Mutual Interaction: Newton's Science and Theology 


Dept. of Math & Computer Science
Biola University
La Mirada, CA 90639 

From: Perspectives on Science and Christian Faith 43 (June 1991): 82-91.

Since Newton is such a pivotal figure in the history of science, it is significant to consider how Newton's science and his theology interacted. This paper proposes three ways in which this occurred: 1) Newton found evidence of a Creator through science, 2) he struggled to understand God from a scientific perspective, and 3) he used a scientific approach in theology. In particular, some suggestions are made concerning how Newton's scientific background may have influenced his views on the deity of Christ.

 Nature and Nature's laws lay hid in night:  God said, Let Newton be!" and all was light.      -Pope 

Galileo, after years of struggle to reconcile the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church with the theories of the new science, died in 1642; that same year, Isaac Newton was born. Newton was to play a pivotal role in the development of science for the next two centuries; only with the relativity theory of Einstein and the development of quantum physics in the early part of the 20th century was the influence of Newton surpassed. In addition the debates in the philosophy of science were widely affected by Newton's thought and practice. Of greater significance for this paper is Newton's treatment of the relationship between Christianity and science.

Of course the discussion of science and Christianity was not new with Newton. He entered the public debate somewhat reluctantly, perhaps because of his desire for peace and privacy. Some critics have suggested that Newton's interest in religion was attributable to a touch of insanity; in fact, he pursued theology and its interaction with science with the full powers of his intellect. Unfortunately, he never produced a complete or systematic discourse on his views. Rather, he has left us a legacy of short manuscripts and digressions within larger works which have received diverse interpretation.

Newton's Death Mask

Nonetheless, it is clear that Newton as a scientist and Newton as a theologian interacted in a variety of ways. He believed that God revealed Himself in Scripture, nature, and history, and that this revelation would yield its secrets to careful scrutiny. He utilized the methods of science to study the Scriptures. But in the end he recognized the limitations of both science and theology in their respective attempts at understanding. 


The religious climate in which Newton grew up was quite unsettled. He was born during Cromwell's Commonwealth, and the Puritan influence on him seems evident. The Puritan morality of scrup-ulosity, punitiveness, austerity, discipline and industriousness" is clearly evident in his life.1 His devotion to the text of the Scriptures also seems to stem from this influence.2 Newton studied the Scriptures widely and intensely, employing the original languages and doing effective textual criticism. His family background linked him to the Church of England, his step-father and uncle being Anglican clergy. The Church of England at this time stressed strong ecclesiastical authority; extreme Arminianism led to a de-emphasis on the themes of sin and salvation; morality and rationalism were the prevalent concerns. Newton's religion was more one of law than of grace. And while Newton would not have consciously supported it, the foundations were being laid for Deism. 

Controversy was often fierce, and Newton was one of many who felt that neither side in such violent controversies could be the defender of the true faith. For most of his life, Newton sought to avoid public controversy in religious issues, just as he did in mathematics and science. To find the truth, Newton looked to the Old and New Testaments and the early church. He appears to have sincerely submitted to the authority of Scripture, but he did not automatically assent to accepted interpretations of the Bible. His search for a primitive Christianity led him to re-examine some of the creeds of the early Roman church, and to border on heresy in his doubts and conclusions. In his quest, he was very much the scientist, observing evidence and reasoning carefully. This similarity of approach in both science and religion was not new: the Reformers returning to the Greek text of the New Testament parallels Galileo's emphasis on experimenting directly with physical objects. The tension  between being told the truth and discovering the truth for oneself was growing, no matter what the subject matter might be.

In the Middle Ages, there had been an accepted synthesis between Aristotelian science and theology. The Scientific Revolution of the 16th and 17th centuries was as significant a movement in science, and culture generally, as the Reformation was in religion, and culture generally. The scholastics had viewed science as dealing with the role of events in God's plan. Aristotelian science had sought knowledge of the real essence of a thing. "The great intellectual revolution of the seventeenth century lay in the realization that in the subject of mechanics it is possible to work out a system of explanations that is not teleological but thoroughly deterministic, which refers not vaguely to God's purposes or preferences but brings out the quantitative relationships which a mathematical account of the phenomena requires."3 Science was now offering a mathematical and mechanical description, not teleological explanation. 

