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  • The Classic Age of the Distinction between God's Absolute and Ordered Power:In, Around, and After the Pontificate of John XXII (1316–1334)
  • Massimiliano Traversino Di Cristo (bio)

In more general terms, many mediaeval authors—and not only theologians—used the distinction between God's ordered and absolute power (potentia Dei absoluta and ordinata) to emphasize how, on the one hand, in an 'orderly' way, the realm of nature reflects God's freedom of choice, leading to the existence of a radically contingent order of creation; but also how, on the other hand, in terms of divine absoluteness and in the economy of salvation, God is never bound in his action, which is truly inscrutable and lies above morality.1 The extensive scholarship on this distinction clearly demonstrates how such a question represented a real 'problem' for mediaeval thinkers rather than just a simple theory.2 I am [End Page 207] limited to mentioning here that the doctrine of God's power comes to the fore with a much different significance in various historical epochs. A first example can be seen in the twelfth century through the theological and cosmological debate between the two positions represented by Peter Abelard (†1142) and Peter Lombard (†1160), which can be traced back to the origin of the distinction (at least with reference to the late-mediaeval discussion of this issue and not to the general history of religion). This debate asked for nothing but to clarify the limits of God's action, considering that God was viewed as an infinitely good being per se and that the natural world he created should be considered the best he could ever create.3 The original dialectic of the distinction between two separate types of God's power might be best represented by the following questions. Could God, at the time of creation (when he explicated an 'ordered' power), give rise to an order different from the one he actually created (through his absolute and free power)? And could he still create a different one? A century and a half after this debate, John Duns Scotus (†1308) eventually confirmed the opinion of Peter Lombard and provided a positive answer to both of these questions.4 However, beyond the apparent similarity in content between the theories enunciated and the claims made, the terms of the discussion greatly diverged from time to time, in terms of both meaning and dynamics, and underwent a slow but steady displacement from the territory of theology to that of legal-political analysis. The legal-political usage of the distinction between God's [End Page 208] absolute and ordered power was attested already in the thirteenth century, following a theoretical trend inaugurated by Henricus de Segusio, better known as Hostiensis (†1271).5 Such a usage will affect the history of legal theories up to the sixteenth century and beyond: from the notion of sovereignty to that of the prince, and to the question of which was the best form of government of a state and of the role, with respect to the prince, of the people and the magistrates.

In this paper, I shall inquire into the story of this distinction between the thirteenth and fourteenth century—a period in which the distinction between God's absolute and ordered power became so common, in law as well as theology, that we could almost call this period the 'classic age' of this distinction. This period saw the emergence of orientations that would prove decisive for the fate of modernity and the later history of the distinction between God's absolute and ordered power. In the pages that follow, I will try to explain the reasons, both historical and doctrinal, for the success of this latter as a specifically legal distinction during this [End Page 209] key period. I shall dwell, in particular, on the years from 1316 to the 1330s, under John XXII's pontificate, explaining the relevant religious and political issues of those times. To this end, I will examine the perspective of John XXII himself in relation to his two great doctrinal rivals, Meister Eckhart (†c.1328) and William of Ockham (†1347), and pay special attention to the dispute between the...


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