Sir Isaac Newton
Who was the greatest scientist of all time? Many historians and scientists would point to this man. Sir Isaac Newton was the scientist par excellence, and he was strongly motivated by his Biblical beliefs. In fact, he felt he was personally involved in fulfilling the prophecy of Daniel 12:4: “Many shall go to and fro, and knowledge shall be increased.”
That the greatest scientist of all time was a Christian and a creationist should give any Darwinian pause. Co-inventor of the calculus, discoverer of the law of universal gravitation and the three laws of motion, analyzer of white light split into colors by means of a prism, inventor of the reflecting telescope and author of the most important book of the scientific revolution (the Principia Mathematica), Sir Isaac Newton is unexcelled in the roll call of great scientists.
But did your history books forget to tell you that Newton wrote more on theology than on science? An article by Geoff Brumfiel in Nature 8/19/04 confirms this (see 08/19/2004 entry in Creation-Evolution Headlines). Newton approached the study of the Bible with as much rigor and planning as he did physics. Even more important, he believed that the Bible revealed the truth about God just as much as scientific inquiry uncovered truth about nature. Brumfiel writes,
Newton’s religion and science may have been tied together by belief in absolute truth. Newton used testable hypotheses to find truth in nature, and believed that his religious writings revealed the truth about God, says [Robert] Iliffe [director of The Newton Project]. (Emphasis added.)
Young Isaac was an unlikely scientist, coming from a poor family, cared for by two women who did not care much for the task. He was a loner and eccentric, and proved later in life to be personally vindictive against those he disliked (particularly Robert Hooke, whose memory he tried to virtually erase). We do not, therefore, hold up Newton as a model for personal relationships.
Many have questioned the orthodoxy of his theological views about God and Jesus Christ; some have defended it, arguing he was misunderstood (for a survey of opinions, see this article by Lambert Dolphin). There’s no doubt Newton had high regard for Jesus Christ highly as Lord of heaven and earth; the controversy is over whether he considered Christ a created being before the world began. It’s possible he wavered in his views over his lifetime; most likely, though, he kept his true feelings to himself to avoided the appearance of heterodoxy. Perhaps that is why his beliefs on Christ and the Trinity are still debated today. It would not be fair to cast him into an either-or position; Newton’s thoughts are too nuanced for simplistic categorization.
There is no controversy, though, that Newton was a Biblical creationist. He believed the God of the Bible was the sole Creator of heaven and earth. The Bible was his source of truth and guide for life that he approached reverently and sincerely. Newton seems to have wasted much time exploring alchemy and some obscure theological and eschatological views. For these reasons we cannot appraise Newton as a “gold medalist” in this series (judging on orthodoxy, personal integrity and advancement of creation thought in addition to scientific achievement), but he certainly demonstrates our fundamental themes: (1) creation-based science is fruitful, and (2) the best scientists in history believed in God, honored the Bible and were motivated by their theological views.
It should be recognized that Newton was not a “Newtonian” in the sense of being a Deist. Subsequent disciples of Newton’s laws interpreted them to mean the universe ran like a clock, subject to mechanical regularities that could not be altered. This made it seem the Creator wound up the clock at the creation and then left it to run on its own. In the extreme, this “mechanistic” worldview would deny any active involvement by God in His creation. But God cannot be put in a Newtonian box, and Newton himself, certainly, did not think of God in this way. A biography by James Glieck, reviewed in Science (see 08/15/2003 entry on “Was Newton a Newtonian?”), makes this clear. Reviewer Patricia Fara writes:
Newton himself would have been horrified by modern Newtonian physics, especially the innovations it owes to Pierre Laplace, the self-styled “French Newton” who introduced the deterministic interpretation we now associate with Newtonianism. When Napoleon remarked that Laplace seemed to have eliminated God from his universe, he replied, “Sire, I have no need of that hypothesis.” But for the original English Newton, God was everywhere, even—or especially—in empty space. As Gleick explains, although Newton refused to toe the line of religious orthodoxy, he “believed in God, not as a matter of obligation but in the warp and weft of his understanding of nature.“
Newton considered the Lord Jesus Christ to be the Savior of the world, and trusted and believed in the Biblical miracles. He wrote strong papers refuting atheism and defending creation and the Bible, said Henry Morris (Men of Science, Men of God). Let Newton himself tell us what he thought: “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by men who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.”
To be able to claim credit for discovering the basic laws of nature – gravitation, optics, the laws of motion – would that not provide a resume to boast about? Here’s what this supreme scientist had to say about that: “All my discoveries have been made in an answer to prayer.”
See the short film produced by Illustra Media (July 2022), “Newton’s God” (7 min).
The Newton Project publishes all of Isaac Newton’s works, including translations of his religious works from Latin into English.