4. An Unpopular Argument (II)
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117 c h a p t e r f o u r h An Unpopular Argument (II) From the Lombard to Leibniz In chapter 2, the genesis of Abelard’s argument about God’s inability to do other than he does (NAG) and the reactions to it during or just after his lifetime were examined. Although it has different versions and comprises different arguments, the central reasoning, as put forward in Theologia scholarium, is as follows: 1. God does x at t. [premise] 2. God cannot do anything at any time which is not good to do at that time. [premise: supposedly Christian doctrine] 3. If it is good for x to be done at t, it is not good that x be desisted from being done at t. [premise] 4. It is good that x be done at t. [1, 2] 5. It is not good that x be desisted from being done at t. [3, 4] 6. God cannot desist from doing x at t. [2, 5] 7. God cannot do other than x at t. [1, 6]1 Since the same reasoning applies to all that God does, the argument shows that ‘God can only do or desist from things just in the way and at the time that he does, and not otherwise or at another time.’ This claim figures in the list of heresies attached to Bernard 118   a b e l a r d ’ s p a s t a n d a b e l a r d ’ s f u t u r e of Clairvaux’s letter denouncing Abelard.2 We know from a passage quoted by Thomas of Morigny that Abelard defended this position in his (mostly lost) Apologia, though not how he did so.3 In the Confessio fidei ‘Universis’ Abelard says, however: ‘I believe that God can do only those things which it befits him to do, and that he could do many things which he does not do.’4 This seems, at first sight, to be a denial of the position which he upholds everywhere else, and as such to fit the contrite mood of this statement of faith, which might even—so its editor has speculated—be ‘a document demanded, or required by convention, from Abelard in the course of the proceedings of an inquisition against heresy.’5 Yet Abelard still asserts here his fundamental view that God can do only what it befits him to do, and he could, without rejecting his usual position, agree to the formula that God ‘could do many things which he does not do’, since it merely rules out the position that God’s acts are strictly necessary, which Abelard never held, not his view that God has no alternative possibilities.6 Admittedly, he usually puts this second position by saying that God cannot do more than he does or cannot do what he does not do—almost exactly what, verbally, he denies in the Confessio . But it is tempting to think that Abelard exploited the ambiguity of the expressions so as to satisfy his inquisitors without compromising his own beliefs. It might be expected that such a controversial view would have had no future in theological discussions, especially since it had been condemned. In fact, as it would turn out, this view was discussed by medieval theologians perhaps more than any other of Abelard’s, but always only to reject it—in most cases without seriously considering the arguments Abelard made for it. One of the first thinkers to examine it after Abelard’s death is, however, a remarkable exception. The Sentences of Roland Peter the Lombard appears in this chapter’s title because the discussion of the NAG argument in his Sentences explains in large part both the fortune of Abelard’s idea—discussed by most of the An Unpopular Argument (II)  119­ thirteenth- and fourteenth-century scholastic theologians—and, as will become clear, its misfortune. But a far more careful and thorough discussion of the argument is found in a work from roughly the same time, the Sentences of Roland, a Bolognese master who, in many respects, was a follower of Abelard’s.7 His Sentences are thought to date from between 1149 to the late 1150s.8 Roland’s discussion is unlike any of the earlier or later ones in the dispassionate detail with which he discusses and expounds the argument.9 Whether God can or cannot do more than he does is considered as a...


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