Isaac Newton on the Trinity 'Hypothesis' PDF Print E-mail
Written by Mitch Stokes   
Monday, 05 April 2010 07:46

The following is excerpted from a new biography on Newton by Mitch Stokes, published by Thomas Nelson and now available through Canon Press.

Newton’s study of theology and alchemy comes as a shock to people.  But Newton was a great synthesizer; he didn’t merely want to master a few separate disciplines.  A command of mathematics and natural philosophy was only a part of his goal.  Newton endeavored to a great, comprehensive system of the world—from the solar system to the fundamental nature of matter to God’s work in redemptive history.  Newton’s agenda was far more ambitious than it had a right to be, but inordinate ambition is common among geniuses.

We would now say that Newton sought a “worldview.”  But we use “worldview” too lightly to identify it with Newton’s goal.  Newton aimed very high indeed, and at the end of his life, he realized he had come nowhere near his ideal.  (And what mortal could fault him for falling short?) Not long before he died, he said:


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 prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.


Some of Newton’s biographers believe that Newton is simply expressing false humility.  After all, Newton knew full well the enormity of his accomplishments.  But this interpretation seems wrong.  Given Newton’s true goal of piecing together a theory of everything, he is merely stating the facts.  Most of the truth remained far outside his ken, and he knew it.

All men, Aristotle said, desire to know.  But they aren’t all motivated to know for the same reasons.  The ultimate goal of Newton’s studies was to know God and “give him honour & glory.”  In fact, for Newton, natural philosophy’s main benefit was not the improvement of man’s earthly condition; that was the Baconian view.  Newton believed that all knowledge—including knowledge of nature—was, in the end, knowledge of God.  Knowing was worship.

Although Newton considered all his studies to be part of his worship, theology held pride of place, occupying far more of his time than anything else.  His theological writings take up millions of words; none of his other writings come even close to matching that.

But theology and genuine piety can quickly come apart.  Theological acumen is not a very reliable indicator of faith.  Yet Newton’s religion was not an arid intellectual theory but a genuine relationship with the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  In Frank Manuel’s words, Newton’s Christianity “was charged with emotion” and he was constantly attacking belief in a mere “metaphysical” God, the God of the philosophers.  Newton wrote:


To celebrate God for his eternity, immensity, omnisciency, and omnipotence is indeed very pious and the duty of every creature to do it according to capacity, but...the wisest of beings required of us to be celebrated not so much for his essence as for his actions, the creating, preserving, and governing of all things according to his good will and pleasure.  The wisdom, power, goodness, and justice which he always exerts in his actions are his glory which he stands so much upon, and is so jealous of...even to the least tittle.


To be sure, God’s “metaphysical” qualities, like omniscience and omnipotence, are worthy of all praise, but Newton believed that it is God’s person and his actions that especially command our adoration.

Newton was raised on Scripture, which inculcated a lifelong devotion to it.  He placed its authority above all others and knew it better than most divines.  Despite taking the Church of England’s authority very seriously, if ever he felt that the church veered from Holy Writ, he always deferred to Scripture.

We aren’t sure when Newton began studying extrabiblical works of theology.  It was certainly before the appearance of his earliest theological manuscripts of the early 1670s.  His records do indicate, however, that when Newton first arrived at Trinity in 1661, he purchased Theodore Beza’s annotated Greek New Testament and John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian


But in the early 1670s, Newton began studying theology with a new intensity.  It is likely that some external pressure was being applied.  Recall that when Newton became a fellow of Trinity College, he vowed to enter the ministry within seven years.  This meant that he had to take orders no later than 1675.  So in preparation for the ministry, he turned most of his attention (which was considerable) to theology.

As he usually did when studying something in earnest (and what other way could Newton study?), he began a notebook, with headings of the major topics he intended to study: “The Attributes of God,” “God the Father,” God the Son,” “The Incarnation,” “Christ’s Satisfaction and Redemption.” The notes under these headings come almost entirely from Scripture.  Newton approached his study of Scripture in the same methodical way he approached anything else, leaving very few stones unturned.  He even collected various manuscripts of books such as Revelation, noting variant readings of significant passages.

But he was mindful that great minds had already considered these issues, and so he also studied the early church fathers.  It is difficult to believe how extensively he read in the fathers.  Richard Westfall writes that Newton not only “seemed to know all the works of prolific theologians such as Augustine, Athanasius, and Origen” but also was familiar with Irenaeus, Tertullian, Cyprian, Eusebius, Eutychius, Sulpitius Severus, Clement, Basil, John Chrysostom, Alexander of Alexandria, Epiphanius, Hilary, Theodoret, Gregory of Nyssa, Cyril of Alexandria, Leo I, Victorinus Afer, Rufinus, Manentius, Prudentius, and others.  “There was,” Westfall says, “no single one of importance whose works he did not devour.”

