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Does Ockham's Concept of Divine Power Threaten Man's Certainty in His Knowledge of the World?

From: Franciscan Studies
Volume 55, 1998
pp. 169-180 | 10.1353/frc.1998.0040

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Does Ockham's Concept of Divine Power Threaten Man's Certainty in His Knowledge of the World?1 A central subject in the philosophy of Ockham is his teaching on polenlia absolula and ordinala. The Venerabilis Incepior2 did not invent these theological concepts. But his writings on the concept of poleniia absolula made this a term widespread in theology, especially in the Via moderna. So it is not surprising that Hans Blumenberg took this prominent theme as an opportunity to criticize Ockham by identifying his teaching on God's omnipotence as "Willkùrfreiheil,"! arbitrary freedom. International research in recent decades has put considerable effort into discussing this negative view of Ockham and analyzing his impact on later theology.4 Some have stressed Ockham's conviction, expressed in the Quodlibela VI q.l, that there is nothing God can do "inordinale" (Deus nihil polesl faceré inordinate).5 This 'This paper was read at the "International Medieval Congress" Hi Leeds, 10-13 July 1995. It is based on my Heidelberg theological dissertation (published as Volker Leppin, Geglaubte Wahrelt. Das Theologieverständnis Wilhelms von Ockham, Göttingen 1995 [= Forschungen zur Kirchen und Dogmengeschichte 63]). Heartfelt thanks to Markus Vogt, Munich (Germany), for a critical reading, and to Stephen E. Buckwalter, Góttingen (Germany), and Ruth M. Tuschling, Cambridge (England), for correcting the English version. 2For his works I use the following abbreviations: OT I-X: Guillelmi de Ockham Opera Theologica, ed. G. Gal and others. Vol. 1-10 (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1967-1986). OP I-VII: Guillelmi de Ockham Opera Philosophica, ed. G. Gal and others. Vol. 1-7, (St. Bonaventure, NY, 1974-1988). Opol I-III: Guillelmi de Ockham Opera Política. Vol. 1, ed. H. S. Offler (Manchester, 1974), Vol. 2 and 3, ed. R. F. Bennett/H. S. Offler (Manchester, 1963, 1956). 3H. Blumenberg, Säkularisierung und Selbstbehauptung. Erweiterte und überarbeitete Neuausgabe von "Die Legitimität der Neuzeit," erster und zweiter Teil (Frankfurt, 1983), 171. 4See for example R. Wood, "Göttliches Gebot und Gutheit Gottes nach Wilhelm von Ockham," in Philosophisches Jahrbuch, 101 (1994): 38-54, who criticizes the prejudice that Ockham teaches arbitrary divine freedom insofar as it concerns ethics. 5OT IX 586, 2Of; cf. K. Bannach, Die Lehre von der doppelten Macht Gottes bei Wilhelm von Ockham. Problemgeschichtliche Voraussetzungen und Bedeutung (Wiesbaden, 1975), 248f; J. P. Beckmann, "Weltkontingenz und menschliche Vernunft bei Wilhelm von Ockham," in L'homme et son univers au Moyen âge. Actes du septième 169 Franciscan Studies, 55 (1998) 170VOLKER LEPPIN concept has a special meaning, because it belongs to Ockham's teaching on divine power: to work "ordinale" for Ockham means nothing else than working de poíeníia ordinata, as he explicitly declares later on in his Opus Nonaginta Dierum.6 So, if God works ordinate, we cannot distinguish actions in which God works de poíeníia ordinala from actions in which he works de poíeníia absolula, because he never actually works de poíeníia absolula. This concept merely has the function of ensuring that God's possibilities are greater than his actual deeds. Ockham does not make much effort to define more exactly these concepts so often used in his teaching. To understand his distinction between absolute and ordained power in more detail, one has to consider that he is not the inventor of this distinction. Rather, he only develops further what he had learned from Duns Scotus. And it is exactly in the identification of "ordinate" and "de poíeníia ordinala" where the main difference lies between Ockham's teaching on God's power and Scotus' teaching, as Courtenay and Randi have shown.7 In the work of the Doclor sublilis, acting de poíeníia ordinala and working ordinale are quite different things: the first indicates God acting according to the universal laws given by himself,8 while the second exceeds this sphere; it simply means that God acts on the basis of any, yet possibly not now universal, special order given by himself. In consequence: sometimes God, breaking his own laws, acts outside and possibly against the universal order arranged by himself—and nevertheless is acting ordinale] congrès international de philosophie...