Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Newton's God

In the new issue of First Things, a letter from Thomas C. Pfizenmaier, in response to an earlier essay by Avery Cardinal Dulles on “The Deist Minimum,” offers a pithy take on deism and a comment on Newton's religious belief.
I read with pleasure Avery Cardinal Dulles’ rich essay on “The Deist Minimum” (January). The timing seems providential in that just this week I read that Anthony Flew, the British poster boy for atheism, has at the age of eighty-one abandoned his atheism in favor of belief in a super-intelligent being who is the designer of the universe. Flew explains that he continues to reject the biblical God of the Christians and Muslims (and Jews?) as an “oriental despot” akin to Saddam Hussein but favors the idea of the deist conception of God held by Jefferson. Cardinal Dulles makes the statement that deism served as a kind of “halfway house on the road to atheism.” One now wonders if it may provide shelter on the return trip. Let us pray.

I would, however, like to raise a question about Cardinal Dulles’ assessment of Isaac Newton. He leaves the impression that Newton was a deist, or nearly so. This represents an earlier scholarly consensus that should now be abandoned. Not only was Newton not a deist; he believed deism heretical and harmful. For this reason he was instrumental in the formulation of the Boyle Lectures, whose avowed purpose was “to prove the truth of the Christian religion against infidels.” The infidels du jour were the atheists and deists.

Cardinal Dulles writes that Newton discovered mathematical laws that henceforth made divine intervention superfluous. This was the conclusion that the French Encyclopedists imposed on Newton’s mechanics. Newton himself believed that God was actively involved in upholding creation by the continual exercise of His will. Deists rejected the concept of revealed religion. Newton embraced it—especially in regard to biblical prophecy and chronology, on both of which he was expert.

Even Newton’s Trinitarian views, which Cardinal Dulles says caused him to “reject the doctrine of the trinity and incarnation as irrational” are under reassessment. I believe that by the 1690s Isaac Newton’s Trinitarian position could be considered compatible with the position of the Eastern Church Fathers of the fourth century, especially Eusebius of Caesarea and Basil of Ancyra.

Scholarship on Newton’s religion is gradually bringing him in from the cold. People may continue to debate various elements of his religion, but, in the words of Newton scholar James Force, one thing is sure: “He was no deist.”

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