Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Bl. John Duns Scotus on God’s Omnipotence (Oxford Lectures on the Sentences of Peter Lombard, Book I Distinction 42-43)

Bl. John Duns Scotus

This article is a part of a series of medieval scholastic theology regarding the topic of God’s omnipotence. This isn’t intended as a scholarly article but only a layman’s opinion and reading of a very small snippet of a holy man’s complex labyrinth of thought and devotion. It is very likely that I will make mistakes regarding the interpretation of the Subtle Doctor’s theology, but hopefully God will make an opportunity of this article to help us better know Him in our hearts and in our minds.

Now in this regard Bl. John Duns Scotus’ remarks on the power of God’s omnipotence comes from some of his lectures at Oxford regarding the Sentences in Four Books by Peter Lombard, an early Catholic who strove to assemble authorities and arguments for various doctrines of the Faith. Commenting and lecturing on the Sentences was mandatory for any person to become a doctor in theology or philosophy, etc. And so these Oxford Lectures, as I understand it are some of Bl. Scotus’ earlier work on these theological and philosophical issues, though I think it rivals St. Thomas of Aquinas’ later work in the matter of philosophical distinctions. To be fair however, Bl. Scotus was some time after St. Thomas and the universities were likely to have increased in rigor, and understanding of Aristotle and other key philosophical texts.

Here is the link by the way to the Oxford Commentary on Distinction 42 and 43.

What does it mean to be omnipotent?

This part of Bl. Scotus’ arguments comes from his comment on Book I Distinction 42 where he asks whether it is possible to prove that God is omnipotent from reason alone. The Platonists and Greek philosophers thought about God from reason alone and concluded that God could not make something out of nothing, so Bl. Scotus’ answer that it cannot be proven from reason alone has some basis I think1. However that’s not the thrust of what we want to investigate today.

Bl. Scotus in considering the question writes:

“I reply that omnipotence is an active power. Now omnipotence can be understood in two ways: either properly or as generally understood.

If omnipotence is understood properly, it signifies an active power with respect to any possible whatsoever that is not necessary in itself and does not involve any contradiction (whether mediately or immediately), so that in virtue of that omnipotence any such possible can be produced either mediately or immediately. The point of saying "whatever is not necessary in itself" is to exclude any active power on God's part with respect to God himself; he is necessary in himself. The point of saying "whatever does not involve any contradiction" is to exclude any active power with respect to what is impossible.”
Now, I know what you’re thinking, “What in the world does the Subtle Doctor mean here? Scholasticism is so confusing and mangled!” Well, if you’ve read the article about St. Thomas of Aquinas you’ll have learned that active power is the power of an object to act on another object, and passive power is the capacity of an object to be acted upon. So then, active power is a positive power, whereas passive power is a deficiency in perfection and the capacity to receive action upon. Bl. Scotus writes that omnipotence considered correctly is an active power, that is the capacity to act upon another, and even then he is in accord with St. Thomas in saying that this active power reaches as far towards anything that is possible whatsoever that isn’t necessary in itself and doesn’t involve any contradiction (mediately or immediately). Bl. Scotus then writes that God’s omnipotence extends towards creating things immediately (from Himself) or mediately (to do something through an intermediary thing). Now we may be confused about what Bl. Scotus meant when he wrote that God’s power is with respect to any possible thing that isn’t necessary in itself, and here Bl. Scotus states that God’s power to act on other things does not cover that necessary thing with which He is Who He Is, such that God cannot act upon Himself so as to change His nature (for this would be a passive power in Him, wouldn’t it? And that would be to say that God has an imperfection or deficiency in excellence). And then finally explains Bl. Scotus that God’s power does not extend to contradictions because God’s active power does not extend to what is impossible (namely because of a contradiction in terms).

Wowza, alright, we made it through that one (I hope) and so we’ll have to skip around some of the rest of Bl. Scotus’ lecture on Distinction 42 since it covers whether we can prove that God is omnipotent from reason alone.

Going onwards though Bl. Scotus writes that though we might prove from reason that God has omnipotence through immediate and mediate power (either to do something directly, or through another) when we want to talk about God’s omnipotence we mean His immediate power2.

What is possible in a thing itself to be made and what is impossible in a thing itself for a thing to be made.

So now having discussed what it is that we mean by God’s omnipotence Bl. Scotus moves on to the discussion of what the scope of God’s active power to do all things which are possible is. So then when regarding that God’s active power extends to all possible and non-contradictory things he asks whether it is in the contradictory thing itself that it cannot be made or something on the part of God as Creator that prevents these contradictory things from ever being capable of coming into being3.

Then he begins to list arguments for whether it is something on God’s part that the thing cannot be made, and then whether or not it is on the part of the thing itself that it cannot be made. To be simple the answer that Bl. Scotus gives is that there is a metaphysical constriction which keeps some contradictory terms from together making a unity4. And so a thing like a chimera, which Bl. Scotus discusses can only be thought of because each of the parts can be composed together and these things can exist, but when you put them together the parts are not compatible and cannot form a metaphysical unity, hence the object cannot be made because of internal contradictions within the object itself.

He clarifies that the problem should be thought as follows:
“Therefore, it is because God can produce such parts, which involve a formal incompossibility, that the whole cannot be made. So we must not say that something of that sort cannot be made because God cannot make it, but rather that the whole cannot be made because God can make such parts, which involve a formal contradiction.” And so we can take this to mean that because God can form each of the parts of some contradictory being there involves a denial of a formal cohesion in being able to be put together and exist together on account of the basis of what the parts actually are as things.

