Newton's interest in theological matters ran broadly and deeply, extending beyond the conviction, expressed in such scientific works as his Principia and his Opticks, regarding God's role as creator and maintainer of the universe. In The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended (1728) and Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733), as well as in numerous unpublished manuscripts, Newton reveals an interest in wide-ranging aspects of biblical study. In these works he contemplates the historical accuracy of the Bible, the way in which biblical prophecies may be understood and proved, and the corruptions he believed were deliberately incorporated into the Bible in support of the doctrine of the Trinity, which Newton believed to be false. For a time, many critics ignored or disparaged Newton's theological interests; modern scholars, however, have investigated the nature and implications of his beliefs, exploring the relationship of his theological views to his scientific studies.
The only one of his theological works that Newton authorized to have published was The Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms Amended, which he prepared for press prior to his death in 1727. Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John was arranged and published after Newton's death by his nephew. In the Chronology Newton uses astronomical discoveries to construct a biblical chronology based upon the positions of the stars as described in Scripture and other ancient writings. By means of this astronomical evidence, Newton argues that the Bible is accurate as history and that it is the oldest historical record available. In Observations Newton focuses on the composition of the books of the Bible. Through his historical analysis, he contends that Moses did not write all parts of the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible. Newton also emphasizes in Observations that biblical prophesies have been fulfilled in history and will continue to be fulfilled; yet he does not advocate the study of such prophesies for the purpose of predicting the future. Newton's analysis of the Bible also reveals his belief that individuals such as St. Athanasius purposely corrupted the New Testament in order to support the doctrine of the Trinity, insisting that it cannot be proved from Scripture that Jesus was co-substantial with God.
Many critics have looked to Newton's published and unpublished theological writings in order to flesh out the nature of his beliefs. Filled with extensive and detailed historical and Biblical scholarship, Newton's Observations has been the focus of study for a number of critics. Leonard Trengove outlines the scope and content of this work, examining Newton's disbelief in the Trinity and the biblical basis for this departure from the accepted tenets of the Church of England. Richard H. Popkin similarly examines Observations as well as various unpublished manuscripts in his survey of Newton's conclusions regarding the composition of the Pentateuch as well as the commentary of Newton's contemporaries who agreed with or took issue with his findings. Additionally, Popkin reviews the content of the Chronology, stressing that Newton, having analyzed biblical records, believed that God had outlined a plan for human history and natural history alike. Among other investigations of Newton's manuscripts is that of J. E. McGuire and P. M. Rattansi, which analyzesthe drafts of a Scholia to Propositions IV through IX of Book III of Newton's Principia. According to the critics, these drafts indicate Newton's conviction that God had revealed knowledge to the ancients, and that he, Newton, was rediscovering those truths. In his study of Newton's unpublished writings, Frank Manuel demonstrates how many of these materials indicate that Newton's religion, throughout his life, was one of "obedience to commandments in which the mercies of Christ the Redeemer played a recessive role."
Another area of critical investigation has been that of the relationship between Newton's theological interests and his scientific achievements. James E. Force points out that, while Newton's references to God in his scientific works indicate that his theology exerted some degree of influence on his scientific thinking, many critics still tend to divorce Newton's scientific interests from his theological views. Taking the reverse approach, William H. Austin attempts to ascertain the influence of Newton's science on his theology. Citing Newton's maxim that "religion and Philosophy are to be preserved distinct," Austin concludes that there is little evidence in Newton's theological writings to suggest the influence of his scientific ideas. However, the critic notes, Newton appears to have held to this maxim inconsistently, and perhaps allowed that science had some influence on his theology, possibly to avoid public controversy. Force disagrees, maintaining that Newton's conception of a "God of Dominion" integrates his scientific, theological, and political interests. In his analysis of the unity of Newton's thought, Force states that "Newton's theology, not just his religion, influences his science every bit as much as his science influences the rigorous textual scholarship of his theology."
SOURCE: "Newton's Theological Views," in Annals of Science, Vol. 22, No. 4, December 1966, pp. 277-94.
[In the following essay, Trengove analyzes the content and scope of Newton's Observations on the Prophesies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John. Trengove goes on to discuss the implications of the theological views expressed in the work, and comments on Newton's anti-Trinitarian beliefs.]
There were three great fields to which Newton gave his mind—mechanics, chemistry, and theology—to each of which he gave almost equally intense study. Besides the Observations on the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John (1733) and Two Letters from Sir Isaac Newton to Mr. Le Clerc (1754),' which were published, there have survived his very extensive theological manuscripts. Professor Andrade estimated there are over 1,300,000 words in these manuscripts.2 There are also the passages in the Principia and elsewhere where Newton considered God as a corollary of his system of the world. These passages have received much attention, but it is evident that Newton was not an adept in physico-theological reflection. Voltaire was right in thinking these were 'blindfold writings' (Dictionnaire Philosophique, s.v. 'Newton et Descartes'). For Newton, God was the God of revelation, the Lord of history, not the God of the philosophers, and he believed that...
