Isaac Newton: Scientist and theologian
He was an unusual person—absent-minded and generous, sensitive to criticism and modest. He faced a series of psychological crises. He had trouble maintaining good social relations. Yet, he was one of history’s rare giants—a brilliant physicist, a superb astronomer and mathematician, and a natural philosopher.
When Isaac Newton, that rare English genius and gentleman, died in 1727 at the age of 85, he left an indelible mark in every endeavor he set his mind upon.We know his laws of motion and theories of gravitation. We know him for his contribution to the understanding of the universe. But rarely do we know his contributions to Christian theology. After extensive study of his writings, I have concluded that Newton was not only a great scientist, but also a great theologian—a true Adventist and a creationist.1
My journey to the understanding of Newton as a theologian began some 45 years ago when I became a Seventh-day Adventist after attending an evangelistic series on the fascinating Bible prophecies of Daniel and Revelation. I was then studying at the Polytechnic School of the University of Sao Paulo, Brazil, pursuing a degree in engineering.
The university environment was by no means nurturing to my faith. I was bombarded from every direction. Materialism, humanistic preoccupations, and a narrow scientific worldview converged to question my new-found faith. I needed something to defend what I believed to be true, and I wanted my defense to be sound and logical.
In my search for suitable literature, I came across a 1950 Portuguese version of Newton’s Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse—not in the university library or in a bookstore, but on a roadside sale of old books. I was delighted to find that the same Isaac Newton whom we, as engineering students, had known in optics, mechanics, calculus, and gravitation, had dedicated a significant amount of time and effort to biblical chronology and to the interpretation of prophecy! Indeed the Encyclopaedia Britannica lists Newton’s The Chronology of Ancient Kings Amended and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John among his five most important works, the others being Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, Opticks, and Arithmetica Universalis.
My discovery and study of Newton as a Christian scholar led me to understand him as a creationist, an Adventist, and an interpreter of prophecies.
Newton, the creationist
Robert Boyle, a pioneer in experiments on the properties of gases, and a strong promoter of Christianity, who advocated the scientific study of nature as a religious duty, died in 1691. His will provided for an annual lecture series intended to defend Christianity against unbelief. Richard Bentley, a clergyman and distinguished classical scholar, delivered the first series of lectures in 1692.
In preparation for his lecture, Bentley sought Newton’s help, who was already famous for his Principia (1687). Bentley hoped to demonstrate that, according to physical laws that rule the natural world, it should have been impossible for heavenly bodies to appear without the intervention of a divine agent.
From then on, Bentley and Newton exchanged an “almost-theological” correspondence. In his first letter to Bentley, Newton declared: “When I wrote my tract on our system, I had my eyes turned to principles that could act considering mankind’s belief in a Divinity, and nothing is more grateful for me than to see it useful for this goal.”2
Newton wrote again: “The movements the planets have today could not be originated from an isolated natural cause, but they have been imposed by an intelligent agent.”3
Other writings further establish Newton’s strong belief in a Creator, whom he often referred as the “Pantokrator,” the Almighty, “with authority upon all existing things, upon the form of the natural world and the course of human history.”
Newton was clear in stating his convictions: “We must believe that there is only one God or supreme monarch Whom we may fear and keep His laws and give Him honour and glory. We must believe that He is the father from Whom all things come forth, and that loves His people as their father. We must believe that He is the ‘Pantokrator,’ Lord of everything, with irresistible and unlimited power and domain, from which we have no hope to escape if we rebel and follow other gods, or if we transgress the laws of His sovereignty, and from which we can hope great recompenses if we make His will. We must believe that He is the God of the Jews, Who created the heavens and the earth and all that in them exists, as expressed in the Ten Commandments, so that we may thank Him for our being and for all the blessings of this life, and refrain to use His name in vain or to adore images or other gods.”4
Newton, the Adventist
Newton was also concerned with the restoration of the Christian Church to its apostolic purity. His study of prophecy led him to conclude that ultimately the church, in spite of its current shortcomings, would triumph. William Whiston, who succeeded Newton as professor of mathematics at Cambridge and wrote The Accomplishment of Scripture Prophecies, declared after Newton’s death that “he and Samuel Clarke had given up fighting for the Church’s restoration toward the standards of the primitive apostolic times because Newton’s interpretation of the prophecies had led them to expect a long era of corruption before it could be effective.”5
Newton believed in a faithful remnant that should witness up to the end of times. One of his biographers writes: “By true church, to which the prophecies pointed, Newton did not intend to comprehend all self-declared Christians, but a remnant, a few people dispersed, chosen by God, people that being not moved by any interest, instruction or the power of human authorities, are able to dedicate themselves sincerely and diligently to the search of truth.” “Newton was far from identifying whatever was around him as a true apostolic Christianity. His internal chronology had put the day of the final trumpet two centuries forward.”6
In Daniel 2 Newton saw the development of the history of humankind up to the end of time, when Christ should establish His reign. He wrote: “And a stone cut out without hands, which fell upon the feet of the Image, and broke all the four Metals to pieces, and became a great mountain, and filled the whole earth; it further represents that a new kingdom should arise, after the four, and conquer all those nations, and grow very great, and last to the end of all ages.”7
Dealing with the subsequent visions of Daniel, Newton makes clear that after the fourth reign on the earth should come the second coming of Christ and the establishment of His eternal kingdom: “The prophecy of the Son of man coming in the clouds of heaven relates to the second coming of Christ.”8
Newton, the prophetic interpreter
Newton was not satisfied with the then-current interpretation of prophecy. He held that the interpreters had “no previous method... [They] distort parts of prophecy, putting them out of their natural order, at their own convenience.”9
In harmony with his approach to scientific issues, Newton established standards for prophetic interpretation, with a codification of the prophetic language intended to eliminate the possibility of distortion “at one’s convenience,” and adopted the criterion to let Scripture unveil and explain Scripture.
