Deus Ex Machina

"This is the generation of the great LEVIATHAN, or rather, to speak more reverently of that mortal god, to which we own under the immortal God, our peace and defense." -Thomas Hobbes: Leviathan

The Dialectic Between the Absolute and Ordained Power of God; Or How God Cheats in Answering Prayers

 For with God nothing shall be impossible.

Luke 1:37

The Medieval Distinction between the Potentia Absoluta and the Potentia Ordinata of God

In medieval theology, it has been usual amongst theologians to employ the distinction between the “potentia absoluta” and the “potentia ordinata” of God to discuss divine omnipotence. Roughly speaking, the potentia absoluta refers to God’s “absolute power”, while the potentia ordinata refered to God’s “ordained” power. The meaning of the phrase would change over the time, but as it began in medieval theology, the question of the two “powers” was used primarily to discuss “possibilities” or what could God have done in contrast to what did in fact he do. Roughly, his “absolute” power referred to God’s “unrestrained” power, the entire space of possibilities, he could have caused Napoleaon to win the Battle of the Waterloo, or create unicorns, or command that all of us must eat rice on every thursday, etc. His “ordained” power on the other hand referred to what God did in fact do or “ordain” in this world, he called Moses to be a Prophet, he made the grass green, commanded that we should love our neighbours as ourselves, etc.

Thus conceived this way, it would seem that his ordained power is a subset of his absolute power, going strictly by the modal logic that actuality implies possibility. However, the more interesting question at hand is how is God’s absolute power related to his ordained power, and how “vast” are the scope of the two powers? Could God, for example, command unkindness, make square circles, non-spatial colours, etc? Is there anything which could restrained God’s absolute powers, such as his goodness or wisdom?

St Thomas Aquinas and the Classical Tradition

St Peter Damian, an early 11th century saint and hater of philosophy and reason, (in)famously proclaimed in his De Divina Omnipotentia (On the Omnipotence of God) that if God wanted to he could jolly well alter the past and cause a past event to have never existed. Hardly amused, virtually every major doctor of theology after him would have his outrageous thoughts loudly denounced, until Descartes in the 16th century would once more revive the possibility of God ordaining contraditions. (He too was also furiously condemned by the entire chorus of the Enlightenment.)

Anyway, two centuries after St Peter Damian blasphemed against reason and logic by his reckless exaltation of God’s power did St Thomas Aquinas set out determined to keep theology sober from such drunken intoxication with God’s absolute power. St Thomas Aquinas lived in mortal terror of the chaos which would be unleashed if God’s absolute power were not properly contained, and Reason protected from the hands of the Living God (And of course, God cannot possibly be trusted with such power, no, he needs the theology of Aquinas to restrain him, Good God! Just imagine the wreck God could cause!). And so Aquinas promptly had God’s absolute power banished to a tiny dark corner of his theology, never to see the light of day.

“[W]hat is attributed to His power considered in itself, God is said to be able to do in accordance with His absolute power. Of such a kind is everything which has the nature of being”, so St Thomas Aquinas was forced to admit, his reverence for the divine majesty compelling. But no sooner was this admission wringed out of him did he hastily add, “What is, however, attributed to the divine power, according as it carries into execution the command of a just will, God is said to be able to do by His ordained power (de potentia ordinata).” Thus are we saved from the horrors of an unrestrained potentia absoluta, the vast possibilities remain mere possibilities, because don’t worry! God won’t actually make them happen. They will be filtered through his “just will”, and thus God’s ordained power, what God does actually do, will be nicely and properly regulated by his “justice”. The Angelic Doctor would continue to say,”God can do nothing but what is befitting to Himself, and just.” Poor helpless God! He can’t do anything except what Aquinas prescribes for him! But it’s for the best.

With this move, God’s absolute power has been effectively isolated from the rest of his system, tamed and restrained by God’s “justice”, it would play no further part in his theology. To appreciate the significance of this move, we have to understand the significance which natures and universals played in Aquinas’s system. According to the classical Greek tradition he inherited, each thing had an ideal form or nature. There is this man and that man and this woman and that woman, but over and above all these particular man and woman, there exists an ideal form or universal “mankind” which unites all these particular man or woman. Other examples includes things like, goodness, beauty, etc, whereby there must exist an ideal form of goodness and beauty which unites all the different particular good and beautiful things. Now, these “natures” or ideal forms are normally considered to be “fixed”, but whether eternally so is another matter. Generally the more “platonic” one is, the more “transcendent” and untouched by time and the movements of history.

