Science and Religion and
Sir Isaac Newton

Sir Isaac Newton (1643-1727) is perhaps the most illustrious president the Royal Society of London for Improving Natural Knowledge.

The Society started in 1660 from groups of physicians and natural philosophers meeting at variety of locations as a learned society for science. It was granted a Royal Charter by  King Charles II (1630-1685). It is possibly the oldest such society still in existence.

Today the Society functions as the U.K.'s Academy of Sciences funding research fellowships and scientific start-up companies.

Below: Carlton House Terrace, London. The current home of the Royal Society.

The Enlightenment: Science and Religion

Changes now coming in science in the 16th century cause the church to retreat from the modern world.

From the dawn of time human beings have gazed up at the heavens and wondered what answers to life’s questions might lie among the stars? For 2,500 years the Christian answer to the big questions of existence was faith in God as revealed in Jesus Christ. It made sense of life and death. It taught right from wrong.

In Western Europe doubt has chipped away at the very fabric of Christianity, Catholic and Protestant. At times threatening to dynamite its foundations. We can trace this skepticism back to the period known as The Enlightenment. When western Europeans began posing questions about the power of monarchs... the power of clergy... above all, the power of God.

The special phenomenon of the Western Enlightenment is an open skepticism as to whether there can be definitive truths in sacred books. In Europe early 
Enlightenment thinkers like Baruch Spinoza (1632-1677) who did not believe in God as a supernatural, nor in the immortality of the soul or the existence of miracles, was treated as a dangerous eccentric.

However, Spinoza's contemporary in England also raised fundamental doubts about the nature of God, but he’s celebrated a national hero - Sir Isaac Newton.

Sir Isaac Newton, Natural Philosophy and Religion

Right: Reputed descendants of Newton's apple tree, at the Cambridge University Botanic Garden

Newton’s inquiries were in a field which they called “natural philosophy”, it’s what we call “science.” Up until the 17th century, if you were really clever you had studied theology. Now natural philosophers looked at heaven and earth and explained them not through the Bible but through observation.

There’s a famous tale about Newton’s breakthrough in physics. It’s that splendid story about the apple and gravity. He is said to have been hit on the head by an apple and the apple led him to question the common understanding of God and the universe. 

There are actually various versions of this story, one of which involves a leaf falling from a tree, but I think an apple because of its biblical associations might well have appealed to Newton more as a good story. Sir Isaac Newton is molding scientific discovery in the pattern of a biblical story.

Left: Sir Isaac Newton, by Godfrey Kneller, 1689.

Newton is celebrated as a hero of science, but in no way was he an enemy of religion. Like Spinoza, he radically re-thought it.

He took the Bible very seriously, but on his own terms. He spent as much energy brooding on the prophecies of the Last Days in the Book of Revelation as he did on the nature of gravity. He insisted that the universe was run by laws laid down by the Creator God, who had then made the decision to leave the world to its own devices: this is Deism.

However, Newton’s God was becoming different from the God of the Bible. His God was rational like a natural philosopher. And perhaps for the time being just as shut away in his study or laboratory—whatever he might do at the end of time.

There were plenty of people, including churchmen—in rational, practical Protestant England—who thought that what Isaac Newton said made sense. That’s because, unlike Spinoza, Sir Isaac Newton kept some of his wilder ideas to himself.

Learn More about the History of Christianity from these Resources

The views expressed in any of these resources do not reflect the opinions of Free-Online-Bible-Study.Org and Teach the Nations, Inc.

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