The Dialectic of Omnipotence in the High and Late Middle Ages

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Abstract

One of the great contributions of thirteenth-century scholastics both to the problem of divine omnipotence and the contingency of events was the development of an analytical tool commonly, though perhaps misleadingly, known as the distinction between the absolute and ordained power of God. The fundamental perception on which it was based, namely that what God created or established did not exhaust divine capacity or the potentialities open to God, was articulated by Peter Damian in the third quarter of the eleventh century, generally accepted by the middle of the twelfth century, embodied in the formula of de potentia absoluta/ordinata by the early thirteenth, and had become commonplace scholastic terminology by mid-century. But what was generally acknowledged to be a useful distinction expressing an accepted theological truth supposedly became, in the fourteenth century, a destructive vehicle upsetting the certainties of the natural and supernatural orders and dissolving both scientific empiricism and natural theology before the terrifying possibility of arbitrary divine intervention. The twin spectres of skepticism and fideism, so repeatedly encountered in the literature on late medieval thought a generation ago, were grounded in no small measure on the assumption that the scholastic distinction between absolute and ordained power was misunderstood or misapplied in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

The first two sections of this paper have drawn upon research done in 1970–72, partly as fellow of the Institute for Research in the Humanities at the University of Wisconsin.