The Intersection of Augustinian Exemplarism and Boethian Eternalism

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 4

I’m returning here to my series on St. Peter Damian’s theology of divine possibility, in the first part of which I am critiquing the theistic possibilism of the conventional interpretation of Damian’s teaching on omnipotence, which I hope to follow later with an appreciation of the comparative actualism of recent revised accounts of Damian’s doctrine.

We begin by noting that Peter Damian’s account of divine omnipotence is obviously rooted in an Augustianian and Boethian foundation of divine knowledge and eternality: “as the ability [posse] to do all things is coeternal to God, the Creator of all things, so also is his power to know all things…” For Damian, God’s power “to do all things,” and to do them at “all times past, present, and future,” is of a piece with his ability to “know all things.” Drawing from the traditions of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian eternalism, however, Damian’s theory of omnipotence would also seem to imbibe heavily from their possibilism as well. According to Augustine’s doctrine of divine ideas, all possible creatures determinately pre-exist in the mind of God, from which archtypes God chooses what he makes real in the act of creation. What is possible for God to do or make, in short, is prior to and independent of what God actually does or makes. To this infinite array of divine possibles eternally open and available to God, Boethius’s theory of divine foreknowledge added the further consideration of creation’s entire temporal existence, with all of its possibilities, as likewise extended before God’s eternal all-surveying gaze. Given the influence of Augustine and Boethius, it is understandable that, on the received view, Damian omnipotence has been located at what is effectively the intersection of Augustinian exemplarism and Boethian divine foreknowledge: God is able to do “all the things” he knows at “all the times” that he knows them. To extend the spatial analogy at the heart of Boethus’s account of God’s atemporality, the infinite, two-dimensional plane (as it were) of Augustine’s logically extended domain of all possible creatures, extracted along (or, alternatively, revolved around) the temporal axis of Boethian divine foreknowledge, renders the now three-dimensional possibilism of Damian omnipotence: all possible creatures open and available for actualization (or de-actualization) at all possible times.

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The Conventional Reading of Damian

Damian’s Theology of the Possible, part 3

According to the conventional reading of St. Peter Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence, God’s power over the realms of nature and grace are so great that not only can he restore a woman to her virginity in body and soul, but even the established past is liable to alteration by his omnipotent will. The key passage for this interpretation comes in the latter part of Damian’s letter:

I can say without appearing foolhardy, that God, in that immutable and ever uniform eternity of his, is able to bring it about that what had happened relative to our passing time, did not happen. For example, we may say: God can so cause it to happen that Rome, which was founded in antiquity, had not been founded. In saying, can, that is, in the present tense, we use the word properly insofar as it relates to the unalterable eternity of almighty God…[1]

As this passage plainly indicates, because God is eternal his omnipotence cannot be conditioned and hence changed or diminished according to the passing of created time. Much as Boethius had defended the compatibility of divine foreknowledge and human free will by appealing to God’s eternality (the future is not future for God but present), so Damian asserts that neither is the past really past for God, but is still present for him. The inference drawn from this is that, for God in his free eternity, a past event is no less contingent than it was prior to its taking place. For an atemporal God, once a contingent event, always a contingent event. If God formerly had the ability of bringing it about that a particular event would not take place, then God always has that possibility. As Damian further explains, however, were God to decree something different to have occurred in the past than what has actually taken place, this would involve a change in the past only relative to us temporal creatures, and not for God in his atemporality. Insofar as God’s undoing of the past would further require that the same event both happen and not happen, many scholars have understood Damian to deny that even the law of non-contradiction represents a limit to the exercise of God’s power.


[1] Damian, On Divine Omnipotence, trans. O.J. Blum, 381.  

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. 

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?

Death as Gift in Tolkien and Peter Damian

In the Bible, death is not natural, but is an alien intrusion into God’s created order, brought about by man’s sin and rebellion. In Tolkien’s legendarium, by contrast, human mortality is (as the Elves at least viewed it) the peculiar and even coveted “gift of Ilúvatar,” a blessed reprieve–granted to Men but withheld from the Elves–of being able to depart after a time from the wearying, confining circles of the world.

