Newton and the Trinity
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.
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 seventeenth and eighteenth 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
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 its, 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
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.
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.
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. Rom 8:5 For those who live according to the flesh set their minds on the things
of the flesh, but those who live according to the Spirit, set their minds on
the things of the Spirit.
While the spirit gives life the flesh/law brings death. This
understanding, so central to Scripture, insists that the realm of the gospel is
properly the ordering of the soul’s allegiances; who is Lord. The gospel is not directed towards the
existence of the supernatural, understood as an order of nature. Rather, if the concern of the gospel
is the Lordship of Christ and the coming of the kingdom, then the
spiritualizers, in our case Newton and Clarke, miss the point by pointing to
the existence of a spiritual being who gave the planets their lateral
the Lordship of God as a lordship over physical causality Newton displaced the
lordship of Christ in the lives of believers, with a physical law.
There is a crucial
difference between the traditional Trinitarian understanding of how God acts in
the world via the Son in the power of the Spirit and Newton’s conception of God
as physical cause. The first is personal
and has to do with the creation of new selves through the recreation of the
imaginary world in which believers live, the second is impersonal and cosmic
and strays into the world of natural science. The first is eschatological,
looking towards a fulfilment of all things in the present/future, the second is
static and momentary. Newton’s
conception, like all antitrinitarian conceptions of God, was religiously
incompetent because it placed a chasm between the believer and God, it
displaced the salvation of the world in the Christ event with a physical
What happened in
the seventeenth century, with the discovery of nature and its laws, was that
theological language was transformed.
Instead of the things of the spirit being grace, love and fellowship as
in the trinitarian blessing,
spirit became an
order of nature, an immaterial substance.
Being an order of nature it came under the scrutiny of natural science
that is even now in the process of rejecting it and leading its practitioners to
The rejection of
the doctrine of the Trinity has various theological outcomes. A subordinationist Christology, in
which Christ was not of one substance with the Father, means that, because
Jesus was not God, his death on the cross and resurrection could not have
complete divine authority. He
could not be, in Luther’s terms “the crucified God” and his death could not
give satisfaction for the sins of the whole world. One possible result of this is that he becomes the moral
exemplar that believers were invited to imitate. He becomes the one who teaches
us how to live as God wants us to live. The church becomes a collection of
like-minded believers who are intent on living the good life in imitation of
Jesus. While the church is a moral community, that is not its primary nature.
In the absence of the Triune God the identity of the church may be based on
morality that could easily become law, the same law that Paul opposed to
Spirit. When the Trinitarian nature of God is not taken seriously a theology of
presence is displaced by a theology of ethical imitation.
This is a quite
different from the church that celebrates the presence of the crucified and
risen one and identifies itself with that presence i.e. the body of Christ.
This is the origin of the sacerdotal authority of the church by which it
forgives sins and ordains in the apostolic succession.
In our world
dominated by natural science, the church finds itself driven into a corner
having to defend the existence of the spiritual understood as the polar
opposite of the material. For this is how the question is posed. By attempting
to defend this position it strays into the realm of natural science and finds
its position untenable.
In response, the church should sidestep
the argument and claim that the one whom atheists reject is not the one in whom
the church believes. Rather, the
God who reveals himself as Father, Son and Holy Spirit is another altogether.
While the authors of scripture did not share our view of the material world
they probably would not have made a distinction between natural and
supernatural, that distinction came about in the seventeenth century after
nature became an object of investigation. They had no problem describing
miraculous events. However their description of these events universally
pointed to a human and personal reality that may be called spiritual in that it
was to do with the psyche of men and women and the health or disease
thereof. In other words they were
not spiritualizers like Newton and Clarke, they pointed towards all too human
realities that are experienced by us all.
This means that
when the new atheists point to the non-existence of the supernatural or
immaterial they miss the point completely and miss the God whom Christians