I generally wouldn’t dream of writing a post on the surpa- vs. infra- lapsarian debate, for the very reason that I don’t believe that it bears much fruit at all in the spiritual life of believers. That being said, it is a matter of theological importance–as it holds a place of significance in the history of the exegesis of Romans 9:6-22, among many other places in Scripture. Augustine wrestled with this issue and faltered in ascribing to God absolute sovereignty in decreeing the fall. Calvin dealt with the subject (Institutes 3.23.7), defending the absolute sovereignty of God in decreeing the fall, and in election and reprobation, as over against the Lutherans. The post-Reformation scholastics dealt extensively with this subject; and, although John Murray claimed that The Westminster Standards express “proper reserve in a creedal document” by being “non-committal on the debate between the Supralapsarians and the Infralapsarians and intentionally so, as both the terms of the section and the debate in the Assembly clearly show,” certain modern Reformed theologians such as Derek W.H. Thomas have suggested that the majority position of the members of the Westminster Assembly was Infra-lapsarianism (Take time to listen to his 2004 lecture, “The Westminster Consensus on the Decree: The Infra/Supra Lapsarian Debate“). Guy Richard has done an admirable job of explaining the unique way in which Samuel Rutherford understood supra-lapsarianism. You can listen to our 2009 Reformed Forum interview with him here. Since this subject has received so much attention throughout church history–as since it gets us thinking through such issues as the freedom of God and the justice of God–I was pleased to find a massively careful and extensive treatment of it in Geerhardus Vos’ Reformed Dogmatics. Here is the substance of Vos’ treatment:
64. In which quality did the objects of predestination appear in this matter before God?
With respect to the angels we have already seen that they appeared as they were still able to fall and would fall: the elect angels as still able to fall, the reprobate angels in the twofold circumstance of still being able to fall and as having fallen. Therefore, the predestination of the latter consisted in this: that God decreed to permit their fall and decreed to leave them in this fall and to be glorified by their just punishment. The predestination of the former consists in this: that God decreed to preserve them from the fall and thereafter to endow them with blessedness that could never be lost.
With regard to men at issue is the dispute between supra- and infralapsarians.
This dispute has three aspects: a) an exegetical aspect; b) a dogmatic aspect; c) a historical aspect.
Since the principal sedes [place] for this dispute, Rom 9, has been discussed extensively above, the exegetical aspect of the matter can here be considered as sufficiently treated. We therefore go on immediately to the dogmatic aspect.
65. Indicate beforehand what is not at issue in the difference between the two parties.
a)The question in the first place is not whether there is a temporal sequence in God’s decrees. With Scripture everyone Reformed confesses the absolute eternity of God’s being. It is an eternity elevated above all temporal duration, in which a thousand years are as yesterday when it has passed and as a watch in the night (Psa 90:4). In this eternity everything is present that is hidden in the depths of the divine mind or has ever passed over from it into time as a work of His creative omnipotence. What will happen at the consummation of the ages is in that respect not sooner than that which took place at the dawn of creation. Every conception as if the differing parts of God’s decree arise by stages of His observation must be rejected as incompatible with this eternity. That there would have first been a decree of creation, then of the fall, and then of predestination, or that these parts would have followed one another in reverse temporal order—both are in conflict with Scripture. It may be impossible for our thinking, bound by time, to grasp this eternity of divine life, nevertheless we must acknowledge it and may maintain nothing that is in conflict with it. To express it as briefly as possible: there are in God not many decrees, but it is one, single, completely present decree.
As a matter of fact, all this is already contained in the names of supra- and infralapsarianism. If it was a matter of a temporal order it should have been called ante- and postlapsarianism. The question would then have to be, “Do you believe in predestination before or after the decree of the fall?” Now, however, not a time but a space image has been chosen, apparently to avoid every trace of a temporal conception in conflict with God’s eternity.
b)Nor is the question whether creation and the fall of man fall under the decree of God. With respect to creation, nobody doubts that. But whoever would deny that for the fall, would become un-Reformed instead of infralapsarian, since he would abandon one of most momentous turning points in world history, on which the work of redemption is entirely dependent, and with that the course of well nigh all things, to chance. Almost all the Reformed confess unanimously with Calvin, “Man falls according to God’s decree, but he falls by his own guilt.” In His decree God has not only known of and reckoned with the fall, but since all things must have their certainty and fixity in His counsel, if we do not wish to posit a second ground of things beside God, then it also cannot be otherwise for the fearful fact of sin. That, too, must receive its certainty from God’s decree. However great and however insurmountable the difficulties that follow closely on this position, still nothing may diminish it. Whoever begins to doubt here stands on the edge of a bottomless dualism. Only in the beginning, when theological perception was not entirely clear, could one remove the fall from the absolute decree of God. Augustine did this, who thought that for the events following the fall, God’s foreknowledge rested on His decree while, conversely, for the fall the decree was dependent on a foreseeing. This and the other point (the apostasy of the saints) were the two weak points in Augustine’s soteriology. Among truly Reformed theologians only a few spoke of a foreseeing. Walaeus (Leiden Synopsis, xxiv, 23) says, “God, foreseeing with the infinite light of His knowledge how it would happen that man created after His image stood, together with his entire posterity, to misuse his free will, has deemed that it better accorded with His omnipotent goodness to show beneficence to the wicked, rather than not to allow there would be evil, as Augustine rightly reminds us.”
