Isaac Newton – Rejector of the Trinity, believer in one God

Epigraph: They are surely disbelievers who say, ‘Allah is the third of three;’ there is no God but the One God.  (Al Quran 5:74)

Written and collected by Zia H Shah MD, Chief Editor of the Muslim Times

First a 58 BBC minute documentary with the same title as this post:

The Trinitarian Christian apologists often want to claim Newton’s scientific achievements, as the Christian foundation for European renaissance and scientific development, without telling naive masses that he was firmly against Trinity.  To make my case, I am firstly borrowing some text from Wikipedia:

He was appointed Lucasian Professor of Mathematics in 1669 on Barrow’s recommendation. In that day, any fellow of Cambridge or Oxford was required to become an ordained Anglican priest. However, the terms of the Lucasian professorship required that the holder not be active in the church (presumably so as to have more time for science). Newton argued that this should exempt him from the ordination requirement, and Charles II, whose permission was needed, accepted this argument. Thus a conflict between Newton’s religious views and Anglican orthodoxy was averted.[32]

According to most scholars, Newton was a monotheist who believed in biblical prophecies but was Antitrinitarian.[6][83] ‘In Newton’s eyes, worshiping Christ as God was idolatry, to him the fundamental sin’.[84] Historian Stephen D. Snobelen says of Newton, “Isaac Newton was a heretic. But … he never made a public declaration of his private faith—which the orthodox would have deemed extremely radical. He hid his faith so well that scholars are still unravelling his personal beliefs.”[6] Snobelen concludes that Newton was at least a Socinian sympathiser (he owned and had thoroughly read at least eight Socinian books), possibly an Arian and almost certainly an anti-trinitarian.[6] In an age notable for its religious intolerance, there are few public expressions of Newton’s radical views, most notably his refusal to receive holy orders and his refusal, on his death bed, to receive the sacrament when it was offered to him.[6]

In a view disputed by Snobelen,[6] T.C. Pfizenmaier argues that Newton held the Arian view of the Trinity rather than the Western one held by Roman Catholics, Anglicans and most Protestants.[85] Although the laws of motion and universal gravitation became Newton’s best-known discoveries, he warned against using them to view the Universe as a mere machine, as if akin to a great clock. He said, “Gravity explains the motions of the planets, but it cannot explain who set the planets in motion. God governs all things and knows all that is or can be done.”[86]

Along with his scientific fame, Newton’s studies of the Bible and of the early Church Fathers were also noteworthy. Newton wrote works on textual criticism, most notably An Historical Account of Two Notable Corruptions of Scripture. He placed the crucifixion of Jesus Christ at 3 April, AD 33, which agrees with one traditionally accepted date.[87] He also tried unsuccessfully to find hidden messages within the Bible.

Newton wrote more on religion than he did on natural science. He believed in a rationally immanent world, but he rejected the hylozoism implicit in Leibniz and Baruch Spinoza. The ordered and dynamically informed Universe could be understood, and must be understood, by an active reason. In his correspondence, Newton claimed that in writing the Principia “I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity”.[88] He saw evidence of design in the system of the world: “Such a wonderful uniformity in the planetary system must be allowed the effect of choice”. But Newton insisted that divine intervention would eventually be required to reform the system, due to the slow growth of instabilities.[89] For this, Leibniz lampooned him: “God Almighty wants to wind up his watch from time to time: otherwise it would cease to move. He had not, it seems, sufficient foresight to make it a perpetual motion.”[90] Newton’s position was vigorously defended by his follower Samuel Clarke in a famous correspondence. A century later, Pierre-Simon Laplace‘s work “Celestial Mechanics” had a natural explanation for why the planet orbits don’t require periodic divine intervention.[91]

Main article: Isaac Newton’s religious views

Alexander Pope‘s couplet: “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in Night. God said, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light!”

I have seen on several occasions, Trinitarian Christian apologists taking credit for Newton’s scientific work, rather than giving it to Unitarians where it belongs.  The credit of his scientific achievements belongs to pure Monotheism, be it Judaism, Unitarian Christianity or Islam, as he categorically rejected Trinity.  However, it should be noted that the scripture of Islam of all the scriptures makes the best case for Unitarianism and many a Christian apologists have acknowledged that as well.

