Monday, October 13, 2014

Issac Newton: England's Unknown Heretic

            Many people have heard of Isaac Newton and his amazing scientific and mathematical discoveries.  Very few people, however, actually understand Isaac Newton’s personal motivations that drove his scientific progress.  Isaac Newton was devoutly religious. He claims that everything he did scientifically was to prove God’s existence.  Newton wrote to his friend Richard Bentley: “When I wrote my treatise about our System I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief in a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose.”  The climate in England during Newton’s time prevented him from speaking too openly about his faith.  Isaac Newton rejected Trinitarianism (the belief that God existed as three persons in one being), a stance England punished by death.  He believed the Catholic Church was the anti-Christ that had corrupted the scriptures to gain wealth and power.  French publishers, who wanted a science of “Reason,” not of religion—much less Newton’s religion—edited out the majority of his references to God in his scientific papers. In fact, Newton wrote more about religion than he did about science. For instance, he wrote extensively about the prophecies in the Books of Daniel and Revelation. Currently, there is a project underway to translate Newton’s religious manuscripts, which are written in Latin, and investigate his precise religious beliefs.[1] Newton’s religious views are very similar to two small Protestant religious groups: Christadelphians and the Church of God Abrahamic Faith (aka Church of the Blessed Hope).

            Isaac Newton’s religious writings were unknown for a very long time because England’s repressive religious laws prevented him from publically disseminating these religious writings. His secret essentially died with him until a famous economist purchased a trunk full of Newton’s writings. John Maynard Keynes purchased the papers that were thought to consist primarily of Newton’s writing on the subject of Alchemy, one of Newton’s most passionate subjects, second only to the Bible.[2] Keynes donated these papers to Kings College Cambridge, where scholars soon discovered the real Isaac Newton. The world’s leading scholar of Isaac Newton’s religious writings is Dr. Stephen Snobelen, who happens to be a Christadelphian.

Newton’s Various Religious Beliefs

            Baptism is a hallmark of Christianity. One is required to receive baptism to receive salvation. In fact, the Catholic Church baptizes infants for this very reason. Newton, although believing baptism was required, disagreed with the Catholic Church’s position of baptizing infants. In Newton’s view, it was the change in one’s life, expressed publically through the physical baptism, which brought the actual salvation.[3] Newton reasoned that an infant was unable to think complicated thoughts; therefore, an infant could not undergo a life changing experience. Without a life changing experience and conscious commitment to God, the infant baptism was meaningless because a person is only saved when sins “are remitted by a sincere repentance from dead works.”[4]

            For Newton, the Jewish religion was the Jewish religion, not the religion of the Gentiles. The religion of the Gentiles was that of Noah. Jewish Christians were to remain Jewish and follow the laws of Moses, as commanded by God, and Gentile Christians were to follow the laws of Noah, as commanded by God.[5] Jesus had come to the Jews to force them to follow the laws of Moses, and the Gentiles to force them to follow the laws of Noah. Essentially God had created two covenants working side-by-side for the same goal, one of Moses and one of Noah. These beliefs were very common in First Century Christianity, and Second Temple Judaism. In Judaism, there are Seven Noahide Laws which all Gentiles must follow, several of which are laid out in Acts 15:29: “[t]hat you abstain from meat that has been sacrificed to idols and from blood and from what has been strangled and from sexual immorality.” These are the requirements of Gentile Christians who wish to retain salvation, according to Newton.

            Baptism. Prior to receiving the Baptism, Newton believed that one must know the “basics” of Christianity. The amount of knowledge required was insubstantial: Repenting for one’s sins; following the two great commandments; believing in God the Father; believing Jesus was the son of God, born of a virgin birth, that Jesus sacrificed himself, and that Jesus was resurrected to sit at the right hand of God.[6] The more complicated theological discussions were to be left to those who had been Christians longer, pursuing a higher learning.[7] Newton also believed that when two Christians disagreed, they could not excommunicate each other because excommunication could only apply to Christians who disagreed on the “basics” of Christianity.[8] This was contrary to the practices of the Catholic Church and the Church of England, who excommunicated Christians for certain political or complicated theological positions.

