Jonathan Edwards and Isaac Newton

The early eighteenth century was an age of investigation into the nature of reality. Rene Descartes’ Cartesian philosophy, for example, had neatly divided the world into spirit and matter. However, this modern synthesis was often unraveled by other Enlightenment thinkers. Men such as British political scientist Thomas Hobbes contended that the world was simply material. Conversely, Anglican bishop George Berkeley contended for immaterialism, wherein the universe existed as ideas in the mind of the perceiver. Others acknowledged Descartes’ ingenuity but distrusted the seeming dichotomy between matter and spirit. Looking upon the Cartesian philosophy, mathematician and scientist Isaac Newton was skeptical. In his mind, if the material world could be explained independently of God (who is Spirit), God could then become superfluous, laying the groundwork for the rise of modern atheism. Whether Cartesianism actually did so is a robust debate. However, what cannot be denied is that a particular brand of religion evolved with the emergence of Cartesian philosophy: Deism. Unlike Christianity (a kind of “theism”), the creator, Unitarian God was not intimately involved in the universe, but rather He providentially established laws of nature so that the world operated much like a mechanism. The study of this mechanism was the foundation for modern science. According to George Marsden, “Natural science had a bearing on the larger sciences of reality, but only later was it widely thought that ‘nature’ was the highest form of reality and hence natural science the definitive mode of thought. Few of Edwards’ contemporaries would have thought of natural science and theology as being in conflict.” (Jonathan Edwards: A Life, 66)

This is the world in which Jonathan Edwards lived. Science was not the opponent of theology, but rather its handmaiden. According to Norman Fiering, “Edwards’s distance from earlier American Puritanism lay in his use of modern philosophy and in his full acceptance of the post-Cartesian intellectual world, yet he did not renounce his dogmatic heritage as it was expressed in the Westminster Confession. Such a combination of limits and freedom often promotes brilliance and imagination.” (Jonathan Edwards’s Moral Thought and Its British Context, 51) Indeed in Jonathan Edwards it produced both. Like Isaac Newton, Edwards too believed in the coalescing of science and religion. According to the unorthodox Anglican Newton, and contra later Deists such as Ben Franklin, there was plenty of room for a personal God inside the realm of physics. In his famous Opticks (1704), Newton writes, “does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory [sense organs], sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself.”

The nexus of Newtonian physics and Newtonian theology centered around two points of “mystery”: the cause of gravity and the cohesion of atoms. Newton dared not tread any further in his scientific explanations. For him, God was the unobserved, spiritual cause of both, the “Scholium” in Book III of his Principia (1687). He could not give a strictly naturalistic cause for gravity; this he reserved for the divine. And this is precisely where Jonathan Edwards ventured further. Calling Edwards a “docile Newtonian,” Perry Miller asserts, “Edwards’ religion differed fundamentally from Newton’s in that he did not need to reserve to God the honor … of being the ‘immaterial’ cause of gravity.” (Jonathan Edwards, 93) The answer behind the cohesion of atoms and the cause of gravity was one. What was the efficient cause of solidity? Edwards answered with God. For Edwards, to speak of an atom is to speak of its indivisibility. The atomic resistance to division is the essence of solidity – not something necessarily taking up space (what Cartesians called “extension”) but rather the power of resistance. That power, as in gravity, is God. In his “Notes,” Edwards writes, “Solidity is gravity, so that, in some sense, the Essence of bodies is gravity.”

That which allowed Edwards to reconcile an unseen, consistent material cause for gravity was his idealism. Like Berkeley, Edwards believed that creation existed as a divine idea: “What then is become of the universe? Certainly, it exists nowhere but in the divine mind.” However, unlike Berkeley, Edwards did not negate the ontological existence of the material universe itself. What was seemingly there was actually there, however, beauty and value were for Edwards empirical categories. For example, like Newton, Edwards understood that qualities such as color only existed as they were perceived by the eye through the light of the sun, not residing in the objects themselves. Edwards studied Newton’s Opticks deeply, and in his graduate years wrote on rainbows and light rays. According to Roland Delattre, for Edwards, “beauty is neither known nor enjoyed until it is sensibly apprehended.” (Beauty and Sensibility in the Thought of Jonathan Edwards, 73) Edwards employed Lockean epistemology to describe the process of conversion as the sinner perceived the beautiful idea of Christ through the light of the Spirit. However, it was his idealism that also explained his natural theology. Perry Miller explains, “But by seeing the universe as a system of stable ideas, Edwards could see exactly why gravity should have the same proportions across the immensities of space without any material medium.” (93) In some sense, Edwards was able to solve the seeming incompatibility of John Locke and Isaac Newton with theological idealism. His unique doctrine of creation (called “occasionalism”) adopted from French philosopher and priest Nicolas Malebranche posited that God continually recreates the world every second according to the continuity of the laws of nature. While Edwards has been accused of collapsing Newtonian physics into a kind of Humean empiricism without direct causality, the Northampton theologian did not believe occasionalism to be inconsistent with a cause-and-effect Newtonian universe. Avihu Zakai is perhaps most incisive when he observes that Edwards merely “appropriated the atomic doctrine…but Christianized it” by grounding it in the sovereign activity of God.

In an age of postmodern science, the “mystery” of Newtonian physics has been left to secular scientists who employ relativity theory and string theory and other post-Enlightenment ideas in order to explain what Edwards saw clearly: a universe of mechanistic laws forged in the mind of God and upheld continually by the freedom of the divine will. As George Marsden asserts, Edwards was “profoundly influenced by Isaac Newton, probably the most important thinker of the era. Like many men of his time Edwards was determined to know everything and how it all fit together in God’s universe.” (62) At the bottom of such questions of gravity and solidity was God Himself, recreating the world every moment for the ultimate purpose of glorifying Himself.


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