A.N. Wilson

Trials and Trinitarians

Rob Iliffe digs up some fascinating finds in Newton’s almost totally forgotten theological writings

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.’

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