Wesley Center Online

A Modal Argument for the Existence of God in the Tradition of Anselm


The Necessarily Existent

J. Prescott Johnson

(For a French translation by Natalie Harmann,
see http://www.besteonderdelen.nl/blog/?p=947)

(For a Latvian translation by Evelína Koprziwová, see

(For a Polish translation by Nadia Karbowska, see

(For a Romanian translation by Irina Vasilescu, see


      In our finite world of earth the events, including human individuals, exist but contingently.  Their temporal existence subsists in the matrix of relations with each other.  They are defined and qualified by those relations.  And they appear for a time and then their place knows them no longer. 

      In distinction to plurality, the necessarily existent is absolutely singular and unique.  Its self-giveness is eternal.  As absolute it sustains no relations with any other.  It exists in abstraction.  The English-American philosopher Albert North Whitehead calls this “the primordial nature” of God:

God’s ‘Primordial nature’ is abstracted from his commerce with ‘particulars,’ and is therefore devoid of those ‘impure’ intellectual cogitations which involve propositions (cf. Part III).  It is God in abstraction, alone with himself.  As such it is a mere factor in God, deficient in actuality.1

       Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) regarded God in terms only of God’s primordial nature.  Here Anselm held to an Aristotelian concept of God.  God neither knows nor loves nor cares for human beings.  God is preoccupied only with himself.  He is but “the thought of thought.”

      At this point Anselm faced an insolvable problem, created by his Aristotelian view of God.  God does not experience compassion for us, but nevertheless we experience the feeling of compassion:

But how art thou compassionate, and, at the same time, passionless?  For if thou art passionless, thou dost not feel sympathy; and if thou dost not feel sympathy, thy heart is not wretched from sympathy for the wretched; but this it is to be compassionate.  But if thou art not compassionate, whence cometh so great consolation to the wretched?  How, then, art thou compassionate and not compassionate, O Lord, unless because thou art compassionate in terms of our experience, and not compassionate in terms of thy being.

Truly, thou art so in terms of our experience, but thou art not so in terms of thine own.  For, when thou beholdest us in our wretchedness, we experience the effect of compassion, but thou dost not experience the feeling.  Therefore, thou art both compassionate, because thou dost save the save the wretched, and spare those who sin against thee; and not compassionate, because thou art affected by no sympathy for wretchedness.2

      This quandary cannot be resolved, if the whole of God’s nature is his primordial nature.  Anselm’s difficulty will still remain.


      In God there is a process by which the actualities of the world are comprehended in God’s primordial nature.  There are two phases of the process: 1) the actualities of the world are represented in the divine nature, and 2) this involves no derogation of God’s primordial nature.  This representation composes the consequent nature of God.  In this regard, Whitehead states:

The truth itself is nothing else than how the composite natures of the organic actualities of the world obtain adequate representation in the divine nature.  Such representations compose the ‘consequent nature’ of God, which evolves in its relationship to the evolving world without derogation to the eternal completion of its primordial conceptual nature.  In this way the ‘ontological principle’ is maintained——since there can be no determinate truth, correlating impartially the partial experiences of many actualities, apart from one actuality to which it can be referred.  The reaction of the temporal world on the nature of God . . . is . . . ‘the consequent nature of God.’3

      Later in the work, Whitehead amplifies this thought:

The ‘consequent nature’ of God is the physical prehension by God of the evolving universe.  This primordial nature directs such perspectives of objectification that each novel actuality in the temporal world contributes such elements as it can to a realization in God free from the inhibitions of intensity by reason of discordance.4

       Thus God is not a self-contained static Absolute.  He is the “living God.”  He receives the events of world process into his own life.  And this means that God, while yet Primordial, undergoes change.  He evolves in companionship with his evolving world.

       Now, those of us who by tradition have regarded God as completion may have some difficulty believing that God changes.  But here the language of the Bible is helpful.  Jesus’ parable of the lost sheep supports the view here advanced.  The owner of the lost sheep calls his friends to rejoice together in the return of the lost sheep.  Jesus says, “. . . likewise joy shall be in heaven over one sinner that repenteth. . . .”5

       Now if there is joy in heaven, that means that something has changed in heaven. 

A new element, i.e. joy, has, in regard to this instance, replaced sorrow.  Unless there is development and change in God’s experience, he cannot be our “fellow-sufferer.”

