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.

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Comments:


9 thoughts on “Theological Primer: Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism”

  1. Bob McDowell says:

    TYPO ALERT:
    Then he purposed to create the WORD

  2. whitefrozen says:

    This might be the most misplaced and pointless debate in Christian theology.

  3. Andrew Hall says:

    The goal for which God predestined us–and the goal for which he created the first Adam as a type–is to become conformed to the image of his Son, the new Adam (Romans 8:29). And in in most NT contexts, this means putting off sin or bearing with the sin of the world in compassion, justice, mercy, forgiveness. Being Christ-like assumes that the goal of history for which God predestined us before creation is that we would live out his redemptive grace in a fallen world. See http://belovedbeforetime.blogspot.com/2010/08/huh-does-it-really-say-that.html

    Now I don’t know if this is infralapsarianism or what (can someone help me on this?), but it does mean that God predestined the fall prior to creation, and that his goal was not Eden and the first Adam, but rather the heavenly Paradise and the Second Adam. The former existed to anticipate the latter. Jesus is the divine Logos, the plan and order of God through whom and form whom the world was created. He was the lamb slain from before the world (Rev. 13:8) and who was chosen/foreknown as a sacrifice for sin before the foundation of the world (1 Peter 1:19-20).

    This tells me that God’s purpose or plan is to create redeemed sinners, to create the world to show off salvation in his Son, so that the fall logically precedes further events.

  4. anaquaduck says:

    I didn’t notice a cringe but did get a flash back to supercalifragilisticexpialidocious & now I am picturing myself reading welsh road signs in the northern hemisphere…Why, I don’t know, but God knows…here endeth (for now) the lesson for me.

  5. Carlos says:

    Whitefrozen writes (above) “This might be the most misplaced and pointless debate in Christian theology.”

    I couldn’t agree more. This line of thinking, however, is very dangerous. If we lived in the 1st century (or the 10th, for that matter), it’s the type of nonsense that could easily result in a war or similar between two sides of God’s flock. Something like the Shiite and the Sunny, who have been in a horrific war for centuries because of a useless discussion like this one. Thankfully, the West wised up about the impact of religious superstition a while ago, and our Founding Fathers were visionary enough to keep religion out of the realm of secular government. That’s the only reason we don’t suffer through the impact of two bands of lunatics within the same religion arguing witchcraft and superstition and affecting us all.

    Thanks for reading.

  6. Matt says:

    Yes, it’s speculative, but there is Theology at stake. I take it that Arminius’ charges 1) that creation could not be an expression of God’s goodness on the supra position, and 2) that this position is unjust, in that God decrees men to destruction before *anyone* had done good or evil (note that Jacob and Esau at least share original sin), are still largely unanswered. Frankly, until someone addresses these questions well, I can’t see how the supra position is tenable. If one wants to be Calvinist, infralapsarianism or Amyraldism are the Orthodox options.

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Kevin DeYoung


Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor of University Reformed Church (RCA) in East Lansing, Michigan, near Michigan State University. He and his wife Trisha have six young children. You can follow him on Twitter.

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