Thus, Newton’s interpretation differed from the majority of his contemporaries. He was not interested in applying prophecy to explain the political history of England, as some others did, but rather to focus toward the study of the beginnings of the great apostasy that occurred in the church, and toward the final restoration of the church to its purity.
This interest in the restoration of the church to its apostolic purity led Newton to a study of the second coming of Christ. His concern for the future led him to the 70 weeks of Daniel 9. He, like the dispensationalists of today, assigned the last week to an undetermined future at which time the return of the Jews and the reconstruction of Jerusalem would begin, to be culminated with the glorious second coming of Christ.
This interpretation, of course, is contrary to Seventh-day Adventist beliefs. However, some of Newton’s principles of interpretation are in consonance with Adventist ones. For example, consider Newton’s interpretation of symbols:
“Tempestuous winds, or the motion of clouds (is put) for wars;… Rain, if not immoderate, and dew, and living water, (are put) for the graces and doctrines of the Spirit; and the defect of rain, for spiritual barrenness. In the earth, the dry land and congregated waters, as a sea, a river, a flood, are put for the people of several regions, nations, and dominions…. And several animals as a Lion, a Bear, a Leopard, a Goat, according to their qualities, are put for several kingdoms and bodies politic.… A Ruler is signified by his riding on a beast; a Warrior and Conqueror, by having a sword and bow; a potent man, by his gigantic stature; a Judge, by weights and measures;… honour and glory, by a splendid apparel; royal dignity, by purple or scarlet, or by a crown; righteousness, by white and clean robes; wickedness, by spotted and filthy garments.”10
In the interpretation of time-related prophecies, Newton held that “Daniel’s days are years.”11 He applied this principle to the 70 weeks12 and to “three and half times” period of apostasy. Newton makes clear that the “prophetic day” is “one solar year” long, and that “time” in the prophecy is also equivalent to one solar year: “And times and laws were hence forward given into his hand, for a time, times and half a time, or three times and an half; that is, for 1260 solar years, reckoning a time for a Calendar year of 360 days, and a day for a solar year.”13
Newton was extremely cautious in his religious beliefs. That may partly explain why he did not publish his theological works during his lifetime. Perhaps Newton, aware of the English religious environment, did not want to be accused of heresy, but instead pursued truth as he saw it in the Bible. Fortunately, his theological works were published posthumously.
As Seventh-day Adventists, we may not agree with all of Newton’s interpretations of Bible prophecy. But we can profit from his theological works and his careful methodology so that we can stand firm in faith, even while pursuing scientific studies. Here was a giant of science who was not ashamed of his faith and who devoted time to understand God’s Word both as it predicts the movement of history and provides guidance to order one’s personal life.
Ruy Carlos de Camargo Vieira (Ph.D., University of Sao Paulo) is a mechanical and electrical engineer and is currently a member of the Higher Council of the Brazilian Space Agency. In 1971 Dr. Vieira founded the Brazilian Creationist Society and launched the Folha Criacionista, a journal published twice a year in Portuguese. His address: Caixa Postal 08743; 70312-970 Brasilia, D.F.; Brazil. Fax: 55-61-577-3892.
Notes and references
- See my Sir Isaac Newton: Adventista? a booklet published by the Sociedade Criacionista Brasileira (Brazilian Creationist Society).
- Richard S. Westfall, The Life of Isaac Newton (Cambridge University Press, 1993), p. 204.
- Bernard Cohen, Isaac Newton: Papers & Letters on Natural Philosophy (Cambridge Harvard University Press, 1958), p. 284.
- Westfall, p. 301.
- Ibid., p. 300.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Isaac Newton, Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St. John, pp. 25-26.
- Ibid., p. 128.
- Westfall, pp. 128, 129.
- Newton, Observations, pp. 18-22.
- Ibid., p. 122.
- Ibid., p. 130.
- Ibid., pp. 113, 114.