RESPONDblogs: PART 2 – Isaac Newton – Scientific Revolutionary…and…Theologian?

isaac newton two

In part 1 of this blog, I presented a case based on Isaac Newton’s published writings. I said that he was both:

  1. a brilliant scientific revolutionary and
  2. a passionate, counter-cultural believer in God

He passionately grappled with both Nature and Scripture to understand the God who’s influence he saw there. Even though his conclusions put him at risk from 17th century society’s heresy laws. He studied both of these revelations (nature and scripture) to the glory of God.

Why does this matter today? Well, I would suggest it matters for three reasons.

First, mankind’s greatest scientific mind believed passionately in God.

Newton’s influence can’t be understated in scientific terms. He laid the foundation of optics, he formulated the law of universal gravitation, and he invented calculus. His book Principia, “was one of the most important single works in the history of modern science.”[1]

And he embraced the theological implications of science. Faith and reason were not opposites to the brilliant mind of Isaac Newton. We cannot brush his religious faith under the carpet or frame it as simple and empty self-serving political posturing. Why? Because of the evidential passion of his belief in God that overflows in his private theological writings.

Since 2008, the Newton Project at Oxford University have been publishing the 2.2 million words of Newton’s religious works online. “The papers demonstrate that in this field Newton was a thinker of the highest calibre and intellectual daring, though our respect for his courage may well be tempered by the fact that he published almost nothing of it in his lifetime. “[2] We looked at that in more detail in part 1.

Holding both scientific and Christian perspectives on life made sense to Newton.

 

Second, Newton challenges us to follow his example.

He searched the scriptures trying to understand who his Creator was. He worked hard at it, and he held the Bible in high regard; he devoted his life to it. He spent more years writing Theology works than his works on nature.

If the greatest scientific mind can apply his reasoning abilities to God, then, why shouldn’t we? Are we saying we know better than him? Are we saying that belief in God is evidentially less reasonable in the 21st century than it was in the 17th century?

Some might suppose that, if Newton was alive today, he would be part of the ranks of the enlightened atheistic thinkers. After all, science has discovered so much more about how the Universe works now. Yes, it has. And as it has done so, it has stood atop Newton’s shoulders. In modern times, we do understand more about the Universe we live in. But one thing hasn’t changed. In fact, one thing is becoming much more pressing with each scientific discovery that we make. Newton understood that thing at his time, and he would no doubt have seen it more clearly now. What is that thing?

Evidence for God’s work is found in what we DO understand…not what we DON’T understand.

In speaking of the planets and their motion, Newton observed:

“To make this system therefore with all its motions, required a Cause which understood and compared together the quantities of matter in the several bodies of the Sun and Planets and the gravitating powers resulting …to compare and adjust all these things together in so great a variety of bodies argues that cause to be not blind and fortuitous, but very well skilled in Mechanics and Geometry….[this] system was the effect of choice rather than of chance”[3]

In other words, the fine-tuned mechanics of this system requires the influence of a skilled designer. Chance and natural alone is unable to account for the universe. Newton didn’t find evidence for God in the 17th century gaps of scientific knowledge. He found the evidence in the whole system of this universe. There’s no reason to suggest he would think any differently today.

Someone might complain, “But Stuart, he didn’t even agree with your basic tenants of Christianity! Are you saying he was right to do that?” He disagreed with the Christian belief in the Trinity for sure; God as Father, Son and Spirit. Personally, I’ve wrestled with various Christian doctrines throughout my life. I know what wrestling feels like. I’m not trying to somehow portray Isaac Newton as an evangelical Christian from the 21st century. What I am saying is that his reason led him to embrace and passionately wrestle with a personal belief in God as Creator involved with his creation. Newton was no deist. And he chose to spend his life diligently trying to understand the God who is present and active.

How about us?

