Isaac Newton on God

by Lewis Loflin

While revered as one of the greatest scientist of all time, Isaac Newton (1643-1727) wrote more on religion than science. The fight between secular fundamentalism and Christian fundamentalism rages as both sides seek to bolster a political system by crowning famous people as their own.

Was Isaac Newton a Deist or a Christian? The answer is Newton was broadly a Christian Unitarian or rational Christian. He clearly rejected the Trinity and read the Bible in a literal manner (Christians use allegorical), thus removing many of the Greek pantheist and Platonist elements at the core of Christian dogma. See The gospel roots of Christian pantheism.

According to At the Origins of English Rationalism by T.E. Wilder he makes it clear "deists are now widely misunderstood, and their views commonly misrepresented. The caricature of deism is of a belief in a 'clockwork' making God who sets up the world and then retires to allow it to run unattended...The God of the Deists is often made to appear as the apex of an abstract world-system, a creative being that started the world-process and then withdrew and is now separated and isolated from it; this is the "absentee God" of literature."

The "God went away" crowd would be better called deistic Humanists or deistic pantheists. The true Deists of the 17th century shared many common beliefs with Christians of the time:

Note that number 2 clearly excludes the "God went away" hype. But this quote from Newton clearly debunks the "God went away" hype; "Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done." T.C. Pfizenmaier claims that Newton held the Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity rather than the Western one held by Roman Catholics, Anglicans, and most Protestants. In his own day, he (Newton) was also accused of being a Rosicrucian..." (Wiki) I dispute this myself, but the subject brings up again why Eastern and Western Christianity split and how different they really are. For example Pelagius was convicted of heresy in the West, but cleared in the East. See Pelagius.

One must consider the background of England in the 17th-18th centuries and that Newton, Locke, and the Deists such as Anthony Collins all knew each other. Many of their writings along with those of the Socinians (Polish Unitarians) was known to many educated people including the clergy, even if officially rejected as heresy. This was a climate of intolerance where many including many educated Christians sought otherwise. See the following:

The rest is extracted from Wiki:

Isaac Newton wrote a number of religious tracts (1690s) dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity was never published. Later works - The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) - were published after his death.

Historian Stephen D. Snobelen says of Newton, "Isaac Newton was a heretic. But like Nicodemus, the secret disciple of Jesus, he never made a public declaration of his private faith - which the orthodox would have deemed extremely radical. He hid his faith so well that scholars are still unravelling his personal beliefs." Snobelen concludes that Newton was at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an antitrinitarian. In an age notable for its religious intolerance there are few public expressions of Newton's radical views, most notably his refusal to take holy orders and his refusal, on his death bed, to take the sacrament when it was offered to him. (Wiki)

Note the Socinians were clearly Unitarian Christians. To quote The Philosophical Legacy of the 16th and 17th Century Socinians: Their Rationality by Marian Hillar, "Several religious and intellectual movements today claim the right to the heritage of the religious group, the Socinians...The claimants vary from the Christian churches to the atheistic or deistic Humanists and each of them usually selects a specific set of Socinian views ignoring the rest. The Socinians were known under various names such as the Polish Brethren, Antitrinitarians, Arians, and Unitarians."

While Deist' ideas go back to ancient Greece, classical Deism (and Unitarians as well) may have begun with Faustus Socinus and his followers (16th century Unitarians) who held that:

His scientific fame notwithstanding, Newton's studies of the Bible and of the early Church Fathers were also noteworthy. Newton wrote works on textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He also placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which agrees with one traditionally accepted date. He also attempted, unsuccessfully, to find hidden messages within the Bible.

Below taken from First Things. My comment to Mr. Pfizenmaier is that the Bible taken in a literal manner (which Newton did) disproves the Trinity. The term is not there and the Old Testament clearly disproves the claim. And for Mr. Dulles he is correct that Newton believed in an active God, but so did the Deists until the radical French Enlightenment (French Encyclopedists and Voltaire) stripped it of its theological roots.

Newton's God

I read with pleasure Avery Cardinal Dulles' rich essay on The Deist Minimum (January). The timing seems providential in that just this week I read that Anthony Flew, the British poster boy for atheism, has at the age of eighty-one abandoned his atheism in favor of belief in a super-intelligent being who is the designer of the universe. Flew explains that he continues to reject the biblical God of the Christians and Muslims (and Jews?) as an "oriental despot" akin to Saddam Hussein but favors the idea of the deist conception of God held by Jefferson. Cardinal Dulles makes the statement that deism served as a kind of "halfway house on the road to atheism." One now wonders if it may provide shelter on the return trip. Let us pray.

I would, however, like to raise a question about Cardinal Dulles' assessment of Isaac Newton. He leaves the impression that Newton was a deist, or nearly so. This represents an earlier scholarly consensus that should now be abandoned. Not only was Newton not a deist; he believed deism heretical and harmful. For this reason he was instrumental in the formulation of the Boyle Lectures, whose avowed purpose was "to prove the truth of the Christian religion against infidels." The infidels du jour were the atheists and deists.

Cardinal Dulles writes that Newton discovered mathematical laws that henceforth made divine intervention superfluous. This was the conclusion that the French Encyclopedists imposed on Newton's mechanics. Newton himself believed that God was actively involved in upholding creation by the continual exercise of His will. Deists rejected the concept of revealed religion. Newton embraced it-especially in regard to biblical prophecy and chronology, on both of which he was expert.

Even Newton's Trinitarian views, which Cardinal Dulles says caused him to "reject the doctrine of the trinity and incarnation as irrational" are under reassessment. I believe that by the 1690s Isaac Newton's Trinitarian position could be considered compatible with the position of the Eastern Church Fathers of the fourth century, especially Eusebius of Caesarea and Basil of Ancyra.

Scholarship on Newton's religion is gradually bringing him in from the cold. People may continue to debate various elements of his religion, but, in the words of Newton scholar James Force, one thing is sure: "He was no deist."

Thomas C. Pfizenmaier Bonhomme Presbyterian Church Chesterfield, Missouri

Avery Cardinal Dulles replies:

I agree, and actually said, that Newton was not a deist and that his God was active in the universe. Newton accepted revealed religion and was in some sense a Christian. On these points there is no dispute.

In saying that Newton rejected the Trinity I was following the standard accounts. According to James Gleik, in his 2003 biography, Newton regarded Christ as God's son, a mediator between God and humanity, chosen to be a prophet and messenger, and exalted to God's right hand. But on the ground that Christ was not God, he refused to use the initials "ad" for reckoning dates. He likewise denied the divinity of the Holy Spirit. Not only did he reject the Trinity; he regarded Trinitarianism as a sin of idolatry.

I am grateful to Dr. Pfizenmaier for the information that Newton at some point in his life accepted positions similar to those of Eusebius of Caesarea and Basil of Ancyra, who are generally classified as semi-Arians. That removes him from the strictly Arian camp but still leaves him short of a robust Trinitarian orthodoxy. I did say that Newton's mathematical physics gave "indirect support" to deism. The use made of him by the French Encyclopedists may be considered evidence. See The Deist Minimum

Copyright (c) 2005 First Things (April 2005).

Ref. Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite by Stephen d. Snobelen Department of History and Philosophy of Science, University of Cambridge, Free School Lane, Cambridge CB2 3RH.