In the popular imagination, the view of the natural world represented by modern science and developed by such towering figures as Isaac Newton conflicts with the view of the created world in the Bible. From debates about evolution and intelligent design to questions about human cloning, embryonic stem cell research, and even climate change, science and religion are often seen as fundamentally opposed to one another. Certainly, individual scientists might be religious ”” one thinks for instance of John Polkinghorne in physics or Francis Collins in biology ”” but most people would say that the work of these scientists is to be taken seriously because it is separate from, and thus unhampered by, their religious faith and practice. What happens in the pews on Sunday has no influence on what happens in the lab on Monday. So when contemporary readers learn that Isaac Newton was a deeply religious man, their way of incorporating this fact within their conception of him as one of the greatest scientists of the past four centuries likely involves imagining that his religious faith was intellectually separate from his work in mathematics, optics, astronomy, and physics. Never the twain shall meet.
That this image of Newton is profoundly inaccurate ”” that in fact separating God and science in this way would have been entirely foreign to him ”” has become apparent in recent decades of Newton scholarship. The reason this is significant is not just that it challenges the facile notion that science and religion are fundamentally at odds with one another. The case of Newton is even more interesting than that. The usual conception of how a scientist can also be religious is that he cannot take the Scriptures as “literally” true in every instance, especially in matters pertaining to the natural world. But Newton was committed to precisely such a reading of the text, which raises the question of how he reconciled potential conflicts between the claims of science and the Bible’s claims about nature.