Reflections on the Life of Isaac Newton
Devotion given at Friday meeting for DG Staff
I finished this Isaac Newton biography last night. I had stayed up until late hours preparing notes to read you on this book. Because as I thought, “I’ve got to give a devotion tomorrow morning, and I just finished this book. That’s all I’m thinking about. I’m going to shift gears at 11:00 here and try to prepare something…No, don’t shift gears, just show them what you learned from this. Why do you read a book like this anyway?”
It’s 125 pages and from Oxford University Press, which is the fairly responsible academic, yet readable, biography of Isaac Newton. Gail is a man, Gail Christianson. I found it riveting, so I’m going to summarize it for you and tell you lots of interesting things about Isaac Newton and try to draw some spiritual lessons from it. If I were to choose a text for this, it would be “God created man in his own image, male and female he created them and charged them to go on the earth and subdue creation.” Isaac Newton was a creature of God. He was a human being in the image of God and one of the most brilliant men that ever walked this planet in the image of God, and, as far as I can tell, missed it profoundly.
Birth And Early Life
Born Christmas day 1642 to a semi-literate widow. His father had died three months before he was born. Her name was Hannah, and they lived in the village of Colsterworth, England. He went to Cambridge University. His mother didn’t believe in education, didn’t know any education, could barely read herself, so had no academic aspirations for her son whatsoever. But all his teachers saw brilliance and said, “You just can’t keep this boy at home.”
Finally, she relented, and he was off to Trinity College, Cambridge, and basically spent the next 40 years of his life there. He got his B.A. in 1665 and mastered while he was a student of the most advanced math of the day. Nobody that was a mathematician in his day had written anything that he hadn’t mastered by the time he was done with his B.A. By the time he was 25 or 27, he was the most advanced mathematician in the world. He created calculus. He called it “fluxions.” The word “calculus” didn’t exist. “Fluxions” is how to compute the relations of bodies and the movements of bodies in constant velocity. I never got to calculus. I couldn’t begin to say what it is. Algebra II and trigonometry was the end of my line, and I was happy when it was over.
The word “scientist” didn’t exist. It was created in the 19th century. He was a natural philosopher. That’s what they called him in those days. He was a discoverer. He discovered the true effects of gravity. Galileo was the one who first said if you drop a feather and a bowling ball and don’t have air in the way, they’ll both hit the ground at the same, which utterly blew everybody’s mind. “What is gravity then?” He went way further in the nature of gravity and how the multiple gravities of every body pulling on every other body in the solar system and in the universe affects its orbit.
Natural and Spiritual Gravity
He’s the one who discovered that the planets’ orbits are oblates. They’re spheres and not circles. He was doing all this in the 1600s, discovering these kinds of things. He discovered the nature of light as the composite of all the colors by his sophisticated work with prisons. Here’s a quote,
“By flinging gravity across the void, Isaac Newton united physics and astronomy in a single science of matter in motion, fulfilling the dreams of Pythagoras, Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, and countless others in between. And while Newton was unable to discover the true cause of gravity itself, a giant riddle still, the laws he formulated provide convincing proof that we inhabit an orderly and knowable universe.” (p.76)
Just a parenthesis here, that sentence right there, that little “a giant riddle still.” When I read that a couple of weeks ago, I was on page 76. It was before T4G, and I was so moved by that–nobody knows what gravity is yet. Nobody knows what it is. All we know is the effects it has. Every entity in the universe that has mass is exerting a pull on every other entity in the universe, so this book has mass and is pulling on that table. The earth has mass and is pulling on the moon, and the moon is pulling on the earth. Since the waters in sea are movable, the pull causes rising, fall, and tides.
The force of the moon’s pull on the tides is enormous. Because I tried to compute in my head how much the water weighs that rises 20 feet in the middle of the Pacific and pulls all of the coastlines out. Now, that must be trillions of tons of water getting pulled by nothing. It’s nothing. I mean what is it? Does anybody know what it is? That the moon exists means it’s pulling, and scientists don’t know what that is.
