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Revered today for his scientific contributions, Isaac Newton’s religious scholarship is often all but forgotten

Priest of Nature: The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton

Rob Iliffe
Oxford University Press
536 pp.
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For Isaac Newton, laying the foundation of modern physics and astronomy was a bit of a sideshow. He believed that his truly important work was deciphering ancient scriptures and uncovering the nature of the Christian religion. True, his skill in calculation was helpful for describing celestial mechanics, but far more critical was applying it to Hebrew prophecies.

How do we think about his career when we consider that Newton wrote vastly more on religious subjects than he did on what we would consider scientific ones? Rob Iliffe’s new book Priest of Nature pulls back the curtain on what Newton thought of as his life’s work, rather than that for which we remember him.

Newton’s upbringing and education have been studied in great detail, but Iliffe strives to show the intensely religious nature of his young life. Born on Christmas Day 1642, Newton was deeply shaped by growing up in the fantastically turbulent times of the English Civil War. The religious turmoil of those years helped make spiritual matters a priority throughout his life and also exposed him to heterodoxies of thought and practice that would later be crucial for his intellectual development.

Newton saw himself as a “true Christian,” although he would be labeled a heretic at almost any time and place in the Western world. He refuted the divinity of Jesus and even thought that the doctrine of the Trinity—the idea that God exists simultaneously in the form of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—was the result of an ancient plot to sabotage Christianity.

After years of research, Newton identified Athanasius, a widely venerated church father, as the culprit who instigated this corruption. From then on, he dedicated decades of his life to uncovering what he conceived of as the “true religion” of all humanity that he believed had been hidden for millennia.

In addition to his scientific talents, Newton proved to be a highly skilled historian. He found and interpreted vast numbers of ancient documents in his quest to identify ancient religious truths. In the end, he concluded that one should hold to a simple, tolerant faith that did not rely on complicated doctrines. This realization was not derived from Christian scriptures but rather from pagan and Jewish writings where both religious and scientific knowledge intertwined.

That is not to say that Newton looked down on the Bible. Indeed, studying it was the core of his religious practice. Over time, he became obsessed with finding the true meaning of the bizarre imagery found in biblical prophecy, developing a complicated, but highly rational, system for deciphering the historical and future events encoded in dragons, pits of fire, and heavenly trumpets. He planned a five-volume masterwork that would explain these methods, but never completed it to his satisfaction. An exact date for the end of the world was, he stressed, beyond his predictive ability; the 2060 date that is sometimes attributed to him on the Internet was a lower bound only.

We usually think of Newton as an intellectual hermit, locked away in his rooms in Cambridge. Although that view does have some merit, one of the major contributions of Priest of Nature is showing how much he participated in the intellectual community of his time.

In Newton’s religious writings, we can see that he shared concerns and methods with many other scholars and even uncharacteristically credited them with helping shape his own work. Although his religious writings might seem bizarre today (as they did to many during his own time), there was an active community where they fit right in.

Through meticulous research, Iliffe reveals a Newton who saw his life’s work as restoring proper religious belief, who was deeply concerned with how best to lead a godly life, and who constantly worried about the seductive power of imagination over reason.

This book is an enormous contribution to the Newton literature and the history of science in general. It examines huge numbers of sources that were, until now, essentially unknown and provides an unparalleled contextualization of the man and his work. A side effect of this scholarly reach, however, is a text that is dense at times. Nonspecialists may find it tough going in places, although it is well worth the effort.

Priest of Nature examines what many people assume to be a paradox: a religious scientist. And not just any scientist, but the very model of rationality, the icon of physics.

Newton’s rationality and empiricism were a critical part of his religious interests as well as his scientific ones. This book is a crucial reminder that our modern expectation of science and religion as inherently at odds with each other is actually a very recent invention.

About the author

The reviewer is at the Gallatin School of Individualized Study, New York University, New York, NY 10003, USA.