Was Sir Isaac Newton a Christadelphian?
Simply stated, no one enjoys the study of Isaac Newton’s religious writings as much as I do. I find his writing fascinating, and even when I disagree with him, which is frequently, I’m still usually impressed with how he reached his conclusions. He did an amazing work in a very difficult time.
Isaac Newton should be credited with understanding many aspects of Bible Truth in his very dark age. That the greatest scientific mind of the recent past took the time to examine and understand divine matters at all, is a refreshing contrast to the scientific community we have today. And it is reassuring on some level, that this wonderfully intelligent and celebrated example of human nature reached so many of the same conclusions that we have reached on divine matters, in a period of such a vacuum of divine wisdom.
I think many people share with me a similar interest and sentiment for Sir Isaac, and I understand that. But some folks are simply going over the edge to try to claim a very notable and respectable man to be a Christadelphian. He was not a Christadelphian, as we should understand the term. Maybe, sadly, as the term is being redefined in the in the closing years of the 20th Century and now into the 21st Century, he is; and maybe the term is becoming inadequate to describe those brethren set apart from the world of Christianity as a whole. But from what we think we know of Isaac Newton, (and I stress "think," because it is so difficult to judge the beliefs of a man from 250 years away) it appears that there were serious differences in the religious belief and practices of Sir Isaac, and the true Christadelphians.
The most serious difference, if his biographers have caught the matter correctly, is his belief in the pre-existence of Jesus, albeit to his credit, not in the Trinitarian sense. At least one of his writings indicate that even after he rejected the Trinity, and fairly late in his life, after he had gone to work for the Mint (1696) in his 50s, he still believed in the eternal sonship of Christ. There are snippets of notes in his later studies which cast doubt that he maintained this belief his whole life, but his beliefs on this matter have not yet been found to be renounced. Since he appears to have had knowledge of, and even some association with the Socinians, (one group of antitrinitarians from that era who clearly did deny the preexistence of Christ,) one might have expected his clarifications to have been more forth coming if he changed his mind in later years. Perhaps more study of his notes will give us a different picture. But concerning the current opinion, one of his biographers wrote:
Isaac Newton, heretic: the strategies of a Nicodemite by Stephen D. Snobelen, pg. 387. "The doctrinal parallels also extend beyond Trinitological issues. Both Newton and the Socinians were mortalists who saw the teaching of the immortal soul as an unwarranted corruption of primitive Christianity. Related to his mortalism, but without an explicit Socinian parallel, Newton came to deny (largely on exegetical grounds) the reality of a personal devil and literal demons, the latter of which he equated with departed spirits, whose existence was a doctrinal impossibility for someone who denied that the soul could exist without the body. The denial of the eternity of hell's torments was also part of the Socinian system, and rumoured to be part of Newton's as well. Moreover, Newton and the Socinians accepted believers' baptism, holding that baptism can take place only after faith and a process of catechizing. (Furthermore, Newton and the Socinians were committed irenicists [those desirous of peace] and advocates of religious toleration.) Finally, the Socinians were ardent supporters of the separation of Church and state, and Newton appears to have moved in this direction as well. This is not to say that Newton was a Socinian. Newton, like the Arians, believed in the pre-existence of Christ. Socinians did not. Nevertheless, when Newton is not dealing directly with Christ's pre-existence, his characterizations of God and Christ are virtually indistinguishable from those of Socinianism. Nor did Newton believe that the Socinians, that is, those who denied Christ's pre-existence were heretics. This expanded hermeneutical profile of Newton's Christology, therefore, suggests a mix of Arian and Socinian elements."-- (My underlining.)
