The life of Isaac Newton proves that intellectual greatness does not preclude simple faith in the Bible.
by Michael Prewitt
In recent decades, science and faith have been at odds with one another. Yet, history testifies that some of the most eminent scientists have been God-fearing people. Of these, perhaps none stand higher for brilliance of mind than Sir Isaac Newton.
Born on January 4, 1643 in Lincolnshire, England, Isaac Newton started life as a small and sickly infant. Nevertheless, he grew, and his mind blossomed. When not studying or doing farm chores, he spent time in nature and built models of machines, clocks and other devices. He also loved to read the Bible, and had an uncanny ability to memorize Scripture.
When his stepfather died, Isaac made an effort to take charge of the family farm. But thoughts of math and science got the best of him, and he often lost track of the sheep while calculating the size of the pasture.
Finally, Isaac’s mother permitted him to return to school; and in 1661, Isaac was admitted to Trinity College, of Cambridge University in England. Earning his fees by waiting tables and cleaning rooms, he had little time for study, and his exceptional gifts remained unrecognized. In 1665 the plague closed the university, and he returned home.
It was during the next two years at home that Newton made his most important discoveries, including breakthroughs in mathematics, optics, physics and astronomy. Any one of these discoveries would have made Newton famous. Yet these “miracle years” occurred before Newton was 25 years old!
Newton later returned to his university studies. In 1669 a professor of mathematics stepped down, asking Newton to take his place. This, combined with his admission to the Royal Society in 1672 and the publication of his various papers and books, brought him respect and greatly expanded his influence.
In 1696 Newton resigned from the university to work for the Royal Mint, eventually becoming Master of the Mint. Working with typical gusto, he quadrupled the Mint’s production, even uncovering a counterfeiting operation.
His role at the Mint did not end his contributions to science and religion. In 1703 Newton was elected president of the Royal Society. In 1704 he published Opticks, a landmark book on the properties of light. He expanded and republished various books and spent increasing amounts of time in the study of the Scriptures.
In 1705 Newton was knighted by Queen Anne at Cambridge, the first to receive knighthood for scientific discovery rather than for valor in war.
Although Newton is most famous for explaining light and gravity and inventing calculus, his first major contribution to science was the invention of a reflecting telescope. Newton built the prototype himself, grinding the mirror, constructing the tube, and even crafting his own tools for the job. This hands-on, thoroughgoing approach characterized all Newton’s projects and experiments.
In 1687 he published Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy, an explanation of the three laws of motion and gravity and their relation to astronomy. This work is generally accepted as the greatest scientific book ever written.
Scholars call Newton the “father of physics.” Some contend he is the single most important contributor to modern science.
Much of the “science” in Newton’s day was not science as we think of it. Greek philosophy influenced scholars as strongly as superstition influenced the uneducated. Scientific experiments served primarily as illustrations. If the results did not tally with the “classics” (writings of pagan philosophers), the results were considered erroneous. Actually, professors rarely conducted experiments; they simply consulted Greek writings and tried to reason out the solution.
Newton approached subjects from a Christian worldview. The beauty and regularity of the natural world, he observed, could only “proceed from the counsel and dominion of an intelligent and powerful being.” Nature was one of God’s textbooks. Its lessons held more authority than human theories. God’s laws were predictable, consistent laws of cause and effect.
In his study of gravity, Newton rejected the notion that matter contained its own principles of operation. Gravity was a direct manifestation of God’s power. This, he believed, was expressed in scripture. Speaking of Jesus Christ, the Bible says, “All things were created by Him; and for Him and He is before all things, and by Him all things consist.” Colossians 1:16, 17. And of God, “in Him we live, and move, and have our being.” Acts 17:28.
Despite his important and revolutionary contributions to science, Newton had a humble view of his achievements. He once said, “I do not know how I may appear to the world, but to myself I seem to have been only like a boy, playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself, in now and then finding a smoother pebble or prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
The English poet Alexander Pope wrote, “Nature and nature’s laws lay hid in night; God saith, ‘Let Newton be!’ and all was light.” While scientific advancement did not end with Newton, it is clear that Newton played a major role in changing our view of life. Instead of fearful superstitions and wild speculation, we now see in nature the predictable outworking of divine laws.
NEWTON AS A CHRISTIAN
Tragically, the details of Newton’s religious life are frequently overlooked. Few know that he was a prolific writer on theology, and that he had an especially deep interest in Bible history and prophecy.
Young Isaac Newton received books on the Bible from his stepfather, including one on the prophecies of Daniel. This, with his mother’s instruction and the influence of godly teachers, profoundly impacted him. The Bible was unquestionably Newton’s favorite book. He was considered more knowledgeable on the Bible “than all the others at Trinity put together.”1
The evidence suggests that Newton regarded his doctrinal dissertations as his greatest achievement. At his death, more than 30 million words of his Bible notes existed, most of which have received little, if any, study. Besides these, two monumental works on the Bible were published during his lifetime: Chronology of Ancient Kingdoms, in which he used his knowledge of the Bible and astronomy to date Biblical events; and Observations Upon the Prophecies of Daniel, which described his prophetic interpretations.
Newton never married, and by all accounts lived a blameless and circumspect life. His mature Christian outlook is evidenced by statements like this: “Trials are medicines which our gracious and wise Physician gives because we need them; and He proportions the frequency and weight of them to what the case requires. Let us trust His skill and thank Him for His prescription.”
Newton’s life proves that intellectual greatness does not preclude simple faith in the Bible. Towards the end of his fellowship at Trinity College, Newton testified to a friend, “I have fundamental belief in the Bible as the Word of God, written by men who were inspired. I study the Bible daily.”
The world still needs Christians like Sir Isaac Newton. Christians who, though surrounded by cynicism, will not let infidel sentiments affect their thinking. Christians who can candidly investigate science and nature, and yet affirm their supreme allegiance to the Word of God. Most of all, the world needs Christians who—though caught up in an age of information overload—will “study the Bible daily.”
1. John Hudson Tiner, Isaac Newton, p. 94.
Michael Prewitt was a student at Hartland College when he wrote this article. He is now the Creative Director for It Is Written, a media evangelism ministry sharing insights from God’s Word with people around the world through satellite and digital television, websites and mobile apps, global evangelistic ministry, and faith-sharing resources.
Taken from Last Generation, Vol. 26, No. 3. Last Generation is a vibrant 32-page soul-winning magazine published six times a year. To subscribe, call (540) 672-1996, Ext. 283. Ask about our BOGO free subscription promotion available through January 31, 2017.