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Essence / Economy

Alright, theological types, here’s a post for you. We’ve started our second theology unit this semester – Doctrine of God and the work of Christ, catchy, eh? Anyway, lecture one, we get introduced to the whole idea of the economy and essence of God. I’d heard it before but I’m looking forward to the opportunity to explore it further.

Here’s my paraphrase of the key terms:

  • Economy of God – what God has revealed about himself to us
  • Essence of God – how God actually is, including what hasn’t been revealed because we, being finite, can’t understand it

Now, last semester we looked at revelation and as part of that I looked at how language is an appropriate tool to use to speak about God. Now I ask, what it is we can say about God:

  1. Can God be different in economy from how he is in essence?
  2. Is it impertinent to try to work out what God’s essence is, given that it is unrevealed and the secret things belong to God?
  3. Why would it be necessary to try to work out what God’s essence is?
  4. If the essence of God is by definition not revealed, isn’t anything we do know about God just an extension of economy?

Go on, tell me what you think. I know you want to! And seriously, I’d love to hear how you’ve resolved these issues. And also, what Bible passages you reckon help us out on this.

Categories: God Written by Tamie

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Tamie Davis

Tamie Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at meetjesusatuni.com.

12 replies

  1. Hi! interesting questions…

    1) “Can God be different in economy from how he is in essence?”

    I’m going to say “No, but as you stated he can be much more than we’re able to fully comprehend.

    James 1:17
    Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning.

    Malachi 3:6
    For I am the LORD, I change not; therefore ye sons of Jacob are not consumed.

    2) “Is it impertinent to try to work out what God’s essence is, given that it is unrevealed and the secret things belong to God?”

    I wouldn’t say that it’s unrevealed, the entire “general revelation” of God is all around us. I’d say that we have a full plate with what our little brain’s can handle and more importantly, it’s about what each of us DO with that understanding.

    Proverbs 3:5
    Trust in the LORD with all thine heart; and lean not unto thine own understanding.

    3)”Why would it be necessary to try to work out what God’s essence is?”

    I think that knowing what Gods intentions or what His plans are towards each of us personally is a big part of our relationship with Him and is consequently of great benefit to us.

    Jeremiah 29:11
    For I know the thoughts that I think toward you, saith the LORD, thoughts of peace, and not of evil, to give you an expected end.

    1 John 4:8
    He that loveth not knoweth not God; for God is love.

    4) If the essence of God is by definition not revealed, isn’t anything we do know about God just an extension of economy?

    It is revealed,but it is as you said…we have a limited ability to understand it. here’s why…

    Ephesians 4:18
    Having the understanding darkened, being alienated from the life of God through the ignorance that is in them, because of the blindness of their heart:

    What do you think?

  2. I’m wondering the context of your asking about economy?

    Some would argue that God has revealed himself to the Muslims, Hindi’s Aboridginee’s etc in verious different workings than what he has to Jews / Christians.

    In one sense there is truth about God in many religions, but its not the whole truth. It’s true that the whole of creation speaks of the glory of God, and so all men are without excuse….yet does all of creation speak the whole truth or only some of the truth?

    The essence of God is Love. It’s the only way Gods essence can be felt and manifested.

  3. Hi guys

    My question is not about general vs. special revelation but about what the boundaries are of special revelation.

    My concern isn’t that I don’t know everything about God but about the capacity of what is revealed to describe God. How much of the economy can we read back into the essence of God? For example, Christ suffers (in the economy of God); does that make God a suffering God in his essence (a la Moltmann)?

  4. Hey Tamie!

    The whole economy/essence thing got me thinking too, and I’d be interested in your thoughts.

    Is the distance between God’s economy and essence the same throughout all of our Scripture? For instance, do we see more of God’s essence in the person and work of Christ, than we do in say the prophetic writings of the Old Testament? If we do, then the distance between God’s essence and economy is closer in Christ, than in the prophets.

    It then got me thinking of a doctrine like Penal Substitutionary Atonement. My hunch is that PSA tries to keep the ‘distance’ between economy and essence through Scripture the same, due to a prior commitment to a doctrine of Scripture, where as this essence and economy language would give us some helpful language to be able to explore the relationships a bit more thoroughly.

