Wednesday, August 1, 2012

St. Thomas of Aquinas on God’s Omnipotence (Summa Theologiae Part 1 Question 25 Article 3)

St. Thomas of Aquinas
This article regards St. Thomas of Aquinas the Common view of the way in which we can think of God as being omnipotent, that is, all-powerful. There is much thought in modern days especially amongst those who do not hold the Faith that God’s omnipotence is incomprehensibly great or that God cannot possibly be omnipotent. This article here is intended as both a means to illuminate our faith and as a way to better comprehend the outstanding quality of God’s greatness. This is not a scholarly article, one ought to note, and so the inaccuracies to be found in my analysis of highly technical scholastic philosophy and theology are on account of my own inability to read the saint’s work. For those unaware of who St. Thomas of Aquinas is, I note that he is one of the most celebrated saints of the Catholic Church in regards to his teachings on theology and philosophy. His Summa Theologiae is the Doctor of the Church’s compendium of topics of theology and philosophy for theology students at the university he taught at. The life of St. Thomas of Aquinas is quite interesting and one can read more about it here. All in all then, let us learn from the saint and may God enlighten us to learn more about Him through His holy saints!

Summa Theologiae, Part 1, Question 25, Article 3
You can see the article at NewAdvent. St. Thomas sets out with some objections to the notion that God is omnipotent, but first we will discuss his reasoning to why God is omnipotent and how He is omnipotent. After this, I will consider some of St. Thomas’ objections and one or two of my own.1

Definition of the word omnipotent
St. Thomas first sets out with a series of objections to the proposition that God is omnipotent, but I will try an deal with those objections at a later time. First, he sets out to state though it is difficult to say what omnipotence is, that everybody agrees that God is omnipotent. And so St. Thomas sets out to recognize that if we mean by omnipotent that God can do all things, what we mean to say is that God can do all things which are possible. This is true because consideration of power, from which the word omnipotence comes from, is the capacity to do something that actually can happen, that is the capacity to do something possible. Now then if we say God can do all things which are possible, we’ll have to honestly look at what things are possible as opposed to leaving the matter as it is. Otherwise we won’t have satisfactorily answered the question of what God can do.

Two kinds of Possible: Possible in Relation to, and Possible Absolutely
St. Thomas goes to Aristotle’s Metaphysics as a starting point in considering what it means for a thing to be possible. He writes of two kinds of possibilities as found in Aristotle, possible in relation to another, or possible absolutely.

Regarding ‘possible in relation to’ he writes:
First in relation to some power, thus whatever is subject to human power is said to be possible to man.

This means that a thing can be possible in relation to some power or cause and that this is one way for a thing to be possible. So we can say, it’s possible for me to finish writing this essay today, and we mean that in relation to my work capacity and other conditions, this article will be completed by me by the end of the day. It is in my power to do so, since I don’t have much to do at work today. However, as St. Thomas notes to finish off our definition by saying that God’s omnipotence is in relation to all that He can do, that is in relation to His power as omnipotent, then we would have defined God’s Power by His Power, which wouldn’t get us very far2.

The second kind of possible according to Aristotle’s Metaphysics is for something to be possible absolutely. Now this is the more interesting way in which we can analyze things that are possible. St. Thomas writes:
“Secondly absolutely, on account of the relation in which the very terms stand to each other.”

The possible absolutely is the manner in which terms stand together so as to form a cohesive concept. Something like a square-circle is impossible because the definition of each of these terms is mutually exclusive so we cannot join them together to mean anything intelligible3.

God’s Power in relation to the Possible Absolutely
St. Thomas proceeds on what might seem to be an elusive statement by regarding that all agents which cause something give forth an effect that is in some manner like its agent4. This stems from the nature of the agent itself to give forth something that is congenial or appropriate to that nature to cause a certain effect. In like manner then, God’s existence and Divine nature is the source from which His Power extends and so His existence which belongs to no class of beings (genus) or sort of category can effect whatever bears some likeness to His Infinite existence5. So then, reasons St. Thomas God can in essence effect all things which can have existence, that is whatever thing can become a being, and whatever cannot become a being (a non-being like something with a contradiction in terms) is repugnant to being and cannot become a being6. God’s power is not to be said to be incapable of making such a non-being as much as the non-being simply is not an intelligible thing that is absolutely impossible because the object is not feasible to exist under the terms that we imagine it to have6.

This is consistent with "No word shall be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37) on account of the fact that God can make all words possible, that is a word is only a thing which has no mutually exclusive terms in its definition7. This suffices then for St. Thomas’ definition of God’s omnipotence to say that God can create and do all things which are absolutely possible, that is all things which do not have mutually exclusive terms in their defining traits or characteristics. In this manner then, God can create all things which do not have a repugnance to being on account of their lack of intelligibility to any intellect.

