Obediential potency is a concept originally developed in the theology of miracles, now frequently used in the description of the natural order's relationship to the supernatural. In its broadest sense obediential potency means the openness of every creature to the Creator's power to effect in it something beyond the powers of ordinary natural causes; it is the very being of an existing creature as obedient, subject, or as some hold, positively ordered to God's power to act in it. Here the term itself is first examined, then its use regarding miracles and the supernatural.
Term. It derives from two traditions: the first, going back to Ambrose (Hex. 1.4.13, 3.1.1) and perhaps to Scripture (Mt 8.27) or Cicero (De leg. 3.1.3), spoke of nature's obedience to God in creation and miracles; the second, from Augustine (Gen. ad litt. 9.17.32), studied the possibility in the creature of its being miraculously changed (cf. Peter Lombard, 2 Sent. 18.6). These traditions united in the late 12th century to produce the concept of obediential potency (Landgraf 1.1:243, fn.26). The term first appeared in the 13th century as potency of obedience (potentia obedientiae ), e.g., in the Summa said to be Alexander of Hales's (1a2i:231, 469, 491; Quar. ed. 2:288, 632, 686), in Albert the Great (In 2 sent. 18.7; In 4 sent. 11.4 ad 1), Bonaventure (In 1 sent. 42.3 ad 1 neg.; In 1 sent. 42.4), and in Thomas Aquinas frequently (e.g., De ver. 29.3 ad 3). Obediential potency (potentia obedientialis ) occurred in Albert (st. thomas, Summa theologiae, 22.214.171.124.4 sed contra 1; cf. Gillon 304, fn. 3) and in Thomas (De virt. in com. 10 ad 13) and gradually became the usual form.
Miracles. If the laws of nature are fixed by God, how can He work a miracle without upsetting these laws and betraying a lack of wisdom? Theologians answer with the concept of obediential potency: although the creature has no positive capacity or exigency to be changed miraculously, its being is subject or obedient to what God wills to do in it beyond the activity of ordinary causes so long as no contradiction occurs. The creature is purely passive; God can do in it whatever is not repugnant to its nature. As author and governor of creatures, God includes in His providence the extraordinary interventions of His power. A miracle is thus possible. This doctrine, taught by Augustine, was formulated in terms of obediential potency by medieval theologians and has remained constant in theology.
The Supernatural. Since for Thomas Aquinas obediential potency implies pure passivity and total indetermination, he finds it inadequate to express the relationship to the supernatural of intellectual creatures; he holds instead that as image of god they have a capacity for or are apt for grace, are ordered or habilitated to grace, have a natural desire to see god, even though the supernatural transcends their nature. Although several medieval theologians did speak of the obediential potency of nature for the supernatural, it was Cajetan who most influenced the modern use of obediential potency for this relationship. Reacting to Scotus's doctrine of man's innate desire for the supernatural and seeking to maintain the gratuity of the supernatural, he said that of itself human nature has only an obediential potency for supernatural elevation in the sense that God's elevating it is possible since this is not repugnant to human nature (In St. Thomas, Summa theologiae, 126.96.36.199–12; 188.8.131.52–10). (see elevation of man.) His use here of obediential potency, connoting by its origin a passive non–repugnance to miraculous change, was soon imitated by many commentators professing to follow Aquinas; they were urged to this by the need to react against M. Baius's teaching of man's exigency of the supernatural. (see baius and baianism.) Modern followers of these commentators still retain this use of obediential potency. Some modify this position by distinguishing between the transcendental obediential potency of all things to God's intervention and the specific obediential potency to the supernatural that is proper to intellectual creatures, since they can know universal being and good.
Many theologians today oppose this school of thought. They argue that it gives a view of the supernatural as merely juxtaposed or extrinsic to nature, furthers secularism's tenet that man can find completion solely in the natural order, makes the supernatural seem adventitious. This reaction was influenced by M. blondel's and H. de Lubac's efforts to show the intimate connection and continuity between the intellectual creature and his supernatural destiny and vocation. (see immanence apologetics; destiny, supernatural.) Some, including those studying Aquinas by historical method, would eliminate the use of obediential potency from this area of discussion. Others, while rejecting the pure passivity of nature regarding the supernatural, still describe the relationship in terms of obediential potency but define this as the positive order or direction of nature to its fulfilment in the supernatural. Each seeks in his own way to maintain the Church's teaching that man's supernatural elevation surpasses the powers and exigencies of his nature (H. Denzinger, ibid., 1921, 3005, 3891; H. Denzinger, ibid., 2103).
Other particular uses of obediential potency include the obediential potency of the human intellect to infused knowledge, prophecy, etc.; of human nature for the hypostatic union; of things and words for sacramental signification and efficacy; of the whole universe to preternatural perfection under the headship of Christ.
See Also: anima naturaliter christiana; beatific vision; grace, articles on; man; miracles (theology of); supernatural existential; supernatural order.
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