“There is no such thing as mechanism,” Edwards argues (quoted in Jenson, America’s Theologian: A Recommendation of Jonathan Edwards , 25). He means that there is no such thing as “mechanics” if that means “that whereby bodies act each upon other, purely and properly by themselves.” The confusion arises from the notion that, in Jenson’s summary, “‘bodies’ are the sort of thing that either can or cannot act ‘properly by themselves,’ that is, the unthinking application of the ancient Western notion of substance to physics’ conception of masses in motion” (25).

The reason substance confuses is that “the category of substance is part of a notion of deity.” Edwards said that if the word substance is going to be used at all, it must be used of “divine Being,” since God alone acts entirely from Himself. From the Greeks, Jenson argues, substance was a “God-concept,” and as such, he adds (being Jenson) is a prophylactic against the ravages of time: “to say that something is a substance is to say that it possesses and asserts itself against time; the constitutive hopes are of self-retention and persistence. Thus also, only immortal entities are fully substances, only the gods or their philosophical sublimations. And if Greece’s development an use of the category of substance for all real things thus claims potential divinity for all things, that is exactly what Greece meant to claim” (26). For Jenson (and he thinks for Edwards too) substance is not even really applicable to the triune God, since He is not God by self-preservation and persistence against history and time.

Jenson calls this an act of Edwardsean “demythologizing,” his insight that “there are not little self-sufficient agencies beside God, natural entities are not godlets, and therefore the world harmony is not self-contained” (26).

Articles by Peter J. Leithart

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