The question of “Lapsarian Views” is more formally known as “the order of God’s decrees.” Here theologians seek to understand the mind of God as revealed in Scripture with respect to the logical or conceptual relationships between God’s eternal decrees.
While the will of God is a single unity, we may consider the logical arrangement between God’s decree for one thing in relation to another. After the Reformation, there are four main views. The Arminian Order seeks to emphasize human free will in salvation by denying that God decrees who will and will not be saved. The Amyraldian Order takes a mediating position between God’s will for all to be saved and God’s decree that only some will be saved. The Supralapsarian and Infralapsarian Orders both teach that God eternally predestines persons for either election or reprobation, but they differ on whether the decree of election logically precedes or follows the decree of the fall.
The doctrine of God’s decree reflects the sovereignty, eternity, and omnipotence of God, so that everything happens “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will” (Eph. 1:11). Building on this insight, theologians have considered the relationship between the things God has decreed. The term “Lapsarian Views” notes that the controversy tends to center on the relationship between God’s decree to save some persons and God’s decree to permit the fall and condemn sinners. The Lapsarian Views do not concern the temporal order of God’s saving acts in history, but only the logical order and relationship of God’s respective eternal decrees. The issue concerns not the order in which they happened but the causal and logical relationship in the mind of God as he decreed them in eternity, to the extent that this can be discerned from Scripture.
Some theologians have criticized this attempt to discern an order to God’s eternal decrees, both on the grounds that Scripture is not sufficiently clear on the matter and that the endeavor itself is misguided. Robert L. Dabney pointed out the essential unity of God’s decree: “God’s decree has no succession; and to Him no successive order of parts,” because God’s will is “one infinite intuition.”1 However, while this unity of God is acknowledged, it remains true that Scripture does speak to the purpose of God in relating one thing to another. Francis Turretin therefore conceded: “since the things decreed are manifold and most diverse and have a mutual dependency and subordination, … some order must necessarily be conceived in them.”2
Since the Protestant Reformation, four main Lapsarian Views deserve attention: the Arminian Order, the Amyraldian Order, the Supralapsarian Order, and the Infralapsarian Order.
The Arminian Order
Based on his insistence on conditional election, Jacobus Arminius (d. 1609) arranged the decrees as follows:
- God’s decree to create the world.
- God’s foreknowledge of the fall.
- God’s decree to send his Son as Savior for those who repent, believe, and persevere.
- God’s decree to provide means to enable repentance and faith.
- God’s foreknowledge of which individuals will repent and believe.
- God’s decree to save those who believe, do good works, and persevere, and to condemn those who do not.
The main criticism of the Arminian Order is that at key points, God’s sovereign will is replaced by his mere foreknowledge of human will. The result is that it renders God contingent – man’s will ultimately decides who is and is not saved. This approach is contrary to the Bible’s teaching that salvation ultimately results from God’s will alone (Rom. 9:16; 11:36). Joel Beeke and Paul Smalley write: “Eternal election involves God’s actual choice of individuals (Rom. 9:15; Eph. 1:4), not merely God’s gracious response to those who will choose him (John 15:16).”3 Moreover, under Arminius’ order, Christ’s death did not accomplish anyone’s redemption but merely made salvation available for all. B.B. Warfield writes that the key issue is “whether the saving grace of God, in which alone is salvation, actually saves.”4 The Arminian scheme unbiblically answers No.
The Amyraldian Order
A second Lapsarian View seeks to mediate between the universalism of Arminianism and the Bible’s teaching of predestination. Named for Moise Amyrald (d. 1664), Amyraldianism arranges the order of God’s decrees in order to support a hypothetical universalism. Here, God decreed that Christ would die for all men and then decreed the election of only some fallen men to believe and be saved. The Amyraldian View follows this progression:
- God’s decree to create the world and (all) men.
- God’s decree that (all) men would fall.
- God’s decree to redeem (all) men by the cross work of Christ.
- God’s election of some fallen men to salvation (and the reprobation of the others).
- God’s decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect.5
Amyraldianism is called “hypothetical universalism” because it sees God decreeing redemption for all prior to his decree to elect only some. The aim is to present God as a universalist in his saving desire while honoring the particularism of election and salvation by faith alone. However, this scheme depicts the Persons of the Trinity working at cross-purposes: the Son dying for all while the Father and Spirit elect and apply salvation only to some. Warfield asks: “How is it possible to contend that God gave his Son to die for all men, alike and equally; and at the same time to declare that when he gave his Son to die, he already fully intended that his death should not avail for all men?”6
Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism
The third and fourth Lapsarian Views are the only approaches approved by the great post-Reformation councils, the Synod of Dordt and the Westminster Confession of Faith. Both the Supralapsarian and Infralapsarian Orders reflect the Bible’s strong particularization in election, Christ’s atoning work, and the Spirit’s application of salvation through faith. (Infralapsarianism is sometimes called sublapsarianism, meaning that the decree of election is “below” the decree of sin. The difference between them – reflected in their names – concerns whether the decree of election logically precedes or succeeds the decree of the fall. Both views teach that God unconditionally chose the elect and that reprobation involves God’s sovereign will and the sinner’s just desserts.
The Supralapsarian Order arranges the decrees of God with a primary emphasis on God’s will to glorify himself by the gracious salvation of the elect and the just condemnation of the reprobate. God’s predestination is therefore seen as prior to (or “above”) all other decrees, so that creation, fall, and redemption are subservient to this great purpose. Under this view, the order of God’s decrees is arranged as follows:
- God’s decree to predestine the elect to eternal life, with Christ as their head, and to predestine the reprobate to damnation for their sins, all to the praise of his glory.