Now of course while God could have created mankind with the nature of having three arms or four legs etc, but then there exists this essence or nature or form of man which God could not alter without it ceasing to be a man altogether, such as his soul or righteousness or love for example. Thus, the essence or “form” of man was essentially fixed and ordered. But what does these “natures” or ideal forms or essences have to do with God’s justice?

According to St Thomas Aquinas, God’s justice is God’s acting towords each thing according to its nature. This sort of justice is called “distributive justice”, because it is that sort of justice whereby God “distributes” to each thing according to what it is. It would be instructive to quote the Angelic Doctor at length here.

The other consists in distribution, and is called distributive justice; whereby a ruler or a steward gives to each what his rank deserves… Hence Dionysius says (Div. Nom. viii, 4): “We must needs see that God is truly just, in seeing how He gives to all existing things what is proper to the condition of each; and preserves the nature of each in the order and with the powers that properly belong to it.”

…Thus also God exercises justice, when He gives to each thing what is due to it by its nature and condition.

(Summa Theologica, Q. 24, A. 1)

The significance of this for the broader questions of God’s power should be clear. To recapitulate, according to Aquinas, God’s absolute power is filtered through his ordained power, which is God’s power or acting according to his justice. And what is his justice? God’s justice is God giving to “each thing what is due to it by its nature and condition”. Thus, God’s ordained power, what God can actually do, is remarkably restricted; despite the vastness of God’s absolute power, his ordained power or actual acting is subject to this fixed system of universals, essences and natures which all existing things have. Naturally we can raise questions as to what things within creation are part of this natural fixed order and what are “accidents” and changable by God, e.g. the difference between being man’s essence of righteousness and him possessing two arms, but the point being that for Aquinas, there does exist this set of fixed essences which God cannot act against. Thus for Aquinas, God cannot for example command unkindness or cruelty or rape, because these would be against our fixed “natures”. God is obliged to command us to do good, since goodness presumably is part of our natures or essence, etc. Thus, upon the basis of natures is the system of natural law established which God obliges us to obey. To Benjamin Franklin’s creed that, “the most acceptable service of God is doing good to men, D.H. Lawrence sarcasically noted, “God having no choice in the matter.”

Divine Power Unleashed; John Duns Scotus and Divine Voluntarianism

The chains with which St Thomas Aquinas has bound God’s ordained power would soon be unraveled by subsequent medieval nominalism. This liberation would come in two stages, (1) Divine Voluntarianism, whereby God’s power would be liberated from the need to pander to this scheme or order of fixed universals, forms and nature, and would be dependent upon God’s will alone, that is, God can “ordain” whatever the hell he wanted and no natures or forms is going to get in his way. (2) Nominalism, whereby the very idea of “essences” and “ideal forms” would become exorcised and banished from metaphysics altogether.

There are considerable doubts as to whether or not Duns Scotus was a nominalist because there seems to be considerable evidence that Scotus still held on to Thomism’s “realism” about universals and essences which are entities which objectively exists in the world. But regardless, even if there are some doubts about his nominalism, there aren’t any doubts about his voluntarianism. The Subtle Doctor took great strides in exalting the role of the divine will for how God exercises his divine power over every other considerations, including that of natures or forms. The Subtle Doctor only placed two constrains on the divine will, first, that God cannot ordain any contradictions, secondly, God necessarily ordains his own glory, thus, for example, it is necessary for God to command us to love Him, for God necessarily ordains his glory as our end, but everything else was pretty fair game.

Thus, there is a considerable amount of tension, and some might even say, instability in Scotus’s system. Holding on to the supremacy of the divine will on the one hand, and still acknowledging the reality and being of universals, he held that there is an ordered system of righteousness and morality in the world which God has ordained according to their natures or essences, that is, the natural laws. However, God was free to “interrupt” or suspend this order as and when he wills it. Thus, for example, God has ordained that child sacrifice is wrong, but God could and did “suspend” this law when he commanded Abraham to sacrifice Isaac.

