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  • The Absolute and Ordained Power of God and King in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries: Philosophy, Science, Politics, and Law
  • Francis Oakley

The quintessentially scholastic distinction between God’s power understood as absolute and ordained (potentia dei absoluta et ordinata) has been described “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.” 1 The importance of that distinction the historical scholarship of the past forty years has served increasingly to indicate. 2 The idea that it expressed had emerged already in the twelfth century, and in the standard form familiar to us from later years we now know it to have surfaced among the theologians of Paris in the opening years of the thirteenth. We also know that long before the end of the thirteenth century it had come to be understood in the two distinct ways that were to persist on through the late medieval and early modern centuries and to be acknowledged in the neo-scholastic manuals of the late nineteenth century.

According to the first of these understandings, embedded in the classical formulations given to the distinction by Albertus Magnus, Thomas Aquinas, William of Ockham, and many other later thinkers, the term potentia absoluta was used simply to denote God’s power in itself, taken in abstracto and without reference to the orders of nature and grace he has actually willed de potentia ordinata to establish. There was no question, that is, of the absolute power’s [End Page 669] being understood as a presently-active power by means of which God intervenes in the world to act apart from or set aside the order established by the ordained power. It refers instead to God’s ability to do many things he does not choose to do. Or put in the temporal terms that William Courtenay favors, it refers to “the total possibilities initially open to God, some of which were realized by creating the established order,” the “unrealized possibilities” being “now only hypothetically possible.” 3

Side by side with this “classical” usage, however, there had emerged already in the thirteenth century what has been called a “juristic” or “opera-tionalized” understanding of the potentia dei absoluta as a presently-active power of potential interposition in the established order. Thus Duns Scotus, who gave a most influential expression to this alternative understanding, drawing an analogy not only with kings but with any free agent within whose power the law falls, distinguished between the ordained power by which God acts de jure in accordance with the rightful law he has established and the absolute power whereby de facto he can act apart from or against the law. In such a formulation the absolute power clearly exceeds the ordained. Rather than referring simply to the realm of logical possibility prior to God’s ordination of things, that absolute power is now construed as a presently-active and extraordinary power capable of acting apart from the order established de potentia ordinata and prevailing in the ordinary course of things. This “juristic” understanding of the distinction was clearly affiliated closely with the cognate distinction that medieval canonists invoked as early as the thirteenth century in an attempt to elucidate what the pope, in the absoluteness of his plenitudo potestatis, or absolute power, could do that was not open for him to do when acting in accordance with his merely ordained or “ordinary” power.

Philosophy and Science

In an earlier and complementary article, I traced the career of the power distinction, as well as the persistence of the two distinct ways of understanding it, across the fifteenth century and on into the thinking of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theologians, Lutheran and Reformed as well as Catholic. 4 It remains now to go on to demonstrate that the currency of the distinction in these later centuries was no more confined to strictly theological circles or settings than it had been during the Middle Ages. The Coimbran commentators and Suárez certainly deployed it for more generally philosophical purposes, 5 [End Page 670] and in the seventeenth century they were by no means...

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