The book in question is Leszek Kolakowski’s Why Is There Something Rather than Nothing? It has 23 essays on the great philosophers and theologians. The author is Roman Catholic. Along with the historian John Lukacs and theologian-physicist Stanley Jaki (who died last April), he is one of a vanishing breed of Central European thinkers who seem to know everything!
My two points are: 1) there is a clear line of descent from Augustine to Calvin to Jonathan Edwards — this is not a controversial proposition; 2) Thomas Aquinas and John Witherspoon represent theological dead ends; this is a controversial proposition.
Two of Kolakowski’s essays are on St. Augustine (354-430) and Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).
Augustine stands apart from all other theologians; he casts his shadow over 1,650 years of church history. His book, City of God, is the greatest work of Christian antiquity. Kolakowaki writes:
The question of evil is ubiquitous in Augustine’s work. … the possibility of evil—in other words, of decay and corruption — exists because everything except God, and thus also man, was created from nothing, and hence is subject to change.
Since God is absolute good, it follows that He alone deserves worship, faith and love as ends in themselves; we may love God’s creatures, including our fellow men, only by reference to Him.
Faith precedes reason. But there is no faith without reason, for only reason can believe. … even the propositions of mathematics work like this: we believe them first, and only later do we try to prove them.
For Augustine there is only one historical process; here, contrary to … some Greek philosophers, there are no cycles, regenerations or returns. And the things we consider to be the results of chance are all parts of the wise plan of Providence, which is veiled from us.
Concerning the above paragraph, I wish Kolakowski had quoted Augustine’s “confession” on memory: “How great, my God, is this force of memory, how exceeding great! It is like a vast boundless subterranean shrine. Who has ever reached the bottom of it? Yet this is a faculty of my mind and belongs to my nature; nor can I myself grasp all that I am.” (REFERENCE)
We cannot see the full meaning of any of life’s events. Only God can.
Thomas Aquinas has a large number of followers and is the subject of serious scholarly attention, but mostly within Roman Catholicism. Aquinas was concerned with humankind’s participation in the two orders — temporal and eternal. Kolakowski writes:
Aquinas does not share Augustine’s notorious belief in the ubiquity of moral evil, which seeps through into every aspect and domain of our existence.
He does not seem much interested in the demonic side of human existence (emphasis added).
Thomism (the doctrine of Aquinas) is no longer a significant inspirational force or stimulus in philosophy outside Thomist circles.
To sum up, Kolakowski gives us an Aquinas who is somewhat dated and with a blind spot. In a world shaped by the horrors of the 20th century, Aquinas seems to walk around on stilts, out of touch with the real world.
With its emphasis on the sovereignty and grace of God, Calvinism is Augustinian theology updated for a more modern world. This year we have been celebrating the 500th anniversary of John Calvin’s birth. As American Presbyterians, which of the following two men can best equip us to mark this occasion, Jonathan Edwards (1703-1758) or John Witherspoon (1723-1794)?
Jonathan Edwards grew up in the Connecticut River Valley, on the frontier of New England. He was a member of a Puritan Calvinistic aristocracy. After several youthful spiritual crises, he embraced Augustinian Calvinism with all his heart and soul. He was a gifted preacher, an intense scholar, a prolific writer, and one of the leaders of an international evangelistic movement. In 1754, while serving as a missionary to Indians, he wrote his famous work, Freedom of the Will, in which he attacked the action of a self-determining will. The minute care with which he subordinated will to character made his work a landmark for theologians in America, Scotland, and Wales for more than a century. In 1758, soon after beginning his work as president of what is now Princeton University, he died of a smallpox vaccination gone bad.
In his book, Jonathan Edwards — A Life, George Marsden captures the essence of Edwards’ thought:
The universe of Newton was one of constant action and changing relationships, and Edwards’ conception of God was matched to that dynamic universe. Lockean and early modern idealist philosophies, as Edwards appropriated them, added the notion that created reality was not independent of the minds that engage it. That reinforced the point that the universe most essentially consisted of personal relationships.
Further, God must be governing it (the universe) in some way that … grants the maximum possible autonomy to created beings.
God’s Trinitarian essence of love … . The highest or most beautiful love is sacrificial love for the undeserving. … Glimpsing such love … they will be drawn from their self-centered universes. Seeing the … love of Christ as the true center of reality, they will love God and all that he has created (pp. 504-505).
John Witherspoon is an American icon. He was the only clergyman to sign the Declaration of Independence. James Madison was his most celebrated student at Princeton. Truly he was swimming in the mainstream of late 18th century American political thought. He is even alleged to have coined the term “Americanism.”
During his long tenure as president of what is now Princeton University, it became the most national of the late colonial and early national colleges, drawing students from Georgia and New England.
But his influence rested more on the magnetism of his personality than on the power of his reasoning. He often used rhetorical rather than reasoned argument to overcome opposing views. He treated ethics as a moral science analogous to the physical sciences, a position repudiated by Jonathan Edwards and others.
When he became president in 1768, Witherspoon cleansed Princeton of all idealistic philosophy, whether from Bishop Berkeley or Jonathan Edwards.
To sum up: John Witherspoon represents the first generational “dumbing down” of Jonathan Edwards.
In spite of all we know, Jonathan Edwards will always seem somewhat foreign to Americans; indeed, he was foreign, a product of British America, a hierarchical society in which great deference was shown to persons in positions of authority, such as Jonathan Edwards. The historian Gordon Wood illuminates this subject in his book, The Radicalism of the American Revolution.
It is significant that Edwards died in 1758, one year before Quebec City fell to British General James Wolfe, marking the end of French empire in North America. It also marked the beginning of the end of British rule in the 13 colonies, although no one grasped this reality at that time.
Nevertheless, there is no doubt about the identity of the person American Presbyterians should look to as we commemorate John Calvin.
Wesley R. Harker is an honorably retired pastor living in Cedar Falls, Iowa.
Editor’s Note: Given that many Presbyterians in the pews love to sing Christmas carols throughout Advent, but many worship leaders want to keep with Advent themes for worship, we have commissioned Carolyn Gillette to write Advent-themed hymn texts for Christmas carol tunes for each of the Sundays of this year’s Advent. We invite our loyal readers to incorporate these into their Sunday worship, and to send us a note to let us know how the congregation responds.