Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Newton against the Trinity

Isaac Newton's place in the history of science is generally known. What it is less known is his place in the history of the doctrine of the Trinity. Newton devoted considerably attention to the Trinity, which (as an Arian) he opposed, even using the General Scholium to the Principia Mathematica as a forum to take a subtle swipe or two at the doctrine. I want to look briefly at this attack on the Trinity, which is actually quite clever; but a bit of background might be useful at first.

In one of Newton's manuscripts (Yahuda Ms. 1.4) we find a discussion of the Arian controversy in the context of an exegesis of a vision in the book of Revelation, with which he had a bit of a fascination. On Newton's view, the primary purpose of Revelation was "to describe & obviate the great Apostacy," which "was to begin by corrupting the truth about the relation of the Son to the Father in putting them equal." For this reason, on Newton's view, the vision in Revelation 5, in which a figure is seen upon a throne and gives to the Lamb a scroll, is not a mere set of images by a doctrinal system put in imagistic form. In particular, it is a prophecy showing the true relation between Father and Son: "the Son's subordination, & that by an essentiall character, his having the knowledge of futurities only so far as the father communicates it to him." The scroll is originally sealed; Newton points to this as evidence that the Son's receiving of knowledge from the Father is not eternal. This knowledge "was not given to the Lamb at his first generation but since his resurrection; he meriting it by his obedience to death."

The obvious orthodox response to this, of course, would be to say that Newton is confusing the Word in Himself with the Word Incarnate. Newton, however, is no fool, and anticipates the response, which he thinks the vision also guards against "by a threefold insinuation."

First, the vision begins with the one on the throne holding the book in his hand, and is closely followed by the declaration, in the entire company of heaven, that only the Lamb is worthy of it. Thus the vision shows God and the Lamb as the most worthy in this assembly; and the Lamb is shown originally without the book. On Newton's view, this suggests that the distinction between the Word as God and the Word as Incarnate is sophistical: if the Word had known these matters beforehand, the Lamb would have been as much in possession of the book as the one on the throne. (For those who aren't used to this sort of topic, Newton's argument here is very weak; it depends crucially on his assumption that the scroll is some sort of divine knowledge. The usual interpretation, which takes into account the whole imagery of the book of Revelation, is that the scroll has to do not with knowledge but with salvation and judgment. The one thing going for Newton's interpretation is the claim in the Gospels that only the Father, and not even the Son, knows the day and hour of judgment; this verse is an important problem for the orthodox position, but Newton's application of the claim to the vision is a stretch.)

Second, Newton notes that the Lamb in this vision is the object of worship, both alone and together with the one on the throne. This might at first seem to cause a problem for Newton's own view, but he has a clever response that is relevant to his jab at Trinitarianism in the General Scholium:

Now this worship was given to the Lamb as he was a God without all doubt, Divinity & worship being relative terms, & yet it was given to him as he was worthy to take & open the Book for at the falling down of the four Beasts & 24 Elders before him to worship him, the very act of their worship was to celebrate him for his worthines to take & open the book. The Lamb therefore as he was a God was worshipped for his worthines to take & open the book & therefore took & opened the Book as he was the object of worship, that is a God. But to make all this plainer you may compare it with Philip: 2.9 where tis expresly said, that for his obedience to death God gave him a name above every name that at the name of Iesus every knee should bow &c. that is that all the creation should worship him which is as much as to say that he should be ισα θεω as a God over the creation: for Deity & worship are relative terms & infer one another.

In other words: 'God' is not an absolute term; it doesn't identify anything ontological. The reason we call something a 'God' has nothing to do with what it is in itself. Rather, we call a thing 'God' if it has the sort of dominion or authority that calls for worship. Thus Newton has no problem with calling the Lamb 'God', because the Lamb is given divine authority (which he previously did not have) by the Supreme God (the one on the throne).

Third, Newton identifies a difference in how God and the Lamb are treated by the vision as objects of worship. (1) The Lamb does not sit on the Throne but stands by it; whereas the one on the throne (and who is therefore King over all who are not on the throne, including the Lamb) represents God. (2) In Newton's view, the doxologies that follow the investiture of the Lamb show a gradation, with God being given a "higher degree of worship" than the Lamb, a pattern that he thinks is repeated in Revelation 7.

