Chapter 5: Refinements of an Omnipotent God

God of Empowering Love: A History and Reconception of the Theodicy Conundrum
by David P. Polk

Chapter 5: Refinements of an Omnipotent God

The “Dark Ages” were anything but dark insofar as ongoing theological inquiry is concerned. While following Augustine’s lead, new threads were woven into the fabric of his tapestry, including both a refined understanding of the character of God’s power and fresh reflections on the nature of God’s love. All of that came to a head in the rediscovery of Aristotle in the West and the work of the second great synthesizer of Christian faith, Thomas Aquinas. This was followed by the challenges wrought by the Protestant Reformation and especially by the formulations of the lawyer-turned-theologian John Calvin, who “updated” Augustine’s work with a vengeance.

It is also worth remembering here that feudal society in the Middle Ages was characterized by a descending hierarchy of greater and lesser lords, all the way down to tenant serfs. Much that was articulated in this period was considerably conditioned by this social context.


In his Proslogion (1078), Anselm of Canterbury defined God as “a being than which none greater can be thought”1 and went on to perceive that [73] greatness in terms of ultimate power: “O Lord God, thou art more truly almighty just because thou canst do nothing through lack of power, and nothing has power against thee.”2 God is understood here as “at once [both] compassionate and impassible,” but also both compassionate and not compassionate! How? “Thou art compassionate according to our sense, but not according to thine . . . we feel the effect of thy compassion, but thou dost not feel emotion.”3 So once again the unqualified championing of impassible divine power limits the scope and meaning of divine love. We bask in God’s love, but that love does nothing to augment God’s being. It is, as it were, disinterested love.

Richard of St. Victor, a century later, offered a propitious correction to Anselm. In his On the Trinity (ca. 1170), he argued that God loves with a love “so great that nothing greater can exist and . . . of such a kind that nothing better can exist.”4 Richard, however, remain locked in an Augustinian framework that negated the force of his observation, turning it inward upon the relational Trinity: “A divine person, then, could not have the highest charity toward a person who was not worthy of the highest love . . . no person could be wholly deserving of the love of a divine person if he were not God.”5

Even so, there are hints of an understanding that can move us forward. Denis Edwards notes that:

Richard lived in a century that was marked by the discovery of romantic love and by an intense interest in friendship in the new monastic movements. Richard’s unique contribution was in his application of reflection on Christian friendship to the central mystery of the Trinity . . . Richard’s trinitarian theology suggests that relationships of mutual love are the foundation of all reality. It argues that all creation springs from this dynamism of mutual love. Relationality is the source of creaturehood.”6

This recognition of the supreme importance of the mutuality of love is clearly a propitious move in the right direction. It remains to be spelled out, however, beyond the innertrinitarian being of God into the fullness of relations between God and God’s creation.7



The “Dumb Ox”8 of the thirteenth century may have been shy and quiet and slow, preferring the solace of his books and his writing to the demands of oration and teaching, but his effect on all subsequent theologizing was profound and rather all-encompassing, particularly insofar as the Roman Catholic Church is concerned. Thomas Aquinas9 (1225–1274) did not reintroduce Aristotle to Western theology. That had already been occurring from the time Muslims, who had kept his writings alive in Greek and Arabic, conquered Sicilty and Spain and the work of translation into Latin ensued. But Aquinas was surely the one who brought Aristotle’s philosopy into a fresh new synthesis that rivaled the output of Augustine eight and a half centuries before.

The basic contrast between Aristotle and his mentor Plato is that Plato taught that the search for true knowledge involved turning from the senses inward to truths known by the soul. Aristotle taught that all knowledge begins with sense observation. Certainly Aquinas traded Platonic notions for Aristotelian ones, but that unfortunately may be seen to have been merely a different route to the same flawed destination, arriving at almost identical conclusions clothed in a different philosophical language. I now turn our attention to that development insofar as the relationship between divine power and divine love is concerned.


