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From The Modern Schoolman, 60, May 1983, 264-72.

“I believe that a careful reading of Part V of Process and Reality leaves no doubt that God’s perfection is independent of any given creaturely state of affairs, and that this is so obvious as to need no other justification except attention to the text itself.  God’s advancement or fulfillment is guaranteed by his own primordially perfect and transcendent nature.  He cannot, therefore, increase or advance in perfection.” 

See also Hallman’s “The Mistake of Thomas Aquinas and the Trinity of A. N. Whitehead” on this site.

Anthony Flood

July 6, 2009


The Necessity of the World in Thomas Aquinas and Alfred North Whitehead 

Joseph M. Hallman

College of Saint Thomas


Contemporary Thomists hold a variety of opinions about Whitehead’s metaphysical system. Some judgments are quite positive, at least implicitly.1  A negative evaluation, however, is given in an article by William Hill, and in one by John H. Wright.2  One of their main objections to Whitehead’s position is that for him, the world is necessary.

Hill believes that for Thomas, the world is freely created by God, and that as a result God is truly agapaic, that is, unselfish and purely loving.  Creation is an “act of transcendent freedom that has no motive other than love for what it calls into existence.”3  For Whitehead, however, the world is necessary to God because of his status as an actual entity, and specifically because of his consequent nature.  Whitehead’s conception of God is supposedly less Christian than that of Thomas because the “motive for God’s love for the world is God’s own advancement.”4

Hill visualizes Whitehead’s God as progressively appropriating the creatures of the world, and using them for his own growth.  “He makes values available for emerging entities not ultimately for their sakes but for his own; his luring forward of the world is, in the end, only a means to his own continuing actualization.”5  Since this selfish love belongs to Whitehead’s God, but not to the God of Thomas, their concepts of God “are conflicting and irreconcilable,” and a choice must be made between them.6 Whitehead’s understanding of God should be rejected and that of Thomas, upheld.

For Wright, Whitehead’s concept of God has “enormous difficulties” from a biblical and Christian viewpoint.  One of these is that “God is dependent on creation for consciousness, for development, and for fullfillment. . . . God acts out of need, and ultimately intends to acquire through creation the fulfillment of his own being.”7

Wright also believes that Whitehead’s conception of God undermines the economy of grace, since “the communication of aims by the divine primordial nature, does not mean love freely and consciously bestowed, but an unconscious act, free only in the sense of being ‘untrammeled by reference to any particular course of things.’’’8  This second objection is set against Whitehead’s view of the primordial nature of God as unconscious and unconcerned with particulars, while the first objects to his consequent nature as needing to prehend the actualities of the world.

It is important to note that neither Hill nor Wright objects to God’s consequent nature in Whitehead as such.  Hill writes that the consequent nature of God “does enable one to envisage God as lovingly involved with suffering mankind.”9  Wright as well as other contemporary Thomists attempts to uphold a dependency of God upon the world within the Thomistic system.  He argues that although the relation between God and creatures is only rational on God’s side, it is nevertheless a true relation, and we are even allowed to call it “real” as long as we do not minimize divine perfection.10  Walter Stokes made a somewhat different suggestion some years ago, that the relation between God and creatures is one of mutual opposition, such as those found in the Trinity, rather than the real-rational type which Thomas visualized.  Finally, W. Norris Clarke suggests that although God cannot change in his being or essence, he can change in the order of intention.11

All of these suggestions are the result of the fruitful dialogue between process theologians and Thomists.  Whether or not any of these Thomistic suggestions that God is really related to the world take root among Thomists depends upon whether they are coherent with divine immutability in Thomas’ sense.

What I propose to show here is that Thomas Aquinas and Alfred North Whitehead are closer to each other in their understanding of the necessity of creation than is obvious at first glance.  Although each holds his basic position for different reasons, I do not believe that they are drastically opposed.

First of all, it is important to notice what Thomas understands as the purpose of creation.  God wills that creatures exist as ordained to “Himself as the end . . . inasmuch as it befits the divine goodness, that other things should be partakers therein.”12  God is the principal object of his own will.13  He “wills and loves his own being in itself and for its own sake . . . .”14  This is his sole reason for willing the existence of other things, that is, for His own sake, not theirs.  In other words, God could have no other reason for creating except to order creatures to Himself as their final end.  He does not will that things exist because of their intrinsic worth, independent of his creating them, but because of his own worth, which is the ultimate source or theirs.  Thus God’s creation is unnecessary so far as he is concerned.

