Edwards and Franklin (Pt. 5)

Over the last few days (with a few interruptions in between) we have been comparing Jonathan Edwards with Benjamin Franklin. So far we have seen how different they were in their religious upbringings, their attitude towards tradition, and their views on virtue. Today we wrap up this series by comparing their views on science and the universe.

Benjamin the Scientist

As a kid you grow up learning that Ben Franklin was a scientist…. you probably learned that he conducted experiments with lighting. But Ben’s fascination with science isn’t reduced to the tales we learn as a children, Ben was an actual scientist. Check out what the Franklin Institute has to say about his fascination with weather patterns:

In 1743, Ben observed that northeast storms begin in the southwest. He thought it was odd that storms travel in an opposite direction to their winds. He predicted that a storm’s course could be plotted. Ben rode a horse through a storm and chased a whirlwind three-quarters of a mile in order to learn more about storms.

He was much like modern day storm chasers. But he also dabbled in a bit of oceanography.

Since Ben spent so much time sailing to Europe across the Atlantic Ocean, he became very interested in both ocean currents and shipbuilding. Ben was actually one of the first people to chart the Gulf Stream. He measured its temperature on each of his eight voyages and was able to chart the Stream in detail.

As you can see from both of these examples (and his famous electricity experiment), Ben was very much into mechanical science. He was highly influenced by the deistic Newtonian science of his day.

The logic behind Newtonian science is easy to formulate, although its implications are subtle. Its best known principle, which was formulated by the philosopher-scientist Descartes well before Newton, is that of analysis or reductionism: to understand any complex phenomenon, you need to take it apart, i.e. reduce it to its individual components. If these are still complex, you need to take your analysis one step further, and look at their components. (Francis Heylighen)

In essence, Newtonian Science, and the Newtonian Worldview is a worldview characterized by apersonal forces, reductionism, determinism, and materialism. There is no room for agents with wills, hence there is no room for a personal God to be involved with the way the world works. This was how Benjamin Franklin approached science.

Jonathan Edwards the Scientist

Jonathan Edwards was also fascinated by Newtonian Science. Early on in his ministry Edwards wrote, and hoped to publish, a paper on the “wondrous and curious works of the spider.” In it he describe the behavior and mechanics of spider’s movements. He tried to publish it in the London Royal Society’s journal, “Philosophical Transactions,” which was headed up by Newton himself. However someone else beat him to the punch and submitted a paper on spiders right before he did.

Like Franklin, Edwards was an amateur scientist in his own right (in that day almost all scientist were amateurs), however his view on the nature of science and the universe vastly differed from that of Franklin. Here is what Marsden has to say about this:

Edwards saw that the universe was essentially personal, an emanation of the love and beauty of God, so that everything even inanimate matter, was a personal communication from God… Edwards started with a personal and sovereign God who expressed himself eve in the ever changing relationship of every atom to each other. This dramatic insight would be the key to every other aspect of his thought. (A Short Life of Jonathan Edwards 21)

The fact that Edwards was a personal God communicating himself behind every aspect of creation was Edwards motivation for doing science. When he was studying how spiders move he was studying how God interacts with his creation, when he was studying natural phenomenon he was watching how God communicates with his creation. But maybe more importantly, when Edwards was doing science he was seeing how all of creation reveals Jesus Christ.

Check out what Edwards has to say about how creation reveals God:

I expect by very ridicule and contempt to be called a man of a very fruitful brain and copious fancy but they are welcome to it. I am not ashamed to own that I believe that the whole universe, heaven and earth, air and seas, and divine constitution and history of the holy Scriptures, be full of images of divine things, as full as a language is of words; and that the multitude of those things that I have mentioned are but a very small part of what is really intended to be signified and typified by these things.

 May we have Edwards’ eyes to see God revealed in all of creation.


Published by cwoznicki

Chris Woznicki is an Assistant Adjunct Professor of Theology at Fuller Theological Seminary. He works as the regional training associate for the Los Angeles region of Young Life.

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