Isaac Newton - James Gleick (2004)

Chapter 10. Heresy, Blasphemy, Idolatry

THE FATHERLESS MAN, the fellow of the college named Trinity, turned to Christian theology with the same sleepless fervor he brought to alchemy. He started a notebook, writing Latin headings atop the folios: Life of Christ; Miracles of Christ; Passion, Descent, and Resurrection. Some topics remained forever blank; some filled and then overflowed with intense, scholarly, and troubled notes. The topics that most absorbed his interest were the relation of God and Christ, the father and the son, and most of all, De Trinitate, Of the Trinity.1 Here he swerved into heresy. He abjured this central dogma of his religion: three persons in one Godhead, holy and undivided. He denied the divinity of Jesus and of the Holy Ghost.

England’s universities were above all else instruments of Christianity, and at each step in his Cambridge career Newton swore oaths avowing his faith. But in the seventh year of his fellowship, 1675, a further step would be required: he would take holy orders and be ordained to the Anglican clergy, or he would face expulsion. As the time approached, he realized that he could no longer affirm his orthodoxy. He would not be able to take a false oath. He prepared to resign.2

He believed in God, not as a matter of obligation but in the warp and weft of his understanding of nature. He believed in God eternal and infinite; a living and powerful Lord holding sway over all things; omnipresent, in bodies and filling the space that is empty of body.3 He believed in God as immovable—and this belief fused with his vision, still not quite defined, of absolute space.4 Newton’s God had established the rules by which the universe operates, a handiwork that humans must strive to know. But this God did not set his clockwork in motion and abandon it.

He is omnipresent not only virtually but also substantially.… In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him.… He is always and everywhere.… He is all eye, all ear, all brain, all arm, all force of sensing, of understanding, and of acting.5

If God was immutable, religion was not.6 Close study fed both his faith and his heresy. He researched and wrote the history of the church again and again. He read the Scriptures literally and indulged a particular fascination with prophecy, which he saw as complex symbolism to be unraveled and interpreted. He considered this a duty. He set down a catalogue of fifteen rules of interpretation and seventy figures of prophecy. He sought the facts, dates, and numbers. He calculated and then recalculated the time of the Second Coming, which he understood to be the restoration of primitive uncorrupted Christianity. He studied in detail the description of the Temple of Jerusalem, a structure of “utmost simplicity and harmony of all its proportions,”7 and tried to reconstruct its floor plan from the long, rambling algorithms of the Hebrew Book of Ezekiel—

So he measured the length thereof, twenty cubits; and the breadth, twenty cubits, before the temple: and he said unto me, This is the most holy place. After he measured the wall of the house, six cubits; and the breadth of every side chamber, four cubits, round about the house on every side. And the side chambers were three, one over another, and thirty in order.…

—an intricate puzzle in prose, another riddle to be deciphered. He struggled to work out the length of the ancient cubit. There seemed to be a message meant for him.

And if they be ashamed of all that they have done, shew them the form of the house,… and all the forms thereof, and all the ordinances thereof, and all the forms thereof, and all the laws thereof: and write it in their sight.

The very existence of the Bible in English—long opposed by the church establishment and finally authorized only a generation before Newton’s birth—had inspired the Puritan cause. Vernacular versions of the Bible encouraged the laity to look into the texts and make their own interpretations. Scholars applied the new philosophical tools to Scripture. Anyone could pursue biblical inquiry as a self-directed enterprise; many tried to distinguish the pure Gospel from its medieval accretions. Ancient controversies came back to life. Newton was studying no less than the history of worship. He compared the Scriptures in the new English translation and in the ancient languages; he collected Bibles in Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and French. He sought out and mastered the writings of the early fathers of the church: saints and martyrs, Athanasius and Arius, Origen, author of the Hexapla, Eusebius of Caesarea and Epiphanius of Constantia, and dozens more. He embroiled himself in the great controversy that tore at Christendom through the fourth century, at Nicaea and Constantinople.

