Christian History Home > 1991 > Issue 30 > The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton
The Faith Behind the Famous: Isaac Newton
He has been called "the greatest scientific genius the world has known." Yet he spent less time on science than on theology.
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In the twentieth century, Einstein’s expanding universe and Heisenberg’s indeterminacy have undermined Newton’s clocklike model of nature. Nevertheless, mathematical physicist Stephen Hawking, a current Lucasian professor at Cambridge, writes that “Newton’s theory will never be outmoded. Designed to predict the motions of the heavenly bodies, it does its job with unbelievable accuracy … it remains in daily use to predict the orbits of moons and planets, comets and spacecraft.… Newton is a colossus without parallel in the history of science.”
Theology and Science
Newton’s historical learning, including a knowledge of Jewish customs, was extensive. He also mastered the writings of the church Fathers. (Newton’s interest in the doctrine of the Trinity led him to study the fourth-century conflict between Athanasius and Arius, who denied the status of Christ in the Godhead. Convinced that a massive fraud had perverted certain Scriptures, Newton adopted the Arian position.)
Despite his intense biblical study and belief in a creating God, Newton observed the distinction between religion and science made by Galileo: “The Bible tells us how to go to Heaven, not how the heavens go.” During his presidency of the Royal Society, Newton banned any subject touching religion, even apologetics. He wrote, “We are not to introduce divine revelations into philosophy [science], nor philosophical [scientific] opinions into religion.”
Yet for Newton this distinction was not a divorce, much less a conflict. Although the books of God’s Word and his Works were not to provide the content of each other’s teachings, they were bound together. Newton did not consider one to be sacred and the other secular, nor did Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, or Pascal—all practicing Christians. Only later Enlightenment philosophy produced a model of “warfare” between science and theology.
Newton’s theology profoundly influenced his scientific method, which rejected pure speculation in favor of observations and experiments. His God was not merely a philosopher’s impersonal First Cause; he was the God in the Bible who freely creates and rules the world, who speaks and acts in history. The biblical doctrine of creation undergirded Newton’s science. Newton believed in a God of “actions [in nature and history], creating, preserving, and governing … all things according to his good will and pleasure.”
Copyright © 1991 by the author or Christianity Today/Christian History magazine.
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