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Article: Christianity And The Witch Hunt Era (10/12)

May 6, 2007

* 1680-171?: Sir Isaac Newton wrote extensively on the subject of the devil, demons, witchcraft, and ghosts, his views gradually developing over a long duration. The first signs of his abandonment of the ‘orthodox’ position are found in his writings of the 1680s, whilst his latest and most mature comments on the subject are dated to some time after 1710.

Newton’s views appear to have commenced with his unorthodox reflections on the serpent in Genesis 3, in the 1680s:

‘The first example of this kind comes from another prophetic manuscript, Yahuda MS 9, which dates from the 1680s and thus helps establish a terminus a quo for Newton’s departure from the orthodox view. In this manuscript Newton moves beyond mere description to conscious explication. The first reference to a serpent in the Bible is found in the account of the first human sin committed in the Garden of Eden, and it is to this account that Newton turns when tracing the original of the serpentine imagery of the “spirit of error”. Newton saw the serpent that tempted Eve to eat the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil as symbolic of the fleshly lust for her husband that filled her heart.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 5, November 2002

At this time Newton also expressed a disbelief in the existence of evil spirits:

‘Newton argues:

The spirits of God of fals Prophets & of Antichrist are [in 1 John 4] plainly taken not for any substantial Spirits but for ye good or evil dispositions & true or fals perswasions of mens minds; & the spirits of all men who confess not that Jesus Christ is come in the flesh is called in the singular number the spirit of Antichrist, & said to be come into the world as if it were an evil spirit wch was to reign therein & deceive all the followers of Antichrist. And such an evil spirit is the Dragon in the Apocalyps.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 6, November 2002

From this position, Newton moved to a rejection of belief in demons, using arguments similar to those proposed by Muggleton, Bekker, and Hutchinson, including the argument of accommodated language:

‘Newton’s views on demons follow a similar pattern. The traditional Christian conception of demons holds that they are fallen angels subordinate to the chief fallen angel, Satan. Not so with Newton. As with his view on the devil, Newton began to dismiss the reality of demons from the 1680s. Yahuda MS 9, the same document in which Newton treats the devil as a symbol of the “spirit of error”, demonstrates this:

From this figure of putting serpents for spirits & spirits or Daemons for distempers of ye mind, came ye vulgar opinion of ye Jews & other eastern nations that mad men & lunaticks were possessed with evil spirits or Daemons. Whence Christ seems to have used this language not only as Prophet but also in compliance wth ye Jews way of speaking: so yt when he is said to cast out Devils it cannot be known by this phra those Devils may be nothing but diseases unles it can be proved by the circumstances that they are sp substantial spirits.

For Newton, therefore, demons were figures for disordered psychotic states. The cases of demon-possession in the Synoptic Gospels do not describe the activity of literal devils, but instead reflect the (mistaken) beliefs of first-century Jews.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002

On this basis, Newton thoroughly rejected all beliefs in witches and witchcraft:

‘Newton goes on to say that

to beleive that men or weomen can really divine, charm, inchant, bewitch or converse with spirits is a superstition of the same nature wth beleiving that the idols of the gentils were not vanities but had spirits really seated in them.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, page 7, November 2002

Like some other expositors, Newton understood demons in the Bible to refer simply to the false gods of the heathen, inventions of men which were mere idols, taking his definition directly from Scripture, and that the ‘orthodox’ understanding of demons was an early heresy imported from paganism:

‘For Newton belief in activity by evil spirits is equivalent to the conviction that the false gods or idols of the pagans were real, independent beings; both positions are equally untrue. There is no ambiguity in Newton’s position on the reality of idols; in one manuscript he declares flatly: “An Idol is nothing in the world, a vanity, +a lye, a fictitious power.” Newton shared with traditional exegesis the identification of the false gods of the Old Testament with demons. He departed radically from the traditional view in concluding that neither demons nor idols exist.’

‘Newton laid the blame for the rise of the pagan doctrines about demons in the Church at the door of his ecclesiastical nemesis Athanasius, whom he also saw as responsible for introducing Trinitarianism and the doctrine of the immortality of the soul. In his “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius”, Newton contends that Athanasius advanced the notion of a conscious existence of the soul in the intermediate state between death and resurrection.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 8-9, November 2002

Later than Muggleton, but earlier than Bekker, Newton came to the same conclusion as both of them – that the devil in Scripture was never the supernatural evil being of ‘orthodox’ theology, and that all temptation comes from the lust of the heart:

‘The logical corollary to Newton’s views on evil spirits is that those who claim to be tempted by a personal devil are deluded and provoked by their own fleshly imagination. Newton’s “Paradoxical questions concerning Athanasius,” an important manuscript held at the Clark Library dating from the early 1690s, makes this clear’

‘It is instructive that in these words, which he all but admits are laden with connotations of reflexivity, Newton tackles the problem of lust without any reference to a literal, external tempter. Newton well knew the source of sin from his own contests with the demons of his soul. It was not the devil who made him do it. Unlike the monks of old, Newton’s own battles with the devil were with himself.’

Stephen Snobelen, ‘Lust, Pride, And Ambition: Isaac Newton And The Devil’, pages 10-11, November 2002

Article here.

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2 comments

  1. Was Isaac Newton Related to, or a descendant of anyone known to have been tried for or accused of witch craft?


  2. That’s a good question. I don’t actually know. Stephen Snobelen might know, since he’s an authority on Newton.



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