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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