Thus Revelation 5 is:

a system of the Christian religion, showing the relation of the ffather & Son, & how they are to be worshipped in a general Assembly of the Church & of the whole creation. The ffather the supreme King upon the Throne, the fountain of prescience & of all perfections. The Lamb the next in dignity, the only being worthy to receive full communications at the hand of the ffather. No Holy Ghost, no Angels, no Saints worshipped here: none worshipped but God & the Lamb, & these worshipped by all the rest. None but God upon the Throne worshipped with the supreme worship; none with any other degree of worship but th eLamb; & he worshipped not on the account of what he had by nature, but as he was slain, as he became thereby worthy to be exalted & indowed with perfections by the father. This was the religion to be corrupted by the Apostacy. This therefore was very pertinently shaddowed out in the exordium to the Prophesy of that Apostacy.

This is Newton's Arianism in a nutshell; although I think it's a bit strained, it's quite striking, and much more creative and original than most subordinationisms.

On to the Principia. In the General Scholium, which was added to the Mathematical Principles in 1713, after having stated that a system as beautiful as the solar system must be "under the dominion of One," goes on to consider the nature of this being:

This Being governs all things, not as the soul of the world, but as Lord over all: And on account of his dominion he is wont to be called Lord God Pantokrator, or Universal Ruler. For God is a relative word, and has a respect to servants; and Deity is the dominion of God, not over his own body, as those imagine who fancy God to be the soul of the world, but over servants. The supreme God is a Being eternal, infinite, absolutely perfect; but a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God; for we say, my God, your God, the God of Israel, the God of Gods, and Lord of Lords; but we do not say, my Eternal, your Eternal, the Eternal of Israel, the Eternal of Gods; we do not say, my Infinite, or my Perfect: These are titles which have no respect to servants. The word God usually a signifies Lord; but every lord is not a God. It is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God; a true, supreme, or imaginary dominion makes a true, supreme, or imaginary God.

It can be seen easily enough that this is the same argument that we saw above. There it was used to interpret the prophecy of Revelation in a non-Trinitarian way. Notice the claim that "a being, however perfect, without dominion, cannot be said to be Lord God". (As we saw above, Newton interprets claims that the Son was given dominion quite strictly with regard to the person of the Son.) Notice also the distinction between 'true', 'supreme', and 'imaginary' Gods. (As we saw above, according to this distinction the Word is a true God, but not the Supreme God.) By relativizing the term 'God' in this way, Newton can break up the apparent unity that seems to be attributed to Father and Son in Scripture. Of course, by relativizing the term 'God' in this way, Newton seems to be committing himself to polytheism. He does, however, make some effort to alleviate this by pointing out occasional uses in Hebrew and the like where the relevant term for 'God' is applied to people who aren't God. This is fair enough. It's doubtful, however, that this bit of evidence stretches quite as far as Newton wants it to stretch.

ADDED LATER: A number of people have been coming to this recently for various reasons, so I thought I would update it with a link to the newer address of the Newton Project, where you can find the manuscripts in question:


  1. app insight3:15 AM

    See Article 12 of '12 Articles on religion' by Isaac Newton.  Accessed online on 13/08/2011 from website:
    Artic 12.  'To us there is but one God the father of whom are all things & we of him, & one Lord Iesus Christ by whom are all things & we by him.  that is, we are to worship the father alone as God Almighty &  Iesus alone as the Lord the Messiah the  great King the  Lamb of God who was slain & hath redeemed us with his blood &  made us kings & Priests.' - Sir Isaac Newton

  2. branemrys5:43 PM

    Right; on Newton's view the Father alone is God almighty, and Jesus is worshipped not as God almighty but as the Lamb of God, God's Messiah.

  3. Justice Reyes9:08 PM

    Truly, the Almight God, Jehovah(Yahweh), and His son Jesus, are not equal, as what Jesus' have said which is written in John 14:28(NIT) - "<span> </span><span>“You heard me say, ‘I am going away and I am coming back to you.’ If you loved me, you would be glad that I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I.</span>" So how can they be equal if God The Father is greater than Jesus? :)

  4. branemrys9:23 PM

    Certainly they can't be if the Father is greater than the Son and the Son equal to the Father in the same respect; but, of course, nobody claims this.

  5. Justice Reyes11:29 PM

    I still dont understand why a lot of people are still keep on believing the trinity. X)

  6. branemrys3:58 PM

    Well, it's a truism, in a sense, but when lots of people believe something it always means one of two things: they never find it opposed by argument, or the arguments with which it is opposed are not found by them to be persuasive. What you really mean, I think, is not that you don't understand why people still keep believing the Trinity -- people will believe anything if all the alternatives are unpersuasive -- but instead that you don't understand why so many people don't consider  any ofthe alternatives to the doctrine of the Trinity adequate. And that is really the question to ask: When people put forward alternatives to the doctrine of the Trinity, what are they failing to do that leaves so many people still believing the Trinity? They must be failing to do something.

