There’s little doubt that the most famous scientist of the 20th century was Albert Einstein (1879–1955). Today his name is synonymous with ‘genius’. Most people today would recognize his most famous equation, E=mc2, (though many would be hard-pressed to explain what it actually means!). But even Einstein had his science heroes.
So whom would the great Einstein have admired? They must have been incredible scientists for Einstein to have thought highly of them! And they were. Einstein had pictures of his three heroes of science on his study wall.1 They were Isaac Newton2 (1642–1727), Michael Faraday3 (1791–1867), and James Clerk Maxwell4 (1831–1879).
All three men were deserving of Einstein’s veneration. Newton’s laws of motion and his notion of gravity were the first ideas that successfully unified ideas about the motions of the stars, planets, and the earth. Faraday is widely regarded as the greatest experimenter of all time. His work involved showing that magnetism could produce electricity, and discovering benzene, among many other things. Maxwell discovered the four fundamental equations of electricity and magnetism, and predicted electromagnetic radiation at a certain enormous speed. Light was measured to have that speed—300,000 km (186,000 miles) per second—showing that light was electromagnetic radiation. Without their discoveries, we wouldn’t have much of the technology we have today. Practically everything involving moving parts, electricity, and magnetism can in part be attributed to the work of these three men.
But these three men also had another thing in common—they were all Bible-believing creationists. By today’s standards all three would be regarded as ‘fundamentalists’. Newton wrote more on theology than he ever did on science, believing the Bible to be God’s Word. Faraday was a member of a very conservative offshoot of the Church of Scotland, the Sandemanians. The Sandemanians were known for their plain interpretation of the Bible. A recent book said:
“A member of a gentle Christian sect, the Sandemanians, Faraday was deeply religious and viewed science—exploration of nature—as an extension of his heartfelt faith.
“Although we in the 21st century debate the conflict of science and religion, Faraday saw no such division. “‘The book of nature, which we have to read, is written by the finger of God,’ he wrote. For Faraday, ‘unravelling the mysteries of nature was to discover the manifestations of God.’”5
Maxwell was widely read in theology. He interacted with many of the best theological minds of his day, always as a solid evangelical Christian. In fact, he often chided other believers for tying religious truth too tightly to the science of the day. He understood this not as a problem for God’s unchanging Word, but as a problem for man’s ever changing understanding of how the world works.
Maxwell’s faith in the Bible even shocked a young Karl Pearson6 who, when he questioned the Flood, was reprimanded by Maxwell for questioning the Bible!
“The conversation turned on Darwinian evolution; I can’t say how it came about, but I spoke disrespectfully of Noah’s Flood. Clerk Maxwell was instantly aroused to the highest pitch of anger, reproving me for want of faith in the Bible! I had no idea at the time that he had retained the rigid faith of his childhood, and was, if possible, a firmer believer than Gladstone7 in the accuracy of Genesis.”8
Sadly, Einstein did not share the spiritual convictions of his heroes. Like many in his day and now, he felt free to abandon the biblical God.9 Little did he know that for all his great work he was operating on borrowed assumptions. Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell were not biblical creationists for nothing. They understood that the only reasonable ground for the amazing regularity we find in the natural world is the orderly and unchanging God of Scripture. They understood that the assumptions of science,10 which only find their grounding in God, cannot be separated from the history11 to which He has testified. And they understood that His Word is surer than the foundations of the universe, including the laws that govern it. They sought to think God’s thoughts after him.
Einstein’s heroes have a lot to teach us. The world is ordered because God orders it. God’s Word doesn’t change and is always trustworthy, unlike man’s scientific theories. But good science will always square with Scripture—they both come from the same God, after all. They also teach us that far from being opposed to science, biblical creation is its solid foundation.
References and notes
Arianrhod, R., Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the World Through the Language of Mathematics, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, p. 8, 2003. Return to text.
Schlesinger, H., The Battery: How a Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution, Smithsonian, 2010. Return to text.
Karl Pearson (1857–1936) was one of the founders of mathematical statistics, and also a noted Darwinist and eugenicist (known as the protégé of the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton). Even as a young man Pearson would not have looked upon Maxwell’s religious views favourably, despite his respect for Maxwell as a scientist. Return to text.
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), served four terms as UK Prime Minister—and was famous for his oratory and conservative evangelical views. Return to text.
Pearson, K., Old Tripos days at Cambridge, as seen from another viewpoint, The Mathematical Gazette20:27–36, 1936. Pearson had a great respect for George Stokes (1819–1903) as a teacher, who like Maxwell was a Bible-believing Christian and a groundbreaking scientist in optics and fluid dynamics. Return to text.
Arianrhod, R., Einstein’s Heroes: Imagining the World Through the Language of Mathematics, University of Queensland Press, St Lucia, Qld, p. 8, 2003.
Schlesinger, H., The Battery: How a Portable Power Sparked a Technological Revolution, Smithsonian, 2010.
Karl Pearson (1857–1936) was one of the founders of mathematical statistics, and also a noted Darwinist and eugenicist (known as the protégé of the founder of eugenics, Francis Galton). Even as a young man Pearson would not have looked upon Maxwell’s religious views favourably, despite his respect for Maxwell as a scientist.
William Ewart Gladstone (1809–1898), served four terms as UK Prime Minister—and was famous for his oratory and conservative evangelical views.
Pearson, K., Old Tripos days at Cambridge, as seen from another viewpoint, The Mathematical Gazette20:27–36, 1936. Pearson had a great respect for George Stokes (1819–1903) as a teacher, who like Maxwell was a Bible-believing Christian and a groundbreaking scientist in optics and fluid dynamics.