Rev. Elwood Morris Wherry (1843- 1927) was an American Presbyterian missionary to India, who wrote a number of books and was a famous Christian apologist and Orientalist in his time. He wrote acknowledging the beauty of Unity of God in Islam:

A few passages, like the oases in the deserts of Arabia, stand out as truly beautiful both in their setting and in their thought. Take the first chapter, the Fatihat:

‘In the name of God, the compassionate, the merciful. Praise be to God, Lord of all the worlds! The compassionate, the merciful! King on the Day of Judgment! Thee do we worship, and to thee do we cry for help! Guide then us in the right way! The path of those to whom thou art gracious! Not of those with whom thou art angered, nor of those who go astray.’

The celebrated throne verse in Chap. II., 255, is as follows: ‘God! there is no God but he; the living, the self-subsisting: neither slumber nor sleep seizeth him; to him belongeth whatsoever is in heaven and on earth. Who is he that can intercede with him, but through his good pleasure? He knoweth that which is past, and that which is to come unto them, and they shall not comprehend anything of his knowledge, but so far as he pleaseth. His throne is extended over heaven and earth, and the preservation of both is no burden unto him. He is high, the Mighty.’

The question is often asked why a book of such singular composition should hold such sway over the millions of the Moslem world. In reply two reasons may be given: first, the beautiful rhythm, and often sweet cadences of the original language, which like some enchanting song hold multitudes with rapt attention who understand scarcely a word they hear; secondly, there is a vast amount of truth contained in the book, especially the truth of the divine unity and of man’s dependence upon God, as seen in the throne verse just now quoted.

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Encyclopedia Britannica says about Newton and Trinity:

Newton found time now to explore other interests, such as religion and theology. In the early 1690s he had sent Locke a copy of a manuscript attempting to prove that Trinitarian passages in the Bible were latter-day corruptions of the original text. When Locke made moves to publish it, Newton withdrew in fear that his anti-Trinitarian views would become known. Reference.

The Holy Quran states:

If there had been in the heavens and the earth other gods besides Allah, then surely both would have gone to ruin. Glorified then be Allah, the Lord of the Throne, far above what they attribute to Him.  (Al Quran 21:23)

One of the interpretations of this verse is as below:
If there had been in the heavens and the earth other gods besides Allah, then there would have been chaos in the Universe. An organized study of nature would not have been possible. I propose that scientific development occurred because of Judeo-Christian-Muslim paradigm of Monotheism. To demonstrate what monotheism had to do for the scientific progress, here, I quote from Paul Davies from his book ‘the Mind of God.’ He writes:

“Much of this early thinking was based on the assumption that the properties of physical things were intrinsic qualities belonging to those things. The great diversity of forms and substances found in the physical world thus reflected the limitless variety of intrinsic properties. Set against this way of looking at the world were the monotheistic religions. The Jews conceived of God as the Lawgiver. This God, being independent of and separate from his creation, imposed laws upon the physical universe from without. Nature was supposed to be subject to laws by divine decree. One could still assign causes to phenomena, but the connection between cause and effect was now constrained by the laws. John Barrow has studied the historical origins of the concept of physical laws. He contrasts the Greek pantheon with the One monarchical God of Judaism: ‘When we look at the relatively sophisticated society of Greek gods, we do not find the notion of an all, powerful cosmic lawgiver very evident. Events are decided by negotiation, deception, or argument rather than by omnipotent decree. Creation proceeds by committee rather than fiat.’

The view that laws are imposed upon, rather than inherent in, nature was eventually adopted by Christianity and Islam too, though not without a struggle. Barrow relates how Saint Thomas Aquinas ‘viewed the innate Aristotelian tendencies as aspects of the natural world which were providentially employed by God. However, in this cooperative enterprise their basic character was inviolate. According to this view, God’s relationship with Nature is that of a partner rather than that of a sovereign.’ But such Aristotelian ideas were condemned by the Bishop of Paris in 1277, to be replaced in later doctrine by the notion of God the Lawmaker.

