Book Review: Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton (2017)


Isaac Newton (1642-1727) is one of the great enigmatic characters in scientific history, an extremely reclusive and private man with a fascinating array of foibles and personality quirks. I just finished the newly released book by Rob Iliffe, professor of history at Oxford University, that looks closely at the religious studies of this famous physicist and mathematician, based on a detailed examination of his vast collection of private notes, papers, and correspondence. The book deals largely with the first fifty years of Newton’s life, stopping around the year 1696 when Newton left Cambridge University and took up a government position as Warden of the Mint where he vigorously pursued and prosecuted counterfeiters.

That Newton was deeply religious is well known. That he studied alchemy, biblical prophecy, and had other mystical views is also fairly common knowledge. Admirers of his scientific and mathematical work have struggled to reconcile these seemingly disparate worldviews and have tried to suggest that his attention turned to these religious and pseudo-scientific concerns after his productive work in science had been completed.

Iliffe says that that is not the case and that his researches dispel some common misconceptions.

I aim to show that his religious studies were as expansive and technically demanding as any of his investigations in the natural sciences. It can no longer be assumed that these are an embarrassing residue of early modern superstition, or inferior productions of his dotage, which lack any historical or cultural value. Indeed, in contrast to the great Enlightenment myth that Newton only pursued these studies after his creative powers had dried up, it is clear that his most intensive and innovative religious studies took place early in his career, when he was in the prime of his life for pursuing extended and innovative studies in any field that attracted him. (p. 22)

What seems to have happened is that Newton pursued two parallel tracks, biblical exegesis and natural science, with dedication and energy. Iliffe suggests that rather than Newton’s religious studies taking second place to his scientific work, one could make the case that it was his primary interest, and that he saw his scientific work as somewhat of a distraction from his main mission in life, incredible as it may seem given his scientific and mathematical achievements.

Newton had a lifelong fascination with unearthing what he thought was the nature of ‘true Christianity’. He felt that Christianity was a simple faith that any ordinary person could adopt. It only required believing that Jesus was the prophesied Messiah who died and was resurrected. He felt that this simple structure had been greatly corrupted during the Great Apostasy that occurred around the end of the fourth century and the chief culprit was the Roman Catholics that made the religion extremely complicated by adding on various creeds and doctrines. Much of his religious research was devoted to trying to find when and how these wrong ideas entered into Christianity.

As a consequence, Newton was quite virulently anti-Catholic, and this caused him to justify some of the worst episodes of atrocities against Christians, such as the way that the Vandals treated Catholics in the fifth century (p. 282). But at the same time, he argued for tolerance of diverse views, probably because he too held heretical views that he kept largely to himself which was partly the reason that he did not publish the results of his religious studies. His main heresy was that did not believe in the Trinity. He thought that Jesus was subordinate to God the Father (whom I like to call Melvin) and he pretty much ignored the Holy Spirit (whom I like to call Harvey). (See here for an explanation of why I chose those names.) Although all Cambridge Fellows were expected to take religious orders and carry out some religious duties, he petitioned for and obtained a special dispensation from doing so, likely because that would have required him to take an oath of fidelity to Christian doctrines that included the Trinity. Also pastoral work, even part time, would have been seen by him as a waste of his valuable time, not to mention that his personality would make him totally unsuitable.

Newton felt that those few (referred to as ‘mature Christians’) who had the means and superior intellectual ability (and he clearly felt that he belonged to that group) had a duty to study and interpret the Bible and reveal its truths and he did so with great gusto and energy. He spent an extraordinary amount of time and effort in the prime of his life trying to understand the hidden meanings in that book, especially in interpreting the Book of Revelation. That wild and wacky last book in the Bible has such bizarre imagery with dragons and ten-horned beasts and so on, that one suspects that the author must have been high on some early form of LSD. Religious divines felt that these images contained prophecies about things that had already happened in the past and also the coming Apocalypse and the End Times. Here is one passage (Revelation 12:1-6) for those who have never dipped their toes into this weird book.

A great sign appeared in heaven: a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet and a crown of twelve stars on her head. She was pregnant and cried out in pain as she was about to give birth. Then another sign appeared in heaven: an enormous red dragon with seven heads and ten horns and seven crowns on its heads. Its tail swept a third of the stars out of the sky and flung them to the earth. The dragon stood in front of the woman who was about to give birth, so that it might devour her child the moment he was born. She gave birth to a son, a male child, who “will rule all the nations with an iron scepter.” And her child was snatched up to God and to his throne. The woman fled into the wilderness to a place prepared for her by God, where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

And it gets worse, if you can believe it. Newton and other biblical scholars debated passages like this, trying to understand what such things meant and the interpretation of 1,260 days. One could spend a lifetime trying to make sense out of such nonsense and indeed many people have done so.

