A Brief Intro to Supra/Infralapsarianism

In a recent sermon I raised a number of ideas about human depravity, God’s mercy, predestination, etc. This led to some people asking my opinions on the age-old question of supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. I figured it would be helpful to offer a very brief summary of the debate between these positions and offer some definitions on what each of these pedantic terms mean.

The Crux of the Matter

The question that this debate is attempting to answer is this: What is the logical order of God’s decrees? Or put in more layman’s terms – when did God elect those that he would save? Did he do it before the Fall (supra = before, lapsarian = the Fall), or after the Fall (Infra = after/below, lapsarian = the Fall). We are not trying to determine the “timing” of these decisions, since we know God predestined all things before time (Eph 1:4-5 for example). What we are in search of is the logical order – which decisions were made in the mind of God first. This may sound like a rather esoteric debate, something to be discussed by heady theologians over a pint (or more). But it really isn’t. Each position (and there are more than just these two), brings with it some “baggage”, so that what we believe will have certain implications on how we see God. But at the outset let me say that we are here endeavouring to understand the mind of God and to come to a single conclusion on a matter that is perhaps not as clearly defined in Scripture as we might think. So, let’s get into what each of these means and where each have support and perhaps have some blind spots.

Supralapsarian

In a very simple nutshell, supralapsarians seek to place God’s sovereignty at the fore of their thinking. They would say that God chose to save the elect before he ordained (permitted) the Fall. There is much Scriptural support for this idea. Consider some of these:

Ephesians 1:4- he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him.

1 Peter 2:7-8 - So the honor is for you who believe, but for those who do not believe, “The stone that the builders rejected has become the cornerstone,” and “A stone of stumbling, and a rock of offense.” They stumble because they disobey the word, as they were destined to do.

Proverbs 16:4 - The LORD has made everything for its purpose, even the wicked for the day of trouble.

Jude 4 - For certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God into sensuality and deny our only Master and Lord, Jesus Christ.

See also: 2 Peter 2:3, Romans 9:11, 23

In seeing this sort of witness in Scripture, the supralapsarian determines that God must have first decreed/purposed to save some for life and some for death. From here, God then ordained the Fall so that he would be glorified in electing some and that his Son would be brought glory for giving everything through his life, death and resurrection, for those set apart for him.

Infralapsarian

If the “supras” emphasize God’s sovereignty, then the “infras” seek to emphasize God’s mercy. Please note that neither side completely objects to the emphasis of the other, meaning that supras do not say God is “merciless” and infras do not say God is not sovereign. Infras make the very logical point that if God chose whom he would save before the Fall, then where is there room for mercy? It is precisely because God knew that humanity had fallen that he could then look at these helpless creatures and have mercy on them. If, as the supras maintain, God chose whom he would save before the Fall, then there is no mercy here. The classic verse that shows how these two sides differ is found in Romans 9:11-13 – “though they were not yet born and had done nothing either good or bad—in order that God’s purpose of election might continue, not because of works but because of him who calls— she was told, “The older will serve the younger.” As it is written, “Jacob I loved, but Esau I hated.”” Supras say, “See! They were not yet born, had not fallen (had done no wrong), yet he loved one and hated the other.” The Infras respond by saying, “Hold on! This does not talk about decrees at all, and if you follow the passage through to Romans 9:14-15 you see that it is about mercy – God will have mercy on who he will have mercy, and there can be no mercy where there is no sin!”

Where They Agree

There are a number of points where the supras and infras agree. I take these points from Herman Bavinck, an example of a theologian (along with John Frame and others) who refuses to take sides, finding that Scripture does not outright support either side. First, they agree that God is not the “author” of sin – that is, regardless of what side you fall on (no pun intended), God is not the one who causes sin. Second, they agree that Scripture and not philosophy is the source of our knowledge of God’s decrees. That is, each position is rooted in Scripture and not in philosophical questions – we are bound to Scripture and not philosophy. Third, neither faith nor sin is caused by the decree of election or reprobation.

Where They Disagree

They obviously disagree in the order of how they see God’s decrees. Supras would say the order was predestination then the Fall. Infras would say the order was Fall then predestination. This is the primary and dividing difference between the two.

