Isaac Newton’s Search for God
POPULAR tradition has it that the fall of an apple started Sir Isaac Newton on the way to discovering the universal law of gravitation. Whatever may be the truth of this tradition, there is no question about Newton’s remarkable powers of reason. Concerning his renowned scientific work the Principia, we are told: “The whole development of modern science begins with this great book. For more than 200 years it reigned supreme.”1
Celebrated as were Newton’s scientific discoveries, he himself humbly acknowledged his human limitations. He was modest. Shortly before his death in 1727 he said of himself: “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 a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”2
Newton appreciated that God is the Source of all truth, and in line with the deep reverence he had for his Creator, he appears to have spent even more time searching after the true God than he did in searching out scientific truths. An analysis of all that Newton wrote reveals that out of some 3,600,000 words only 1,000,000 were devoted to the sciences, whereas some 1,400,000 were on religious topics.3
NEWTON WRESTLES WITH THE TRINITY DOCTRINE
In his writings, Newton gave much attention to the doctrine of the Trinity. One of his most outstanding contributions to the Biblical scholarship of the time was his work An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, first published in 1754, twenty-seven years after his death. It reviewed all the textual evidence available from ancient sources on two Bible passages, at First John 5:7 and First Timothy 3:16.
In the King James Version Bible, First John 5:7 reads:
“For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.”
Using early Church writers, the Greek and Latin manuscripts and the testimony of the first versions of the Bible, Newton proved that the words “in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one,” in support of the Trinity doctrine, did not appear in the original inspired Greek Scriptures. He then traced the way in which the spurious reading crept into the Latin versions, first as a marginal note, and later into the text itself. He showed that it was first taken into a Greek text in 1515 by Cardinal Ximenes on the strength of a late Greek manuscript corrected from the Latin. Finally, Newton considered the sense and context of the verse, concluding, “Thus is the sense plain and natural, and the argument full and strong; but if you insert the testimony of ‘the Three in Heaven’ you interrupt and spoil it.”4
The shorter portion of this dissertation was concerned with 1 Timothy 3:16, which reads (King James Version):
“And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory.”
Newton showed how, by a small alteration in the Greek text, the word “God” was inserted to make the phrase read “God was manifest in the flesh.” He demonstrated that early Church writers in referring to the verse knew nothing of such an alteration.a
Summing up both passages, Newton said: “If the ancient churches in debating and deciding the greatest mysteries of religion, knew nothing of these two texts, I understand not, why we should be so fond of them now the debates are over.”5 In the two hundred years and more since that treatise was compiled by Isaac Newton, only a few minor corrections have been necessary to the evidence he adduced. Yet it was only in the nineteenth century that Bible translations appeared correcting these passages. Part of Newton’s original manuscript in his own handwriting is illustrated on the next page by courtesy of the Bodleian Library, Oxford, England.
Why did Newton not publish these findings during his lifetime? A glance at the background of the times may explain this. Those who wrote against the doctrine of the Trinity were still subject to persecution in England. As late as 1698 the Act for the Suppression of Blasphemy and Profaneness made it an offense to deny one of the persons of the Trinity to be God, punishable with loss of office, employment and profit on the first occasion, and imprisonment for a repetition. Newton’s friend William Whiston (translator of the works of Josephus) lost his professorship at Cambridge for this reason in 1711. In 1693 a pamphlet attacking the Trinity was burned by order of the House of Lords, and the next year its printer and author were prosecuted. In 1697 Thomas Aikenhead, an eighteen-year-old student charged with denying the Trinity, was hanged at Edinburgh, Scotland.6, 7, 8
WHY NEWTON REJECTED THE TRINITY
Through his scientific studies Newton came to have a high regard for the ‘Book of Nature’ and saw in it the evidence of design by God, the great Author. He also believed that the Bible was the revelation of God, and that it was always in harmony with the testimony of creation.9
The Bible was Newton’s touchstone for testing teachings and doctrine. In discussing the creeds of the Church, Newton made this position very clear. On the basis of the eighth of the Thirty-nine Articles dealing with the Nicene, Athanasius’ and Apostles’ Creeds, he said of the Church of England:
“She doth not require us to receive them by authority of General Councils, and much less by authority of Convocations, but only because they are taken out of the Scriptures. And therefore are we authorised by the Church to compare them with the Scriptures, and see how and in what sense they can be deduced from thence? And when we cannot see the Deduction we are not to rely upon the Authority of the Councils and Synods.”
His conclusion was even more emphatic:
“Even General Councils have erred and may err in matters of faith, and what they decree as necessary to salvation is of no strength or authority unless they can be shown to be taken from the holy Scripture.”10
Newton’s principal reason for rejecting the Trinity was that when he sought to verify the statements of the creeds and the councils he found no support in Scripture for the doctrine.
In weighing this evidence, Newton firmly held that reasoning should be used. He argued that nothing created by God was without purpose and reason, and Bible teachings would be sustained by similar application of logic and reason. Speaking of the apostle John’s writings, Newton said: “I have that honour for him as to believe that he wrote good sense; and therefore take that sense to be his which is the best.”11 So, as a second reason for rejecting the Trinity teaching, Newton declared: “Homoousion [the doctrine that the Son is of the same substance as the Father] is unintelligible. ’Twas not understood in the Council of Nice, nor ever since. What cannot be understood is no object of belief.”12
Dealing with this same aspect of the Trinity is a Newton manuscript entitled “Queries Regarding the Word Homoousios.” It reveals a third reason for his denial of the Trinity. This teaching was not part of early Christianity. Queries twelve to fourteen all highlight the doctrine’s lack of original first-century character:
“Query 12. Whether the opinion of the equality of the three substances was not first set on foot in the reign of Julian the Apostate [361-363 C.E.], by Athanasius, Hilary, etc.?
