I Don’t Believe in the Power[s] of God

What is it that has always turned me off about classical post-Reformed orthodoxy (and many other Westernly derived orthodoxies as well)? It has less, really, to do with labels (like jesusalmightyCalvinism, Arminianism, Roman Catholicism, etc.) than it does with the material theological implications present within such systems of thought (derivative as that might be in many cases) about God. If you have spent any time at all studying historical theology you will have run across the impact that Nominalism has had upon the framing of the way we think about God. I described this in a 2013 article I wrote for Christianity Today:

But if God is transcendent—if his ways are unknowably above our own—how can we know him? Within the Christian tradition, several voices have spoken to this dilemma. A medieval Roman Catholic theologian, William of Ockham (1285–1349), is known for positing a “dualism” in God. By this, he meant that there are two ways to think of God and his presence among us. Ockham argued that God behaves one way in his “transcendent” life and another way in his “immanent” life (his activity in human history, primarily through the Incarnation). If God seems remote and secretive, that’s because he can act differently “way above yonder” than how he acts in revealing himself in Christ.[1]

What I was referring to with Ockham in this article, more technically, is the medieval metaphysic and conception of God that referred to God’s act (being) in two ways: 1) de potentia Absoluta and de potentia  Ordinata; God’s absolute power (how he is in himself in eternity), and God’s Ordained power (or will) (how he is in himself revealed in the contingencies of time and salvation history). Ockham wrote of it this way:

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia  ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does  not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do…. These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].[2]

Here is what I wrote, in that same Christianity Today article, relative to what this kind of ‘dualist’ Ockham inspired approach to God can do to us:

The problem with Ockham’s perspective is that it severs God’s transcendent life from his immanent life. As a result, Jesus Christ might not seem like the same God who has always lived in eternity. Dualistic thinking dissolves any necessary relation between the “veiled” God and the “unveiled” God in Christ. This introduces an element of anxiety for those who seek to know God: If God’s revelation in Christ does not truly represent God’s eternal nature, then sending Christ could have been an arbitrary gesture. God might well have reached out to humanity in a very different manner—or not reached out to humanity at all. And at any point in the future, he might act in an infinite number of unpredictable ways. If God’s activity in revealed time doesn’t reflect his eternal nature, we cannot be sure of Jesus’ words to doubting Thomas: “If you really know me, you will know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7).[3]

And so Barth.

This whole discussion on Nominalism should help to explain my ‘turn’ to Barth and After Barth theology (like through Thomas Torrance, John Webster, et. al.). It isn’t really all that concerned with whether this set of theologians or that set of theologians operated in one period of church history or another; I really could care less about that (I operate under the premise that God’s relationship to his church is unremitting, and that he continues to break into his church as the Great Teacher that he is, in Christ, and uses the intellectual furniture of each period and age to lead the church closer to the knowledge of the One Faith [Eph. 4] once for all delivered to the Saints [Jude 1]). I happen to believe that Barth & co. have engaged with the Tradition to the point they had received it in that has been very fruitful and helpful for the catholic church of Jesus Christ. Particularly when it comes to this issue (and many other subsequent and important ones): a Doctrine of God.

One of Karl Barth’s early commentators, a Dutch theologian from the Free University of Amsterdam, G.C. Berkouwer really gets at this point in a very cogent way in regard to Barth’s theology and reframing of the ‘potentia’ theology that so much of Western thinking about God (I would declare) suffers under.

We must note, in the first place, that Barth no longer leaves room for a God-concept whereby it is impossible to conceive of humiliation and self-abnegation on the part of God. Such ideas are not applicable to a God who is “infinite potentiality.” Every conception of humiliation and self-surrender is excluded by such a power, for it would contradict the very idea of the majesty of God.

It is precisely for this reason that every view of God which has been constructed on basis [sic] of natural theology, and therefore outside of Jesus Christ, had to lead and has, in fact, constantly led, to a misunderstanding of Scripture. It was not possible to achieve a right understanding of the being and the reality of God because the thinking of natural theology could not free itself from the schematism of what it already knew about God. The one thing needful here is a radical evolution in theological thinking! We must permit ourselves to be corrected and submit to being instructed anew.

We can come to know God only when we cease assuming that we know beforehand that, with respect to God, this or that cannot be, is not possible for Him, because it is not to be squared with His infinite potentiality.