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SOURCE: "Newton and the Pipes of Pan," in Notes and Records of the Royal Society of London, Vol. 21, No. 2, December 1966, pp. 108-43.
[In the following essay, McGuire and Rattansi examine unpublished drafts of a proposed Scholia to Propositions IV through IX of Newton's Principia. The critics argue that these papers demonstrate Newton's conviction that he was rediscovering truths once revealed to the ancients by God.]
What is it, by means of wch, bodies act on one another at a distance. And to what Agent did the Ancients attribute the gravity of their atoms and what did they mean by calling God an harmony and comparing him & matter (the corporeal part of the Universe) to the God Pan and his Pipe. Can any space be without something in it & what is that something in space void of matter (& what are its properties & operations on matter).
Draft of Query 27 of Opticks'
Newtonian scholars have long been aware of a set of draft Scholia to Propositions IV to IX of Book III of the Principia.2 These were composed in the 1690's, as part of an unimplemented plan for a second edition of the work. Since they describe supposed anticipations of Newton's doctrines in the thought of Graeco-Roman antiquity, they have become known as the 'classical' Scholia.3 The analogies and parallels...
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SOURCE: "Isaac Newton on Science and Religion," in Journal of the History of Ideas, Vol. XXXI, 1970, pp. 521-42.
[In the following essay, Austin maintains that there is little evidence to indicate that Newton's scientific ideas significantly influenced his theological writings. In practice, however, Newton may have conceded that science had some bearing on theology, despite his "maxim" that "religion and philosophy are to be preserved distinct."]
In his own time Isaac Newton was known as an acute and learned theologian. Conduitt reports that "Archbishop Tenison offered him, if he would take orders, the Mastership of Trinity College when it was given to Montague, and importuned him to accept any preferment in the Church; saying to him: 'Why will you not? You know more divinity than all of us put together.'" (Newton put him off with the reply that he would "be able to do you more service than if I was in orders.")'
His theological reputation faded, not only because theology moved on to other concerns, but also because most of his relevant writings remained unpublished, and because credence was given to Laplace's belief that Newton turned to theology only in his declining years. (This is false: there is manuscript evidence of attention to theological questions as early as 1664, and apparently his most important work was completed by 1690, though he worked it over and over thereafter, as he...
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SOURCE: "His Father in Heaven," in The Religion of Isaac Newton, Oxford at the Clarendon Press, 1974, pp. 1-24.
[In the following essay, Manuel examines the nature of Newton's religious beliefs, as exposed through both his published and unpublished writings. Manuel contends that throughout Newton's life, Newton believed in a "religion of obedience to commandments" in which God the Father, not "Christ the Redeemer," played the dominant role.]
That the task of searching into the religion of Isaac Newton should fall to a historian rather than a theologian may require an apology. Fortunately I discovered one among Newton's manuscripts. In a treatise on the language of Scripture he remarked on the similarity between the historian's method of periodization and the system of chapters in the books of prophecy. 'For if Historians', he wrote, 'divide their histories into Sections, Chapters, and Books at such periods of time where the less, greater, and greatest revolutions begin or end; and to do otherwise would be improper: much more ought we to suppose that the holy Ghost observes this rule accurately in his prophetick dictates since they are no other then histories of things to come." In an area where the Holy Ghost operates according to the prescribed historical canon, we historians are on familiar ground and need not fear to tread. Since it will be one of the contentions of these lectures that Newton's...
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SOURCE: "Divine Causality: Newton, the Newtonians, and Hume," in Greene Centennial Studies: Essays Presented to Donald Greene in the Centennial Year of the University of Southern California, edited by Paul J. Korshin and Robert R. Allen, University Press of Virginia, 1984, pp. 40-56.
[In the following essay, Popkin asserts that Newton, as well as other major scientists of the time (David Hartley and Joseph Priestley), conceived of divine causality in a manner that subordinated their views on natural causality and scientific achievement to their "millenarian religious views."]
The usual picture of the development of causal theory in modern science is to portray the transformation from metaphysical to mechanistic explanations during the seventeenth century and to show that the mechanistic explanations did not account for why things happened but only constituted statements of regularities in nature. From Galileo to Hume occult qualities and necessary connections were removed from the study of nature. God as first cause dwindled in importance as Hume transformed Malebranche's denial of the efficacy of secondary causes into a commentary on the inefficacy of first causes—God's action. Father Nicolas Malebranche had shown very acutely thatsecondary agents cannot function as efficient causes. Malebranche derived this claim in part from his contention that God, the Omnipotent Being, is the sole and...
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SOURCE: "Isaac Newton's Theological Writings: Problems and Prospects," in Restoration: Studies in English Literary Culture, 1660-1700, Vol. 13, No. 1, Spring 1989, pp. 35-48.
[In the following essay, Markley offers an overview of how Newton's theological writings have been treated by critics. After presenting possibilities for future inquiry, Markley outlines the difficulties confronting scholars who wish to study Newton's religious works.]
