Alexander of Hales on Panentheism


Panentheism is among the most influential variations on classical theism found within nineteenth and twentieth century theology, a prominent perspective in the recent religion and science dialogue (especially in the literature on quantum physics and special divine action), and is increasing in prominence within analytic philosophy of religion. Existing works on the history of panentheism understandably focus primarily on proponents of the view (in its different versions) and their arguments in its favor. Less attention has been given to the history of arguments against it, and in particular little has been written on mediaeval Scholastic critiques. Here, I summarize the criticisms leveled by an important (but understudied) thirteenth-century Franciscan, Alexander of Hales. I also assess the enduring value of his critique, arguing that it helps bring to the fore the importance of panentheism’s link with a further metaphysical debate: that between spacetime relationism versus substantivalism.

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  1. 1.

    The attempt to settle on a single, clear definition has been the focus of some of the recent literature on panentheism within analytic philosophy of religion (see for instance, Gocke 2013 and Mullins 2016). Lataster (2014, 2015) has questioned the utility of attempting to settle on a single formulation. For related discussions of the definitional issue within the religion and science literature, see for instance Peterson (2001) and Gregersen (2004).

  2. 2.

    Though some combinations arguably cohere better with others, and some appear to stand in relations of implication (e.g., voluntary panentheism would seem to imply personal rather than nonpersonal panentheism).

  3. 3.

    See for instance the anthology edited by Clayton and Peacocke (2004).

  4. 4.

    See for instance the entries on panentheism in the anthology edited by Buckareff and Nagasawa (2016).

  5. 5.

    These biographical and textual details are drawn from Cullen (2003).

  6. 6.

    My own translation. The original French reads: ‘En dépit de son action fondatrice dans l’histoire de l’université de Paris comme dans la naissance d’un courant théologique franciscain, Alexandre de Halès (m. 1245) n’avait fait l’objet que d’études nombreuses morcelées….En outre, les ignorances et doutes sur sa biographie, la caractere inédit d’une partie de son oeuvre, enfin les délicates questions d’attribution que pose le Summa obscuricissaient notre comprehension d’une figure pourtant majeure dans l’histoire des idées et des méthodes intellectuelles.’

  7. 7.

    Note that Schumacher’s article is also concerned with panentheism, developing an argument to the effect that the notion of divine immensity/infinity deployed by Hales can provide the conceptual grounds for addressing objections some panentheists have leveled against classical theism. However, she is dealing with a wholly different set of texts, and our arguments do not overlap.

  8. 8.

    Aquinas for instance discusses versions of panentheism in the course of arguing for the absolute simplicity of God. In this case, the argument is that God cannot enter into composition with any finite thing as formal or material cause. Thus, he writes in his Summa Theologica Ia, q. 3, art. 8, resp.: ‘On this there have been three errors. Some have affirmed that God is the world-soul, as is clear from Augustine (De Civ. Dei vii, 6). This is practically the same as the opinion of those who assert that God is the soul of the highest heaven. Again, others have said that God is the formal principle of all things; and this was the theory of the Almaricians. The third error is that of David of Dinant, who most absurdly taught that God was primary matter. Now all these contain manifest untruth; since it is not possible for God to enter into the composition of anything, either as a formal or a material principle.’

  9. 9.

    Aquinas does also discuss a version of panentheism in his Christology, asking, like his predecessor Hales, whether God could have become incarnate in the physical cosmos. See his Commentary on the Sentences, bk 3, d. 2, q. 1, art. 1, qc. 3 (Thomas Aquinas n.d.), and also the Summa Theologica IIIa, q. 4, ad. 4 (Thomas Aquinas 1920)

  10. 10.

    Peterson (2001, p. 403), while not endorsing such a model, notes that Christology can inform contemporary panentheistic discussions of the God/universe relationship: ‘Yet the analogy is striking, not least because the arguments put forth by panentheists and their critics parallel in nontrivial ways the issues behind the Trinitarian and Christological controversies that followed the accession of Constantine in the fourth century C.E. In both cases the primary issue was the relationship not of God and world but of God the Father and Christ. But because Christ became embodied in Jesus, the debate did indirectly involve an understanding of the God-world relationship as well. As modern panentheists struggle with the relationship of identity and non-identity implied by the claim that God is in the world, the early church struggled with the identity and nonidentity of Christ and God….a further determination had to be made of how Jesus could be both God and human….in a real sense, panentheists carry on this unfinished task. In this light, it is unsurprising that Peacocke’s elucidation of panentheism and divine action ends up significantly informing his understanding of Christology (Peacocke 1993, 290-311), which is true to a lesser extent of McFague (1993) as well.’ Cooper (2006, p. 159) notes that Teilhard de Chardin entertains a kind of gradual, incarnational panentheism, summarizing his position as follows: ‘The incarnation of Christ animates cosmic evolution from the beginning….The conception of the human individual, Jesus, in Mary’s womb is the highest concentration of a process that has gone on from the beginning….God in Christ is not only reconciling the world to himself but literally incorporating himself into it. Christ is the divine soul of the world, and the world is his body.’ Leonardo Boff is even more explicit, maintaining that the Holy Spirit is incarnate in the physical cosmos just as Christ is incarnate in the human Jesus of Nazareth. Cooper summarizes (2006, p. 290): ‘Although Boff affirms Teilhard’s Cosmic Christ, he follows Moltmann in emphasizing the immanence of the Spirit….(C)reation is the Spirit’s body, and the Spirit is incarnate in it. “The Spirit dwells in creation in the same way as the Son, who is incarnate in the humanity of Jesus.’” The quote is from Boff (1995, p. 49).