    I think this question fits your question of the boundaries of specific revelation?

  5. The other factor/dimension we need here is an eschatological one. In the future, God will both make himself more fully known, and will make us more able to to know him…

  6. my 2c:

    Can God be different in economy from how he is in essence?
    I’d have to say no, especially as He never contradicts His character throughout all of special revelation. He can be different to our (sin-affected)perception of Him, but that’s our problem, not His.

    Is it impertinent to try to work out what God’s essence is, given that it is unrevealed and the secret things belong to God?

    God definitely wants us to know Him more, and I’m guessing He knows what parts of Himself we are to learn more about as we go through life. There’s no problem with asking God to reveal Himself more to us the way that He wants to, which is different to trying to investigate Him using only our natural faculties & knowledge.

    I think it’s silly, though, to talk about trying to discover things God hasn’t revealed – that looks like an exercise in futility. Surely one would be much better off trying to understand more of what God *has* revealed? Otherwise we’d end up in “how many angels on a pin”-type discussions; fascinating but useless in our knowledge of God (IMHO). (or, special gnosis about God that’s not revealed – I think the church has had enough of that nonsense for a while)

    Why would it be necessary to try to work out what God’s essence is?

    I don’t think it is; we have to trust that what He’s revealed is an accurate picture of Who He actually is, otherwise Christianity’s pointless anyway. Again, surely it’s much more rewarding to learn what God has revealed? Are we too eager to run before we can walk before we can crawl?

    If the essence of God is by definition not revealed, isn’t anything we do know about God just an extension of economy?

    I’d say so.

  7. Dave, I like where your head’s at! I take it the reason that this comes up in theology classes is because it does give us some helpful categories or language to talk about God in relation to doctrine – like suffering, like PSA, more controversially, like subordination in the Godhead. I feel like this issue is easy to give pat answers to but I want to chase it through further to make sure I’ve thought it through and can see the implications. I’m gonna try and do some more reading tomorrow so I’ve got better questions to ask in class on Wed. I’ll be interested to hear yours as well!

  8. Hi Tamie (and Arthur!),

    If you want to chase this through some more ‘Act and Being’ by Colin Gunton would be worth a read…

  9. Its an interesting concept as to what is meant by “Know” The early churches concept of knowing God was based more on an experiential knowing, rather then a factual knowledge.

  10. Oh bother, it’s not in the Ridley library. Thousands of Colin Gunton books but not that one. Any other suggestions Reuben?

  11. So, just thinking out loud after a bit of reading and another chat with Peter (Adam), here’s where I’m at.

    The question with essence / economy (as I think Dave pointed out) is how large the gap is between the two. Apparently Luther, for example, emphasized our inability to know something of the essence or being of God. But Louis Berkhof sees a narrower gap: “It would be a mistake to conceive of the essence of God as existing by itself and prior to the attributes… They are essential qualities of God, which inhere in His very Being and are co-existent with it. These qualities cannot be altered without altering the essential being of God. And since they are essential qualities, each one of them reveals to us some aspect of the Being of God.”

    So it’s at this point that people try to start making up lists of attributes that tell us something about God’s essential qualities. However the criteria for making it onto such a list seems rather ad hoc. Of course statements like ‘God is love’ are easy ones.

    Taking the more difficult case of the suffering God…..
    Jesus is revealed as a suffering servant. Leaving the ‘servant’ bit aside, part of Jesus’ nature in the economy is that he came to suffer. So, what does that tell us about God in his essence: that God is a suffering God and eternally suffers, or does it tell us that God is a God with a capacity for suffering and pain? I lean towards the latter, mainly because it seems to me that Jesus’ suffering ends (‘it is finished’; his glorification, etc.)

    I think the language of economy / essence is useful because it helps us to be cautious about projecting our finiteness onto God. But I think that making a list of God’s attributes that tell us about his essence can seem a bit random. Preferable would be an approach or a rationale which helps us to work out how to move from economy to essence.

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