Over the past fifteen years, studies by Frank Manuel, Richard S. Westfall, and other scholars on the problems posed by Isaac Newton's religious and theological writings have finally put to rest at least some of the hoary myths that had, for over two hundred years, effectively severed Newton the scientist from Newton the alchemist and Newton the supposedly doddering writer on biblical history and prophecy.' If the dispersal of Newton's unpublished manuscripts in the 1936 sale to Jerusalem, Wellesley (Massachusetts), and Cambridge (England) has created logistical problems for scholars interested in Newton's "non-scientific" work, the fact that this vast body of material is now more-or-less accessible has allowed Manuel and Westfall to offer preliminary accounts of what Newton's theological manuscripts contain. I say "preliminary" because both of these noted historians have stopped after a few steps of what promises to be a long journey; they have surveyed the...
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SOURCE: "Newton's God of Dominion: The Unity of Newton's Theological Scientific, and Political Thought," in Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology, by James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990, pp. 75-102.
[In the following essay, Force argues that Newton's conception of a "God of Dominion" is the key factor that unites and informs all aspects of Newton's studies.]
Introduction: The Hues and Shades of Newton's Genius (or Torturing a Metaphor)
Today, when we consider Newton and his work, there is a tendency among both popularizers and scholars to see Newton through a prism, so to speak, and to study Newton in refraction just as Newton studies light by passing it through a prism and breaking it down into its primary colors. Newton is seen, at different times, as a heretical theologian, a scientific genius, or a politically connected man of affairs. There often seem to be as many Newtons as there are primary colors and we study Newton by studying the many manifestations of his multi-hued genius independently. Failing to appreciate the synthetic unity in Newton's thought is the inevitable result of overemphasizing one or another of its integrated components.
Primarily, of course, Newton is for us the father of modern, i.e., of our, physics. We mean it as a compliment to Newton when we induct...
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SOURCE: "Newton as Bible Scholar," in Essays on the Context, Nature and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology, by James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1990, pp. 103-118.
[In the following essay, Popkin reviews Newton's writings on the Bible, demonstrating how Newton analyzed the composition and nature of the Bible's books. Popkin maintains that Newton sought to present the Bible as historically accurate, and that Newton also believed the Bible contained corruptions deliberately placed there to encourage a false Trinitarian doctrine.]
In his views about the text and import of the Bible, Sir Isaac Newton combined a most interesting mixture of modern Bible scholarship with an application, to the understanding of the Bible, of some of the findings of modern science and a firm conviction that, in the proper reading of the scriptural text, one could discover God's plan for human and world history. Newton wrote much about the Bible as a historical document, about the accuracy of Biblical chronology, and about the message of the Bible. All of these topics were burning issues during the 17th century. Newton wrote on these subjects from his early student years at Cambridge until his death. For many years, including the central ones in his intellectual career, he was composing manuscripts on these issues.1
He published none of his writings on the...
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SOURCE: "Predicates of Pure Existence: Newton on God's Space and Time," in Philosophical Perspectives on Newtonian Science, edited by Phillip Bricker and R. 1. G. Hugues, MIT Press, 1990.
[In the following essay, McGuire examines the relation of time and space to divine existence, as discussed by Newton in his theological writings.]
Some years ago I argued that Newton's doctrine of absolute space and time is motivated by his view of the existence of a divine being.' In the course of this study I advance the opinion that Newton attempts "to distance" space and time from divine essence. In effect, I argue that Newton links the infinity of space and time to divine existence, which he then associates with the actuality of God and not directly with his essence. Here I wish to return to this view in the light of further thinking and in response to some of John Carriero's observations on my earlier views. Also, I want to reconsider my claim that Newton's conception of how space and time relate to God's existence is not an instance of causal dependence. I think now with Carriero that the dependence may be taken as causal, but, if this is so, the distinction between ontic (my earlier view) and causal dependence is extremely attenuated indeed. If I spell out my agreements and disagreements with Carriero's commentary, I do so not to have the last word but to advance the dialogue.
The first part of...
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Faur, Jose. "Newton, Maimonides, and Esoteric Knowledge." Cross Currents: Religion and Intellectual Life 40, No. 4 (Winter 1990-91): 526-38.
Examines Newton's interest in the fundamental Rabbinic views on religion and the relation between Newton's views on the harmony between science and religion and those views held by Maimonides, "the most successful thinker to emerge from the Jewish Golden Age."
Ferrone, Vincenzo. "Enlightened Catholics and Newtonian Natural Theology." In The Intellectual Roots of the Italian Enlightenment: Newtonian Science, Religion, and Politics in the Early Eighteenth Century, translated by Sue Brotherton, pp. 63-88. New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1995.
Traces the flow of Newton's writings to Italy and discusses the appeal to "enlightened Catholics" of Newton's conception of a universe in which God directly and regularly intervened "through active and immaterial principles."
Hall, Rupert A. Philosophers at War: The Quarrel Between Newton and Leibniz. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1980, 338 p.
Investigates the nature and development of the ongoing debate between Newton and Leibniz concerning mathematics, science, and theology.
Kubrin, David. "Newton and the Cyclical Cosmos: Providence and the Mechanical Philosophy." Journal of the History of Ideas XXVIII, No. 3 (July-September 1967):...
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