Even before he finished his comprehensive Summa Theologica (1265–72), Aquinas articulated his key understanding of God as actus purus, “pure act.”10 In On the Power of God (Quaestiones disputatae de potentia, 1266), he argued that God’s existence and essence are identical,11 wherefore there can be no admixture in God of both action and potentiality.12 Equally, as pure act, God cannot be “composite” but must be “utterly simple.” True perfection is possible only of that which is simple (“void of all composition”).13

“God is called almighty [omnipotent] because he can do all things that are possible in themselves.”14 This quality is identified as “active” [75] power, the capacity to act on another. Its corollary, in Aquinas, is “passive” or receptive power, the capacity to be acted upon.15 As pure act, God is active only. “Is God really related to the creature so that this relation be something in God?” Aquinas answered unequivocally in the negative.16 Such receptive capacity would be a violation of God’s essential and eternal completeness. God impacts the world totally. The world impacts God not at all.

Aquinas extended this focus in the Summa Theologica, answering Question 25 on the Power of God. God’s essence, God’s action, and God’s power are not distinct from one another.17 In his Reply to Objection 4, he wrote:

Power is predicated of God not as something really distinct from His knowledge and will, but as differing from them logically; inasmuch as power implies a notion of a principle putting into execution what the will commands, and what knowledge directs, which three things in God are identified. Or we may say, that the knowledge or will of God, according as it is the effective principle, has the notion of power contained in it.18

And this “active power” is, of course, infinite, unqualified by any power outside itself.19 The only qualification allowable regarding God’s omnipotence is that which involves self-contradiction.

This phrase, “God can do all things,” is rightly understood to mean that God can do all things that are possible; and for this reason He is said to be omnipotent . . . God is called omnipotent because He can do all things that are possible absolutely . . . everything that does not imply a contradiction in terms, is numbered amongst those possible things, in respect of which God is called omnipotent: whereas whatever implies contradiction does not come within the scope of divine omnipotence, because it cannot have the aspect of possibility. Hence it is better to say that such things cannot be done, than that God cannot do them.20

Clearly any inclusion of passive power in God would constitute a denial of this understanding of God’s omnipotence.


Furthermore, God is understood by Aquinas to be “in all things, innermostly . . . by His power, inasmuch as all things are subject to His power.”21 God’s omnipresence is a facet of God’s all-encompassing omnipotence.

Finally, passive power in our own selves is what enables our receptivity toward actualizing our potentiality in the direction of perfection,22 in sharply defined contrast to God’s existence as without any unrealized potentiality.


Underlying all these reflections is Aquinas’ modification of the doctrine of divine immutability through his appropriation of Aristotle’s definition of the Highest Being as the “Unmoved Mover.” His first argument for the existence of God is oriented toward “motion,” but Timothy McDermott’s translation of the Summa Theologica brings the pattern more sharply into focus by shifting the discussion in English from motion to “change.”

Some things in the world are certainly in the process of change. This we plainly see. Now anything in the process of change is being changed by something else . . . Moreover, this something else, if in process of change, is itself being changed by yet another thing; and this last by another. Now we must stop somewhere, otherwise there will be no first cause of the change, and, as a result, no subsequent causes . . . Hence one is bound to arrive at some first cause of change not itself being changed by anything, and this is what everybody understands by God.23

Aquinas concentrated his attention on the doctrine of divine immutability in Question 9, repeating there that God is “first being” and “pure act, without the admixture of any potentiality.” Because to be subject to change is to be open to previously unrealized potentiality, it is obviously the case that “it is impossible for God to change in any way.”24

God’s immutability is also underscored in regard to the relationship of the eternal God to temporality. “Eternity differs from time by virtue of being “simultaneously whole . . . eternity is the measure of a permanent being, while time is the measure of movement.”25 Therefore God as the [77] One who is not subject to change is the One who is not subject to time either. Eternity is not an infinite progression of temporal moments but that which embraces and encompasses all of time without being subject to before and after.

Can “life,” then, be attributed to God? Aquinas answered in the affirmative, in that, “since a thing is said to live in so far as it operates of itself and not as moved by another, the more perfectly this power is found in anything, the more perfect is the life of that thing.” And certainly, “a more perfect degree of life is that of intelligent beings, for their power of self-movement is more perfect.” Obviously God’s “power of self-movement” surpasses that of all others, wherefore “in Him principally is life.”26 But this claim is not augmented by any exploration on Aquinas’ part as to what sense can be made of a life that is not dynamic or interactive, the life of an ultimate being characterized by simplicity. Life in God would seem to be something limited to the eternal interrelationships of the members of the Trinity, though that is not explicitly spelled out.


