Sir Isaac Newton and the Trinity

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 Athenasius’ creed is consigned to the archives of historical documents.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.

About Curzon

Lord George Nathaniel Curzon (1859 - 1925) entered the British House of Commons as a Conservative MP in 1886, where he served as undersecretary of India and Foreign Affairs. He was appointed Viceroy of India at the turn of the 20th century where he delineated the North West Frontier Province, ordered a military expedition to Tibet, and unsuccessfully tried to partition the province of Bengal during his six-year tenure. Curzon served as Leader of the House of Lords in Prime Minister Lloyd George's War Cabinet and became Foreign Secretary in January 1919, where his most famous act was the drawing of the Curzon Line between a new Polish state and Russia. His publications include Russia in Central Asia (1889) and Persia and the Persian Question (1892). In real life, "Curzon" is a US citizen from the East Coast who has been a financial analyst, freelance translator, and university professor; he is currently on assignment in Tokyo.
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18 Responses to Sir Isaac Newton and the Trinity

  1. Master Cook says:

    History has him on the winning side? The Nicean Creed, which is based on the Athanasian Creed, is still recited in all churches each Sunday. In fact, whether you accept the Nicean Creed is still the main thing that determines if you are a Christian. The Athanasian Creed is not often recited, but is still valid.

  2. What was remarkable about Newton’s apple experience is that it linked the motion of the moon with the falling of an apple. There was a realization that the larger thing, the moon, “fell” to earth with greater force then the small thing, the apple. From whence comes this greater force? Why from the moon pulling on the earth with greater force the apple’s pull on the earth. The moon is larger, and matches the speed of the apple falling by achieving a greater force, by virtue of having a greater mass. Remarkable insight from a city boy in the country to escape the black death.

  3. tdaxp says:

    The long history of religious bigotry and intolerance in Britain is disturbing.

    Replace a couple phrases, and this is current events. [1]

    [1] http://infidelsunite.typepad.com/counter_jihad/2009/09/update-muhammad-was-a-warlord-couple-may-lose-hotel.html

  4. The Athanasian Creed has not been rejected by the Catholic Church.

    The Anglicans in the 19th C were troubled by the damnatory or minatory clauses. I don’t know if they subsequently repudiated the Athanasian Creed as a result.

    But it is still “Black Letter Law.”

  5. kurt9 says:

    Newton’s Christianity is actually fairly well-known.

  6. Younghusband says:

    Yep, as is Darwin’s problem with it. His love for his religious wife made him hedge, but he hints at his loss of faith in his writing.

    Though the others “did not find natural science to be incompatible with their Christian faith” they were really just the beginning of a trend. Now an overwhelming number of scientists (at least in the hard sciences) are non-religious. That is not to say some of found ways of justifying their faith, which most often involves a watering-down of theological fundamentals. But this is beside the point which is the tension between science and religion (which started earlier with Galileo et al.) was pushed forward by these scientists, especially Darwin, even if they didn’t live long enough to realize it.

    Also, the fact that Salman Rushdie has so far survived the fatwa (for there have been many documented attempts on his life) is by no means an excuse. Many have not been so lucky. Calling for murder based solely on obscure and arbitrary beliefs does not make it legal or forgivable. The lives of Salman Rushie, Ayaan Hirsi Ali and countless others have been ruined due to such intolerance. I fear future generations will condemn us our “tolerance”.

  7. There is no reason whatsoever to water down theological fundamentals to practice science. I know several scientists (my father, for one) and engineers who are Catholics. There is no contradiction whatsoever.

    To the contrary, only the West made the breakthrough to a self-sustaining science (though the Greeks came awfully close) because of the preexisting faith, derived from and based on Christianity, in a rationally ordered universe and rational Creator who created the Earth and the Heavens in a way that can be counted and numbered, and in a linear rather than a cyclic universe that allows progress rather than the futility of the cosmic wheel. See, e.g. Stanley Jaki, The Road of Science and the Ways to God.

    There is a contradiction between a rigid, sola scriptura Protestantism (which was practiced in England in Darwin’s time, among other places and times) and the fossil record.

    The tension between science and a rigid Biblical Christianity, or the necessarily Koran-centric Islam, does not indicate any such tension between science and “religion” categorically at all.

  8. Younghusband says:

    Lex said: “There is no reason whatsoever to water down theological fundamentals to practice science.” and “The tension between science and a rigid Biblical Christianity…”

    I think you just made my point. Over the centuries we have seen Christianity (in this case) move away from a “Biblical” reading as you put it towards a more dispersed view of god. Think of god of the gaps arguments, mysterians, god as quantum theory etc. I think science can be credited for much of this loss of rigidity to use your term.

    Also, I never said that the religious couldn’t do science on a day to day basis. I merely pointed out that as science has progressed since the time of Newton that we have seen a decline of religiosity that has been more pronounced in the scientific community than in the general populace. I think there are epistemological reasons for this. Note that not all scientists must ask themselves this epistemological questions. Engineers don’t need to worry about the First Cause problem to build a better bridge. Astronomers are more likely to worry about it in their work.

    As to the influence of Christianity on science (others such as Rodney Stark have made similar arguments), it says nothing about the truth of religion. In the search for truth science owes religion nothing.

  9. Puck says:

    Likely that Newton saw better than any of us a rational structure inherent in nature and wondered at it more. Confirmed in a modern notion of a big bang, why should nothing suddenly become something? And spontaneously created matter self assemble into stars, planets and living organisms. Some of which organisms are conscious. Not only of nature but of themselves and ask questions like ‘why an apple falls?’

