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"...The church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth."
I Timothy 3:15


Sir Isaac Newton’s Christian Faith

Baptist Challenge

As printed in the Plains Baptist Challenger, April 2013

The law of gravitation is generally associated with the name of Sir Isaac Newton, for, if the tradition is authentic, the fall of an apple in a garden led him to the discovery of that universal law. It is perhaps not so widely known that as a result of his optical researches he separated white light into the colors of which it is made up, and constructed the first reflecting telescope. He was a great mathematician, an astronomer, and at the same time, a student and lover of the Bible and a humble believer in the Lord Jesus Christ.


In his Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and Discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, Sir David Brewster has a chapter in which he discusses Sir Isaac Newton's theological writings and his attitude toward Christianity. Sir David says:

 

"The history of Sir Isaac's theological writings cannot fail to be regarded as an interesting portion of his life.... That the greatest philosopher of which any age can boast was a sincere and humble believer in the leading doctrine of our religion, and lived conformably to its precepts, has been justly regarded as a proud triumph of the Christian faith.


“Had he exhibited only an outward respect for the forms and duties of religion, or left merely in his dying words an acknowledgment of his belief, his piety might have been regarded as a prudent submission to popular feeling, or as a proof of the decay or the extinction of his transcendent powers; but he had been a searcher of the Scriptures from his youth, and he found it no abrupt transition to pass from the study of the material universe to an investigation of the profoundest truths, and the most obscure predictions, of Holy Writ."


The Value of His Testimony


"The religious opinions of great men—of those especially who, by force of genius and patient thought, have discovered new and commanding truths—possess an interest of various kinds. The apostle of infidelity cowers beneath the implied rebuke. The timid and the wavering stand firmer in the faith, and the man of the world treats the institutions of religion with more respect and forbearance. Nor are such opinions less influential when they emanate from men who follow truth through her labyrinth, neither impelled by professional ambition nor alarmed by articles which they have to sign, or creeds which they have to believe."


Sir David discusses the charge that had been made that Newton's theological writings "were composed at a late period of life when his mind was in its dotage, or had suffered from that supposed mental aberration to which so many acts of his life have been so erroneously ascribed."


He completely demolishes such charges and shows that Newton's theological writings were produced when he was in the very zenith of his intellectual powers. He quotes a letter from John Craig, the eminent mathematician, to Conduitt, as follows:


"I shall not tell you what great improvements he made in geometry and algebra, but it is proper to acquaint you that his great application in his inquiries into nature did not make him unmindful of the Great Author of nature. They were little acquainted with him who imagines that he was so intent upon his studies of geometry and philosophy as to neglect that of religion and other things subservient to it.


“And this I know, that he was much more solicitous in his inquiries into religion than into natural philosophy, and that the reason of his showing the errors of Cartes' philosophy was, because he thought it was made on purpose to be the foundation of infidelity.


“And Sir Isaac Newton, to make his inquiries into the Christian religion more successful, had read the ancient writers and ecclesiastical historians with great exactness, and had drawn up in writing great collections out of both; and to show how earnest he was in religion, he had written a long explication of remarkable parts of the Old and New Testaments, while his understanding was in its greatest perfection, lest the infidels might pretend that his applying himself to the study of religion was the effect of dotage...


“But now it's hoped that the worthy and ingenuous Mr. Conduitt will take care that they be published, that the world may see that Sir Isaac Newton was as good a Christian as he was a mathematician and philosopher."


His Belief in Great Doctrines


Sr. David Brewster quotes letters of Sir Isaac written in 1690, 1691, and 1692 showing that he believed in Jesus as the Christ, and believed in miracles. These letters were written to Locke. Sir David speaks of Sir Isaac's "avowed belief that our Saviour was the object of ‘worship among the primitive Christians,' and that he was 'the Son of God’, as well by his Resurrection from the dead, as by his supernatural birth of the Virgin."


