Friday, August 30, 2013

John Witherspoon, The Cicero Of His Time

Some time ago, before I had done my own investigation concerning John Witherspoon's approach, I had read an article by Joseph DiLuzio on the relationship between John Witherspoon, moral philosophy and Scottish common sense realism. DiLuzio claimed:
'Witherspoon had arrived in the colonies promoting Scottish realism and that brand of moral philosophy advocated by Francis Hutcheson and argued against by his predecessor at Princeton, Jonathan Edwards'
 'that In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity'
I will argue in what follows that there was an inherent conflict between Witherspoon’s Scottish Enlightenment philosophy on the one hand and his Calvinist Presbyterian orthodoxy on the other.'
The evidence points in the opposite direction. John Witherspoon's program represented precisely the direction Samuel Davies and Samuel Finley (and other Princeton trustees) wanted it to take. The claim that Witherspoon 'ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity' is false, just read his sermons. John Witherspoon, as all real Calvinists, took the doctrine of the perspicuitas of Scripture seriously. This means that not just the enlightened, but everybody is able to understand it's message.

Witherspoon's focus on eloquence resolves the tension between the different aspects of his approach.  Shaftesbury is key to understanding how Witherspoon understood his role as the Cicero of his time:

'Those trained in analytic philosophy continue to have trouble reading Shaftesbury, largely because he self-consciously rejects systematic philosophy and focuses more on rhetoric and literary persuasion than providing numbered premises.'
Robert S. Null writes:
'Witherspoon as propagator of Scottish common sense philosophy in America is one of the most common pursuits in scholarly literature. To support and develop this interest, a greater degree of attention has been given to Witherspoon's lectures regarding moral philosophy and criticism (eloquence), relatively less to his lectures expounding divinity, and almost none to his lectures covering history and chronology'
Here a direct link between Jonathan Edwards, John Witherspoon & Princeton's biblical theology and apologetics in the 19th century emerges. Very interesting. I wish today more reformed theologians would be as pragmatic about the link between philosophy and theology as Witherspoon (and Samuel Finley). Would increase the value and strenght of anyone's education.

Slightly related, this brings me to a discussion of Calvin's famous opening line to his institutions:
'Nearly all the wisdom which we possess, that is to say, true and sound wisdom, consists of two parts: the knowledge of God and of ourselves.But, while joined by many bonds, which one precedes and brings forth the other is not easy to discern.'

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