Jonathan Edwards and Isaac Newton

This is the world in which Jonathan Edwards lived. Science was not the opponent of theology, but rather its handmaiden.

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.

 

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.”

Read More