Isaac Newton was a fierce critic of the Trinitarian corruption of Christianity: Priest of Nature reviewed


Sir Isaac Newton, by Godfrey Kneller (1646–1723): Newton was a secret, though fierce critic of the ‘Holy’ Trinity

Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton by Rob Iliffe (Oxford University Press, pp.522, £22.99)

Rob Iliffe has dug up the scientific/historic/religious scoop of the century

John Calvin believed that human nature was a ‘permanent factory of idols’; the mind conceived them, and the hand gave them birth. Isaac Newton acquired a copy of Calvin’s Institutes when he went up to Trinity College, Cambridge in 1661 as a teenager. By the time he was a mature man, however, Newton’s determined effort to strip the mind of superstitious superfluities had far outstripped the austere predestinarian of Geneva. As a Fellow of Trinity, and Lucasian Professor of Mathematics from 1669 onwards, Newton was obliged to subscribe to the Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England. It was noted that, most unusually for a Cambridge academic at this period, he refused to take Holy Orders. In addition to his public work as a mathematician and physicist, Newton undertook work which was, perforce, utterly secret. This was his re-examination of Christian doctrine from its historical foundations. Had this work been made public, he would have been forced to resign all his public and academic positions. For he had come to the conclusion, by the time he reached maturity, that the central doctrines of Christianity, as outlined in the Creeds and the Articles, were monstrous idolatries, inventions, Satanic perversions of true religion. Above all, he excoriated Athanasius for persuading the Council of Nicaea to adopt the plainly, as Newton would see it, idolatrous view that Jesus had been the divine Second Person of the Trinity.

Rob Iliffe, professor of history at Oxford, begins his study of Newton’s religious thought by saying, ‘Newton’s extensive writings on the Trinitarian corruption of Christianity are among the most daring works of any writer in the early modern period, and they would merit careful study even if they had not been composed by the author of the Principia.’ Presumably, Iliffe means that the writings are ‘daring’ in their conclusions, as Newton was not so ‘daring’ as to publish them — which would have spelt personal ruin. All his work on gravity, cosmology, mathematics, the colour spectrum, and so on would have been conducted, not in the spacious setting of Trinity, but in a garret, and it is unlikely that the world would have heeded them so readily had they not come from the Lucasian professor. So obsessed was Newton by his religious views and writings, however, that he longed to get out of Cambridge, and settle in London, if only a convenient post could be found. But when Locke wangled him the Mastership of the Charterhouse, at £200 p.a. with a coach, this was not a sufficient lure.

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