What It Does Not Have, It Cannot Impart

what it does not have it cannot impart

Adding on to our last post summarizing a few scholastic concepts: Causality: Five Metaphysical Distinctions, this post briefly considers another important principle often used in Reformed Theology and gives a few examples of the principle in practice.

What it does not have, it cannot impart.

“The logic of causality also dictates that proximate or closely related causes produce only proximate or closely related effects. Ultimate ends can be appointed only by the first cause. This means that the realm of finite agents can produce only finite results or effects, whereas an infinite agent or cause, viz., God, is needed for the ordination of ends or goals beyond the finite order. In other words, no effect can be greater than its cause, and there must be a certain proportionality between all causes and their effects. This logic is neatly summed up in the maxim, Quod non habet, dare non potest (‘What it does not have, it cannot impart’).”

Richard Muller,  Dictionary of Latin and Greek Theological Terms, pg. 61.

Theological Examples.


An example of this principle is, for instance, that the water of baptism, or the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, do not have any power in themselves, rather, the grace they confer is dependent on the Spirit working through the Word of God in the faith of the recipient.

“The grace which is exhibited in or by the sacraments, rightly used, is not conferred by any power in them; neither doth the efficacy of a sacrament depend upon the piety or intention of him that doth administer it, (Rom 2:28-29; 1 Pet 3:21) but upon the work of the Spirit, (Mat 3:11; 1 Cor 12:13) and the word of institution, which contains, together with a precept authorizing the use thereof, a promise of benefit to worthy receivers (Mat 26:27-28).” WCF 27:3.

The efficacy of the sacraments cannot go beyond their final cause, which is to be “holy signs and seals of the covenant of grace” (WCF 27:1;  Gen 17:7, 10; Rom 4:11); they are means of grace, not the efficient cause of the imparting of grace. This is in stark contrast to the blasphemous and illogical Council of Trent 7.8, “If any one saith, that by the said sacraments of the New Law grace is not conferred through the act performed [ex opere operato], but that faith alone in the divine promise suffices for the obtaining of grace; let him be anathema.


In a similar fashion, the Church cannot impart authority to Scripture because the Church is founded on the Word of God. The Church can only recognize and receive that the Scriptures are the Word of God (1 Thes 2:13; 2 Tim 3:16; 2 Pet 1:19, 21; 1 John 5:9).

“It is one thing to recognize and proclaim the canon of Scripture; another to establish this canon and make it authoritative. The church cannot do the latter, which is solely the privilege of God, the author. It can do the former, because it is servant, not lord. As a goldsmith who separates dross from the gold, or who seeks gold in the ore, does indeed see the difference between the true and the false, but does not make the true either for himself or for us, so the church by her investigation separates the true canonical books from the noncanonical and apocryphal, but does not make them [canonical], nor could the decision of the church give authority to books which do not have it in themselves, but it proclaims the authority already present by means of arguments from the books themselves.”

Francis Turretin, Institutes of Elenctic Theology I.ii.6.20.

Creative Worship

“What it does not have, it cannot impart” applies in the Reformed understanding of worship as well. God forbids us from worshiping him “after our own heart and eyes,” because our fallen minds will cause us to go “a whoring;” true holiness is to worship God according to His commandments (Num. 15:39-40). Only the mind of God is able to guide us into holy worship, we are not able to do it ourselves. Man made holy days and ceremonies are an affront to the Head of the Church because man has no power or authority to sanctify days or to invent elements of worship “by art and man’s device” (Acts 17:29; cf. 1 Kings 12:33). Assigning spiritual significance to something Scripture doesn’t is the epitome of will worship (Col. 2:23), i.e. idolatry.

“What is idolatry, if this is not, to ascribe to rites of man’s devising, the power and virtue of doing that which none but He to whom all power in heaven and earth belongs can do?”

George Gillespie, A Dispute Against the English Popish Ceremonies, ch. 4.

Philosophy and Reason

Another example of this principle is the role of philosophy and reason in our understanding of the things of God. Philosophy and reason are necessary tools and are completely harmonious with theology, but they cannot be the rule of faith and life. The final cause of philosophy and reason must be kept in mind so that we can use it for its intended purpose, rather than giving it too high or too low a place in our theology.

“Reason cannot and ought not to bring forth any mysteries, as it were, out of its own storehouse; for this is the prerogative of scripture only. Also, that reason is not to be heard when complaining of its incapacity to comprehend the mysteries of faith: for, being finite, it is no wonder that reason should not comprehend many things that relate to what is infinite; and to reject a mystery because it is incomprehensible to reason, is to offend against reason itself. Neither is reason to be listened to whenever, under cover of holding the mysteries of faith, it aims at setting up its own errors. On the very same grounds we can not call philosophy any rule of faith, although we again concede that it is of no little use, provided it assume not to itself the power of dictating in articles of faith. True philosophy indeed serves very much both to convince men and to prepare their minds; and there is a wonderful harmony between sound philosophy and divinity: for truth is not contrary to truth, nor light to light; only we must not imagine that the former is the rule by which the sense of scripture must be tried and examined.”

Benedict Pictet, Christian Theology, pg. 54.

Liberty of Conscience

Lastly, this concept is present in the Establishmentarian opposition to the pluralistic misconception of liberty of conscience, that one can worship God however they see fit. John Brown of Haddington reasons in this way:

“It is absurd to suppose it, that God can give men a power which He has not Himself; and shocking blasphemy to suppose Him capable of giving men a right and authority to contemn or counteract his own law as their rule, or his own glory as their chief end, in everything they do (2 Tim. 2:13; Hab. 1:12, 13; Exod. 15:11; Deut. 32:4; Zeph. 3:5; James 1:13).
. . .
If magistracy, conscience, and human rights, natural and civil, be all derived from God, as all but Atheists must allow, magistrates can have no more power, authoritatively to tolerate sin, than God himself can command it. If God, by virtue of the infinite perfection of his nature, have no will, no power, authoritatively to proclaim liberty to commit sin, he cannot communicate any such power to the magistrate. Nor can the magistrate account to God for exceeding his power in licensing that which is infinitely injurious to him, more than the British king’s Lion-keeper hath power, or could be accountable for loosing and hunting out the lions in the Tower upon His Majesty. If conscience derive all its power from God, it can have no more power to enjoin any thing sinful, than Lord North hath to hire ruffians to assassinate his Sovereign. If all human rights be derived from God, the primary and supreme proprietor of all things, it is impossible they can authorize men to contrive or commit any thing sinful, or can protect them in it.”

The Absurdity and Perfidity of All Authoritative Toleration of Gross Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry, and Popery, pgs. 7 & 25.


Certainly more examples could be given, but these give us a good idea about how effects can’t be greater than their cause, and how this principle can be used to guard against logical errors in theology and practice.


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