Calvin and the Absolute Power of God

David Steinmetz discusses this topic in his article of the same title in Journal of Medieval and Renaissance Studies Vol. 18, No. 1 (Spring, 1988), pp. 65-79. What emerges from his discussion are some interesting points about both Calvin’s continuity and his discontinuity with Medieval theology. One virtue of this short article is that Steinmetz provides a broad brush survey of the topic and its importance for Medieval theology before getting into Calvin’s treatment of the distinction. This helps to better orient the reader who may only have a passing acquaintance with the subject of Medieval nominalism.

Medieval theology since the late eleventh century had made a distinction between the “absolute” power of God (potentia Dei absoluta) and the “ordained” power of God (potentia Dei ordinata). The former concerned what God could do on account of His being omnipotent. The latter concerned what God has actually chosen to do. A major motivation for making this distinction was to safeguard the liberty of God against pagan, Islamic, or even Christian notions of an external necessity which could bind God’s actions (pg. 67). On the contrary, using this distinction it became possible to say that (1) God could do anything which did not involve a logical contradiction, and (2) that the way God has actually done things, as we observe them, is not necessary. For example, God was not bound to create this world as He has actually created it, but could have created it differently. As Medieval theology developed, the distinction came to be employed in many speculative questions, such as whether God could grant pardon to someone lacking an infused habit of grace, or whether He could institute a new moral code, or even whether He could have caused Christ to be incarnated in an irrational animal (pp. 66-67).:”(I remember years ago reading Erasmus’ In Praise of Folly, and running across him mocking theologians of his day who argued that Christ could have been incarnated as a donkey. Though I did not understand what was going on in such speculations then, it is easier to understand now, especially when Steinmetz later summarizes it as being an attempt to actually justify the wisdom of God in doing things the way He actually did [pg. 77].)”:

The distinction also had use in natural philosophy, where it was used to mollify the naturalism of Aristotelian philosophy and to extend the boundaries of thought beyond what was logically possible into what was actually possible. For example, could God perceive every part of an actually infinite line of points, or could He destroy everything except a single physical body (pg. 68).

The distinction between the two powers of God was taken up by the schools of Duns Scotus (1265-1308) and William of Ockham (1280-1347), who were particularly interested in the divine liberty side of the distinction. Although not limited by anything outside of Himself, said these theologian philosophers, God had freely limited Himself by obligating Himself to fulfill the terms of covenants which He makes with man and which He will not break. For instance, God limits Himself, out of His ordained power (de potentia ordinata), to justify sinners who possess an infused habit of grace. By arguing this way, Medieval nominalists attacked the commonplace assumption that real metaphysical-ontological connections and necessities, which are understood primarily by Reason, stand behind every aspect of existence. The upshot of such ideas was that “human merit should be established primarily on the basis of the covenant and promise of God rather than on ontological grounds” (pp. 70-71).

As nominalism’s attack on realism continued beyond Scotus and Ockham, these ideas were developed to the point where they seemed radical in the fifteenth century. But, Steinmetz observes that they had already seen their genesis in the twelfth century (Ibid.). The later Medieval nominalists, contrary to Modern day detractors who often see them as “skeptics” and “relativists,” tried hard to keep the potentia absoluta and potentia ordinata in a relationship of tension. Not denying either side, they asserted both that (1) God was absolutely free to do anything noncontradictory that He wished, and that (2) the created order as He made it is radically contingent (Ibid.). The emphasis is on contingency, not unknowability or unreliability. This must be remembered, for critiques of the nominalist view often assert that the God it portrays is an arbitrary tyrant (since His will cannot be plumbed in advance by human reason) and that nothing can be known of the world He made (since it could have been different than it actually is). The created world, and even the order of salvation, are contingent, but God is immovably self-committed to His covenant obligations.