Newton was a believer that the universe was designed (p. 311) and said that he had written his scientific masterpiece Principia Mathematica to promote belief in god among “considering men”.

The latter should ponder, he continued, the fact that the sun and no other body in the solar system produced heat and light, and indeed, gave out exactly the appropriate light and heat to the six planets, a state of affairs that could only have arisen by design. Moreover, God had ensured that planets travelled at just the correct velocities, were at just the right distance from the sun (and travelled in just the right orbits), had just the right mass (and hence just the right amount of gravitational power), and revolved on their axes at just the correct rates.

Newton believed that scientific knowledge could be known with certainty, like mathematics, and reacted angrily to any suggestion that scientific conclusions, especially his own, were not cast-iron facts but involved theories and hypotheses that could be argued over, like conclusions in the legal field. In fact, he disliked publishing anything because that would prompt queries and criticisms that he had to respond to that took time away from his researches. His was a highly prickly personality, easily offended when he was asked to provide supporting evidence for his theories, expecting others to accept them as self-evidently true because they were (in his opinion) factual and not theoretical. He much preferred working alone in his cloistered rooms at Cambridge than going to meetings of the Royal Society. He only published when he had to, to establish priority, and then he used his formidable forensic argumentative skills to vanquish rivals and opponents and those whom he felt tried to hog some of the credit for his own scientific work, most notably Robert Hooke over the idea of the inverse square law of gravitation and Gottfried Leibniz over the calculus.

The book, at 400 pages plus 100 pages of notes, is interesting but heavy going. Iliffe goes into great detail about theological issues and religious history, looking at the views of others at that time to understand who was influencing Newton’s thinking and the source of his heretical views. Iliffe seems to assume some familiarity with esoteric biblical and theological controversies. For example, there was considerable discussion of the Johannine Comma, a clause in the verse in 1 John 5:7 that seems to suggest support for the doctrine of the Trinity and whether that text was a later insertion or not. I had never heard of this controversy but such debates reminded me of ultra-Orthodox Jews who spend their entire lives poring over the minutiae of the Torah. Sometimes my eyes would glaze over, mainly because the issues being fought over seem so pointless to me. The book also jumps around without warning chronologically, which can be confusing.

Newton was a puritan who adopted a life of celibacy and austere and Spartan living so as to be able to devote all his time to his studies. He felt that the monks who adopted similar lifestyles fell prey to lustful thoughts and actions because they were largely idle. By keeping himself extremely busy at all times with his scientific, alchemic, and biblical studies, he felt that he was able to avoid those temptations.

Newton was undoubtedly a very strange and complex man. After reading this book, my impression is that we should not rue the fact that he wasted so much of his time and talents on biblical exegesis. Given his religiosity and deep passion for that subject, we should be grateful that it did not completely consume him and that he devoted at least a comparable amount of time and energy to advancing science.

Comments

  1. Chiroptera says

    Paul Jarc, #1:

    One thing I’ve always liked about Stephen Jay Gould’s natural history essays is how he would take old timey scientific/philosophic figures who are now credited with incorrect theories or ideas and even often mocked for them, and then explain what they were really trying to say and how their work fit into the context of their times. In general, treating them with a lot of respect.

    His essay on Lamarck was rather touching, and I look at the Bishop Ussher’s work a little differently now.

  2. Matt G says

    Bizarre stuff. But if Christianity is so simple, in his mind, what about the reams and reams of unbelievable claims in the Bible? That is not consistent.

  3. Pierce R. Butler says

    Newton was a puritan who adopted a life of celibacy …

    Other biographers have suggested that he had a love affair with his housemate during his student days and retreated to a solitary life after they broke up: history always involves key-detail-obscuring mists.

    …where she might be taken care of for 1,260 days.

    Douglas Adams fans, pls note that 1260 = 30 x 42!

  4. mnb0 says

    “struggled to reconcile these all these seemingly disparate worldviews”
    That only shows modern bias, based on the false assumption that science in the 17th Century was the same as now. It wasn’t. Only after Hume’s On Miracles the scientific method became a synonym of methodological naturalism, so nicely summarized with “I don’t need this hypothesis”, attributed to Laplace. Even though he probably never said it he could have said it.
    But in Newton’s time science was still one of the two paths to God. So I find it highly unsurprising that Newton followed both of them.

    “for those who have never dipped their toes into this weird book.”
    It’s the one and only Bible book I read in one go. I found it hilarious, it beats Monty Python qua absurdity. Sometimes I pick a random verse, read a bit – it rarely fails to make me laugh.

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