Leonard Trengove (essay date 1966)
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 'religion and philosophy are to be held distinct'. Newton's biographers have dealt more or less briefly with his theological studies, but, so far as I am aware, none has treated them intheir historical setting against the background of the theological trends in Newton's day. The biographers have been right, however, in thinking that a complete study of this remarkable personality and unrivalled scientific genius must include a consideration of the theology to which he devoted so much of his time and in which he displayed such astonishing learning. The present paper is derived from a much larger study I am making of Newton's theology. I am aware that the subject may not appeal to some historians of science. I have nevertheless submitted this Newtonian study for publication in a periodical concerned with the history of science in the belief that there are many historians who would wish to be better informed on this aspect of the mind of one who still remains the greatest figure in the whole history of science. For this reason I am very grateful to the editors of this journal for accepting my view on this matter and agreeing to publish this paper, in which I am mainly concerned with Newton's Observations on the Prophecies, a work certainly under way soon after the Principia was completed, if not before.3
In Newton's day prophecy and miracles were regarded as the two great pillars of religion,4 but most people held that miracles had ceased since Apostolic times. The predictions of prophecy on the other hand were still being fulfilled, a continued witness to Christianity. In the Observations Newton showed how predictions of Daniel and the Apocalypse had been fulfilled in history. That prophecies of Scripture were fulfilled in history, and continued to be fulfilled, was regarded as a fact in his day and there was nothing mystical about it. There is nothing in Newton's writings to support the view that he was a mystic. In fact, what strikes one, apart from his manifest sincerity, is the lack of any sign of mystic experience, or for that matter, of any religious experience at all. To use the word 'mysticism' nowadays is to invite misunderstanding, but Newton was not even a mystic in the sense of being interested in those devices by means of which men have tried to achieve the mystical experience, such as rituals, creative powers of the letters of the alphabet, and, not least, the power of numbers.
Newton, in the introductory chapter to the Observations, dealt with the compilers of the books of the Old Testament. At first sight this seems out of place, but we find that it leads up to the importance of the prophecies of Daniel, who, Newton believed, was the most precise and plainest of the old prophets, and so must be made the key to the rest 'in those things which relate to the last times'.5 It has been asserted that Newton's conclusions in this chapter are not so far from the conclusions of modern scholarship,6 but actually his treatment is not so much that of a modern critic, as that of the Jewish commentator. This is not surprising, because, before the rise of modern literary and historical criticism, the work of the old Jewish scholars had not been superseded, and, after all, the Old Testament books were Jewish. Most of the points dealt with by Newton had been raised before, something that Young, for example, 'thought it not improper to warn his unlearned Reader of, lest he should take what Sir Isaac had said, from the manner of treating his subject, without any one's having considered the same things before him for a new and important Discovery.17 The difference was that, unlike such writers as Patrick and Prideaux who had considered these things, Newton usually came down on what might be called the more liberal side.
Newton regarded the books of the Old Testament as having been compiled at various times from books already in existence, the two great compilers being Samuel and Ezra. He thought that Samuel compiled the Pentateuch, Joshua, and Judges, and probably his own book up to the record of his death—quite a lot for one man to do. Newton was the first to assert that Samuel wrote thePentateuch, though Barrington had ascribed part of it to him.' He was by no means the first to doubt the Mosaic authorship. Spinoza was probably right in thinking that Ibn Ezra in the twelfth century was the first to put forward reasons for doubting that Moses wrote the Pentateuch,9 but it was not until the seventeenth century that these doubts were openly expressed and discussed. To Spinoza himself it was clearer than the sun at noonday that the Pentateuch was not written by Moses but by someone who lived long after him. Hobbes, too, thought it sufficiently evident that the Pentateuch was written after the time of Moses, although he maintained that Moses had written all that he is said to have written, in particular the law itself.'" Richard Simon also held that Moses had written the Mosaic law."