  11. 11.

    All translations from Hales are my own. The original Latin of the membrum heading and two chapter headings is as follows: ‘De convenientia unibilitatis ex parte humanae naturae’; ‘De unibilitate per comparationem ad naturam angelicam’; and ‘De unibilitate per comparationem de universum.’

  12. 12.

    ‘Postea quaeritur de unibilitate humanae naturae ad divinam per comparationem ad creaturam sicut ad univesrum, et quaeritur utrum unibilior sit natura universi Deo quam humana vel minus.’

  13. 13.

    Personally, I would prefer to use ‘humanity’ here or some other more gender-neutral term, but I am working off a mediaeval Latin text and ‘man’ is a more accurate rendering of ‘homo’ than is ‘humanity.’

  14. 14.

    That is a rough summary rather than a translation. The Latin reads: ‘Effectus universalis magis assimilatur causae universali quam effectus particularis; sed Deus est causa universalis, universum vero effectus universalis est, et homo effectus particularis; ergo magis assimilatur universum Deo quam homo; sed maiorem assimilationem sequitur maior unibilitas; ergo universum magis est. unibile Deo quam homo.’ Note that my reading of ‘assimilatur’ in terms of ‘likeness’ or ‘similarity’ is perhaps disputable; as the editors of the critical edition of the Summa suggest in a footnote here, the proposition embodied in the first sentence is being adopted from the Liber de Causis. This was a Neo-Platonic work derived originally from Proclus’ Elements of Theology, but in the Latin west of this era widely attributed to Aristotle. Now, I take it that in Proclus’ system the notion of ‘assimilation’ at work in this idea involves more than just similarity. However, so far as I am aware, those wider connotations were not carried over into the mainstream Scholastic readings of this text in this period, whether by Hales or others. Based on context and on how the term is actually put to use here, it seems to me that an interpretation in terms of ‘similarity’ is most plausible philosophically (as well as being a permissible literal rendering of the Latin).

  15. 15.

    Again, a rough summary focused on the main line of reasoning. The Latin reads: ‘Item, ad idem: Triplex est. mundus, scilicet archetypus, de quo dicit Boethius: “Pulcrum pulcherrimus ipse Mundum mente gerens,” et iste est mundus intelligibilis; item, est mundus sensilis vel sensibilis, et iste est duplex, scilicet maior et minor: maior est universum, minor est ipse homo. Et dicitur universum continentia rerum corporalium et spiritualium, minor vero est homo; et ideo dicitur homo omnis creatura, quia homo habet convenientiam cum omni creatura. Sed minor mundus magis elongatur a mundo archetypo et minus accedit ad ipsum quam maior mundus, cum dicatur diminutive respectu maioris mundi. Ergo maior mundus, qui dicitur universum, immediatius se habet ad mundum archetypum quam mundus minor, qui dicitur homo; ergo unibilior est mundus universalior cum ipso Deo sive mundo archetypo, quod idem est, quam minor mundus, qui est homo.’ The quote from Boethius is from the Consolation of Philosophy book 3, verse 9.

  16. 16.

    That is a translation of the following: ‘Item, bonum perficitur bonitate; ergo bonum particulare particulari bonitate et bonum universale universali bonitate; ergo, cum homo sit bonum particulare, perficitur particulari bonitate, et cum universum sit bonum universale….ergo universum perficitur bonitate universali. Sed summa bonitas est bonitas universalis; ergo magis competit quod uniatur summa bonitas, quae Deus est, universo et universum cum illa quam homo.’

  17. 17.

    The Latin reads: ‘Magis assimilatur effectus universalis unitus causae universali, quae est unitas, quam effectus universalis multiplicatus; si ergo homo est effectus universalis et unitus — omnes enim naturae uniuntur in homine — rerum vero universitas est effectus universalis multiplicatus sive non unitus, causa vero universalis, quae est Deus, est unitas; ergo magis accedit ad illam homo quam universum; ergo magis est unibilis illi.’

  18. 18.

    That is a rough summary of the following: ‘Item, rei, quae est simplex et una natura magis assimilatur quod est compositum et una natura quam quod est compositum et plures naturae, propter duplicem oppositionem; sed universum dicit compositum et plures naturas, homo vero compositum et in unam naturam, quae est humana quia natura corporalis et spiritualis in homine reducuntur in unitatem tertiae naturae; ergo Deo magis assimilatur homo quam universum; ergo ei est unibilior.’

  19. 19.

