Newton’s Theology

Peter Robinson has passed on this fascinating article from The Times about an interesting period in history, bridging Middle Ages and early Enlightenment times. He adds:

“During the Middle Ages, people generally approached answers to questions by an appeal to authority –  to figures like Aristotle, Ptolomy, or church fathers such as Augustine and Thomas Aquinas. Isaac Newton on the other hand was driven by scientific inquiry and promoted experiment based science – setting out the three Laws of Motion in his Principia Mathematica, discovering the law of universal gravitation, inventing mathematical calculus, and writing extensively on the nature of light and optics.

“What is less well known, is that Newton, like many in his time, was also a devout Christian – a monotheist who saw God in the order and beauty of the world, and his scientific contribution as casting light on God’s creation.

“At the same time, Newton was a deep Bible scholar, who also studied writings of early Christian fathers, comparing later writings to original Latin and Greek manuscripts. Newton is reputed to have devoted more time and written more on the subject of theology, than on science. Newton became convinced that the Church had moved away from its early foundations, and many of the doctrines of the Church had no basis in the original Gospel teachings of Jesus. He took  particular issue with the doctrine of the Trinity and Athanasian creed, based on his study of the Bible (rejecting 1 John 5:7 as the concept did not appear in original Latin vulgate and Greek manuscripts, but a later addition), declaring it a false doctrine, a position that saw him refuse ordination in the Anglican church (which came close to costing him his position as a Fellow of Cambridge University). He came later to be regarded as an Arian Christian (Arius c.274-337CE), among those who saw God alone as divine.

“Newton chose not to publish his thoughts on religion during his lifetime, such was the power of Church and State at that time, as he recognized the potential damage it would cause to his standing in scientific matters.

“As a side comment, it is relevant to note that Newton lived through the pandemic known as the Great Plague in 1665-67, a time when he did most of his research from his mother’s home in Woolsthorpe, England.”

NOTEBOOK SHEDS LIGHT ON NEWTON’S ENIGMATIC FAITH

by TOM BALL – London

Sir Isaac Newton’s ‘complex’ views on Christianity can now be better understood after scholars gained access to his confidant’s notebook for the first time in almost 350 years.

The manuscript, written by John Wickins, Newton’s university roommate and assistant, is the earliest evidence of the mathematician’s theology.

It highlights Newton’s engrossment in mainstream questions about God’s foreknowledge and human free will, at a time when England was staunchly Christian, and shows how he developed this into his unique theology.

The notebook, which had been under private ownership for two generations, was bought at auction for 63,000 Pounds last March and has been added to the library at Cambridge University, where Newton studied.

The notebook, which contains 12,000 words in English and another 5,000 in Latin, is the most comprehensive record of Newton’s writings to be found in the past 50 years.

Jill Whitelock, head of special collections at Cambridge University Library, said: “The notebook adds significantly to our understanding of Newton and his writings, as well as casting new light on other manuscripts in the University Library. It is only through the documentary heritage represented by his scientific and mathematical papers that we see a full picture of Newton.”

The notebook contains one of Newton’s two university lectures and three letters to Wickins, whom he called his “very loving chamber-fellow”. Wickins acted as Newton’s amanuensis while functioning as his unpaid assistant and helping him to turn the rooms they shared from 1665 to 1683 into a makeshift laboratory. They worked together on Newton’s third telescope.

One Latin segment of the notebook records a university mandated “disputation” or debate, where Newton covered the contentious topic of the compatibility of God’s perfect foreknowledge with human free will.

Dmitri Levitin, of All Souls College, Oxford, and his co-editor of the Wickins notebook, Scott Mandelbrote, wrote that the topic “was a subject that was as difficult as it was sensitive”. In an article for the Times literary Supplement, they added: “The difficulties were the classic problems of free will and evil: how could an all-powerful, omniscient God create a world in which humans had genuine freedom? At the same time, how could that perfect God not be the author of the sin which his creatures had committed?”

Newton came to privately hold unorthodox Christian beliefs and, by 1690, had dismantled the standard biblical proofs for the doctrine of the Trinity. He kept his idiosyncratic views – the focus of much rumour – to himself, a prudent decision considering his successor as professor of mathematics at Cambridge lost his post in 1710 for supporting similar views. It was not until after his death in 1727 that Newton’s unusual views became public knowledge.

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(This Article was first published in The Times newspaper in London, and re-produced in The Weekend Australian, January 8-9, 2022)

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