Isaac Newton’s Inclusive Monotheism

By September 16, 2015

 

Newton

Newton and Joseph Smith had a lot of similar ideas about God

In my previous post, I mentioned Barbara Newman’s discussion of “inclusive monotheism” where intermediaries and other divine beings all work in harmony under a supreme being, as opposed to the radical monotheism of the Reformation which sought to get rid of such beings. Wouter Hanegraaff argues that when Max Weber referred to “disenchantment,” “he was describing the attempt by new scientists and Enlightenment philosophers to finish the job of Protestant anti-pagan polemicists, and get rid of cosmotheism once and for all.”[1]

Yet a major figure in the Enlightenment speculated about intermediary beings as well. Isaac Newton’s editor, John Conduitt, reported that Newton wondered toward the end of his life “whether there were not intelligent beings superior to us who superintended these revolutions of heavenly bodies by the direction of the Superior Being.”[2]  

Furthermore, Isaac Newton at times referred to the term “God” as a kind of office. “God is a relative term,” Newton wrote in the General Scholium to his Principia, “it is the dominion of a spiritual being which constitutes a God.” In another work, Newton asserted that the name God is not to be understood “in a metaphysical sense, as if it signified God’s metaphysical perfections of infinite eternal omniscient omnipotent: whereas it relates only to God’s dominion over us to teach us obedience. The word God is relative and signifies the same thing with Lord and King but in a higher degree…. When therefore the Father or the Son are called God, we are to understand it not metaphysically but in a moral monarchical sense.”[3] Thus the term “God” is defined by a role or office that a particular being performs. With “God” being “a relative term,” perhaps different beings could assume different divine offices in Newton’s system.

In his “On Our Religion to God, to Christ, and the Church,” Newton declared, “To give the name of God to angels or kings, is not against the First Commandment. To give the worship of the God of the Jews to angels or kings, is against it.” Newton then followed up this statement by asserting, “To us there is but one God .”[4]

So Newton appeared to believe that there were intermediary divine beings in the universe between us and the “Supreme being,” or something like that. We have to keep in mind what a radical cosmic shift it was to go from the Ptolemaic system to the Copernican and Newtonian ones: the universe became massively larger. In radical monotheism there could only be one God, so He was simply moved to the top of this much larger universe, even though this universe was not described anywhere in the Bible. Andrew Michael Ramsay reported, “We must accept the opinion of Sir Isaac Newton and other theologians, that several books on the creation by pre-Mosaic Patriarchs have been lost, and that Genesis is only a very brief summary of these.”[5] With this new universe, Newton seemed to feel that information was missing from the Bible.

Joseph Smith, not worried about adhering to orthodoxy and radical monotheism, said similar things.[6]

[1] Wouter J. Hanegraaff, Esotericism and the Academy: Rejected Knowledge in Western Culture (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 371-72.

[2] “A Remarkable and Curious Conversation between Sir Isaac Newton and Mr. Conduitt” in

David Brewster, The Life of Sir Isaac Newton (New York: J. and J. Harper, 1832), 322. Conduitt “asked him why he would not publish his conjectures as conjectures, and instanced that Kepler has communicated his…. His answer was, ‘I do not deal in conjectures.’”

[3] Quoted in Maurice Wiles, Archetypal Heresy: Arianism Through the Centuries (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 88-89.

[4] A Remarkable and Curious Conversation,” 322; quoted in Thomas C. Pfizenmaier, The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy (Leiden: Brill, 1997), 163.

[5] Quoted in D. P. Walker, The Ancient Theology: Studies in Christian Platonism from the Fifteenth to the Eighteenth Century (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1972), 243. Newton’s Chronology of Ancient Kingdom’s Amended, (1728) sought to understand the religion of Noah “partly maintained by the Jews, but debased elsewhere into paganism.” Paul Kleber Monod, Solomon’s Secret Arts: The Occult in the Age of Enlightenment (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2013), 165.

[6] Newton had a number of other ideas similar to Smith’s including their views on the Trinity. See Thomas C. Pfizenmaier, The Trinitarian Theology of Dr. Samuel Clarke (1675-1729): Context, Sources, and Controversy (Leiden: Brill, 1997).

Article filed under Miscellaneous


Comments

  1. Wow. Fascinating. I did not know that about Newton. The intermediaries were a common belief among the more esoterically inclined at the time. The idea of God as office is completely new to me from that era though.

    Comment by Clark — September 17, 2015 @ 10:19 am

  2. I agree with Clark.

    I am curious at to what role these other beings were supposed to play within this cosmology? Somewhat related, what motivated this shift in Newton’s thinking?

    Comment by Jeff G — September 17, 2015 @ 11:07 am

  3. Yeah Newton had some pretty wild religious beliefs and as I note in my dissertation, a lot of his ideas about God line up with JS’s. Clark, I wondered if the comment you made about Mosiah 15 was similar to Newton’s idea about God as an office.

    Jeff, I’m not a Newton expert so I’m not sure what you mean by “shift in Newton’s thinking.” But keep in mind that despite they ways Newton has been invoked, he was never a deist but always believed that some active force from God kept the universe working like it did. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Religious_views_of_Isaac_Newton#God_as_masterful_creator
    So perhaps these superintending beings played that kind of active role.

    Newton didn’t elaborate on this idea of superintending beings, but another Enlightenment figure did (my next post).

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 17, 2015 @ 11:35 am

  4. With regards to the “shift” I must have misunderstood when you mentioned how those passages came late in his life.

    If I had to guess, I would assume that Newton’s conception of these other beings would probably be pretty close to a heavenly sort of “Royal Society” which construed their own experimentalism in Baconian terms that we would today associate with Intelligent Design.

    Comment by Jeff G — September 17, 2015 @ 12:07 pm

  5. The other beings are really just a variation on conceptions of the daemons in the platonic paganism of late antiquity which was being propagated around the time of Newton. (Bruno was killed about 60 years before Newton’s birth as I recall)

    I’d always assumed Newton was more platonic. However the quotes above make me wonder how he conceived of power in all of this.

    Comment by Clark — September 17, 2015 @ 1:17 pm

  6. Jeff, the statement about superintending beings was late, but I’m not sure about the timing of the others. My point is that Newton held of lot of radical beliefs that he mostly kept to himself.

    Clark, my understanding is that Newton is generally hard to categorize and that he had his feet in numerous camps. I also place these notions as an extension of traditional/Neoplatonic ideas of intermediary beings, but in a new context of the Newtonian universe.

    Comment by Steve Fleming — September 17, 2015 @ 2:53 pm

  7. […] Newton’s views likely influenced a remarkable statement from young Benjamin Franklin. Franklin had met with John Conduitt, the man who said that Newton had said that God had appointed “superior beings” over heavenly bodies.[1] Not long after, Franklin wrote the following which he entitled “First Principles.” Here I simply quote the whole thing and will offer further thoughts in a later post. […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Benjamin Franklin’s “First Principles”: More Inclusive Monotheism — September 22, 2015 @ 8:31 am

  8. […] Gods and that our God was the one who created our solar system. Franklin was probably influenced by Isaac Newton who also said there were multiple God in the universe and cited 1 Corinthians 8:5-6: “But to us […]

    Pingback by Juvenile Instructor » Inclusive Monotheism and Joseph Smith’s Sermon at the Grove — October 5, 2015 @ 11:50 am


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