In just what form Sir Isaac believed in the pre-existence of Christ, it is difficult to say. I find it impossible to condemn what I know about what he believed in this matter. Observe the following and decide for yourself:
"Though created by God in time, Christ existed before the world began. As the spirit of prophecy, he was the angel of God who appeared to Abraham, Jacob, and Moses and governed Israel in the days of judges. After Israel rejected him and desired a king, the angel appeared no more but rather sent his messenger to the prophets. [Yahuda MS 15.5, f. 96]"
But there are things we know for sure Isaac Newton did believe which we, as Christadelphians, wouldn’t tolerate; principles which were stated and defended by Sir Isaac up until his death. The most significant being he fellowshipped regularly with Anglicans, and condemned as schismatics those who wouldn’t. The following is by the same biographer:
Ibid. pg. 389. "Newton's irenicism provided another support. Like the Erasmian distinction between fundamenta and adiaphora, but based more immediately on Hebrews 5, Newton believed that only the ‘milk’ of simple truth was required for baptism and communion, and that only the mature could attain to the ‘strong meats’ of the deeper things in theology: & ‘strong meats’, wrote Newton, ‘are not fit for babes’. These ‘strong meats’ for elders included such matters as disputes over Trinitarian dogma. (Newton believed that ‘if the strong impose their opinions as conditions of communion they preach another gospel & become schismaticks’.) So Newton did not disturb the Church with his ‘strong meats’, revealing them only to a select group of ‘strong men’. Moreover, Newton also stated that ‘if any man contend for any other sort of worship which he cannot prove to have been practised in the Apostles days, he may use it in his Closet without troubling the Churches with his private sentiments’. Newton knew many of his beliefs were contentious and in dispute, so it seems likely that his irenic stance also helped confine his theology to the private sphere." -- (My underlining.)
Now it is true, that responsibilities concerning fellowship appear to be the last of the great truths grasped in the life of an individual. It was clearly the last great truth grasped by both bro. John Thomas as he uncovered the truth in our age, and bro. Roberts as he established the ecclesias. But there is really no indication that Isaac Newton ever changed his thoughts on this, apart from maybe his refusing of Church Sacraments at his death. His great falling out with William Whiston was over this issue.
From what we can tell, Isaac Newton himself would very much resent his name being associated with Christadelphians, or any other group which separated itself from the state religion. And, given the rumors about his temper, probably the best way to call Isaac Newton a Christadelphian is from a distant 250 years after his death.
Another unchristadelphian like thing that Isaac Newton did, was to quietly sit on a committee that retained the death penalty for antitrinitarians (though he himself was one.) As the biographer wrote:
Ibid pg. 398 "But most stunning of all was Newton's appointment on 15 May 1689 to a parliamentary committee for considering the ‘Bill for Liberty and Indulgence to Protestant Dissenters’. This was none other than the 1689 Toleration Act. The committee members, all of whom were to have a voice in the deliberations, were to meet on 16 May 1689. When they reported back to Parliament the next day, they included among their recommended additions the requirement that dissenters ‘profess Faith in God the Father, and in Jesus Christ his Eternal Son, the true God, and in the Holy Spirit, One God blessed for evermore’. What could Newton, by this time a fierce antitrinitarian, do in these pressing circumstances? He dare not raise suspicion by speaking out against the amendment. Perhaps he maintained a cautious silence. Did his implication in the 1689 Act, directed as it was in part against non-trinitarian dissenters like himself, weigh heavy on him and possibly even contribute to the psychological stresses that eventually led to his 1693 breakdown? Or did he justify his involvement by convincing himself of the Hobbesian distinction between publicly legislated doctrine and the faith one could practice quietly in private? It is also possible that he saw the Bill as a positive advance for dissent and a herald of even greater liberties to come. We will never know. On the other hand, involvement (intentional or otherwise) in an Act that extended no tolerance to heresy would serve as the ultimate cover for a secret heretic."
Going on with behavior unacceptable for Christadelphians in any age, he also held the governmental position of director of the Mint, which required him to enforce national law regarding counterfeiting, and in that role he even sent men to death by hanging. He also stood for Parliament twice. He had two failed attempts at the same. His own words are a testament to his struggles with his life, and his responsibilities to God. He lists one of his sins as:- "... setting my heart on money, learning, and pleasure more than Thee ...".
