Isaac Newton's religious views


Isaac Newton's religious views
Sir Isaac Newton at 46 in Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait
The life of
Isaac Newton
Early life
Middle years
Later life
Writing Principia
Religious views
Occult studies

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) was an English physicist, mathematician, astronomer, natural philosopher, theologian and alchemist. He also wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies.

Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible, as he considered himself to be one of a select group of individuals who were specially chosen by God for the task of understanding Biblical scripture.[1] Newton’s conception of the physical world provided a stable model of the natural world that would reinforce stability and harmony in the civic world. Newton saw a monotheistic God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation.[2][3]

Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that, had it been made public, would not have been considered orthodox by mainstream Christianity;[4] in recent times he has been described as heretical to orthodoxy.[5]

Contents

Biblical studies

Though he is better known for his love of science, the Bible was Sir Isaac Newton's greatest passion. He devoted more time to the study of Scripture than to science, and he said, "I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily."[6] He spent a great deal of time trying to discover hidden messages within the Bible. After 1690, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible. In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704 in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."[7]

Prophecy

Newton was a strong believer in prophetic interpretation of the Bible and considered himself to be one of a select group of individuals who were specially chosen by God for the task of understanding Biblical scripture.[1]

Unlike a prophet in the classical sense of the word, Newton relied upon existing Scripture to prophecy for him, believing his interpretations would set the record straight in the face of what he considered to be, "so little understood".[8]

Though he would never write a cohesive body of work on Prophecy, Newton's beliefs would lead him to write several treatises on the subject, including an unpublished guide for prophetic interpretation entitled, Rules for interpreting the words & language in Scripture. In this manuscript he details the necessary requirements for what he considered to be the proper interpretation of the Bible.

He used the book of Daniel and Revelation to work out the dates he used

Time of the end

In his posthumously-published Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John, Newton expressed his belief that Bible prophecy would not be understood "until the time of the end", and that even then "none of the wicked shall understand". Referring to that as a future time ("the last age, the age of opening these things, be now approaching"), Newton also anticipated "the general preaching of the Gospel be approaching" and "the Gospel must first be preached in all nations before the great tribulation, and end of the world".[9]

2060 A.D.

Over the years, a large amount of media attention and public interest has circulated regarding largely unknown and unpublished documents, evidently written by Isaac Newton, that indicate he believed the world could end in 2060 AD. (Newton also had many other possible dates e.g. 2034)[10] The juxtaposition of Newton, popularly seen by some as the embodiment of scientific rationality, with a seemingly irrational prediction of the "end of the world" would invariably lend itself to cultural sensationalism.

To understand the reasoning behind the 2060 prediction, an understanding of Newton's theological beliefs should be taken into account, particularly his nontrinitarian beliefs and those negative views he held about the Papacy. Both of these lay essential to his calculations, which are themselves based upon specific chronological dates which he believed had already transpired and had been prophesied within Revelation and Daniel, books within the Christian Bible.

Despite the dramatic nature of a prediction of the end of the world, Newton may not have been referring to the 2060 date as a destructive act resulting in the annihilation of the earth and its inhabitants, but rather one in which he believed the world was to be replaced with a new one based upon a transition to an era of divinely inspired peace. In Christian theology, this concept is often referred to as The Second Coming of Jesus Christ and the establishment of Paradise by The Kingdom of God on Earth.[10] In Judaism it is often referred to as the Messianic era or the "Yamei Moshiach" (Days of the Messiah).

God as masterful creator

Newton saw God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation.[11] Nevertheless he rejected Leibniz' thesis that God would necessarily make a perfect world which requires no intervention from the creator. In Query 31 of the Opticks, Newton simultaneously made an argument from design and for the necessity of intervention:

For while comets move in very eccentric orbs in all manner of positions, blind fate could never make all the planets move one and the same way in orbs concentric, some inconsiderable irregularities excepted which may have arisen from the mutual actions of comets and planets on one another, and which will be apt to increase, till this system wants a reformation.[12]

This passage prompted an attack by Leibniz in a letter to his friend Caroline of Ansbach:

Sir Isaac Newton and his followers have also a very odd opinion concerning the work of God. According to their doctrine, God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.[13]