However, this view of science, which sounds so familiar to our modern ears, was not the only scientific tradition competing for the minds of the 17th century. Alongside the emerging mechanistic model of the universe lay a view of nature with much deeper roots, some of which had been Christianized by various thinkers such as Comenius and Kepler. Nature was seen as the work of an artist-magician who had endowed it with beauty and mystery; the quest of the scientist was to uncover its secrets.4 While the mechanical view of nature was cold and lifeless, this mystery tradition "asserted the primacy of spirit; all that happens in nature is the work of active principles."5 This view  

incorporated certain Pythagorean assumptions, which stressed a mathematical harmony in the cosmos. The secrets of the cosmos had been written by God in a mathematical language, which could be discerned, for example, in musical harmonies. [The cosmos] was a world full of magical powers, the secrets of which were open only to the chosen few who were willing to look beyond the surface phenomena. The explorer of nature was an ascetic, studying the occult, within the confines of an esoteric community. 

One of the principle pursuits suggested by the mystery tradition was alchemy, which Jung has suggested met a religious need of the age: that as theology became the battleground for increasingly rigid and intolerant factions, alchemy became the stage on which the glory of God could be harmoniously displayed.7 As a matter of fact, alchemy was one of the main pursuits of Newton's life: in one large collection of Newton's manuscripts, alchemy accounted for about 550,000 words, compared to 1,000,000 on science and mathematics, and 1,400,000 on theology.8  

Newton's Theology and Science 

When writing a list of seven "Statements on Religion," Newton placed first on the list the rule: "That religion and Philosophy (natural science) are to be preserved distinct. We are not to introduce divine revelations into Philosophy nor philosophical opinions into religion."9 Newton's practice suggests that to interpret this rule as opposition to "integration of faith and learning" is incorrect. When placed in the context of his life, this isolated statement suggests that Newton held the opinion that since the methodology of science required observation and experiment, the introduction of unsupported propositions from the Bible, or for that matter, from Aristotle, was simply out of place. On the other hand, the rule also refers to scientific "opinions" (note the contrast) as inadmissible for theology. Theology has an authoritative source of information, which Newton treated as given and perspicuous. He had no desire to weaken its arguments with the theories of science. 

1. Newton found evidence of a Creator through science. 
Newton was a firm believer in the revelation of God in nature, and its value for apologetics. In responding to Bentley's request for aid in developing lectures to oppose atheism, Newton writes, "When I wrote my treatise about our system (the Principia), I had an eye upon such principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity; and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose."10 In his next letter to Bentley, he wrote  

So then gravity may put ye planets into motion but without the divine power it could never put them into such Circulating motion as they have about ye Sun & therefore for this as well as other reasons I am compelled to ascribe ye frame of this Systeme to an intelligent agent.11 

Newton seemed to feel that his discovery of the design of the cosmos as displayed in the universal law of gravitation provided strong evidence for the existence of a Designer. 

If God is revealed in nature, is this general revelation compelling, and furthermore sufficient for salvation? Citing Romans 2, Newton notes that God's law has been revealed "to all mankind by the light of reason, and by this law all men are to be judged in the last day."12 He definitely seems to believe that general revelation is sufficient to allow God to hold humankind responsible. However, he also admits that God's existence is not a necessary implication of science. The truth or falsity of scientific propositions may be determined by a person independent of his theological convictions, since the tests of scientific theories are experimentally verifiable predictions and comprehensive explanatory power. Especially when studied as individual questions," positive scientific inquiries" were distinct from "questions of ultimate causation."13

 If God is revealed in nature, is this general revelation compelling, 
and furthermore sufficient for salvation?
Beyond God's mere existence, 
Newton acknowledges that a special work 
of God is necessary to open eyes naturally blind to saving truth. 

