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The Absolute and Ordained Power of God in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Theology

From: Journal of the History of Ideas
Volume 59, Number 3, July 1998
pp. 437-461 | 10.1353/jhi.1998.0027

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The Absolute and Ordained Power of God in Sixteenth- and Seventeenth-Century Theology

[W]e must cautiously abandon [that more specious opinion of the Platonist and Stoick] ... in this, that it ... blasphemously invades the cardinal Prerogative of Divinity, Omnipotence, by denying him a reserved power, of infringing, or altering any one of those Laws which [He] Himself ordained, and enacted, and chaining up his armes in the adamantine fetters of Destiny.

Walter Charleton, The Darknes of Atheism Dispelled by the Light of Nature : A Physico-Theologicall Treatise (London, 1652)

Of the various attributes characteristically ascribed to God in the Christian tradition—goodness, wisdom, omniscience, omnipotence, and the like—it is omnipotence which of recent years has most persistently been the object of focused attention among philosophers and historians alike. That that should be the case with philosophers working in the Anglo-American analytic tradition is not altogether surprising. While it is doubtless a development few would have predicted half a century ago, the years since then have seen something of a recrudescence of interest in a legislative or divine-command ethic. 1 Had that [End Page 437] not itself conspired to make omnipotence an obvious focus of philosophic attention, the deepening contemporaneous preoccupation with modal logic or the logic of possibility would surely have succeeded in so doing. Understood classically as affirming of God the ability to do all things and connoting a virtual capacity for action (as opposed to a power exercised in actuality), omnipotence has proven to be something of a troublesome notion, inviting unrestrained speculation about hypothetical divine action and generating a veritable cat’s cradle of philosophical conundrums concerning the relationship of God’s power to his will, wisdom, goodness, and justice.

Medieval theologians and philosophers alike were forced to grapple with these taxing problems, 2 and philosophers of our own era have found them no less directly pertinent to their own logical and ethical concerns. 3 In 1955 Mackie inaugurated what was destined to become an ongoing discussion of omnipotence in the philosophical journals, 4 and such philosophers as Kenny and Keane, Cowan and Wolfe, Dummett, Plantinga, Swinburne, and Geach have been drawn into the fray. Since then, as a result, the pages of Mind, Philosophy, Philosophical Review, and even The Listener have been punctuated by their efforts to grapple with those venerable questions concerning the divine power that had exercised St. Peter Damiani in the mid-eleventh century, brought Abelard to grief a half-century later, and subsequently led Peter Lombard to devote to them a crucial and influential section of his Sentences—whether God of his omnipotence could undo the past, whether he could have made things other than he had, or created a world better than he did, and so on. 5 [End Page 438]

While no medievalist can be expected to be anything but gratified by this unexpected testimony to the enduring significance and power of medieval scholastic concerns, those of us interested especially in the intellectual developments of the later-medieval centuries have particular reason to be energized by it. The years since Mackie launched this contemporary philosophical debate have also seen an intensification of interest on the part of historians in the ways in which, during these particular centuries, medieval thinkers themselves came to terms with the implications of the divine omnipotence and dealt with the theological and philosophical puzzles characteristically generated by that notion. Unlike the philosophers, whose concerns have been somewhat more broad-ranging, the historians have focused in particular on a quintessentially scholastic distinction that was developed, it has been said, “as a ‘yes and no’ answer to the question whether God is able to do or arrange things other than he did in creating the orders of nature and grace.” 6 The distinction in question is that between God’s power understood as absolute and as ordained (potentia dei absoluta et ordinata), which the theologians and philosophers of the period deployed as part of their great effort of accommodation between Greek philosophical and biblical notions of the divine, and the historical significance of which the scholarship of the past forty years has served increasingly to vindicate. 7 But while that distinction has been...