            Trinitarianism. Furthermore, Newton strongly disagreed with the Trinity, believing the Father was God, Jesus was a human that was the Son of God, and the Holy Spirit was a personification of God’s power. The evidence often cited by the Catholic Church was 1 John 5:7-8, which adds, “these three are one.” However, this is only found within the Textus Receptus, which the King James Version was translated from. Newton believed “these three are one” was an addition and forgery to the text.[9] Textual scholars, who dubbed the forgery the “Johannine Comma”, would later vindicate Newton.[10] Newton also believed that the Trinity was not originally the Christian doctrine of the Godhead, a position later vindicated by scholars.[11] The method Newton used in determining the authenticity of the Johannine Comma, or the lack thereof, was to compare texts and writings of some early Catholic Church Fathers. None of the text mentioned the phrase, including those trying to prove the Trinity. Accordingly, Newton concluded it was not authentic.[12]

            Atheism. Isaac Newton harshly condemned atheism. He believed it was idolatry in practice. “Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind that it never had many professors.”[13] Newton used his science and mathematical abilities, even in biology, to prove God’s existence. Although biology was not Newton’s forte, he was a proponent of Intelligent Design.[14] Giving Newton the benefit of context, the Theory of Evolution had yet to be proposed. Perhaps Newton would be a proponent of Theistic Evolution had the evidence been presented.

            Separation of Church and State. Newton’s stance on separation of church and state aligned with the U.S. Constitution’s First Amendment. He supported the separation of church and state because he believed the laws of men should not be mingled with the Law of God.[15] In addition, Newton proposed keeping philosophy and religion separate, advocating against Christian Philosophy.[16]

            Heaven & Hell. Heaven and Hell were not places of living an eternal life for Newton. Newton believed that only the righteous would enjoy resurrection into the kingdom Jesus was to establish.[17] Thus, he believed, there was no reason to go to heaven because God himself would be on earth once Jesus would hand the kingdom over to God.[18] Newton differed remarkably from his contemporaries on his belief of the immortality of the soul; he believed the Bible never taught that humans had an immortal soul. For Newton, physical death meant the death of the soul, and one could only hope for the resurrection.[19] The words translated as “hell” in the Bible were “sheol” and “hades”—both literally meaning grave or tomb—and “Gehenna”—a trash dump outside the walls of Jerusalem where they burned trash and criminals. Wielding these meanings, Newton concluded, “hell” just meant the grave or a place where the wicked would remain dead. Some scholars would later corroborate Newton’s views over Heaven, Hell, and Immortal Souls.[20]

Newton’s Views on Prophecy

            Newton wrote extensively over Biblical Prophecy. Although he wrote many essays on the subject, his complete works consist of Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and Observations upon the Apocalypse of St. John. He believed that books such as Daniel and Revelation were understandable despite the fact that they contained vague, symbolic language. Newton suggested viewing the symbolic as a “prophetic language,” which, like all foreign languages, one must first learn before understanding the underlying message.[21] Newton’s approach to interpreting symbolic language was to compare the cryptic phrases to other parts of the Bible.[22] After comparing the phrases, one could discern the meanings.[23] If the Bible was completely silent or the phrase was wholly unique, then Newton would compare other Ancient Near Eastern cultural beliefs or languages to unlock the symbolic meaning,[24] a method scholars use today. Newton believed the reason the prophetic messages were not understood is because the cultural differences of the Ancient Near East, who prefer symbolic creatures (such as Egyptian Hieroglyphs), and the later culture of the West, which avoided symbolism.[25]

            The interpretive model that Newton implemented is known today as Historicism. Historicism holds that the Book of Revelation spans the time period of the Apostles to the time when the Kingdom of God is established at Jesus’ return. Therefore, all humans since the time of Apostles, including present humans, are experiencing the things described in Revelation currently, as well as previously. Historicism uses symbols mentioned in Revelation, comparing and applying them to actual historical events. Proponents of Historicism also believe that the Anti-Christ is the Catholic Church. This is distinct from other interpretive models such as Preterism, which holds that all the prophecies in Revelation were fulfilled in the first century, or Futurism, which holds that the prophecies have not yet taken place but will in the future (think Rapture and the Left Behind book series).

