Jacques Maritain Center : Natural Theology / by Bernard Boedder, S.J.

CHAPTER VI. The Omnipotence of God.

Thesis XXXII. -- God is able by the infinite efficacy of His will to effect whatever is not intrinsically impossible; wherefore He is all-powerful or omnipotent.

193. Power is ability to effect. In created agents there is no ability to effect anything beyond changes in things that are already existing in virtue of God's creative act, as we have proved in Book I. Even this power of producing changes in already existing things is in many ways imperfect, as creatures possess it. In inanimate matter, plants and dumb animals, the power is exercised without the agent being able to control it. The magnet has no choice, but must communicate its mysterious power to the iron that comes near it; the oak-tree of necessity pushes its roots beneath the earth to obtain nourishment; nor can the dog help running to the food that tempts his appetite, or turning against another animal which has provoked his anger. It is evident that such blind power is essentially defective, and therefore altogether inconceivable in God.

Let us now turn to the consideration of the power of man. In him, as in the lower animals, there are material forces, vital power, sensitive perception, animal instinct, and the faculty of locomotion. But in him there is, besides all this, intellect and free-will; and in virtue of the intellectual life sustained by these two faculties, he has the power of producing an effect freely chosen. He alone therefore among all beings of the visible world has a power which can properly be predicated of God. No production of any effect can be a manifestation of pure perfection, unless it be controlled by free-will. Yet not all production thus controlled, when considered in the concrete, is pure perfection. It is enough to glance at the exercise of man's power in order to see the truth of this statement. Man has the power of choice and of carrying out what he has chosen, only on certain conditions independent of his free-will. There is, moreover, in him a real distinction between the faculty of choosing and the faculty of carrying out the effect chosen. The former resides in his will, the latter in the faculties subject to the rule of his will. If he chooses something for which these faculties are unfit, his faculty of choice is not borne out by the faculty of execution, as in the case of a paralytic resolving to walk. In this case choice is not only distinct from execution, but is altogether divorced from it. Choice thus void of efficiency is not power. That power alone is absolute perfection which essentially involves at once the faculty of choosing and the faculty of carrying out the choice: and this is the exclusive privilege of the power of God. God is essentially Free-will in His relation to everything distinct from His own unchangeable essence. Whatever He chooses to effect, that He carries out by the efficacy of His will. "Power," says St. Thomas, "is not attributed to God as something really different from His knowledge and will, but as something expressed by a different idea; as power means the principle which carries out the command of the will and the advice of the intellect. These three (viz., intellect, will, power), coincide with one another in God."{1}

194. The power of God, being absolutely perfect and really one with His intellect and will, and consequently with the simple, infinite, Divine essence, must be infinite; that is to say, it must suffice of itself to produce whatever is not intrinsically impossible. Hence it follows that God can, by His will alone, produce things out of nothing. This truth we have proved in Book I., by showing that no other hypothesis than that of creation can account for the origin of matter and mind, in accordance with the nature of God and of material and spiritual things. The explanation just now given of God's power, and of its identity with His will, is calculated not only to bear out the fact of creation, but also to show how the possibility of creation is necessarily attached to the essence of God.

It further follows that the range of Divine power infinitely surpasses its actual productions. These are regulated by irrevocable eternal decrees. Once such decrees are made by Him, God can apply His power only in agreement with their import.

Therefore we have to distinguish between the absolute and the regulated power of God (potentia Dei absoluta et ordinata). By His absolute power He can do everything which is not intrinsically repugnant. By His power, however, as ruled by His decrees, or by His regulated power, He cannot carry out anything but that which He has decreed. Thus, for instance, God has the absolute power to preserve man altogether from death: but He cannot do so in the present order, because He has decreed otherwise. To express this technically, scholastics say: God can preserve man from death, potentia absoluta; He cannot do so potentia ordinata.

195. Against the omnipotence of God thus explained the following difficulties are often raised.

(1) God cannot commit a sin. But the commission of a sin is something intrinsically possible. Therefore God cannot do everything intrinsically possible.

Answer. In answering this difficulty we have first to remark that the essence of sin does not consist in the production of an effect, but in the opposition of free-will to the eternal law of God. If a sin carries an effect with it, as in the case of blasphemy, theft, murder, and other crimes, such an effect is sinful only inasmuch as it is brought about by the abuse of moral freedom to the neglect of the Divine law. Sin therefore is intrinsically possible only in a being whose will can neglect the law of God, and whose faculties can be used in opposition to that law.

But the will of God cannot be opposed to the law of God, because that law considered under its subjective aspect is really identical with the act of the Divine will. Nor can any Divine faculty be used in opposition to the Divine law, because none is really distinct from its source, the unchangeable Divine essence. Although, therefore, sin in a created being is intrinsically possible, yet the proposition, "God can sin," is intrinsically contradictory. Nor can it be said that this intrinsic repugnance between the nature of God and the nature of sin implies any defect of power in God. It would do so indeed, if sin considered precisely as sin consisted in the production of something really distinct from the free self-determination of the will to neglect a line of thinking, judging, desiring, acting, sufficiently manifested by the voice of conscience as prescribed by the Creator. The perfection underlying the action of self-determination is the faculty of free-will; and this faculty, of course, is in God formally and eminently. The action of self-determination itself, as we have repeatedly remarked, is not a production of any reality distinct from the free choice of the will, but it is the will itself, inasmuch as it approves, or rejects, or neglects an object presented by the understanding as eligible. When a being endowed with free-will and capable of sinning, enjoys the use of its freedom, it does not want more power to commit sin than to abstain from sin, but its power in that state suffices for either of the two alternatives. On the other hand, the ability to commit sin involves liability to be overcome by false, unreasonable motives, and this liability is rather weakness and imperfection than power and perfection. Consequently, if God could commit sin, he would not possess more active physical power, but would be exposed to moral weakness.

(2) God can produce no other God. But if His power were infinite, He should be able to do so; because infinite power must suffice for the production of an infinite Being.

Answer. As we have seen in Book I., it is repugnant to the nature of a self-existing being that it should exist in several separate individuals.

Hence another God is something intrinsically impossible. Infinite power, precisely because it is infinite, cannot be fully manifested, whether in a particular effect or in a series of effects; it is essentially inexhaustible power.

For this reason it also excludes the possibility not only of another God, but even of an absolutely best world or best creature, as we have explained in Book I. chap. iv.

{1} "Potentia non ponitur in Dea ut aliquid differens ab scientia et voluntate secundum rem sed solem secundum rationem, in quantum scilicet potentia importat rationem principii exequentis id quod voluntas imperat et ad quod scientia dirigit; qum tria, Deo secundum idem conveniunt." (St. Thomas, Sum. Theol. Ia. q. 25 art. 1. ad 4.)

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