I could wish they would consider how contrary it is to God's purpose that the truth of his religion should be as obvious and perspicuous to all men as a mathematical demonstration. Tis enough that it is able to move the assent of those which he has chosen: and for the rest who are so incredulous, it is just that they should be permitted to dy (sic) in their sins. Here then is the wisdom of God, that he hath so framed the Scriptures as to discern between the good and the bad, that they should be demonstrations to the one and foolishness to the others.14  

Thus Newton was convinced that while science discovered valid knowledge, it did not disclose all of the truth. In particular, Newton claims that his mechanical explanation of the universe only explains the current operations (and even this not ultimately), and cannot explain how it all began: "it is not to be conceived that mere mechanical causes could give rise to so many regular motions."15 Newton speculates occasionally on the relationship of God to gravity or motion, or on exactly how God created and maintains the universe. But this

Description of a comet

 "speculation does not come within the compass of scientific knowledge, nor is it premise or foundational of the scientific theory presented in the Principia."16 So the existence of God seems to be suggested by, but not a part of, science proper. 

For the third edition of Opticks, Newton was encouraged to add comments on God to his scientific work. In response, he included this statement:  

 The main business of natural philosophy is ... not only to unfold the mechanism of the world, but chiefly to resolve these and such like questions.... Whence arises all that order and beauty which we see in the world? To what end are comets...? And these things being rightly dispatch'd (sic), does it not appear from phenomena that there is a Being incorporeal, living, intelligent, omnipresent, who in infinite space, as it were in his sensory, sees the things themselves intimately, and thoroughly perceives them, and comprehends them wholly by their immediate presence to himself.... And though every true step in this philosophy brings us not immediately to the knowledge of the first cause, yet it brings us nearer to it, and on that account is to be highly valued.17 

The fact that Newton seems to have vacillated about the interaction of the revelation of God and science is a problem. Whatever its explanation in his own thought, it allowed those who followed him to interpret him according to a variety of views, or to use the inconsistency to argue away the whole matter to a position of skepticism. 

In any case, Isaac Newton himself came to the task of science as a Christian. He believed in a God who created and sustained the universe, and who was a God of order. This God would certainly have created a world which was rational, and would have given human beings a rationality capable of its understanding. For him, then, the religious value of his work was one of support. Religion and science may be fundamentally different interpretations of the universe, each valid in its own way. For Newton, however, the realm of science was dependent on God, and led the reverent mind to a fuller assurance of his reality and a readier obedience to his commands.18  

2. Newton struggled to understand God's nature and activity from a scientific perspective. 

What is the cosmos capable of revealing about God to the person who believes in its Creator? What are the attributes of God which the universe displays? How can we see God at work in the world? It is difficult to separate Newton's concept of God into the part derived from nature and the part derived from Scripture; this is perhaps a positive aspect of the interaction of his science and his theology. Consider the following rather "scientific" description of God which appeared in the second edition of the Principia following a discussion implying the need for an Agent of creation.  

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all.... The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect.... And from his true dominion it follows that the true God is a living, intelligent, and powerful Being; and, from his other perfections, that he is supreme or most perfect. He is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient; that is, his duration reaches from eternity to eternity; his presence from infinity to infinity; he governs all things and knows all things that are or can be done. He is not eternity and infinity, but eternal and infinite; he is not duration or space, but he endures and is present. He endures forever and is everywhere present; and, by existing always and everywhere, he constitutes duration and space.... He is omnipresent not virtually only but also substantially.... In him all things are contained and moved, yet neither affects the other; God suffers nothing from the motion of bodies, bodies find no resistence from the omnipresence of God.19 

It is clear that Newton is insistent that God is a Person, rather than some abstraction. His understanding of God as the "sovereign Lord over all" is definitely derived from Scripture. On the other hand, Newton is also struggling to "explain" the physical relationship of this Being to the world He has created. He wants to retain the scientific concept of absolute space and to distinguish God from it. At the same time he needs to explain how God can operate within space. 

