Saturday, March 15, 2014

Newton Against the Trinity

This is an oldie but goody from Brandon at Siris. Newton was the quintessential Enlightenment thinker that America's Founders admired.

But as you can see from the link, Newton's Enlightenment, while heterodox and out of the box in its thinking, was also quite religious, "biblical" even.

A taste:
... 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.


Tom Van Dyke said...

I still don't see where the "Enlightenment" fits into all this. This is a long way away from say, David Hume:

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.

To a Muslim or a Jew or anyone with no dog in the fight, that's quite "Christian." See also

At some point in his preparation for ordination, Newton began to struggle with the doctrine of the Trinity. The Trinity was a topic of deep and heated discussion during the seventeenth century, and in the Anglican Church there was considerable division over it. (Deviations from Trinitarian doctrine within the English church were rampant.) Denying the Trinity was heretical, and so Newton remained extremely cautious about his views. Over his lifetime, he seems to have changed his exact position on the doctrine of the Trinity, but it is difficult to tell. Newton never discussed publically his beliefs on the Trinity, and his notes on it were not found until after his death.

We know, however, that Newton believed in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit; he also believed that Jesus was the Messiah and atoned for our sins with his death on the cross. Newton even believed, contrary to Arianism (of which he is usually accused), in the eternality of the Son. He also embraced the straightforwardly biblical position that the Father and Son are one. What Newton did not believe, however, was that the Father and Son were one in the sense that they were consubstantial or of the same substance. According to Newton, the Father and Son were one, but this unity was not a metaphysical unity; rather, it was one of dominion and purpose.

There were a number of reasons for Newton’s denial of consubstantiality. The most important reason for Newton was that he simply didn’t see it in Scripture.

Jonathan Rowe said...

Clarke believed in the eternality of the Son; but also that he was eternally subordinate and hence not fully God.

"Divinity" in this sense can be confusing. It doesn't mean fully God. Just more than a man. Angels are in a sense "divine." Though Christ, according to Arianism is higher than the higher angel, but still lower than God the Father.

Tom Van Dyke said...

All true. But you still have a Holy Trinity. The rest is splitting hairs.

The most interesting thing about so-these called unitarians is that they believe in a Holy Ghost, whose nature they never get around to puzzling on very much.

JMS said...

I’m not very convinced by Brandon.

A much better analysis of Newton’s religious beliefs comes from Mitch Stokes at:

To summarize [these are all direct quotes]:

When Newton became a fellow of Trinity College, he vowed to enter the ministry within seven years.

Newton believed in the divinity of Christ and the Holy Spirit; he also believed that Jesus was the Messiah and atoned for our sins with his death on the cross. Newton even believed, contrary to Arianism (of which he is usually accused), in the eternality of the Son. He also embraced the straightforwardly biblical position that the Father and Son are one. What Newton did not believe, however, was that the Father and Son were one in the sense that they were consubstantial or of the same substance.

As Frank Manuel writes, we must be careful to not “pigeonhole [Newton] in one of the recognized categories of heresy—Arian, Socinian, Unitarian, or Deist.”

Newton denied consubstantiality, and this was enough to give him pause when it came time for ordination. How could he—while doubting what the Anglican church saw as a fundamental tenet (at least officially)—take a vow to support everything Anglicanism held dear? He therefore chose to resign as senior fellow of the College of the Holy and Undivided Trinity, and from his Lucasian professorship.

Jonathan Rowe said...

JMS: I see Brandon's analysis more consistent with the text of Newton's writings.

Jonathan Rowe said...

To repeat Tom's link (which is quite good)

Arianism may well be "Christian," but that's what Newton is clearly saying: there is ONE God and that God is the Father. Jesus is uniquely special, but he's not God.

JMS said...

Jon and Tom - thanks for the link.
It is an excellent synopsis of Newton's religious views. I'd still put him into the "sect unto myself" category.

Bill Fortenberry said...

The technical term for Newton's view of the Trinity is Semi-Arianism. Both the Athanasians and the Arians rejected this view, and they both objected on the same grounds, namely, that Semi-Arianism is not substantially different from pure trinitarianism.

The signal term of Semi-Arianism is homoi-ousion, in distinction from homo-ousion and hetero-ousion. The system teaches that Christ i[s]; not a creature, but co-eternal with the Father, though not of the same, but only of like essence, and subordinate to him. It agrees with the Nicene creed in asserting the eternal generation of the Son, and in denying that he was a created being; while, with Arianism, it denies the identity of essence. Hence it satisfied neither of the opposite parties, and was charged by both with logical incoherence. Athanasius and his friends held, against the Semi-Arians, that like attributes and relations might be spoken of, but not like essences or substances; these are either identical or different. It may be said of one man that he is like another, not in respect of substance, but in respect of his exterior and form. If the Son, as the Semi-Arians ad-mit, is of the essence of the Father, he must be also of the same essence. The Arians argued: There is no middle being between created and uncreated being; if God the Father alone is uncreated, everything out of him, including the Son, is created, and consequently of different essence, and unlike him.