  7. Good Christian11:05 PM

    this blog has an interesting take on newtons thought on elohim    www.restoratiobofchrist

  8. Anonymous1:52 PM

    Typical. Trinitarians developed a doctrine to combat statements that Jesus was "just" a man. They overstated their position discrediting it. They didn't need to and could have limited their comments to what scripture obviously said (like Eussbius suggested before he was threatened with exile along with Arius). Jesus was begotten or made -- apparently before the foundation of the earth, and all things were made by him.
    JESUS WAS MORE THAN JUST A MAN. Since that seems to be the limlts of scripture's statement maybe that is all we need to function on this earth.

  9. Elisha4:04 AM

    I am Nontrinity aswell if you watch my video, on Jesus you will see that Jesus came into existance according to Paul....

  10. Dyrell Hicks11:06 AM

    According to some researchers, Newton was not Arian, he believed Jesus & the Holy Spirit were divine, and that the Father and Son are one, he only had a problem with consubstantiality because it was a Greek concept introduced in the 4th century that had more to do with Aristotle and Plato than with Jesus. And the concept is not supported by the plain reading of scripture, but is rather a hypothesis.

    Here is a well done article about what he believed about the trinity:

  11. branemrys2:30 PM

    No, he was fairly clearly Arian. Early modern Arianism does hold that Jesus is divine, in a broad sense, and that the Father and the Son are in some sense one, in that the Son represents the Father: that's the whole point of Arianism.

  12. Jesus does not belong to the trinity, The father, the son and the holy spirit are NOT one, NOT equal, NOT the same. they are three separate beings as what Newton believed to be. further evidence read John 17:3, John 5:30, John 5:26, Ephesians 1:3. furthermore Jesus was usually referred to be LIKE his father, but His father was NOT again referred to be like Jesus. :)

  13. Mohammad Shuaib Hussain6:18 AM

    OMG, OMG!! Newton held the muslim belief - almost :|
    what is thiss?? :O

  14. Mohammad Shuaib Hussain6:19 AM

    But that is what muslims believe - almost. Muslims take Jesus as a Prophet of God, hold him in very high esteem.

  15. Mohammad Shuaib Hussain6:21 AM

    But explain to me the difference between non-trinitarian beliefs and the muslim belief of Jesus!
    Muslims believe he is a Prophet of God and not the Son of God though, also believe in the Anti-Christ.

  16. branemrys7:56 AM

    You're right that they're not very far from each other -- Newton would still call Jesus the Son of God, and even 'God' in a sense, so there's that difference, but it's also true that he wouldn't mean them literally, either.

  17. Mohammad Shuaib Hussain9:48 AM

    Yes, I understand but you see muslims make the exact same argument that Newton makes.
    I think Theos and Theodus are used in the original greek text and muslims accept the Newtonian version, except not the son of God part, we do believe that no Prophet including Jesus has never sinned and also that Jesus performed miracles. So we don't exactly consider him as a normal human being either.
    The differences ofcourse lies then that he believed Jesus was the Son of God and/or last messenger/Son of God and the end of Prophethood lineages.

    Still there are differences in the non-Trinitarian viewpoint and Islamic view of Jesus, but it is incredibly close. Though non-Trinitarians are an incredibly small minority within Christianity. I have never met one living in the UK.

  18. branemrys9:54 AM

    While it was only ever a minority position, the kind of position put forward by Newton was increasingly popular in his day. You might also be interested in some of the works of the philosopher, Samuel Clarke (1675-1729), who was an associate of Newton and also accepted a version of the same view. Joseph Priestley, the chemist, is another, somewhat later figure who accepted some of the same ideas.

  19. OriginalJesus3:08 PM

    The difference is Newton believed Jesus was crucified and resurrected. Islam teaches Jesus wasn't crucified and some say it was.made to appear.he was. Pretty ridiculous.I highly doubt the disciples would die martyrs for a.lie.. That makes a huge belief. Its.not the same.Jesus. the bible warned" if anyone or.any Angel comes.preaching a different Jesus ,don't believe it."is this not what Mohamed does?

  20. OriginalJesus3:12 PM

    Muslims dont believe Jesus was crucified. Big difference.

  21. OriginalJesus3:14 PM

    Muslims don't believe Jesus was crucified. Big difference.

  22. Dewayne Montgomery3:02 AM

    Newton held the belief of the true relationship between the Father and the Son, Jesus is indeed a God he is not the Almighty God, The Father is Jesus God, Revelation 3:12 and was the Fathers first creation Colossians 1:15, Revelation 4:

  23. Brandon,
    Let me see if I understand this correctly. If the Son is subordinate to the Father, then you have polytheism (2 Gods - Newton's view) but if you have three Gods who are equal then you have just 1 God. Brilliant bit of reasoning. Well done!

