Isaac Newton: Enlightenment (1642–1727)



The Principa

Author’s Preface

Since the ancients (as we are told by Pappus), made great account of the science of mechanics in the investigation of natural things; and the moderns, laying aside substantial forms and occult qualities, have endeavoured to subject the phænomena of nature to the laws of mathematics, I have in this treatise cultivated mathematics so far as it regards philosophy. The ancients considered mechanics in a twofold respect; as rational, which proceeds accurately by demonstration: and practical. To practical mechanics all the manual arts belong, from which mechanics took its name. But as artificers do not work with perfect accuracy, it comes to pass that mechanics is so distinguished from geometry, that what is perfectly accurate is called geometrical, what is less so, is called mechanical. But the errors are not in the art, but in the artificers. He that works with less accuracy is an imperfect mechanic; and if any could work with perfect accuracy, he would be the most perfect mechanic of all; for the description of right lines and circles, upon which geometry is founded, belongs to mechanics. Geometry does not teach us to draw these lines, but requires them to be drawn; for it requires that the learner should first be taught to describe these accurately, before he enters upon geometry; then it shows how by these operations problems may be solved. To describe right lines and circles are problems, but not geometrical problems. The solution of these problems is required from mechanics; and by geometry the use of them, when so solved, is shown; and it is the glory of geometry that from those few principles, brought from without, it is able to produce so many things.

Therefore geometry is founded in mechanical practice, and is nothing but that part of universal mechanics which accurately proposes and demonstrates the art of measuring. But since the manual arts are chiefly conversant in the moving of bodies, it comes to pass that geometry is commonly referred to their magnitudes, and mechanics to their motion. In this sense rational mechanics will be the science of motions resulting from any forces whatsoever, and of the forces required to produce any motions, accurately proposed and demonstrated. This part of mechanics was cultivated by the ancients in the five powers which relate to manual arts, who considered gravity (it not being a manual power), no otherwise than as it moved weights by those powers. Our design not respecting arts, but philosophy, and our subject not manual but natural powers, we consider chiefly those things which relate to gravity, levity, elastic force, the resistance of fluids, and the like forces, whether attractive or impulsive; and therefore we offer this work as the mathematical principles of philosophy; for all the difficulty of philosophy seems to consist in this—from the phænomena of motions to investigate the forces of nature, and then from these forces to demonstrate the other phænomena; and to this end the general propositions in the first and second book are directed.

In the third book we give an example of this in the explication of the System of the World; for by the propositions mathematically demonstrated in the former books, we in the third derive from the celestial phenomena the forces of gravity with which bodies tend to the sun and the several planets. Then from these forces, by other propositions which are also mathematical, we deduce the motions of the planets, the comets, the moon, and the sea. I wish we could derive the rest of the phænomena of nature by the same kind of reasoning from mechanical principles; for I am induced by many reasons to suspect that they may all depend upon certain forces by which the particles of bodies, by some causes hitherto unknown, are either mutually impelled towards each other, and cohere in regular figures, or are repelled and recede from each other; which forces being unknown, philosophers have hitherto attempted the search of nature in vain; but I hope the principles here laid down will afford some light either to this or some truer method of philosophy.

In the publication of this work the most acute and universally learned Mr. Edmund Halley not only assisted me with his pains in correcting the press and taking care of the schemes, but it was to his solicitations that its becoming public is owing; for when he had obtained of me my demonstrations of the figure of the celestial orbits, he continually pressed me to communicate the same to the Royal Society, who afterwards, by their kind encouragement and entreaties, engaged me to think of publishing them. But after I had begun to consider the inequalities of the lunar motions, and had entered upon some other things relating to the laws and measures of gravity, and other forces: and the figures that would be described by bodies attracted according to given laws; and the motion of several bodies moving among themselves; the motion of bodies in resisting mediums; the forces, densities, and motions, of mediums; the orbits of the comets, and such like; deferred that publication till I had made a search into those matters, and could put forth the whole together.

What relates to the lunar motions (being imperfect), I have put all together in the corollaries of Prop. 66, to avoid being obliged to propose and distinctly demonstrate the several things there contained in a method more prolix than the subject deserved, and interrupt the series of the several propositions. Some things, found out after the rest, I chose to insert in places less suitable, rather than change the number of the propositions and the citations. I heartily beg that what I have here done may be read with candour; and that the defects in a subject so difficult be not so much reprehended as kindly supplied, and investigated by new endeavours of my readers.