Since then the divine goodness can be without other things, and, indeed, is in no way increased by other things, it is under no necessity to will other things from the fact of willing its own goodness.15

R. Garrigou-Lagrange stresses this Thomistic doctrine by writing that God “necessarily delights in the divine goodness and maintains a predominating indifference with regard to everything created . . . .”16  When certain key passages in Thomas are examined, however, the divine attitude of “predominating indifference” becomes a questionable interpretation of Thomas’ doctrine.

One of the best treatments of necessity by Thomas is in the Summa Theologiae I.82.1, where he distinguishes between its various types.  Natural and absolute necessity mean “that which cannot not be.”  Absolute necessity is also defined as “dependence upon prior causes.”17  Such absolute necessity is either material, “as when we say that everything composed of contraries is corruptible;” or it is formal, “as when we say it is necessary for the three angles of a triangle to be equal to two right angles.” This natural and absolute necessity is also intrinsic.18

Extrinsic necessity, which is necessity because of some extrinsic cause, is secundum quid or relative necessity.19  It can be imposed by either the end in view (final cause) or by an agent (efficient cause).  Necessity which is imposed by an efficient cause Thomas calls necessitas coactionis or the necessity of coercion.

Necessity which is imposed by a final cause is called necessitas finis, but also necessity ex conditione, conditionata, ex supposition, or ex finis suppositione,21 and it is of two types, one being more strict than the other:22 one type is the strict necessity one thing has for another, so that it can achieve its intended goal, such as the necessity of food for the conservation of life.  This necessity is called the necessity of indigence or ad esse.  The second type is necessity of end which is less strict.  It is a condition imposed to achieve an en easily, such as the necessity of a horse for a journey.  This is called utility, or ad bene esse.22  These distinctions may be schematized as follows.










Absolute (Per se; intrinsic; natural)


Relative (ab Aliquo; extrinsic)








Efficient (Coercion)











Indigence (ad esse)

Utility (ad bene esse)

Now it is clear that for Thomas, God was under no absolute necessity to create, since absolute necessity is the dependence upon prior causes, and this is impossible for the first cause.  Intrinsic necessity is purposely ruled out as a reason for creation, since Thomas wants to distinguish his theory from emanationist and pantheistic explana-tions such as that of Plotinus.23 God’s “defined effects proceed from his infinite perfection by the resolution of his intelligence and will.”24

The extrinsic necessity of coercion is also ruled out, since it does not befit the first cause to be coerced.  But what about the necessitas finis, variously called ex conditione, or ex suppositione?  Is it likewise ruled out because of God’s independence from the world?  Could the world he necessary for God as food is necessary for life, or less strictly, as a horse is necessary as one way to make a journey?

Even though Thomas does not say this explicitly when he discusses the necessity of creation, he does go part of the way by holding that the world is necessary by an extrinsic necessity which he calls ex suppositione or ex conditione.  The most important text which makes this point is Summa Contra Gentiles I.82-83.  There Thomas strongly argues that God does necessarily will things other than himself.  He emphasizes the serious consequence which arises if God does not will creatures to be necessarily.  It seems inevitable that potentiality and mutability must arise in God if he wills creatures to exist in a contingent manner.  Either his will is contingent, mutable, and includes potentiality, or in some sense it is necessary.  Since it cannot include potentiality it must necessarily will creatures to be ex suppositione.25

Given the supposition that God wills or shall will something, it is impossible that he shall not will it or does not will it because his will is immutable.26

One example of this necessity is the running Socrates: “Given the supposition that he will run, it is impossible for him not to run.”  Whatever is, necessarily is, because God freely wills it to be so for all eternity, although he need not have so willed it to be.

Thomas also uses this type of necessity to explain divine providence which “possesses an unchangeable character not of absolute necessity, but of conditional necessity (conditionatae).” For example, “Si Deus praescivit hoc futurum, erit,”27 or “Si Deus hoc vult, necesse est hoc esse.”28

The necessity for God to will contingent effects apparently falls outside of the distinction Thomas usually makes between necessity of indigence or need (ad esse) and utility (also called ad bene esse). Thus:





















Of God willing what He wills, other than Himself. (?)

I suggest that Thomas would have better held that the necessity of creation, and that imposed by providence, is a case of the less strict necessity of utility, or ad bene esse.  This would mean that the creation of this world is necessary to God, as one of the ways he can be “well,” that is, as creator of the world with the ontological relation which creation implies.  His purpose in creating would he to achieve his own well being, that is, as a partner in dialogue, rather than to attain it in some other way.

