St. Thomas on the Two Powers

Translated by Timothy Wilson

Dubbed the “Common Doctor” of the Church, St. Thomas Aquinas has constantly been upheld by the Church as a model and exemplar for theologians, both in his method and doctrine. The great work for which he is principally known, the Summa theologiæ, became in the centuries after him a standard textbook for theologians and was the subject of a great many Scholastic commentaries (including that of Cardinal Cajetan, a relevant excerpt of which has been translated on The Josias). The insuperable excellence of the Summa, however, has unfortunately obscured for many the excellence of his early Scriptum super Sententiis, his commentary upon the Liber sententiarum of Peter Lombard, which St. Thomas composed as part of the requirement for obtaining his masters in theology. Lombard’s text was the standard textbook used by theology students in high medieval universities, and hence a large portion of the great medieval works of theology are commentaries upon the Sentences. The Summa of St. Thomas, left unfinished at his death, was soon supplemented, through the labors of his disciples, with material from his Sentences commentary.

The text translated here today is taken from St. Thomas’s commentary on the forty-fourth and final distinction of Book II of the Sentences. Here the Lombard discusses the question of whether the power to sin (potentia peccandi) in man is from God, or rather from ourselves, or the devil; he answers that it is from God, and adduces many authorities to prove such. Then he considers the objection that, since it has just been proved that the devil’s power for evil (potestas mali) comes from God, it would seem that we ought not to resist the devil’s power, since according to the Apostle in Romans 13, he who resisteth the power, resisteth the ordinance of God. But he responds by clarifying that the Apostle speaks there of the secular power, and that it is the command of God that we obey no power in things that are evil.

St. Thomas’s commentary on the text of distinction 44 begins first with a divisio textus, in which he briefly divides into parts the text of the Lombard, followed by the main bulk of his own composition, in which he proposes questions and articles based upon the material in the text before him. Thus his first quæstio, on the potentia peccandi, divided into three articles; then comes his second quæstio, on obedience, which is divided into three articles as well. Finally there is the expositio textus, in which he comments directly upon the words of the Lombard in dist. 44, and which is the very last portion of his commentary on Book II. It is this expositio textus which we offer today.

St. Thomas, In II Sent., dist. 44, q. 2, a. 3, exp. text.

Exposition of the text.

After what has been said, there occurs a question worthy of consideration, etc. The reason for this order is, that a power is known through its act; wherefore it was necessary first to determine regarding the act of sin, before discussing the powerof sinning; although a power is naturally prior to act.

Whether the power of sinning is in us from God or from ourselves. It seems that he ought to have said ‘powers of sinning’, plurally, because sin takes place through the acts of many powers. But it should be said, that no power may elicit an act of sin, except insofar as it is the will or is moved by the will; and thus there is one power according to which sin is first of all present, namely the will, or free choice.

An evil will is not in us from God, but from ourselves and from the devil. This is true, if the will be taken for the act of the will; but not if it is taken for the power which is the principle of the act; and thus the similitude, through which they wish to draw a conclusion from the similarity of power, is null.

But it is shown indisputably by the many testimonies of the saints, that the power for evil is from God. It seems that the proof of the Master is not valid: for the authorities following speak not of the power of sinning, but of the power of prelation. But it should be said that in the power of prelation, which is an habitual power, there is also included the habitual power of sinning: because on account of the power of prelation, prelates are able to commit many sins, which they could not commit if they were not prelates.

By me kings reign, and by me tyrants hold the earth. What the difference is between a king and a tyrant, is clear from what has been said in the third article of the first question.

But it should be known, that the Apostle speaks there of the secular power. It seems that the solution of the Master is insufficient: because he shows above that even the power to harm which the devil has, is from God; and thus it seems that if one is to obey the power, because the power is from God, one must obey even the devil. But it should be said that without doubt, the authority of the Apostle is understood only of the power of prelation; this sort of power the devil does not have over men, except insofar as they enter, as it were, into a compact with him, consenting to him by sin, and are made his slaves. But this pact is unlawful; and thus from this there is not acquired a debt of obedience, but rather the pact is to be broken, Isaias 28, Your covenant with hell shall not stand. Wherefore it is not necessary that one obey every power which is from God, but that only which is instituted by God for the purpose that due obedience be given to it, and only the power of prelation is of this sort.