God would certainly have created a world 
which was rational, and would have given 
human beings a rationality capable of its understanding.

E. W. Strong identifies three levels of abstraction from sense data in Newton's work: 1) propositions ... inferred or induced from "phenomena;" 2) "constructs" such as absolute space which are not "empirically grounded," metaphysical in the sense of being "unverified assumptions" for the particular model, but which express a real order of "nature"; and 3) the existence and attributes of God. Science proper is limited, by Newton, to the first and second "levels of abstracting."20 While this scheme of levels of abstraction may help to clarify the distinction between science and theology, on the other hand it indicates something about the problem of integration which Newton attempted to solve. "Absolute space" is a construct on level 2; God is on level 3. Naming the different levels doesn't explain how they differ, nor does it give us any clue as to how constructs from all three levels are to be combined into a meaningful theory. If indeed some of our knowledge of God is not divorced from sense experience, then integration of at least that portion of theology with science should be a realizable goal. 

Newton's system implied a dilemma: 
the choice was "either that real space is God, 
or else that there is something beside God which is 
eternal, uncreated, infinite, indivisible, immutable."

Newton also accepted a distinction between what an object is in itself and what we experience of it. Consider how he illustrates this with regard to God in the following passage from the Principia.  

As a blind man has no idea of colors, so we have no idea of the manner by which the all-wise God perceives and understands all things... We have ideas of his attributes, but what the real substance of anything is we know not. In bodies we see only their figure and colors, we hear only the sounds, we touch only their outward surfaces, we smell only the smells, and taste the savors, but their inward substances are not to be known either by our senses or by any reflex act of our minds; much less, then, have we any idea of the substance of God. We know Him only by his most wise and excellent contrivances of things and final causes... All our notions of God are taken from the ways of mankind by a certain similitude, which, though not perfect, has some likeness, however. And thus much concerning God, to discourse of whom from the appearance of things does certainly belong to natural philosophy.21 

In the second edition of Opticks, Newton had made another attempt to explain God's actions within the universe. He writes that God, 
being in all Places, is more able by his Will to move the bodies within his boundless uniform Sensorium, and thereby to form and reform the parts of the Universe, than we are by our will to form and reform the parts of our own Bodies.... And yet we are not to consider the world as the body of God.22

This comment got Newton into immediate trouble with Leibniz, who read Newton as identifying God with space. Newton clearly rejected any such pantheistic notion. 

After the publication of the first edition of the Principia, Bishop Berkeley had criticized Newton's concept of absolute space. He wrote that Newton's system implied a dilemma: "the choice was either that real space is God, or else that there is something beside God which is eternal, uncreated, infinite, indivisible, immutable."23 (Incidentally, Berkeley also criticized Newton for his use of infinity in the mathematics of the Principia.) The above quote from the second edition of the Principia was undoubtedly in part a response to Berkeley's criticism. 

A more contemporary critique of the concept of space came from C. S. Lewis in Out of the Silent Planet, in which" Space" itself is pictured as dark, void, and dead. It contains worlds admitting life, but these are separated by great distances. This, Lewis suggests, is the standard 20th century materialistic and scientific view, and it is in large measure a result of the Newtonian revolution. Lewis's hero, Ransom, comes to believe the old phrase, the "heavens," to be much more descriptive. Rather than an empty container, the heavens are full of life.24 Newton certainly did prove the universe to be much larger than previously thought, and he viewed a lot of space as devoid of matter. However, he was not a materialist. Space was not empty, for it was filled with the presence of God. Newton's continuing struggle was to explain the relationship between space and the God of space. 

Space was not empty, for it was filled with the presence of God. 
Newton's struggle was to explain the relationship 
between space and the God of space.

How God continues to operate within the world He has made brings us to the doctrine of providence. For many, a mechanical view of the universe was necessarily deterministic: while God might be necessary to create the world, establish its laws, and set it in motion, once started, the world could run by itself. The law of inertia, a cornerstone of Newtonian mechanics, said a body in motion would continue in motion by itself unless acted upon by an outside force. Indeed, if God were a really good mathematician-physicist, could or would He have done anything less? It was only a small step to the god of the deists.  

