Sir Isaac Newton (Dec. 28, 1659-March 20, 1726) was a “renowned mathematician, astronomer and physicist.”1)Ed Reese, Reese Chronological Encyclopedia of Christian Biographies, AMG Publishers (Chattanooga, Tennessee: 2007), p. 260 who “left more than 1 million words of notes on the bible.”2) Ed Reese, Reese Chronological Encyclopedia of Christian Biographies, AMG Publishers (Chattanooga, Tennessee: 2007), p. 261 His notes and writings can be read online at The Newton Projects.3) http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/newtons-works/all The often-repeated expression that Sir Isaac Newton was an anti-Trinitarian, and denied the deity of the Lord Jesus Christ, has become so widely accepted that it is not even questioned whether or not it is true. A quick answer to these charges is: No, Isaac Newton was not an Arian.
Craig Keener, whose encyclopedic-like knowledge of the ancient world, states: “Isaac Newton, who was theologically Arian…”4)Craig S. Keener, Acts An Exegetical Commentary: Introduction and 1:1-2:47, Baker Academic (Grand Rapids, MI: 2013), Vol. 1, p. 356 But how does he know this when his expertise is as a Greek Classicist? Van Alan Herd, who wrote his doctorates dissertation on “The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton,”5)Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008). Accessible as PDF file at https://pqdtopen.proquest.com/doc/304486887.html?FMT=ABS argued the opposite, that Newton’s theology was firmly grounded in the Trinitarianism of the Puritans of his era. Herd writes, “My own reading of Newton immediately brought to mind parallels with Richard Baxter, John Owen and Samuel Rutherford, and thus a Newton whose theology and spirituality were very clearly cast in a Calvinist mould.”6) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 6 He suggests that the error of other Newtonian scholars who claim Newton was a Arian is that they are not trained in theology and more specifically historical theology, and thus cannot properly discern the Puritan threads and common expression that revolved around the controversies of that age.
Mark Knoll’s book The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind,7) Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: MI, 1994). essentially argued that it is scandalous that evangelicals would assess everything in light of what the Bible teaches. New Evangelicalism is generally mark by this mentality of allowing the world to teach us how to interpret the Bible.8)See Heath Henning, Hegelian Dialectics,” July 1, 2016; https://truthwatchers.com/hegelain-dialectics/ As a leading evangelical and Professor of Christian Thought at Wheaton College, a leading New Evangelical Christian college, I would consider his very philosophy of Christianity heretical and he frequently employs false historical assessments to defend his views.9)see Heath Henning, “Long Ages: Where did the Idea Come From?” June 11, 2016, particular comments preceding footnote 15; https://truthwatchers.com/long-ages-idea-come/ When speaking of Jonathan Edwards, Knoll opines, “He [Edwards] thrilled, for example, to read the works of John Locke and Sir Isaac Newton for what those works told him about human nature and the physical world. But Edwards also always denied that this natural knowledge of the world was the highest or finest knowledge.”10) Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: MI, 1994), p. 79 Knoll is attempting to set a dichotomy between Jonathan Edwards and Isaac Newton as he later set Newton in terms of the enlightenment philosophy.
He [Edwards] also resisted the Enlightenment tendency to let the scientific procedures practiced by Newton dictate an ideal way of working in theology and all other fields. Along with Edwards, all major evangelical leaders of the mid-eighteenth century defended the Reformation’s view of human nature and denied that people had a “natural” moral sense by which they could understand what was both true and in their best interest.11) Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: MI, 1994), p. 86
Knoll is here claiming that Newton did not hold to the view of the Reformers doctrine of Total Depravity, whereby the totality of man is affected by the sin nature, including the mind (Ephesians 2:3), disabling mankind to fully understand the world and science without the light of God’s revelation in the Bible. Knoll even claims that Newton’s view was among “England’s theological moderates” and contrasted Newton’s position on Genesis with John Huntchinson, who held “that the early chapters of Genesis as well as the Christian doctrine of the Trinity provided direct scientific teaching…”12) Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: MI, 1994), p. 192 In fact, Newton held a literal interpretation of the creation account in Genesis which Knoll derides as nonintellectual and casts Newton into his agenda of denying creationism. Terry Mortenson indicates Newton’s view on Genesis when writing, “In A New Theory of the Earth (1696) William Whiston (1667-1752), Newton’s successor at Cambridge in mathematics, shared similar views … But he offered a cometary [sic] explanation of the mechanism of the flood and he added six years to Archbishop Ussher’s date of creation by his argument that each day of Genesis 1 was one year in duration.”13) Terry Mortenson, The Great Turning Point, Master Books (Green Forest, AR: 2004), p. 26 Adding six years to the Genesis account was scandalous in his era. But Herd, as we saw above, argued the exact opposite on the behalf of Newton.