Disregard power, fearing greater powers. From this, it seems that one ought to obey a greater power rather than a lesser.

1. But this seems to be false, because in some things one obeys one more than another, and in some things less, as in some things one obeys one’s father more than the general of the army, and in some things the general of the army more than one’s father, as is said in 9 Ethic. Therefore it follows that the same is greater and lesser than the same.

2. Moreover, the power of an Archbishop is greater than the power of a Bishop. But in some cases the subjects are bound to obey their bishops more than Archbishops. Therefore it is not always the case that one must rather obey the greater power.

3. Moreover, the Abbots of monasteries are subjected to Bishops, unless they be exempt. Therefore the power of a Bishop is greater than the power of an Abbot. But a monk is bound to obey the Abbot more than the Bishop. Therefore one need not always obey the greater power.

4. Moreover, the spiritual power is greater than the secular power. If therefore the greater power is rather to be obeyed, a spiritual prelate will always be able to absolve from the precept of the secular power: which is false.

I respond that it should be said, that a superior and inferior power can be related in two ways. Either such that the inferior power springs entirely from the superior; and then the whole power of the inferior is founded upon the power of the superior; and then one must simply and in all things obey the superior power rather than the inferior; just as also in natural things, the first cause has greater influence upon the thing caused by the second cause than even the second cause itself, as is said in the beginning of the Liber de causis: and the power of God is thus related to every created power; thus also is the power of the Emperor related to the power of the proconsul; thus also is the power of the Pope related to every spiritual power in the Church: because by the Pope himself are the diverse degrees of dignities in the Church both appointed and ordained; whence his power is a certain kind of foundation of the Church, as is clear from Matthew 16. And thus in all things we are bound more to obey the Pope than the Bishops or Archbishops, or a monk his Abbot, without any distinction. Again, a superior and inferior power can be related such that both spring forth from one supreme power, which subjects the one to the other according as it wishes; and then one is not superior to the other except in these things in which the one is placed under the other by the supreme power; and in these only must one obey the superior rather than the inferior: and in this way are the powers both of the Bishop and of the Archbishop, which descend from the power of the Pope.

To the first, therefore, it should be said, that it is not unfitting that the father be superior in familial matters, and the general in the affairs of war; but simply speaking one ought rather to obey him who is superior in all things, namely God, and him who plenarily holds the place of God.

To the second it should be said, that in those things in which one ought rather to obey the Bishop than the Archbishop, the Archbishop is not superior to the Bishop, but only in the cases determined by law, in which one has recourse from the Bishop to the Archbishop.

To the third it should be said, that a monk is bound rather to obey his Abbot than the Bishop in those things which pertain to the statutes of the [monastic] rule; but in the things which pertain to Ecclesiastical discipline, he is bound rather to obey the Bishop: because in these latter the Abbot is placed under the Bishop.

To the fourth it should be said, that the spiritual and secular power are both derived from the divine power; and thus, the secular power is under the spiritual to the extent that the former is placed under the latter by God, namely, in the things which pertain to the salvation of the soul; and thus in these matters, one must obey the spiritual power rather than the secular. But in the things which pertain to the civil good, one should obey the secular power rather than the spiritual, as it is said in Matthew 22:21: Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s. Unless perhaps the secular power is also conjoined to the spiritual power, as it is in the Pope, who holds the summit of both powers, namely the spiritual and the secular, this being appointed by him who is Priest and King forever according to the order of Melchisedech, King of kings, and Lord of lords, whose power shall not be taken away, and whose kingdom shall not be corrupted for ever and ever. Amen.