  24. branemrys6:35 PM


    No, if you hold that the Father and the Son are not divine in the same sense, but are both to be worshiped as divine, this is by definition polytheism: there is more than one thing worshiped as God. I'm not sure what your 'three Gods' point is about; nobody on either side of the Trinitarian dispute holds that there are three Gods.

  25. Hi Brandon,
    Thanks for replying.
    What does it mean to be divine in the same sense or not to be divine in the same sense?

  26. branemrys1:25 PM

    Since the post is about Newton, the terms in this discussion are all fixed by Newton. Newton is very clear that unlike Trinitarians, he denies that the Father and the Son are God in the same sense. The Father is the God. The Son is only God in a secondary and derivative sense, as one who has been made the divine representative (when he was resurrected); however, he still receives worship as God-in-a-derivative sense, with a lower degree of worship than the Father gets. This he contrasts with the Trinitarian view, in which the Father and the Son are both the God, the one and only God, because, while distinct as persons, they are one and the same God (not two Gods).

  27. Hi Branemrys,
    So if a person such as a Jehovah's witness believes Jesus pre-existed and co-created everything with the Father, but is subordinate to the Father (ie, a lesser God), is he then also a polytheist?

    If there are 5 Gods all equal, but I state that all of them are the God, the one and only God, does that automatically make them one as opposed to 5?

    By the way, I don't believe Newton was an Arian. He simply questioned the veracity of 1John 5:7. His biographer wrote that he was a trinitarian.

  28. branemrys5:20 PM

    If someone holds that there is more than one God, where 'God' is not used figuratively, that is what everybody means by 'polytheist'. The use of the term here is not an esoteric definition but the common usage.

    Your 5 Gods example is not parallel to any position Newton would have known, so I'm not sure what your point in bringing it up is.

    Newton is very definitely an Arian; in his notebooks he explicitly defends Arius and in discussing the history of the doctrine he attacks the critics of Arianism. His arguments are quite extensive in scope, and do not consist simply in "questioning the veracity of 1 John 5:7". The post explicitly gives one of his Scriptural arguments on the subject, and it involves Revelation, not 1 John, so I have no idea what grounds you could possibly have for a claim that is so obviously in direct contradiction to the evidence already on display.

    There's not really any substantive sense in which Newton is a Trinitarian; the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are all 'God' in different senses, and he explicitly does not limit the term 'God' to these three even when used literally -- that's the direct implication of his claim that the term 'God' is relative.

    I don't know which of the many biographers of Newton you are referring to.

  29. Okay to answer the last point first. You are right. I thought I read it in WIKI but am wrong.

    My 5 Gods example was not meant to parallel Newton's position but rather yours since you stated that "the Father and the Son are both the God, the one and only God, because, while distinct as persons, they are one and the same God (not two Gods)."

  30. branemrys1:22 PM

    You mean the 5 Gods example was meant to parallel the Trinitarian position in general. But Trinitarians don't hold that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, even three equal Gods; the position is that Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are equally the one and only God.

  31. It has been stated in evangelical circles that they are equal in power and status, although one God as you state. In other words the Father is not actually greater than the Son or the Holy Spirit, nor the Son greater than the Holy Spirit or the Father etc

    Secondly, there are three persons involved. By merely stating they are one God does not make it so. I could just as easily state that my 5 Gods are one God, or equally one God, so that makes me a monotheist rather than a polytheist. Do you see what I mean?

  32. branemrys6:30 PM

    Newton is not addressing what is stated in evangelical circles.

    Again, "Five Gods are one God" is not a parallel.

  33. Branemrys,
    Please lets forget about Newton for now. I agreed 2 posts ago that I was wrong about him.

    I was not talking about Newton but replying to your post where you stated "But Trinitarians don't hold that the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are three Gods, even three equal Gods"
    My reply was to the last part of your statement "even three equal Gods" (Please read the 1st paragraph of my previous reply)

    The "Five Gods are one God" is again addressing your claim that the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, (3 distinct persons as they are) are actually one God.
    What is the difference then if someone else claims 5 Gods (or persons) with different offices and roles but says they are actually just one God?

  34. branemrys3:55 PM

    The post is about Newton and his position on the Trinity; I have only been talking about matters relevant to Newton's position, and if you have issues other than Newton's account of the Trinity to hash out, this is not an appropriate forum for them.


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