A truly perfect Creator, Leibniz insisted, would have fashioned a world which would last forever unless He were to intervene purposely to destroy it. This contrasted with Newton's belief that God would wisely fashion His creation in such a way that  ..." nothing is done without his continual government and inspection...," so that God had to act merely to allow the world to continue.25 

But what science did Newton offer which would be consistent with his view of providence? Did God maintain the universe in a perfect state? If so, how could His intervention be seen? If He made the universe with imperfections, His intervention would be necessary at times to put the system back on track, but this god of the gaps might prove no better than some now-absent creator. 

If God made the universe with imperfections, 
His intervention would be necessary at times 
to put the system back on track, but this god of the gaps 
might prove no better than some now-absent creator

Newton offered various proposals for the continuing role of God in the operation of the universe. He suggested that gravity itself might be the direct result of God's will.26 He noted irregularities in the motions of the planets which he suggested would after a time require adjustment by God. But I find most interesting his suggestion that the universe was decaying, that the total amount of motion was decreasing (like the Second Law of Thermo-dynamics). Newton proposed that this decay would require a "Reformation" or act of re-creation of the universe by God at some point in the future. This naturally leads us to inquire about Newton's eschatological views. 

Prophecy was one of the most significant areas of Newton's theological studies. "To Newton, the correspondence of prophecy with fact demonstrated the dominion of God, a dominion exercised over human history even as it is exercised over the "natural world."27 Newton spent a great deal of time interpreting Daniel and Revelation historically, and reconstructing and reconciling history with them; the result was a book entitled Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John

Newton spent a great deal of time interpreting 
Daniel and Revelation historically, and reconstructing and reconciling history with them.

He also insisted on a literal interpretation of future prophecies concerning the second coming of Christ. In "Of the Day of Judgment and the World to Come," Newton expressed the belief that Jesus would reign on the earth for a thousand years.28 It would be after the Millennium that the decay of the universe would reach such a state that "a new heaven and a new earth" would be created by God.29 One should add that this belief was not unique to Newton; it was not uncommon among a variety of thinkers with ties to Cambridge.30 What is significant for our purposes is Newton's synthesis of the universal laws of mechanics and eschatology.   
3. Newton used a scientific approach in theology. 

So far we have discussed the struggle which Newton faced as he attempted to relate the contents of the Book of God and the Book of Nature. Behind the content are the questions of epistemology: to what extent is knowledge available in science and theology? How is such knowledge obtained? Is revelation (both general and special) required to be "scientifically reasonable"? For Newton, there seem to be similar criteria for knowing in his study of both science and theology; the general issues will be discussed and then illustrated by considering an example. 

We have seen Newton's desire to do science apart from the inclusion of revealed truths, but this was not an attempt to judge revelation by science. He simply believed that special revelation did not belong to science proper. He acknowledged the limitations of science. Consequently, he did not require the truths of revelation to be "scientifically reasonable." If his desire had been simple common-sense rationalism, we should expect Newton to reject miracles, a Second Coming of Christ, and the resurrection of the body. In fact he accepts them all quite "literally."31 

A principle which was foundational to Newton's science 
was that the cosmos was intelligible: 
Newton applied the same principle to Scripture. 
He believed that the basic truths of the Bible 
were clear enough for all to understand...

A principle which was foundational to Newton's science was that the cosmos was intelligible: the Creator had endowed both the world and man with a common rationality. His inclinations toward the mystery tradition of science may have suggested that the deepest secrets may be discernable by only a few, but much was clear to all. Newton applied the same principle to Scripture. He believed that the basic truths of the Bible were clear enough for all to understand, and these truths were the ones required to serve God faithfully. He acknowledged the existence of deeper truths in the Bible, but saw them as less essential. 

