Category Archives: Covenantal Theology

Robert Holcot’s Obligational Theology: Re-Reading the Potentia Dei Absoluta

In his recent study (Moral Dilemmas in Medieval Thought: From Gratian to Aquinas), M. V. Dougherty considers the Odium Dei dilemma (i.e., could God establish that the odium Dei, or hatred of God, is meritorious for human salvation?). In his discussion of William of Ockham and Robert Holcot Dougherty makes the following claim:

Ockham’s followers…inherited the Odium Dei Dilemma. It could not escape their notice as it provided a key touchstone in illustrating the lengths to which one who subscribes to a wide notion of potentia absoluta could be required to go. If the present moral order is truly contingent in all respects, it could be replaced with an entirely different moral order. Some followers of Ockham, such as the English Dominican Robert Holcot (c. 1290-1349), accepted Ockham’s position in unmitigated form, arguing for the possibility that God could command odium Dei and that the agent’s fulfillment of that command would be meritorious (Dougherty, p. 166). [Nota bene: there is a footnote following this passage to L. Kennedy’s problematic work,The Philosophy of Robert Holcot: Fourteenth-Century Skeptic.]

What I want to argue briefly here is that this passage is problematic as an interpretation of Robert Holcot’s theology: in particular the claim that (for Holcot) the present moral order is “contingent in all respects.” In this passage Dougherty (evidently following L. Kennedy) argues for a strong voluntarist reading of the potentia absoluta, such that it implies the contingency of the moral order “in all respects.” However, this is simply not what Holcot argues. [Nota bene: I am also unsure what the sentence “…illustrating the lengths to which one who subscribes to a wide notion of potentia absoluta could be required to go” actually means. It is unclear what either a wide notion of the potentia absoluta would be, or what the alleged requirements would be.]

Holcot’s understanding of the absolute power of God and ordained power of God must be interpreted alongside his obligational theology and his emphasis on the covenant. First, regarding Holcot’s obligational theology, it is clear that for Holcot the rules of the obligational arts (obligationes) provide a complex analogy for how God interacts with humanity (see Gelber, It Could Have Been Otherwise, p. 173ff.). According to this analogy, God has ordained a particular moral order (or dispensation) but always has the right to change from one order to another. This analogy is used by Holcot to interpret the alleged contradictions between God’s law as presented in the Old Testament (e.g., Animal sacrifice is necessary as part of the forgiveness of sins) and the New Testament (e.g., Animal sacrifice is not necessary…). In fact, following the broader medieval tradition Holcot distinguishes between three ages: a time before God’s law / ante legem (i.e. a time ruled by the law of nature); (2) a time under the law / sub lege (i.e, the time from the Mosaic law until Christ); (3) and a time under grace / sub gratia (i.e, the time from Christ up through the present, also rendered post legem). Further, Holcot defends the claim that God could (and indeed might) usher in a new dispensation (which could change the parameters of the moral order, etc.). However, Holcot is clear that God never acts inordinately within a given order or dispensation and that He binds Himself to that order (in fact, Holcot argues that it would involve God in a contradiction to violate or change the rules of a given order). This is the covenantal aspect of Holcot’s theology; God has made a covenant with humanity in each dispensation and binds Himself to that given order.

Returning to the claim that according to Holcot the current moral order is “contingent in all respects”—it must be insisted that this is simply not the case. Holcot argues that the current moral order is ordained by God and that God will not act inordinately within a given order. Of course, following Ockham et al., he will also argue that God could (according to his absolute power) violate the current moral order. But, as F. Hoffmann, H. Gelber, H. Oberman, W. Courtenay, F. Oakley and others have convincingly demonstrated, that is a logical distinction between what God has ordained and what He could logically do (as Ockham insists in Quodlibet 6, q. 1, a. 1, this is purely a logical distinction: “this distinction should not be understood to mean that in God there are really two powers, one of which is ordained and the other of which is absolute. For with respect to things outside Himself there is in God a single power, which in every way is God Himself.”). It seems that a close reading of Ockham’s Quodlibet 6 should dispel the primarily voluntarist reading of the absolute power of God defended in the older literature (e.g. L. Kennedy).

By way of conclusion I want to insist that while I found Dougherty’s reading of Holcot (and Ockham) to be somewhat problematic, this should not be taken as a general critique of his book. In many ways I found his work useful and insightful (in particular his reading of Gratian, William of Auxerre, Raymond Lull, and Thomas Aquinas).