Unless fundamentalist Christians have abandoned the doctrine of the Trinity, Newton definitely did not qualify as one, since he rejected the deity of Christ (also, Newton adopted a "historicist" interpretation of Revelation, while Fundamentalists strictu sensu cleave to a "futurist" interpretation). In any case, "fundamentalist" is usually understood as referring to a reaction against various sorts of "evolutionary" ideas (from an old Earth, to the mutability of "kinds," to the idea that biblical doctrines themselves evolved over the writing of the Bible). Newton wasn't reacting to these ideas, since they didn't exist in his time.
Maxwell, in insisting on Noah's Flood at a time when many geologists (and Bible interpreters) were abandoning the idea of a global flood within human history, is more plausibly called a "fundamentalist." Even so, it's hard to find anything at all he or Faraday said about evolution (or about geology or biology in general). Their scientific discoveries did not touch on these subjects, and they do not seem to have devoted any significant effort to counteracting modernist ideas about the history of Earth or life.
Shaun Doyle responds
The Fundamentalist movement of the late 19th and early 20th centuries is irrelevant to my comment; I was talking about the pejorative sense of ‘fundamentalist’ so common today—i.e. a “type of militantly conservative religious movement characterized by the advocacy of strict conformity to sacred texts”. All three men fit this description. Nonetheless, I do believe that Faraday and Maxwell were lamentably silent on the origins debate in public; all men have feet of clay.
Now, as to Newton’s views on the Trinity, it's not so clear cut that he rejected the Trinity; see this footnote in our article Sir Isaac Newton (1642/3–1727): A Scientific Genius for more information. He was a Trinitarian, though his conception of it was ‘subordinationist’ in a similar sense to Origen and Newton's contemporary Samuel Clarke.
Jack M., United Kingdom, 16 March 2015
These three figures were great minds because Einstein viewed them as heroes.
And yet on the point where he disagreed with them - in a field in which none of them were experts - we should favour their opinion over his.
If you're going to engage in the fallacy of argument from authority, at least be logical about it.
Shaun Doyle responds
First, I didn't rest my case that Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell were great minds solely on Einstein's opinion of them; I also summarized some of their achievements to substantiate Einstein's opinion of them. Second, I didn't argue that we should believe these men simply on their authority; I pointed out they were not biblical creationists for nothing, and that their views were not irrelevant to their scientific outlook. I didn't rest my conclusion to biblical creation solely on the opinions of Newton, Faraday, and Maxwell, nor on Einstein's opinion of them.
I. F., United Kingdom, 16 March 2015
"If I have seen further, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants." Sir Isaac Newton, 1675. This is a frequently used quotation in scientific enquiry, alluded to by researchers of all backgrounds who wish to acknowledge their own limitations when faced with the complexity of their subject. It is a quotation which varies in its wording, but the essential metaphor remains the same. Another version is "We see further when we stand on the shoulders of giants".
From the CMI website article "Sadly, Einstein did not share the spiritual convictions of his heroes. Like many in his day and now, he felt free to abandon the biblical God." Maybe Einstein, and others, can "see further", building on understandings and knowledge discerned by previous giants.
Shaun Doyle responds
How about Kepler's equally famous sentiment that science is "thinking God's thoughts after him"? We've become so comfortable with science's success that we now take it for granted, and so we've forgotten why it works at all. Why is there an observable order to the way the universe works? Why is it so consistent? Why can we discover and understand anything of it? Newton, Maxwell, and Faraday understood that the answers to these questions lie outside of science and inside Scripture. Einstein had no answer.
Paul S., United States, 16 March 2015
Yes, Einstein was a genius. His mathematical formulations of field theory were a magnificent accomplishment, and the various solutions are amenable to different interpretations with respect to the physical universe. But we must not make the mistake of concluding that his theories are accurate descriptions of reality just because they are formulated by a genius and are mathematically elegant and complex. Many a genius has gone down a wrong path. I, for one, do not accept either Special Relativity or General Relativity, and believe that Christians should be very wary of these theories. They have had a pernicious influence on the culture of the 20th century and beyond, even though they, admittedly, don't logically imply the sort of "relativity" that is contrary to Christian principles (As Darwinism doesn't logically imply the Holocaust). Psychologically it is a different state of affairs. Despite claims to the contrary by advocates, neither relativity theory has been proven via empirical verification (e.g. the null result of the Michelson-Morley experiment was predicted in advance by classical physicists on classical grounds, and did not disprove the existence of the aether), and there are "realists" in current physics who do not accept them. It would be profitable for those interested in these matters to read Franco Selleri's book "Open Questions in Relativistic Physics". Einstein once gave as his reason for embracing relativity the fact that he found the notion of a privileged frame of reference "abhorrent". This is not exactly an empirical scientific criterion.
This is a fantastic article, well worthy of being featured on the cover of the issue it was published in.
Just for technical correctness, I think you should make the 'm' and the 'c' lower case in Einstein's famous equation. The 'm' represents mass, and the 'c' is the speed of light. These symbols are not generally capitalized.
Shaun Doyle responds
Thanks for the pick up on that typo; it's fixed now.
Jay Zeke M., United Kingdom, 16 March 2015
Another excellent article :) One thing I notice, however, is that articles like this often lack scriptural references that demonstrate why, specifically, God has these characteristics. I feel, for example, Hebrews 6:18 & Titus 1:2 give us a pretty good reason to believe we stand on the foundation of an honest God who, for example, wouldn't bury fossils to test the faith of Christians, as some Evolutionists claim they've been told. Just a though :) God bless.