Science in Christian Perspective



Newton, Biblical Creationist
Raymond Seeger
NSF Retired
4507 Wetherill Road
Bethesda, Maryland 20816

From: JASA 35 December 1983): 242-243.

Isaac Newton (1642-1727) was an intellectual giant, but at the same time a social enigma, a complex personality, a living paradox (unfortunately a popular subject for modern psychoanalysis). A timid country boy, he became a powerful national administrator. A recluse scholar of academia he came to be a business man of affairs (Master of the Mint at 53, due in part to his metallurgical interests; Warden at 56, owing to his coinage changes). At 60 he was made President of the Royal Society-until his death; Queen Anne knighted him at 62 for his scientific achievements. A genius at 23 (his annus mirabilis 1664-1666), he had a nervous breakdown at 49 (not a turning point in his life). He exhibited an insatiable curiosity and an intuitiveness that sprang from persistent concentration, mechanical ingenuity and scientific inventiveness, religious imaginativeness. Any subject he touched was impressed with his genius.

Newton was solitary and melancholic, an indefatigable worker (hence "absent minded") and non-communicating; he was impersonal, but generous (to those who did not cross him), self-interested and self-satisfied, priggish and domineering. In his embittered priority squabbles (Hooke, Flamsteed, Leibnitz) he was acrimonious and petulant. In later life he appeared mild, pleasant, and of comely countenance. He was devoutly religious in his search for God, puritanical in his morality, abstemious, scrupulous, austere, loveless and joyless. Nevertheless, his prestige forged a permanent link between science and government.

Newton's masterpiece was in theoretical physics, Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica (1687), an intellectual monument to mankind, a synthesis of grandeur. Although appointed Professor of Mathematics in Trinity College, Cambridge, at 26, he was truly a natural philosopher inasmuch as he sought to understand phenomena per se rather than the mathematics involved. He adhered to the Royal Society (1660) motto, "Nulla verba. " He was the architect of dynamics and celestial mechanics; he formulated the laws of motion and the law of gravitation. He derived Kepler's empirical laws and initiated planetary perturbation theory; he explained the flattening of the earth, its tides, and the precession of the equinoxes. He established mathematical physics, e.g., fluid dynamics and acoustics. The Principia was written in Latin, its proofs were geometrical, despite his having invented fluxions, a form of calculus. On the contrary, the Opticks (1704) was written in English with experimental queries. In both books he was a precise, methodical experimentalist who presented a comprehensive view, an artist in expression. He had been made FRS at 29 due to his analysis of white light in the annus mirabilis. He presented the Royal Society with a reflecting telescope (he himself had ground the lenses). One of Newton's notable claims was, "Non fingo hypotheses "-specifically with respect to his agnosticism about the essential nature of gravity, but generally with regard to his rejection of all suppositions not deducible from phenomena.

The young Newton did not aspire to ecclesiastical orders requisite for the mastership of a college. His theological interests, however, were not an aberration of old age. All his life he was a conforming member of the Anglican Church, although he had reservations about its Trinitarian doctrine. Although he appreciated its universalist humanitarianism, he was by no means a deist inasmuch as he believed in a personal God, omniscient and omnipotent, but, above all, immanent not only had He created the universe, but He keeps it under constant surveillance and intervenes in a providential way from time to time (e.g., paths of comets). Neither was Newton a Unitarian; he believed in Jesus Christ as the Messiah, the Son of God-not a mere man, but a sort of viceroy for the Father (his precise concept is somewhat problematic). Newton diligently sought the Creator through His actions, His work (creation) and His Word (the Bible). (Newton probably kept his non-orthodox views secret to refrain from disruptive controversies in the church.)

Newton believed in past miracles ("the sun standing still," however, he regarded as a poetic expression: Moses as a popularizer) and prophecies-no longer needed. In general, he interpreted the Bible literally. (Among his effects upon death was a well-worn Bible (1660)-now lost.) He performed meticulous exegesis of the Scriptures. He regarded Church history as of primary importance for understanding Christianity. An assiduous reader and an erudite historian (he knew Greek, Hebrew, and Latin), he examined scores of texts for corruptions and misinterpretations. His vehement anti-Catholicism stemmed from the initially political endorsement of Athanasius' creed and from the later biblical mistranslation by Jerome. He himself was convinced by the argument from design in its major features, not in minutiae; possibly a mystic in connection with his alchemical investigations,  he always relied upon facts per se. Newton was a critical historian for his time, but he did have a fanatical belief in the writings of antiquity (e.g., a crucial fragment of Eudoxus). He was particularly attracted to the prophetic records of Daniel and St. John the Divine, which he regarded in agreement in the smallest detail. (Biblical prophecies, he felt, can be understood only ex post facto.) Newton's historical interests engaged his attention more than fifty years; his extant writings along this line are esoteric and scattered among numerous manuscripts. The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalyse of St. John were published posthumously ( 1728). Together, in the accepted historical method of that time, they provide a chronology of world history, sacred and profane. Both the Principia and the Optics close with affirmations about God; the famous "Scholium" of the former is a passionate statement about the creation. As our idea of the universe expands, so, too, does our concept of God.

Newton was wholeheartedly committed to the commandments of the Bible (O.T. and N.T.)-in an absolute sense. Unfortunately, he envisaged God more as a just ruler than a Father of grace, love, and mercy. He lacked emotion, although he did record 58 sins about Whitsunday when he was 19. He minimized ritual, as well as dogma. (He did not seek the last rites of the Church.) He noted that there were many rites among the early Christians, but only one faith.

Although the Royal Society had many divines as members, in the spirit of Francis Bacon, it barred any public discussion of politics and of religion-presumably for the sake of unity. Privately, however, Newton recognized that we all live in one world, our Father's world.

He regarded religion and science as interrelated; science, indeed, the handmaiden of religion, its Te Deum-hence no fundamental conflict. In both he insisted upon a common mental approach, a foundation of facts, historical and natural. He corrected the death date (34) of Christ, and that of the Argonaut's search (956) and hence of Troy's fall, 904 (both about 3 centuries late by modern standards). His application of astronomical dating (eclipses, equinoctial precession, et at.) was revolutionary. He was, however, very much opposed to metaphysicians such as Descartes and Leibnitz, both in science and in theology. He looked upon history and nature as similar in that they both have latent secrets, both being actually simple and measurable.

Newton's whole life was dominated by religion, his search for the Creator of heaven and earth. Toward the end of his life he mused, "I do not know what I may appear to the world; but to myself I appear to have been but a little boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smooth pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me."