The Gospels and oikonomia

For those unfamiliar with the Eastern Orthodox Christian usage of the term oikonomia, often Englished as “economy”, here’s a definition:

This Greek word oikonomia means, classically, the management of a household (oikos/house, nomos/law or rule). In theology the term refers first of all to God’s providence as the divinity extends itself beyond the inner life of the Trinity: all that pertains to the created worlds and to the divine actions taken on their behalf and for their salvation. The supreme example of the divine economy is therefore the Incarnation, i.e., the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. From the risen Christ comes the gift of the Holy Spirit, and in the latter the presence in the fallen world of the Kingdom of God, i.e., the Church. As the Church exists in a fallen world, its fundamental concern must be the salvation of the sould whom it embraces. Thus the second and directly related meaning of economy: actions taken by the Church in the person of its officers (bishops, and by extension priests) for the redemption of individual believers in the sphere of Canon Law. While representing the Church’s governing of souls and communication of grace, the canons are neer in themselves absolute. They may be enforced literally, kat’ akribeian, or with discretion, kat’ oikonomian, depending on the discernment of the needs of the particular soul. “Economy” of canonical application can therefore mean either a loosening of the canonical prescriptions (akin to Roman Catholicism’s “dispensation”), or the imposition of a discipline stricter than that which the canons provide.

Historical Dictionary of the Orthodox Church. Michael Prokurat, Alexander Golitzin, and Michael D. Peterson. Scarecrow Press, 1996. s.v. “Economy.”

It’s with reference to the second meaning that I use the term in this post, though I will use the transliterated form, “oikonomia,” in preference to the ambiguous “economy.”

There is an intersection between oikonomia and the formation of the Synoptic Gospels, when viewing such formation through the Two Gospel Theory. This theory places Matthew as the first Gospel to be written (which reflects the unanimous, indeed catholic, opinion of the Church Fathers), followed by Luke, which is followed by Mark. What we then see is a first Gospel directed to a readership that is overwhelmingly of Judean descent, familiar with the forms of religious discussion and argumentation current in Judea (a tradition of that continued after the destruction of the Temple into Rabbinic Judaism), faithfully keeping the Law of Moses in its particulars, and who know and worship Jesus from within a tradition that shows very little concern with Gentile ways. The Jesus of Matthew is one who meets the religious authorities on their own terms, winning arguments in a manner that is spelled out in detail. In Luke and Mark, on the contrary, we find that Matthew’s Gospel is not so subtly altered, and the discussions and argumentation so familiar to Judeans, and certainly closer to the actual form of Jesus’ teachings and discussions with his countrymen, are edited and changed for a different readership: Gentiles. The extended argumentation found in Matthew is edited down into collections of gnomic, memorable sayings, with the sayings of one discourse in Matthew (surely original) sometimes scattered into various other discourses (surely unoriginal) in Luke and Mark. The coherent argument in Matthew in any particular passage is rendered incoherent in a Judean, and more original context, by this treatment in Luke and Mark. Yet, this treatment of Jesus’ various sayings is actually presenting them in a manner that is more coherent for a Gentile reader unfamiliar with Judean forms of dispute. And this, I suggest, is our earliest example of oikonomia in the Church.

As oikonomia, the sayings of Jesus were adapted to new environments, in order to render them more comprehensible and more acceptable to those who might be put off by the very foreign manner of discourse of the very Judean Matthew. We who are so used to reading the literatures of various nations, in translation or not, do not find this to be a matter of great import. Readers of Greek within the Roman Empire’s civilizational borders would have been quite put off by foreign discourse to a greater degree than they would be put off by writings in more familiar modes of discourse. Thus, the decision by various apostles—traditionally Paul was associated with the production of Luke-Acts, and Peter with Mark—to render Matthew’s Gospel in a form more suitable for Greek and Roman audiences. And why? In order to save their souls. And in this their tactics were successful.

And while, over time, Matthew became and remained the favorite Gospel of ancient Church writers, by far the most-quoted of the Gospels, the successful oikonomia employed in the production of Luke and Mark should not be forgotten.

Similarly, we can see oikonomia at work among Paul’s letters. In these, we see churches that have been recently founded, and to which Paul is writing early in their Christian lives, have a more basic, less complex, theology being presented to them by the Apostle. And in longer-established churches, we see more complex theology being presented to the congregations. (See here.) And in the case of the Pastoral letters, to Paul’s longtime co-workers, we see Paul express concerns of an advanced and “behind the scenes” nature. All of these letters are addressed to hearers at levels that they’re ready to hear, and not more. This is truly oikonomia.

And this practice of oikonomia remains alive in the Church today. The focus is still a love for souls, and guiding those souls gently into greater communion with God. They are approached in a way that they can understand, so that they can approach God from where they are. Certainly they will grow and be transformed, and come to a greater understanding of theology, asceticism, and a life of prayer, all of which is expressive of an ever-growing closeness to God. Just as in the early days of the Church, so today.

7 Replies to “The Gospels and oikonomia”

  1. Thank you for this, Kevin! I enjoyed reading it very much, and it’s enlightening and encouraging to see how the Holy Spirit and the Church use oikonomia to tenderly and lovingly lead souls to Christ, both in the Gospels and Epistles and in the Church.

  2. Robin, it’s a little more complicated even than that. Remarriage itself is discouraged, even a second one, though they are often granted in some areas. A third is only very rarely granted, but never a fourth. This is an expression of the principle of moderation in one’s life. All Christians are called to an ascetic life, which means mastering the passions through synergy with God. Multiple remarriages are seen as unseemly, an expression of lust. Of course, these days, people will slake their lust outside of marriage quite readily, or they’ll simply not marry in the Church. But the canonical principle remains as an expression of the experience and mind of the Church. Also, keep in mind that the canons were not prescriptive, but situational or reactive. They are responses to real abuses and situations of their times, with the Holy Spirit guiding the decisions of the Synods and Fathers to provide solutions in those particular situations. These days, oikonomia is expressed in the way in which those particular canons are examined to extract the overarching principle that led to that guidline, and then applying it to our present much different world situation. I hope that helps!

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