Calvin seems to have gotten his understanding of the distinction from the Scotist and Ockhamist schools, though, as Steinmetz will later discuss, he also seems to have openly repudiated the Scholastic sources of the distinction. Steinmetz summarizes three contexts in which Calvin rejected the distinction. First is the context of the adequacy of God’s power to perform miracles. Using Genesis 18, the story of Sarah laughing at God’s promise to give her a son, Calvin urges his readers to avoid limiting God’s power to the “scanty measure” of their own reason. Sarah sinned, Calvin says, “by not acknowledging the greatness of his power.” Calvin is concerned that, as Steinmetz summarizes, “God’s power should only be considered in the context of God’s Word, what God can do in the framework of his declared will…” (pg. 73).

The second context of Calvin’s rejection of the two powers distinction concerns the doctrine of providence, especially when the faithful see that the wicked continue to prosper. Is God unjust, the faithful may ask, in permitting this? Commenting on Jeremiah 12, which deals with this very question, Calvin notes that the prophet argues that the wicked confuse God’s forebearance with His favor. Jeremiah does not, however, “set up the judgments of men against the absolute power of God, as the sophists under the Papacy do, who ascribe such absolute power to God as perverts all judgment and all order; this is nothing less than sacrilege” (Steinmetz, pg. 75). God’s justice may be slow, but it is not arbitrary.

The third context where Calvin rejects the distinction is on predestination. Commenting on Genesis 25, in which God rejects Esau and approves Jacob, Calvin denies both that election is based on foreseen merit and that by not taking merit into account God is “arbitrary.” Calvin follows Augustine in asserting that election is totally gratuitous since none deserve to be saved, and argues that Paul “enjoins acquiescence in God’s sole purpose; lest, if men seek to be too inquisitive, this immense chaos should absorb all their senses” (pg. 76). In the Institutes (III.xxiii.2), Calvin seems to directly follow Scotist theology by writing, “God’s will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous.” This is part of the general Reformation suspicion of and attack on the intensely speculative theology of their day. Reading the Scholastic notion of potentia Dei absoluta as mere arbitary power, Calvin rejects it strongly: “we do not advocate the fiction of ‘absolute might’; because this is profane, it ought rightly to be hateful to us. We fancy no lawless god who is a law unto himself.”:”(I would imagine that this rejection of “absolute might” as a “fiction” that creates an entirely unregulated ruler has much to do with the excess to which papal doctrine had gone by the time the Reformation happened. Scholars such as Tierney, for instance, have shown that the later Medieval papacy had reached such a towering point of autonomous self-conception that both it and its defenders could be found arguing that no power on earth could hold the papacy accountable, and that whatever the pope decided was true, even if it was totally unreasonable and in fact harmful to the Church.)”:

Having discussed these three contexts of Calvin’s rejection of the Scholastic two powers distinction, Steinmetz then summarizes his article under three headings. First, Calvin rejects the distinction because like all the reformers “he fears that it encourages the natural human tendency to speculate about the being and nature of God apart from revelation” (pg. 77). Second, Calvin believes that the distinction “separates the power of God from his justice”–a judgment which is Scotistic and which Steinmetz believes to be a mistake on Calvin’s part. Indeed, “What the scholastics regard as a useful experiment in thought, Calvin regards as shocking blasphemy” (ibid.). Third, Calvin rejects the distinction because he thinks of “absolute” power as a fundamentally “disordered” power, or “omnipotence divorced from justice.”:”(And this summary seems even more to me to relate to the basic Protestant critique of the absolute papacy.)”: Thus, whereas later Reformed divines such as Turretin argued that Calvin was only opposed to abuse of the distinction, Steinmetz believes that Calvin was opposed to it as such.

This entry was posted in 16th Century, Faith and Reason, Nominalism and Realism. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Calvin and the Absolute Power of God

  1. Cynthia R. Nielsen says:

    Excellent post, Tim. Good to see someone giving Calvin a fair read. It amazes me what a “whipping boy” he is not only in RC circles but in Protestant circles as well (and of course EO circles).


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