Why did John Witherspoon detest the teachings of Jonathan Edwards? Were his grievances justified?

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Haeralis

Puritan Board Freshman
So, I've been doing a bit of reading about both Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon lately. I've long been a fan of Edwards and have studied Witherspoon as well, since the American Founding is one of my primary interests. From what I have read, one of the first things that Witherspoon did after ascending to the presidency of Princeton was to banish all of the Edwardsians from the school. Apparently, Witherspoon, who was deeply informed by the Scottish Enlightenment, saw Edwards' philosophical idealism as a threat to the intellectual environment he wanted to create.

Admittedly, I've long been wary of Witherspoon for various reasons. I don't appreciate his dedication to Lockean political philosophy and its basically secular attitude that the only purpose of the state is the protection of natural rights, not—as in Edwards—the cultivation of a Christian community characterized by a common devotion to God and to one another.

A big part of how one answers this question, I suppose, would depend on whether or not they view Scottish common sense realism as preferable to Edwardsian idealism. I don't know enough about Scottish common sense realism to evaluate it, but I do go into it somewhat skeptically since Thomas Reid, Francis Hutcheson, and other thinkers who developed that school of thought were kind of weak in their doctrine of sin. The fact that Witherspoon imported it into Princeton might explain why Presbyterianism became more "liberalized," as can be seen in its modification of the Westminster Confession to accommodate the secular state created by the Constitution.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Edwards' metaphysics was, quite frankly, bizarre. His take on original sin bordered on occasionalism, with the uncomfortable conclusion that God recreated the universe at each successive moment (which, incidentally, refuted Edwards' doctrine of the will). This had the further disastrous implication that if God recreated the universe each moment, he also recreated sin each moment, making God the author of sin.

And even where Edwards was okay on other doctrines, like justification, he didn't make any advances and wasn't as clear as earlier writers.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
I document problems with Edwards here.

AA Hodge actually calls him a pantheist. I think that is too strong. He is more likely a panentheist.

Oliver Crisp delivers the coup de grace here.
 

Haeralis

Puritan Board Freshman
Edwards' metaphysics was, quite frankly, bizarre. His take on original sin bordered on occasionalism, with the uncomfortable conclusion that God recreated the universe at each successive moment (which, incidentally, refuted Edwards' doctrine of the will). This had the further disastrous implication that if God recreated the universe each moment, he also recreated sin each moment, making God the author of sin.

And even where Edwards was okay on other doctrines, like justification, he didn't make any advances and wasn't as clear as earlier writers.
Even if we grant that Edwards might have been incorrect on certain doctrines, I’m not sure it follows that John Witherspoon was better. Witherspoon's Scottish Enlightenment sympathies taught him that temporal and spiritual virtues could be strictly separated; while the public state was based upon the temporal virtues that all human beings could possess because of their natural social and benevolent character (following Hutcheson / Reid), private morality was based upon the spiritual virtues revealed through Christianity. This element of his thinking is why Witherspoon favored the separation of church and state more than Edwards did.
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
Even if we grant that Edwards might have been incorrect on certain doctrines, I’m not sure it follows that John Witherspoon was better. Witherspoon's Scottish Enlightenment sympathies taught him that temporal and spiritual virtues could be strictly separated; while the public state was based upon the temporal virtues that all human beings could possess because of their natural social and benevolent character (following Hutcheson / Reid), private morality was based upon the spiritual virtues revealed through Christianity. This element of his thinking is why Witherspoon favored the separation of church and state more than Edwards did.

It's not simply that JE was incorrect on certain doctrines. He dropped the ball on basic things like panentheism and the reality of the external world. If your system messes up things like that, it doesn't matter what you get right.

No, Witherspoon was not better, but not for reasons you allege. Scottish common sense epistemology is basically what we call Reformed Epistemology today ala Plantinga. It is much superior to what I reject Witherspoon on issues like republican govt (which I reject).

And read Edwards' comments on John Locke. He was far more appreciative of Locke than was Witherspoon.
 

Haeralis

Puritan Board Freshman
It's not simply that JE was incorrect on certain doctrines. He dropped the ball on basic things like panentheism and the reality of the external world. If your system messes up things like that, it doesn't matter what you get right.

