A New Light on Newton's Faith?

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Valuable three-century-old documents written by Sir Isaac Newton and owned by a Jewish scholar and collector since 1936 have been put on display in Jerusalem. They reportedly shed light on the less known religious side of the famous English thinker. But do they, in fact, do so?

Like many of the founding figures of early modern science, Newton (1642-1727) was also a religious man. In addition to his pathbreaking work in mathematics, astronomy, and physics, he wrote copiously about theology and the Bible, including a 300,000-word treatise on the Book of Revelation.

Yet the precise nature of Newton's beliefs has always been something of a mystery. On one hand, it is quite clear that the Cambridge University scholar was uncomfortable with orthodox trinitarian Christianity and seemed to embrace something close to Arianism, an early Christian heresy proposing that Jesus was an exalted messianic figure but not of one substance with God the father. Rejecting the established Church of England, Newton refused to study for Anglican holy orders, even though doing so should have barred him from becoming a fellow at Trinity College. (An exception was conveniently made.)

At the same time, Newton also rejected the deism that was popular among many intellectual luminaries of his time. He believed in at least a somewhat personal God. And he thought that this God intervened directly in history from time to time (usually to correct some flaw in the mechanical workings of the universe), unlike the remote "clockmaker" God of the deists, who, in their view, set things in motion and then sat back to enjoy the show.

As fascinating as the newly displayed documents are, alas, they do not really bring us any closer to understanding Newton's curiously idiosyncratic theology. One manuscript uses the Book of Daniel to calculate the date of the Apocalypse (no earlier than 2060, but possibly later, Newton wrote), but scholars have long explored Newton's obsession with end-times prophecy. More interesting is a document containing his discussion of the dimensions of the Temple in Jerusalem, which he believed mirrored the mathematical design of the cosmos.

Again, interesting stuff. But don't expect it to explain why this brilliant scientist and pious believer rejected Christian last rites on his deathbed.