Isaac Newton, Unpublished Treatise on Revelation [1680s]

[edited by C. Oldstone-Moore]

Soon after publishing his most famous work on physics, Newton turned his attention to biblical interpretation.  He believed that the Bible was inspired by God, and like nature, which God also authored, could best be interpreted by reason.  Here, Newton lays out the rules for rationally interpreting the Book of Revelation in the New Testament.  He believed it was "the history of the future," and was capable of revealing important new knowledge, such as the end of the age, and the coming of Christ.  In another work he speculated that the second coming of Christ may occur around the year 2060.

Note the ways in which his view of the Bible is shaped by his scientific thought and method. Note also how Newton views nature and scripture as similar things.  Rule number 9 is most revealing in this respect.

 

Tis true that without a guide it would be very difficult not only for them but even for the most learned to understand [prophesies] right. . . .And such a guide I hope this Book will prove: especially if the judgment of the Reader be prepared by considering well the following Rules for enabling him to know when an interpretation is genuine & of two interpretations which is the best.

Rules for interpreting the words & language in Scripture.

 

1. To observe diligently the consent of Scriptures & analogy of the prophetic style, and to reject those interpretations where this is not duly observed. Thus if any man interpret a Beast to signify some great vice, this is to be rejected as his private imagination because according to the style and tenor of the Apocalypse & of all other Prophetic scriptures a Beast signifies a body politic & sometimes a single person which heads that body, & there is no ground in scripture for any other interpretation.

2. To assign but one meaning to one place of scripture; unless it be by way of conjecture, or where the literal sense is designed to hide the more noble mystical sense as a shell the kernel from being tasted either by unworthy persons, or until such time as God shall think fit. . .

3. To keep as close as may be to the same sense of words, especially in the same vision, and to prefer those interpretations where this is most observed unless any circumstance plainly require a different signification. Thus if a man interpret the Beast to signify a kingdom in one sentence & a vice in another when there is nothing in the text that does argue any change of sense, this is to be rejected as no genuine interpretation. . . .

4. To chose those interpretations which are most according to the literal meaning of the scriptures unless where the tenor & circumstances of the place plainly require an Allegory. . .

5. To acquiesce in that sense of any portion of Scripture as the true one which results most freely & naturally from the use & propriety of the Language & tenor of the context in that & all other places of Scripture to that sense. . . .

6. To make the parts of a vision succeed one another according to the order of the narration without any breach or interfering unless when there are manifest indications of such a breach or interfering. For if the order of its parts might be varied or interrupted at pleasure, it would be of no certain interpretation, which is to elude it and make it no prophesy but an ambiguity like those of the heathen Oracles. . .

8. To choose those constructions which without straining reduce contemporary visions to the greatest harmony of their parts. . . .

9. To choose those constructions which without straining reduce things to the greatest simplicity. The reason of this is manifest by the precedent Rule. Truth is ever to be found in simplicity, & not in the multiplicity & confusion of things. As the world, which to the naked eye exhibits the greatest variety of objects, appears very simple in its internal constitution when surveyed by a philosophic understanding, & so much the simpler by how much the better it is understood, so it is in these visions. It is the perfection of God's works that they are all done with the greatest simplicity. He is the God of order & not of confusion. And therefore as they that would understand the frame of the world must endeavour to reduce their knowledge to all possible simplicity, so it must be in seeking to understand these visions. . . .

11. To acquiesce in that construction of the Apocalypse as the true one which results most naturally & freely from the characters imprinted by the holy ghost on the several parts thereof for insinuating their connection, & from the observation of the precedent rules. The reason of this is the same with that of the fifth rule.

Hence if any man shall contend that my Construction of the Apocalypse is uncertain, upon pretence that it may be possible to find out other ways, he is not to be regarded unless he shall show wherein what I have done may be mended. If the ways which he contends for be less natural or grounded upon weaker reasons, that very thing is demonstration enough that they are false, & that he seeks not truth but the interest of a party. And if the way which I have followed be according to the nature & genius of the Prophesy there needs no other demonstration to convince it. . .

12. The Construction of the Apocalypse after it is once determined must be made the rule of interpretations; And all interpretations rejected which agree not with it. That must not be strained to fit history but such things chosen out of history as are most suitable to that.

14. To proportion the most notable parts of Prophesy to the most notable parts of history, & the breaches made in a continued series of Prophesy to the changes made in history And to reject those interpretations where the parts and breaches of Prophesy do not thus bear a due proportion to the parts & changes in History. For if Historians divide their histories into Sections Chapters & Books at such periods of time where the less, greater & greatest revolutions begin or end; & to do otherwise would be improper: much more ought we to suppose that the holy Ghost observes this rule accurately in his prophetic dictates, since they are no other then histories of things to come. . .

15. To chose those interpretations which without straining do most respect the church & argue the greatest wisdom & providence of God for preserving her in the truth. . . [The prophesies] are the counsels of God & so the most wise, & fittest for the end to which they are designed: And that end is the benefit of the Church to guide her & preserve her in the truth.

Yet I mean not that these Prophesies were intended to convert the whole world to the truth. For God is just as well as merciful, & punishes wickedness by hardening the wicked & visiting the sins of the fathers upon the children. But the design of them is to try men & convert the best, so that the church may be purer & less mixed with Hypocrites & lukewarm persons. And for this end it is that they are wrapped up in obscurity, & so framed by the wisdom of God that the inconsiderate, the proud, the self-conceited, the presumptuous, the scholist, the sceptic, they whose judgments are ruled by their lusts, their interest, the fashions of the world . . .that these men whose hearts are thus hardened in seeing should see & not perceive & in hearing should hear & not understand. For God has declared his intention in these prophesies to be as well that none of the wicked should understand as that the wise should understand, Dan: 12. . . .