Rob Iliffe knows the range of Newton’s unpublished and published writings better than any other living scholar. He is Professor of History at the University of Oxford and General Editor of the online Newton Project and the author of Newton: A Very Short Introduction. His well researched book: Priest of Nature: the Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton is a fascinating study which provides an overview of Newton — the man, the times in which he lived [England 1642-1692], and his studious notes on mathematics, physics, ancient religious belief, history of the early Christian church, the origin and rise of monasticism, Bible prophecy, the books of Daniel and Revelation, The Great Apostasy and other diverse subjects. Sometimes in Christadelphian writings we may have been led to believe that Isaac Newton’s writings were close to our own understanding of the Truth, particularly as he did not believe in the Trinity. This book tends to suggest that is not necessarily the case.

Obsessed with his studies

Newton was brought up in a religious family. On Newton’s early life, Iliffe notes: “Once he became obsessed with his studies, he continued to find it hard to maintain regular church attendance, and his notes and essays on theology and natural philosophy would constitute his particular style of worship”.1

Iliffe further observes that: “When he came to write church history, he used sophisticated approaches to evidence and argument that he had learned at school and university. His entire account of Christian past was a giant conspiracy theory, and he put on trial all of the most authoritative architects of modern Protestant and Catholic orthodoxy. All those tried in his private court would be found guilty”.

Priest of nature

Apart from scriptural study, Newton was a priest of nature. There was no way, Newton wrote, to come to a knowledge of a Deity but by the frame of nature — adding the significant rider — without revelation. From the beginning of time, he wrote, the true system of the world had been adumbrated (foreshadowed) in the form of a sacred fire, so that anyone of keen mind, from any people, might gather the truth from it, and thus come to know God from his works. Newton saw the role of the modern natural philosopher as that of a priest of nature, and outside religion. Natural philosophy, he considered, was the most important way of grasping the nature of God. There is a strong sense in Newton’s writings — though he never stated it explicitly — that he saw himself as the latest in a line of restorers (Abraham, Moses and even Jesus Christ had come to restore the Truth). Despite the great intellectual courage he showed in going against the religious grain, he was not prepared to put his head above the parapet and spearhead the next stage in the Protestant Reformation in order to reinstate the true religion.

Newton considered his Bible to be a sort of divine hypertext in which various texts in different parts of scripture were related to, or ‘interpreted’ one another. Learning which passages from the New Testament shed light on one another or on sections of the Old Testament was a key part in the education of a Christian. On these grounds, Newton argued that there was no better way of interpreting scripture than by comparing the parts of prophecy which can be reconciled without force. These relationships formed a complex pattern, and the basis of his approach was the relationship between Daniel and Revelation.

“The Analogy between these sacred texts, he intoned, was the foundation of all prophetic interpretation, and they were not to be understood as inconsistent with one another”.2

Newton influenced by other protestant writers

Newton was heavily influenced by other protestant writers and had no hesitation in copying larger tracts from uncredited sources to include in his own works.

Among those authors which played a major influence were John Napier, Thomas Mede and Thomas Brightman. Their writings are of interest as one can see how, ultimately, they influenced Brother Thomas and influenced the writing of Eureka. For example, the proposition that the seven ecclesias of Revelation are symbolic of seven progressive states of apostasy was a direct contrast to that proposed by Thomas Brightman in his Apocalypis Apocalypseos of 1609 where he argued at great length that the seven churches in Revelation referred to consecutive stages in the growth of the church; for example the dead church of Sardis depicted the German Reformation, the loyal church of Philadelphia the Genevan churches, and the lukewarm Laodicea the still popishly affected Church of England.

Iliffe also observed: “Newton’s attempt to understand history through prophecy demanded a thorough knowledge of how the prophetic images cohered, along with a command of large amounts and types of historical data. In accordance with his prophetic rules in his exposition he first determined the correct order of the images, and then he applied this arrangement to history. In time, he aligned the most significant parts of prophecy with the most notable events of history. To what extent, however, was he offering an original account, and to what extent was he basing his analysis on Mede’s Clavis and his Commentary? Newton left few clues to his intellectual debts, though once or twice he explicitly mentioned his dependence on Mede’s approach, thereby placing himself within the tradition that Mede had allegedly founded. Accordingly, he based his system on Mede’s synchronisms and was heavily reliant on the latter’s dates and arguments. Indeed, the extent to which he used Mede’s ideas and language, a feature of his work that is only obvious from close scrutiny of the sources, is striking. He copied verbatim sentences and entire paragraphs. At times, Newton’s text appears to be a series of unacknowledged excerpts from Mede’s works, interspersed with lengthy extracts from primary sources”.

Newton’s ideas about sin

Newton thought deeply about the human condition. In a unique excursus on the nature of sin, Newton claimed that a sinner did evil not because he could not do what he wished, but because he would not do what he could. He was not condemned to sin by ‘the blind impulse of his nature’ and, in principle, he could freely choose not to do evil. However, the extent to which any man could do this was dependent on the degree to which he had improved his understanding. For Newton, the intellect was central to the life of a godly man, because only by perfecting it could he acquire a will that was sufficiently free to choose good over evil. He explicitly equated evil with folly, and he noted that the latter was always avoided by having a perfect understanding. The will was most free where the understanding was most perfect, and so its sincere and painstaking cultivation was the highest Christian duty.

Rob Iliffe’s book shows how wide-ranging Newton’s observations and interests were, spanning the entirety of Christian history from the Creation to the Apocalypse. A vibrant biography of one of history’s towering scientific figures, Priest of Nature is the definitive work on the spiritual views of the man who fundamentally changed how we look at the universe.

The book is available from online bookstores.

References:

  1. Iliffe, R. (2017). Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton. Oxford University Press. Pg45
  2. Ibid P246