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Oikeiosis: Appropriation and Empathy

October 14, 2011

Duccio di Buoninsegna

In the course of some research for something else entirely I’ve come upon a nice Greek term that plays into an early chapter in my dissertation: oikeiosis.  It shows up in the writings of Basil of Caesarea’s On the Holy Spirit and John of Damascus’ The Orthodox Faith, among others.

In brief, by oikeiosis the Fathers of the church (John is actually early middle ages, but we’ll give him a pass) had in mind something like appropriation or association or accommodation.  It’s linguistically related to the sphere of the home (Greek students will recognize the prefix oik-, “house,” as in oikonomia — from which we get the English word economy, or “law of the house”).

The use of this term in the ancient tradition is far from univocal.  Basil uses oikeiosis in his doctrine of the Holy Spirit and (in later parlance) the divine processions. Because the Son and Spirit are eternally generated by the Father (the Son begotten, the Spirit proceeding), they share in a deep communion of nature.  This communion Basil expressed in terms of their oikeiosis, a profound unity, affinity, and co-relation of those who live together.  Again, the etymologically justified human analogy would be to the familial bonds of a husband, wife, and children living together in voluntary, self-giving harmony.

The dispensation of our God and Saviour concerning man is a recall from the fall and a return from the alienation caused by disobedience to close communion [oikeiosis] with God. This is the reason for the sojourn of Christ in the flesh, the pattern life described in the Gospels, the sufferings, the cross, the tomb, the resurrection; so that the man who is being saved through imitation of Christ receives that old adoption. (On the Holy Spirit, 35)

John later applies the term to Christology: oikeiosis is the divine Son’s accommodation to human existence in the Incarnation.

[Some of the statements made about Christ in the New Testament] are said in the manner of association [oikeiosis] and relation, as, My God, My God, why has Thou forsaken Me? and He hath made Him to be sin for us, Who knew no sin, and being made a curse for us; also, Then shall the Son also Himself be subject unto Him that put all things under Him. For neither as God nor as man was He ever forsaken by the Father, nor did He become sin or a curse, nor did he require to be made subject to the Father. … Appropriating, then, our person and ranking Himself with us, He used these words. For we are bound in the fetters of sin and the curse as faithless and disobedient, and therefore forsaken. (The Orthodox Faith, IV.xviii)

Now I don’t want to reify the term too much. John’s use is an attempt at some christological precision, and in this way (here’s where it fits into my research) it is reminiscient of Athanasius’ doctrine of ascription. (I don’t have the Greek handy here, but I have to wonder if his term is linguistically related to oikeiosis.)  For Athanasius, the divine Word of God has a basically instrumental relationship to his assumed flesh: he truly becomes flesh (John 1:14), yet in such a way that it is not proper to him as an eternal subject. This is how Athanasius sought to explain such biblical phenomenon as Jesus’ growth and development (Luke 2:52), his apparent ignorance (Mark 13:32), emotional fear and anguish (John 11:35; Matt. 26:38; John 12:27), and death. These experiences were not proper to the Word but to the flesh, and the Word ‘ascribed’ them to Himself.

Used in this way, ascription or appropriation is finally unsatisfying on Chalcedonian grounds. It suggests that there is a distinction between the Word’s actual experience of something as an acting agent, and His appropriation of that experience or attribute to Himself (improperly, as it were). Yet the church came to express the powerful yet difficult, perhaps even paradoxical truth that the eternal Son of God became a human subject and lived a human life, and endured a human death, fully and completely in the fullness of his self-constituting humanity and not, as it were, standing at a distance from it.

John, however, is a full-blooded Chalcedonian thinker, so he actually distinguishes oikeiosis from ascription (prospoiesis) — though he does affirm the latter, as well, though on a much more limited basis than Athanasius had done. As with Basil’s use, for John oikeiosis carries the sense of Jesus’ empathy with us, which along with the metaphysical assumption of human nature is the ways and means of his representation of all of humankind.

Oikeiosis is broad enough to be applied to a number of points in doctrinal theology, and I imagine a deeper study of its use in the tradition would bear this out. The bond of love between two married people may be that of oikeiosis. Men and women (and children!) living in the community of the church may be said to be living out oikeiosis. So also the Holy Spirit’s dwelling in the believer, uniting her to Christ may be thought of as oikeiotic: just as God in Jesus Christ came to be with us, so does He draw us into fellowship with him.

4 Comments leave one →
  1. October 14, 2011 3:29 pm

    Great post! Leaves me wanting to dig for more.

  2. October 16, 2011 5:56 am

    I find this post devotional; nice, Darren!

  3. October 17, 2011 4:18 pm

    yeah, what they said.

  4. November 17, 2012 3:29 am

    I found this very helpful, as I was reading Alexis Torrance, “Precedents for Palamas’ Essence -Energies Theology in the Cappadocian Fathers” in Vigiliae Christianae 63 (2009), 56. He mentions oikeiosis in Basil’s theology without clarifying parenthetically what the word means (or giving a gloss), so I googled the term and was led to your post! Thanks!

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