 

 

3 – Newton puts a stake through the heart of the notion that science and God are incompatible

John Lennox, Professor of mathematics at Oxford University, says it so well.[4] He describes the supposed antipathy between science and religion as a myth. The real conflict is not between science and religion. It’s between theism and naturalism.

We can see that as we review the winners of the Nobel Prize for Physics. There have been winners who are Christians; there have been winners who are atheists. If belief in God is irrational, then what’s a Christian doing winning a Nobel Prize?  Clearly the battle does not involve science.

Actually, it is a battle of opposing world views. It’s a conflict between two beliefs:

  • naturalism (the universe is all there is) and
  • theism (God created the universe with creatures who are both material and spiritual at the same time)

The point is that neither theism or naturalism are statements of science, they are both statements of belief. When Newton makes a case for God, that’s not science speaking, it’s Newton. When the brilliant Richard Hawking, famed modern scientist, makes a case for atheism that’s not science speaking, it’s just Hawking.

The reality is, faith is essential to science. I come to a place of trust in a position, and I reason on the basis of my trust. Faith and reason closely work together. And in Newton, we see that faith in God is the motor that drove science forward.

The question we need to ask ourselves is this; is there evidence for my belief? How trustworthy is my belief? Why do I believe it? Because it’s going to influence my life.

And it’s here we reconnect with Isaac Newton.

“Don’t doubt the Creator, because it is inconceivable that accidents alone could be the controller of this universe.”

Science and belief in God are not enemies; theism and naturalism are.

 

4 – Newton’s big question is – how good is the evidence for my belief?

Here’s a final example, again from Lennox[5].

Stephen Hawking has until recently held the Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge. And he’s an atheist. He believes that the Universe came from nothing. The existence of gravity, naturally will result in the formation of the universe. From nothing.

Do you know who the second holder of that chair was? Isaac Newton.

Here’s the irony. Isaac Newton discovered the law of gravity and believed in God. Stephen Hawking, who also occupied Newton’s chair at Cambridge, uses gravity as a reason not to believe in God.

Looking at both these men, it’s clearly not science that is incompatible with belief in God. It’s the belief we bring to our science. So – do we have evidence for our beliefs?

Do we believe with Newton that God created the Universe? Or do we believe with Hawking that nothing created the Universe? We have a belief, whether we like it or not. Once we’ve picked a side, it’s time to look at the evidence. And in that…Isaac Newton helps us. I imagine he would strongly reject Hawking’s “nothing” explanation for the Universe to this day. Why?

Because the original evidence, that Newton patiently observed and pointed towards, hasn’t changed:

“When I wrote my treatise about our System, I had an eye upon such Principles as might work with considering men for the belief of a Deity and nothing can rejoice me more than to find it useful for that purpose. But if I have done the public any service this way ’tis due to nothing but industry and a patient thought.”[6]

 

 

Isaac Newton is a refreshing revolutionary in matters of science and faith. He challenges us to own up to our convictions, and to seek to evidence them. I think he really has done us a great service today.

 

 

 

[1] Encyclopaedia Britannica, Sir Isaac Newton: English Physicist and Mathematician, https://www.britannica.com/biography/Isaac-Newton, accessed 22nd July, 2017.

[2] Introduction to the Texts, The Newton Project, http://www.newtonproject.ox.ac.uk/texts/introduction, accessed 20th July 2017.

[3] Stephen D. Snobelen, The Theology of Isaac Newton’s Principia Mathematica: A Preliminary Survey, https://isaacnewtonstheology.files.wordpress.com/2013/06/theology-of-the-principia.pdf, 7.

[4] John Lennox, Are God and Faith Anti-Science and Anti-Reason? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BKzizwPwNWU, accessed 19th July, 2017, summarized.

[5] Lennox, Faith Anti-Reason? summarized.

[6] Snobelen, Theology of the Principia, 7.

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stuartgrayuk

I live in the UK, I'm married to Janet and I'm passionate about proposing a case for the historic Christian faith. You can find me on Twitter at @stuhgray.

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