Objections to Supralapsarianism

There is the obvious problem pointed out above that mercy becomes a tougher thing to identify if God chose who to save the elect before they fell. In fact, there is a logical challenge here in that supras need to explain how one can even speak of a decree for beings whose future existence has not yet been determined. Bavinck raises this additional objection, “Supra makes damnation of the reprobate the object of the divine will IN THE SAME SENSE as the salvation of the elect. This position is not sustained by Scripture.” It is also debatable whether God’s justice and mercy are only revealed if God has decreed the election/reprobation of some before the Fall.

Objections to Infralapsarianism

Scripture certainly places the ultimate basis for condemning some humans in God’ sovereign will. To say that reprobation is exclusively the result of God’s justice on humans who chose to sin, minimizes or even eliminates (according to some) God’s sovereignty. A classic objection to the infra position is that if election comes after the Fall, then it could be argued that God only chose for salvation those whom he knew would eventually choose him of their own volition. This smacks too much of Arminianism for many to take.

Are they Both Wrong?

There is need for some humility here. As stated above, we are here attempting to grasp at something quite complex, perhaps even quite beyond our understanding. There is a mystery at work here. The obvious objection to both sides, as in any debate, is that they are perhaps too one-sided. John Frame rightly cautions that “it may well be argued that both parties have exaggerated their competence to read the divine mind.” There is no doubt that the majority of theologians in the Reformed tradition fall on the “infra” side, but it is not so simple as to side with the majority given that, as we have seen above, there are valid points to be had on the supra side which cannot be simply discarded. Anytime we attempt to establish a single way to read the Bible or to understand God’s plan (i.e. to see the Biblical narrative as the “mission of God” or to see all things as flowing from a covenantal theology, etc.) we necessarily exclude and minimize very important truths. There is something to be said for this.

Where I stand

It would be unfair (I think) to not lay my cards on the table. As a pastor who preaches weekly, it is inevitable that my biases will show, as they did this past week! I tend to fall on the side of the minority, the supras. I do so for what I think are Scriptural grounds, but, as I stated already, so do all who enter into this debate! I See throughout Scripture God claiming to have decreed all things (as noted above). I understand that this puts me in the position of having to explain how mercy could be shown to a people who had not yet fallen. But, although some may disagree, I see this as a philosophical objection to supralapsarianism, not a Scriptural one. That is, if the primary objection is that supralapsarianism doesn’t “jive” with our philosophy, then we have inverted our priorities as believers – we are to seek first Scripture’s witness and not that of philosophy. As a result, I am left with what I see as a great mystery, tension or paradox. I think Scripture says God is sovereign over all things and I cannot change this in order to reconcile God to my thinking. But I also see this in Scripture – that God cannot and does not condemn anyone to Hell unjustly. So, if I hold these two things in tension and resist the urge to completely understand the mystery that holds these two together, then I think I can honour God as he seems to reveal himself in Scripture. We have a God who has chosen all things, predetermining whom he would save and condemn, and a God who is perfectly just and merciful, capable of decreeing salvation/reprobation and doing so without diminishing his justice. Does this sound like a “cop-out”? Perhaps it is, but it is how I see Scripture in this and so many cases – telling us so much and yet often leaving us with a complex picture of God. But, if he is God, surely, we ought to be regularly confounded by him?

Never Miss A Message - subscribe to the New City Podcast on iTunes or GooglePlay



RECENT TALKS

Unmasking Pride - Amos 6:1-14
Amos: The Lion Roars
May 24, 2020

The end is coming. We are all on running clocks that science, wealth and reputation cannot slow down. What hope is there?

Seeking Satisfaction - Amos 5:21-27
Amos: The Lion Roars
May 17, 2020

Pastor Carl continues his series from Amos with a look at how we, like Israel are seeking satisfaction.

The God Delusion - Amos 5:14-20
Amos: The Lion's Roar
May 10, 2020

Amos announces that Israel, and Canadians suffer from a God Delusion - they think God approves of their lives. They are wrong.