Isaac Newton on the Mosaic Account of Creation

In Cotton Mather’s Biblical commentary Biblia Americana  Mather spends considerable time discussing the issues raised by science especially geology with respect to the Mosaic account of Genesis.  I have mentioned before that Mather does a great service in his commentary by reviewing massive amounts of literature from the late 1600s and early 1700s giving us a valuable glimpse into the challenges that confronted Biblical literalists of that day (I don’t’ think that a literalist of that day is the same as a literalist of today but that is a topic for another time).  In particular I was interested in Mather’s elaboration and critique of Burnet’s 1681 book, Telluris Theoria Sacra (Sacred Theory of the Earth) which is a theory of the earth focused on the Noahic flood and effects and finds a basis of those events in natural causes.  Providentially as I was typing the quotes from Sir Isaac Newton below when I received notice of a post on Genesis and Geology  (update:  now defunct unfortunately) which provides exactly the background that is needed for these quotes.  I highly recommend the post there.  The most important point that Phil makes that really resonates with me is something that has struck me many times as I have read the literature of the 1600s is:

Thomas Burnet (1635-1717)

“But Mortenson’s [read Young Earth Creationists here] arguments also seem to imply that once upon a time Christians studied nature through the lens of an uncompromising scriptural worldview, with the Bible in one hand and their scientific instruments in the other.  One point I am trying to make is that such a golden age of heroic Biblicism never existed.”

To take this point a bit further I would add that it is an ideal view to suggest that there was a time when belief in a six day creation led scientists to make observations of the world and find them in complete harmony with the traditional view of creation as held by theologians.  Even with the “correct”  young-earth worldview any Christian who has applied their minds to the study of creation in an effort to put scientific meaning to the words of Moses has come to the point of diverging from what is today said to be the literalist interpretation of Scripture.   All of the leading scientific “creationists” of the past struggled with the text and to differing degrees either strayed from the traditional interpretation or simply avoided the topic altogether lest they be called heretics.

Before I read Phil’s post this morning I had planned a similar illustration of how creationists from the past did not read the Mosaic account with the type of literalist eyes that creation scientists today tell us we must use.  The following quotes are from a letter written by Newton to Thomas Burnet in January 1680.  The entire letter is fascinating because of the long discussion about the formation of planets but I was stuck by the following quote that also fits with what appears to be Mather’s “compromised” view of the physical nature of the 6 days of creation and the universal flood though Mather would not have had access to this letter at the time he discussed Burnet’s and Newton’s views.

These quotes from the text, Memoirs of the Life, Writings, and discoveries of Sir Isaac Newton, volume 2 by Sir David Brewster from 1855 and available in full on Google Books.

Sir Isaac Newton (1642-1727)

Pg 450 of that book we find:

As to Moses, I do not think his description of ye creation either philosophical or feigned, but that he described realities in a language artificially adapted to ye sense of ye vulgar.  Thus when he speaks of two great lights, I suppose he means their apparent not real greatness. So when he tells us God placed these lights in ye firmament, he speaks I suppose of their apparent not real place, his business being not to correct the vulgar notions in matters philosophical, but to adapt a description of the creation as handsomely as he could to ye sense and capacity of ye vulgar.  So when he tells us of two great lights, and ye stars made ye 4th day, I do not think their creation from beginning to end was done the 4th day, nor in any one day of ye creation, nor that Moses mentions their creation, as they were physicall bodies in themselves, some of them greater than the earth, and perhaps habitable worlds, but only as they were lights to this earth, so therefore though their creation could not physically [be] assigned to any one day, yet being a part of ye sensible creation which it was Moses’s design to describe, and it being his design to describe things in order according to the succession of days, allotting no more than one day to one thing, they were to be referred to some day or other, and rather to the 4th day than any other, if they [the] air then first became clear enough for them to shine thro’ it, and so put ye appearance of lights in ye firmament to enlighten the earth…”

Creation chronometry was a much debated topic in the late 1600s and early 1700s among Christians with virtually no opinion expressed being of the same kind that that could be described as a literalist view held today. I often wonder what would have happened had the Westminster Confession of Faith been written after this debate rather than before it given how the landscape of the discussion changed in the 40 years after the Assembly of the Westminster Divines met.   To read Mather, Edwards, and many others carrying on the Calvinistic tradition struggle with the Mosaic account suggests the the divines were not yet really forced to confront some difficult issues when the drafted language about the creation.  Isaac Newton was well aware of the many views and debates and was carefully trying to sound out a middle ground between purely natural explanations for the origins of the earth and flood but also have a “real” world in which the supernatural simply doesn’t trump all and make the world impossible to understand with science.  What he comes up with sounds much like what today might be labeled among conservative evangelicals as a liberal compromiser as he attempts to distinguish between some “real” or literal creation that is out there but not accessible to the audience of Moses and so Moses rather has described an apparent creation which accounts for how his audience could see the world around them.  When applied to the flood, Newton doesn’t go as far as to say it was a local flood but neither can he be sure.  We see that Newton applies this optical illusion of creation to the formation of lights which were really formed on some unknown day but that were shown to the world on the 4th day because that is when they became apparent.  Moses is thus not describing the actual physical creation of objects but putting them on days to make theological points though for Newton and others the physical creation by God in some time frame was not in doubt.  There are many parallels in his thinking to various views today few of which would land him in the clearly literal camp as literalists would define themselves today.

