Thursday, January 23, 2014

Where Do The Two Lines Intersect: Edwards & Witherspoon

The quantity of resources and books dedicated to the study of Jonathan Edwards are enormous and in stark contrast to the number of books that treat John Witherspoon's work. When was the last conference dedicated to the theology of John Witherspoon? In stark contrast you will find Jonathan Edwards conferences in England (february 27 2014), in Germany  , etc. John Piper's focus might have something to do with it. And when John Witherspoon's name falls, it's mostly in connection with politics. Why?

To equate theology during the Great Awakening to Johnathan Edwards would be misleading. I expect a comparison of Edwards with Witherspoon would lead to a better understanding of what they share and what should therefore be considered central to theology at Princeton.

Avihu Zakai has written a book on the philosophy of history of Johnathan Edwards in which he quotes Moltmann (teacher to Miroslav Volf) :
'Conversion as the private, spiritual experience of saving grace signifies God's indwelling in time'
A quote that helps understand the importance of Jonathan Edwards in this book:

"Edwards held that the principal source governing the historical process is God's redemptive plan, the pouring out of the Spirit of God, as made evident in revival and awakening - that is, a spiritual experience of saving grace and its embodiment in decisive historical moments in the history of the Christian churchc rather than external historical transformations. On the other hand, in contrast to New England Puritan historians who construed the Puritan migration to America during the seventeenth century as a great eshatological and apocalyptic event, establishing an essential gulf between the Old and New Worlds, Edwards abandoned the vision of the glorious New World in providential history. The redemptive process concerned all Protestants, regardless of their location."
David C. Brand writes about John Witherspoon
'"While serving as a pastor in Scotland, Witherspoon had opposed the Scottish realism, or common sense philosophy expressed in Thomas Reid's Inquiry into the Mind on the Principles of Common Sense. He had championed the evangelical cause over against the Moderate intellectuals who followed the teachings of such men as Leibnitz and Lord Shaftsbury. Immediately upon his arrival at Princeton, however, Witherspoon began publically to oppose the idealistic philosophy of George Berkeley which had tainted the Edwardsean school, treated the New Divinity theologians (including Jonathan Edwards, Jr.) with coolness, and within a year had systematically purged the college of the New England theologians."
It seems to me the best way to understand both is to compare them and see where the lines cross. John Witherspoon and Jonathan Edwards are two sides of the same Princetonian coin. Ignoring one half gives us a distorted picture.

I also expect studying John Witherspoon and John Edwards together would give us answers in the controversy surrounding Princeton's Apologetics. It could help sharpen the path Princeton saw between the Chill and Charibdis of both Idealism and Realism. It would also greatly help to put in context the sharp debate between J. Oliver Buswell and Cornelis van Til concerning apologetics. I still believe Bill Dennison's short piece on the redemptive-historical hermeneutic and preaching points to the Princetonian interesection of thought that could reconcile those attracted to the position of either Buswell or van Til. His review of David VanDrunen's Natural Law and Two Kingdoms, criticized by D. G. Hart, points in this same direction. Misrepresenting John Witherspoon's views, as does David vanDrunen here, doesn't help solve the puzzle.

A related discussion by Kloosterman can be found here.

The epistemology of Princeton has often been put in opposition to the epistemology of Kuyper and Bavinck. However, the more I read about the distinction, the more I get the impression this is completely offbase.

To understand Kuyper and Bavinck we should look at the struggle that led to the doleantie.This struggle has strong similarites to the struggle of John Witherspoon inside the Scottish church. This is reflected in Herman Bavinck's dogmatics when he talks about the clarity of scripture. He says 'the clarity of Scripture is origin and guarantee of religious and political freedoms'. This is a direct reference to one of the most important speeches by Abraham Kuyper concerning his political strategy: 'Calvinism, origin & guaranty of our constitutional freedoms'.

We should take into account the fact that the clarity of Scripture was central also in Helenius de Cock and Klaas Schilder's writings. Klaas Schilder writes in 1934: 'in the acceptance of the clarity of Scripture lies the unity between 1834 & 1934, between Hendrik de Cock and us.

It's impossible to understand the politics and theology of either Kuyper, Bavinck or Schilder while ignoring this central fact.

It's my contention that it was this doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture that made the Antirevolutionary party such a strong political force in Dutch politics.

Now, once we have established these basics concerning Dutch reformed theology and antirevolutionary politics, we should be able to evaluate the similarites and differences between Princeton (Warfield and Hodge) on the one hand, and the Dutch reformed on the other hand.

It's precisely this doctrine of the Clarity of Scripture that permeats Presbyterian church governance and it's teachings. Samuel Davies, for example, was the first pastor who taught slaves to read the bible. The effort to teach eloquence at Princeton obviously aimed to give students the ability to participate in the reading and explanation of the bible. Reverend Abraham Gosman said in his introduction to Geerhardus Voses Inaugural address:
´the student cannot take with any satisfaction or certainty
the books of the Bible as trustworthy or authoritative without an investigation of his own´
 Examples are endless that illustrate the centrality of this doctrine in Presbyterian theology. The word 'Presbyterian' actually points to the centrality of the clarity of Scripture. The higher level of education in Scotland in the 17th century, due to the reforms by John Knox, point to this doctrine. 

Why is it that today when people think of Calvinism, that the doctrine of the clarity of Scripture is hardly ever mentioned? It reminds of the words of the apostle in the letter to the galatians:
 You foolish Galatians! Who has bewitched you?


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