            Some of the symbolic language explained by Newton is that of a “rising star” or “rising to heaven,” which translates into a political figure rising to the throne or seat of power.[26] “Descending” or “falling from heaven” meant that kings or powerful people would fall from power.[27] “Hell” or “Hades” were never to be taken literally, as these two words were simply illustrative; they represented mans descent into unhappiness, humiliation, or death.[28] Hell was not the place of everlasting torment for the damned taught by many people, as this had no basis in Ancient Near Eastern theology, but only in Greek theology. “Great earthquakes,” whether occurring in heaven or on earth, meant the governments would be overthrown.[29]

According to the Book of Daniel, there will be four empires that will rule the earth, represented by beasts. The fourth beast contains ten horns. Newton believed this fourth beast to be the Roman Empire, and the ten horns to be ten kingdoms that would be born from the Roman Empire.[30] He identified these kingdoms as the following: (1) the Vandals, (2) the Suevians, (3) the Visigoths, (4) the Alans, (5) the Burgundians, (6) the Franks, (7) the Britains, (8) the Hunns, (9) Lombards, and (10) Ravenna.[31]

            Newton’s prophetic teachings have recently been popularized due to their perceived accuracy. Newton predicted the Jews would once again regain their homeland in the land of Israel. He predicted this at a time when Jews were thought to soon be extinct because the European society often denied them education and economic participation. Newton predicted that the Jews would flee from Europe and establish Israel rather quickly. Predictions such as these have led to Newton’s profiling in the series Nostradamus Effect.[32] If Newton’s next big prediction is correct, Jesus will establish his kingdom in 2060.

Newton’s Views of the Catholic Church

            Newton had a less-than-glowing view of the Catholic Church. In fact, he believed it to be the Anti-Christ spoken of in the Book of Revelation:

            The apostle Paul opposed the preaching of the law of Moses to the Gentiles and called it another gospel whereby the faith in Christ was made void, not because the Law was evil (for the Apostle tells us that the Law is good) but because it was not necessary to salvation, and therefore not to be imposed as a fundamental article of communion. And for the same reason the imposing of any Proposition (true and false) as an Article of Communion, which was not an Article of Communion from the first preaching of the Gospel may be preaching another Gospel; and the persecuting of any true Christians for not receiving that Gospel may be persecuting Christ in his mystical members, and the Persecutor breaks the second and third great commandment in making war upon Christ, and may deserve the name of Anti-Christian in the literal sense.
            A Church guilty of this crime is in a state of apostasy from Christ.

            According to Newton, the Catholic Church’s use of excommunication and complicated theological positions were among its worst sins. Newton also believed the Church’s canonization of Saints and ritualistic worship, including to the Virgin Mary, was idolatry, breaking the first commandment God delivered to Moses, the first commandment Christ delivered during his preaching, and the commandment under the Noahide Laws.[33]

            For Newton, the symbol of the “beast” represented a kingdom, country, or political power.[34] Accordingly, the “beast” in Revelation 17:3 referred to a political power. The prostitute represented a religious authority that sat on a city of Seven Hills.[35] Newton identified this prostitute as the Catholic Church. Significantly, Rome is nicknamed “The City on Seven Hills” because it sits on seven hills: Aventine Hill, Caelian Hill, Capitoline Hill, Esquiline Hill, Palatine Hill, Quirinal Hill, and Viminal Hill. The prostitute rode the beast, meaning the Catholic Church was supported by political power, i.e., the European kingdoms and countries. Newton believed this was obvious because throughout history kingdoms had supported the Catholic Church in events such as the Crusades and Inquisitions. One particularly impactful event that confirmed his view further was Queen Mary’s persecution of Protestants in the name of Catholicism. Newton believed this was further evidence of the wickedness of the Catholic Church for its silence on the issue and apparent support of the murders.[36]

            Newton had harsh words for the practices of the Catholic Church. He detested what he viewed as worshiping the Crucifix, calling it “the superstition of the Cross,” pointing out that it was not introduced to Christianity until the second century.[37] After the second century, Newton believed other actions, such as infant baptism and praying to the saints, led the Catholic Church to a downward spiral into becoming the Anti-Christ.[38]