I’m preparing my message for T4G and thinking, “How does God keep me a Christian?” He’s spirit, and I have a spirit. My spirit came alive when I was six years old. I have no idea what that means. Something came into being that wasn’t there—life, a spiritual life. Not an inanimate life, but a spiritual life. Moment by moment, that is kept from degenerating into carnality and nonexistence. Who can describe what force is exerted by this thing—I have no idea what it is—called spirit. Therefore, who can define what power is necessary for that happen?
Is it a little power? Is that an easy thing to do, for a spirit to keep a spirit in being? Is it pounds? Is it kilowatts? What is it? I have no idea what it is. All I have is the Bible to go on, and the Bible says, “Glory, majesty, authority, dominion to him who keeps me from stumbling.” It must be something. It must be really something, and all that was from this. Why would you take an approach like that to this text, verse 24 in Jude? It’s because I was just pondering gravity. Strange.
The Scientific Method, Cambridge, Work Ethic
He was one of the foremost pioneers of the new scientific method: gather data, formulate a hypothesis, conduct experiments, validate or reject the hypothesis. That was a new thing in the 17th century. People didn’t do that. They did science theoretically, and deductively, and philosophically. He took meticulous care with his experiments in light, covering over all his windows, boring the hole in the wall, setting up a sophisticated angle for prisms, and then figuring out another angle to try and another angle to try, and validate and validate and validate what he was seeing.
He became Professor of Mathematics at Cambridge when he was 27. He never married, and his work habits were ruthless. One of his assistants left this record:
“So intent, so serious up his studies that he ate sparingly. Nay, oft times he has forgotten to eat at all. He very rarely went to bed before 2:00 or 3:00 in the morning, sometimes not until 5:00 or 6:00, especially in spring or the fall. He used to employ about six weeks in his laboratory during those fall and spring seasons. The fire scarcely going out either night or day. He sitting up. One night, I did another till he had finished his clinical experiments, in the performance of which he was most accurate, strict, and exact.”
He was asked how he made his discoveries, and he answered,
“Truth is the offspring of silence and unbroken meditation.”
His prescription for loneliness was work, work, and more work. In his late 20s, his shoulder-length hair was silver gray by the time he was 30. His mind was so advanced that his classes at Cambridge were empty. Nobody could understand what he was saying.
His legal responsibilities were to turn in his lectures to the administration, and nobody had to be there. Some days, he lectured to an empty room, and other days he just skipped it and went on. I don’t know why you lecture to an empty room, but it might be a legal requirement or something.
He confessed once that a problem caused him such a headache that he treated it by tying a band of cloth around his head and twisting it with a stick until he reduced the circulation in his brain and dulled the pain so that he could keep on working.
In 1665, at the peak of the Black Plague, 8,000 people a week were dying in London. The next year was the Great London Fire, and 13,000 homes and 87 churches were destroyed in four nights. I say that just to give the flavor of the weight of mortality that he was moving next to in those days.
No Conflict Between Religion and Science
He shared the Puritan convictions that this was the providence of God, and judgment was upon London and the land. The precision he saw in the universe he attributed to the creation and providence of God. He said,
“Were man and beasts made by fortuitous jumblings of atoms, there would be many parts useless in them. Here a lump of flesh; there a member too much. Some kinds of beasts might have one eye and some more than two.”
This is a quote from the author,
“Unlike many thinkers today, he saw no conflict between science and religion, and wrote that the world could not operate without God being present. Few things would have angered Newton more than the claim by a later generation of thinkers that his formulation of mechanical laws established the framework of a universe in which God is no longer a vital or even necessary part. He was a theist and believed that theism was necessary for the orderliness and precision of the world that he was finding to be there as an object of scientific inquiry.”
At 19, he had written a confession of sin. It went like this, “Confessed, not turning nearer to thee for my affections. Not living according to my belief, not lovingly thee for thyself.” The Puritan era in England was from the 1560s to the 1660s, that was the century of the Puritans. He was living in the subsequent generation; therefore, all the legacy of the Puritan century was coming down to him. You can hear wonderful echoes of it both in his theism, his early faith, and his early confessions.
