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.

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?