According to this scheme, the line between God’s absolute power and his ordained power is dramatically altered, the barrier between them becomes much more “porous”. If we recall, for St Thomas Aquinas, God’s “justice” towards the fixed essences or forms or natures was the wall which held back God’s absolute power from wrecking chaos in God’s ordained power. Thus, because of our natures, God will not, and cannot, ordain anything against the natural laws, such as torturing the innocent, lying or cruelty. But for Scotus, while agreeing that torturing the innocent, lying or cruelty is against our natures, but God’s will is independent of such considerations. God could, if he wanted, ordain that rape would be permissable, and there is no one to say otherwise. But how Scotus reconciles the tension between the “righteousness” which is determined by our natures and the “righteousness” which is determined purely by his divine will, is a difficult interpretative question which we need not enter.

To summarise, the implications of Scotus’s system for God’s power is this: First, there is a system of objective natures and forms which exists in the world as ordained by God, and as a result of that, God ordains that “ordinarily”, in some historic, empirical sense, we are to obey the natural law derived from these natures. However, since God’s absolute power exceeds these natures and forms and also that God’s will is unrestrained by the same, God could ordain a completely system of righteousness which defies the natural law. But, in practice or actuality, God only suspends the “ordinary” system of righteousness at highly particular and unique moments in salvation history, ordaining particular acts which contradict which natural law, such as the sacrifice of Isaac.

Thus by breaking down the “just will” requirement and freeing the absolute power from the need to conform to natures, Scotus’s ordained power can be said to be divided into two kinds, (1) The ordinary system which God ordains in general for mankind and creation according to their natures or essences, and (2) Special or particular events which God ordains in course of the history of the world which suspends (1), e.g. the sacrifice of Isaac, certain events in Salvation History, etc.

Nothing but the Word; Ockham and Medieval Nominalism

If Duns Scotus had to struggle to reconcile the integrity of universals or ideal forms with God’s absolute power, no such scruples would exist in William of Ockham. Ockham effectively completed the project to liberate God’s power by doing away with these systems of essences or forms altogether.

Let us recall what universals were. According to the classical scheme, over and above the many particular instances of, say, red objects, there exists a universal form or ideal essence, redness, which makes all red things red. But Ockham and the medieval nominalists would reject this explanation as completely superfluous and incoherent. We do not need to go into their arguments against universals but merely concern ourselves with what they replaced it with.

For Ockham and the nominalists, there are individual red roses, red cars and red houses, but no ideal form, essences or universal of “redness” over and above the individual particular red things in the world. For Ockham, there is only the common name or concept which is formed in our minds by our contact with these individual things. Thus, to put it crudely, the “essence” is in our minds, not in the world. No doubt it is formed in contact to the world, but it doesn’t exist in the world. Thus, Ockham entertained a form of what we call in analytic philosophy the “causal theory of reference”, wherein words acquire their significance by the objects which caused its formation. Thus, the word “dog” for me refers to dogs because the word in me is caused by being in casual contact with dogs. While Ockham in the earlier part of his career entertained the theory that these “concepts” are ficta or mental objects which resembles the things in the world, but he soon abandoned it for the “intellectum theory,” whereby the objects in the world have a causal impact on the mind without creating any objects.

To explain his intellectum theory, Ockham uses an analogy. Medieval pubs received a shipment of wine in wooden barrels sealed with hoops, the pub owner would hang a barrel hoop outside the front door to let the people know that wine was available. Although the hoop did not resemble wine in any way, it was significant or meaningful to the townspeople. This is because the presence of the hoop was caused by the arrival of the wine. Likewise, dogs in the world cause concepts in our minds that are significant even though they do not resemble dogs.

There is a point in which the analogy breaks down. The hoops itself being a thing seems to imply that concepts are also things in the mind. But for Ockham, concepts are not things but actions. It is not that the objects in the world causally forms a “hoop” or concept-thing in the mind, it is rather that the objects in the world forms a mental action or practice, i.e. taking that object as falling under a general name. Repeated practice of his action leads to the formation of a habit. Thus, in essence, concepts are just disciplinedapplications and uses of linguistic terms and concepts.

