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Religious views of Isaac Newton


Religious views of Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton at 46 in Godfrey Kneller's 1689 portrait.

Isaac Newton (25 December 1642 – 20 March 1727)[1] was, as considered by others within his own lifetime, an insightful and erudite theologian.[2][3][4] He wrote many works that would now be classified as occult studies and religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible.[5]

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.[6][7] 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;[8] in recent times he has been described as a heretic.[9]


  • Christian orthodoxy 1
  • God as masterful creator 2
  • The Bible 3
    • Prophecy 3.1
    • The End of the World 3.2
  • Other beliefs 4
  • Writings 5
  • See also 6
  • References 7
  • External links 8

Christian orthodoxy

Newton was born into an Anglican family three months after the death of his father, a prosperous farmer also named Isaac Newton. When Newton was three, his mother married the rector of the neighbouring parish of North Witham and went to live with her new husband, the Reverend Barnabus Smith, leaving her son in the care of his maternal grandmother, Margery Ayscough.[10] Isaac apparently hated Smith, and had no relations with him during his childhood.[8] His maternal uncle, the rector serving the parish of Burton Coggles,[11] was involved in some part in the care of Isaac.

During 1667 Newton was a Fellow at Cambridge,[12] making necessary the commitment to taking Holy Orders within seven years of completion of his studies. Prior to commencing studies he was required to take a vow of celibacy and recognize the Thirty-Nine Articles of the Church of England.[13] Newton considered ceasing his studies prior to completion in order to avoid the ordination made necessary by law of King Charles II for all graduates.[14][15] He later capitulated to his desire for exemption from the binding of the statute, in some way assisted in this by the efforts of Isaac Barrow, when in 1676 the then State Secretary Joseph Williamson changed the relevant statute of Trinity College to provide dispensation from this duty.[13] Having foregone these duties, he embarked on an investigative study of the early history of the Church, during the 1680s succeeding into inquiries of the origins of religion instead, at about the same time as having developed a scientific view on motion and matter.[16] Of Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica he stated:[17]

When I wrote my treatise about our Systeme I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the beliefe of a Deity and nothing can rejoyce me more then to find it useful for that purpose.

Newton's religious views developed as a result of participation in an investigative discourse with Nature (the nature of the world) and developed from the apparent dichotomy of biblical reality from the increasing revealing of the structure of reality from investigation, and the subsequent challenges these truths of nature posed toward established religion for Newton, especially in light of Christian scriptural belief.[18][19] Unorthodoxy was made necessary for Newton, and those affiliated with him, by the need for rediscovery of a prisca truth that had been hidden somewhere in the time of classical history.[20] By this they might have the capacity to engage in open dialogue with an investigation into Nature. In this conflict of ecclesiastical order and the liberating effects of scientific enquiry, he and others turned to the prisca in all the security of a classical civilization having been supposedly founded on bona fide insights.[21] So, for them, the truth lay within the perception of reality attained by Pythagoras and communicated, supposedly in a secret way, to a specific circle of people.[22]

As is found among some of the established intellectuals of the Renaissance age, Newton believed that ancient philosophers and religious persons had gained insight into the truth of the nature of the world and universe, but this truth having become hidden within the language of the recording of the truth at the time and by later medieval scholars (Albertus Magnus, Arnold of Villanova and Roger Bacon) that required deciphering in order to be understood. The belief in the wisdom of the ancients, that thinking was intelligent and knowing in the civilization of classical religious figures (Jesus of Nazareth, the prophet Isaiah and Solomon) and writers (Plato and Democritus) is known as prisca sapientia.[15]

Like many contemporaries (e.g., Thomas Aikenhead) he lived with 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.[9]

According to most scholars, Newton was Arian, not holding to Trinitarianism.[9][23][24] 'In Newton's eyes, worshipping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin'.[25] As well as being antitrinitarian, Newton allegedly rejected the orthodox doctrines of the immortal soul,[9] a personal devil and literal demons.[9] Although he was not a Socinian he shared many similar beliefs with them.[9] A manuscript he sent to John Locke in which he disputed the existence of the Trinity was never published. In a minority view, T.C. Pfizenmaier argued Newton was neither "orthodox" nor an Arian,[26] but that, rather, Newton believed both of these groups had wandered into metaphysical speculation.[27] 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.[27] 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.[9]

Newton refused viaticum before his death.[8]