In one of his papers, entitled "A Short Scheme of the True Religion," Sir Isaac has this to say:


"Opposite to godliness is Atheism in profession, and idolatry in practice. Atheism is so senseless and odious to mankind, that it never had many professors. Can it be by accident that all birds, beasts, and men have their right side and left side alike shaped (except in their bowels), and just two eyes, and no more, on either side of the face; and just two ears on either side of the head, and a nose with two holes; and either two fore-legs, or two wings, or two arms on the shoulders, and two legs on the hips, and no more?


"Whence arises this uniformity in all their outward shapes but from the counsel and contrivance of an Author? Whence is it that the eyes of all sorts of living creatures are transparent to the very bottom, and the only transparent members in the body, having on the outside a hard transparent skin, and within transparent humours, with a crystalline lens in the middle, and a pupil before the lens, all of them so finely shaped and fitted for vision, that no artist can mend them?


"Did blind chance know that there was light, and what was its refraction, and fit the eyes of all creatures, after the most curious manner, to make use of it? These, and such like considerations, always have and ever will prevail with mankind, to believe that there is a Being who made all things, and has all things in his power, and who is therefore to be feared."


His View of Our Duty to God


Sir Isaac concludes, in this paper, the section on idolatry with the following summary:


"We are, therefore, to acknowledge one God, infinite, eternal, omnipresent, omniscient, omnipotent, the Creator of all things, most wise, most just, most good, most holy. We must love him, fear him, honour him, trust in him, pray to him, give him thanks, praise him, hallow his name, obey his commandments, and set times apart for his service, as we are directed in the Third and Fourth Commandments, for this is the love of God that we keep his commandments, and his commandments are not grievous (I John 5:3).


“And these things we must do not to any mediators between him and us, but to him alone, that he may give his angels charge over us, who, being our fellow servants, are pleased with the worship which we give to their God. And this is the first and the principal part of religion. This always was, and always will be, the religion of all God's people, from the beginning to the end of the world."


In a draft of an Act of Parliament drawn up by Sir Isaac, he had this to say:


“If anyone finds any doctrinal parts of Scripture difficult to be understood, we recommend him,


 Frist, the study of the Scriptures in humility and singleness of heart.


 Second, prayer to the Father of lights to enlighten him.


 Third, obedience to what is already revealed to him, remembering that the practice of what we do know is the surest way to more knowledge; our infallible guide having told us, if any man will do the will of him that sent me (his will), he shall know of the doctrine (John 7:17).


 Fourth, we leave him to the advice and assistance of those whom he thinks best able to instruct him; no men, or society of men, having any authority to impose their opinions or interpretations on any other, the meanest Christian; since, in matters of religion, every man must know and believe and give an account for himself."


Sir David Brewster has this comment to make on the attitude of skeptical writers towards Newton:


"It is scarcely a matter of surprise that skeptical writers should have spoken disrespect fully of the theological writings of a mathematician and philosopher, but it has surprised us that other authors should have regarded the study of the Scriptures as incompatible with scientific research.


“When Voltaire asserted that Sir Isaac explained the Prophecies in the same manner as those who went before him, he only exhibited his ignorance of what Newton wrote, and of what others had written; and when he stated that Newton composed his Commentaries on the Apocalypse to console mankind for the great superiority which he had over them, he but showed the emptiness of the consolation to which skepticism aspires."


In his concluding paragraphs on Sir Isaac's attitude towards Christianity Sir David says:


"The antiquity and authenticity of the books which compose the sacred canon—the fulfillment of its prophecies—the miraculous propagation of the Gospel—have been demonstrated to all who are capable of appreciating the force of historical evidence; and in the poetical and prose compositions of the inspired authors, we discover a system of doctrine, and a code of morality, traced in characters as distinct and legible as the most unerring truths in the material world...


"If such be the character of Christian truth, we need not be surprised that it was embraced and expounded by such a genius as Sir Isaac Newton. Cherishing its doctrines, and leaning on its promises, he felt it his duty, as it was his delight, to apply to it that intellectual strength which had successfully surmounted the difficulties of the material universe.


“The fame which that success procured him he could not but feel to be the breath of popular applause, which administered only to his personal feelings; but the investigation of the sacred mysteries, while it prepared his own mind for its final destiny, was calculated to promote the spiritual interests of thousands. This noble impulse he did not hesitate to obey."