Wednesday, March 4, 2009

The Complex Mr. Newton

Isaac Newton was, beyond question, one of the most brilliant scientists and mathematicians who ever lived.

He invented calculus and the reflecting telescope; he discovered the gravity equation, the gravity constant, and the laws of motion. He correctly analyzed the refraction of light. He did most of his work at Cambridge University in England.

But most of his time and effort were directed to spiritual questions. He excelled in his ability to read Hebrew and Greek, and wrote extensive commentaries on the Tanakh and the New Testament. His commentaries are so detailed that he began to calculate astronomical observations using the Hebrew calendar, in which months have names like “Nisan,” rather than the standard English calendar. In fact, he wrote and published more books about religion than he wrote about mathematics and science put together.

As modern scholars study Newton in great detail, two different interpretations emerge, hinging on this question: was Newton a Christian?

Those scholars who believe that Newton was a Christian cite the following facts as evidence: Newton clearly regards the Hebrew and Greek texts of the Bible as authoritative and historical; Newton refers to Jesus as the Savior of all mankind; Newton understands that the Resurrection is a physical, bodily event, and not a mere metaphor.

Those who write that Newton was not a Christian point to the facts that Newton practiced a form of alchemy which was more like magic than science, and traditional Christianity frowns on the practice of magic, and that Newton called Jesus "the Son of God" but rejected the usual understanding of the Trinity, writing that Jesus is only partially, and not fully, divine, and therefore Newton declined write that Jesus is God.

One of Newton's most famous books is titled Philosophiae Naturalis Principia Mathematica, and in it he wrote that “This most beautiful system of the sun, planets, and comets could only proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful Being.” The title is Latin for the “Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy,” and the book was published in 1687.

So was Newton a Christian? You decide.