Although Thomas would have had to discover a type of utility or well being for God which was the special and unique result of creation, but would not take away from divine perfection, this would have been more consistent than to leave one type of extrinsic necessity hanging, as be appears to have done.  One can only speculate as to why Thomas was less consistent here than he might have been.  One obvious possibility is that complete adherence to his necessity scheme might have seemed to compromise the doctrine of God’s independence from the world.  Another possibility is that his thinking here is simply unfinished.  In any case if Thomas had adhered to his own necessity scheme in this case, God would certainly not appear to have a “predominating indifference” toward creation.


Hypothetical Necessity

Necessity ex suppositione has been commonly interpreted as hypothetical necessity.  Thus the Blackfriars edition of the Summa Theologiae translates I.19.3 as follows:

However, there is an hypothetical necessity here, for on the suppposition that he does will a thing it cannot be unwilled, since his will is immutable.29

The Latin text, however, does not suggest the term “hypothetical” at all:

Et tamen necessarium est ex suppositione.  Suppositio enim quod velit, non potest non velle, quia non potest voluntas ejus mutari.

R. Garrigou-Lagrange also uses hypothetical for the necessity of supposition, as does Etienne Gilson, and the Lexicon of Deferrari and Barry.30  It is clear that the necessity of supposition is not hypothetical when used to describe the relationship between God’s will and the existence of creatures.  There is real necessity that things exist, given the fact that they do, not the hypothesis that they might.  There is no obvious reason for understanding necessity ex suppositione as hypothetical.  It is certainly more reasonable to say with Thomas that, given the immutability of the divine will, the world necessarily exists by an extrinsic type of necessity.  This need not undermine the divine freedom as long as one does not place God under any absolute/internal/natural necessity with regard to creation.31


Necessity Creation in Whitehead

If one considers only the primordial nature of God in Whitehead, it is correct to say that God does create freely.  The eternal ordering or valuation of eternal objects is primordial and without necessity of any kind.  “His unity of conceptual operation is a free creative act, untrammeled by reference to any particular course of things.”32  This side of God’s nature is “free, complete, primordial, eternal, actually deficient, and unconscious.”33 God establishes a primordial order among the eternal objects which could have been otherwise.  Here Whitehead is similar to Thomas in that.  God is under no internal necessity, at least in his primordial nature.34  But what about the aspect of God which is consequent upon the world?

The main problem casual interpreters of Whitehead have with this question springs from an unfortunate tendency Whitehead himself had to discuss the divine natures as if they were separable, while in fact never believing that they were.35  Thus although he says that the primordial nature is unconscious and deficient in actuality while the consequent nature is conscious and fully actual, the two natures are distinct only by a “distinction of reason.” God as “a primordial actuality” which has “neither fullness of feeling, nor consciousness” is an “abstraction,”36

As an actual entity, God weaves together his conceptual feelings (of eternal objects) with his physical feelings (of the world).  The truth and the profound significance of this unification of conceptual and physical feelings is clearly expressed in Process and Reality, V.II.IV.  Every actuality is prehended by God, not only for what it is, but for what it becomes in such a perfected system:

. . . its sufferings, its sorrows, its failures, its triumphs, its immediacies of joy—woven by rightness of feeling into the harmony of the universal feeling, which is always immediate, always many, always one, always with novel advance, moving onward and never perishing.37

According to Whitehead, everything in the world is “saved by its relation to the completed whole,” that is, by God’s ability to unify primordial and consequent prehensions.   Does God, then, truly need the world to be God?   The answer is, yes, but no.   He needs a world to be God, but no particular world.  Because of the unity of his two natures, whatever imperfections are prehended are perfected by harmonizing physical with conceptual feelings.  God needs no particular state of affairs, and is perfectly satisfied with any.  For Whitehead, God does not selfishly seek his own fulfillment as an actual entity, since under any and all conditions of the world, he is perfectly fulfilled.  He needs no given world to be perfect, since his perfection is not a dependent one.  Unlike God in Thomas, however, his perfection is interdependent because of his constant commerce with the imperfect world.