Herd opposing view was determined by assessing Newton’s work and comparing it to divers positions one could take. Herd explains, “his [Newton’s] theology is contrasted and compared with various models, the most profitable of which is the presuppositionalist theology model.”14) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 16 As a Presuppositionalist, Newton would presuppose the Bible is accurate and interpret his scientific observations in light of his understanding of the Bible. As Herd states, “The elements of Newtonian theology are rooted firmly in an epistemological Presuppositionalism. Presuppositionalism begins with a priori postulates concerning ultimate reality that are unprovable but provide that key to explaining the whole of reality.”15) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 55 Furthermore, “For Newton, his theology is the very foundation of his science.”16) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 169
To understand this fuller, we can see Newton’s view of hermeneutics and the doctrine of inspiration. Newton writes:
To acquiesce in that sense of any portion of Scripture as the true one which results most freely and naturally from the use and propriety of the Language and tenor of the context in that and all other places of Scripture to that sense. For if this be not the true sense, then is the true sense uncertain, and no man can attain to any certainty in the knowledge of it. Which is to make the scriptures no certain rule of faith, and so to reflect upon the spirit of God who dictated it.17)Isaac Newton, Yahuda MS, Var, 1, Newton Ms. 1.1, fol. 12r-13r.
Here Newton suggest the literal interpretation of Scripture is the only way to interpret it or else Scripture becomes unintelligible. He further asserts that the Bible was written by dictation of the Spirit. He therefore taught that every word of the Bible18)within the limits of his textual critical views, which, for example, caused him to reject the Johannine comma was directly from the mind of God and the meaning of those words were to be understood from a literal interpretation which could be clearly understood.
Charles Ryrie expressed that “dispensationalists believe in the literal principle”19)Charles C. Ryrie, Dispensationalism (Revised and Expanded), Moody (Chicago, IL: 1966, 1995), p. 81 for interpretation of God’s word. Newton’s literal method of hermeneutics led him to divide the ages of salvation history as a dispensationalist does. “For if historians divide their histories into Sections, Chapters, and books at such periods of time where the less, greater, and greatest revolutions begin or end; and to do otherwise would be improper: much more ought we to suppose that the holy Ghost observes this rule accurately in his prophetic dictates since they are no other then histories of things to come.”20)Isaac Newton, Yahuda Ms, Var, 1, Newton Ms.1.1, fol. 16r. Mark Knoll’s historical revisionism derided dispensationalism, pretending it “tended toward a kind of gnosticism”,21) Mark A. Noll, The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co. (Grand Rapids: MI, 1994), p. 132 yet his ignorance of the history of this biblical doctrine is easily revealed to those who have read first-hand sources.22)See Heath Henning, The Rapture as Taught by the Early Church, June 6, 2016; https://truthwatchers.com/rapture-taught-early-church/ The further reveals Knoll’s inconsistency of interpreting Newton whom he claims was embedded with Enlightenment thinking, which obviously would not permit a logical correlation with a dispensational view or the dictation view of inspiration. It must be noted that Newton was eventually persuaded away from a dispensation view. “All indications suggest that Newton’s early hermeneutics employed a literalistic methodology that included a belief in the physical restoration of Israel before the End Times…. By the time he composed his Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms, Newton had adopted the preterist view of Richard Baxter’s 1691 Saint’s Everlasting Rest.”23) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 27
All this does have direct bearing on Newton’s Trinitarianism. Newton was involved with the controversies of his age, one of which included the portion of Puritans that sought to avoid theological terms that were not found in the Bible itself which was a view firmly rooted in his presuppositionalism. This common Puritan impulse was expressed in the axiom “call Bible things by Bible names,” and not utilize later theological terms, even if those terms properly reflected Biblical truths. This is why Van Alan Herd suggested the failure of other Newton scholars was their lack of training in historical theology, they therefore did not understand Newton according to his historical context. One example Herd relates is:
Sir Isaac’s ambivalence toward the Oath of Conformity and subsequent refusal to be ordained as an Anglican clergyman, is regarded by many contemporary historians as the supreme proof that Newton was an Arian. However, Newton’s mentor and predecessor in the then new Lucasion Chair of Mathematics, Dr. Isaac Barrow, arranged for the ordination requirement of the Lucasion Chair to be waved in Newton’s case. It is hard to imagine that a doctrinaire Cambridge don such as Barrow who resigned his Chair in order to devote more time to ministry would support an Arian as his successor.24) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 46
The history of the claim that Newton was an Arian stands on shaky grounds. “Thomas Thomson was among the first to contend that Newton was an Arian when he opined that Newton “did not believe in the Trinity.’”25) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 149; citing Thomas Thomson (1773-1852), History of the Royal Society from Its Institution to the End of the Eighteenth Century (London: R. Baldwin, 1812). William Whiston, who translated the most popular edition of Josephus, also claimed Newton was an Arian. Whiston himself was Arian and on his historical revisionist attempt to justify his own heresy, he even claimed that the firsrt century Jew Josephus was an Ebionite Christian. Aloys Grillmeier defined what the Ebionites believed about Christ.
There can be no doubt that the Ebionites to some extent recognized a transcendence of Jesus and do not simply regard him as a ‘mere man.’ For them, Christ is the ‘elect of God’ and above all the ‘true prophet’ (not, of course, priest), as Epiphanius (Haer. 30, 13, 7f.) testifies. But they delete the early history of Jesus, Matthew 1 and 2, from their Gospel. They deny the Virgin birth and also that Jesus is the Son of God, thus rejecting his pre-existence:…26)Aloys Grillmeier, S. J., Christ in Christian Tradition: From the Apostolic Age to Chalcedon (451) (trans. J. S. Bowden, Sheed and Ward (New York, NY: 1965) p. 91
Alan Herd further relates the history of developing the “Newton is an Arian” idea.
A case in point is found in [Herbert] McLachlan’s reprint of Newton’s Irenicum, in which he freely edits the passages and freely inserts still other material from the Keynes Manuscripts. The net effect of this editing is to change completely the material to the point that it no longer reflects the original…. The publication of McLachlan’s Newton effectively marked the beginning of the contemporary Newtonian theological scholarship because most scholars since that time have interpreted subsequently published Newtonian theological manuscripts in the light of the McLachlan arian theological agenda in which he attempted to recruit Newton for the Unitarian cause.27) Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 153-154
In fact, from Newton’s own words, it is glaringly obvious that he did indeed believe in the Trinity and deity of Christ, as Herd relates:
As already indicated, the strongest evidence of Trintarianism in Newtonian thought is represented by this passage, found in one of his glosses upon Lacantius:
That to say there is but one God, ye father of all things, excludes not the son & Holy ghost from the Godhead because they are virtually conteined & implied in the father.
To apply ye name of God to ye Son or holy ghost as distinct persons from the father makes them not divers Gods from ye Father… Soe there is divinity in ye father, divinity in ye Son, & divinity in ye holy ghost, & yet they are not thre forces but one force. [spelling in original]28)Van Alan Herd, The Theology of Sir Isaac Newton, Ph.D. Diss., University of Oklahoma (Norman Oklahoma: 2008), p. 167; citing Isaac Newton, Yahuda, MS 14.
Such an unambiguous expression from Newton’s own pen declaring the unity of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit as three divine persons in one God clearly refutes any attempt to claim him as an Arian heretic.
We have here a great lesson to learn from the case of Newton’s Trinitarian theology: be careful and cautious for historical revisionists that recruit major figures of history for their personal cause. Many people are simply ignorant of facts and regurgitate the supposed “scholars” of the topic, but this is an example of why we must return to personal and diligent studies with the practice of sound hermeneutics of all authors within the historical context. Also, be aware of the personal assumptions of the “scholars” we may read to understand how they might be attempting misconstrue history for the personal agendas.