No, Witherspoon was not better, but not for reasons you allege. Scottish common sense epistemology is basically what we call Reformed Epistemology today ala Plantinga. It is much superior to what I reject Witherspoon on issues like republican govt (which I reject).

And read Edwards' comments on John Locke. He was far more appreciative of Locke than was Witherspoon.

Edwards never commented on the Second Treatise of Government but his political thought takes aim at Lockean doctrines. Edwards says explicitly in Freedom of the Will that "the common people's definition of liberty" is faulty because it focuses only upon the absence of coercion and does not recognize that order, government, and laws given by God preserve and enlarge liberty. One of Edwards' followers, Nathaniel Niles, provided one of the best Revolutionary Era critiques of Lockean liberalism in his famous Discourse on Liberty from 1774.

You are right that Edwards praises Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, but the consensus of the scholarship is that Edwards' adopts Lockean terminology (definitions of will, mind, etc.) while rejecting Lockean empiricism. On the whole, Edwards' idealism makes him much closer to Plato and the Cambridge Platonists than he is to Locke. Edwards does not reject innate ideas, for instance. For more on this, see George Marsden's discussion in Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

I don't know what you mean by "panantheist" but it sounds like a very uncharitable interpretation of Edwards. Everything I've read of his clearly presents God as being sovereign above the creation and in absolute control of it.

Last note: You are right to criticize Witherspoon's liberal (as opposed to classical) notion of republican government, but I would argue that you cannot at all separate Witherspoon's acceptance of Scottish moral sense theory from his belief that human virtue in non-Christians can be a strong enough to preserve a healthy republican political society. In Benjamin Lynerd's Republican Theology: The Civil Religion of American Evangelicals, Lynerd shows that Witherspoon's understanding of political virtue departs from earlier Calvinists like Jonathan Edwards. On the whole, Witherspoon's liberalism is premised on his epistemology (this is also true for John Locke, though his epistemology was even more radical than Witherspoon's).
 

BayouHuguenot

Puritanboard Clerk
You are right that Edwards praises Locke's Essay Concerning Human Understanding, but the consensus of the scholarship is that Edwards' adopts Lockean terminology (definitions of will, mind, etc.) while rejecting Lockean empiricism. On the whole, Edwards' idealism makes him much closer to Plato and the Cambridge Platonists than he is to Locke. Edwards does not reject innate ideas, for instance. For more on this, see George Marsden's discussion in Jonathan Edwards: A Life.

And Thomas Reid explicitly rejected Locke.
I don't know what you mean by "panantheist" but it sounds like a very uncharitable interpretation of Edwards. Everything I've read of his clearly presents God as being sovereign above the creation and in absolute control of it.

That's the precise critique almost every 19th century Presbyterian made against Edwards. His occasionalism is not that God is sovereign and in control. It is that God recreates the universe at each moment. This isn't an uncharitable reading of Edwards. It's literally the standard reading of JE on original sin, as you can find in 19th century Presbyterianism and in secular sources like the Stanford Encyclopedia.
On the whole, Witherspoon's liberalism is premised on his epistemology (this is also true for John Locke, though his epistemology was even more radical than Witherspoon's).

If Witherspoon's epistemology is Scottish Common Sense, then it is diametrically opposed to John Locke. That's the whole point of Reid's way of ideas.

Reid said very little about political ethics one way or another, so a genealogical critique of him is almost impossible.
 

Reformed Covenanter

Cancelled Commissioner
but I would argue that you cannot at all separate Witherspoon's acceptance of Scottish moral sense theory from his belief that human virtue in non-Christians can be a strong enough to preserve a healthy republican political society.

You need to distinguish more between Common Sense Realism as a mode of knowing and the notions of human benevolence promoted by Scottish Enlightenment thinkers such as Francis Hutcheson. I am not saying that there is no overlap between the views of Thomas Reid and Hutcheson, though I recall reading somewhere that there were significant divergences between them on the issue of human benevolence.[1] At a more basic level, Reid was defending Realism in opposition to Idealism. For anyone committed to Reid's defence of Realism, they are obviously going to have problems with Jonathan Edwards's Idealism. A case could be made that John Witherspoon appropriated Scottish Common Sense philosophy to advance a certain political agenda, though I suspect that the main bone of contention between him and Edwards centres around the clash between Realism and Idealism.

[1] I have not looked at this subject for about four years, so my memory needs refreshing. I will try to track down where I read that statement.
 
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