A Leaky Order; The Invasion of God’s Absolute Power into the World

What are the implications of this? With one stroke, Ockham has effectively exorcised the universe of essences, natures, potentialities, powers, fixed ideal forms, etc. What are we left? The many various and particular phenomena or events or occurances without a universal uniting them. It is of course no accident that medieval nominalism was the direct enabler of the scientific revolution which soon occured. In place of such essences which reside in things, nominalism has enabled science to simply replace this scheme withregularity and order, wherein one can simply make observations and associations between various phenomenon without worrying about occultic powers and potentialities and natures. As Newton once put it when he refused to give a “deeper” explanation or cause of gravity’s spooky “action at a distance”, that is, how can one particle simply exert an attractive force on another,

I have not been able to discover the cause of those properties of gravity from phenomena, and I frame no hypotheses; for whatever is not deduced from the phenomena is to be called a hypothesis, and hypotheses, whether metaphysical or physical, whether of occult qualities or mechanical, have no place in experimental philosophy.

It is enough for Newton to observe that there is such an relation without needing to explain it further via “occult qualities”, “metaphysical or physical”. Thus, what science today calls the “Laws of Nature” are simply systematic rationalisations of the regular behaviour of various phenomena observed in masses and masses of various particular and concrete contexts. Thus, the prior reality of these masses and masses of particular facts upon which are built the systems of the laws of nature is known in philosophy as Humean supervenience (after the great 18th century Scottish nominalistic philosopher David Hume), which David Lewis described it as “the doctrine that all there is in the world is a vast mosaic of local matters of particular fact, just one little thing and then another”.

What then are the implications of this for question of divine omnipotence? Under the system of Scotus, there still exists a system of natures, essences and universals ordained by God from which are derived the natural laws which God “ordinarily” ordains for mankind to obey. But now without these natures, essences and universals, the foundation of this scheme has been effectively obliterated. What then are we left with? Under Ockham, the potentia ordinata consists of God ordaining or acting to bring about masses and masses and masses of particular events, facts and occurences in the world, and secondly and most vitally, his Word or divine command alone norms our behaviour and relates God to us. With regard to the first feature of God’s ordained power, God does “more or less” run the empirical universe in an “orderly” fashion, that is, according to the Laws of Nature as observed by scientists. But this order is derived from the “regularity” of the many particular facts and phenomena which God brings about. As David Hume had already observed with regards to the principle of induction, there is nothing necessasiating the fact that the sun will rise tomorrow. For all we know, tomorrow the laws of gravitation could just not apply to the earth and we would fly off our orbit and never see the sun again. Thus, the fact that the sun continues to rise tomorrow is simply because God continues to run the universe according to this regularity which we call the laws of nature.

But it must be clarified, that potentia ordinata is not to be identified with the laws of nature, (which is what the later Presbyterian theologians like Charles Hodge did. He identified the laws of nature with the potentia ordinata and miracles as instances of God’s exercise of his absolute power which “overcomes” the laws of nature). Under the Ockhamist scheme, God does not ordain a general law, what he ordains is the masses and masses and masses of particular events and facts and occurance. That these masses and masses of particular events or occurances happens to exhibit a certain order, system, and regularity just is the result of the convergence of the masses of particular events with these systems. But God’s ordained power doesn’tactually ordain the laws of nature itself.

Thus the semblance of order in the universe is the result of a statistical norm wherein God more or less frequently and regularly acts by certain laws. Thus, tied to this more or less stable order, arises the usual natural laws and orders which prudentially guides our actions in this world. However, herein we see that the role which the potentia absoluta shall play in this system increases. In a ordinary and prudential context, which is most of the time, we act in expectation of the continuation of order. But this order is full of holes, it’s norms are mere statistical norms not absolutely necessary norms. At every moment and every occasion and everywhere in this world resides always the possibility that this order is suspended and God does something new and miraculous and highly particular for us in response to our faith. The possibilities of thepotentia absoluta becomes existentially “real” for us. “Who knows whether he will not turn and relent, and leave a blessing behind him” as the Prophet Joel puts it. Thus, while St Thomas Aquinas shut up God’spotentia absoluta in a dark dark corner of his theology and Scotus reluctantly allows God’s potentia absoluta to crack open slightly the order of this world to allow for rare moments of salvation history, Ockham practically went on a rampage smashing random holes in the barrier between the potentia ordinata and thepotentia absoluta so that everywhere and for everyman, the potentia absoluta can pour right into our lives, and whereby God may amaze us with his wonders inconceivable and cause us to praise his glory.