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.[28] 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.[29]

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.[30]

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".[31] 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".[32]

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.[33] 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.[34]

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 and several biographers and scholars labeled him as a deist who is strongly influenced by Christianity.[35][36][37][38] However, he differed from strict adherents of deism in that he invoked God as a special physical cause to keep the planets in orbits.[23] He warned against using the law of gravity to view the universe as a mere machine, like a great clock. He said:

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.[6]
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.[39][40]

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.[41] 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."[42]

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.[41]

The Bible

Newton 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 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."[42]


Newton relied upon the existing Scripture for prophecy, believing his interpretations would set the record straight in the face of what he considered to be, "so little understood".[43] 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.

The End of the World

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".[44]

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. While Newton also had many other possible dates (e.g. 2034),[45] he did not believe that the End of the World would take place in 2060.[46]

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 in Revelation and Daniel.

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.[45]

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.[47]

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.[41] 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.[41]

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.[47] Newton refashioned the world governed by an interventionist God into a world crafted by a God that designs along rational and universal principles.[48] 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.[49]


His first writing on the subject of religion was Introductio. Continens Apocalypseos rationem generalem (Introduction. Containing an explanation of the Apocalypse), which has an unnumbered leaf between folios 1 and 2 with the subheading De prophetia prima,[50] written in Latin some time prior to 1670. Written subsequently in English was Notes on early Church history and the moral superiority of the 'barbarians' to the Romans. His last writing, in 1737, was entitled A Dissertation upon the Sacred Cubit of the Jews and the Cubits of the several Nations.[4] Newton did not publish any of his works of biblical study during his lifetime.[3][51] All of Newton's writings on corruption in biblical scripture and the church took place after the late 1670s and prior to the middle of 1690.[3]