Isaac Newton understood that the truth leads to responsibility, and obedience. Still, Sir Isaac, from what we can tell, rejected his responsibility and lived in disobedience to the divine commands concerning fellowship. He was absolutely unwilling to "come out from among them and be ye separate." Instead he coveted their affections, and lived as a bright light among them. He is rather the antithesis to Moses of whom it is written:
"By faith Moses, when he was come to years, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh's daughter; Choosing rather to suffer affliction with the people of God, than to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season; Esteeming the reproach of Christ greater riches than the treasures in Egypt: for he had respect unto the recompence of the reward."
Clearly, Isaac Newton was not prepared to suffer affliction with the people of God, but chose rather to enjoy the pleasures of sin for a season. He hobnobbed with the mighty and powerful in his life, and lived in splendor and affluence while the "Witness" struggled to merely survive, ostracized as heretics and persecuted by Catholic and Protestant alike (including Newton’s Anglican friends) everywhere across the European continent.
I suppose we can say it is a small wonder that some Central brethren now wish to claim him, themselves never having grasped the divine teaching concerning obedience and fellowship. Like Sir Isaac, they too seem to desire the respectability and wealth and prestige of this age. Or perhaps they feel, like Newton may have, that their work among those corrupting the truth is a great sacrificial work. Stay in and fight--sort of--after the example of Isaac Newton. They reject Samuel’s council to Saul when he contrasted obedience and the doing of a great work:
"And Samuel said, Hath the LORD as great delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices, as in obeying the voice of the LORD? Behold, to obey is better than sacrifice, and to hearken than the fat of rams."
1 Sam. 15:22
God can do anything infinitely better than we. If God desires a certain end, He will perform it. He doesn’t require us to violate His commands in the process of our lives. To think to do so, is to justify Uzza who braced the Ark against a fall, or Saul in his desire to make a great sacrifice, or even Peter who thought to defend Jesus from Israel’s leaders. Obedience is the test of true love. Obedience is what God requires. Obedience is the great lesson of the Scriptures. This lesson is unlearned among many of our faithful friends still in Central, as it was by Sir Isaac Newton.
Isaac Newton lived in a period of time when the true witness was to be dead for 3 ˝ days or from 1685 to 1790. (Rev. 11:7-11.) This meant that the witness would be retrained, legally and politically, from preaching in any open manner. Sir Isaac found himself thus restrained as would anyone who made up a part of that dead witness, but he made compromises in exchange for wealth and fame that other antitrinitarians did not do, and which we should find intolerable in our own lives. May God be merciful to him.
Knowing my infatuation with Isaac Newton, a friend directed me to a website
Sir Isaac Newton: Our Brother in Christ?
where the question was addressed as to whether or not he was a "Christadelphian." Now it is true that this website comes from the Central missionary program, which in my personal opinion is the most corrupting of societies in Central. So it really is small wonder to read these sorts of things among this group of men. Did not Jesus speak this of "missionaries" of his day?
"Woe unto you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! for ye compass sea and land to make one proselyte, and when he is made, ye make him twofold more the child of hell than yourselves."
Still, one wonders why, even to the missionaries, the benefit of association with one of the world’s greatest minds is really worth the disadvantage of being associated with one believing in the pre-existence of Christ, and who argued vehemently against leaving the state church. Or do they know that overwhelmingly, their "converts" to Christadelphia will never expand their minds beyond the superficial which would make this a concern.
