Newton’s work in theology and alchemy -- which together comprise the bulk of his personal papers – are sometimes referred to as his “secret” writings. However, he was secretive about nearly everything he did, including his scientific efforts. Until he became a public figure in his later years, Newton led a notably solitary existence as Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge. A lifelong bachelor, he had a difficult personality, bordering on the paranoid, and was extremely sensitive to criticism of any sort. His scientific findings often went unpublished for years, and he wisely refrained from publishing his more esoteric speculations altogether.
Alchemy had been outlawed in England since the early 15th century, and although the ban was lifted in 1689, its practitioners were generally regarded as charlatans who made dubious claims about turning base metals into gold. The authorities were less concerned about alchemy’s occult characteristics than about possible adulteration of the coin of the realm. The ban was lifted through the efforts of Robert Boyle, a member of the Royal Society who is generally regarded as the founder of modern chemistry. Boyle, like Newton, was also an alchemist with a strong interest in theology.
The distinction between scientific pursuits and such occult practices as alchemy or astrology was by no means as clear-cut in Newton’s day as in our own. The term he used to describe his experiments in the transmutation of metals was “chymistry,” which would have applied both to chemistry and alchemy in the 17th century. There was undeniably a fair amount of hocus-pocus associated with alchemy, which traced its origins to the Hermetic practices of the ancient world. However, it laid the foundation for modern chemistry with many of its laboratory procedures, terminology and experimental methods. Alchemy is probably best understood today as a protoscience that has made lasting contributions to medicine and metallurgy, as well as to chemistry.
If secrecy was called for with his alchemy experiments, Newton had even greater cause to keep quiet about his religious views. His writings in theology, church history and biblical prophecy amounted to some 2-1/2 million words, much of them devoted to proving that the orthodoxies of his day were unbiblical corruptions of the early Christian faith. He identified the Roman Catholic Church with "Babylon the great, mother of harlots and of earth's abominations" in his meticulous analysis of New Testament prophecy. This in itself would not have caused Newton problems in Protestant England. However, the Church of England held many beliefs in common with Catholics, notably the doctrine of the Trinity, which Newton argued had no basis in Scripture. He dismissed the immortality of the soul on similar grounds. Had Newton’s views on what he called the “Great Apostasy” become widely known, he would have been branded as a radical dissenter, jeopardizing his position at Cambridge or even worse.
Until quite recently, the scientific community has been only too happy to follow Newton’s lead in suppressing his views on more arcane topics. The scientific revolution that he ushered in soon took a turn that he could not have envisioned and certainly would not have approved of. He is now closely identified with the concept of a clockwork universe that basically ran itself according to inviolate natural laws without divine intervention. Although Newton was the first to formulate such laws, he never used the term “clockwork universe” and did not believe the universe operated apart from a sovereign deity.
For Newton and his contemporaries, the jealously guarded boundaries between the natural sciences and other branches of knowledge did not yet exist. The term “scientist” was not introduced into the language until more than a century after Newton’s death. Scientific pursuits were generally categorized as “natural philosophy” or even “natural theology” – the latter devoted to what is revealed about God through scientific investigation of the natural world. Newton was very much inclined in this direction. His refusal to seek ordination in the Church of England – normally a requirement for Cambridge fellows in his era – did not demonstrate any antipathy toward religion as such but only toward its reigning dogmas.
“If I have seen further than others,” Newton famously said, “it is by standing upon the shoulders of giants.” This was not false modesty on his part, and neither was he referring to his immediate predecessors. Newton believed he was building upon ancient wisdom that had been corrupted and all but lost in the later Christian era. He looked to the adepts of ancient Babylon, Egypt and Greece, along with certain biblical figures. In his reckoning, these priests and magi were skilled in theology, astronomy, mathematics and the occult sciences. Their temples were designed as microcosms of the “frame of the world,” with fires at the center representing the sun in a heliocentric model of the solar system.
Unlike deists in the 17th and 18th centuries, who regarded the universe as God’s wind-up toy, Newton believed the Lord played a hands-on role in the workings of creation. God established the frame of the world in absolute time and space, ordained its physical laws and sustained it from moment to moment. Newton wrote that the Lord God “is eternal and infinite, omnipotent and omniscient, that is, he endures from eternity to eternity, and he is present from infinity to infinity; he rules all things, and he knows all things that happen or can happen.” As Newton conceived it, God did not operate from the outside but was himself the medium in which the universe operated: “In him all things are contained and move, but he does not act on them nor they on him. God experiences nothing from the motions of bodies; the bodies feel no resistance from God’s omnipresence.” There are deliberate echoes in this of St. Paul, who told a crowd of Athenians, “In him we live and move and have our being.” Paul, in turn, was quoting the Greek poet Aratus – one of Newton’s ancient adepts.
Having done more than anyone before him to unlock the secrets of nature, Newton knew God to be “very well skilled in mechanics and geometry.” This sentiment or something similar goes back to Pythagoras in the 6th century BCE and was shared by Galileo and Kepler – all of whom were mathematicians or relied on mathematics for their scientific work. The same idea keeps popping up in scientific circles today, even though God is usually invoked in a strictly metaphorical sense. The theoretical physicist Paul Dirac – who, like Newton, was Lucasian professor of mathematics at Cambridge -- said, “God is a mathematician of a very high order, and he used very advanced mathematics in constructing the universe.” As it happens, Dirac was an outspoken atheist, which raises an interesting question. How do you construct a universe using very advanced mathematics if there is no one actually doing the math?
Isaac Newton, Principia
Stephen D. Snobelen, Isaac Newton: Theology, Prophecy, Science and Religion (isaac-newton.org)
The Newton Project (www.newtonproject.sussex.ac.uk/prism.php?id=1)