Neo-Evangelical Historians On Witherspoon
In trying to portray John Witherspoon as an apostle of the Enlightenment who ignored the scriptures, “UnChristian America” historians, relying almost entirely on secondary sources, have distorted the record, either through sloppy scholarship or deliberate misrepresentation. This is an example of how they use quotations:
Mark Noll quotes James McAllister as saying of Witherspoon:
The answer to the question regarding the biblical contribution to Witherspoon's teaching about the law and liberty is: almost nothing ... his theory of society and civil laws was based not on revelation but on the moral sense enlightened by reason and experience.Noll, Search for Christian America, pp. 90-91.
Compare that to McAllister's full quote:
One final question needs to be asked in this discussion of Witherspoon's concept of law and civil law particularly. Since Witherspoon was of a conservative theological bent and argued that “the wisest way for us, with regard to all revealed truth, is to receive it as revealed,” how large a role did biblical revelation play in his theory of civil law? His Lectures on Divinity repeatedly illustrates his literalistic method of interpreting scripture; but when he raised the question about whether the laws of Moses are of “perpetual obligation,” he argued that they are not because of their being particularly suited to conditions of the Jews in Canaan. Nonetheless, he believed that criminal laws based on the principle of lex talionis were “founded upon so much wisdom, that it is a question whether departure from them in punishing crime has ever been attended with advantage.” Therefore, the answer to the question regarding the biblical contribution to Witherspoon's teaching about civil law and liberty is: almost nothing. We claim that his theory of social and civil law was based not on revelation but on the moral sense enlightened by reason and common experience. Although his theological method was based on a literalistic view of scripture, he somewhat inconsistently explained away a large part of the scriptural revelation which he said must be merely accepted without the believer's “presuming to be wise above what is written.”-- James McAllister, “John Witherspoon: An Academic Advocate for Religious Freedom” in A Miscellany of American Christianity, ed. Stuart Henry (Durham: Duke University Press, 1963), pp. 217-218.
Notice the difference? Noll doesn't mention that McAllister, an honest historian who actually reads the sources, stressed Witherspoon's emphasis on scripture, its literal interpretation, and the necessity of receiving it “as revealed”. Nor does Noll mention that McAllister claimed that Witherspoon's social theory was rooted in reason and moral sense in social theory only because he did not make Mosaic case laws a foundation for American society. McAllister clearly judged Witherspoon and found him wanting by what could be called theonomic standards. If failure to adopt all Hebrew case laws as a civil pattern makes one an apostle of the Enlightenment, then many of the Reformers and most contemporary Christians, including American evangelicals, would fall into this camp. Without saying what he is doing, Noll holds Witherspoon to a standard which few people, probably including Professor Noll, could meet. Nonetheless, we are happy to see Dr. Noll clandestinely employing theonomic standards, and wish him well as he begins to unfurl the Reconstructionist banner and diligently apply Mosaic law to contemporary society. We can only urge him to take greater care in his historical methodology.