Newton believed that the historical part of the Pentateuch was compiled from several sources such as the History of Creation by Moses (Genesis 2: 4) and the Book of the Wars of the Lord (Numbers 21: 14). Hobbes had already noted the latter as an example of a more ancient book cited by the writer of the Pentateuch, and, when dealing with Kings and Chronicles had said: 'The facts registered were always more ancient than the register; and much more ancient than such books as make mention of, and quote the register; as these books do in divers places, referring the reader to the Chronicles of the Kings of Judah, to the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel…,112 Since our Book of Chronicles deals with the Kings of Judah only, Newton thought that the Book of the Chronicles of the Kings of Israel was lost—at the time when Antiochus Epiphanes ordered the sacred books of the Jews to be burnt. Afterwards Judas Maccabaeus gathered together all the writings that could be found and reduced them to order. It was at this time that certain dislocations in the text occurred.
In putting forward such conjectures Newton was, however, ahead of his time, and these views were rejected by the orthodox. Arthur Young wrote: 'I wish the inferences which Sir Isaac Newton has made in his first chapter, from the Interpolations in the Books of Moses, and what he has asserted of the Sacred Writings having been lost, were not more prejudicial to Christianity—If these things were to be granted, the Hebrew Bible would no longer be of any Authority."13
Newton's division of the Book of Daniel into Chapters 7-12 (prophecies, written by Daniel himself) and 1-6 (a collection of historical papers written by others) has been accepted down to modern times.14 However, Spinoza had already maintained that Chapters 8-12 contained the undoubted writings of Daniel. His division was on the basis of language, the first seven chapters having been 'written in Chaldean'.15
For Newton, 'amongst the old prophets, Daniel is most distinct in order of time, and easiest to be understood: and therefore for those things which relate to the last times, he must be made the key to the rest': 'To reject his prophecies is to reject the Christian religion'." Richard Amner was not far wrong when he said that for the great Isaac Newton the prophecies of Daniel were a sacred calendar, a prophetic chronology.17
After the introductory chapter on the compilers of the books of the Old Testament, Newton turned to the language of prophecy, which he believed to be as definite in meaning as the language of any nation. 'The curse of Babel', the nature of language, and the possibility of devising a universal language were, of course, subjects of great interest in the seventeenth century. Newton never completed the universal language he once embarked upon, but his explanation of the language ofprophecy was more complete than any that had appeared before and, one may say with confidence, more complete than any that came after. As Whiston said: 'If it could be as readily proved, as it is here distinctly set down [it] would be truly estimable."18
Newton's idea of such a language was not new. Mede had already worked out the principles of prophetic language in his Clavis Apocalyptica (Cambridge, 1627), and there was some general agreement on the subject. For Newton as for Mede, 'the language [of prophecy] is taken from the analogy between the world natural, and an empire or kingdom considered as a world politic', and also, 'sacred prophecy … regards not single persons'.19 But Newton aimed at giving a complete language of prophecy. Like most writers of his time, he thought the Bible was consistent from end to end, and, if a prophetic symbol could be seen to be used in a certain way in one part, one could be sure that it would be used in the same way in any part. As might be expected, the very completeness of Newton's work made the inadequacy of any such system at all the more evident. He had no occasion himself to use the greater part of it, and it was subsequently set aside. On the other hand, the belief of Mede and of Newton that the key to interpretation of prophetic symbols was to be sought in an understanding of hieroglyphics and primitive symbols in general was influential in the eighteenth century.20 Newton did not say very much about this, although a passage in 'The Language of the Prophets' (k.ms.5) shows that he was in general agreement with this line of thought. Also influential in the eighteenth century was Newton's emphasis on the importance of Jewish history (with all the religious customs and rituals) as a fresh source of symbols.