And so Bl. Scotus geniusly states:
“Hence, the first extrinsic reason why something of that sort cannot be made is the power of God by which things are first produced in intelligible being; the first formal reason, however, is the formal contradiction of the parts out of which one imagines it is composed.” One of the primary reasons that we do not have beings of logically contradictory components is that God is a Creator of order and produces things each accordingly in intelligibility. The other reason is that these parts have a logical exclusiveness by which the parts cannot form a unity due to their proper being and character. The use of extrinsic and formal is not entirely necessary, I do not think, for us to understand to understand this argument.

Bl. Scotus speaks to some extent regarding Henry of Ghent’s position on this matter, but I will just try to glean what I can from his statements.

God’s Power, His Intellection and Will, and known being vs. willed being
Our author continues by making the remark that: “From this it becomes evident that God's power is not the exact cause why something can be made or produced; accompanying it there must be the absence of a formal incompatibility of parts. And so, although I agree with the conclusion of the view discussed above, I do not completely go along with the argument offered in support of it, since the first divine divine operation is of the intellect itself, by which things are produced first in intelligible being, not the active power by which something is produced outside the divine mind.” So then in Bl. Scotus’ thought God’s Will and Power itself is not the exact cause of why an object can’t be made or can be made. Since prior to God’s creating a think there is a divine operation by which God’s Intellect acts to consider the object itself. This Intellection argues Bl. Scotus is what renders a thing to be an intelligible being or not. So then when God strives to create a being He first produces it in His Intellection as a known or intelligible being, and then afterwards wills it into a willed being, that is a fully existent thing5. And this is why Bl. Scotus writes that the capacity for a thing to exist is so only because God grants the capacity for that thing to exist as a metaphysical unity via His Divine Intellection which grants that thing it’s intelligible being6. I take this to mean that God’s Divine Intellection is the cause of logic and of metaphysical realities or relations, and from thence God can utilize His active power in creating such a thing that is not repugnant to His Divine Intellect. To return full circle, the capacity for possible things to be created lies not in God’s omnipotence and active power (ability to act on other things) but in regard to His Divine Intellect which creates and considers all intelligible or known beings so that what He deems and creates to be a logical or metaphysical reality so then His active power and omnipotence works within this scheme of His Wisdom6.  Created beings are not over God in what He can make, but rather God decides what can be created or not based on how He deems intelligibility and reason to work.

I must admit how surprised I am after coming through Bl. Scotus’ distinctions and the manner in which I feel that his answer is superior to that of St. Thomas of Aquinas’ answer. If you recall that article I wrote questions about whether God could create a different logic wherein what was impossible in one logic is possible in a universe He makes with a different logic. Bl. Scotus would, I believe say yes, God is the Creator of all known beings and so His Divine Intellect lays down what is within or repugnant to His Nature and Divine omnipotence. It is far more satisfactory that God’s power lies entirely within Him and that He stands apart from any other created being or concept. And so to recap, God’s omnipotence regards His immediate power to do all things possible from Himself and not through other intermediaries. Similarly His power extends towards all things which are possible in the consideration of His Divine Intellect by which He creates metaphysics and lays down what it is that can maintain fundamental unities and logical consistency. After God grants the being in question it’s logical consistency it is at the capacity of His divine omnipotence and active power to create this object or not. Things which contain mutually exclusive parts are as such because God granted each of those parts a logical structure which prevents the parts from coming together to form a consistent metaphysical unity and this part of God’s Intellection prevents His omnipotence from creating such a thing. This is all in due part to His Divine Wisdom.

This is by far I admit the best explanation of God’s omnipotence that I have ever read, and it is quite amazing the way in which God can touch the mind to look upon Him in awe. Certainly our thoughts here are not binding upon God, but He commanded us, Ask, and it shall be given you: seek, and you shall find: knock, and it shall be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7) So what might seem like the vanity of the mind ought to be better thought of the open heart searching with the beauty with which God gave us our minds to search and implore for His truth. His Heart opens to those of us who come humbly to Him, and surely Bl. Scotus was a friend of God.

Bl. John Duns Scotus pray for us that we might know our Savior more intimately!

1. “But on the contrary is the fact that philosophers were not able to show, on the basis of natural reason, that God is omnipotent, but in fact denied his omnipotence by claiming that neither the first agent nor anything else can make anything from nothing.”

2. “But this is not what Catholics means when they speak of omnipotence. In the commonly accepted sense of the word, something is called omnipotent because it can immediately, and with no other cause cooperating in its action, produce any possible whatsoever that is not necessary in itself.”

3. “Regarding distinction 43 I ask whether the fact that it is impossible for something to be made arises first from the impossibility of the makeable thing or from something on the part of God as Maker.”

4. “I therefore say that we call something "impossible to be made," not because God cannot make it or because of some divine cannot, but rather because of a can: for that which cannot exist in reality is imagined as something composed of mutually incompatible parts that do not and cannot make a unity (such as a chimera and the like).”

5. “Hence, things are first produced in known being, and afterwards they are presented to the will and produced in willed being, and thus in existence.”

6. “In reply to the argument, one must say this: it is not the case that something (say, a chimera) does not have the capacity to exist because God did not give it that capacity. Rather, God's power is not the exact cause of, as has been said.”

1 comment:

  1. I highly recommend reading the article on St. Thomas of Aquinas first, before reading the article on Bl. John Duns Scotus. This article presumes some familiarity with terms more explicitly explained in the article on St. Thomas of Aquinas.