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the Complete Review
the complete review - biography / religion


Priest of Nature

Rob Iliffe

general information | review summaries | our review | links | about the author

To purchase Priest of Nature

Title: Priest of Nature
Author: Rob Iliffe
Genre: Biographical
Written: 2017
Length: 401 pages
Availability: Priest of Nature - US
Priest of Nature - UK
Priest of Nature - Canada
  • The Religious Worlds of Isaac Newton

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Our Assessment:

B+ : impressively thorough

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Publishers Weekly . 8/5/2017 .
Wall St. Journal . 4/8/2017 David Davis

  From the Reviews:
  • "Iliffe’s fascinating study provides an absorbing glimpse into Newton’s work and early modern culture." - Publishers Weekly

  • "Mr. Iliffe serves up the most complicated picture to date of the faith itself. He completely recasts the relationship of Newton’s scientific inquiry to his religious beliefs, tying the two together to an unparalleled degree. (...) (A) robust portrait with broad appeal. Both the academic and lay reader will appreciate how, in shattering the simplistic Enlightenment account of Newton, the book reveals the flexibility of the great man’s capacious mind." - David Davis, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       Isaac Newton is among the truly towering figures in the history of science, his brilliance and the significance of his work beyond any dispute -- yet Newton also devoted much of his life to theological research, writing (though not publishing) extensively in the field. With a focus on Newton's scientific work, much of his voluminous writing was long neglected -- Sarah Dry's chronicle of The Strange and True Odyssey of Isaac Newton's Manuscripts, The Newton Papers offers a good overview -- and so, remarkably, Iliffe notes in his Introduction to Priest of Nature:

     Almost all of the writings discussed in this book have been published only in the last fifteen years.
       [Iliffe is the General Editor of The Newton Project, the remarkable: "organization dedicated to publishing in full an online edition of all of Sir Isaac Newton’s (1642–1727) writings". This very accessible site can not be recommended highly enough, and is a fascinating treasure-trove of material; it also provides the full texts of Newton's writings Iliffe discusses in Priest of Nature, and is thus a useful supplement to the book.]
       The popular image of Newton is, of course, as the pure thinker, devoted to science; the reader only casually familiar with his biography might think that because, for example, he was ready to give up his university position rather than take holy orders and become a clergyman in the Church of England, as was then mandatory, that Newton was areligiously dedicated to pure science. Far from it: he took religion very seriously, and his refusal to take holy orders -- he was given a rare royal dispensation from the requirement, allowing him to stay on in his position -- was not because he was an unbeliever. If anything, it was because he took his religion too seriously.
       Newton closely studied the Bible, as well as the history of religion, and strongly believed that the Christianity had gone down the wrong path (especially as manifested, in his time, in the Roman Catholic Church). He came to identify with fourth-century presbyter Arius, who held that God the Father alone was the ultimate deity, and that Jesus Christ was not his co-equal divine. Newton was convinced that the church had gone wrong in adopting the Nicene Creed, the Trinitarian belief that Father, Son and Holy Ghost were as one -- forcing adherents: "to engage in an egregious form of idolatry". And Newton really disapproved of idolatry -- an issue that: "underlay all of his religious study".
       Newton also became particularly obsessed with: "decoding the images in the prophetic books in the Bible" -- research that: "captivated him for the last two decades of his life in Cambridge and it would remain his abiding passion for the next half a century". Here as throughout, Iliffe helpfully places Newton's religious work beside the more widely known writings and events from his life, as Newton didn't merely turn to religion at some late point in his life, but always obsessed over it, and actively pursued it. If not exactly of a piece, Newton's work is not as separate as the popular version of his life has long held.
       While focused on his religious studies, Priest of Nature shows how fundamental aspects of Newton influenced both this and his scientific work. It's fascinating to see how deeply ingrained his opposition to much speculation was -- counter to the image of science, built on hypothesizing, that is now near-universal. But:
Newton argued that the scientific community would descend into a litigious chaos if it allowed the proliferation of probabilities, hypotheses, and conjectures. Instead, it needed to be "mathematical," that is, it needed to eschew reference to unobserved entities
       (Unsurprisingly, the scientific community even then did not go along with this unrealistic prescription.)
       Newton's efforts to avoid debate -- especially public and written -- also run counter to the what are now considered scientific ideals, the free and constant (critical) exchange of ideas. Indeed, as Iliffe shows, even when Newton was just a student:
Even within his college, the independent scholar was also an extreme intellectual hermit.
       Iliffe discusses several of the scientific debates which Newton was unavoidably drawn into -- his work on optics, as well his dispute with Leibniz over the invention of calculus, for example -- and reminds that Newton was (usually) adept and thorough in presenting his case. But these prominent public displays mislead about his otherwise very intellectually withdrawn character.
       The fundamental irony -- that this ultra-realist, who was so strongly opposed to the imagination (though dabbling a bit in poetry in his youth ...) devoted so much of his life (and brilliant mind) to the wildest human fantasy of all (the idea of (a) 'god') and relied so much on a work of fiction (the Bible) -- remains largely unaddressed in Priest of Nature, but in broadening our understanding of what Newton occupied himself with it is an essential complement to the hitherto available biographies.
       Iliffe helpfully situates Newton in the (the religious and political) environment of his times -- especially his early years, as Priest of Nature is also very strong on intellectual (and political) history. The turmoil of the times, at its various levels -- from the debates about behavior and standards at the universities to the theological debates of the times or the Royal Society -- was inevitably also influential (though withdrawn, Newton could not escape his public role), and Iliffe tracks this very well. Indeed, Priest of Nature is very thorough -- at times likely numbingly so, at least for the lay-reader -- but overall the wealth of information is very welcome.
       Newton's theological studies were not just some important 'chapter' in his life: as Iliffe incontrovertibly shows, they were an integral part of his intellectual work and (prë)occupied him his entire life -- and as such also are not just worthy of but demand greater study.
       Priest of Nature is an invaluable introduction to this under-studied part of the life and work of one of the greatest thinkers known to mankind.

- M.A.Orthofer, 19 August 2017

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Priest of Nature: Reviews: Isaac Newton: Rob Iliffe: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Rob Iliffe teaches at Oxford and is General Editor of the Newton Project.

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© 2017 the complete review

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