Now if we push the two Book analogy, it would seem that the Principia would be analogous to a text in systematic theology. But several key features of the Principia are missing. It was, after all, the mathematical principles of the cosmos which Newton so profoundly displayed. But Newton did not believe that the key to the Scriptures was to be found in mathematical equations. What about crucial experiments? Again, no correspondent. One other feature of Newton's science was the abstract concept.

For instance, he mathematically described the effects of "gravity," but preferred not to hypothesize concerning the nature of "gravity"; in any case, such a hypothesis would not be a part of science. As another example,  

force was to Newton a concept necessary to the description of phenomena in mechanical terms. Its validity rested on its utility in demonstrations, not on hypotheses that might explain its origin. Newton believed that nature is ultimately opaque to human understanding. Science cannot hope to obtain certain knowledge about the essences of things.32

We have seen above how Newton struggled with the details of conceptualizing God and His relation to His creation. We have also noted that before Newton's time, science had sought for essences.  

Newton explicitly contradicted the traditional ideal for science. Instead of striving toward certain knowledge of the real essences of material objects, [he] sought an ordering of phenomenal experience which would enable [him] to predict nature's course... 33  

That is, Newton's focus was on describing how a thing functioned, not on what it was in itself. For Newton as a scientist, abstract constructs were valid insofar as they led to accurate predictions. What role could such concepts have for theology?Newton chose to take the statements of the Bible at face value, rather than attempt some extra-Biblical, metaphysical explanation. He goes so far as to state, "What cannot be understood is no object of faith."34 What he means by this is that the Faith, embodied in the creeds, should not contain statements which are unintelligible. It should be noted that this was not a rule used by Newton to eliminate portions of Scripture. It would seem to be similar to Newton's view of general revelation: there is knowledge about God to be had by a reasoning study of His works. By rejecting the need for "special illumination," Newton was rejecting the necessity of extra revelation (through Church tradition, for instance) or metaphysical supplements. He was not discounting the role of the Holy Spirit, as we saw earlier. 

Newton chose to take the statements of the Bible at face value,
 rather than attempt some extra-Biblical, metaphysical explanation.

On the other hand, Newton was prepared to reject concepts of systematic theology which he found beyond understanding. He argues that true Christianity does not contain any article of faith beyond what Scripture explicitly states, in particular with regard to the introduction of foreign metaphysical concepts. In this, Newton is treating theology in a way which has some similarity to the way he treated science.  

This is the perspective with which he came to theology. Metaphysical concepts are useful if they help to describe how things work or how they relate; such concepts have no role to play in explaining essences. It is with this background that I believe it will be enlightening to discuss Newton's views on the deity of Christ. 

Metaphysical concepts are useful if they help to describe how things work 
or how they relate; such concepts have no role to play in explaining essences.

To put the matter succinctly and frankly, Newton is frequently interpreted as being an Arian, and not without reason. While some of the evidence is circumstantial, manuscripts only recently discovered have provided rather extensive documentation of his questions concerning the orthodox doctrine that Jesus was fully God. What I would like to do is treat Newton as a sincere questioner, and leave any decision about his being a heretic to others. It is the nature of his questions which I find most intriguing. It seems to me that they are a natural result of the influence of his scientific mentality. 

Newton firmly believed that Christian doctrine was to be found in the words of Scripture; they were the "data" of theology. Consequently, he was very concerned not only with the proper understanding of Scripture, but also with having the proper text of Scripture. He wrote  

We are commanded by the Apostle (I Tim. 1:13) to hold fast the form of sound words. Contending for a language which was not handed down from the Prophets and Apostles is a breach of the command and they that break it are also guilty of the disturbances and schisms occasioned thereby. It is not enough to say that an article of faith may be deduced from scripture. It must be exprest in the very form of sound words in which it was delivered by the Apostles....(italics mine) Men are apt to vary, dispute, and run into partings about deductions. All the old Heresies lay in deductions; the true faith was in the text.35 

This makes it clear how highly Newton regarded the very words of Scripture, and how careful he felt one must be, therefore, that doctrine is based on an accurate text. Consequently he spent a great deal of time and effort in studying the actual text of Scripture.