Query 13. Whether the worship of the Holy Ghost was not first set on foot presently after the Council of Sardica? [343 C.E.]
Query 14. Whether the Council of Sardica was not the first Council which declared for the doctrine of the Consubstantial Trinity?”13
In another manuscript, now preserved in Jerusalem, Newton summed up the only answer to such questions. “We are commanded by the Apostle (2 Timothy 1:13) to hold fast the form of sound words. Contending for a language which was not handed down from the Prophets and Apostles is a breach of the command and they that break it are also guilty of the disturbances and schisms occasioned thereby. It is not enough to say that an article of faith may be deduced from scripture. It must be exprest in the very form of sound words in which it was delivered by the Apostles.” 14
So on the basis of Scripture, reason and the authentic teaching of early Christianity, Newton found that he could not accept the doctrine of the Trinity. He believed strongly in the supreme sovereignty of Jehovah God, and the proper position of Jesus Christ, neither derogating him as the Son of God nor elevating him to the position occupied by his Father.15 In discussing with John Locke the passage of Daniel 7:9, he wrote, “Whence are you certain that ye Ancient of Days is Christ? Does Christ anywhere sit upon ye Throne?”16 His own conclusion here is obvious, and the clarity of his thought regarding the relationship of the Father with the Son is always evident in Newton’s writings. So elsewhere he makes the point that prayer can be made to “God in the name of the Lamb, but not to the Lamb in the name of God.”17
Perhaps the best summary of Isaac Newton’s Scriptural arguments for his repudiation of the Trinity is found in fourteen ‘Argumenta,’ written in Latin, giving Bible citations for many of them. Numbers four to seven are particularly interesting:
5. Because the Father is greater than the Son. John 14:28.
7. Because the Son received all things from the Father.”18
A perusal of Newton’s religious writings cannot fail to impress the reader with their thoroughness, and a realization of his long and deep meditation, his scholarly ability and grasp of the original Bible languages. His conclusions regarding the Trinity therefore merit our respect and consideration, even though he did not feel constrained to make them public during his lifetime.
Today, when much more evidence is available than Newton had access to, we too should make investigation of our beliefs as he did, always seeking to reason first on the evidence of God’s Word. This will build in us a strong faith fully in harmony with the teaching of original Christianity.
1. The Encyclopædia Britannica, 1971 ed., Vol. 16, p. 420.
2. The World Book Encyclopedia, 1973 ed., Vol. 14, p. 308.
3. The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, edited by H. W. Turnbull, F.R.S., Cambridge 1961, Vol. 1, p. XVII.
4. An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, by Sir Isaac Newton, Edition of 1830, London, p. 60.
5. Ibid., p. 95.
6. Our Unitarian Heritage, by Earl M. Wilbur, Boston 1925, pp. 289-294.
7. History of English Nonconformity, by Henry W. Clark, London 1913, Vol. II, p. 157.
8. Religious Opinions of Milton, Locke and Newton, by H. McLachlan, Manchester 1941, pp. 146, 147.
9. The Religion of Isaac Newton, by F. E. Manuel, Oxford 1974, p. 48.
10. Sir Isaac Newton Theological Manuscripts, selected and edited by H. McLachlan, Liverpool 1950, pp. 37, 38.
11. An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture, p. 61.
12. Sir Isaac Newton Theological Manuscripts, p. 17.
13. Ibid., pp. 45, 46
14. The Religion of Isaac Newton, pp. 54, 55. Yahuda Ms. 15.1.fol.11r.
15. The Religion of Isaac Newton, p. 61.
16. The Correspondence of Isaac Newton, Vol. III, Letter 362.
17. The Religion of Isaac Newton, p. 61, Yahuda Ms. 15.4.fol.67v.
18. Isaac Newton, A Biography, p. 642.
a Until recent years this scripture, also, was much quoted in support of the Trinity teaching, but most modern versions have now substituted “he” for “God”; the Catholic Jerusalem Bible even adds a footnote: “He, i.e. Christ.”
[Box on page 246]
Reproduction of a part of Newton’s handwritten “An Historical Account,” refuting the Trinity doctrine
influenced by it. So then by the unanimous consent of all the ancient and faithful Interpreters we have hitherto met with (who doubtless made use of the best Manuscripts they could get) the testimony of the three in heaven was not anciently in the Greek.
And that it was neither in the ancient Versions nor in the Greek but was wholy unknown to the first churches is most certain by an argument hinted above, namely that in all that vehement universal and lasting controversy about the Trinity in Jeromes time and both before and long enough after it, this text of the three in heaven was never thought of. Tis now in every bodies mouth and accounted the main text for the business and would have been so then had it been in their books and yet it is not once to be met with in all the Disputes, Epistles, Orations and other writings of the Greeks and Latines (Alexander of Alexandria, the Council of Sardica Athanasius, Basil,