In any case, as the writings of Isaac Newton become better known, I consider it worthwhile to compare the writings on this website with reality. First, the author, Allen Eyre, claims that Isaac Newton rarely attended Chapel. This was a claim made against Newton by his enemies. His biographers write to the contrary:
Ibid pg 398 "Frequent the service of the Church of England Newton certainly did. In Cambridge Newton faithfully attended Sunday service at Great St. Mary's Church, although his weekday attendance at chapel was dilatory enough for his chamber-fellow Humphrey Newton to comment ‘yt He scarcely knew ye House of Prayer'. If any truth can be gleaned from Stukeley's agenda-driven testimony, there was no such backsliding in his London period. Stukeley noted that the great man ‘could not excuse himself from the weekly solemn adoration of the Supreme Being, both out of principle and a regard to his influence and example; and he was sensible that many persons were attentive to his conduct in that respect’. Such a policy would be consistent with his desire to appear God-fearing; Newton hated people thinking he was an infidel. A surviving Sacramental Certificate from the Middlesex County Records provides legal proof of Newton's attendance at communion in the parish church of St. James's on 5 July 1702. Finally, both his duodecimo bible ‘with service Dirty', along with the well-worn prayerbook in his octavo bible, provide compelling physical testimony to habitual worship in the idolatrous Church."
So clearly Newton worshiped in public regularly and he did so with the Anglicans. And as we pointed out before, he was critical of those antitrinitarians who would not--some of whom no doubt, were true Christadelphains.
Allen Eyre went on to write:
"His interpretations of prophecy and chronology, written in the 17th century, proved to be more accurate than those of John Thomas written in the 19th century. For example, he predicted that there would be a major return to Palestine in 1899, the date when the Jewish Colonial Trust was established to facilitate just such a return, and that 1948 would see "the redemption of Israel."
That is just one of those things you read, and then you think to yourself, "He didn’t really write that, did he?" What motivated him to compare Isaac Newton in a favorable manner to John Thomas in the middle of this article? And presuming there is some legitimate explanation for this that right now escapes us, how does one justify such a comparison, or such a conclusion?
Prophesy and chronology are two separate subjects. John Thomas published extensively and in great detail on prophesy and one major effort at Chronology. Isaac Newton intended to published very little, and virtually nothing in his own lifetime. Generally, the writings we have of him are from personal notes, and they are often contradictory, as we might find in our own personal notes if publicly exposed. His two works, "Observations of Daniel and St. John" was printed posthumously and appears to never have been intended for printing. His work "The Chronology of the Ancient Kingdoms, Amended" was also printed posthumously, but was probably being prepared for printing.
Newton’s "Chronology" is not particularly notable today, though it was a great accomplishment in his own time. The greatest accomplishment in his work is shortening the dates for the ages of the Greek and Assyrian civilizations. He did this through two different good ideas, neither of which have any relevance to Biblical Chronology.
First, he made the observation that kings do not live as long as the average population. The estimate of 40 years per generation was accurate for the general population, but the same rule applied to royalty resulted in too long a time for the reign of kings. If a society estimated its age based upon the total number of kings it had reigning an average of 40 years, it would result in too long an age for a civilization. He demonstrated, using the lines of kings in England and France, that the average reign of a king is only 20 years.
Secondly, he made the argument that astronomical events are always consistent, and therefore the historical recording of astronomical events, such an eclipses and the sighting of comets etc. give us very firm dates. This was poorly understood in some quarters and simply denied in others, who justified too long a time period for some of the ancient civilizations. Isaac Newton’s laws regarding planets and their motion allowed him to come up with supposed accurate dates in history.
(Personally, I’m not convinced this is at all the case. There are two extraordinary astronomical events recorded in the Scriptures which conceivably could have resulted in a divine adjustment in the motion of the planets, which would make the dating system proposed by Isaac Newton impossible.
"Then spake Joshua to the LORD in the day when the LORD delivered up the Amorites before the children of Israel, and he said in the sight of Israel, Sun, stand thou still upon Gibeon; and thou, Moon, in the valley of Ajalon. And the sun stood still, and the moon stayed, until the people had avenged themselves upon their enemies. Is not this written in the book of Jasher? So the sun stood still in the midst of heaven, and hasted not to go down about a whole day."
Isa. 38:7-8 "And this shall be a sign unto thee from the LORD, that the LORD will do this thing that he hath spoken; Behold, I will bring again the shadow of the degrees, which is gone down in the sun dial of Ahaz, ten degrees backward. So the sun returned ten degrees, by which degrees it was gone down."