When we see God only in Jesus Christ, we come to walk in a new path and wholly new perspectives for the doctrine of reconciliation appear. Then it becomes “possible” to see the “God Himself” in the reconciling work of God in Christ. It no longer belongs to the impossibilities of thought to see “God Himself” in Christ in the most ultimate humiliation, powerlessness and self-surrender which can – of course! – not be predicated of a God of infinite potentiality. Those who think that a self-humiliation on the part of God is unthinkable and impossible meet the protest of Barth that their exclusion of this possibility flows forth from erroneous presuppositions about God. In and through Christ we must learn who God is and what the really-divine is and can do. In Him we see that God’s revelation is precisely not concerned about an abstract omnipotence, a potentia absoluta, which infinitely transcends (as the esse absolutum) any and all humiliation and self-abnegation. It is God’s reconciling activity which teaches us who the true God, revealed in reconciliation, really is. Not the self-willed logic of natural theology but Jesus Christ alone must determine our thinking about God. In Him we are able to discern the true features of this God and discover that He does not terrify us by His distant and infinite majesty and pure absoluteness, but that He is near to us in the “powerlessness” of humiliation and cross.[4]

There is a move among younger ‘conservative’ theologians (and I am still very conservative myself!) to simply imbibe and privilege one period (pre-Modern or pre-Critical) theology over others (in particular Modern); but I think we need to get beyond that artificial divide (not uncritically so). Personally, what drives me is not being able to align with this or that theologian from Patristic, Medieval, Scholastic, pre-Modern/Critical, or Modern periods of thought; what drives me is to want to truly and genuinely know God. I think that if this is what drives us we will not get so caught up or concerned with whether or not we are Barthians, Torrancians, Thomists, Calvinists, Arminians, Orthodox etc., instead we will be evangelically driven and be willing to place the actual theological concerns and ideas beyond the ‘political’ back-biting tribal divisions that in the end have the potential to shut down our engagement with all of the teachers that the body of Christ (catholic) has to offer.

I am not interested, even as I have engaged with him, to follow the kind of ‘powerful’ God that Ockham gives us. I am not interested in the mode of simply and sentimentally ascribing to a certain theological tradition because it seems safe and secure, and purportedly represents sound orthodox traditional theology. I am more interested in truly coming to know God, and I have come to the conclusion that the best way to do that (in conversation will all periods of Christian thought,  constructively so) is to allow Jesus to regulate and condition all knowledge of God (Jn. 1.18).

[1] Bobby Grow, God Behind the Veil: His Ways are Hidden from Ordinary Eyes, but not the Eyes of Faith, Christianity Today (April 1, 2013) .

[2] William of Ockham, Quodlibeta V1, q. 1 cited by Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250-1550. An Intellectual History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1980), 38.

[3] Christianity Today.

[4] G.C. Berkouwer, The Triumph of Grace in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids, Michigan: WM B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1956), 125-26.

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16 comments

  1. I’d like to take this opportunity to point out that the distinction between de potentia absoluta and de potentia ordinata did not originate with the Nominalists in the the 14th century. According to William J. Courtenay, the terminology was developed in the early 13th century; he cites the Summa Halensis which says, “When divine power is compared simply (absolute) to will, power includes more than does the divine will; when looked at from the standpoint of potentia ordinata, in which ordination is understood as preordination, then divine power and will are coextensive” (Summa Halensis, Pt. I, inq. 1, tr. 4, q. 1, m. 2, c. 2, cited in Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, p. 73, he also cites William of Auxerre and William of Auvergne). The distinction, as it is employed by Thomas Aquinas and William of Ockham, is used to describe what God could have done (namely, that which is not a contradiction) as compared to what he has, in fact, chosen to do.

    Thus, for instance, Thomas Aquinas: “For even as the divine goodness is made manifest through these things that are and through this order of things, so could it be made manifest through other creatures and another order: wherefore God’s will without prejudice to his goodness, justice and wisdom, can extend to other things besides those which he has made. And this is where they erred: for they thought that the created order was commensurate and necessary to the divine goodness. It is clear then that God absolutely can do otherwise than he has done. Since, however, he cannot make contradictories to be true at the same time, it can be said ex hypothesi that God cannot make other things besides those he has, made: for if we suppose that he does not wish to do otherwise, or that he foresaw that he would not do otherwise, as long as the supposition stands, he cannot do otherwise, though apart from that supposition he can.” -Disputed Questions on the Power of God, Article 1, Question 5.

