Omnipotence and St. Thomas Aquinas
Omnipotence literally means the ability to do all things, or to have absolute
power. This quality seems to be generally accepted as an intrinsic
characteristic of the Judaeo-Christian god, as it says in Luke I. 37, "...there
is nothing that God cannot do.". Certain objections can be raised to attributing
this characteristic to god however, in-so-far as this characteristic seems to
conflict with other accepted attributes of god. In The Summa Theologica St.
Thomas Aquinas addresses some of these objections, the most telling of which can
be restated as:
(I) To sin is an action, however god is unable to sin. Therefore god
cannot be omnipotent.
(ii) The greatest act possible of god is his practice of "sparing and
having mercy". There are actions judged to be much greater however, such as
creating a world. Therefore god is not omnipotent.
(iii) If god is omnipotent, then everything is possible and nothing is
impossible. If this is true however, things which are necessary (things which
cannot possibly not exist) are no longer so. This is impossible - therefore god
cannot be omnipotent.
Aquinas begins his rebuttals by defining what is encompassed by the
characteristic of divine omnipotence. He explains that god is able to all things
which are "possible absolutely", which he defines as all things which can be
logically expressed without the predicate being in conflict with the subject -
i.e. god is capable of all things which do not involve a contradiction in terms.
This does not imply any defect in the power of god, Aquinas goes on to say,
because impossible things by definition have "no aspect of possibility",
moreover, it is absurd to expect divine omnipotence to encompass the logically
(I) Aquinas answers the first objection as follows. He explains that
"...to sin is to fall short of perfect action; hence to be able to sin is to be
able to fall short in action..." which he attests is contrary to the meaning of
(ii) In answering the second objection Aquinas points out, "It is not
for one who is bound by the laws of a superior to forgive sins of his own free
choice", and adds that divine mercy is indeed gods greatest act, since this
mercy leads men into a participation with the infinite good.
(iii) Aquinas answers objection (iii) in accord with his explanation of
the meaning of god`s omnipotence (above) - God`s omnipotence does not alter the
fact that something is impossible, and therefore does not invalidate the concept
of logical necessity.
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