Cambridge, Trinity College, May 8, 1686

The Age of Enlightenment reached its apex in 1686 when Isaac Newton penned his Principia Mathematica.  The obvious and immediate effect was on science, but the waters of theology were rippled with implication.  Suddenly it seemed clear that Galileo was right when he said “Mathematics is the language in which God has written the universe.”  How could the hard science of physics ever be reconciled with metaphysics?

As author Malcolm Guite wrote in his book Mariner:

One aspect of the Enlightenment which had huge implications for modernism was the divorce between reason and imagination and the consequent reduction of knowledge itself to a so-called “objective” realm of quantifiable fact from which all value or meaning had been drained, which in turn led to a reductive, mechanistic, and purely material account of the cosmos.

John Mark Reynolds said this in his book The Great Books Reader:

Science, especially physics, made slow progress up to Newton, but he seemed to equal all of those centuries of gains by himself. For some time, there appeared little left to do scientifically but examine the implications of his ideas and work out the details. Newton confirmed that we live in a cosmos, an ordered structure. If anything, the structure seemed too airtight for free will or chance.

Poets like William Blake feared Newton had discovered a clockwork universe with no place for God or romance, though Newton himself remained a theist. Reformed Christians in particular had viewed science and the Scientific Revolution as an ally, but beginning with Newtonian physics the doubts began to grow.

Is science the enemy of theology?

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.



John Mark Reynolds is the president of The Saint Constantine School, a school that aspires to preschool through college education. He is also a philosopher, administrator, and joyous curmudgeon. Reynolds was the founder and first director of the Torrey Honors Institute at Biola University. He was provost at Houston Baptist University where he was instrumental in starting the graduate Apologetics program and a cinema and new media arts major. John Mark blogs at Eidos on the Patheos Evangelical platform and has written for First Things and the Washington Post. He is an owner of the Green Bay Packers.


D I G  D E E P E R

Isaac Newton’s Mathematical Principles of Natural Philosophy

William A. Dembski

Isaac Newton is widely regarded as the greatest scientist of all time. His claim to fame rests chiefly on this work. In it—or, the Principia Mathematica, as it is also called—Newton invents the infinitesimal calculus and with it delineates the fundamental laws governing the structure and dynamics of physical reality. From the motion of billiard balls to the motion of planets and everything in between, Newton’s Principia was thought to give the final word.

Sometimes genius is underappreciated during the life of the genius. Not so with Newton. His genius was evident and reverenced from the start. Isaac Barrow, Newton’s predecessor in the prestigious Lucasian Chair of Mathematics at Cambridge, was so impressed with Newton that he resigned and had Newton assume the chair (a professorship subsequently held by such luminaries as Charles Babbage, Paul Dirac, and, presently, Stephen Hawking).

Newton’s contemporary Edmund Halley, the famed astronomer remembered for the comet named for him, even wrote an ode to Newton. It closes with the effusive praise,

Come celebrate with me in song the name
Of Newton, to the Muses dear; for he
Unlocked the hidden treasuries of Truth:
So richly through his mind had Phoebus cast
The radiance of his own divinity.
Nearer the gods no mortal may approach.

In the same spirit, Alexander Pope, a younger contemporary, wrote this epitaph:

Nature and Nature’s laws lay hid in night:
God said, “Let Newton be!” and all was light.

Even the twentieth-century economist John Maynard Keynes recognized how profoundly Newton’s genius had impacted seventeenth-century intellectual life, referring to him as “the last wonder-child to whom the Magi could do sincere and appropriate homage.”


Although Principia Mathematica is highly technical, it contains several extended passages of interest to the general reader. Thus, for instance, we find bold statements about God’s role as a designing intelligence behind the world. Contemporary scientists who feel passionately about the religious significance of their scientific work may still offer up such statements, but usually they will keep them off to one side. Newton, by contrast, saw no contradiction in doing his best science and then immediately, in the same written work, giving it a theological interpretation.

Although we think of Newton as the preeminent scientist of his (and, indeed, any) age, it is remarkable that science was only one of the many professional hats he wore. His higher passion seems to have been theology, and he spent much time studying and writing about the Bible.

He was also an avid alchemist. Moreover, in the 1690s, he abruptly left his ivory-tower professorship at Cambridge to assume duties heading the government mint in London. (Imagine string-theorist Ed Witten leaving Princeton’s Institute for Advanced Study to move to D.C. and head the U.S. Treasury.)

Yet for all the other hats Newton wore, he accomplished nothing like the distinction he achieved in science. There he was a soaring figure. In theology, by contrast, he was a well-read but self-schooled amateur. Also, his theological views were heterodox: Though accepting the Bible as largely factual (including the miracles ascribed to Jesus), Newton sided with Arius against Athanasius, rejecting the divinity of Christ.