    Now, one can still object to this entire way of thinking but the objection should be directed at 13th and 14th century Medieval philosophy as a whole rather than just at William of Ockham.

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  2. Nathanael,

    That’s fine, and good. But if you check the history it is indeed William of Ockham who “popularized” (to say it that way) potentia theology in a very prominent way. I don’t think, in fact I don’t (I just made sure), I ever made the claim that William Ockham “invented” nominalism; whether or not he did, which he didn’t, is beside the point. The point remains that nominalism hit a new high when William got his hands on it. Check Steven Ozment’s Age of Reform.

    What are you my snopes?

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  3. So when I critique nominalism, going forward, just know, Nathanael that I am not critiquing it as a whole, but instead as it was received, articulated, and deployed by William of Ockham. And insofar as Ockham imbibes the general frame of medieval nominalism, then know that I am critiquing the general frame of medieval nominalism.

    All one has to do, which I’ve done, is read a little Heiko Oberman to know that nominalism is reducible to William.

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  4. In point of fact, Courtenay argues (quite extensively) that William of Ockham neither invented nor popularized the distinction between de potentia absoluta and de potentia ordinata and that his use of the distinction was, in fact, quite traditional. Ozment does not deal with Courtenay’s argument since Capacity and Volition was written 10 years after Age of Reform but I judge it better to side with one of the foremost scholars of 14th century theology (Courtenay) against a scholar of Reformation history (Ozment).

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  5. Yes, but when I say “popularized” what I meant was that William of Ockham had a particular impact upon the intellectual heritage of Reformed theology (through Luther) in ways that other thinkers of the time (nominalist or not) did not.

    Ozment has a particular trajectory he is arguing towards (i.e. the Protestant Reformation) as such he picks thinkers who had a particular type of impact upon the period in that direction. For me and my purposes, in this post, that works. It’s not a matter of competing scholars in this instance, it’s a matter of usus loquendi and what my intentions are as well as what Ozment’s are relative to the shape and form and purpose of his book. His scholarship, while dated, is credible and works. Not only that, but Oberman, who out-ranks Courtenay (if you want a competition), confirms Ozment’s analysis.

    But at the end of the day, what’s your point, Nathanael? Nothing you have said has changed one point in my original post. Nothing you have said has enhanced any further dialogue relative to the point of my post. So if you’re going to make a comment like you did, make sure it is pertinent to the post or refrain from making your comment in the future. What your comment makes you look like is someone who is trying to challenge the credibility of my post, or to call into question its scope. But you haven’t done that, and your comments have failed to enlighten me (since I was already aware of said history). So what was your motivation for all of this?

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  6. Let’s just say that the study of the 14th century has come a good way since Oberman.

    “Discussions of nominalism in the 1960s and 1970s were, for the most
    part, engaged with Oberman’s thesis. While accepting the importance
    of the covenantal theme and the use of the distinction of absolute and
    ordained power in Ockham, Rimini, d’Ailly, and Biel, some scholars
    were reluctant to see these figures as part of a unified movement
    or to apply the label ‘nominalist’ to them, both because Oberman’s
    definition of nominalism was too far removed from either twelfth- or
    fifteenth-century usage, and because a fifteenth-century label—even if
    used correctly—was applied to fourteenth-century figures anachronistically.
    Whatever position was taken on the appropriateness of the nominalist
    label for fourteenth-century thinkers, the period of the 1960s and
    1970s was marked by intensive study on numerous figures traditionally
    associated with late medieval nominalism.”

    “The presumed unity of an Ockhamist tradition in late medieval
    thought has undergone severe testing in the last decade. Katherine
    Tachau uncovered evidence that neither Ockham’s definition of intuitive
    cognition nor his attack on sensible and intelligible species were
    generally adopted, even among those whose names have been most
    closely linked to Ockham, such as Adam Wodeham. The present
    direction of research not only casts doubt on a definable nominalist or a
    unified Ockhamist tradition in fourteenth-century thought, but reveals
    the heritage of Ockham to be more complex and less widely accepted
    than had previously been supposed.”

    -William J. Courtenay, Ockham and Ockhamism (Brill, 2008), pp. 15-17.