As Tolkien well knew, despite the obvious tension between his “fictional” representation of death and the Scriptural account (which he affirmed as a Christian), there was nevertheless a deeper, even purposeful harmony between the traditional perspective on death and that represented in his world of Middle-earth. One example of this understanding of “death as gift” may be found in the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) who, in his letter On Divine Omnipotence, explains that, although the introduction of death was an evil for man, it was nevertheless a good where the justice of God was concerned. He writes:

it was an evil that man, after the fall, should suffer the penalty of death even though this occurred by the just judgment of God; for God di dnot make death, since he is rather the death of death, as he says through the prophet Hosea, “O death, I will be your death.” Nevertheless, at least after the mystery of our redemption, it would certainly have been something good for man to have become immortal, if divine forbearance had annulled the sentence he had once pronounced. The omnipotent God cannot, in fact, be said to be unwilling or unable to do this for the reason that it is evil for a mere man to become immortal, but because, in his just judgment and for the greater assurance of our salvation, which was known to him, he wished death to remain merely as a penalty owed by man already redeemed. (Letters of Peter Damian 91-120, trans. Blum)

Irven Michael Resnick, in his book on Damian’s On Divine Omnipotence, even further bridges the gap between Tolkien’s innovative view of death and Damian’s traditionalism:

Damian explains [that] there are many things which are evils for us although they are not evils in themselves. Although immortality is a good, it would have been an evil after the Fall if man had obtained the immortality he sought, since then his condition would no longer admit of change. Death, on the other hand, although we regard it as an evil, is good insofar as it is our just punishment for sin. What is more, the anticipation of death may lead the sinner to return to God. In our post-lapsarian condition, then, immortality–which was previously a good–is an evil for us, while death–which seems to be evil–now works for our good. Thus, it is wrong to say that God is unable to bestow immortality upon man in his present condition; rather, He does not because it would be evil to do so. (Resnick, Divine Power and Possibility in St. Peter Damian’s De Divina Omnipotenia, 72)

Or, as Tolkien himself put it one letter,

A divine ‘punishment’ is also a divine ‘gift’, if accepted, since its object is ultimate blessing, and the supreme inventiveness of the Creator will make ‘punishments’ (that is changes of design) produce a good not otherwise to be attained: a ‘mortal’ Man has probably (an Elf would say) a higher if unrevealed destiny than a longeval one. To attempt by device or ‘magic’ to recover longevity is thus a supreme folly and wickedness of ‘mortals’. Longevity or counterfeit ‘immortality’ (true immortality is beyond Ea) is the chief bait of Sauron – it leads the small to a Gollum, and the great to a Ringwraith. (Letters no. 212)

“The Hollow of His Hand”: Tolkien and Peter Damian’s Dialectic of Divine Presence

The issue of divine transcendence and immanence is an important one, I have argued before, for understanding appreciating the theology of Tolkien’s fiction. I’m fond of citing Tolkien’s claim, made in reply to W.H. Auden’s review of The Lord of the Rings, that the central conflict of the story is “about God, and his sole right to divine honour” (Letters no. 183). How is it that a story–in which its author deliberately and studiously avoids ever explicitly or unequivocally referring to God–be basically “about God”? At least part of the answer, I contend, has to do with Tolkien’s assumed metaphysical theology of divine presence: God’s supreme transcendence over creation and creation history isn’t in tension with his immanence, but is precisely the basis for his profound and universal ubiquity. Tolkien’s story doesn’t need to refer to God because, after its own fashion, it is always referring to God. As Tolkien writes in another letter, quoting favorably from one of his agnostic readers, his achievement was to “create a world in which some sort of faith seems to be everywhere without a visible source, like light from an invisible lamp” (Letters no. 328).