In Renaissance Europe, the justification for what we today call the scientific approach to inquiry was the belief in a rational God whose created order could be discerned from a careful study of nature. And, Newton notwithstanding, part of this belief came to be that God’s laws were immutable. ‘The scientific culture that arose in Western Europe,’ writes Barrow, ‘of which we are the inheritors, was dominated by adherence to the absolute invariance of laws of Nature, which thereby underwrote the meaningfulness of the scientific enterprise and assured its success.’

For the modern scientist, it is sufficient only that nature simply have the observed regularities we still call laws. The question of their origin does not usually arise. Yet it is interesting to ponder whether science would have flourished in medieval and Renaissance Europe were it not for Western theology. China, for example, had a complex and highly developed culture at that time, which produced some technological innovations that were in advance of Europe’s. The Japanese scholar Kowa Seki, who lived at the time of Newton, is credited with the independent invention of the differential calculus and a procedure for computing pi, but he chose to keep these formulations secret. In his study of early Chinese thought, Joseph Needham writes: ‘There was no confidence that the code of Nature’s laws could ever be unveiled and read, because there was no assurance that a divine being, even more rational than ourselves, had ever formulated such a code capable of being read.’ Barrow argues that, in the absence of “the concept of a divine being who acted to legislate what went on in the natural world, whose decrees formed inviolate ‘laws’ of Nature, and who underwrote scientific enterprise,” Chinese science was condemned to a ‘curious stillbirth.’”[1]

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4 replies

  1. Quoting from a book Revelation, Rationality, Knowledge and Truth

    The following is from the chapter of European Philosophy:

    Scotus advises that the validity of one’s faith should be examined from time to time according to the dictates of rationality. If the two appear to be conflicting then one must follow reason. Thus reason will always hold an edge over faith.

    This attitude is best illustrated in Newton’s (1642–1727) treatment of the Trinity. As long as he did not consciously and scientifically examine his inherited religious views, he continued to remain a devotee of the doctrine. But when at a later stage he decided to put his faith to the test of reason and rationality, he was left with no option but to reject the dogma of Trinity which in his view had failed the test of reason.

    Thus he became the all-time greatest victim of the prejudices of the Christian church sacrificed at the altar of the cross. As a tribute to the genius of Newton, he was elected as a Fellow of the “College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity”, University of Cambridge, a post which he held for many years. In 1675 however, he was given the choice to either vacate his seat and keep his convictions, or to compromise his convictions and assert his orthodoxy under oath one last time in ordination.

    But the “Holy and Undivided Trinity” itself stood in his way. His stubborn refusal to subscribe to the doctrine of Trinity cost him not only his fellowship, but also the handsome stipend of £60 a year. No small amount indeed, judging by the value of money in those days. He was dispossessed of his fellowship and chair from the university on the charge of heresy. The charge of heresy was levelled against him only because in Newton’s eyes worshipping Christ was idolatry, to him a fundamental sin. R.S. Westfall writes on Newton:

    ‘He recognized Christ as a divine mediator between God and humankind, who was subordinate to the Father Who created him.’1

    ‘The conviction began to possess him that a massive fraud, which began in the fourth and fifth centuries, had perverted the legacy of the early church. Central to the fraud were the Scriptures, which Newton began to believe had been corrupted to support trinitarianism. It is impossible to say exactly when the conviction fastened upon him. The original notes themselves testify to earlier doubts. Far from silencing the doubts, he let them possess him.’

    Hence, his faith in the Unity of God and rejection of the Trinity was based on his unbiased, honest investigation into the validity of Christian beliefs. There is many a note written in his own hand on the margins of his personal Bible:

    ‘Therefore the Father is God of the Son (when the Son is considered) as God.’

    Thus concludes Westfall:

    ‘… almost the first fruit of Newton’s theological study was doubt about the status of Christ and the doctrine of the Trinity.’


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