course go beyond this oekonomia and speak of God, not without any reference to this oekonomia, but as something else, which doesn't entail oekonomia.

In oekonomia, God manifests Himself to us in a manner that "imposes" upon God certain restrictions and certain special relationships with His creations.  The Incarnation itself is one such special relationship. It entails a self-vacating; in other words, God "suffers" the consequences of being a creation; the consequences of History that He does not suffer by nature.  He doesn't hunger, He doesn't get tired, He doesn't thirst, He doesn't die.  And yet, in the case of oekonomia, the word pertaining to God -Theology- contains ideas that are truly scandalous: God dies, God eats and drinks, God gets weary.  This Theology (that is based on oekonomia) is obliged to fully cover the word pertaining to God, within that cadre of historical reality in which God has inserted Himself - or even before the Incarnation - given that it is God Who speaks and Man listens and obeys.  All of the Old Testament presents God as speaking, becoming enraged, and so many other things. Given that God has involved Himself in His creation in whichever manner, either from a distance or with the Incarnation, it is necessary for the word pertaining to God to use these anthropomorphic references and expressions. But, to what degree is this legitimate and to what point can we take it? Because the danger here is for theology to end up anthropomorphic and for us to transpose into the word pertaining to God those categories and situations that belong to creations.

This danger had been foreseen by Patristic theology in its Hellenic aspect, and had proceeded to do two things that the West had never comprehended correctly.  The one thing was that which Dionysios the Areopagite had done, and all that apophatic tradition.  In other words, he wanted that apophatic tradition to stress that the word pertaining to God that was drawn from oekonomia (providence) is always defective and cannot be extended into Theology proper.  Of course, what Hellenic Patristic tradition did before anything else, was to distinguish between oekonomia (providence) and theology.  It made that distinction, and it alone was a very important thing. But if it were to remain devoid of any content, it would be meaningless.  What was the content that they gave it? One content is that of apophatism, with which Hellenic Theology demonstrates the deficiencies and the dangers of the word pertaining to God, which is based solely upon oekonomia (providence).  Thus, apophatic theology is not only a challenge for us to go beyond what the presence of God gives in oekonomia (providence) and in Creation, but to actually presuppose that God exists and the word pertaining to God must take place even before any reference is made to oekonomia (providence), and independent of oekonomia. In other words, God is Who He isn't, and that there can be a word pertaining to Him in a manner that does not include those elements that oekonomia (providence) gives us on God.

In Western theology, this negativism - this apophatic theology - took on the meaning of negative theology.  This is obvious, from the utilization by Dionysios the Areopagite.  His writings were given a central place in Western Theology during Medieval times. They were translated and developed by the Scholastics. It was with this dilemma almost - ie, between the obscure object, the spirit, on the one hand and objective reality on the other - that Dionysios the Areopagite was placed in the ranks of the mystics, in the sense of Western mysticism.  And the sense of Western mysticism includes the characteristic of the unknown - in the manner that psychology also perceives clearly as obscure - as that which does not come to light.  These are in essence the Augustinian roots.  Thus, we have the appearance of the apophatic tradition of the Dionysian works as though they were a mysticism of the unknown, of the obscure, in which we place God and assert that is where He is - inside that unknown, that obscurity.  That is not what we are talking about. That is not the intention of the Hellenic Patristic thought.  Lossky, with all his polemics against the West, presented this to us in his most important book, titled "Mystical Theology".  Naturally this sold millions of copies in the West of the Eastern Church, because they immediately took it in the sense of mysticism as understood by them.  However we do wonder, because Lossky indeed has information in there, which allows for such an interpretation of Dionysios. And those subtle distinctions are those that escape us. Nowadays, 95% of the Orthodox are influenced by Lossky. I am not indulging in polemics against Lossky, nor do I share their views on everything they impute to him. It is that generally speaking, the meaning of apophatism was wrestled with and eventually put aside.  Behind this misconstrual was hidden a misunderstanding of Dionysos, which sprang precisely from the influence of Western mysticism and Western thought.

One more parenthesis.  We must eventually embark on an in-depth study of Slavic theology, in order to see what Slavic characteristics of Christianity differ to the Greek ones,  and to the [OODE note: Western] Roman ones. We must not forget - it is extremely important that we be aware - that catholicity of the Church is nonexistent, if tomorrow there develops an African theology - or needs to be developed - with its own particular characteristics. Each peoples contribute their own way of thinking, when experiencing and expressing the mystery of God.

Thus, Lossky sought to identify apophatism with that unclear - that unknown element - which nowadays leads many Greeks who, on account of a lack of intellectual gratifications, see it as: "don't talk about God - we shouldn't talk - we should keep our mouth shut".  Does that mean all the Fathers who spoke about God were mistaken in doing so?   Or, there is the other, safer argument: "They were Fathers; they spoke up. Now, we shouldn't."  And there are many who use Lossky for that apophatism, in the sense that: "we do not talk about God, we do not talk about the meaning of the Trinity, or the Person of God. All these are an abyss, they are obscure topics."