Leibniz' letter initiated the Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, ostensibly with Newton's friend and disciple Samuel Clarke, although as Caroline wrote, Clarke's letters "are not written without the advice of the Chev. Newton".[14] Clarke complained that Leibniz' concept of God as a "supra-mundane intelligence" who set up a "pre-established harmony" was only a step from atheism: "And as those men, who pretend that in an earthly government things may go on perfectly well without the king himself ordering or disposing of any thing, may reasonably be suspected that they would like very well to set the king aside: so, whosoever contends, that the beings of the world can go on without the continual direction of God...his doctrine does in effect tend to exclude God out of the world".[15]

In addition to stepping in to re-form the solar system, Newton invoked God's active intervention to prevent the stars falling in on each other, and perhaps in preventing the amount of motion in the universe from decaying due to viscosity and friction.[16] In private correspondence Newton sometimes hinted that the force of Gravity was due to an immaterial influence:

Tis inconceivable that inanimate brute matter should (without the mediation of something else which is not material) operate upon & affect other matter without mutual contact.[17]

Leibniz jibed that such an immaterial influence would be a continual miracle; this was another strand of his debate with Clarke.

Newton's view has been considered to be close to deism but differed in that he invoked God as a special physical cause to keep the planets in orbits.[18] He warned against using the law of gravity to view the universe as a mere machine, like a great clock. He said:

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.[6]

This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets, could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent Being. [...] This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all; and on account of his dominion he is wont to be called "Lord God" παντοκρατωρ [pantokratōr], or "Universal Ruler". [...] The Supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, [and] absolutely perfect.[2]

Opposition to godliness is atheism in profession and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.[19]

On the other hand, latitudinarian and Newtonian ideas taken too far resulted in the millenarians, a religious faction dedicated to the concept of a mechanical universe, but finding in it the same enthusiasm and mysticism that the Enlightenment had fought so hard to extinguish.[20] Newton himself may have had some interest in millenarianism as he wrote about both the Book of Daniel and the Book of Revelation in his Observations Upon the Prophecies. In a manuscript he wrote in 1704 in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world could end on 2060. In predicting this he said, "This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail."[7]

Newton’s conception of the physical world provided a stable model of the natural world that would reinforce stability and harmony in the civic world.[20]

Orthodoxy

Newton was born into an Anglican family, and remained part of the Anglican establishment for the majority of his life. However, Newton's private religious views were not in line with Anglican doctrine.

According to most scholars, Newton was Arian, not holding to Trinitarianism.[5][18][21] 'In Newton's eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin'.[22] As well as being antitrinitarian, Newton allegedly rejected the orthodox doctrines of the immortal soul,[5] a personal devil and literal demons.[5] Although he was not a Socinian he shared many similar beliefs with them.[5] A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity was never published.

Newton — like many contemporaries (e.g., Thomas Aikenhead)  — faced the threat of severe punishment if he had been open about his religious beliefs. Heresy was a crime that could have been punishable by the loss of all property and status or even death (see, e.g., the Blasphemy Act 1697). Because of his secrecy over his religious beliefs, Newton has been described as a Nicodemite.[5]

In a minority view, T.C. Pfizenmaier argued Newton was neither "orthodox" nor an Arian,[23] but that, rather, Newton believed both of these groups had wandered into metaphysical speculation.[24] Pfizenmaier also argued that Newton held closer to the Eastern Orthodox view of the Trinity rather than the Western one held by Roman Catholics and Protestants.[24] However, S. D. Snobelen has argued against this from manuscripts produced late in Newton's life which demonstrate Newton rejected the Eastern view of the Trinity.[5]

Other beliefs

Newton's grave in Westminster Abbey

Henry More's belief in the universe and rejection of Cartesian dualism may have influenced Newton's religious ideas. 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.[25]

Newton and Boyle’s mechanical philosophy was promoted by rationalist pamphleteers as a viable alternative to the pantheists and enthusiasts, and was accepted hesitantly by orthodox clergy as well as dissident preachers like the latitudinarians.[20] The clarity and simplicity of science was seen as a way in which to combat the emotional and mystical superlatives of superstitious enthusiasm, as well as the threat of atheism.[20]