If God accomplished either of these events by the manipulation of the sun or earth, then dates based upon the unchangeableness of the planetary motion will inevitably be wrong. I suggest there is no way to know, one way or the other.)
But when we examine Isaac Newton’s treatment of the details of the prophesies themselves, we find he comes up with very little in the way of consistence prophetic exegesis. Let us consider the prophesy of Daniel’s 70 weeks, and we will see that it exhibits many of the difficulties that Isaac Newton experienced with his theories.
Isaac Newton would have agreed that the prophesy of 70 weeks entailed a period of 490 years. But to Sir Isaac, these were not 490 continuous years. He breaks the prophesy into at least 4 different and distinct periods. He believes the expression:
"Know therefore and understand, that from the going forth of the commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem unto the Messiah the Prince shall be seven weeks, and threescore and two weeks:"
actually refers to two separate periods. The first was a period of 62 weeks or 434 years which he dated, not from the "commandment to restore and to build Jerusalem," but from the completion of the wall by Nehemiah in the 28th of Artaxerxes, 4278 JP (435 BC). He then argues that there are 434 years or 62 weeks from the completion of the wall, to the birth of Christ in 4712 JP (1 BC.)
The first seven weeks mentioned in this prophesy, are suggested by Isaac Newton to not apply to this period at all, but rather to a period of time in the future from the command to rebuild Jerusalem in these latter days till the return of Christ. He believed there would be 49 years from the latter day command to rebuild Jerusalem to the return of Christ. (At one point in his life, he speculated that the 49 year period would begin in 1895 AD.)
The last week of seven years of the total 70 weeks of 490 years, are mentioned in the next verse:
"And he shall confirm the covenant with many for one week: and in the midst of the week he shall cause the sacrifice and the oblation to cease, and for the overspreading of abominations he shall make it desolate, even until the consummation, and that determined shall be poured upon the desolate."
This last week, according to Isaac Newton, was also a period separate, from the other periods. He believed this period started with the crucifixion of Christ, and ended 7 years later with Cornelius’ conversion.
The term "midst of the week" Isaac Newton interprets, as half a week, and he argues that this half week is not part of the three divisions of the 70 weeks at all, but rather a three year period from 67 AD to 70 AD when Jerusalem was surrounded and eventually sacked by Rome.
So to summarize his interpretation of Daniel’s prophesy of 70 weeks, the seven weeks are 49 years from 1895 AD though 1944 AD. The sixty two weeks was a 434 year period from 435 BC to 1 BC. The final 7 years was from 34 AD to 41 AD. And the midst of the week, was a period from 67 AD to 70 AD.
All of this can be found in his work "Observations" in chapter 10. Again, to be fair to Newton, "Observations" was published 6 years after his death, and there is no evidence that Newton ever intended it to go public. It is possible that it was just an idea he played with, rather than a serious sketch of prophetic interpretation.
Now, if this is regarded as a better and more accurate prophetic interpretation than that of bro. Thomas who observed the scriptural testimony, simply beginning the 70 weeks with the command to rebuild Jerusalem in the 20th of Artaxerxes, and ending 490 years later with the crucifixion of Christ; then we simply have to let ignorance have its way, and not waste any more time with them on the subject.
Now I agree that this period of 70 weeks is a very tough period in which to satisfy oneself. The dates themselves as established by modern Chronologists (to whom Isaac Newton contributed greatly) appear very accurate. But the prophetic language also appears quite clear. From the going forth of the command, to the cutting off of Messiah the Prince, is 490 years. This command went forth in the 20th year of Artaxerxes, which would be 444 BC. Isaac Newton and bro. Thomas both believed that Christ was crucified in 34 AD. But this requires the 20th of Artaxerxes to be 457 BC. To resolve this difficulty, they made different choices. Bro. Thomas chose, "let God be true, but every man a liar" and adopted 457 BC as the 20th of Artaxerxes in spite of human calculations to the contrary. Isaac Newton chose to believe that his human calculations are correct, and therefore he was faced with the fact that the 70 weeks cannot run concurrent. I suggest there is a third way which maintains the integrity of the Scriptures as demanded by bro. Thomas, and agrees with modern Chronology, the foundation of which was laid by Sir. Isaac. Those interested can find it here .