At some point in his preparation for ordination, Newton began to struggle with the doctrine of the Trinity.  The Trinity was a topic of deep and heated discussion during the seventeenth century, and in the Anglican Church there was considerable division over it.  (Deviations from Trinitarian doctrine within the English church were rampant.) Denying the Trinity was heretical, and so Newton remained extremely cautious about his views.  Over his lifetime, he seems to have changed his exact position on the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is difficult to tell.  Newton never discussed publically his beliefs on the Trinity, and his notes on it were not found until after his death.

We know, however, that Newton believed in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit; he also believed that Jesus was the Messiah and atoned for our sins with his death on the cross.  Newton even believed, contrary to Arianism (of which he is usually accused), in the eternality of the Son.  He also embraced the straightforwardly biblical position that the Father and Son are one.  What Newton did not believe, however, was that the Father and Son were one in the sense that they were consubstantial or of the same substance.  According to Newton, the Father and Son were one, but this unity was not a metaphysical unity; rather, it was one of dominion and purpose.

There were a number of reasons for Newton’s denial of consubstantiality.  The most important reason for Newton was that he simply didn’t see it in Scripture.  Newton felt that consubstantiality was a metaphysical concept imported from Greek philosophy, a practice of which he was extremely suspicious.  Consubstantiality was, he felt, a very shaky inference from Scripture: “All the old Heresies lay in deductions,” he said, “the true faith was in the text.”  Newton blamed both Athanasius and Arius for distorting Scripture when, in the fourth century, they “introduced metaphysical subtleties into their disputes and corrupted the plain language of Scripture.”  Their ancient debate seemed to have more in common with Plato and Aristotle than with Jesus.  Newton asked whether “Christ sent his apostles to preach metaphysics to the unlearned people, and to their wives and children?”

Furthermore, the two main scriptural proof texts for the Trinity, Newton said, were corrupted by segments of the church to support the doctrine.  In his letter to John Locke—“Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture”—Newton outlines how 1 John 5:7 and 1 Timothy 3:16 may have been altered.  So, the shaky inference from Scripture to the doctrine of the Trinity was based on a shaky foundation.

Ironically, it was Newton’s unswerving allegiance to the (genuine) words of Scripture that compelled him to deny consubstantiality and embrace what he saw as the true doctrine of the Trinity.

In addition to believing that consubstantiality was not a scriptural doctrine, Newton believed that the metaphysics underlying it “is unintelligible.  ’Twas not understood in the Council of [Nicea]...nor ever since.”  Just what is a substance, and what does it mean to be of the same substance (and not merely the same kind of substance)? “Substance” is a philosophical term that is mysterious at best.  Like Locke, Newton believed that, even if things possessed some underlying substance, we know little, if anything, about it.  And if this is so for ordinary material objects, how much more in the case of God?

As Frank Manuel writes, however, we must be careful to not “pigeonhole [Newton] in one of the recognized categories of heresy—Arian, Socinian, Unitarian, or Deist.”  It may be that Newton himself never came to a final, clear position.  This isn’t surprising.  The doctrine of the Trinity is officially a mystery, an article of faith that is incomprehensible.  And the line between incomprehensibility and incoherence is often difficult for mortals to identify.

Newton’s scientific methods spilled over into his study of theology.  Notice that the doctrine of consubstantiality is an explanation of the biblical data, not a parroting of it.  That is, the doctrine is a hypothesis, in the Newtonian sense.  Newton, therefore, was not denying the original data—the words of Scripture—but rather the hypothesis used to make sense of them.  Hypotheses are always less certain than the facts they are employed to explain.

But one thing is clear.  Newton denied consubstantiality, and this was enough to give him pause when it came time for ordination.  How could he—while doubting what the Anglican church saw as a fundamental tenet (at least officially)—take a vow to support everything Anglicanism held dear? He therefore chose to resign as senior fellow of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and so from his Lucasian professorship.  This was a brave thing to do: retiring from Cambridge would mean a lifetime of watching sheep wander his Woolsthorpe estate.

Mitch Stokes is a Fellow of Philosophy at New Saint Andrews College, a modern dance enthusiast, and a champion recumbent bicyclist.

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Last Updated on Monday, 05 April 2010 08:03