Jonathan Edwards was the first, Stephen Holmes claims (in an essay in Jonathan Edwards: Philosophical Theologian), “on the American continent to have read Newton and Locke, and arguably amongst the first in the world to have appreciated the implications of what they had to say” (101). In Edwards’s mind, their work spelled the end of substance metaphysics.
Holmes explains, “Edwards set himself to analyze what these ‘atoms,’ generally defined only as the smallest components of matter, were. Perceptively, Edwards argued that within the system the size of atoms was less relevant than their solidity, since their defining characteristic was utter indestructibility. If atoms are indestructible, then the force that preserves them must be infinite, and so the essence of being atomic is the action of an infinite force. Hence, argues Edwards, ‘the certain unknown substance, which philosophers used to think subsisted by itself, and stood underneath and kept up solidity and all other properties . . . . is nothing but the Deity acting in that particular manner in those parts of space where he thinks fit’” (102).
Surprisingly, what replaces substance is something, surprisingly, more fundamentally and directly theistic – the power of God Himself holding atoms in their solidity.