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Newton and the Trinity

By Peter Sellick - posted Monday, 29 November 2010


In the world of the Bible the name of God is fundamentally important. In a world of many gods it was important to know of whom one is speaking. The names of God carry meaning, in that they defined the one named in terms of how God reveals Himself. For example, one of the names by which Moses comes to know God is “YHWH” which means, “I will be who I will be”. This means that God has a mind of his own, that his thoughts are not our thoughts, nor his ways our ways. One of the other names of God that Moses received is, “The God of your forefathers, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. This is the God who is revealed in the history of Israel, in the stories of the nation.

At the end of the gospel according to Matthew we find another name for God in the baptismal formula of 28:19: “baptising them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. This is the only place in which the complete Trinitarian name of God is to be found in the New Testament. However, it is this name that became the dominant name of God following the Council of Nicaea and Chalcedon. Like the names of God in the Old Testament this name tells us how God reveals himself, he reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit. If you go to a liturgical church you will find that the worship opens with the words “in the name of God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit”. That is, we name the God in whose name we meet and we indicate how this God reveals himself.

This new name of God was problematic from the first because it raised the question of the relationship of the human Jesus to the Father. The solution to this problem was the two natures Christology that was developed along with the doctrine of the Trinity. Jesus was both God and man. Nicaea insisted that the Father is God, the Son is God and the Holy Spirit is God. This was an affront to Judaism because God now had a face, that of Jesus of Nazareth. It was an affront to Greek thought because this man was executed as a common criminal. The doctrine of the Trinity was the theological solution to how we could affirm that this man Jesus was pre-existent with the Father, was of the same substance with the Father and equal in godliness with the Father. Jesus was not adopted to be the Son of God according to his merits but was the logos of God who was in the beginning with God and who had become flesh in the man Jesus.

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The mainline churches are all inheritors of what we may call Nicene Christianity. However, there have been times in which this formulation has come under question. One such time was in the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries in the Church of England and is associated with the rise of natural science. The part of the controversy that I will focus upon is that involving Sir Isaac Newton, the most famous man of his time, and his disciples William Whiston and Samuel Clarke.

Newton was notoriously cagey about his antitrinitarianism and it was up to his disciples to spread his views. William Whiston inherited the Lucasian chair in mathematics at Cambridge from Newton when the latter went up to London to head the royal mint. Whiston clumsily broadcast antitrinitarian views and as a consequence lost his position at the university. Samuel Clarke was rector at St James Westminster, a prestigious London parish and was a chaplain to Queen Anne. He is also the Clarke who contributed to the famous Leibniz/Clarke letters so beloved of philosophers.

This controversy is interesting because it is an example of how a shift in emphasis from a theological worldview to a naturalistic view makes theology incomprehensible.

Let us look at Newton a bit more closely. It is important to realise that the description of the law of gravity was just that, a description. It did not provide any idea of why bodies would be attracted to each other according to their mass and the inverse square of the distance between them. That is, the law of gravity did not indicate causation. In Newton’s scheme, which was common at the time, God was the cause of all events. So God virtually became the force behind the law of gravity, indeed the cause of all mechanical events. This is known as theological voluntarism.

It was important for Newton’s God to have a single will; otherwise he could not act as he did. Since the doctrine of the Trinity posited three persons, that could only mean three separate wills i.e. Tritheism. Hence the doctrine of the Trinity was thought to be impossible because it led to idolatry. Newton believed that the doctrine was the result of a conspiracy by Athanasius who had corrupted original Christianity. He spent much time trying to recover the lost form.

Newton’s understanding of the relationship between God and the universe relied on God being a conscious monad, a singular being that was Lord over all things. It also meant that God was some kind of substance, an immaterial substance, with mind, that was spread throughout the universe a bit like the postulated ether. The universe was like the human body that was governed by a will. God could move the planets as a person could move his limbs. This left the problem of the interface between the will of God and matter and raised the spectre of God being a willed substance. It is obvious from this description that it was the Father alone who governed the universe and that subsequently, the Son and the Spirit, even though they were divine beings, were relegated to secondary positions.

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For Clarke and Newton, spirit was understood in relation to the material. For example, while material objects could not pass through each other, the immaterial could inhabit all space, including that occupied by the material. The distinction between spirit and matter was understood as a problem in natural science. It became the problem of the existence of the immaterial as opposed to the material.

This was supported by Descartes mind/body dualism. The existence of the supernatural became central to Christian faith and those who did not believe it existed, like Thomas Hobbes, were deemed atheists. The central argument of the atheists is that the supernatural does not, demonstrably, exist and they maintain that this is the end of the argument against all religion.

This is not so for Christianity because it does not contain a dualism between spirit and matter, the spiritual is not in opposition to the material but in opposition to the flesh. The dualism in Paul is between spirit and flesh, or between the spirit and the law.

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About the Author

Peter Sellick an Anglican deacon working in Perth with a background in the biological sciences. He has a website called Coondle Art Presentations.

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