JOHN WITHERSPOON AND CORRUPTED AMERICAN PRESBYTERIANISM
It would be unfair to hold John Witherspoon solely responsible for the corruption of American Presbyterianism. Before he had even set foot on American soil, New Side Presbyterianism had significantly triumphed (in human terms) over Old Side Presbyterianism, and with it some important connections to the historic reformed faith were loosened. But Witherspoon severed the previously loosened cord, and in so doing turned American Presbyterianism in a definitively Romish direction on certain foundational issues. And so significant was his impact on this new soil that The Cambridge History of English and American Literature in 18 Volumes (1907–21) rightly points out: “Despite the multitude of sects, the Scottish common-sense philosophy introduced at the end of the eighteenth century at Princeton by President Witherspoon, spread until it formed almost the sole basis of philosophic instruction.” Having persuaded Old Side Presbyterians to join with the New Side, John Witherspoon released the united body from some of Presbyterian’s important anchors. And with the Old Side vanquished, little opposition remained to this course.
John Witherspoon’s philosophy was not original to him, but rather was an adaptation of Thomas Reid’s common sense realism. Here is how one article at http://www.credenda.org/issues/7-6cultura.php?type=print explains its roots:
“The leading advocate of common sense was the Moderate clergyman and professor, Thomas Reid (1710-96). 3 He argued that the ultimate validator of truth is naive consciousness or common sense. This "sixth sense," he said, was a faculty of reason, a source of principles, a capacity for certain original and intuitive judgments that may be used as foundations for deductive reasoning. 4 Reid claimed, on questionable biblical grounds, that God guaranteed these "instinctive presuppositions" and gave them a certain revelatory character by structuring them right into man's intellectual constitution. Reid thus found the ultimate source of his epistemology not in the Scriptures or the redemptive work of Christ, but in the philosophical golden calf of his own making: "Let my soul dwell with Common Sense." 5 For Reid and the Moderates, common sense was not a defense of Christian orthodoxy or a biblical response to skepticism. It was an invention of "theological revolutionaries." 6…Common sense replaced God's Law and Spirit as the foundations for human knowledge. Within a few generations, common sense philosophy had penetrated the very heart of American Protestantism. John Witherspoon, the president of Princeton (1747), introduced common sense philosophy to his divinity students, 8 and appealed to "certain first principles or dictates of common sense" as "the foundations of all reasoning." 9 Princeton's synthesis of biblical doctrine and common sense epistemology bore bitter fruit in the church by the early 20th century.”
Common sense philosophy essentially capitulated epistemology and anthropology to Romish presuppositions. Human rationality – consisting in something Reid labeled “common sense” – was made the starting point of knowledge. Thus, human rationality took the place of God and His word as final arbiter of truth. This is just where the Jesuits and the whole Romish Church wanted knowledge to start. Jesuit-trained Descartes - the ‘father of modern philosophy’ - had a remarkable impact in Protestant nations as an advocate of such humanistic philosophy based upon humanistic foundations. Any philosophical system with a human rather than a divine foundation can never ultimately sustain Biblical Christianity. Rather, humanistic foundations inevitably lead to humanistic conclusions. And such humanistic philosophies are always beset by a flawed anthropology. They fail to take proper account of man’s total depravity in his fallen condition, and consequently the thoroughly perverted nature of his reason and “common sense.” But as this same article notes, the fundamental premises imported by Witherspoon have characterized not only liberal but even much of “conservative” American Presbyterianism to our own day.
An article at http://etc.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/witherspoon_john.html describes something of how Witherspoon adopted and imported this “common sense” philosophy:
“He was not an original thinker, but he was a product of Scotland's leading university in an age when the Scottish universities had a vitality possessed by no others in Great Britain. Although certain leniencies encouraged by the Scottish Enlightenment had offended his orthodox Presbyterianism, Witherspoon introduced to Princeton, and through it to other institutions, some of the more advanced ideas of that movement. He subscribed to John Locke's view of the role of sensory perception in the development of the mind, but vigorously rejected all esoteric interpretations of that view. He saw no conflict between faith and reason; instead, he encouraged his students to test their faith by the rule of experience. He was much inclined to apply the test of common sense to any proposition, and to reduce it to its simplest terms. In lecturing on rhetoric he advised his students of the multiple components into which a discourse traditionally had been divided, and then suggested that it was enough to say that every discourse or composition ``must have a beginning, a middle, and an end.'' His name is rightly identified with certain attitudes and assumptions, considered to be of importance in the development of our national life, that are associated with what is known as the Common Sense Philosophy…In his support of the American cause there is no occasion for surprise. He subscribed to John Locke's political philosophy as wholeheartedly as to his psychology, and brought from Scotland a strong sense of ``British liberty,'' which he came to see as greatly endangered by the course of British policy. When John Adams stopped over in Princeton on his way to the first meeting of the Continental Congress in 1774, he met Witherspoon and pronounced him ‘as high a Son of Liberty, as any Man in America.’”
It should really come as no surprise that Witherspoon adopted the Jesuit Bellarmine’s political philosophy of revolution, having already adopted many other aspects of humanistic Romish ideology. If man is the foundation of knowledge, then surely man has the right to self-expression, and any ruler must have his consent to rule. And if man’s conscience is supreme, then ‘liberty of conscience’ (so called but not Biblically defined) must surely be inviolable. And if man’s common sense is so rational, truth must surely be its end. And if all men have such common sense, then surely all men are qualified to vote, and therein to rule. It thus buys into every necessary pre-supposition of liberation theology and revolution.
The consequences of his political philosophy were described by a Christianity Today article as follows:
“Witherspoon's common-sense views and his concern for the church led him to argue that the colonies ought to sever ties with England. "There is not a single instance in history," he stated, "in which civil liberty was lost and religious liberty preserved." Starting in May 1776, he began arguing for independence from the pulpit, earning him the Tory title, ‘Doctor Silverspoon, Preacher of Sedition in America.’” (see http://www.christianitytoday.com/holidays/fourthofjuly/features/50h018.html )
The article previously cited at http://etc.princeton.edu/CampusWWW/Companion/witherspoon_john.html goes on to describe something of his significant influence on the nation, American Presbyterianism, and Princeton University:
“He was a member of the ratifying convention that brought to New Jersey the honor of being the third state to ratify the Constitution of the United States. He contributed greatly to the organization of a newly independent and national Presbyterian Church and in 1789 opened its first General Assembly with a sermon and presided until the election of the first moderator. Above all, the name he had won as a divine, an educator, and a patriot brought returning strength to the College. He is rightly remembered as one of the great presidents of Princeton.”
While I would differ with this article’s assessment of the propriety of Witherspoon’s philosophy and life, neither I nor anyone else should argue with its assessment of his influence. While Witherspoon and many of his American Presbyterian descendants do not carry some of their humanistic pre-suppositions to their logical conclusion, and hence preserve various aspects (and sometimes very important aspects) of the historic reformed faith, they leave America with a corrupted version of Presbyterianism. He set the basic course which most American Presbyterianism has never shaken- be it “liberal” or be it “conservative.” But this legacy has left American Presbyterians very weak in engaging in spiritual combat the “Babylon” the Jesuits designed in Washington, DC.