To use an analogy from quantum mechanics, when no one is observing, particles exists in a quantum state of a statistical cloud, but once we observe it, the particles collapse into a fixed location and time. Likewise, when we look upon the world with our empirical eyes, with our ordinary worldly reason and deduction, the world seems to us fixed, orderly, regular, according to the laws of nature, and in the ordinary course of our lives, we normally act in accordance to our reason and our eyes. But when we shut our eyes or when we aren’t looking or observing the world with our reason but raising our faith to the heavens instead, the world would suddenly collapse into a probablistic quantum state, teeming with possibilities unimagined, and God’s glory and absolute power calls for our faith, our prayers and our cries, waiting for precisely for the right moment according to his good pleasure and will, to utterly surprise us with the wonders of his glory, to the praise of his glorious name.

This incidentally explains the nature of “miracles”. In the Greek, the meaning of miracles doesn’t actually have anything to do with violation of the laws of nature or whatever but is actually more subjective. It bascially means “wonder”, that which inspires awe and wonder. It is easy to see under the Ockham scheme how this is so. Now, let us recall that for Ockham, words, concepts and systems acquire their meaning by regular exposure to resembling phenomena, wherein we form habits of thought and practices and disciplines of word and concept use. Now, if subjectively and according to our particular situation, our understanding of the world has formed by this habit of mind, then for there suddenly to be an occurence which defies our systems and habits of thought would undoubtedly “surprise” us, it would cause awe and wonder, and thus, it is a miracle! This of course raises all kinds of questions as to how miracles can only operate with a background of “regularity” which maybe dependent upon our expectations, frame of mind, which may differ from context to context and individual to individual, and does how each “miraculous event” must be highly tailored to each individual circumstance, each individual, taking into mind their highly particular history, etc. But I think the point has been sufficiently made.

Word Games and Prayer Requests

The second aspect of the potentia ordinata under the scheme of Ockham is that God has divinely ordained commandments and covenants in this world to guide and govern our behaviour. Thus in place of placing our trust in the entire system of universals, ideal forms and essences, Ockham sweeps away the whole scheme and replaces it with simply his divine Word alone, and here he develops his “covenant” concept. God’spotentia absoluta, is pretty much unrestrained, however, God has ordained and decided to relate to us in a very special way, and that is his covenants. In his covenants, God both makes promises to us and commands us, thus, we are to trust in his promise and obey his command and be dependent upon this Word alone.

However, it seems that a lot of our prayers goes unanswered, and that God’s promises are unkept. We wonder whether the covenants given by his potentia ordinata are true or whether he has been lying or false to us. Here is where we invoke God’s potentia absoluta and demonstrate how God “cheats” in answering our prayers and fulfilling the promises, by giving a completely new and surprising interpretation of the terms of his promise and of the words of our prayers.

Remember, the meaning of our terms and concepts comes from linguistic discipline and habit of linguistic application and deduction which ultimately is dependent upon causal exposure to a series of particular resembling phenomena. But remember also that the potentia absoluta means that we cannot “fix” the meaning of our terms or the regulative order of our world, for God can simply change the meaning of our works by bringing about a highly new, novel, unique and particular event which would throw off our habitual expectation of how a word is used. Let me illustrate by building up our intuition with progressively more sophisticated examples.

I believe most of us would be familiar with the example from the Lord of the Rings, wherein the prophecy says that no “man” can fell the Witch-king of Angmar. However we realise that technically the prophecy was still fulfilled, although not in the way we expected, as Éowyn removes her helmet and declares that she is “no man” and promptly stabs him. Here is where we see how a prophecy is fulfilled but not quite in the sense we expected.