The attacks made against pre-Enlightenment magical thinking, and the mystical elements of Christianity, were given their foundation with Boyle’s mechanical conception of the universe. Newton gave Boyle’s ideas their completion through mathematical proofs, and more importantly was very successful in popularizing them.[25] Newton refashioned the world governed by an interventionist God into a world crafted by a God that designs along rational and universal principles.[26] These principles were available for all people to discover, allowed man to pursue his own aims fruitfully in this life, not the next, and to perfect himself with his own rational powers.[27]

See also


References

  1. ^ a b "Newton's Views on Prophecy". The Newton Project. 2007-04-05. http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/prism.php?id=74. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  2. ^ a b Principia, Book III; cited in; Newton’s Philosophy of Nature: Selections from his writings, p. 42, ed. H.S. Thayer, Hafner Library of Classics, NY, 1953.
  3. ^ A Short Scheme of the True Religion, manuscript quoted in Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton by Sir David Brewster, Edinburgh, 1850; cited in; ibid, p. 65.
  4. ^ Westfall, Richard S.. "Newton, Isaac". The Galileo Project. http://galileo.rice.edu/Catalog/NewFiles/newton.html. Retrieved 2008-07-05. 
  5. ^ a b c d e f g Snobelen, Stephen D. (1999). "Isaac Newton, heretic : the strategies of a Nicodemite" (PDF). British Journal for the History of Science 32 (4): 381–419. doi:10.1017/S0007087499003751. http://www.isaac-newton.org/heretic.pdf. 
  6. ^ a b John H. Tiner. Isaac Newton: Inventor, Scientist and Teacher. Mott Media. ISBN 0-91513406-3. 
  7. ^ a b "Papers Show Isaac Newton's Religious Side, Predict Date of Apocalypse". Associated Press. 19 June 2007. http://www.christianpost.com/article/20070619/28049_Papers_Show_Isaac_Newton%27s_Religious_Side%2C_Predict_Date_of_Apocalypse.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-01. 
  8. ^ Newton, Isaac (2007-04-05). "The First Book Concerning the Language of the Prophets". The Newton Project. http://www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/texts/viewtext.php?id=THEM00005&mode=normalized. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  9. ^ Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John by Sir Isaac Newton, 1733, J. DARBY and T. BROWNE, Online
  10. ^ a b Snobelen, Stephen D. "A time and times and the dividing of time: Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 A.D.". http://www.isaac-newton.org/newton_2060.htm. Retrieved 2007-08-15. 
  11. ^ Webb, R.K. ed. Knud Haakonssen. “The emergence of Rational Dissent.” Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in eighteenth-century Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1996. p19.
  12. ^ Newton, 1706 Opticks (2nd Edition), quoted in H. G. Alexander 1956 (ed): The Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, University of Manchester Press.
  13. ^ Leibniz, first letter, in Alexander 1956, p. 11
  14. ^ Caroline to Leibniz, 10th Jan 1716, quoted in Alexander 1956, p. 193. (Chev. = Chevalier i.e. Knight.)
  15. ^ Clarke, first reply, in Alexander 1956 p. 14.
  16. ^ H.W. Alexander 1956, p. xvii
  17. ^ Newton to Bentley, 25 Feb 1693
  18. ^ a b Avery Cardinal Dulles. The Deist Minimum. 2005.
  19. ^ Brewster, Sir David. A Short Scheme of the True Religion, manuscript quoted in Memoirs of the Life, Writings and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton Edinburgh, 1850.
  20. ^ a b c d Jacob, Margaret C. The Newtonians and the English Revolution: 1689-1720.
  21. ^ Richard Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, (1980) pp. 103, 25.
  22. ^ Westfall, Richard S. (1994). The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 0521477379. 
  23. ^ Pfizenmaier, T.C, "The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke" (1675-1729)
  24. ^ a b Pfizenmaier, T.C., "Was Isaac Newton an Arian?" Journal of the History of Ideas 68(1):57–80, 1997.
  25. ^ a b Westfall, Richard S. (1973) [1964]. Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. U of Michigan Press. ISBN 978-047206190-7. 
  26. ^ Fitzpatrick, Martin. ed. Knud Haakonssen. “The Enlightenment, politics and providence: some Scottish and English comparisons.” Enlightenment and Religion: Rational Dissent in eighteenth-century Britain. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge: 1996. p64.
  27. ^ Frankel, Charles. The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment. King’s Crown Press, New York: 1948. p1.

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