On page 452 we find Newton continuing about the intent of Moses in his description of the creation:

 “Moses here sets down their creation as if he had then lived, and were not describing what he saw.  Omit them he could not, without rendering his description of the creation imperfect in ye judgment of ye vulgar.  To describe them distinctly as they were in themselves, would have made ye narration tedious and confused, amused ye vulgar, and become a philosopher more than a prophet.  He mentions them, therefore, only so far as ye vulgar had a notion of them, that is, as they were phenomena in ye firmament; and described their making only so far, and at such a time, as they were made such phenomena.  Consider, therefore, whether any one who understood the process of ye creation, and designed to accommodate to ye vulgar not an ideal or poetical, but a true description of it as succinctly and theologically as Moses has done, without omitting anything material wch ye vulgar have a notion of, or describing any being further then the vulgar have notion of it, could mend that description wch Moses has given us.  If it be said that ye expression of making and setting two great lights in ye firmament is more poetical than natural, so also are some other expressions of Moses, as when he tells us the windows or floodgates of heaven were opened, (Gen. vii) and afterwards stopped again, (Gen. viii.;) and yet the things signified by such figurative expressions are not ideal or moral, but true.  For Moses, accommodating his words to ye gross conceptions of ye vulgar, describes things much after ye manner as one of ye vulgar would have been inclined to do had he lived and seen ye whole series of what Moses describes. 

Newton was by no means a Bible compromiser.  He never doubted the authority of Scripture or the Mosaic authorship of Genesis. He was highly critical of some of the elaborate physical explanations for how the earth was formed and then flooded calling most of them highly speculative and not based on sound reason and evidence. But neither was he able to find himself in agreement that the Mosaic account was an accurate description of the origin of the earth in a physical sense nor that the earth’s features be explained solely by the action of a global flood. He believed fossils to be the result of past organisms death but could not seem to come to grips with how them to explain their origins within the confines of a young earth.

Attempts to bring explanations for the physical origins of the geographic features of the earth into conformity with a six day creation and a universal flood has never yielded a unified view of how to interpret the data.  Another way of saying is to say that claims that there is a traditional view of the creation account by orthodox theologians can probably be defended but the application of that traditional view to an understanding of the physical creation and the origin of the earth has never accomplished a satisfying nor widely accepted result.   Believing scientists such as  Burnet, though assuming the historicity of Moses and the Scriptures, were widely criticized for elaborate and non-biblical based views of the earth’s construction including water under the earth that burst forth causing the dissolution of parts of the earth and the remaining land the mountains of today.  The globe for him was nearly uniform and smooth before the flood.  These views were highly speculative and criticized by other scientists including Newton in his time, yet today young earth creationists are promoting similar views even if they might sound more sophisticated.  Today’s young earth creationists want us to believe that we have finally worked out the details and are now trying to promote their view of science as one that finally presents a cohesive approach to true intentions of the Mosaic creation narrative. It seems unlikely, if history has anything to tell us, that these efforts will be any more effective than those of the past.

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Comments

  1. Rather then Newton being a compromiser, this shows how today he would be derided by mainstream science as a Creationist. He interprets the Bible in the most reasonable way one can. What Newton is saying is that we can not expect Genesis to elaborate on or be a response to science theories that will be discovered later. No one can reasonably expect Moses to have communicated language and scientific concepts to his people only we today can understand.

    Genesis says in the first day God worked on light and dark, on the second day it was space. There was no such thing as a ‘day’ before there was a revolving earth which came day 3. This means day 1 and 2 would not have been days as we know it, but a period of time God worked. If time is a function of space, then until sometime during day 2 there was no time at all.

  2. The Genesis and Geology link gives an error; site deleted. Do you have a link to what was in that post, or a way for me to contact the author?

    The explanation of the late creation of sun and moon in terms of when their light first penetrated earth’s dusty atmosphere is one still made by apologists for biblical literalism. The claim that the genesis account is simplified to fit common understanding dates back to at least Maimonides, who of course influenced Aquinas.

    • Hi Paul, unfortunately I do not have a link. The owner of that blog had moved his blog and then a few months later all the content was deleted. I was so disappointed because he had some articles that were really fascinating and thoroughly researched. I had wished that I had copied the articles and I went as far as to try to contact him through his academia.edu account but have never gotten a response. I wish I could track him and get him to put his content back up at some point. I need to edit several of my posts that referred to his work.

Trackbacks

  1. […] and his contemporaries do not actually jive with that of modern creationists very well at all, see this recent Naturalis Historia post. Share this:MorePrintEmailDiggLike this:LikeBe the first to like […]

  2. […] Natural Historian writes about Isaac Newton’s thoughts on the Mosaic account of creation. Check out this excellent quote: Attempts to bring explanations for the physical origins of the […]

  3. […] pre-Darwinian times did not believe what the ICR does now. The much-idolised Newton, for example, would be considered a “compromiser” […]

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