In the non-composite simplicity of God as actus purus, it is perfectly feasible for Aquinas to utilize a wealth of expressions equating God with God’s power, as realized action; God’s will, as unopposable intentions; God’s wisdom or knowledge, as transtemporal comprehensiveness. The orientation shifts subtly when the focus is on divine love; the question now becomes “whether love exists in God,”27 not at all whether love itself characterizes the being of God as surely as act and will and power do. Quoting 1 John 4:16, “God is love,” Aquinas answered his posited objections by affirming that “in God there is love, because love is the first movement of the will and of every appetitive power.”28 Love:

regards good universally, whether possessed or not. Hence love is naturally the first act of will and appetite; for which reason all the other appetitive movements presuppose love as their root and origin . . . in whomsoever there is will and appetite, there must also be love . . . Now is has been shown that will is in God. Hence we must attribute love to Him.29


Love is but an “attribute” of God, as a subset of will. This is, however, necessarily a love that is without passion,30 because for it to be otherwise would deny God’s immutability and impose on God illegitimately an aspect of passive (receptive) power.

But Aquinas did exceed Augustine’s limited definition of the nature of love by recognizing that “to love a person is to will good for that person.”31 In that regard, “God does not love some things more than others, because He loves all things by an act of the will that is one, simple, and always the same.”32

On the other hand, this perspective was curiously applied when it came to defining the relationship between God’s love and God’s predestining some to eternal salvation and allowing others to suffer their just desserts of God’s “abandonment.”33 The full explication by Aquinas is worth our attention:

Predestination presupposes election in the order of reason; and election presupposes love . . . Whence the predestination of some to eternal salvation presupposes, in the order of reason, that God wills their salvation; and to this belong both election and love:—love, inasmuch as He wills them this particular good of eternal salvation; since to love is to wish well to anyone, as stated above:—election, inasmuch as He wills this good to some in preference to others; since He reprobates some, as stated above. Election and love, however, are differently ordered in God, and in ourselves: because in us the will in loving does not cause good, but we are incited to love by the good which already exists; and therefore we choose someone to love, and so election in us precedes love. In God, however, it is the reverse. For His will, by which in loving He wishes good to someone, is the cause of that good possessed by some in preference to others. Thus it is clear that love precedes election in the order of reason, and election precedes predestination. Whence all the predestinate are objects of election and love.34

It would seem clear here that the power of God is all-encompassing whereas the love of God is not, because that love does not result in the effective saving of all of God’s human creatures from eternal damnation. Although God has been said to love all equally, that is not so. Some are [79] elected and therefore predestined—but not all. John Hick has observed cogently that “if there are finally wasted lives and finally unredeemed sufferings, either God is not perfect in love or He is not sovereign in rule over His creation.”35

The conclusion seems unavoidable: Aquinas has expanded Augustine’s definition of love in a useful direction, but the fundamental problem limiting the meaning of God’s love by virtue of God’s essential immutability and transtemporality has not been surmounted. Here, also, passive/receptive power has been helpfully introduced, but as something foreign to God. Power as the unopposable actualization of the divine will overtrumps Love as the essential nature of the divine life. The fundamental dilemma has not been resolved.


One additional debate in the late Middle Ages is worthy of notice, and that is the attempt to distinguish within God an “absolute power,” potentia absoluta, and an “ordained power,” potentia ordinata. The terms were not original to William of Ockham (ca. 1285–1347), but he was the one who did the most to explicate their meaning.

