Saturday, September 7, 2013

Edwards's Idealism & Witherspoon's Realism

'Plato's famous idealized Republic required a perfect Philosopher King to rule it, with wisdom and benevolence. He argued that because such a perfect human being could exist, therefore such a king would be possible to find.'
Princeton's thoughtleadership in the 18th century was based on it's approach to solving the tensions between 'moderates' and 'evangelicals', Old Lights and New Lights, fronteer Scots-Irish and New-England puritans, Scottish and non-Scottish segments of US Presbyterianism, as explained in a sermon (1761) by it's president Samuel Finley. So how did Princeton solve the tension between Edwards's idealism and Witherspoon's realism?

Jonathan Edwards's pursuit of happiness ('happiness' was his favorite word) reminds of Francis Hutcheson's moral philosophy. A Owen Aldrigde writes that Jonathan Edwards dissertation on Nature of True Virtue is literally a commentary on Hutcheson's work. This focus on the pursuit of happiness was an essential structuring element during the Scottish Enlightenment. We see Samuel Davies focus on happiness in his sermons. But just as the concept of 'common sense' ('Witherspoon's lectures do not contain the full-orbed common-sense epistemology' Mark A. Noll), the pursuit of happiness means different things to different people. John Witherspoon and Samuel Finley understood this and had no problem integrating the valuable aspects of Francis Hutcheson's and Thomas Reid's work in their educational endeavour.

The next question is offcourse how to reconcile the supposed idealism of Jonathan Edwards with the supposed realism of John Witherspoon. From his ecclesiastical characteristics we can deduct that Witherspoon rejected Edwards aesthetic approach. But at the same time, as Scott Oliphint points out:
'The more Edwards puzzled over these matters, the more he was able to express himself biblically so that his later, most mature expression of ontology grounds the notion of Being squarely in the character of God and not in an abstract principle.'
'It was in this context (of the great awakening) that Edwards wrote what is considered by many to be his greatest work, A Treatise on the Religious Affections. In that work, Edwards had to show not only that such a scholastic psychology was unwarranted, but that his position of the organic unity of man was (1) biblical and (2) explanatory of the nature of revival'

Jonathan Edwards's sermons on redemptive history might hold the key to solving this riddle. An approach that reminds us of Origen , Geerhardus Vos, and Klaas Schilder. Rejecting antropocentrism, while at the same time doing justice to the perspuictas of Scripture, the redemptive historical approach eventually links Princeton's 'Plato and Aristotle' (Matthew J. Milliner). As Robert S. Null's writes in his dissertation:
 'The relationship of history to theology became foundational for Witherspoon not simply as an extension of late Protestant scholasticism, an expression of Christian piety, or an excessive reliance on, or aversion toward, a specific enlightenment philosophy. In his writings, theology itself was undergoing change, and specifically in Witherspoon's case, toward integrating an important awareness of history. This awareness demonstrates the importance of history very early in the rise of Princeton theology.'
Biblical theology and redemptive-historic preaching is the answer to these different questions, as illustrated by a quote from Jonathan Edwards sermon on Ruth's resolution: 
'But men can be happy in no other God, but the God of Israel. He is the only fountain of happiness.'
Once again, as C. Jan Swearingen has argued, we see here the central focus on preaching in Scottish philosophy. Let's hope the Edwards conference february 27/28 2014 in the United Kingdom will enlighten us more on how Jonathan Edwards contributed to Princeton's educational project.

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