O! he gives to us his joy,

That our grief he may destroy;

Till our grief is fled and gone

He doth sit by us and moan.6

       Charles Hartshorne writes:

The problem is solved if the general welfare of men (as at a given moment) is, as a whole, effectively enjoyed by a single subject in a single satisfying experience.  Such a subject could not be less than divine.  But the divine is posited as beneficiary or recipient of created values.  Granted this view, a man’s ultimate purpose can at last be intelligently stated.  Old phrases can be used, but with a new singleness of meaning.  The purpose is to serve and glorify God, that is, literally to contribute some value to the divine life which it otherwise would not have. . . . But all these values, including the joy of serving them, would be viewed as contributory to one achievement, the enrichment of the divine life.7

      Søren Kierkegaard has stated the maxim: “Purity of Heart is to Will One Thing.”  Here we may say, in accordance with the instant discussion, that the “One Thing” is the enrichment of the divine life.”  Serving God finally means, then, the enrichment of his life by contributing values to that life.

Eternally speaking, there is only one means and there is only one end: the means and the end are precisely the same thing.  There is only one end: the genuine Good; and only one means: this, to be willing only to use those means which genuinely are good——but the genuine Good is precisely the end.8

       Here we must consider a problem concerning the ultimate destiny of values.  Not all values can be saved:

The consequent nature of God is his judgment on the world.  He saves the world as it passes into the immediacy of his own life.  It is the judgment of a tenderness which loses nothing that can be saved.  It is also the judgment of a wisdom which uses what in the temporal world is mere wreckage.9

      It appears, then, that some of the values achieved by persons cannot be preserved and saved.  Why is this the case?  Some values, while significant individually, do not satisfactorily harmonize with the organic character of value-structure, and thus for this reason cannot be saved.  Values cannot be gathered into the divine life if they lack the requisite character of harmony.


      The nature of God involves not only abstraction and relativity.  There is also his superjective nature.  Whitehead defines this nature:

The ‘superjective’ nature of God is the character of the pragmatic value of his specific satisfaction qualifying the transcendent creativity in the various temporal instances.10

       In terms of that which may be easier to grasp, this statement means that God’s nature becomes determined by the quality of those values which, in our work for God’s glory, enter, by means of our effort, into his nature.  From our point of view, we are the agents in the constitution of the divine nature.  It is essential that we grasp the full importance of this process.  When we carry out our spiritual work, we not only fulfill the will of God; more significantly, we contribute to the harmony of the satisfactions in the life of God.

       That we thus contribute to Gods own nature lends even greater significance to our life and activity.

       We conclude with this passage:

For the perfected actuality passes back into the temporal world, and qualifies this world so that each temporal actuality includes it as an immediate fact of relevant experience.  For the kingdom of heaven is with us today.  The action of the fourth phase is the love of God for the world.  It is the particular for particular occasions.  What is done in the world is transformed into a reality in heaven, and the reality in heaven passes back into the world.  By reason of this reciprocal relation, the love in the world passes into the love in heaven, and floods back again into the world.  In this sense, God is the great companion——the fellow-sufferer who understands.

We find here the final application of the doctrine of objective immortality.  Throughout the perishing occasions in the life of each temporal Creature, the inward source of distaste or of refreshment, the judge arising out of the very nature of things, redeemer or goddess of mischief, is the transformation of Itself, everlasting in the Being of God.  In this way, the insistent craving is justified——the insistent craving that zest for existence be refreshed by the ever-present, unfading importance for our immediate actions, which perish but yet live for evermore.11

1Alford North Whitehead, Process and Reality, (New York, 1929), p. 50.

2St. Anselm, Proslogium, tr. Sidney Norton Deane (La Salle, IL, 1951), pp. 13-14.

3Whitehead, Ibid., pp. 18-19.

4Ibid., pp. 134-35.

5Matt. 15:7.

6William Blake, in Songs of Innocence.

7Charles Hartshorne, The Divine Relativity (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1948), p. 133.

8Søren Kierkegaard, Purity of Heart, tr. Douglas V. Steere (New York: Harper & Brothers), p. 202.

9Whitehead, Ibid., p. 525.

10Ibid., p. 135.

11Ibid., p. 533.