By Joseph DiLuzio, September 5, 2011 in Uncategorized
By the end of John Witherspoon’s first year as president of Princeton University (then, the College of New Jersey) in 1769, a small group of tutors, including the late president’s son – Jonathan Edwards Jr. – had resigned their positions at the college. Their leave had been amicable in spite of their philosophical differences with the new president. Though tolerant of the tutors’ idealism, 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. The philosophical shift superintended by Witherspoon would have a profound impact on the future of the institution: natural philosophy – science – would be introduced into the curriculum; an empirical, “common sense” approach would replace the theistic-centered methodology of the old regime; the college would increasingly come to be seen as a “nursery of statesmen” rather than a seminary. In the ensuing years, Witherspoon himself would become active in politics as a member of the Continental Congress and signatory of the Declaration of Independence.
Despite the progress of the college during his tenure, 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. Such incoherence did not characterize the thought of Jonathan Edwards. Witherspoon was an epistemological optimist: he advocated an empirical approach to the study of ethics, believing “a time may come when men, treating moral philosophy as Newton and his successors have done natural, may arrive at greater precision. It is always safer in our reasonings to trace facts upwards than to reason downwards upon metaphysical principles.” In his Lectures on Moral Philosophy, Witherspoon teaches that “the principles of duty and obligation must be drawn from the nature of man,” though he concedes that “there is nothing certain or valuable in moral philosophy, but what is perfectly coincident with scripture” (Works of the Rev. John Witherspoon 1802: 3.470, 380, 471).
In practice, Witherspoon ignored the Calvinist doctrine of total depravity, which states that original sin corrupts every aspect of the unregenerate person’s being – mind, body, and soul. (It does not, as is popularly assumed, mean that the unregenerate person is necessarily as evil as he could be.) Even those who have been saved by grace continue to be plagued by sin as God progressively sanctifies them. As Paul writes to the Ephesians of his own formerly unregenerate state, “[we] were by nature children of wrath like the rest of mankind” (Eph. 2:3).
None of this is to say that the study of the (natural) moral sense is inherently incompatible with the tenets of Reformed theology. Indeed, Jonathan Edwards promoted the study of the moral sense. He claimed that all humans share a “natural conscience” that “should approve and condemn the same things that are approved and condemned by a spiritual sense” (Works of Jonathan Edwards 1974: 1.134, italics mine). What distinguished the moral philosophies of Edwards and Witherspoon was their respective confidence in natural man’s ability to reason properly. Edwards did not share Witherspoon’s optimism, and in this, he followed in the tradition of Augustine and ultimately of Paul. In his letter to the Romans, the apostle admits that what can be known about God is plain to all but that the ungodly suppress the truth by their unrighteousness: because of their disobedience, the unregenerate have become “futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened” (Rom. 1:18-21).
As a tutor at Yale, a young Jonathan Edwards had been sympathetic with Hutcheson’s philosophy, but by the time he became president of Princeton, he was convinced that humans in our fallen state could not comprehend truth and goodness apart from grace. Unlike Locke, Edwards believed that humans possess innate qualities such as sinfulness and the capacity to reason; the sum of personal experience combines with these qualities so that each person comes to possess a unique set of mental habits. Sin taking the form of self-interest, prejudice, self-deception, and certain passions inhibit natural man’s capacity to reason. By contrast, the experience of grace and the regenerating work of the Spirit, according to Edwards, “sanctifies the reasoning faculty… as it removes prejudices and so lays the mind more open to the force of arguments, and also secondly, as it positively enlightens and assists it to see the force of rational arguments…” (Misc. 628, T 251).
Edwards did not hold that natural man was always incapable of employing reason to arrive at the right ethical conclusions. But without the benefit of grace, natural man was like a traveler lost in the woods: he might happen upon the right destination, but he lacks confidence in his course and his fate is uncertain. Witherspoon might have taken the role of grace for granted; given its basis in revelation, he might have seen it as unsuited to lectures on moral philosophy. Perhaps the decision was in some way political, as Mark Noll suggests in Princeton and the Republic: “Edwards’ fiercely revelational ethics was not quite respectable in an age of reason and science” (44). Whatever the reason, Witherspoon drew a sharp distinction between reason and revelation where Edwards did not. In so doing, he laid the groundwork for the modern academy.