  10. ” I merely pointed out that as science has progressed since the time of Newton that we have seen a decline of religiosity that has been more pronounced in the scientific community than in the general populace”

    A decline in religiosity or the division of religion from state power? I suppose the latter can be said to have resulted in the former but I’d say the scientific progress of the last three centuries is tied more to less political control by the church than it is to a rise in atheism or non-religiosity.

  11. zenpundit says:

    Ironically, Newton, the anti-Trinitarian, was a professor at the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity.

    http://galileoandeinstein.physics.virginia.edu/lectures/newton.html

    Sort of like Martin van Creveld having an endowed Clausewitz Chair at West Point. :)

  12. tdaxp says:

    Younghusband,

    I think you just made my point. Over the centuries we have seen Christianity (in this case) move away from a “Biblical” reading as you put it towards a more dispersed view of god. Think of god of the gaps arguments, mysterians, god as quantum theory etc. I think science can be credited for much of this loss of rigidity to use your term.

    I don’t want to overstep here, but I think Lex’s point is that the so-called “Biblical” reading is a recent, minority, fanatical, and unsustainable view of Christianity that is localized to early modern north-west Europe, and some of the parts of the world that received settlers from this fringe of Christendom. If by “dispersed view of god” you mean an emphasis on the Divine Tradition, then that “loss of rigidity” is 2,000 years old!

  13. Alfred Russel Wallace says:

    Zenpundit points out the delicious irony of Isaac Newton’s employer… and Lexington Green is quite right that not all churches have been so clear as the Episcopalians. My intent was not to suggest that Newton’s views on the Trinity prevailed, but rather that he took on two significant skirmishes – and at least did not lose. Master Cook is of course correct that both the Nicean and Apostles’ creeds remain de rigeur for most modern Christians… replete with Trinitarianism, but I am not sure how central that part is to most churchgoers. There seems to be some interest in viewing “The Holy Ghost” as female, which would make for a happy family…
    Personally, I hope we are moving towards a thoughtful religion where each of us retains the things that are meaningful to us, and resists too many instructions from a hierarchical human system. That seems to have been my namesake’s view. Focus on what unites us, and try and work around what we disagree on…

  14. tdaxp says:

    Personally, I hope we are moving towards a thoughtful religion where each of us retains the things that are meaningful to us, and resists too many instructions from a hierarchical human system. That seems to have been my namesake’s view. Focus on what unites us, and try and work around what we disagree on…

    Human nature less theology is animism.

    Humans are not thoughtful creatures. It is too hard for us.

  15. Peter says:

    “as science has progressed since the time of Newton that we have seen a decline of religiosity that has been more pronounced in the scientific community than in the general populace.”

    I don’t know how it is you decided to make this statement a fact: You yourself haven’t seen jack since the time of Newton.

    I, for one, am not convinced that science and religion are diametrically opposed.

  16. Younghusband says:

    @Peter: I did not “decide ” to make this statement a fact, but based the statement on the findings of famous studies of religiosity among scientists that have been done over the years. For example, Larson and Witham’s 1997 study found only 10% of the National Academy of Sciences, and 40% of a more general population of scientists believe in God. This is a lot smaller than the US population. The 2007 Religion Among Academic Scientists (RAAS) study had similar results, with 52% claiming no religious affiliation. Remember that America is one of the most religious states in the world. Foreign studies (in the UK and Canada, etc.) have shown an even slimmer margins for religious scientists.

    The point is, I didn’t make this up. And even if these results are only ballpark, the 10%-40% range of religiosity is much smaller than the time of Newton, when religiosity among natural philosophers was probably closer to 90%.

    ADDENDUM: And if you want to learn more about the relationship between science and religion over the past 500 years, there are lots and lots of good books out there, but you might want to start of with The Teaching Companies The Science Wars. It is a very even-handed social historical approach to the topic.

  17. SeekTruthFromFacts says:

    @Lexington Green:

    Anglicans haven’t repudiated the Athanasian Creed, Episcopalians have.

    It’s still in the 1662 Book of Common Prayr,[1] and any C of E congregation using that liturgy is legally required to recite or sing it on certain major festivals.

    However, Wallace is quite right to say that Episcopalians in the US have “consigned [the Creed] to the archives of historical documents.” That is the section where you’ll find it in their 1979 revision of the BCP: the Historical Documents section. [2]

    This is exactly the kind of confusion that is cleared up by the novel linguistic distinction between Anglicans (holding to historic positions) and Episcopalians (who feel free to alter them). The Constitution for the new Anglican Churh in North America specifically affirms the Creed. [3]

    [1] http://www.cofe.anglican.org/worship/liturgy/bcp/texts/
    [2] http://justus.anglican.org/resources/bcp/Historical_Docs.pdf
    [3] http://thinkinganglicans.org.uk/uploads/gs1764b.html (see Annex I)

  18. Peter says:

    From your comment:
    “as science has progressed since the time of Newton that we have seen a decline of religiosity”

    From the study you cite:
    “Larson and Witham found that the percentage of scientists who believe in a personal deity has remained rather stable while belief in personal immortality has declined considerably and the desire for personal immortality even more.”

    I am amused at the details you leave out and the causality you throw in.

    Thank you for the book recommendation, though.