In ancient Athens, Socrates would go about asking recognized experts in a given area broader philosophical questions: What is justice? What is truth? (etc.) He found that expertise in one area tends not to transfer to others, especially when these require wisdom. Newton seems to fit this mold. In the science of physics, he was preeminent. And yet when he delved into other areas, he was undistinguished and, at times, even a duffer.

What is Newton’s legacy? He properly belongs to science, where he still ranks in the number one spot, though he has some close seconds and thirds (such as Albert Einstein and James Clerk Maxwell). In Newton’s day, it was thought that he had once and for all nailed down the deep structure of the physical universe. With the revolutions in electromagnetism, general relativity, and quantum mechanics in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, however, it’s now obvious his physics was only part of the picture.

Newtonian physics captures the motion of medium-sized objects at medium speeds. That’s why it’s still the first thing beginning physics students learn. But it’s clear that the scope of Newton’s physics is strictly limited. The odes by Halley and Pope celebrating him and his achievements could no longer be written with a straight face.
In his day, he was, as John Locke said, “the incomparable Mr. Newton.” Nowadays, he is a primus inter pares: He remains the greatest of scientists, but one who rubs shoulders with other great scientists and not as one who towers above the rest.

William Dembski, PhD, is a professor of Philosophy and the director of the Center for Cultural Engagement at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He is an advocate for Intelligent Design and the author of numerous books on the topic including Intelligent Design Uncensored and The Design of Life: Discovering Signs of Intelligence in Biological Systems.

John Mark Reynolds, The Great Books Reader: Excerpts and Essays on the Most Influential Books in Western Civilization (Grand Rapids, MI: Bethany House, 2011).

The Eyes of Experience


Illustration to Book of Job by William Blake

Percy Bysshe Shelley

“Poetry strips the veil of familiarity from the world, and lays bear the naked and sleeping beauty which is the spirit of its forms.”

Job 42:1–6

1 Then Job answered the LORD:
2 “I know that thou canst do all things,
and that no purpose of thine can be thwarted.
3 ‘Who is this that hides counsel without knowledge?’
Therefore I have uttered what I did not understand,
things too wonderful for me, which I did not know.
4 ‘Hear, and I will speak;
I will question you, and you declare to me.’
5 I had heard of thee by the hearing of the ear,
but now my eye sees thee;
6 therefore I despise myself,
and repent in dust and ashes.”

The great theologian Mike Tyson said “Everybody has a plan until they get hit.”  Well, he might have been talking about boxing but that’s pretty good theology too.  There is a big difference between knowing about God and knowing God.  In the Bible, every time God appears to man the result is the same; fear and trembling.  It’s easy to think all of this is limited to old stories about other people, but God still does this, and it always stuns to silence when the infinite intersects with the finite.

In his book Out of the Depths, Ken Kovacs writes:

At one point (or many), we all hit a similar wall when we realize that our perspectives are too narrow and limited and we’re called (or sometimes forced) to yield to a wider frame of knowing. In his essay A Defense of Poetry, written in 1821, poet Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792-1822) said that poetry “purges the film of familiarity which obscures from us the wonder of our being”. Something of the same is required in order for us to “see” God. The “film of familiarity” is wiped away and we’re allowed to see something anew. Job confronts the inadequacy of his former ways of framing the world. His new experience yields a wider, more comprehensive view of reality, of justice, even of God. It’s a gracious reframing of his world, his self, the God he thought he knew—something far more profound and expansive. Job’s vision changes everything.

Describe a time in your life when God revealed Himself.

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John 1:1

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.




Ken Kovacs
Ken Kovacs

Kenneth E. Kovacs is pastor of the Catonsville Presbyterian Church, Catonsville, Maryland, and has served congregations in St. Andrews, Scotland, and Mendham, New Jersey. Ken studied at Rutgers College, Yale Divinity School, Princeton Theological Seminary, and received his Ph.D. in practical theology from the University of St. Andrews, St. Andrews, Scotland. He is also an analyst-in-training at the C. G. Jung Institute-Zürich. Author of The Relational Theology of James E. Loder: Encounter & Conviction (New York: Peter Lang, 2011) and Out of the Depths: Sermons and Essays (Parson’s Porch, 2016), his current research areas include C. G. Jung and contemporary Christian experience. Ken has served on the board of the Johnson C. Smith Theological Seminary in Atlanta, is a current board member of the Presbyterian Writers Guild, and a book reviewer for The Presbyterian Outlook.