Newton employed his knowledge of Jewish customs and rituals in his exposition of the Apocalypse, and no one before him had used such knowledge to greater advantage. His main source of information on Jewish law was the first Protestant rabbinical scholar, Johannes Buxtorf (1564-1629),21 but his knowledge was not derived from any one writer. Further, although Newton's exposition was open to criticism in several places, subsequent work on the Apocalypse might have been done better if more attention had been paid to Newton, especially to his emphasis on the importance of the Feast of Tabernacles.22
Newton, in common with other seventeenth-century writers on apocalyptic, adopted the year-day theory. This theory may be stated briefly as follows. In symbolic prophecy (prophecy like that of Daniel and Revelation, which makes extensive use of symbols) a day is to be taken as meaning a year. Newton did not consider it necessary to give reasons for this, but merely stated: 'Daniel's days are years'.23
John Napier (the inventor of logarithms) had identified the 'time, times and half a time' of Revelation 12: 14 with the 1,260 days of Daniel and Revelation, and said that they were really 1,260 years.24 These were the years of Antichrist's reign over Christians, which Napier associated with papal domination. This interpretation was adopted by Mede in his Clavis Apocalyptica and by Newton. Though they each suggested different dates for the beginning of the 1,260 years, it was generally felt that events of apocalyptic significance were taking place in the seventeenth century or would take place in the not too distant future. That seventeenth-century divines should thus be able to understand prophecies the true interpretation of which had eluded all previous scholars would not have given rise to any misgivings in those days, for these men believed themselves to be looking back beyond the cloud of errors of the Roman Church to the uncorrupted primitive church, much asthe men of the Renaissance looked beyond the mists of the Dark Ages to the clear light of the ancient world. Moreover, as Bishop Andrewes pointed out at the beginning of the century, even the early Fathers of the Church, although more gifted and holier, did not know so much about prophecy as writers of his day, for these were seeing prophecy fulfilled before their very eyes—and every prophecy is an enigma until it is fulfilled.25 It is only when it has been fulfilled and you have seen how it has come to pass that you understand it. Newton fully agreed, and said: 'The folly of interpreters hath been to foretell times and things by this prophecy, as if God designed to make them prophets. By this rashness they have not only exposed themselves, but brought this prophecy also into contempt'.
Newton helped to establish this attitude to prophecy, and his assertion that the end of prophecy is not to make us prophets was much quoted later on—often, it must be admitted, by people who wanted to discount someone else's interpretation of a particular prophecy.
It is true that Newton did not confine himself to such prophecies as he considered to have already been fulfilled. Thus in dealing with the prophecy of Daniel 8 that after 2,300 days the sanctuary would be cleansed, he said that these 2,300 years may be perhaps reckoned from (1) the destruction of the temple by the Romans in the reign of Vespasian, or (2) the pollution of the sanctuary by the worship of Jupiter Olympius, or (3) the desolation of Judea made at the end of the Jewish war by the banishment of all Jews out of their own country, or (4) from some other period which time will discover.26 Newton, therefore, expected the fulfilment of this prophecy to take place in A. D. 2132, 2370, 2436—or, of course, some other date. Some others of this school of interpretation were less cautious. For example, William Miller, from whose movement arose the Seventh Day Adventists, assumed that the 2,300 days of Daniel 8 began at the same time as the 490 days of Daniel 9. He dated this from the decree allowing Ezra to go back to Jerusalem 457 B. C. (Ussher's date). In this way he arrived at A. D. 1843 as the date of the cleansing of the sanctuary, and also, he thought, the time of the second coming of Christ. Miller is supposed to have worked out his calculations using only Bible and concordance, but the fact that he was in the same tradition of apocalyptic interpretation as Newton was recognized even in his own day. George Bush, Professor of Hebrew and Oriental Literature in New York University, said in a letter published in the Advent Herald for March, 1844:
In taking a day as the prophetical term for a year I believe you are sustained by the soundest exegesis, as well as fortified by the high names of Mede, Sir Isaac Newton, Bishop Newton, Kirby, Scott, Keith, and a host of others who have long since come to substantially your conclusions on this head. They all agree that the leading periods mentioned by Daniel and John do actually expire about the age of the world, and it would be strange logic that would convict you of heresy.27
After the day of 'The Great Disappointment', some of Miller's followers believed that Miller had been right in his calculations, but wrong in supposing that Christ was to come to earth to cleanse the sanctuary in 1843. They supposed that what had happened was that Christ had then entered the second apartment of the heavenly sanctuary and that this had been invisible to mortals. Newton believed that Christ would be invisible to mortals when he first returned.
