Saturday, January 16, 2016

Calvinism, voluntarism, and the same God debate

On Lydia McGrew's "same God" post for TGC, I notice at least a couple of commenters asserting that "a substantial school of Calvinist thought employs moral voluntarism"–or words to that effect. Now, it's common for opponents of Calvinism to make that charge, but how do these commenters define voluntarism? What makes them think Calvinism is voluntaristic? Calvin himself was a critic of voluntarism. For instance:


  1. Jeremy, that's pretty vague. What book or article are you alluding to? What did he actually say? In addition, you haven't defined what you mean by "voluntarism" in this context.

  2. 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 contractions 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.

  3. Calvin:

    //That Sarbonic dogma, therefore, in the promulgation of which the Papal theologians so much pride themselves, “that the power of God is absolute and tyrannical,” I utterly abhor. For it would be easier to force away the light of the sun from his heat, or his heat from his fire, than to separate the power of God from His justice. Away, then, with all such monstrous speculations from godly minds, as that God can possibly do more, or otherwise, than He has done, or that He can do anything without the highest order and reason. For I do not receive that other dogma, “that God, as being free from all law Himself, may do anything without being subject to any blame for doing so.” For whosoever makes God without law, robs Him of the greatest part of His glory, because he spoils Him of His rectitude and justice. Not that God is, indeed, subject to any law, excepting in so far as He is a law unto Himself. But there is that inseparable connection and harmony between the power of God and His justice, that nothing can possibly be done by Him but what is moderate, legitimate, and according to the strictest rule of right. And most certainly, when the faithful speak of God as omnipotent, they acknowledge Him at the same time to be the Judge of the world, and always hold His power to be righteously tempered with equity and justice.//

  4. I always just pass over the question of whether Calvinists are usually/always/sometimes/never voluntarist by explaining why the voluntarist question is more urgent for Islam than for Calvinism in any event--namely, that there are so many other reasons to think that Calvinist Christians and non-Calvinist Christians worship the same God, even if some Calvinists are voluntarists. There are not such other reasons in the case of Islam.

  5. Greg Bahnsen, perhaps Van Til's premier student (some might argue Frame) gave the following rebuttal to the charge of voluntarism when debating atheist George Smith in 1991, so I would say this is view is at least consistent with Van Tillian presuppositionalist thought:

    "Now is punishment the basis for Christian ethics? Suggestion was made that we believe that, say, murder is wrong because God has said so and he’ll punish us if we don’t agree.  But that of course is not the Christian position at all.  Did God forbid murder arbitrarily?  This is the issue of voluntarism in theology.  And the old conundrum from the days of Plato has supposedly been, well if God does this simply on the basis of his sheer volition, he just wills murder to be wrong, then of course tomorrow he could will murder to be right.  On the other hand, if God has some reason for willing murder to be wrong, then, of course, you don’t need God in order to believe that murder is wrong, because the reason God has would be the basis.  But what that overlooks completely from a Christian standpoint is God forbids murder because it’s contrary to his own unchanging character.  And God’s volition, that is to say his expressed will, saying “Thou shalt not murder” is based upon who he is—the kind of God he is and that is unchanging.  So the character of God is the basis of Christian morality, not simply the revelation of God or threats of eternal punishment if we should be murderers and so forth."

    This view is also consistent with Calvinism in general.