My interpretation of Whitehead here is, I believe, both obvious and correct in spite of certain texts in Process and Reality which might suggest otherwise.  It is also upheld by one of the leading interpreters of Whitehead, William Christian.38  

It might well seem doubtful [he writes] whether the world affects God so radically as God affects the world, and whether God requires the world so crucially as the world requires God.  Hence it might seem less true to say that the world created God than that God creates the world.39  

I believe that a careful reading of Part V of Process and Reality leaves no doubt that God’s perfection is independent of any given creaturely state of affairs, and that this is so obvious as to need no other justification except attention to the text itself.  God’s advancement or fulfillment is guaranteed by his own primordially perfect and transcendent nature.  He cannot, therefore, increase or advance in perfection.

The unity of God also explains how his love is able to transform the world.  After being prehended and completed in him, the “perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world . . . . For the kingdom of heaven is with us today. . . . What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality of heaven passes back into the world.”40  God is continually perfecting and improving the world, based upon his perfect conceptual vision of how things ought to be.

The motive for God’s love of the world is his own primordial goodness and not his temporal advancement. The significance of God’s transforming activity, although only briefly treated by Whitehead, should be noted in any comparison or contrast between Thomas’ and Whitehead’s views of God: There is no equivalent way in Thomas for God to make the world better, to actively work to overcome its conflicts, resolve its dilemmas, lighten its burdens.  God for Thomas simply is.  He cannot be the “fellow sufferer who understands” or the “great companion,” since he is incapable of receiving the imperfect being of the world into himself.  In Whitehead God not only receives the imperfect world, but perfects it in himself, and effectively attempts to improve it by passing the transformed entity back to others.

Does God need the world to be God?  According to Thomas, not by intrinsic or absolute necessity.  But given the fact that the world is, it is by extrinsic necessity.  In other words, practically speaking, the world necessarily exists, although theoretically, the being of God could have existed perfectly without it.  Whitehead never discussed the theoretical question as to what God’s intrinsic being would have been like without creatures, so there is no comparison possible between the two on this point.  Perhaps a Whiteheadian understanding of God’s intrinsic perfection, independent of any world, could be contrived.  In any case, for Whitehead, God’s perfection and goodness are not dependent upon any given world and are therefore truly independent.  And if Thomas had argued that the world was necessary as one way for God to achieve his own well being, the two would have been closer than they are.41



1 The earliest articles showing positive responses to Whitehead were written by the late Walter E. Stokes.  See his “A Whiteheadian Reflection on God’s Relation to the World,” in E. Cousins (ed.), Process Theology (New York: Newman Press, 1971), pp. 137-52.  See also the other articles listed on p. 152.

2 William Hill, “Two Gods of Love: Aquinas and Whitehead,” Listening 13/3 (Fall, 1979), pp. 249-64; John H. Wright, “The Method of Process Theology: An Evaluation,” Communio, VI/1 (Spring, 1979), pp. 38-55.

3 W. Hill, p. 259.

4 W. Hill, p. 259.

5 W. Hill, p. 259.

6 W. Hill, p. 261.  The other major objection by Hill and Wright has to do with the relationship of God to creativity in Whitehead’s system.  I shall not deal with this objection here since others have debated the point extensively.   Most recently see Robert C. Neville, Creativity and God (New York: Seabury, 1980) and the responses by Charles Hartshorne, Lewis Ford, and John B. Cobb, Jr., in Process Studies, Vol. 10 (Number 3-4), pp. 93-109.  From the Thomist side, see especially W. Norris Clarke, A Philosophical Approach to God (Winston-Salem, North Carolina: Wake Forest University, 1979), Chapter III.

7 J. Wright, p. 51.

8  J. Wright, pp. 51-52.

9  W. Hill, p, 259.

10 John H. Wright, “Divine Knowledge and Human Freedom: The God Who Dialogues,” Theological Studies, 38/3 {September, 1977), pp. 450·77.

11 Walter E. Stoke,’;, “God for Today and Tomorrow” in Process Philosophy and Christian Thought, ed. Drown, James, and Reeves (Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merril, 1971), pp. 244-63; W. Norris Clarke, “A New Look at the Immutability of God” in God’ Knowable and Unknowable, ed. Robert J. Roth (New York; Fordham University Press, 1973), pp. 43-72; see the response by Lewis Ford, “The Immutable God and Father Clarke,” The New Scholasticism, 49/2 (Spring, 1975), Pp. 189-99; also Clarke’s even more radical position in A Philosophical Approach, pp. 90-103.

12 Summa Theol., 1. 19. 2.

13 Summa Contra Gen., 1. 74.

14 Summa Contra Gen., 1. 75. 4.

15 Summa Contra Gen., 1. 81. 2.

16 R. Garrigou-LaGrange, God: His Existence and Nature (St. Louis; B. Herder, 1935), Vol. 2, p. 101.

17 2 Phys. 15.

