I feel that your News story “Newton's religious screeds get online airing” (Nature 430, 819; 200410.1038/430819a) rather misses the point. To our modern minds, Isaac Newton's religious ideas may indeed seem “unorthodox” or “radical”, but they did not look like this to his contemporaries. Like another father of modern science, Francis Bacon (see “A modern kind of magic”, Nature 418, 821; 2002), Newton strongly believed that he lived in an era that had been predicted by the Book of Daniel of the Old Testament, a time when knowledge was expected to grow beyond recognition.

Throughout his life, Newton tested biblical truth against the physical truths of experimental and theoretical science. He never observed a contradiction. The order that he found in nature through experiment and calculation — later to be called the mechanistic worldview — was for him God's work, and proof of God's work in history, which he extracted from the Bible. Astronomical calculations helped him to synchronize biblical events described in the Old and New Testaments with what he knew about ancient, medieval and modern history.

To English Protestants during the seventeenth century, when the country was consumed by apocalyptic zeal, the Book of Daniel and The Apocalypse, or The Revelation of St John, were history — revealed truth — even though they were written in visionary and symbolic language. The task was to turn these visions and symbols into modern language.

A whole host of scientific writers — including the illustrious Cambridge polymath Joseph Mede — took to the task of interpretation. It was on the shoulders of these giants that Newton was standing when he wrote his main religious work Observations upon the Prophecies of Daniel and the Apocalypse of St John, which was intended as an update of world history based on the five-kingdoms scheme in the Book of Daniel.

It is probably one of the deepest ironies in the history of science that Newton's brilliant work did not serve the purpose that he intended. Rather than proving the Bible right, it led to the birth of science as we know it — that is, experimental natural science.

We now know that the Book of Daniel's five-kingdoms scheme is a myth and The Revelation of St John is a wonderful fairy tale. But it is the Bible, nevertheless, that stands, in a very literal sense, at the origin of modern science.