    “There is, in short, nothing like a coherent body of thought that one might refer to as
    nominalism—at least not in the fourteenth century. Ockham was known as the
    venerable inceptor primarily because of his perceived role as the founder of nominalism
    (rather than, as is often said, because he failed to serve as a master of theology), but if
    there ever was a nominalist movement, it came well after the figures who were
    conventionally supposed to constitute it. To be sure, even well into the seventeenth
    century, nominalism appeared to critics of scholasticism as a bright spot amidst the
    darkness of Aristotelianism. The young Leibniz speaks of “the nominalist sect, the most
    profound of all among the scholastics, and the most consistent with the character of our
    present-day, reformed philosophy” (“Preface to Nizolius,” Phil. Schriften IV:157; tr.
    Loemker p. 127). But no wonder Leibniz is enthusiastic, for he characterizes nominalism
    as tantamount to what I am calling corpuscularianism: as the belief “that all things
    beyond individual substances are mere names.” As we will see in later chapters, none
    of the canonical nominalists—not even Ockham—came even close to holding so
    extreme a view.”

    “These cautionary remarks are largely familiar to specialists, on whose work the
    preceding paragraphs draw heavily. But the implications of this research have not yet
    quite dawned on the broader community of scholars, who continue to think of
    nominalism as a central organizing concept for later scholasticism. Inasmuch as a
    recurring theme of this volume will be the way in which Ockham’s ideas often
    foreshadow the eventual rejection of scholasticism in the seventeenth century, it
    would be quite convenient if later scholastic thought could be conceived along the
    lines of this conventional historiography, as a dispute between Ockham and his
    followers, and their realist opponents. But this is an historical fiction, an early attempt
    to construct a narrative for scholastic thought that is not without some basis in reality,
    but that has to be approached with the same sort of caution as the seventeenth-century
    distinction between rationalists and empiricists.”

    -Robert Pasnau, Metaphysical Themes, 1274-1681 (Oxford, 2011), pp. 87-88.

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  7. My motivation in all of this is that my field of study (back when I was still looking to do a PhD in medieval theology) was 14th century thought. So, I find a certain irritation in the all too common misrepresentations of Ockham and the theologians who came after him. Now, I understand this may not be of interest to you and, as you say, it probably does not materially affect your post so please feel free to delete my comments if you do not find them pertinent.

    (Also, I did not see your last comment before I posted the extended and badly formatted Courtenay and Pasnau quotes. Sorry about that.)

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  8. Nathanael,

    None of that withstanding, it doesn’t change the gist of my post, at all. It doesn’t call into question that materially there was potentia theology? It doesn’t challenge the reality that Ockham was a nominalist himself. It simply problematizes, in a critical way, its reception among scholarship in the past and into the present. But at a material level it does not change much. It is dualisms, for me, that are the problem. Whether that be Plato, Plotinis, Ockham, Kant, Thomas Aquinas (grace/nature disjunction) the problem remains. I am certainly open to reading the critical scholars in this area, but again, it doesn’t change the gist of my post.

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  9. My problem is that I am incurably a historian; my tendency is always to complicate things and try to make sure historical figures are set in their context and given their due. I realize that this tendency is not always helpful. I don’t mean to give offense and I’m sorry for my disruptive comments.

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  10. Nathanael,

    You could’ve framed your first post with the caveat about your background and research interests in your first comment prior to your quotes, and that would have helped me receive your comment much more favorably (i..e. less defensively). I find that whole period interesting, and I myself was accepted to Fuller for a PhD to do research in this area (years ago back in 2004). I’ll have to read your sources when I can get a chance to do that. I still believe all of that is essential to understand in order to grasp where we are today.

    That notwithstanding, part of the interesting aspect of scholarship and the way theology takes shape is that it is largely based upon perception. the reconstruction of histories, and then its reception. Even if the new scholarship undercuts past scholarship it doesn’t change the fact that at an intellectual level the past scholarship has given us the shape of what we find in certain outworkings of theological endeavor.

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  11. Nathanael,

    I love the history too. Keep that stuff coming, just let me know that’s what you’re doing. 🙂 I apologize for getting all crazy. I haven’t kept up with the most current reserach in these areas and am relying on dated scholarship from my seminary past (early 2000s).

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  12. Can we all just get along? I fully agree with the nexus of your post.While delving into theology at varying depths is interesting and of noble intent…I just want to know God in growing layers of nearness. “Nearer My God To Thee.”

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  13. Gw there’s a place for academic theology, I prefer to think of it as doxological theology. There are no layers without rigor and work, which means maybe some contrary views. There’s nothing wrong with that, being pushed to think deep by others I take as spurring on to love and good works. I think most people are just too thin skinned nowadays. I do agree that people’s attitudes towards one another needs to be more Christlike!

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