(Posted on behalf of Steve.)
I haven't read any Van Til directly, so I don't know where it is, but people I know who have studied him at length have said that he held to the Cartesian view that God created the laws of logic and mathematics and that even the truths we take to be necessary God could have made false. God could have made true contradictions and so on. Voluntarism about ethics follows from that, I think, although I don't know if he explicitly held that. I'm pretty sure Descartes' voluntarism about logic and mathematics is what influenced Locke to hold to voluntarism about ethics. So Van Til is my guess about where this is coming from, anyway, if it's legitimate at all.
Of course, there was that confusing and confused piece from Scot McKnight recently that simply confused Calvinism with voluntarism. It just occurred to me that it might have something to do with that mess.
A few observations:
- A friend of mine said he only knows one sentence is Van Til's voluminous output which might possibly suggest the Cartesian position:
The law of contradiction, therefore, as we know it, is but the expression on a created level of the internal coherence of God’s nature. An Introduction to Systematic Theology.
Even in that case, he doesn't say the law of contradiction is created, but rather, the law of contradiction "as we know it" is created. Seems to me his qualifier is just a variation of the Clark controversy, where Van Til denied that man's knowledge is identical at any point with God's knowledge. So I take the qualifier to be in reference to the human understanding of logic, and not logic itself.
- Even if Van Til were a Cartesian possibilist, I don't think that would entail ethical voluntarism unless it was combined with divine command theory. On natural law theory, there'd still be right and wrong because human social ethics and individual ethics are, in no small measure, grounded in God's design for human nature. To that extent, ethics is contingent, because human nature is contingent, but it's not relativistic.
In theory, there could be different ethics for extraterrestrials if their nature (physiology and psychology) is sufficiently different. But it wouldn't be cultural relativism or moral relativism. Given the same nature, the same morality would always be in force. Universal in time and place for that kind of creature.
- Finally, I ran this by John Frame, who replied:
I’m quite sure that VT was not a voluntarist.
There are three alternatives: (1) logic is above God, (2) logic is created by God, and (3) logic is an aspect of the divine nature.
In his various polemics, VT often opposed (1).
He was less clear on (2), but he was critical of the classic “voluntarist” philosophers like Duns Scotus. His basic picture was that (1) is rationalist, (2) is irrationalist, leaving (3) as the biblical alternative.
Of course, he didn’t want to say with Clark that “logic is God,” so his witness to (3) was blunted somewhat.
[JF: better to say that yes, logic is God; but mercy, justice, wisdom, eternity, are also God—i.e. God from various perspectives.]
He should have been more careful in his thinking on this matter which was, unfortunately, distorted by intra-Reformed polemics.