Sometimes we mean by God’s power those things which he does according to laws he himself has ordained and instituted. These things he is said to do by ordained power [de potentia ordinata]. But sometimes God’s power is taken to mean his ability to do anything that does not involve a contradiction, regardless of whether or not he has ordained that he would do it. For God can do many things that he does not choose to do . . . These things he is said to be able to do by his absolute power [de potentia absoluta].36

The notion of God’s absolute power is a way of defending God’s total freedom of action. In other words, God is not bound by God’s own orderly way of overseeing the flow of historical events. Gordon Leff summarized the distinction in this way:


God’s absolute power (potentia absoluta) . . . differed from His ordained power (potentia ordinata) in denoting God’s omnipotence purely and simply. It was outside all space and time in that it was uncommitted to upholding any set order in the universe. Freedom to will was its only raison d’être. In contrast, God’s ordained power was directed to sustaining this world; it constituted God’s law of creation, the eternal ordinance by which everything was governed. As given expression in the Bible and interpreted by the Church, it was immutable and irrevocable. Thus while God’s ordained power applied less to His own nature than to His creatures, His absolute power referred to Himself, and so, in the final analysis, it could override His ordinances.37

This freedom of God to act withput any constraint certainly explained what believers perceived as miracles. But acknowledging the reality of potentia absoluta led to a “radical indeterminacy” in which all ordinary assurances about the proper order of things were tossed out the window. “Thus any switch from God’s ordained to His absolute power involved throwing all certainty, morality, and indeed probability into the melting-pot: in their place anything could emerge.”38

This was the real heart of skepticism in the period leading up to the Reformation. God is freed from reason; experience is freed from faith. “Where probability simply questioned, God’s absolute power destroyed. Where reason ended, God’s potentia absoluta began.”39 Because of the potential arbitrariness of God’s absolute power, theology was placed beyond reason’s reach. Here, attention to the potentially unchecked capacity of God the All-Powerful to direct the affairs of the world reached its conceptual zenith. Love has to fend for itself as best it can; it might be discernible in God’s potentia ordinata, but it has nothing to do with defining (limiting, directing) the ultimate power of God.


In examining the views of the Protestant Reformers I do not find it especially cogent to deal with both Martin Luther and John Calvin. In very many respects, on matters relevant to this inquiry, their theological reflections overlap. But the one who pushed the conceptual envelope [81] to the maximum was Calvin (1509–1564). Therefore it is to his work that I now turn.

It is not coincidental to his corpus of work that Calvin, before he became a reforming theologian, was a lawyer. Bernard Cottret has observed that “Calvin the theologian would be to the end Calvin the jurist. His thought remained permeated with the rigor, the geometry, the fascination, and the memory of the law.”40 He rigorously and without reservation presented and defended all the seemingly radical implications of a God of predestination whose will is absolutely omnipotent.

It was the absolutely unlimited and unchallengable sovereignty of God that Calvin was concerned to pronounce, at all costs. Everything else is sacrificed to that overriding proposition. All the quibbling about protecting free will and perceiving double causes in creation’s forward movement went by the wayside. Early on in his monumental Institutes of the Christian Religion (1536, 1559), he wrote:

God’s providence, as it is taught in Scripture, is opposed to fortune and fortuitous happenings . . . all events are governed by God’s secret plan. And concerning inanimate objects we ought to hold that, although each one has by nature been endowed with its own property, yet it does not exercise its own power except in so far as it is directed by God’s ever-present hand. These are, thus, nothing but instruments to which God continually imparts as much effectiveness as he wills, and according to his own purpose bends and turns them to either one action or another.41

This admits of no diminution of divine omnipotence. It is absolute and all-encompassing.

And truly God claims, and would have us grant him, omnipotence . . . a watchful, effective, active sort, engaged in ceaseless activity. Not, indeed, an omnipotence that is only a general principle of confused motion . . . but one that is directed toward individual and particular motions. For he is deemed omnipotent . . . because, governing heaven and earth by his providence, he so regulates all things that nothing takes [82] place without his deliberation . . . there is no erratic power, or action, or motion in creatures, but that they are governed by God’s secret plan in such a way that nothing happens except what is knowingly and willingly decreed by him.42

Divine foreknowledge is understood to be divine foreordination, from our earthbound point of view.43 What is emerging here is the most explicit indication to date that God’s power is perceived to be the only power. Omnipotence admits of no other powers at all; they are mere chimeras. We say or do nothing whatsoever apart from the power of God to produce such effects. All human conditions, rich and poor, lordly or oppressed, are “divinely assigned.”44

Nothing happens by chance. We judge events “fortuitous” because the true cause of events, i.e., God, is hidden from our eyes.