Ken’s weekly sermons at CPC can be found at


D I G  D E E P E R


The word ‘theophany’ does not actually occur in the Bible. It comes from two roots which combine to give the literal meaning, ‘appearance of God’. In Scripture a theophany is a localized, formal and personal manifestation of God.

Two primary principles provide the context for theophanies: (1) Being omnipresent, God cannot be and is not limited to a particular place and time (1 Kings 8:27; Ps. 139:7–10; Is. 55:8–9). Therefore, theophanies do not abrogate his omnipresence.

(2) The Bible teaches that all of creation reveals God (e.g. Ps. 19:1–6; Rom. 1:20). God has designed and formed the creation in such a way that it mirrors his attributes, character and person. However, the fallenness of human beings prevents them from interpreting this general revelation properly (Rom. 1:21ff.). Therefore God has provided special revelation (Scripture) for the particular purpose of redeeming humanity. Theophanies are phenomena within special revelation.
So seeing God’s power in the forces of nature or seeing his beauty in the beauty of creation is not a theophany as such. Theophanies are always accompanied by verbal revelation which clearly identifies God. In theophanies God reveals himself to be known, i.e. he is personal.

That theophanies are redemptive in character can be seen from the first instance, where God appeared to Adam and Eve in the garden after the Fall (Gen. 3:8), and through the final form of Christ, God incarnate (Rev. 1:13ff.). Whenever God revealed himself in this manner it indicated some significant event in the advancement of his programme of redemption, such as a renewed pledge of faithfulness (Gen. 15), the imminent judgment of his enemies (Exod. 14) or the commissioning of his prophet with a message for his people (Is. 6).

The forms of theophanies

Theophanies occur in a variety of forms, including storms, fire and clouds and are usually accompanied by auditory phenomena such as a voice or thunder. There are often tactile accompaniments such as heat, coolness and earth tremors. There are instances in which the form is not described, and all we are told is that God appeared (e.g. Gen. 12:1; 17:1; 35:9; 1 Sam. 3:21; 1 Kings 9:2; 2 Chron. 7:12). In these cases, the content of the encounters is the guide to their significance. It is the words of God which, for the reader of Scripture, constitute the importance of the meeting, since the form is not reported to us. However, where the form is indicated, it is an additional pointer to the significance of the encounter (see ‘The Angel of the LORD’ and ‘The glory cloud’ below).

Dreams and visions may be considered as both distinct from yet similar to theophanies. Dreams involve an imprint upon the subject which is psychical rather than sensory (e.g. Gen. 28:10ff.). Nevertheless, the same principles apply. The form is adapted to the particular purpose of the encounter. Visions, it may be argued, are sensory, but they are in fact distinct from material theophanies. Both dreams and visions are more ‘flexible’ than theophanies because they are not bound to the space and time limits of material.

The glory cloud

The two dominant forms of theophanies in Scripture are the glory cloud and the Angel of the LORD. The most vivid appearance of the glory cloud was that which began at Mt Sinai (Exod. 19:16), where Moses received the Law of God, and continued through the wilderness period. It must have been massive both in size and effect, for the Israelites ‘trembled and stood at a distance’ (Exod. 20:18). This response was consistent with God’s demands in the situation, for the mountain was off-limits to the people (19:12, 21, 24). Only Moses and the leaders of Israel could ascend the mountain (24:9ff.). The significance of this can be found in the association which this thunderous, fiery presence would have evoked.

One association would have pertained to common perceptions of deity in Israel’s cultural context. The Canaanite deities Baal and El were associated with the thunderstorm and the mountains. As the chief deities in the Canaanite pantheon, they were thought to dwell in the mountains. Critics argue that this association with the God of Israel was an incorporation of pantheistic notions into Israelite religion, but in fact quite the opposite is the case. God, in effect, was coopting this association to declare himself the God above all gods. It was he, and not Baal, who was the true and living God. Rather than Baal, it was Yahweh (the LORD) who ‘makes the clouds his chariot’ and ‘walks upon the wings of the wind’ (Ps. 104:3). It was Yahweh to whom was due exclusive and complete devotion (Exod. 20:3).

A second association with the storm theophany, which constitutes a pervasive OT theme, is between the heavenly courts and the glory cloud. God’s throne was regarded as beyond the skies, concealed by the clouds and filled with light. Whenever Scripture provides a glimpse of God’s heavenly throne, this conception is affirmed (e.g. Is. 6). The significance is that God had established his throne presence in Israel’s midst. The connection was clear when the glory cloud took up abode in the Tabernacle and, subsequently, in the Temple. This presence brought the blessings of divine protection and justice and made ethical demands. Israel’s special responsibility to be a kingdom of priests and a holy nation (Exod. 19:6) was directly related to the immediate divine presence in their midst, beginning at Sinai and continuing in their life in the land of Canaan.

