Theological Primer: Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism

From time to time I try to post brief articles like this one as a short primer on some topic in systematic theology. The aim is clarity. The approach is brevity. No more than 500 words—starting now.

I’m not aware of any two words in the theological lexicon quite like supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. They sound dreadfully esoteric and hopelessly elitist, like they might be concerned with how many angels can dance on the head of a pin if that pin were resting upon a rock which God made so heavy not even he could lift it. First year seminary students love to throw out the terms as a not so subtle reminder they are in seminary. Pastors of a certain ilk toss around the words when they want to demonstrate how impractical theology can be. Parishoners hear the words and just cringe.

So what is this all about?

Reformed theologians have often argued about the order in which God decreed certain things to happen. The debate is not over the temporal order of the decrees. After all, we are talking about what God has determined in eternity past. Time is not the issue. Instead, the debate is about the logical order of the decrees. In the mind of God, which decisions did God make first, second, third, and so on?

Specifically, which is logically prior: the decree of election and reprobation, or the decree to create the world and permit the fall? Supralapsarianism—supra meaning “above” or “before” and lapsum meaning “fall”—is the position which holds that God’s decree to save is logically prior to his decree to create the world and permit the fall. Infralapsarianism, on the other hand, insists that God’s decree to save is logically after his decrees related to creation and fall (infra meaning “below” or “after”). Both positions are well attested in Reformed theology, though infralapsarianism would be more common.

The whole debate may seem utterly irrelevant, but before dismissing the terms as a silly seminary schtick, we should appreciate how our understanding of the order of the decrees may influence (or perhaps reflect) our understanding of God.

The supra position underscores the high sovereignty of God. Before the twins had done anything good or bad, the Lord loved Jacob and hated Esau (Romans 9:11). So, argues the supralapsarian, God must have first purposed to ordain some for life and some for death. Then he purposed to create the word and ordain a fall so that the glory in election and reprobation might be realized.

By contrast, the infra position highlights the mercy of God. The reference in Romans 9:11, infralapsarians argue, is simply a statement about merit—neither son was more deserving of salvation than the other—and has nothing to do with the decrees. Besides, Romans 9:14 describes election as God having mercy on whom he will have mercy. God’s decree to save must follow his decree to permit the fall, or how else would mercy be mercy?

In the end, I affirm the infralapsarian position taught in the Canons of Dort (First Head of Doctrine, Articles 6, 7). But I also agree with those who caution against being overly dogmatic on a matter that involves some speculation. The debate is not insignificant, but neither is it a hill to die on.