* * * * *
Well, what about the claim that Isaac Newton predicted the Zionist convention of 1899, and statehood for Israel in 1948? These claims are simply not accurate. The dates that Allen Eyre is celebrating for Isaac Newton are improperly stated by Allen Eyre. Isaac Newton did not choose 1899 as the date of the call to regather Israel, but rather the date when the regathering would be complete. But more importantly, he choose "609 or sometime later," as the starting point of Daniel’s 1290 years, which must be agreed to be simply a bad/unjustifiable date.
As we showed above in the discussion of the 70 Weeks, Isaac Newton applied the first 7 weeks of Daniel’s 70 weeks, as a 49 year period prior to Christ return which (when using the 1945 date) he felt was at the end of Daniel’s 1335. Therefore, he believed that the call to regather Israel would begin four years before the completion of the 1290, or 49 years before the end of the 1335. And as such, the call to regather Israel would have been 1895, not 1899. His projected prophetic scheme (if it be fair to Newton to call it that) called for the regathering to be completed by the end of the 1290 (1899 AD, which obviously it was not "when God shall have accomplished to scatter the power of his holy people") and for the return of Christ at the end of the 1335 (1944 AD, not 1948 which obviously also did not occur.) "The Redemption of Israel" as Allen Eyre quotes, was not the formation of the nation of Israel in 1948, but the "blessed state" (Dan 12:12) of Christ’s return as suggested by Isaac Newton to occur in 1944. To summarize Isaac Newton’s speculations, another nation (not Israel) should have called for the regathering of the Jews to Palestine in 1895. The scattering should have been complete by 1899. And Christ should have returned in 1944.
But all this is rather immaterial anyway, because Isaac Newton had gone away from all this by the time of his death, moving the starting date for Daniel’s times, time, and a half time (1260 years) to the rule of Charlemagne in 800 AD. Thus in his later years, he chose 2060 AD for the date of Christ’s return.
Then, when he came to examine the 2300 years of Daniel 8:14, he decided that the 2300 years of Daniel for the purifying of the sanctuary had to be pushed still further into the future, choosing four other possible dates from 2376-2430 AD.
In reading his work, Isaac Newton appears waffling on future prophetic events, but probably more fairly to him, he appears a mildly interested dabbler in the future prophetic details, and expressed dates only to calm down the folks who believed that Christ’s return was "at the door" in the early eighteenth century. He knew that the return of Christ was beyond his lifetime, and even expressed that when knowledge was increased, as prophesied by Daniel, people would see these things more clearly.
I get the impression that he himself would be incredulous that anyone was looking seriously at these things which he himself gave only passing interest to. His choosing of dates, especially starting dates vacillates greatly, and it appears very questionable that he ever settled any of it in his mind, or even wanted to. "Let time be the Interpreter" was among his favorite lines for dealing with future events. His techniques also appear undisciplined, but there is no reason that it should be otherwise. These are not well thought out and organized papers for public dissemination, but his own personal notes collected from his library after his death and examined when he has no opportunity to explain or defend himself.
Isaac Newton was very interested in establishing the general theme of prophesy, and recording how it had been fulfilled to his point in history. But, recognizing the return of Christ to be very distant from his lifetime, he was all but disinterested in projecting how future events would play out.
And to try and go back and say one portion of his rambling notes is to be understood as his valid teaching, when interpreted in such a manner which Newton himself did not do; and then to compare that with a consistent and harmonious and Scripturally driven plan such as exhibited by John Thomas is, well, bazaar!