One of Newton's most significant theological works is "An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of the Scriptures," contained in two letters written to John Locke.36 This manuscript discusses two then-prominent proof-texts for the deity of Christ, I John 5:7 and I Timothy 3:16. The King James version of I John 5:7 included the phrase "the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one." Newton delved into textual criticism, and found that this phrase was not in the earliest manuscripts, nor quoted in the early Church Fathers. Thus he rejected it, and became one of the earliest to anticipate the verdict of modern scholarship.37 In I Timothy 3:16, the King James version contained the phrase, "God who was revealed in the flesh." Again Newton discovered that the better texts were less explicit: "God" was really "he"; modern scholars agree.38

What should we conclude about a person who thus attacked these passages? Let me suggest a possible perspective. Newton was a mathematician, and as such knew the difference between a correct proof and an incorrect proof of a theorem. To show a proof to be incorrect is not the same as to disprove the theorem. Some of Newton's interpreters have erred at this point. Newton knew that an incorrect proof would detract from the force of the proposition; he constantly revised his mathematical work for this very reason. Concerning religion, he writes to Locke,  There cannot be better service done to the truth than to purge it of things "spurious."39  Since Newton viewed the book of Revelation as a key to Scripture, perhaps he was heeding the warning in Revelation 22:18, ..."if anyone adds to [the words of the prophecy of this book], God shall add to him the plagues which are written in this book." 

Concerning religion, he writes to Locke, There cannot be better service 
done to the truth than to purge it of "things spurious."

The development of the doctrine of the deity of Christ revolved around the Greek word homoousios. Newton comments that, "in the fourth century, when the Fathers were not able to assert the position of Alexander [the Bishop who had charged Arius with heresy] from the scriptures, they preferred to desert the scriptures than not to condemn Arius."40 Newton's suggestion is that the Arian heresy was defined by the introduction of a metaphysical concept foreign to the Scriptures, and which is unintelligible. "`Twas not understood in the Council of Nice... nor ever since.'..."41 The first of his "Queries Regarding the Word `Homoousios'" was "Whether Christ sent his apostles to teach metaphysics to the unlearned common people, and to their wives and children?"42 

Newton's approach to the person of Christ is to quote Scripture, which seemed to him to overwhelmingly refer to a distinction between the Father and the Son, especially with respect to their functions. Even at the end of the ages, a clear distinction seems to exist as Jesus delivers His kingdom to God the Father.43 To Newton, these Scriptural propositions were the phenomena of Christianity. They apparently made the best sense to him in a way which caused him to question the traditional doctrine of the Deity of Christ. To go beyond the descriptive statements Scripture provided in an attempt to speak of essences was to transcend a boundary which in science he had found to be an uncrossable barrier. 

To go beyond the descriptive statements Scripture provided 
in an attempt to speak of essences, was to transcend a boundary 
which in science Newton had found to be an uncrossable barrier.

Could it be that he hoped for ecclesiastical peace, for agreement on the statements of Scripture, by suggesting that we resist the urge to go beyond them? The earlier quote concerning deductions from the text would seem to support this view. It could be objected that Newton certainly used deduction in science; true, but then experiments were available to test the accuracy of the resultant predictions. What predictions would result from a theory of the Trinity? If there are none, then how would the theory to be tested? How would one know if it were true? These are, it seems to me, the perspectives and questions which Newton the scientist would naturally bring to the task of discovering the nature of Christ. 

Newton, despite all his intellect and efforts spanning a life of 83 years, did not answer all the questions, and even the answers he gave were not always correct. Pope had exaggerated; God let Newton be, but not all had become light. However, in the estimation of many of Newton's contemporaries, Pope was not far from correct. After some three centuries, can we find some light from Newton to guide our intellectual paths? In practice, Newton tended to write separately about science and theology; scientific content almost never appears in his theological manuscripts, and theology was almost always a later addition in his scientific writings. How does our understanding of the integration of faith and learning help us to improve on Newton's example? For Christian higher education, is today's curriculum a significant improvement over Newton's writings? 