Another example comes from Tristan and Isolde. In one adaptation, Isolde was accused of adultery by her husband the king who demanded that she prove her innocence. Thus, Isolde, who actually was sleeping with Tristan, agreed to vow upon certain holy relics before God that she as a matter of fact was innocent. However, being God-fearing, they devise a plan to not commit sacriledge against God’s name. She arrange for this oath to take place in the middle of the swamp. Then she got Tristan to disguise himself and wait for her at the edge of the swamp. After she and her entourage arrived at the swamp, she lamented as to how was she going to cross and Tristan in disguise offers to carry her across, and she rides piggy back on Tristan towards the altar table with the sacred relics. Upon arrival, she places her hands upon the relics and declares that no man has “went between her legs” except her husband and the begger who just carried her across.

Thus, technically, she fulfilled her oath, but she did so in an unexpected way but bringing about an event which would change the meaning of her words.

Finally, and the example most pertinent to us, in one of the adaptations of Jason and the Argonauts, Jason sets off in search for the Golden Fleece, but was uncertain whether it even existed, Zeus however permits Hera to aid Jason five times. Thus, Jason asks of Hera two questions, one, does the Golden Fleece exist, and two where can it be found. However, Hera said that she would answer both of them by answering one question, then she proceeded to tell him where to find it, and of course, in so telling him where to find it, she also answered the first question, and thus saved Jason an aid.

Did she answer Jason’s “prayers”, well, yes, and no. No, in that she technically didn’t directly answer the first question, but yes, in that she did answer it implicitly by answering the second question. Yet, and this is the most vital part, Hera may have “cheated”, but she did it in a manner which was for Jason’s advantage and good, she helped him save an aid.

Conclusion: Trusting in God’s Will for Us

It has become a frequent meme that we have to be extremely careful when asking wishes from genies, for the genies would pervert the meaning of our words and technically “grant” us our wish, but not necessary in the way we expect or for our advantage. Or consider deals with the devil wherein we form a contract exchanging something of ours for their services, and hoping like hell (literally), that we can find a loophole in the contract or cheat the devil of his dues. Yet when it comes to God, we cannot take the same attitude towards him. We cannot try to word our prayers, do good deeds as conditions or whatever in the vain attempt to “twist” God’s arm and force him grant our request, for believe you me, no matter how clever we phrase it, God is definitely going to be infinitely more cunning than our wisdom. His foolishness as St Paul declares in 1 Corinthians, is wiser than our wisdom.

Rather, the difference between the genie and the devil and God is that the genie and devil’s “interest” is not aligned with us. We must therefore attempt to force his hand towards our interest via clever phrasing of our terms and conditions. However, by faith we grasp that God’s interest is for us and for our salvation. Therefore, we should not fear God’s “cheating” in his answering our prayers or fulfilling his promises, for his infinite cunning would truly be wondrous, amaze us and far from crying foul, we would cry out instead, “Thou art just, O Lord, for Thy ways are revealed!” And therefore, God’s potentia absoluta, the infinite possibilties which it opens for us for the fulfilment of God’s promises or answer to our prayers, far from discouraging us from prayer should all the more inspire confidence in God, leading us to eagerful look forward to how God would answer and fulfill them, which we can be assured cannot help but lead us to praise his glory.

For those who recognise it, the “Thou art just, etc”, is actually taken from Fyodor Dostoevsky’s The Brothers Karamazov, wherein Ivan Karamazov refused to turn to God, because he wants to be “true to the facts”, he doesn’t want his outrage and existential angst about evil to be “nihilised” by God. He knows that there will come that day when he would cry that out with the rest of heaven’s company when he sees the redemption of evil, but while he still has his wits about him, he hastens to “guard his heart” and return his ticket to heaven.

But we who trust in the promise of the new heavens and new earth cannot likewise guard our hearts the way Ivan Karamazov does. We must open our soul to that Resurrection Future wherein “Eye hath not seen, nor ear heard, neither have entered into the heart of man, the things which God hath prepared for them that love Him.” And so commend our whole lives and every event within it, to God the Father Almighty, not constraining his hands by our limited and finite conceptions, but in eager expectation and confidence, that indeed when the Lord answers, it would undoubtedly cause praise and amazement to flow from our lips, for it would definitely far exceed anything our finite minds and hearts have ever conceived.


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This entry was posted on March 26, 2013 by in Uncategorized.
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