- God’s decree to create the world.
- God’s decree to permit the fall of mankind.
- God’s decree to send his Son and Spirit to save the elect.
An advantage of the Supralapsarian view is that it fully honors the Scriptural language of God predestining the elect apart from any condition or qualification. It also provides a unified cause-effect relationship to the decrees of God as a whole, with each item finding its rationale in what precedes it. In particular, God’s decree of the fall is explained in the antecedent decree of election/reprobation.
Critics of Supralapsarianism argue that by placing the decree of election/reprobation before the decree of the fall, it presents God as choosing persons for eternal condemnation without the prior consideration of divine justice. Turretin renders the classic complaint: “On this hypothesis, the first act of God’s will towards some of his creatures is made to be an act of hatred, inasmuch as he willed to demonstrate his justice in their damnation (indeed before they were considered in sin, and consequently before they were worthy of hatred).”7 It is on this ground that without a prior decree of sin, a loving God would not have decreed reprobation for some of his creatures that the majority of Reformed scholars hold the Infralapsarian view. Turretin thus complains that Supralapsarianism asserts “that the creation and the fall are the means of election and reprobation,” so that “God might be said to have created men whom he would destroy.”8 To avoid this perceived slight, Infralapsarianism arranges the decrees in such a way that election logically occurs after the decree of the fall:
- God’s decree to create the world for his glory.
- God’s decree to permit the fall.
- God’s decree to elect certain fallen people to salvation by grace in Christ and reprobate others to just condemnation.
- God’s decree to send Christ and the Spirit to save the elect.
Supralapsarians defend their ordering of the decree, first, by denying that their view fails to account for divine justice. Geerhardus Vos distinguishes between the decretal and legal ground of reprobation, so that while God’s decree of reprobation precedes the decree of the fall, the actual condemnation of sinners involves both:
The supralapsarian says: The legal ground why men perish lies in sin that they deliberately commit within time. Nobody perishes other than because of his own sin. But this itself cannot occur apart from the permission of God’s decree. Therefore, this permission, that is, God’s predestination, is the highest ground for the reality of perishing, although not the legal ground.9
A second defense of Supralapsarianism is made from direct statements in Scripture. In Romans 9:15, Paul responds to charges of injustice in predestination not by arguing that the reprobate deserve their punishment by their prior fall but solely by appeal to God’s sovereign decree: “I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.” When Romans 9:19 asks how Pharaoh can be blamed when God decreed his hardness of heart, Paul answers not by saying that Pharaoh was complicit in his sin but by pointing out God’s sovereign freedom to make of each creature what he desires for his own glory: “Has the potter no right over the clay, to make out of the same lump one vessel for honorable use and another for dishonorable use” (Rom. 9:21). In short, Paul gives Supralapsarian answers to the question of injustice in predestination. Ephesians 3:9-10 further describes creation as resulting from the prior will of God to display his grace in the elect: “God, … created all things, so that through the church the manifold wisdom of God might now be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly places.”
A third defense of Supralapsarianism points out that God’s decree to elect or reprobate angels took place without reference to a prior decree of their fall, since the elect angels never fell into sin. By implication – since God decreed the reprobation of condemned angels without a prior decree of their fall – the charge that such an arrangement impugns the justice of God cannot biblically be sustained.
Despite these responses, the Infralapsarian Order seeks to reflect the historical relationship between sin and salvation. Holding that to view God decreeing election/reprobation prior to his decree of the fall suggests arbitrary sovereignty, Infralapsarianism emphasizes that God’s grace is bestowed solely on sinners who deserve wrath. Nonetheless, in order to honor the Bible’s clear teaching of God’s absolute sovereignty (Rom. 11:36), the Infralapsarian must join the Supralapsarian in ascribing election and reprobation ultimately to God’s free and sovereign will. Louis Berkhof points out: “In the last analysis, [the Infralapsarian], too, must declare that [reprobation] is an act of God’s sovereign good pleasure, if he wants to avoid the Arminian camp.”10 Supralapsarians further point out that in the Infralapsarian scheme, no logical reason can be given for the decree of the fall. Berkhof writes: it “cannot give a specific answer to the question why God decreed to create the world and to permit the fall,”11 if God had not previously decreed his glory in election/reprobation.
In distinguishing between Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism, two concluding comments should be observed. The first is that while their distinctions are worthy of debate, they are not sufficient cause for division or undue strife. Second, the debate itself may involve an attempt to rationalize the will of God beyond what Scripture fully warrants. Herman Bavinck warns: “[N]either the supralapsarian nor the infralapsarian view of predestination is capable of incorporating within its perspective the fullness and riches of the truth of Scripture and of satisfying our theological thinking.”12 As such, those who debate this interesting subject will honor Christ by seeking to produce more light and less heat than has often been the case.
- Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1941). Berkhof provides a detailed summary of the issues, mildly siding with Suprlapsarianism.
- Kevin DeYoung, “Theological Primer: Suprlapsarianism and Infralapsarianism.” This article is a brief but insightful summary of the issues involved in the lapsarian debate, taking the side of Infralapsarianism.
- Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1998). Reymond takes a strong Suprlapsarian view, providing perhaps its most comprehensive defense and taking serious issue with Infralapsarianism. An extract that summarizes the positions can be read here.
- R. C. Sproul, “Double Predestination.” Sproul summarizes the issues and warns against the dangers of extreme views.
- Benjamin B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids, Eerdmans, 1955). A class study of the order of God’s decrees. Warfield handles the matter from a broad perspective, giving extensive treatment of the Arminian and Amyraldian views, and siding strongly with Infralapsarianism.
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