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?