Yet another guest post on history and theology by occasional guest contributor Dr. Alfred Russel Wallace.
The story of Sir Isaac Newton stumbling upon the nature of gravity after seeing an apple fall to earth is one of the most enduring, and endearing, anecdotes of modern physics. Newton (1642-1727) was a genius with many skills. He laid the groundwork for classical mechanics, which usefully describes all macroscopic phenomena affecting our daily lives, built the first reflecting telescope, showed that white light was a mixture of colors, and invented calculus. His famous Philosophiæ Naturalis Principia Mathematica (Principia) was to physics what Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species was for biology.
Less well known is that Newton was a deeply religious Christian who wrote more on Biblical interpretation than he did on science. In particular he was very uneasy about the doctrine of the Trinity, and wrote a weighty tome entitled An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. Most of his ire was aimed at the first letter of John (1 John 5:7), which in the King James’ Bible reads “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” By comparing early manuscripts in many languages, he came to the conclusion that the final phrase was a late addition. His writings were so controversial that he dared not publish them during his lifetime, yet modern scholars concur, and the Revised New Standard Version has been revised to end with, “these three agree.”
Newton also had a bone to pick with the doctrine esposed by Bishop Athenasius (293-373) of Alexandria (Egypt) over the question of whether Christ was a different ‘substance’ from the Father. Athenasius proposed a robust Triniarian creed, as opposed to the doctrine that there was a time when only God the Father existed, and that Christ was in some small way subservient to him. Here again, Newton wrote a spirited critique — Paradoxical Questions Concerning the Morals and Actions of Athanasius and his Followers in the 1690s — and once again, history has him on the winning side. Athenasius’ creed is consigned to the archives of historical documents.
Today these issues of Christian theology seem arcane and tedious, but don’t think for a moment that Newton’s hesitation to publish during his lifetime was whimsical. His views in the 17th century were subject to prosecution, as it was an offense to deny any of the persons of the Trinity to be God, punishable with loss of office. Newton’s caution was clearly warranted, as a friend lost his professorship at Cambridge for this very reason in 1711. By comparison, he got off lucky — an eighteen-year-old student, Thomas Aikenhead, was hanged at Edinburgh, Scotland in 1697 for denying the Trinity.
Newton’s biography leaves two lessons to today’s students of history.
First, the fathers of the natural science — Charles Darwin, Isaac Newton, and :ahem: Alfred Russel Wallace — did not find natural science to be incompatible with their Christian faith. If they merely attended church and nodded agreement at religious thought of the time, it might be easy to dismiss them as charletans who stuck to the thought of the time to protect themselves. Yet this was far from the case — all three wrote careful engagements of religion at the time, and all had unique takes on theology. This seems hard to consider when we see the vocal vitriol of those such as geneticist Richard Dawkins, who claims title to Darwin’s legacy of evolution.
Second, when we recoil at today’s Islamic religious zealots, such as the Ayatollah of Iran ordering the assassination of Salman Rushdie for blasphemy, public commenters think this is evidence of the intollerance of Islam. Yet we might stop and ponder what future generations will think of some of our attempts in the past of enforcing orthodoxy and the results it caused in spreading fear and stifiling free expression. How will history view us both centuries from now? After all, Rushdie survives to this day and has claimed celebrity status overseas. Thomas Aikenhead was not nearly so lucky.