[God is] the ruler and governor of all things, who in accordance with his wisdom has from the farthest limit of eternity decreed what he was going to do, and now by his might carries out what he has decreed. From this we declare that not only heaven and earth and the inanimate creatures, but also the plans and intentions of men, are so governed by his providence that they are borne by it straight to their appointed end.45

So, in regard to “double predestination,” God does not merely “permit” the “wicked” to perish, but “wills” it.46

Calvin’s attempt to maintain that God’s providence “does not relieve us from responsibility” failed abysmally inasmuch as his effort to posit “secondary causes” fails the test of common sense. The human will is simply in no way independent of God’s all-embracing providential causality.47 “As far as men are concerned, whether they are good or evil, the heart of the Christian will know that their plans, wills, efforts, and abilities are under God’s hand; that it is within his choice to bend them whither he pleases and to constrain them whenever he pleases.”48 The consequent perception that God is ultimately the One responsible even for all evil is “conspicuous.”49

Calvin dismissed Old Testament passages that speak of God “repenting” by maintaining that these are to be taken figuratively, and yield [83] to our weakness of understanding: “neither God’s plan nor his will is reversed, nor his volition altered; but what he had from eternity foreseen, approved, and decreed, he pursues in uninterrupted tenor, however sudden the variation may appear in men’s eyes.”50

The rigorous lockstep of a universe totally under the control of one sole Power continued into Book II: God “bends and turns men’s wills even in external things; nor are they so free to choose that God’s will does not rule over their freedom . . . your mind is guided by God’s prompting rather than by your own freedom to choose.”51

This selective summary has been decidedly one-sided. I have traced Calvin’s championing of a divine omnipotence that is absolute and unqualified, without any vestige of external contribution whatsoever. Nothing has been developed here regarding Calvin’s focus on divine love. That is hardly accidental. In a rather exhaustive eighty-page subject index for the Institutes, one finds Calvin writing about divine love only in four paragraphs.52 In four columns of citations concerning “Christ,” only a single one involves love, God’s loving act in Christ.53 And at no point in his extensive scriptural references did Calvin even deal at all with 1 John 4:8, 16.

Total power. Questionable love. Anna Case-Winters has tellingly perceived that the primary metaphors Calvin used for God—Father, Lord, King—are all power metaphors. Even fatherhood was conceived in terms of “a sovereign Father upon whom we are always dependent,”54 not the intimate Abba of the Lord’s Prayer.

So the essential architecture of what would come to be known as Christian theism is now fully in place. God is absolute Lord of all, eternal, immutable, passionless. To affirm God equally, if not primarily, to be Love has become conceptually impossible. Love must be “shoehorned” in somehow, as a mere attribute of God Almighty. It is truly revealing in that in the whole history of discussion of the nature of God, nowhere is the prefix “omni” applied to love! God is said to be omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, and so forth. Where is the notion that God is “omnilove”? It will take centuries before that seedling takes root and begins to sprout and blossom. In the meantime, footnotes continued to be written to the Augustinian theistic consensus. To that continuation we now turn.



