Wednesday, April 5, 2006

Select Annotations and Quotations on Supra- & Infralapsarianism: Part III

In this section, I provide a variety of references from systematic theology texts from the 19th, 20th, 21st centuries. Besides orienting the reader to the main players, definitions, and arguments of the debate, these works also illustrate our indebtedness to Protestant Scholasticism for the language of much of today’s theological expression.

Systematic Theologians

Agnostic: Supra- or Infra-?

  • One of the finest treatments of this debate is found in Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, trans. and ed. William Hendriksen (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1979). However, Bavinck is critical of both expressions of the decrees. “Neither supra- nor infralapsarianism has succeeded in its attempt to solve this problem and to do justice to the many-sidedness of Scripture. To a certain extent this failure is due to the one-sidedness that characterizes both views…Neither the supra- nor the infralapsarian view of predestination is able to do full justice to the truth of Scripture, and to satisfy our theological thinking” (389-390, 392). [NB: I need to update this quote with the most recent translation of Bavinck.]

  • Following Bavinck’s lead, Louis Berkhof provides a helpful summary of the debate. However, he seems sympathetic towards both supra- and infralapsarianism. In his typical matter-of-fact style, he lists the merits and demerits of both positions. See Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1996), 118-125.

  • Perhaps one of the most famous comments on this debate came from the 19th century American Southern Presbyterian R. L. Dabney when he exclaimed, “In my opinion this is a question which never ought to have bee raised.” Despite Dabney's ambivalence about this subject, he did consider himself a (reluctant) infralapsarian - or what he called 'sublapsarian.' Robert L. Dabney, Systematic Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1985), 233.

  • Much like Dabney, Wayne Grudem has little time for the debate, consigning the entire issue to a footnote. “The discussion is complex and highly speculative because there is very little direct biblical data to help us with it. Good arguments have been advanced in support of each view, and there is probably some element of truth in each one. But in the last analysis it seems wiser to say that Scripture does not give us enough data to probe into this mystery, and, moreover, it does not seem very edifying to do so.” Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2000), 679 n12.

  • John Frame gives ten (perspectival!) reasons why he does not take a position regarding this debate. Of interest are his assertions that “The two positions equivocate on the meaning of order and therefore can’t be precisely compared with one another” (point 1); “Surely, in one sense, all of God’s decrees presuppose each other and exist for the sake of each other” (point 4); and “In God’s mind, where the decrees take all others into account, all may be considered ends, and all may be considered means” (point 5). John Frame, The Doctrine of God (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2002), 334-339.


  • For one of the best summaries of the history of this debate, see Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics, II/2, eds. G. W. Bromiley and T. F. Torrance (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 2001), 127-145. Though Barth acknowledges the advantages of the infra- perspective (136-139), he states that “the greater right lay then on the side of the Supralapsarians…In view of its bold consistency and outstanding clarity we surely cannot withhold our admiration from this system” (139, 129). However, Barth self-consciously detaches himself “from the doubtful presuppositions of the older theology” and argues for what he calls a “purified Suprlapsarianism” (142). In other words, his supralapsarianism must be interpreted through his Christomonism.

  • For an extensive and outlined exposition of Amyraldianism, Infralapsarianism, and Supralapsarianism, see Robert Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998), 475-502. Reymond proposes a nuanced ordering of the supralapsarian position on the basis that the traditional supralapsarian view fails to maintain its own standard by dismissing the principle of retrograde movement. He argues that the order should go as follows: 1.) the election of some sinful men to salvation in Christ (and the reprobation of the rest of sinful mankind in order to make known the riches of God’s gracious mercy to the elect); 2) the decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect sinners; 3) the decree to redeem the elect sinners by the cross work of Christ; 4) the decree that men should fall; and 5) the decree to create the world and men (p. 489).


  • For a strong critique of supralapsarian and clear defense of infralapsarian (much along the lines of C. Hodge), see Loraine Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination(Philadelphia: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1966), 126-130.

  • The Princetonians were by no means neutral in this discussion and, in Turrentinian fashion, provide some of the ablest arguments for the infra- position. For example, Charles Hodge gives a short and helpful survey of Calvin, Dort, WCF, and the WSC, a critique of supralapsarianism, and a classic defense of infralapsarianism (including an interesting discussion on Augustine’s infralapsarianism), see Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, vol. II (Peabody: Hendrickson, 2003), 316-320. A. A. Hodge rightly notes that the question of the order of the decrees is a logical one, “The question, therefore, as to the Order of Decrees is not a question as to the order of acts in God decreeing, but it is a question as to the true relation sustained by the several parts of the system which he decrees to one another.” A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1999), 230. Warfield gives four basic views regarding the decree: 1) Supralapsarianism, 2) Sublapsarianism (or Infra-), 3) Post-redemptionism (or Amyraldianism), and 4) Pajonism (or Congruism). Benjamin B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1966), 87-104 (esp. 92-93).

  • For two other 19th century American reformed perspectives, see W. G. T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, ed. Alan W. Gomes (Phillipsburg: Presbyterian and Reformed, 2003), 340-344. Shedd gives a clear defense of preterition and also provides a detailed argument in defense of Calvin as an infralapsarian – contra John Fesko’s excellent dissertation (361-363, supplement 3.6.18). Below the Mason/Dixie line, J. H. Thornwell is much more sympathetic to this debate than Dabney and favors infralapsarian. He sets the discussion within the context of covenant theology and also interacts with a wide selection of confessional literature (e.g. Helvetic Confession, Gallic Confession, Anglican Confession, Scotch Confession, Confession of Dort, Canons of Dort, and Westminster Confession of Faith). J. H. Thornwell, “Outline of the Covenant of Grace and Testimony to Sublapsarianism,” The Collected Writings of James Henley Thornwell, vol. II (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1986), pp. 17-27.


  • A. H. Strong serves as an example of the Amyraldian position – or to make matters more convoluted, what he calls 'sublapsarianism' (not to be confused with the sublapsarianism of Dabney or Thornwell), see A. H. Strong, Systematic Theology (Philadelphia: Judson Press, 1943), Strong states (note the position of points 3 & 4), “The true order of the decrees in therefore as follows: 1. the decree to create; 2. the decree to permit the Fall; 3. the decree to provide a salvation in Christ sufficient for the needs of all; 4. the decree to secure the actual acceptance of this salvation on the part of some, – or, in other words, the decree of Election” (778).

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