This understanding of the glory cloud would have been extended by the Israelites to prior theophanies. In particular we may think of the smoking oven and flaming torch (Gen. 15:17) which passed between the animal pieces as a sign of divine commitment to Abraham. Early Israel, as the original audience of Genesis, would have understood that the God who made the covenant with Abraham was the same God who manifested himself on the mountain and who would accompany them through the wilderness. The pledge, ‘To your descendants I have given this land’ (Gen. 15:18) would have been theirs too as they moved towards Canaan. The glory cloud theophany is identified functionally with the Holy Spirit (e.g. Neh. 9:19–20; Is. 63:11–14; Hag. 2:5). This identification is confirmed in the consummate descent of God’s glory/Spirit upon believers, the new abode of God (1 Pet. 2:5), at Pentecost, constituting the true Israel (Acts 2:1–4).

The Angel of the LORD

The other dominant form of theophany in Scripture is the Angel of the LORD, the appearance of a human form which is frequently identified as God. Not all appearances of this special angel are so identified (e.g. 2 Sam. 24:16). But in the vast majority of cases the identification is clear, variously made by explicit claims (e.g. Exod. 3:15), possession of divine attributes (Gen. 16:10), receiving worship (Josh. 5:14), accepting sacrifices (Judg. 13:19–23), being called God (Judg. 13:22) and forgiving/remembering sins (Exod. 23:21). Instances of the Angel of the LORD include Abraham’s encounter with the three angels near Sodom and Gomorrah (Gen. 18), Lot’s visit in Sodom (Gen. 19), Hagar in the wilderness (Gen. 21:9–21), Abraham at Mt Moriah (Gen. 22:1–19), Jacob at Peniel (Gen. 32:24–32), Moses at the burning bush (Exod. 3:1–6, 13–16), Israel in the wilderness (Exod. 23:20), Balaam on the road (Num. 22), Israel at Bochim (Judg. 2), Gideon at Ophrah (Judg. 6:11–24), Samson’s parents (Judg. 13), Elijah in the wilderness (1 Kings 19:1–8), Elijah after Ahab’s death (2 Kings 1:3, 15), the Assyrians near Jerusalem (2 Kings 19:35), Zechariah in his night visions and Daniel in the fiery furnace (Dan. 3:25).

The fundamental significance of this figure is in the posture of a warrior, manifested for the protection of God’s people and for leading God’s army in battle. In the patriarchal period he was a defender on the clan level (Gen. 15:1), but from the period of the Exodus onwards he was the leader of an army (Josh. 5:14).

God’s condescension to a temporary human form communicated to Israel that he was their defender and protector. They were to see their need to trust in him rather than in the strength of their own numbers. They also were to anticipate the theophany par excellence which was to come in Jesus Christ. The Angel of the LORD as God taking human form quite naturally anticipated the permanent abode in flesh that God would assume at the incarnation. Both Jesus and the Angel are called ‘Lord’ (Gen. 16:7; John 20:28) and ‘God’ (Gen. 48:15–16; Heb. 1:8); they both claimed to be ‘I AM’ (Exod. 3:2–14; John 8:58), lead and guide God’s people (Exod. 14:19; Matt. 28:20) and are commanders of the Lord’s army (Josh. 5:13–15; Rev. 19:11–14). The parallels are substantial enough that the Angel of the LORD is frequently termed a ‘Christophany’—a pre-incarnate, temporary manifestation of the second Person of the Trinity.

Jesus Christ

Beyond his identification with the Angel of the LORD, Jesus Christ is the consummate theophany in that he is the permanent and complete joining of the divine and human natures in one Person. ‘The Word became flesh and lived for a while among us. We have seen his glory, the glory of the one and only Son, who came from the Father, full of grace and truth’ (John 1:14). Surpassing all the theophanies of the OT, Christ came as the throne room of God (being the final Temple, John 2:19–21), a full manifestation of God (Col. 2:9) bringing God’s consummate Word to humanity (Heb. 1:1–3). As such he saves undeserving sinners, not through their own efforts but through his inestimable grace (Titus 3:4); he makes ethical demands of us to live in accordance with his character (Titus 2:11) and he leads the armies of heaven in the defence of his people and in the defeat of their enemies (Rev. 2:16).

Paul Douglas Gardner, New International Encyclopedia of Bible Characters: The Complete Who’s Who in the Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan Publishing House, 2001), 641–644.