    Another rough summary, with the original reading as follows: ‘Item, mundus factus est propter hominem, secundum quod dicit Origenes, et homo propter Deum; si ergo rerum universitas ad hominem ordinatur et per hominem ad Deum, immediatius et propinquius se habet homo ad Deum quam universum; ergo etc.’ The editors of the modern critical edition of the Summa footnote the reference to Origen as being a nod to his Commentary on Genesis, book 1, number 12.

  20. 20.

    The Latin reads: ‘Concedendum est quod universum non est unibile Deo, sed homo, quia effectui multiplicato non debet uniri unitas causae simplicissimae, nisi reducatur in unitatem naturae.’

  21. 21.

    Koterski (2009, p. 153) writes that ‘medieval thinkers tend to be heavily reliant upon the Timaeus of Plato for their understanding of the structures of the created world. Yet, many of them judge one of the central aspects of Plato’s teaching to be completely unacceptable in this regard: the notion of a world-soul that animates and regulates the universe. In one way, the notion of a world-soul is attractive to them. It seems to provide the entire cosmos, and particularly its most noble constituent, humanity, with an especially close relation to the Creator. The idea of a world-soul provides a kind of spiritual affinity. But much as they tried to adapt the notion so as to make it religiously acceptable, it proved recalcitrant to an orthodox interpretation and had to be abandoned.’

  22. 22.

    I should note a potential complication here, arising from Aristotle’s idea that that the cosmos is possessed of an outer sphere, within which the smaller concentric spheres are variously located. That outer sphere, moreover, has an animating soul associated with it. To some, this is liable to seem reminiscent of the Platonic world-soul. However, I would argue that Aristotle’s outer sphere of the cosmos plays a different set of explanatory roles than those played by the Platonic world-soul; in particular, Aristotle’s soul-of-the-outer-sphere does not play a role of unifying the entire cosmos into a single substance possessed of a single overarching substantial form, which is the key point for our purposes. However, I am afraid that arguing for this here would take us too far afield. My thanks to Daniel Shields and David Twetten for helpful discussion on this point.

  23. 23.

    That is a rough summary of a somewhat difficult passage, which reads as follows: ‘Ad primum dicendum quod magis assimilari dicitur dupliciter, scilicet quantitative et qualitative. Quantitative, hoc est in pluribus, sic concedo quod effectus universalis magis assimilatur causae universali quam particularis, quia plus multiplicantur causae universalis effectus in illo effectu. Sed plus qualitative, falsum est, immo sic plus assimilatur homo Deo, quia etsi homo sit effectus particularis secundum se, nihilominus est. effectus universalis, in quantum quasi conflatur ex omnibus naturis; quia vero est effectus unitus, magis assimilatur qualitative unitati quae est Deus.’

  24. 24.

    A summary of the following: ‘Ad secundum dicendum quod similitudo mundi archetypi potest dupliciter repraesentari in mundo sensibili: vel magis diffuse vel magis expresse. Si magis diffuse, sic magis repraesentatur in universo; magis vero expresse repraesentatur in homine, in quo repraesentatur unitas in natura, et secundum modum personae Filii Dei, qui dicitur mundus archetypus.’

  25. 25.

    The Latin reads: ‘Ad ultimum iam patet solutio ex dictis. Nam bonum in universo est multa re, quamvis unum ordine; bonum vero, quod est humana natura, est unum re et ordine. Unde bonum in universo non est unibile indivisibili unitati, quae est divina natura, sed bonum in humana natura.’

  26. 26.

    Why? Well, his version is not called panentheism (obviously it could not be, given that it precedes the coining of the term) and so counts as implicit; God remains a personal being on this account; the relationship between God and the cosmos is relational rather than mereological, with the model of the relation being analogous to the more common ‘world as God’s body’ idea, but conceived specifically along the lines of Chalcedonian Christology; it is voluntary, insofar as God is still seen as becoming incarnate in the cosmos freely; and it is presumably classical, again in line with the Chalcedonian model in play.

  27. 27.

    Though it is worth keeping in mind Nerlich’s (2003, p. 282) admonition: ‘A cloud obscures…both substantivalist and relationist. Theories of motion usually progress conservatively. Much of Newton remains in GTR [the general theory of relativity]. However, quantum theory and GTR cannot both be true as they stand. Reconciling them is a major problem for contemporary physics. A quantum theory of gravity is expected to change the face of GTR radically and unforeseeably. The metaphysical themes which have dominated space-time metaphysics may change markedly, too.’

  28. 28.

    Advocates include Baker (2005), Hoefer (1998), Maudlin (1993), and Pooley (2013).

  29. 29.

    See for instance Belot (1999), Dieks (2001, 2001a), and Huggett (2006).

  30. 30.

    An analogous (though still rather different) sort of panpsychism is laid out by Pfeifer (2016).


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I would like to extend my sincere thanks to Daniel Shields for his extensive input on an earlier draft of this paper. He provided helpful philosophical feedback and also preserved me from several translation errors. Thanks are also due to David Twetten for helpful correspondence, and to several anonymous referees for Sophia.

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Dumsday, T. Alexander of Hales on Panentheism. SOPHIA 58, 597–612 (2019).

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  • Alexander of Hales
  • Cosmos
  • Franciscan
  • Panentheism
  • Science
  • Spacetime
  • Theism