He went on to write 1,400,000 words on religion, more than all of his mathematics and physics that had made him so famous. He drew models of the temple. He regarded Solomon as the greatest philosopher. He calculated the end of the world to be 2060. We’re on our way.
Newton Thought The Trinity was Heresy
But alas, he regarded the Trinity as a form of heresy. He was an Arian and didn’t believe in the deity of Christ*. He served in parliament. He became Master of the Mint and used his remarkable analytical skills to get into the crime scene in London and figure out how all the counterfeiters were doing their work, and tricked them, and imprisoned them, and hanged them. He was absolutely ruthless in his role as Master of the Mint.
He became the President of the Royal Society of Science and ruled it as president with an iron hand, but put in on a financially secure footing. He was revered in his day as a living god to many people because of his extraordinary scientific and mathematical abilities. People around the world wanted to visit him in his last decade. Ben Franklin pleaded for an opportunity and wouldn’t get it. Voltaire pleaded and couldn’t get it. He was so reclusive and alone in his scientific pursuits. Queen Anne knighted him, and he died painfully of bladder stones at the age of 84, March 20, 1727.
The Puritans could bequeath to him a God who provided the stability, and order, and precision to warrant to new science, but the common grace that sustained his genius was not accompanied by the special grace of gospel faith, as far as I can tell.
“The Puritans could bequeath to Newton a God who provided the stability, and order, and precision to warrant the new science, but the common grace that sustained his genius was not accompanied by the special grace of gospel faith.”
The Price Of Ruthless Science
The price of his ruthless focus on scientific observation was very high. He missed the true nature of Jesus. He was in ceaseless war with other scientists, arguing. This is one of the saddest things. Here’s a man who is the greatest mathematician in the world, perhaps the greatest scientist of his day, and he argued endlessly with other scientists about who did what first.
Leibniz claimed to have discovered calculus, and the author claims they probably did simultaneously without anybody robbing anything. Yet, they both spent all their last decades arguing about who stole what from whom. It sounded so peevish as I read it. Yet, it was evidently so much a part of a scientist’s identity that “ I had the first breakthrough.”
There was another man that nobody knows who claimed to have the breakthrough on gravity and to figure out the planets. Another one claimed to have the breakthrough on light and the prism, and he was endlessly arguing about what he had accomplished first. I just felt like if he had seen the true Jesus, he might have been delivered from that desperate need to be the first and get all the credit for everything.
For all his efforts and astonishing discoveries, he was frustrated to the end from finding the one, great, all-integrating scientific law. Here’s a quote,
“He was unable to find the universal principle he was seeking, gravity only being one element of it. The dream of his early manhood had taken the form of a nightmare that had lasted for 30 years. Even the Presidency of the Royal Society, the Mastership of the Mint, a knighthood, and the publication of the greatest books of science ever written could not make the nightmare go away.”
His eyes were the keenest ever, perhaps, to see the mysteries of the physical world, but they could not penetrate deeply enough into the glory to know the truth of the Maker.
Einstein said of him,
“Fortunate Newton, happy child of science. Nature to him was an open book whose letters he could read without effort.”
Yes, but how much happier he would have been if he could have read the letters of the book of scripture with the eyes to see the nature of Christ in the gospel.
Great scientists have the great advantage of seeing the vastness of the universe and the God who made it. Newton said,
“I don’t know what I may appear to the world, but to myself, I seem to have been only like a boy playing on the seashore and diverting my attention and now and then finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, while the great ocean of truth lay all undiscovered before me.”
That’s exactly right. The meaning of that ocean and how to cross it in peace is not given by science, but by that little boy embracing the divine Son of God as Savior.