See also


  1. ^ Christianson, Gale E. (19 September 1996). Isaac Newton and the scientific revolution. - 155 pages Oxford portraits in science Oxford University Press.  
  2. ^ Isaac Newton on Science and Religion - William H. Austin - Journal of the History of Ideas Vol. 31, No. 4 (October - Dececember 1970), pp. 521-542 (article consists of 22 pages) University of Pennsylvania Press Retrieved 28 January 2012
  3. ^ a b c [ENGLISH & LATIN] "Newton's Views on the Corruptions of Scripture and the Church"The Newton Project . Retrieved 28 January 2012. 
  4. ^ a b Professor Rob Iliffe (AHRC Newton Papers Project) THE NEWTON PROJECT - Newton's Religious Writings [ENGLISH & LATIN] prism.php44. University of Sussex. Retrieved 28 January 2012. 
  5. ^ "Newton's Views on Prophecy". The Newton Project. 5 April 2007. Retrieved 15 August 2007. 
  6. ^ 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.
  7. ^ 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.
  8. ^ a b c  
  9. ^ a b c d e f g  
  10. ^ Nichols, John Bowyer (1822). Illustrations of the literary history of the eighteenth century: Consisting of authentic memoirs and original letters of eminent persons; and intended as a sequel to the Literary anecdotes, Volume 4. Nichols, Son, and Bentley. p. 32. , Extract of page 32 Retrieved 21 February 2012
  11. ^ C. D. Broad 1952 - Ethics and the history of philosophy: selected essays, Volume 1 Routledge, 30 November 2000 ISBN 0-415-22530-2 Retrieved 8 February 2012
  12. ^ Cambridge University Alumni Database Retrieved 29 January 2012
  13. ^ a b Professor Rob Iliffe (AHRC Newton Papers Project) THE NEWTON PROJECT prism.php15. University of Sussex. Retrieved 7 February 2012. 
  14. ^  
  15. ^ a b
  16. ^
  17. ^ S.D.Snobelen (University of King's College) - To Discourse of God : Isaac Newton's Heterdox Theology and Natural Philosophy Nova Scotia Retrieved 29 January 2012
  18. ^ Matt Goldish 1998 - Judaism in the theology of Sir Isaac Newton - 239 pages Volume 157 of Archives internationales d'histoire des idées Springer, 1998 Retrieved 28 January 2012 ISBN 0-7923-4996-2
  19. ^ Christianity Today International - archives Retrieved 28 January 2012
  20. ^ David Boyd Haycock 2004 - 'The long lost truth' Sir Isaac Newton and the Newtonian pursuit of long lost knowledge Elsevier 2004 Retrieved 29 January 2012
  21. ^ Alfred Rupert Hall - Isaac Newton Centre for Mathematical Sciences Retrieved 29 January 2012
  22. ^ Hilary Gatti - Giordano Bruno and Renaissance science - 257 pages Cornell University Press, 2002 (Google ebook) & Niccolò Guicciardini Reading the Principia: The Debate on Newton's Mathematical Methods for Natural Philosophy from 1687 to 1736 - 292 pages Cambridge University Press, 30 October 2003 (Google ebook) Retrieved 29 January 2012
  23. ^ a b Avery Cardinal Dulles. The Deist Minimum. 2005.
  24. ^ Richard Westfall, Never at Rest: A Biography of Isaac Newton, (1980) pp. 103, 25.
  25. ^ Westfall, Richard S. (1994). The Life of Isaac Newton. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.  
  26. ^ Pfizenmaier, T.C, "The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke" (1675–1729)
  27. ^ a b Pfizenmaier, T.C., "Was Isaac Newton an Arian?" Journal of the History of Ideas 68(1):57–80, 1997.
  28. ^ 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.
  29. ^ Newton, 1706 Opticks (2nd Edition), quoted in H. G. Alexander 1956 (ed): The Leibniz-Clarke correspondence, University of Manchester Press.
  30. ^ Leibniz, first letter, in Alexander 1956, p. 11
  31. ^ Caroline to Leibniz, 10 January 1716, quoted in Alexander 1956, p. 193. (Chev. = Chevalier i.e. Knight.)
  32. ^ Clarke, first reply, in Alexander 1956 p. 14.
  33. ^ H.W. Alexander 1956, p. xvii
  34. ^ Newton to Bentley, 25 Feb 1693
  35. ^ Force, James E.; Popkin, Richard Henry (1990). Force, James E.; Popkin, Richard Henry, eds. Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology. Springer. p. 53.  
  36. ^ Gieser, Suzanne. The Innermost Kernel: Depth Psychology and Quantum Physics. Wolfgang Pauli's Dialogue with C.G. Jung. Springer. pp. 181–182.  
  37. ^ McCauley, Joseph L. (1997). Classical Mechanics: Transformations, Flows, Integrable and Chaotic Dynamics. Cambridge University Press. p. 3.  
  38. ^ Hans S. Plendl, ed. (1982). Philosophical problems of modern physics. Reidel. p. 361. Newton expressed the same conception of the nature of atoms in his deistic view of the Universe. 
  39. ^ 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.
  40. ^ "A short Schem of the true Religion". The Newton Project.  
  41. ^ a b c d Jacob, Margaret C. The Newtonians and the English Revolution: 1689-1720.
  42. ^ a b "Papers Show Isaac Newton's Religious Side, Predict Date of Apocalypse". Associated Press. 19 June 2007. Retrieved 1 August 2007. 
  43. ^ Newton, Isaac (5 April 2007). "The First Book Concerning the Language of the Prophets". The Newton Project. Retrieved 15 August 2007. 
  44. ^ Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel, and the Apocalypse of St. John by Sir Isaac Newton, 1733, J. DARBY and T. BROWNE, Online
  45. ^ a b Snobelen, Stephen D. "Statement on the date 2060". Archived from the original on 15 October 2013. Retrieved 4 February 2014. 
  46. ^ "A time and times and the dividing of times": Isaac Newton, the Apocalypse and 2060 AD Snobelen, S Can J Hist (2003) vol 38
  47. ^ a b Westfall, Richard S. (1973) [1964]. Science and Religion in Seventeenth-Century England. U of Michigan Press.  
  48. ^ 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.
  49. ^ Frankel, Charles. The Faith of Reason: The Idea of Progress in the French Enlightenment. King's Crown Press, New York: 1948. p1.
  50. ^ The Newton Project, THEM00046, retrieved 20 January 2014
  51. ^ James E. Force, Richard Henry Popkin - Essays on the context, nature, and influence of Isaac Newton's theology, 226 pages, Google eBook Springer, 1990, retrieved 29 January 2012, ISBN 0-7923-0583-3

External links

  • Isaac Newton Theology, Prophecy, Science and Religion – writings on Newton by Stephen Snobelen
  • The Newton Manuscripts at the National Library of Israel – the collection of all his religious writings
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