“scholarship since the 19th century…Trinitarianism can only be found in the NT if the reader…puts it there.”

Sir Isaac Newton, by Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723): Newton was a secret, though fierce critic of the ‘Holy’ Trinity

Isaac Newton was a fierce critic of the Trinitarian corruption of Christianity: A review by
A.N. Wilson

John Calvin believed that human nature was a ‘permanent factory of idols’; the mind conceived them, and the hand gave them birth. Isaac Newton acquired a copy of Calvin’s Institutes when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661 as a teenager. By the time he was a mature man, however, Newton’s determined effort to strip the mind of superstitious superfluities had far outstripped the austere predestinarian of Geneva. As a Fellow of Trinity, and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from 1669 onwards, Newton was obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. It was noted that, most unusually for a Cambridge academic at this period, he refused to take Holy Orders. In addition to his public work as a mathematician and physicist, Newton undertook work which was, perforce, utterly secret. This was his re-examination of Christian doctrine from its historical foundations. Had this work been made public, he would have been forced to resign all his public and academic positions. For he had come to the conclusion, by the time he reached maturity, that the central doctrines of Christianity, as outlined in the Creeds and the Articles, were monstrous idolatries, inventions, Satanic perversions of true religion. Above all, he excoriated Athanasius for persuading the Council of Nicaea to adopt the plainly, as Newton would see it, idolatrous view that Jesus had been the divine Second Person of the Trinity.

Rob Iliffe, professor of history at Oxford, begins his study of Newton’s religious thought by saying, ‘Newton’s extensive writings on the Trinitarian corruption of Christianity are among the most daring works of any writer in the early modern period, and they would merit careful study even if they had not been composed by the author of the Principia.’ Presumably, Iliffe means that the writings are ‘daring’ in their conclusions, as Newton was not so ‘daring’ as to publish them — which would have spelt personal ruin. All his work on gravity, cosmology, mathematics, the colour spectrum, and so on would have been conducted, not in the spacious setting of Trinity, but in a garret, and it is unlikely that the world would have heeded them so readily had they not come from the Lucasian professor. So obsessed was Newton by his religious views and writings, however, that he longed to get out of Cambridge, and settle in London, if only a convenient post could be found. But when Locke wangled him the Mastership of the Charterhouse, at £200 p.a. with a coach, this was not a sufficient lure.

We are all hugely in Rob Iliffe’s debt. Few of us would have the skill, in mathematics or philosophy or divinity, nor the patience, to do what he has done, which is read through the huge extent of Newton’s obsessive theological writings. He, together with a team of industrious scholars, has helped to put online the writings which had hitherto been visible only in academic libraries, such as New College, Oxford, King’s College, Cambridge, and the Fitz-william Museum. Most of this stuff had either been totally forgotten, or never even read, until the last 15 years; so that, as well as being a punctilious, painstaking historical work of the utmost density, this book also constitutes one of the most sensational ‘scoops’ of recent times.

What emerges is something which will fascinate any student of Newton and the 17th century, but which will also give any honest Orthodox Christian pause. On the one hand, Newton emerges from these pages as a crackpot, who believed himself to be one of the remnant of true believers, mentioned in the book of the Apocalypse, who would be resurrected to rule over mortals in the Millennium. On the other, his was one of the most acute, most searching, of all human intelligences. He had researched every aspect of the history of Catholic doctrine, and his account of how the Creeds evolved, though laced with the violent anti-Catholic prejudice of their times and coloured by apocalyptic fervour, would be broadly in step with the mainstream of scholarship since the 19th century: namely that full-blown doctrinal Trinitarianism can only be found in the New Testament if the reader, consciously or unconsciously, puts it there.

Iliffe demands from his reader a very full concentration on the knotty issues which possessed the minds of Desert Fathers, Arians, and the Fathers of the Church, the Cambridge Platonists, the materialists who followed Hobbes, as well as the saner and more congenial thought-processes of Locke and Hooke. At times, the reader is reminded of the fact that for much of his long life, Newton was the contemporary of Swift; and it is all that one can do to remind oneself that one is reading an academic work, rather than having strayed into the pages of Gulliver’s Travels. It is not altogether surprising, in the final chapter, when Locke, Pepys and others begin to notice that Newton’s outbursts of paranoia went beyond the eccentric. The Dutch natural philosopher Christian Huygens noted that Newton, during a conversation with the Archbishop of Canterbury, had betrayed signs of madness, and that his friends had led him away and kept him under house arrest for a considerable period in 1694. Sadly, we are not told how the conversation went. He recovered his wits, and lived to his mid-eighties. This is a book which will take you several weeks to read, but the journey is worth it.

 

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Categories: Bible, Biblical scholarship, Christianity, God

3 replies

  1. People reading this blog entry might wonder where Iliffe’s work can be found. The above is in reference to his (i.e. Iliffe’s) new book, Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton.

    I myself have not yet read the book, but from Wilson’s review, I am certainly interested. For now I will comment that I do find intriguing the allusion to charting a path from reading the works of Calvin, through a general anti-Catholicism, to the point of stripping away doctrines which Calvin and other Reformers would not have dared deny. Somewhat similarly (at least in my mind), William Farmer’s had noted, in passing, in a couple places, that when tracing some aspects of present day New Testament scholarship to 19th century (and earlier) German “Neutestamentliche Wissenschaft,” the latter should itself be understood as extending out of certain forms of German Protestantism. I don’t intend that as a jab at Protestants collectively, but, somewhat separate from Farmer’s position, I have noticed that the logic of such scholarship can at times bare some similarity to that of more “low church” (or less liturgically minded) types, insofar that emphasis is often heavily placed on what is explicit in (or at the surface of) the text under examination. Moreover, while of course, today, there are profound differences between how secular scholars and conservative low church Protestants approach the New Testament, the former’s tendency to try to isolate one portion from another can still be seen as within the scope of peeling away external ecclesiastical traditions. Now, so too, various Catholics and Orthodox (and a varied spectrum of non-Christians) struggle with trying to determine what can be inferred from the NT and what are mere tacit assumptions from later tradition. This is actually a subject I’ve been contemplating touching on in an article on 1 Corinthians 15:3-4.

    All that aside, regarding the subject of the doctrine of the Trinity in NT, one will not find the sort of language of the Conciliar Creeds, but the roots of the doctrine can be seen when looking at corpus collectively.

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    • Please pardon the typos in the above (I typed it out quite hastily while at the office).

      «William Farmer’s had noted»
      …should read: William Farmer had noted.

      «the doctrine of the Trinity in NT»
      …should read: the doctrine of the Trinity in the NT.

      «looking at corpus collectively»
      …should read: looking at the corpus collectively.

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