These are not at all in the spirit of Dionysios, however, but we do at least enter the Christian mentality precisely through that window of the obscure compartments of the soul, which Augustine had inserted in the thought centre.  However, this is something that cannot possibly be conceived by a Hellene, as Kanellopoulos observes very astutely in the section of his "History of the European Spirit" that deals with Augustine; a Hellene would hasten to bring everything to the light; things cannot remain in the dark; he does not stress this kind of view, or the preoccupation with the subconscious and conscience - he wants to bring everything out in the open.  Dionysios is naturally not along those lines. But he is placed there - we place him there - precisely because the Westerner interprets apophatism as that dark, secret thing - a thing about which we know nothing.  Matters like this need careful attention. Our theology today has been distorted by things like these.  It is not that unknown thing - that non-essential thing - that theology desires to lead us to contradict oekonomia (providence).

[RELATIVE COMMENT BY OODE:  It should be noted that it is not a matter of whether the Fathers or we nowadays can speak of God; that is, it is not a matter that has to do with Time, inasmuch as they could then, but we can't now. It is first of all a "qualitative" matter. We need to examine WHO it is that speaks of God. The one who speaks of God must have attained enlightenment and theosis (deification), in order to have the necessary experience of what he speaks of. If a blind person were to speak of the Sun, then whatever he may say cannot be reliable. As Saint Simeon the New Theologian says: "For what could there be more unclean - tell me - than to teach with arrogance and pride, attempting things of the Spirit without the Spirit? What could be more profane than the one who is unrepentant and has not cleansed himself previously, but having put this aside, and with only his pseudonymous knowledge and external wisdom, has endeavoured to theologize, and to audaciously discuss things that be, and likewise that eternally be?" (Theologikos, 1,271-277, S.C. 122, 116)

This, therefore, is the direction that Western thought takes, when it wants to bypass the factor of oekonomia (providence) in its word pertaining to God.  The other one is the reverse - the opposite - (and it is what Western theology is also suffering from nowadays), ie., to draw oekonomia (providence) overall into its theology. We will mention some of the characteristics of today's Western theology, which however have their roots far deeper, and again, in Augustine. Strangely, what is observed in Augustine is the composition of antitheses, and for this reason [.....original Greek text missing).....] the projection into the eternal God of the realities of oekonomia (providence). Characteristic of today's Western theology is - for example - Rahner in the Roman Catholics' sphere, who begins with the following postulate:  In oekonomia (providence), God reveals His genuine self, therefore, God - the Triadic God - the Holy Trinity of oekonomia (providence) is the same as the eternal Holy Trinity. And this is reversely true, says Rahner: that the God of oekonomia is the eternal God.  What does this signify, and what are its consequences? The consequences here are that the Triadic relations that we observe in providence (oekonomia) are exactly the same as those that exist in the eternal God; in theology, even before oekonomia (providence).

From this, another important consequence can be discerned, which separates East and West. It is the renowned "Filioque".  The Filioque is based precisely on this confusion between theology and providence (oekonomia). In other words, it is clear to us that in oekonomia, the Spirit is given to us by Christ.  Latin theology renders the meaning of the term "proceeding from" with the same word that it used when translating the verb "giving" and "sending", ie : "procedere". This can be seen in Ambrosius, but without any heretical hue. Westerners quite simply were not able to distinguish between two meanings, ie.: the meaning of providentiallly "sending"  and "giving" (in oekonomia) on the one hand, and the eternally "proceeding from" on the other. This was a distinction that was made by the Hellenic side.  Cyril of Alexandria had also said certain things that rather clearly contained the notion of the Filioque. Theodoretus stood up and said that they were heretical words. If Cyril had implied that in oekonomia (providence) the Spirit is dependent on the Son, then it was alright. If he implied it in the eternal sense, then we do not accept it.  What has to be stressed however, is that the West always had the tendency to project the experiences of the reality of providence in its theology - its word pertaining to God.  Perhaps in the past because it couldn't do otherwise, but later on, after things had been elucidated, it is clear that Western theology had clung to that tendency.

There is yet another form, by which the Filioque again supports itself; by which this confusion between oekonomia (providence) and the psychological experiences that come from the energy, the presence of the Persons of the Holy Trinity in History (in oekonomia) is brought on, and which (confusion) it has transferred intact into the eternal Trinity and thus once again supporting the Filioque, in there also.  Rahner, therefore, is also basing the Filioque on the same syllogism, hence the entire West's inability to rid itself of this confusion. It persists in History; it persists in transfusing historical realities into the eternal God.

Another one who is doing this in the Protestant sphere nowadays  (and unfortunately, many Hellenes haven't noticed it as much as they should) is Mortman, who has gone as far as projecting into the eternal existence of God even those situations of anguish, of passion, of the Cross - as seen in oekonomia (providence). And that is how he speaks of the suffering God.  The word pertaining to God must definitely NOT be the same as when we speak of God beyond oekonomia (providence).  God must be free in His nature, in His existence, of all those things that He has willingly desired to undertake by means of providence (oekonomia).  Western theology is always taking risks by depriving God of that freedom, by asserting that all the things that happened through providence (oekonomia) were the natural consequences of God's existence.

  God revealed Himself to us, the way He has always been. That is the power behind the logical postulate.  Since He reveals Himself the way He is,and since what we see is what we see, therefore what we see is both what was, and what is.


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Transcript by: T. B.

Translation by A. N.

Article published in English on: 10-12-2009.

Last update: 10-12-2009.