Something had happened to his brilliant mind that blinded him to certain beauty and truth. He said of poetry, “It is a kind of ingenious nonsense.” That’s a bad sign. It reminded me of the quote that Darwin gave in his autobiography. I think I quoted it in Desiring God. I’ll read it to you. The same thing seems to have been happening with Newton. This is Charles Darwin in his autobiography:
“Up to the age of 30, or beyond, poetry of many kinds gave me great pleasure, and even as a schoolboy, I took intense delight in Shakespeare. Formerly, pictures gave me considerable pleasure and music very great delight, but now, for many years, I cannot endure to read a line of poetry. I have tried to read Shakespeare and find it so intolerably dull that it nauseated me. I have also almost lost any taste for pictures or music. I retain some taste for fine scenery, but it does not cause me the exquisite delight which it formerly did. My mind seems to have become a kind of machine for grinding general laws out of large collections of facts, but why this should have caused the atrophy of that part of the brain alone on which the higher taste depend, I cannot conceive. The loss of these tastes is a loss of happiness and may possibly be injurious to the intellect and more probably to the moral character by enfeebling the emotional part of our nature.”
What a tragic end to a great mind.
Christ Gives Common Grace
So I conclude. Let us give thanks for the common grace that abounds in the discoveries and the gifts that God gives the world through those who do not know him. Let us not envy them but look to Christ as the one in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge, and by whom and for whom all things were made.
You get to know somebody like this, and you just want to cry. He was so smart. We’re very fortunate, aren’t we, to be ordinary folks? Not to be plagued with too much killing intelligence. God didn’t want our intelligences to do that to us. He wanted it to open the world, and open science, and open the sky, and the heavens, and the sea, and the Bible, and poetry, and scenes, and music. What a world we live in! What a glorious world we live in! Be thankful for special grace that opened our eyes to the Savior, and may it open our eyes to all of the glory.
Comments before we pray? Questions? I said just about everything I know now. It’s a short book.
Questions and Answers
1. Can you expand just a little bit more on poetry and what that shows when that love for poetry arose? What’s going on in the soul when you see that? What happening?
The Poetic Eye Allows Us to See Glory
Preaching and Poetry
That’s a good question. I said to the preaching guys in class last Wednesday
“The preaching gift and the poetic gifts are very similar. And I don’t mean the ability to write good poetry; that’s not what I mean. Very, very, very few people can do that. I can’t do that. I have a very high standard of what good poetry is, and what I mean by the poetic eye and the poetic life is the ability to see more in what is there than what you see on the face of it.
The illustration I gave is this gravity thing. When the sun comes out, to walk through the world and see the sky, and see birds, to hear your first robin sing about a month ago, and know it’s a robin. I know what a robin sounds like, and it didn’t sound like a cardinal. To hear it for the first time in the spring and say, “Welcome back, where have you been?” To look for him, and you can’t see him, and then to see your first robin. He is always up high in the tree, and he’s just chortling away. Jesus saw those kinds of things. Consider the birds; consider the lilies. To hear them, and to enjoy them, and then to see the apple blossoms down at the Convention Center. Where are we? That way. Just near my house, the center that’s right behind the Indian Center. There are these four apple trees, and they were at their peak last week until that horrible wind blew through here and knocked them to smithereens.
I said, “No, you have to see these four trees down at the Convention Center.” I drove by the day after, and the ground was snow white with these petals. I said, “It was beautiful. It was glorious.” Every spring, I remember. I’m illustrating what I mean by a poetic eye, which I desperately want to have.
The Soul Was Made For Beauty
We always had a music concert in May in the first 20 years at Bethlehem. It was a choir concert. They called is the Spring Concert. I remember associating it with the peak of the apple blossoms between the two towers across the street from the church which are pink. They’re not white. And there was a point where you couldn’t see anything through these trees because they were so gloriously pink. I would pass them on my way to hear this glorious music that we were going to hear from the choir, and those two things kind of juxtaposed in my mind. Those things have an indescribable, wholesome, life-giving effect on your soul.
I think the soul was made for beauty—beauty through the eye, beauty through the ear, beauty of thought, beauty of spirit. We’re made for beauty. God is beauty. Then you add the new birth to that, and let me give you an example.
A lady came up to me a couple of weeks ago after the Saturday night service and told me about her recent conversion at Bethlehem. These were her very words, she said, “Blue is bluer.” That’s the transposition of the natural world up into the spiritual world to see. This is declaring the glory of God. This is not just the blue. It’s satisfying this remnant of God’s image on my soul that even unbelievers have. This is now radiant with the one who made it, and pointing to him, and coming from him, and being sustained by him, and having some character of him, and that gives it a whole new thing.
