Thomas Paine and the Triangle

I was intrigued recently when, reading an anthology of early American Literature, I came across Chapter 11 of Thomas Paine’s The Age of Reason (1794). Early American patriot and author Thomas Paine questioned Christianity’s negative attitude to science as “falsely so called” (1 Timothy 6:20) and, using the illustration of the triangle, set out to prove that science, not faith, was truth.

The offspring of a Quaker father and Anglican mother, Paine wanted the world to know that he was not a Christian (Trinitarian), like his parents—and why—but he was not exactly a heathen either—he was a Deist (Unitarian). To him, the fraud of the Christian religion was that it was unscientific, and, referencing the Book of Job and Psalm 19 (“The heavens declare the glory of God”) as some of the oldest and most authentic biblical manuscripts, he went on to explain how natural science had outwitted the Christian faith. He wrote:

“The scientific principles that man employs to obtain the foreknowledge of an eclipse, or of anything else relating to the motion of the heavenly bodies, are contained chiefly in that part of science that is called trigonometry, or the properties of a triangle, which, when applied to the study of the heavenly bodies, is called astronomy; when applied to direct the course of a ship on the ocean, it is called navigation; when applied to the construction of figures drawn by a rule and compass, it is called geometry; when applied to the construction of plans of edifices, it is called architecture; when applied to the measurement of any portion of the surface of the earth, it is called land surveying. In fine, it [the triangle] is the soul of science. It is an eternal truth.”

He went on to give the example of the lever, which “forms, when in motion, a triangle,” and the spokes of a wheel, which, again, as they branch out, form a series of triangles. “Man can make a triangle,” but “man cannot make principles; he can only discover them.” And it was scientific principles “by which the universe [was] regulated and governed”—not faith.

I was blown away. He was using the triangle to discredit the Trinity—the Christian doctrine of a triune God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Anyone could see triangle and Trinity had the same prefix. Further, historically, the triangle, particularly the equilateral triangle, having equal sides and equal angles, was one of the earliest representations of the Trinity. So was a “God’s eye,” or “eye of Providence,” which was enclosed in a triangle. Should Paine not have known the symbolism and the inference of what he was saying?

If, as he said, the universe itself was founded on such a principle, wouldn’t it rather affirm that this triune God had revealed Himself through His divine laws? In that sense, the heavens and the natural world truly would be declaring the glory of God (Psalm 19:1)—they would be unveiling the essence of who He was.

Scripture does not tell us everything point blank, but it does say that “In the mouth of…three witnesses every word may be established” (Matthew 18:16; 2 Corinthians 13:1; 1 Timothy 5:19)…“Where…three are gathered together in my name, there am I in the midst of them” (Matthew 18:20)….”There are three that bear record in heaven, the Father, the Word, and the Holy Ghost: and these three are one. And there are three that bear witness in earth, the spirit, and the water, and the blood: and these three agree in one” (1 John 5:7, 7), thus affirming some kind of spiritual law for the number three.

So did Paine make his case for science? I think not. I think rather that he made a case for the Trinity. Since reading Paine, I have been intrigued with the awareness that God has built the Trinity into the very fabric of the universe and, therefore, “The heavens” really do “declare the glory of God; and the firmament sheweth his handywork” (Psalm 19:1).

Copyright © 2011 Alexandra Lee

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About Christseekerk

Minister, Editor, Writer, Senior Citizen, Grown Children, Grandchildren. Interests travel, writing, reading, walking, golf.
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One Response to Thomas Paine and the Triangle

  1. Great piece. Have you read Christopher Hitchen’s “Rights of Man?”

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