Some of the biggest support for Newton’s condemnation of the Catholic Church comes from the Book of Daniel. After establishing ten kingdoms represented by the ten horns of the fourth beast, Newton describes the eleventh horn that grows out of the beast, and devours three of the horns. Since Daniel describes this eleventh horn in different and particular detail, Newton believed it was a different kind of kingdom.[39] The horn had eyes, which represented a seer, or prophet or religious figure, and a mouth, which represented a man who would force laws upon other nations.[40] Newton described this as the Catholic Church.[41] Newton states that the Pope’s dictation of laws to other kings and leaders, while claiming that his dictations were infallible, and deciding what is binding upon the whole world, is to call one’s self a prophet.[42] The three horns that the Catholic Church subdued were the Exarchate of Ravenna, the Kingdom of the Lombards, and the Senate of Rome, which the Bishop of Rome took over to consolidate power.[43] Newton further explains, the Catholic Church then claimed Peter’s Patrimony, a stance the Church had not made before.[44] Newton details the consolidation of the Catholic Church according to the historians of the time. One of the final acts of the Pope to gain an independent state is the actions by Charles the Great, who was declared Emperor of Rome for saving the Pope from angry Roman citizens and enemies within the Church.[45] Charles the Great declared himself supreme judge and acquitted the Pope of all charges, and beheaded three hundred Romans in one day who were considered enemies of the Pope.[46]

            Isaac Newton is without a doubt one of the most influential thinkers in human history. His works on gravity, light, and calculus formed the backdrop for our modern scientific understanding. Learning more, however, about Isaac Newton’s theological viewpoints provides an opportunity to understand the person behind the mind. Newton’s religious beliefs were virtually unshakable even to the point where he died a virgin in order to live like his hero, the Apostle Paul.[47] We should all study Newton’s writings to dispel the myth created by ignorance. Some in Newton’s day would feel repulsed by his religious beliefs, believing they too were a myth. However, in the words of Newton, “A man may imagine things that are false, but he can only understand things that are true, for if the things be false, the apprehension of them is not understanding.”[48] According to Newton, he understood the Bible very well, and thus understood the undeniable truth.

[1] This project is called “The Newton Project,” which has great online resources.
[3] Theological Miscellany, 3.
[4] Theological Miscellany, 3.
[5] Theological Miscellany, 4.
[6] Miscellany, 10.
[7] Miscellany, 11.
[8] Miscellany, 12.
[9] Miscellany, 67-69.
[10] Bart D. Ehrman, Misquoting Jesus: The Story Behind Who Changed the Bible and Why, 80-83 (2005).
[11] See generally, Bart D. Ehrman, How Jesus Became God (2014); Richard E. Rubenstein, When Jesus Became God (1999); Patrick Navas, Divine Truth or Human Tradition? (2007); Sir Anthony F. Buzzard and Charles F. Hunting, The Doctrine of the Trinity: Christianity’s Self-Inflicted Wound (1998); Sir Anthony F. Buzzard, Jesus Was Not a Trinitarian (2007); Jonathan Burke, Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith, 285-290 (2013).
[12] Miscellany, 69.
[13] Miscellany, 20.
[14] Miscellany, 20-21.
[15] Miscellany, 39.
[16] Miscellany, 39.
[17] Miscellany, 79-80.
[18] 1 Corinthians 15.
[19] Miscellany, 80.
[20] Jonathan Burke, Living on the Edge: Challenges to Faith 295-325 (2013).
[21] Miscellany, 44-57.
[22] Miscellany, 45.
[23] Miscellany, 45.
[24] Miscellany, 45-46.
[25] Miscellany, 46.
[26] Miscellany, 46.
[27] Miscellany, 46.
[28] Miscellany, 46.
[29] Miscellany, 46.
[30] Prophecies, 47.
[31] Prophecies, 47-48.
[32] Nostradamus Effect, The Apocalypse Code (October 7, 2009).
[33] Miscellany, 21-26.
[34] Miscellany, 52.
[35] Revelation 17:9
[36] Miscellany, 66-67
[37] Miscellany, 70.
[38] Miscellany, 70.
[39] Prophecies, 76.
[40] Prophecies, 76.
[41] Prophecies, 76.
[42] Prophecies, 76.
[43] Prophecies, 76-77.
[44] Prophecies, 77.
[45] Prophecies, 82-84.
[46] Prophecies, 84.
[47] 1 Corinthians 7:7.
[48] Miscellany, 61.