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History and Theology in the Thought of John Witherspoon

John Witherspoon (1723–1794) was an eighteenth-century Scottish-American Presbyterian minister and signer of the United States Declaration of Independence. In this episode, we speak with Robert S. Null about Witherspoon’s theology and understanding of history through four unstudied manuscripts of his lectures at the College of New Jersey (later Princeton University). In his dissertation, John Witherspoon’s Forgotten “Lectures on History and Chronology”: Recognizing the Important Role of History in the Development of His Thought and Theology for Navigating Eighteenth-Century Late Protestant Scholasticism, Revivalism, and Enlightenment, Null writes:

Witherspoon had to contend with the legacy of late seventeenth century Protestant scholasticism, newer forms of revivalism, and more rationalistic developments in eighteenth century enlightenment thought. A detailed but fading emphasis on the decrees, preparation for grace, and the application of redemption merged with a more secular emphasis on free thought involving induction, empiricism, idealism, and common sense philosophy, as well as challenges from new theological movements in holiness, revivalism, and pietism. Revolutions in politics, science, logic, and theological priorities were frequent and significant. Changes in both the worlds of theology and philosophy would continue throughout the eighteenth century.

The relationship of history to theology became foundational for Witherspoon not simply as an extension of late Protestant scholasticism, an expression of Christian piety, or an excessive reliance on, or aversion toward, a specific enlightenment philosophy. In his writings, theology itself was undergoing change, and specifically in Witherspoon’s case, toward integrating an important awareness of history. This awareness demonstrates the importance of history very early in the rise of Princeton theology.

Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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