At the end of the seventeenth century, Isaac Newton (1642-1727) initiated a revolution in science.  What is relatively unknown is his passion for Biblical study and religious scholarship.  As Newton’s private papers on theology have become increasingly accessible in the last few years,  Newton is being recognized as much more than a scientist.

The author of the Principia mathematica was a true Renaissance man who spent decades delving in the secrets of alchemy and even longer studying the Bible, theology and church history.  He said, “I have a fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by those who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.”  In a manuscript Newton wrote in 1704 in which he describes his attempts to extract scientific information from the Bible, he estimated that the world would end no earlier than 2060. In predicting this he said, “This I mention not to assert when the time of the end shall be, but to put a stop to the rash conjectures of fanciful men who are frequently predicting the time of the end, and by doing so bring the sacred prophesies into discredit as often as their predictions fail.”

He had over 200 books on religion in his personal library.  Leaving behind four million words on theology, Newton was one of the greatest lay theologians of his age.  A study of his theology and prophetic views not only illuminates the life of this amazing man, but shows how he integrated both theology and science into his belief system.  For example, Newton wrote a number of religious tracts dealing with the literal interpretation of the Bible.    His understanding of the scientific world supported his belief in a monotheistic God as the masterful creator whose existence could not be denied in the face of the grandeur of all creation.

Although born into an Anglican family, by his thirties Newton held a Christian faith that, had it been made public, would not have been considered orthodox by mainstream Christianity.  He held to the same beliefs as our ancestor, the Reverend David Clarkson and his contemporary John Tillotson at Cambridge.   Newton — like his contemporaries — would have faced severe punishment if he would have been open about his religious beliefs.  Heresy was a crime that was punishable by the loss of all property and status or even death, although given Newton’s stature it is unlikely that such a sentence would have been carried out.  His religious writings remained unpublished until some of the family holdings were first sold at auction in 1936.  King’s College, Cambridge and the Jewish National and University Library now hold most of the collection of Newton’s writings and they are currently being translated from Hebrew and Greek to English.  (Estimated completion date: 2012.)

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