It is in the above spirit that I want to list a few passages comparing Tolkien and the eleventh-century theologian Peter Damian (1007-1072) on the issue of divine presence. The first passage is from Manwë’s vision at the end of the chapter “Of Aulë and Yavanna” from The Silmarillion, in which Manwë sees “that all was upheld by the hand of Ilúvatatar; and the hand entered in, and from it came forth many wonders that had until then been hidden from him [Manwë] in the hearts of the Ainur.” In this image, Ilúvatatar’s “hand” symbolizes both his transcendence over creation, sustaining it from without, as well as his immanence within creation, his ability, that is, to enter into it and miraculously, supernaturally intervene on its behalf.

A second, series of passages comes from the Athrabeth Finrod ah Andreth, the “Debate of Finrod and Andreth” from Morgoth’s Ring (vol. 10 in The History of Middle-earth). In it the mortal woman Andreth reports a “rumour” among those men of the “old hope” that someday the Creator “will himself enter into Arda [the Earth], and heal Men and all the Marring from the beginning to the end.” Andreth doesn’t believe the rumour, however, asking the Elf-lord Finrod,

‘…How could Eru enter into the thing that He has made, and than which He is beyond measure greater? Can the singer enter into his tale or the designer into his picture?’
‘He is already in it, as well as outside,’ said Finrod. ‘But indeed the “in-dwelling” and the “out-living” are not in the same mode.’
‘Truly,’ said Andreth. ‘So may Eru in that mode be present in Ea that proceeded from Him. But they speak of Eru Himself entering into Arda, and that is a thing wholly different. How could He the greater do this? Would it not shatter Arda, or
indeed all Ea? ‘
‘Ask me not,’ said Finrod. ‘These things are beyond the compass of the wisdom of the Eldar, or of the Valar maybe. But I doubt that our words may mislead us, and that when you say “greater” you think of the dimensions of Arda, in which the greater vessel may not be contained in the less.
‘But such words may not be used of the Measureless. If Eru wished to do this, I do not doubt that He would find a way, though I cannot foresee it. For, as it seems to me, even if He in Himself were to enter in, He must still remain also as He is: the Author without.’

In his commentary on the Athrabeth, Tolkien elaborates further:

Eru Himself must at some time come to oppose Melkor. But Eru could not enter wholly into the world and its history, which is, however great, only a finite Drama. He must as Author always remain ‘outside’ the Drama, even
though that Drama depends on His design and His will for its beginning and continuance, in every detail and moment. Finrod therefore thinks that He will, when He comes, have to be both ‘outside’ and inside; and so he glimpses the possibility of complexity or of distinctions in the nature of Eru, which nonetheless leaves Him ‘The One’.  

And finally, in his note on the above commentary, Tolkien writes how the above dialectic of divine transcendence and immanence is

actually already glimpsed in the Ainulindalë, in which reference is made to the ‘Flame Imperishable’. This appears to mean the Creative activity of Eru (in some sense distinct from or within Him), by which things could be given a ‘real’ and
independent (though derivative and created) existence. The Flame Imperishable is sent out from Eru, to dwell in the heart of the world, and the world then Is, on the same plane as the Ainur, and they can enter into it. But this is not, of course, the same as the re-entry of Eru to defeat Melkor. It refers rather to the mystery of ‘authorship’, by which the author, while remaining ‘outside’ and independent of his work, also ‘indwells’ in it, on its derivative plane, below that of his own being, as the source and guarantee of its being.

To turn, finally, to Peter Damian, the similarities of note between the following discussion of divine omnipresence and the above passages by Tolkien are his image of the “divine hand” and his container-metaphor for describing God’s presence both within and without creation. Damian writes:

he remains immanent and transcendent in relation to the throne on which he presides, for, by measuring the heavens with a span and gathering the earth in the hollow of his hand he demonstrates that on every side he is external to all the things that he has created. Whatever, in fact, is enclosed inside remains external to the container; hence, relative to the throne on which he sits, he is considered to be within and above; by the hollow of the hand in which he is enclosed, however, it is indicated that he is external and beneath. And since he remains within all, external to all, above all, and beyond all things, he is superior through his power, inferior by reason of his support, external relative to his greatness, and internal because of his subtle penetration.” (Peter Damian: Letters 91-120, 358-9)