Calvin on the medieval distinction of powers

In his chapter on “Calvin and the Absolute Power of God” (Calvin in Context) David Steimetz quotes the following passage from Calvin’s commentary on Isaiah 23 in which he rejects out of hand the scholastic distinction between God’s absolute and ordained power:

That invention which the Schoolmen have introduced, about the absolute power of God, is shocking blasphemy. It is all one as if they said that God is a tyrant who resolves to do what he pleases, not by justice, but through caprice. Their schools are full of such blasphemies, and are not unlike the heathens, who said that God sports with human affairs.

Part of Calvin’s rejection of the scholastic distinction of powers, Steinmetz argues, is his rejection of any separation between God’s justice and God’s power, a point that corroborates Steinmetz’s over-arching thesis that, contrary to the interpretation of later Protestant scholastics such as Francis Turretin, Calvin was opposed not just to the scholastic abuse of the distinction of divine powers through undue speculation, but to the very distinction itself. As William Courtenay, for example, has shown, at the origins of the medieval distinction of divine power lies Augustine’s (highly problematic, in my view) admission that there are certain things God could do “according to his power, but not according to his justice” (poterat per potentiam, sed non poterat per iustitiam) (Courtenay, Capacity and Volition, 29). If so, then Calvin’s rejection of the distinction of powers may be seen to involve far more than a mere correction of medieval and Renaissance scholasticism: it represents a fundamental critique of the theological tradition regarding divine power, dating back to and including Augustine himself. (On this point, one might say, Calvin is more Augustinian than Augustine himself.) This fact would also seem to qualify the extent of Calvin’s alleged debt to the “covenant theology” of late medieval nominalism, inasmuch as the latter involved not only the adoption but the radicalization of the very distinction of powers that Calvin would later reject.

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