The Trinity was a mystery. It defied rational explanation. It rested on a paradox that could be neither comprehended nor demonstrated: that the Son is fully human and fully divine. As a human Christ does not understand his divinity all at once. Nonetheless he is of the same being, homoousious, as the Father. One God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

In the early fourth century, Arius, an ascetic churchman in Alexandria, led a rebellion against this doctrine. He taught that God alone is fully divine and immutable; that the Son was created, subordinate, and subject to growth and change. For this heresy Arius was excommunicated and condemned. His writings were burned. But enough survived to persuade Newton, brooding over them a millennium later, that the Trinitarians had carried out a fraud upon Christianity. The fraud had been perfected by monks and popes. The word trinity never appears in the New Testament. For explicit foundation in Scriptures, the orthodox looked to the First Epistle of John: “For there are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one.” Only the King James Version had the last phrase.8 Newton’s critical reading persuaded him that the original texts had been deliberately debased in support of false doctrine—a false infernal religion.9

In theology as in alchemy, he felt himself to be questing for ancient truths that had been perverted in the dark history of the past centuries. Knowledge had been lost, veiled in secret codes to hide it from the vulgar, distorted by blasphemers, priests and kings. He believed this to be true of mathematics, too, the language of God. In all these realms, he tried to recover words and laws once known and then lost. He had a mission. He believed he was doing God’s work. “Just as the world was created from dark Chaos through the bringing forth of the light,” he wrote in one manuscript, “… so our work brings forth the beginning out of black chaos and its first matter.”10 In both alchemy and theology, he cherished secrecy just as the new philosophers in London repudiated it. No public science here: rather, meetings with anonymous confidantes, barter of manuscripts, shadowy brotherhoods.

Arianism was undergoing a clandestine revival, but disbelief in the holy Trinity amounted to dangerous heresy nonetheless. By putting his arguments to paper Newton committed a crime that, if exposed, could have cost him his position and even his freedom.11

At the last moment, in 1675, Newton’s precarious position at Cambridge was rescued. The king granted his request for a dispensation, an act that released the Lucasian professorship, in perpetuity, from the obligation to take holy orders.12 This did not end his theological obsession. He perfected his heresy through decades of his life and millions of words. He marshaled his arguments and numbered them:

1. The [word] God is no where in the scriptures used to signify more then one of the thre persons at once.

2. The word God put absolutely without particular restriction to the Son or Holy ghost doth always signify the Father from one end of the scriptures to the other.…

6. The son confesseth the father greater then him calls him his God, &c.…

11. The son in all things submits his will to the will of the father. which could be unreasonable if he were equall to the father.13

No gulf divided Newton’s theological reasoning from his physics and geometry. Logic proved that any divinity in the subordinate aspects of God remained derived from and dependent upon God. He drew a diagram:

To make this plainer suppose ab & c are 3 bodies of which a hath gravity originally in it self by which it presseth upon b & c which are without any originall gravity but yet by the pressure of a communicated to them do presse downwards as much as A doth. Then there would be force in a, force in b & force in c, & yet they are not thre forces but one force which is originally in a & by communication/descent in b & c.14

He would not even label years as AD, preferring AC: Christ, but not the Lord. Jesus was more than a man but less than God. He was God’s son, a mediator between God and humanity, chosen to be a prophet and messenger, and exalted to God’s right hand. If we could decipher the prophecies and the messages, we would know a God of order, not chaos; of laws, not confusion. Newton plumbed both nature and history to find out God’s plan. He rarely attended church.

Anger blazed through his theology; reason followed along behind. In his reading notes and “articles” and “points” and “observations,” his “Short Schem of the True Religion” and his analysis of prophecies and revelations, he raged against the blasphemers. He called them fornicators—for he associated this special blasphemy with lust. “Seducers waxing worse and worse,” he wrote, “deceiving and being deceived—such as will not endure sound doctrine but after their own lusts heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears and turning away their ears from the truth.”15 Monks, with their unclean thoughts, had perpetrated this corruption.

He felt Trinitarianism not just as error but as sin, and the sin was idolatry. For Newton this was the most detested of crimes. It meant serving false gods—“that is, Ghosts or Spirits of dead men or such like beings.”16 Kings were specially prone to it, “kings being apt to enjoyn the honour of their dead ancestors,” declared this obsessive scholar, who, for himself, could not have been less apt to call on the honor of dead ancestors.

He had seldom returned home to Lincolnshire since the sojourn of the plague years, but in the spring of 1679 his mother succumbed to a fever. He left Cambridge and kept vigil with her over days and nights, till she died. He, the first-born son, not his half-brother or sisters, was her heir and executor, and he buried her in the Colsterworth churchyard next to the grave of his father.