Isaac Newton’s Search for God
POPULAR tradition has it that the fall of an apple started Sir Isaac Newton on the way to discovering the universal law of gravitation. Whatever may be the truth of this tradition, there is no question about Newton’s remarkable powers of reason. Concerning his renowned scientific work the Principia, we are told: “The whole development of modern science begins with this great book. For more than 200 years it reigned supreme.”1
Celebrated as were Newton’s scientific discoveries, he himself humbly acknowledged his human limitations. He was modest. Shortly before his death in 1727 he said of himself: “I do not know what I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore, and diverting myself in now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”2
Newton appreciated that God is the Source of all truth, and in line with the deep reverence he had for his Creator, he appears to have spent even more time searching after the true God than he did in searching out scientific truths. An analysis of all that Newton wrote reveals that out of some 3,600,000 words only 1,000,000 were devoted to the sciences, whereas some 1,400,000 were on religious topics.3
NEWTON WRESTLES WITH THE TRINITY DOCTRINE
In his writings, Newton gave much attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. One of his most outstanding contributions to the Biblical scholarship of the time was his work An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, first published in 1754, twenty-seven years after his death. It reviewed all the textual evidence available from ancient sources on two Bible passages, at First John 5:7 and First Timothy 3:16.
In the King James Version Bible, First John 5:7 reads:
“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
Using early Church writers, the Greek and Latin manuscripts and the testimony of the first versions of the Bible, Newton proved that the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” in support of the Trinity doctrine, did not appear in the original inspired Greek Scriptures. He then traced the way in which the spurious reading crept into the Latin versions, first as a marginal note, and later into the text itself. He showed that it was first taken into a Greek text in 1515 by Cardinal Ximenes on the strength of a late Greek manuscript corrected from the Latin. Finally, Newton considered the sense and context of the verse, concluding, “Thus is the sense plain and natural, and the argument full and strong; but if you insert the testimony of ‘the Three in Heaven’ you interrupt and spoil it.”4
The shorter portion of this dissertation was concerned with 1 Timothy 3:16, which reads (King James Version):
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”
Newton showed how, by a small alteration in the Greek text, the word “God” was inserted to make the phrase read “God was manifest in the flesh.” He demonstrated that early Church writers in referring to the verse knew nothing of such an alteration.
Summing up both passages, Newton said: “If the ancient churches in debating and deciding the greatest mysteries of religion, knew nothing of these two texts, I understand not, why we should be so fond of them now the debates are over.”5 In the two hundred years and more since that treatise was compiled by Isaac Newton, only a few minor corrections have been necessary to the evidence he adduced. Yet it was only in the nineteenth century that Bible translations appeared correcting these passages. Part of Newton’s original manuscript in his own handwriting is illustrated on the next page by courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
Why did Newton not publish these findings during his lifetime? A glance at the background of the times may explain this. Those who wrote against the doctrine of the Trinity were still subject to persecution in England. As late as 1698 the Act for the Suppression of Blasphemy and Profaneness made it an offense to deny one of the persons of the Trinity to be God, punishable with loss of office, employment and profit on the first occasion, and imprisonment for a repetition. Newton’s friend William Whiston (translator of the works of Josephus) lost his professorship at Cambridge for this reason in 1711. In 1693 a pamphlet attacking the Trinity was burned by order of the House of Lords, and the next year its printer and author were prosecuted. In 1697 Thomas Aikenhead, an eighteen-year-old student charged with denying the Trinity, was hanged at Edinburgh, Scotland.6, 7, 8
WHY NEWTON REJECTED THE TRINITY
Through his scientific studies Newton came to have a high regard for the ‘Book of Nature’ and saw in it the evidence of design by God, the great Author. He also believed that the Bible was the revelation of God, and that it was always in harmony with the testimony of creation.9
The Bible was Newton’s touchstone for testing teachings and doctrine. In discussing the creeds of the Church, Newton made this position very clear. On the basis of the eighth of the Thirty-nine Articles dealing with the Nicene, Athanasius and Apostles Creeds, he said of the Church of England:
“She doth not require us to receive them by authority of General Councils, and much less by authority of Convocations, but only because they are taken out of the Scriptures. And therefore are we authorised by the Church to compare them with the Scriptures, and see how and in what sense they can be deduced from thence? And when we cannot see the Deduction we are not to rely upon the Authority of the Councils and Synods.”
His conclusion was even more emphatic:
“Even General Councils have erred and may err in matters of faith, and what they decree as necessary to salvation is of no strength or authority unless they can be shown to be taken from the holy Scripture.”10
Newton’s principal reason for rejecting the Trinity was that when he sought to verify the statements of the creeds and the councils he found no support in Scripture for the doctrine.
In weighing this evidence, Newton firmly held that reasoning should be used. He argued that nothing created by God was without purpose and reason, and Bible teachings would be sustained by similar application of logic and reason.
Speaking of the apostle John’s writings, Newton said: “I have that honour for him as to believe that he wrote good sense; and therefore take that sense to be his which is the best.”11 So, as a second reason for rejecting the Trinity teaching, Newton declared: “Homoousion [the doctrine that the Son is of the same substance as the Father] is unintelligible. ’Twas not understood in the Council of Nice, nor ever since. What cannot be understood is no object of belief.”12
Dealing with this same aspect of the Trinity is a Newton manuscript entitled “Queries Regarding the Word Homoousios.” It reveals a third reason for his denial of the Trinity. This teaching was not part of early Christianity.
Queries twelve to fourteen all highlight the doctrine’s lack of original first-century character:
“Query 12. Whether the opinion of the equality of the three substances was not first set on foot in the reign of Julian the Apostate [361-363 C.E.], by Athanasius, Hilary, etc.?
Query 13. Whether the worship of the Holy Ghost was not first set on foot presently after the Council of Sardica? [343 C.E.]
Query 14. Whether the Council of Sardica was not the first Council which declared for the doctrine of the Consubstantial Trinity?”13