  1. Anselm of Canterbury, Proslogion, ch. 2. This and subsequent quotes are from Eugene R. Fairweather, ed. and trans., A Scholastic Miscellany: Anselm to Ockham (The Library of Christian Classics, Vol. X) (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1956).
  2. Ibid., ch. 7 (Fairweather, 77).
  3. Ibid., ch. 8 (Fairweather, 77f.).
  4. Richard of St. Victor, On the Trinity, III.2. This translation is by Grover A. Zinn in his Richard of St. Victor (New York: Paulist Press, 1979), 375. It is superior in its parallel with Anselm to the translation of the lines in Fairweather, op cit., 330.
  5. Ibid. (Fairweather, 330).
  6. Denis Edwards, “The Discovery of Chaos and the Retrieval of the Trinity,” in Robert John Russell, Nancey Murphy, and Arthur R. Peacocke, eds., Chaos and Complexity: Scientific Perspectives on Divine Action (Berkeley: The Center for Theology and the Natural Sciences, 1995), 160.
  7. For a move in that direction initiated by Bonaventure, a medieval mystical theologian of the following century who was influenced by Richard, see my coverage of his contribution herein in the chapter on the Mystics’ God.
  8. “You call him a Dumb Ox; I tell you that the Dumb Ox will bellow so loud that his bellowing will fill the world.” So said Albert the Great of his modest and most retiring student. See G. K. Chesterton, Saint Thomas Aquinas (New York: Doubleday & Co., 1956), Image Books edition, back cover.
  9. Scholars are divided in deciding whether to refer to him in shorthand as “Thomas” or as “Aquinas.” Certainly his followers are known as Thomists, and “Aquinas” simply designates his origin in the Italian town of Aquino, near Naples. So strictly speaking, he could well be known as “Thomas of Aquino.” Even so, because of the distinctiveness and ready recognition of “Aquinas,” that is the nomenclature used here.
  10. See, e.g., Thomas Aquinas, On the Power of God (Quæstiones Disputatæ de Potentia Dei), Question 3, article 1, paragraphs 12,17; tr. Fr. Lawrence Shapcote (Three Books in One) (Westminster, Md.: Newman Press, 1952). Online at Aquinas’ defense of this [85] point is also found in his Summa Theologica, Question 3, articles 1–3.
  11. Aquinas, On the Power of God, 7.2.
  12. Ibid., 3.1.17.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Ibid., 1.5.7.
  15. Ibid., 7.9
  16. Ibid., 7.10.
  17. Aquinas, Summa Theologica, Part I, Question 25, art. 1, in Anton C. Pegis, ed., Basic Writings of Saint Thomas Aquinas, Vol. 1 (New York: Random House, 1945).
  18. Ibid., 25.1, Reply to Obj. 4.
  19. Ibid., 25.2.
  20. Ibid., 25.3.
  21. Ibid., 8.1,3.
  22. Ibid., 9.2.
  23. Ibid., 2.3, in the translation by Timothy McDermott (London: Blackfriars, 1964), as quoted in William C. Placher, A History of Christian Theology (Louisville: WJK Press, 1983), 154.
  24. Ibid., 9.1, from the Pegis translation.
  25. Ibid., 10.4.
  26. Ibid., 18.3.
  27. The focus of Question 20, emphasis mine.
  28. Ibid., 20.1, emphasis mine.
  29. Ibid.
  30. Ibid., 20.1, Reply to Obj. 1.
  31. Ibid., 20.1, Reply to Obj. 3.
  32. Ibid., 20.3. Aquinas went on to modify this somewhat in Art. 4 in proposing that God “loves better things more.”
  33. Ibid., 23.3, Reply to Obj. 1: “God loves all men and all creatures, inasmuch as He wishes them all some good; but He does not wish every good to them all. So far, therefore, as He does not wish this particular [86] good—namely, eternal life—He is said to hate or reprobate them.”
  34. Ibid., 23.4, emphasis mine.
  35. John Hick, Evil and the God of Love, 2nd ed. (San Francisco: Harper & Row, 1977), 340.
  36. William of Ockham, Quodlibeta VI, q. 1, as quoted in Steven Ozment, The Age of Reform 1250–1550 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1980), 38. Aquinas had briefly called attention to the distinction in Summa Theologica, 25.5.1, Reply to Obj. 1.
  37. Gordon Leff, Medieval Thought from Saint Augustine to Ockham (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1958), 288.
  38. Ibid., 289.
  39. Ibid., 290.
  40. Bernard Cottret, Calvin: A Biography, tr. M. Wallace McDonald (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 21.
  41. John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, I.16.2, tr. Ford Lewis Battles (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 198f.
  42. Ibid., I.16.3 (200f.).
  43. Ibid., I.16.4 (202).
  44. Ibid., I.16.6 (204f.).
  45. Ibid., I.16.8 (207).
  46. Ibid., III.23.8, emphasis mine (956).
  47. See ibid., I.17.3, 9 (214–17, 221f.).
  48. Ibid., I.17.6 (218).
  49. Anna Case-Winters, God’s Power: Traditional Understandings and Contemporary Challenges (Louisville: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1990), 71. Calvin used Isaiah 45.7 as a scriptural basis for this.
  50. Calvin, Institutes, I.17.13 (227).
  51. Ibid., II.4.7 (315).
  52. Ibid., I.16.1–4.
  53. Ibid., II.16.2.
  54. Case-Winters, op. cit., 49.