The recognition by both sides that, in spite of the addition of an iota (the Greek version of the letter i), Semi-Arianism was still a trinitarian position led to the coining of the phrase "not one iota of a difference."

On a different note, would anyone care to start a new post about a previously unpublished letter from John Adams that I wrote about on my blog at:

Jonathan Rowe said...

Semi-Arians still believe God exists in one Person and that Person is the Father, not the Son.

Tom Van Dyke said...

Actually, the formulation is "God in Three Persons."

Regardless, it's still a Trinity, even if not the "official" Nicene one.

Arianism was not only the most basic and persistent of all the ancient heresies; it also assumed a number of variant forms. Adoptionism is the belief that Jesus was just a man to whom special graces were given when he was "adopted" by God. Modalism held that there is only one Person in God who manifests himself in various ways or modes, including in Jesus. Semi-Arianism held that the Son was of like substance with God (homo-i-ousios), though not of identical in substance with him. All of these variants of Arianism were sometimes classified under the name Subordinationism (i.e., Christ as "subordinate" to the Father).

BTW, the Monophysites such as the Copts also depart from the Nicene understanding of the divine nature, yet for socio-historical purposes, they are to all the world still considered Christian.


Monophysitism, the heresy opposed to Nestorianism, arose as a corrective to the latter, but it went too far in the other direction, holding that in Christ there is only one nature (Greek: mono , "single," physis , "nature"), a divine nature. This position entailed a denial of Christ's true human nature. Monophysitism was condemned by the Council of Chalcedon in 451. This great Council taught that Christ was true God and true man, a divine person possessing both a divine and a human nature, thus rounding out the Church's permanent understanding of Christology.

Entire churches or communities broke away from the Church as a result of the christological definitions of Ephesus and Chalcedon. Some of these breakaway communions still exist today in the ancient churches of the East, such as the Assyrian, Armenian, Coptic, Syrian (Jacobite), etc. Today many of these ancient communions, in ecumenical dialogue with the Catholic Church, are rethinking their positions and are close to agreement with the Catholic Church on doctrinal essentials, stating that their ancient disagreements stemmed at least in part from misunderstandings of exactly what Ephesus or Chalcedon had taught or affirmed — for these ancient councils also had condemned by name certain individuals (such as Nestorius) who commanded personal followings. In ancient times, some of these communities were unwilling to accept the judgments of the councils regarding their then-leaders.

Bill Fortenberry said...

Good points, Tom.

Sorry about the copy and paste error in my previous comment. Here's the correct Link to the article about Adams' letter. By the way, the letter fits into a discussion on between Adams and his son on the subject of the Trinity.

Tom Van Dyke said...

It's an interesting letter for reasons below, Mr. Fortenstein. I meself am not terribly interested because

a) It comes after John Adams left public life

b) I regard Adams pere as a bit of a theological diletante, if not a ninny.

However, having taken the time to read him

Now in the sermon upon the mount much is said about the kingdom of Heaven, and those who alone shall enter it. The preacher of that sermon announced himself as a being superior at least to human nature. If you say that he was a mere ordinary man, you include him also in the class of those who are not competent to dogmatize upon the system of the universe. You, or at least I, can by no possible process of reasoning consider him as a mere man, without at the same time pronouncing him an Impostor … You see my orthodoxy grows upon me, and I still unite with you in the doctrine of toleration and benevolence.

[BF mine.]

It strikes me as a paler form of CS Lewis's argument that if Jesus were not indeed divine, he was a liar or a madman because he presented himself with divine authority.

Adams, although a denier that Jesus was God, here still accords him a nature greater than a mere man's--not just a moral philosopher as Jefferson made him, or even as a miracle-working prophet like Moses that JAdams had previously compared him to. [In a diary entry in 1751, iirc.]

For those who value the post-presidential natterings of JAdams, Bill, this is a find that must be reckoned with. [Perhaps compatible with monophysitism!]

JMS said...

Over Spring break I found the following website on Newton's religious views that I think surpasses the ones cited previously in these comments. I've yet to read that much, but a good place to start is the article on Newton as a heretic.

Essays on Newton by Stephen David Snobelen

Tom Van Dyke said...

Heretic yes, but we must place him within the first 150 years of the Protestant Reformation, where every theological "innovation" began as a heresy--by definition.

As one of the articles you link to argues,

because he was a heretic, the temptation is [and was from the first!] therefore to paint him as a "rational" man of the Enlightenment:

When Voltaire in his English Letters (1733, later published as Lettres philosophiques, 1734)
mentioned Newton’s denial of the Trinity, he believed he was demonstrating the great man’s
rationalism even though the same year appeared Newton’s Observations on the prophecies of Daniel,
and the Apocalypse of St. John, a text that played a minor role in the rise of Protestant

BF mine. As we said, much of what gets credited to Enlightenment rationalism fits just as easily in the currents of the Reformation, which predates the "Enlightenment." As we see, Newton's into that really wiggy Biblical prophesy stuff, and that's a hyper-religiosity, the furthest thing from "rationalism."