When that dies, when that eye dies because you’re grinding out laws from an assemblage of facts, and music has ceased to be listenable, and poetry has become “a kind of ingenious nonsense,” you know something has died. You’ve lost something of the image of God, and you won’t be as much of a useful person for others because we should just be doing this for each other all the time. We should be pointing.
Shared Joy Is a Double Joy
A shared joy is a double joy. When you stand on the seashore, every normal, healthy human being at a sunrise or a sunset on the seashore wants to turn to somebody and say, “Isn’t that awesome?” If there’s nobody to turn to, it’s frustrating. We can turn up and say, “Thank you,” but we’re made to turn out and say. Lewis said, “Dog is a man’s best friend,” but you can’t turn to your dog and say, “Look at that. Look at that.” I’m glad you laugh because that’s why I live.
But to have your wife there or your friend, that’s the meaning of friendship, somebody who gets it. When you read The Four Loves and the chapter on friendship, the friend is somebody you can turn to who gets it. You didn’t even have to say anything if you’re both looking at the same thing.
2. What do you think about somebody who went the other way (like Lewis) who went from being a factual machine to an awakening of beauty. I was just sitting here trying to think if I can remember anybody who, because of a conversion, went the other way from Darwin.
Conversion Gives Another Dimension to Reality
Speaker: I too don’t know enough people to know whether they were scientifically narrow, and confined, and blind, and then something happened, and they became open to the beauty of music, the beauty of poetry, the beauty of nature. My guess is the testimony of everyone whose heart has flourished would say that their conversion gave a dimension to that, maybe even began it for some, but I don’t know.
Lewis the Romantic Rationalist
In this room right here there are some minds here that are very romantically oriented, and nature oriented, and beauty oriented, and some that are very analytically oriented. What’s glorious about Lewis is that he was both to the max, and that’s so rare. He was the most lucid, careful, logical thinker that you could ask for, and nobody saw more than he saw in a flower or in a human face.
I’m listening right now on my iPhone to give you a little taste of this. This is what you do. You don’t have a lot of time to read, like me? Go get your little the library app and click it like this:
“I got the impression yesterday,” said Mark, “that you and Steele hit it off together rather well.” “The great thing here,” said Cosser, “is never to quarrel with anyone. I hate quarrels myself.” That Hideous Strength—I’m listening to this novel. I don’t have time to read this novel, but I brush my teeth in the morning, I put on my clothes in the morning, I drive my car every now and then, and I walk to church. I can listen to an entire novel in two or three weeks like this. For me, this is as good as reading.
That Hideous Strength is the third in the trilogy of Lewis’s science fiction. I’m surprised he says this, but he just says it flat out in the front, “This novel is a novel version of The Abolition of Man.” The Abolition of Man, he would say, is his most important philosophical work on the nature of 20th century man, and this is an outworking of The Abolition of Man.
I was just going to say to all of us, wherever you are, nurture yourself, nurture your eyes. Get outside on a day like this and look up. Go back to the pleasures of God or those 11 resolutions of Clyde Kilby where he says, “Resolve to pause and stare at a tree every day and not think what it is, but only that it is. And just marvel that it is.”
Trees really are amazing. How do you get the juice to the top of a tree? There’s no heart. I know how blood gets from my toes to my head. A heart pump does it, that’s understandable. I have no idea how sap gets to the top of a tree, none. Can anybody explain that to me? What is that? Capillarity? This is wood. A tree is amazing, and the taller they get, the more amazing they are. That just can’t be. You can’t have leaves coming back into being 300 feet in the air of a redwood tree. A car driving through the middle of a tree at the bottom.
Cultivate your capacities for amazement. There are a lot of boring worship services in the world where they’re filled with people who’ve killed their capacities for amazement by watching T.V. hour after hour after hour, so that the only thing that excites them is the imbecility of sitcoms, and they have zero capacity to be blown away by glory of God. Be careful. The flesh is a deceiver.