Objections and Answers
St. Thomas writes of some objections in his Summa, the first being that God cannot be omnipotent because He is immovable and cannot go from active power to passive power and vice versa. Active power as St. Thomas defines it from Aristotle’s Metaphysics is the capacity to act on something else, while passive power is the capacity to be acted upon by another. Now since God is immovable He isn’t properly said to be moved or acted upon (the reality of prayer in its mystery however is explained in another article) He can’t possibly have passive power. However, as St. Thomas discussed earlier to have a passive power is to be in some manner deficient or imperfect and so that is why the object can be acted upon to reach a new possible configuration or property. Hence because God is pure act according to St. Thomas there is no deficiency or imperfection in His activity so God does not have passive power. But passive power is a deficiency in active power, which God has the highest degree of since He acts on all things, so this objection is not truly an objection.

The second objection is that God cannot sin, so He is not all-powerful, which is answered easily by St. Thomas that to sin is to fall short of a perfect action or fall short of a moral operation, which means that to be able to sin is a weakness and lack of power, not a real power. In that manner, not only is it repugnant to God’s goodness to sin but also repugnant to His omnipotence.

The third objection comes from a consideration of the Collect of the tenth Sunday after Pentecost (still found much the same in the Tridentine Latin Mass) which reads that God shows His omnipotence most especially in his having mercy on sinners and forgiving sins, to which the objection is that a very powerful God would simply rid the world of all evil or make it anew again instead of putting up with sinners. St. Thomas answers that God shows His omnipotence in sparing and having mercy because He shows Himself as one in charge of justice and its dispensation by mercy. Everyone is indebted to God for His having created us and the fact that He as Lawmaker has freely given His mercy to justify a sinner is to show the power that He has over all things, to forgive or not forgive. He also notes that the Collect could mean that God shows His omnipotence in Creation because God created the world out of mercy and love towards us, which He did not owe us on account of us not existing. He created the universe to show and share His goodness with us. It was an act of condescending mercy. All in all, God’s mercy and love, says St. Thomas is the foundation of all of the ways in which He deals with creatures. We are simply too dense and small to realize it sometimes!

The fourth objection is mystifying to me, and perhaps I will address it at a later time in an added comment to this section.

St. Thomas’ arguments here for God’s omnipotence are particularly interesting and I think that he gets off to a good start in talking about God’s omnipotence. St. Thomas’ work is always integrated in a network of other arguments and positions so it is difficult to make a post on him without talking about other things that he also held. The position that God cannot make a thing which cannot be a word is convincing to me since to talk about God making something which isn’t even a comprehensible word is to basically babble to God and insolently ask Him if He can make such a babble. It would be repugnant to God to make such a thing, and so the matter is settled on that part, I believe. The question however comes about as to whether God can create the universe in such a way as to make a completely new logic to which what was once illogical has now become logical. St. Thomas doesn’t seem to address that question here, but he does write that no intellect could comprehend what a non-being could be made into, which suggests to me that the only logic which God gave was for our own logic. While this is an interesting philosophical question, ultimately I do not want to put too much stock into it because it is a part of God’s mystery as to how He works. As high as the heavens are above us, so are His thoughts above us. And if there is anything we have learned in science is that the heavens are very, very far above us (perhaps even nearly infinitely beyond us). May the glory be to God!

I would also be interested in how St. Thomas addresses God’s having created from nothing, which seems to be a mutually exclusive statement to say that something can be made from nothing. I think this is a good objection to St. Thomas’ argument, but I am sure that he addresses the matter elsewhere in his Summa. Please let me know if these articles on scholasticism are not of your liking. I intended to write an article on Bl. John Duns Scotus’ way of thinking of God’s omnipotence and then perhaps St. Bonaventure. This will complete a series of the Medieval Doctor’s views on an interesting question that I once had to address in helping a friend to write her philosophy of religion essay. I personally don’t like philosophy of religion, though I think it is useful when addressing non-believers, and as St. Peter charged us, we should be at the ready to answer any question regarding the faith.


1. Peekaboo! Sorry that was some humor. At least I find it funny. I originally numbered these footnotes 1-7, but couldn't find where I wanted to put footnote #1, so I made one up.

2. “If, however, we were to say that God is omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible to His power, there would be a vicious circle in explaining the nature of His power. For this would be saying nothing else but that God is omnipotent, because He can do all that He is able to do.”

3. “For a thing is said to be possible or impossible absolutely, according to the relation in which the very terms stand to one another, possible if the predicate is not incompatible with the subject, as that Socrates sits; and absolutely impossible when the predicate is altogether incompatible with the subject, as, for instance, that a man is a donkey.”

4. “It must, however, be remembered that since every agent produces an effect like itself, to each active power there corresponds a thing possible as its proper object according to the nature of that act on which its active power is founded; for instance, the power of giving warmth is related as to its proper object to the being capable of being warmed.”

5. The divine existence, however, upon which the nature of power in God is founded, is infinite, and is not limited to any genus of being; but possesses within itself the perfection of all being.

6. Whence, whatsoever has or can have the nature of being, is numbered among the absolutely possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent. Now nothing is opposed to the idea of being except non-being. Therefore, that which implies being and non-being at the same time is repugnant to the idea of an absolutely possible thing, within the scope of the divine omnipotence. For such cannot come under the divine omnipotence, not because of any defect in the power of God, but because it has not the nature of a feasible or possible thing.

7. Nor is this contrary to the word of the angel, saying: "No word shall be impossible with God." For whatever implies a contradiction cannot be a word, because no intellect can possibly conceive such a thing.

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