Damian’s Possiblism, Damian’s Actualism

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 2

Adding to the intrigue surrounding Damian’s letter On Divine Omnipotence is the widely diverging views there have been as to what precisely Damian’s answer is to the question of God’s ability to change the past. Historically he has been interpreted to argue that God’s omnipotence not only means he can alter the past, but that even the law of non-contradiction poses no limit to what God is capable of doing. Often conjoined with this reading of Damian is a narrative about the eleventh century as a period of conflict between the traditional study of theology and a burgeoning interest in and application of dialectic. On this narrative, Damian’s alleged affirmation of God’s freedom and power even over the law of non-contradiction is seen as part of a wider suspicion of theologians towards the validity, applicability, and propriety of using dialectic to understand matters of faith. Beginning with the scholarship of André Cantin in the 1970s, however, a number of scholars have re-interpreted Damian’s letter as not a rejection but actually a defense of the view that God cannot alter the past.[1] As I argue in this chapter, besides the obvious textual issues, what is largely at stake in this debate is Damian’s understanding of the nature of divine possibility. Is what is possible for God—including what is possible for him relative to the pastprior to and definitive of what God actually does, such that if something was formerly possible for God it must be always possible for him to do (theistic possibilism)? Or is it what God actually does or determines to do that is prior to and definitive of what is afterwards possible to be done, such that any notion of what it is possible for God to do now must presuppose those things that God has already done then (theistic actualism)? In the first part of the argument to follow, I will examine both the textual basis for the traditional (and still standard) reading of Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence and the theistic possibilism I argue to be implied therein. The second part of the chapter will be devoted to an alternate and, to my mind, more considered reading of Damian, one which not only sees him as denying the possibility of God’s changing the past, but which appreciates his profound defense of divine omnipotence and metaphysical actualism in doing so.


[1] Whitman, “The Other Side of Omnipotence,” 135; Resnick, Divine Power and Possibility in St. Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotentia; Holopainen, Dialectic and Theology in the Eleventh Century. 

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Can God Change the Past?

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 1

One of the earliest extended treatments of the subject of divine power and possibility is St. Peter Damian’s (1007-1072) famous but widely misunderstood letter On Divine Omnipotence (De Divina Omnipotentia). An influential churchman and zealous reformer of monastic spirituality, Damian traveled widely, visiting monasteries, and teaching and encouraging his fellow monks into a deeper, more serious commitment to the doctrines and practices of their religious vows. During one of his visit to the Benedictine Abbey of Montecassino in the year 1065, following the public reading from St. Jerome at dinner, Damian fell to arguing with Abbot Desiderius (later Pope Victor III) and his other hosts over Jerome’s claim that, although God could “do all things,” he could not restore a woman to her virginity after she had lost it. Respectful of Jerome’s authority, Damian nevertheless felt Jerome’s statement to be theologically and pastorally dangerous. He followed his visit by writing Desiderius and the Montecassino friars a lengthy letter on the subject of God’s power, the chief philosophical interest of which lay in his handling of another question that had also arisen during the Montecassino debate, namely, whether God can alter or undo the past itself. If God’s omnipotence required that he be able to restore a woman’s body and soul to their virgin condition, the monks had pressed Damian, wouldn’t God also have to have the power to bring it about that she never lost her virginity in the first place?

Tolkien vs. Augustine on Difference of Sex

In book six of his De Genesi ad Litteram (Literal Commentary on Genesis) St. Augustine addresses the question of whether human souls might have been created simultaneously with the rest of the world at the beginning of creation, with their bodies being formed only later on. Augustine gives two arguments against this view:

first, because of that completion of God’s works, I do not see how these could be understood to be complete if anything was not there established in its causes which would later on be realized visibly; secondly, because the difference of sex between male and female can only be verified in bodies. (De Genesis 6.7.12)

According to Augustine’s second argument, sexual differences are not psyche-logical differences, but physio-logical differences.

Compare this now with Tolkien’s account of the Valar in the Ainulindale:

Therefore the Valar may walk, if they will, unclad, and then even the Eldar cannot clearly perceive them, though they be present. But when they desire to clothe themselves the Valar take upon them forms some as of male and some as of female; for that difference of temper they had even from their beginning, and it is but bodied forth in the choice of each, not made by the choice, even as with us male and female may be shown by the raiment but is not made thereby.

For the Valar, “sexual” differences are more than–because prior–to bodily differences, being a mater of “difference of temper” that is then “bodied forth” afterward in the physical appearance the individual Valar choose for themselves.