18 In the Summa Theol., 3.4.2, material and formal necessity presuppose a principium instrinsicum; in 5 Metaphys. 6, absolute necessity belongs to a thing intimately and proximately.

19 5 Metaphys., p. 6.

20 2 Phys. 15; De Veritate, 17 3. It is possible from 1 Sent., 2.1.4 ad 3 that necessity ex suppositione and ex conditione is a more general category of extrinsic necessity, of which necessitas finis is a particular instance.  I do not believe that this affects my argument however.

21 2 Sent., 29. 1. 1.

22 Cf. 1 Sent., 6.1.1 where the first is called necessity ad esse, and the second, necessity ad bene esse.  Also Summa Theol., 3.65.4; Quodl., 4.12.2 ad 3.

23 R. Garrigou-Lagrange, The One God (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1943) p. 490.

24 Summa Theol.,1. 19.4; also Summa Contra Gen., 2.3; 23, 26, 30; De Potentia, Q. 3, a. 15.

25 2 Phys. 15 states that necessity ex suppositione or ex conditione is from that which is posterior in existence.  For example, “necesse est hoc esse, si hoc debeat fieri.”  This type of necessity is necessity ex fine.  In Periherm., 19 a 27, Thomas distinguishes only two types of necessity, absolute and ex suppositione.  The first is defined as “impossible not to be” and the second means “every being when it is, necessarily is.”  In De Potentia, Q. 3, a. 15, obj. 11, he distinguishes three types of necessity, absolute, coercive, and suppositional.  Curiously, in responding to the objection, Thomas does not defend the concept of a creation which is necessary ex suppositione as one would expect from his other discussions, but appears instead to sidestep the objection.

26 De Verit., 23.4; also Summa Theol., 1. 19.3; Summa Contra Gen., 2,25.

27 Summa Theol., 1. 116. 3.

28 Summa Theol., 1.19.8 ad 1; cf. 21.3 ad 3.

29 Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1964), Vol. 5, p. 15.

30 R. Garrigou-Lagrange. The One God, 511; E. Gilson says “purely hypothetical” when discussing Summa Contra Gen., 83.  The Christian Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (New York: Random House, 1956), p. 117; also in The Philosophy of St. Thomas Aquinas (St. Louis: B. Herder, 1924), p. 102; R. Deferrari, M. Barry, I. McGuinness, A Lexicon of St. Thomas Aquinas (Washington, D.C.: Catholic University Press, 1948), p. 728.

31 The concept of free eternal creation is problematic however.  R. Garrigou-Lagrange sees it clearly: “The difficulty is that God either could or could not have been without his free act, for instance, the creative act.  If he could, then how is He immutable?  He is at least from eternity, otherwise than He could have been.  If He could not, then how is He free?,” The One God, p. 514.

32 A. N. Whitehead, Process and Reality, Corrected Edition (New York: The Free Press, 1978), p. 344.

33 A. N. Whitehead, 345.

34 Whiteheadians have suggested several ways to uphold the divine freedom.  See Schubert Ogden, “What Sense Does it Make to Say ‘God Acts in History’?,” in The Reality of God and Other Essays (New York: Harper and Row, 1963), pp. 164-87; Daniel Day Williams, “How Does God Act?  An Essay in Whitehead’s Metaphysics,” in Process and Divinity, ed. William Reese and Eugene Freeman (LaSalle, Ill.: Open Court, 1964), p. 161f.; Delwin Brown, “Freedom and Faithfulness in Whitehead’s God,” Process Studies 2/2 (Summer, 1972), pp. 137-48; an expanded view of divine freedom is given by James W. Felt, The Temporality of Divine Freedom,” Process Studies 4/4 (Winter, 1974), p. 253 f.

35 John B. Cobb, Jr., A Christian Natural Theology (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1965), p. 178f.

36 A. N. Whitehead, p. 344 .

37 A. N. Whitehead, p. 346.

38 William A. Christian, An Interpretation of Whitehead’s Metaphysics (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1959), Pl’. 356-60.

39 W. Christian, p. 363.

40 A. N. Whitehead, p. 351.

41 The most important difference between the two views lies, of course, in the consequent nature of God in Whitehead.  Various suggestions have been made to modify Thomas here.  Besides my references above, see also the articles cited by W. Norris Clarke in A Philosophical Approach, 108, note 40.

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