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Journal of the History of Philosophy 40.1 (2002) 125-126

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Book Review

Newton and Religion:
Context, Nature, and Influence

James E. Force and Richard H. Popkin, editors. Newton and Religion: Context, Nature, and Influence. International Archives of the History of Ideas. Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 1999. Pp. xvii + 325. Cloth, $168.00.

When James Force and Richard Popkin published their Essays on the Context, Nature, and Influence of Isaac Newton's Theology in 1990, they launched a new sub-genre in Newton studies. Their seminal work opened up new scholarly vistas in the study of Newton's antitrinitarian theology, his millenarian prophetic hermeneutics, the relations between his theology and his natural philosophy, and the historical legacies of these until recently under-researched aspects of his thought. Force and Popkin have excelled particularly in leading the attack on the two variants of the "two-Newton" thesis: first, that Newton's theological and alchemical works were the result of a putative post-middle-aged madness or the meandering mind of an old man and, second, that Newton somehow disassociated his "pure" science from the problematic contaminations of alchemy and theology. This new volume of thirteen essays is the latest product of this effort to restore unity to Newton's life and thought.

The first paper, by Deborah Harkness, outlines the work of the Elizabethan magus John Dee for the purpose of suggesting possible analogies with Newton. In the second essay, Allison Coudert seeks to update the Yates thesis: the proposal that modern science received an early and powerful stimulus from occult philosophy. Unlike Yates, who focused on Hermeticism, Coudert sees the main occult impetus to the rise of science in a renewed Gnosticism that emphasized the need to recover the original prisca sapientia (ancient wisdom). Coudert locates Newton in this latter tradition. In the third paper, James Bono sets out to revise and extend William Ashworth's 1990 study of the impact on the history of science of the "emblematic" world view. Bono seeks to show that Newton retained a commitment to the unity of the Books of Nature and Scripture, even while rejecting what he saw as the corruption and idolatry of man-made systems of symbols in favor of a program of discovering God's hand at work in creation.

In the fourth and fifth papers, Justin Champion and Rob Iliffe detail aspects of Newton's engagement with Catholicism. Champion skillfully demonstrates how and why Newton appropriated what he saw as acceptable elements of the incipient textual criticism of the Catholic priest Richard Simon. Notwithstanding his use of this product of Catholic scholarship, Newton's virulent anti-Catholicism is detailed in a sophisticated account by Iliffe, who shows that it extended well beyond Newton's already explicated anti-papist prophetic exegesis.

The sixth, seventh, and ninth essays examine Newton's study of history. In the sixth paper, Robert Markley shows how Newton deployed universal history in his quest to trace the origin and subsequent corruption of pure religion. Continuing the theme of religious apostasy, in the seventh essay Matt Goldish examines Newton's ecclesiastical history "Of the Church." Goldish describes how Newton's painstaking research uncovered the corruption of primitive religion by paganism, gnosticism, kabbalism, emanationist doctrines, and other such human interventions. The ninth paper by Kenneth Knoespel contains a study of Newton's ponderous and often impenetrable manuscript Theologiae gentilis origins philosophicae. Knoespel argues that this document helps illustrate Newton's belief that his Principia not so much represented a discovery of new knowledge as it embodied a recovery of ancient revealed truth.

The eighth, tenth, and thirteenth papers feature accounts of Newton's prophetic exegesis and millenarian thought. The eighth and thirteenth papers, by Sarah Hutton and Reiner Smolinski respectively, make great strides in the understanding of the unity of Newton's theology by illustrating how crucial aspects of his heterodox doctrine helped shape his prophetic thought. Hutton focuses on the impact of Newton's Arian Christology on his exegesis of Revelation, while Smolinski relates Newton's mortalism and rejection of evil spirits to...


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