Skip to main content

Can God Do Anthing?

In the nominalistic tradition of William of Ockham (1288-1348) we encounter a fine distinction between potentia absoluta (God's absolute power) and potentia ordinata (God's ordinary power). The distinction is complex. Simply put, God's absolute power suggests that God can do whatever he wants, even what he has not willed; even what he does not chose to do. In its extreme form this idea has given rise to the old question in theology, “Can God make a stone he himself cannot lift?” 

By God's ordinate power we refer to God’s power to do things he chooses to do. God's ordinate power suggests that God has in some sense limited his absolute power; he restricts it so he is sure to manage the world and to remain faithful to his promises. After all, if God's absolute power is totally absolute with no restrictions, he might change his mind and do something "absolutely" wacky (no pun intended). He just might condemn the Virgin Mary and save Judas!

For the sake of argument let us assume the principle that God has purposely limited himself and his covenant promises to his attribute of faithfulness. How do we keep God from becoming a servant to his own attribute of faithfulness under the structure of this theology? If the potentia absoluta is limited by the potentia ordinata, then who made this choice? God. But when did God make this choice? Was there ever a time when the power of God was total? It had to be for God to be in a position to choose to make his absolute power limited by his ordinate power. But if at some unknown time God did so freely chose to limit his absolute power to his ordinate power and potentia ordinata represents what we mean by saying “God can manage all things” then who or what manages the management?

There are serious points here. Has God, in order to make certain that he remains faithful to his choices purposefully handcuffed himself to the armchair of his ordinate power? And why did God believe this necessary? Does he not trust himself? If not, then what does this say about his faithfulness even under the constraint of his ordinate power? Moreover, were we to assume that God acts only from the limitations set by his ordinate power are we at last willing to say that nothing God does appears contradictory to us? And most importantly, what is a self-limited God? How do we call this God “Lord” in the purest sense? Theologically, it is impossible to escape the free reign of God’s absolute power. As John M. Frame states, “Scripture teaches that God’s power is not exhausted in history, that God is able to do many things that he does not choose to do.” (John M. Frame, The Doctrine of God. 523). 

On the other hand, Frame consents to God’s ordinate power, BUT only insofar as it is taken to mean that for God to be consistent within himself he must be consistent with his creatures and with his plan. In other words, if all of nature were a jigsaw puzzle, God is always putting it together. But the pieces of the puzzle are not contingent on the fact that they are made by the events and thoughts of others, but the pieces of the puzzle are manufactured by him. So God freely limits himself by what he knows about Bill’s thoughts, but God foreordained Bill’s thoughts and therefore God’s own response in time to his thoughts. So if Frame were to use the nominalistic language of ordinate power it would not be in accord with the idea that makes God’s actions consequent to contingency. Rather, he would keep the language within the structure of God’s immutability and abiding plan. So on potentia ordinata he says, “God cannot simply do anything. He cannot do something that contradicts his nature . . . he cannot include one thing in his plan that contradicts another” (Ibid., 149).


  1. To the question, “Can God make a stone he himself cannot lift?” I've always answered it this way: "Jesus collapsed under the weight of his cross."

    In Jesus, God subjected himself to the laws of nature he created. I think this is one reason why the angel Gabriel said to Mary, "For nothing will be impossible with God." I don't know Greek, but I think the translation here is interesting. Gabriel didn't say, "is impossible," he said, "will be impossible." You can correct me if I'm wrong. Before the incarnation there were things that God did not know by experience: being surprised, feeling the weight of temptation (though not succumbing), having to learn something, being born, etc. The same holds true for that heavy weight. I also think this is the reason why we have a High Priest we can identify with. He experienced these things as we do.

    Tom Terry

  2. Yes, you're Greek is good. Fundamentally, we're not obliged to use the medieval language and associated hair-splitting concepts (though we must admit that many areas of theology trigger so-called paradoxes/mysteries). If we are to wrestle with God's absolute and ordinate powers, it is best to keep our thoughts in line with the biblical language of him humbling himself to the point of death on a cross (Phil. 2), which your comment captures perfectly. John.


Post a Comment

Popular posts from this blog

Spurgeon Doesn't Help Us With Trump

Of two evils, choose neither." Spurgeon's quote has been posted numerous times on social media by Christians who find themselves in a moral conundrum at the very thought of voting for either Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump. Here’s the problem with Spurgeon’s idea. Biblically there is no such thing as a choice between two evils. Let me explain.
Moral philosophers and theologians have long spoken of the problem of "tragic moral choice", also known as the “incommensurability in values.” The man on the street simply calls it “choosing between the lesser of two evils.”  
The best known example of tragic moral choice is the one about the Nazis during WW II. Do you handover the Jews knowing that your choice makes you complicit in their deaths? Or do you lie and violate the Ninth Commandment? The Lutheran scholar, John Warwick Montgomery, has argued that such choices are unavoidable and of necessity cause us to sin.
The Bible, however, takes a dim view of the so-called less…

Andy Stanley and the “NEW Hermeneutic”

The problem of faith and reason is longstanding in the history of theology. Augustine held that faith aids reason (credo ut intelligam) and that reason aids faith (intelligo un creadam). The church father is, however, inclined to stress the later over the former. It was with Thomas Aquinas, and his Summa Theologica, that the effort to reconcile faith and reason reached its apex. Rejecting the medieval doctrine of double truth, he placed natural reason prior to faith in effectively every area of the Christian life. The restrictions are the mysteries of the faith that reason cannot penetrate.
Thomas’ affirmation of the high role of native reason in Christian belief is linked to his stress on dialectical method in study, seminally set forth by Peter Abelard. The form of study is dependent largely on logic to argue both sides of a theological question. Christian belief is thus the proper result of process or synthesis. Faith then assents to the final proposition arrived at by reason.

Fighting Abortion is Not the Fourth Sign of the Church

Some Christians are what I call, “single-issue.” I recall one family that left a church because everything did not revolve around Evangelism Explosion. But that's just one issue.
The issue I'm thinking about is abortion on demand. Some concerned Christians expect their pastor to thunder away almost each week on this topic, or at least mention it. He must make it is his central motif. He must protest outside the abortion clinic. If he doesn’t, he can say he’s against abortion all he likes, but it’s not enough.
Motivating the single-issue congregant is a deeper judgment. He thinks that the ultimate reason abortion on demand still happens is because pastors let it. Churches let it.
As one who has taken a virulent stand against abortion, both in the pulpit and with pen, I can say without qualification, “I hate it.”  Period. I pray the day that Roe is overturned. Nonetheless, as a former pastor, an as one who may return to the pulpit someday, here’s the bottom line.
We are called to …