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Peter Sellick



At the origins of antitrinitarianism

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.

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 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 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 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 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.

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 motion. 

By understanding 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 explanation.

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 atheism.

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 worship.