What is theology? – St Athanasius

athanasius on the incarnation
A picture of the great Egyptian theologian and author of ‘On the Incarnation’ Athanasius.

Theology vs Theology Proper in St Athanasius

As we move into a discussion of ‘what is theology?’ for someone like St Athanasius who comes from an early period in Christian history it is all the more important that we define our concepts. Not until the medieval period do we get the concept of theology thoroughly worked out and defined more or less as a certain science, a field of understanding a way of understanding Christian doctrine.


Instead at the time of Athanasius in the fourth century the word ‘theology’ was often used in contrast to the word ‘economy’. This of course is not the economy as we use the word today but refers to God’s activity within his creation. The word economy originally had a connection in Greek to the head of the household who would order, arrange, manage the resources in their domain. And so it was a fitting word to describe God’s providential managing of history and creation.

Theology, on the other hand, today known as theology proper’, was limited to speaking about God and his eternal essence. So Jesus dying on the cross, his atonement, as much as that is central to theology today, would have fallen under economy insofar as it was talking about God’s action to reconcile humanity. This is not to say that the two were not related, if you have ever heard of Karl Rahner’s famous dictum that the economic trinity is the immanent (theological) trinity then you will know that these two are often difficult to hold entirely apart. Continue reading “What is theology? – St Athanasius”