After the publication of Newton's Observations the first event that was thought to have importantapocalyptic significance was the French Revolution. The 1260 days prophecy of Daniel and Revelation was thought to refer to the fate of papal domination and the appearance of Antichrist. The French Revolution seemed to mark the beginning of the end of papal domination, and Antichrist in the French Convention was the title of an anonymous pamphlet published at the time. By adjusting the terminus a quo, it was easy to arrive at the correct date. Thus, reckoning from A. D. 533, the date of Justinian's decree conferring on the Bishop of Rome universal oversight of the Christian Church, we come after 1260 years to 1793 and the Reign of Terror. This 'fulfilment of prophecy' had a great influence on Edward Irving, the originator of the Catholic Apostolic Church, and it has been thought significant that the 1831 edition of Newton's Observations was dedicated to Henry Drummond, one of the founders of that church.28
Ironically enough, it was the rise of Newtonianism more than anything else that led to the general rejection of this kind of apocalyptic interpretation. It has not, however, been entirely abandoned even now. For example, the year-day theory is used in the teachings of the Jehovah's Witnesses.29
One of the chief subjects of discussion concerning the book of Daniel has been the identity of the four kingdoms represented by the image of gold, silver, bronze, and iron of Ch. 2, and also by the four beasts, the lion, the bear, the leopard, and the terrible beast with iron teeth of Ch. 7. Especially has speculation centred around the identity of the fourth kingdom. Newton said that 'in this vision of the image composed of four metals the foundation of all Daniel's prophecies is laid. It represents a body of four great nations, which should reign over the earth successively, viz. the people of Babylonia, the Persians, the Greeks and the Romans …'. Newton held that the Babylonian and Median empires were contemporary.30 'In the next vision [Dan. 7] which is of the Four Beasts, the prophecy of the four empires is repeated, with several new additions'.31 The Greek Empire referred to is the empire of Alexander the Great. The Roman Empire dates from Caesar Augustus.
Like Mede, Newton believed that these four empires were the empires of which God's people were subjects, and that the fourth empire, the Roman, was still in existence, continuing in the ten nations into which it was supposed to have been divided. In taking the fourth beast to be the Roman Empire, Newton was in line with nearly all writers on the subject until modern times; Luther in his preface to the Book of Daniel had said that 'all the world is unanimous' in this interpretation. Newton was unique, however, in holding that not only the Roman Empire, but also he other three empires still existed—in the nations that had taken their place geographically.32
It is when Newton considered the meaning of the ten horns of the fourth beast that we see him especially in his role of historian. Dr. Twiss, in his preface to the English translation of Mede's Clavis Apocalyptica, had pointed out that, after the prophetic terms had been interpreted, great skill in history was also required in order to apply the prophecy, and he added: 'I have found that Master Mede's friends, who have been acquainted with the course of his studies, would give him the bell for this as herein out-stripping all others'." Mede was, however, to be surpassed by Newton in this respect. Indeed, Elliott, in his learned Horae Apocalypticae bracketed Newton and Gibbon as authorities on this history of the ten kingdoms that arose after the break-up of the Roman Empire.34 There were no text-books available to Newton to provide him with an easy entry into the subject, yet he was quite at home with his sources, particularly the massive Historia De Regno Italiae of Sigonius.35 True, he did not question the accuracy of his sources very much, but the techniquesrequired for this had not been developed in his day.
Of course, Newton's list of the ten kingdoms is just one among many others put forward before and after his time. Such lists had been forthcoming since the ninth century when Berengaud referred to Jerome,36 and explained that the ten horns were the kingdoms that had already destroyed the Roman imperium. As Maitland justly remarked, if the number mentioned by Daniel had been nine or eleven, the right number would still have been found among the petty kingdoms.37
Tyso certainly showed this when he gave a table of twenty-nine different lists of the ten kingdoms that had been suggested at various times by various writers, containing no less than sixty-five different entries.38 Newton's list of the Kingdoms into which the Roman Empire became divided after the attacks of the barbarians is as follows: the kingdoms of...
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