Wednesday, March 17, 2010

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.