Witherspoon vs. Edwards on Moral Philosophy

As Joseph DiLuzio argues at the website of the Intercollegiate Studies Institute’s American Studies Center, Jonathan Edwards and John Witherspoon, two of the leading figures of 18th century American Calvinism, parted ways on the issue of moral philosophy.  His argument echoes much of what Mark Noll argued in America’s God and Princeton and the Republic, what Ned Landsman argued in From Colonials to Provincials, and what I argued in The Way of Improvement Leads Home and briefly in Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?: A Historical Introduction.

Here is a taste:

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 Godis 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).   

HT: Jonathan Rowe