Could it be that he hoped for ecclesiastical peace, 
for agreement on the statements of Scripture, 
by suggesting that we resist the urge to go beyond them?

Newton unified heaven and earth with a universal theory of gravitation. Perhaps his example should encourage us to seek a more unified doctrine of God's revelation of Himself in Scripture, nature, and history. We should respect Newton's struggles to understand God and His activity from the perspective of a rapidly changing culture. And perhaps we might emulate the humility of the man who, near the end of his celebrated life, wrote  

I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than the ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.44 


1Frank Manuel, The Religion of Isaac Newton (Oxford: Claredon Press, 1974), p. 5. 
2Ibid., p. 11. 
3Arthur Ernest Bell, Newtonian Science (London: E. Arnold, 1961), p. 19. 
4Hugh Kearney, Science and Change: 1500-1700 (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1971), p. 24. 
5Richard S. Westfall, Never at Rest (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1983), p. 22. 
6Kearney, op. cit., p. 39. 
7Betty Jo Teeter Dobbs, The Foundations of Newton's Alchemy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1975), p. 48. 
8H.W. Turnbull, ed., The Correspondence of Isaac Newton Vol. 1 (Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press, 1957), pp. xvi-xvii. 
9quoted in William H. Austin, "Isaac Newton on Science and Religion," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 522. 
10Correspondence 3, p. 233. 
11Correspondence 3, p. 240. 
12quoted in Austin, op. cit., p. 530. 
13Edwin Aurthur Burtt, The Metaphysical Foundations of Modern Physical Science (New York: Humanities Press, 1951), p. 17. 
14Newton, quoted in Manuel, op.cit., p. 124. 
15"from the General Scholium" of the Principia, quoted in Newton's Philosophy of Nature, ed. Thayer (New York: Hafner), p. 42. 
16E.W. Strong, "Newton and God," Journal of the History of Ideas 13 (1952): 151. 
17Opticks (New York: Dover, 1952), pp. 369-370. 
18Burtt, op. cit., p. 281. 
19quoted in Thayer, pp. 42-44. 
20Strong, "Newton's `Mathematical Way'," Journal of the History of Ideas 12 (1951): pp. 101-102. 
21quoted in Thayer, pp. 44-45. 
22quoted in J. E. Power, "Henry More and Isaac Newton on Absolute Space," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 289-296. 
23George Berkeley, "A Treatise Concerning the Principles of Human Knowledge," The Empiricists (New York: Anchor), p. 198. 
24C.S. Lewis, Out of the Silent Planet (New York: Macmillan, 1965), p. 32. 
25David Kubrin, "Newton and the Cyclic Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy," Journal of the History of Ideas 28 (1967): 325. 
26Ibid., p. 338, n52. 
27Westfall, op. cit., p. 329. 
28Manuel, op. cit., p. 126. 
29Kubrin, op. cit., p. 332. 
30Margaret C. Jacob, "Millenarianism and Science in the Late Seventeenth Century," Journal of the History of Ideas 37 (1976): 335-341. 
31Austin, op. cit., p. 531. 
32Westfall, The Construction of Modern Science: Mechanisms and Mechanics (New York: John Wiley, 1971), pp. 158-159. 
33Margaret J. Osler, "John Locke and the Changing Ideal of Scientific Knowledge," Journal of the History of Ideas 31 (1970): 6.
34quoted in Austin, op. cit., p. 538.
35quoted in H. McLachlan, The Religious Opinions of Milton, Locke, and Newton (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1941), pp. 54-55.
36Correspondence 3, p. 83.
37an {A} rating in Bruce Metzger, A Textual Commentary on the Greek New Testament (London: United Bible Societies, 1975), p. 715-717.
38a {B} rating in Ibid., p. 641.
39Correspondence 3, p. 83.
40quoted in Westfall, Never at Rest, p. 314.
41Austin, op. cit., p. 528.
42Ibid., p. 527.
43I Corinthians 15:24.
44quoted in Westfall, Science and Religion in the Seventeenth Century  (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1973), p. 198.