c)In the third place it needs to be pointed out that according to the Reformed, supra- as well as infralapsarians, sin stands under a permissive decree. True, some have objected to this because it reminded them too much of the Formula of Concord, article 5, and had a Lutheran ring. Calvin protested against it (Institutes 3.23.7). After him, Beza and Danaeus. But we cannot do without this expression. It is found in strict supra- as well infralapsarians. Germanus (Opera Omnia, vol. II, p. 28), “Therefore, the creation of men, together with permitting and controlling the fall, are means ordained to the final end of man.” And the same again and again. A permissive decree is naturally not an idle decree, a decree based on foreseeing, a decree simply not to prevent. It is a decree that brings certainty for sin as a fact and yet it is not the cause of the reality of sin. If one says that this sentence is meaningless words and distinctions, we grant that in a certain sense but at the same time point out that we are not able to get beyond them. They are beacons that we place at the edge of the unfathomable depths of mysteries.
d)The question is not whether sin comes into consideration as a factor in the decree of election and of rejection. On this point much misunderstanding reigns. One frequently hears the claim that those who place election above the fall teach that God has ordained men for eternal bliss and eternal misery only because He willed to do so and without considering their sin. But that is a conclusion that is not present in supralapsarianism and has never been intended by its advocates. With equally good right one could derive a variety of conclusions from infralapsarianism from which everyone must recoil, since they seem to attack the foundations of God’s virtues. We will let Perkins speak here, who himself was disposed to supralapsarianism. He says, “Some accuse us of teaching that God has ordained men to hellish fire, and created them for destruction.… To this I answer in the first place that reprobation, insofar as it pertains to the first act, that is, insofar as it refers to the purpose to abandon the creature and in this to demonstrate justice, is absolute. That we teach and believe.… Sin itself occurs after the abandonment and the just permission of God.… However, reprobation, insofar as it pertains to the second act, that is, the purpose to damn, is not absolute or indefinite but it takes account of sin. For no one perishes other than by his own guilt, and no one is ordained to hell or destruction without regard to anything, but because of his own sin.… Secondly, I answer that God has not created man simply to destroy him, but so that by His just destruction of the sinner He would demonstrate His justice. For it is something quite different to will to punish man insofar as he is a sinner by a just destruction.” (Of Predestination and the Grace of God, vol. 1, pp. 770–772).
In the same way Calvin (Institutes 3.23) reasons by pointing on the one hand to the absolute will of God in permitting sin, and emphasizing on the other hand that none of God’s creatures is ordained to destruction except insofar as he is sinful and in view of his sin.
It is therefore entirely false and heinous when one attributes to supralapsarianism the concept of a so-called tyrannical God. If permitting sin is included in predestination, then two things are certainly being affirmed:
1.That it was not to make God like a tyrant for the destruction of His rational creatures as such, but for the glorification of His own virtues.
2.That God in permitting evil and in including it in predestination has not acted arbitrarily, but according to perfect justice, although we are not able to judge that justice (cf. here Calvin, Institutes 3.23.4 and what was observed above concerning Rom 9:21).
e)Positively we can say that the difference between the two views is:
1.A difference in the extent of predestination, since supralapsarians draw God’s decree to permit the fall within predestination, the infralapsarians leave it outside. Here we let Trigland speak (Advice Concerning the Concept of Moderation, Second Part). “I say that the teachers of the Reformed Churches, both those who place predestination above the fall as well as those who place it below the fall, certainly agree on the substance of the matter but differ only in various ways of explanation that are made of the same matter. According to Junius, … ‘We do not differ from those godly and learned men who state that in predestinating God has contemplated man before he was created. Nor from those who say that man is regarded as created and fallen. For what the latter and the former say in truth, that we devoutly confess, for we say both.… When the latter say that in the predestinating of God man is considered as fallen, they do not actually have in view the cause of election and reprobation, but the order and pattern of causes from which damnation follows.… But when the former say that in predestinating God has considered man as not yet created, they do not exclude God from considering mankind’s fall.’ ” Trigland continues, “Indeed, if one pays careful attention to the matter itself in the writings of Reformed teachers, one will find that it is entirely in accord with Junius’ explanation above. As, for example, can be seen from these words of Beza, ‘Christ is presented to us as Mediator, therefore it is necessary that according to the order of causes, depravity take precedence in God’s purpose, but before depravity, creation in holiness and righteousness, so that a way would be open for God, etc.’ ”
Trigland again, “… so that I cannot see in the latter [infralapsarians] any other difference than that the former [supralapsarians] who, going before the fall, take the word predestination or foreordination somewhat more broadly, namely, for the whole decree of God concerning the entire conduct and order of salvation and damnation of men, and of all the means that are conducive to that end, both of creation as also of the permission of the fall, as well as the raising up again of some and the forsaking of others.… But the latter who remain below the fall take the word predestination somewhat more narrowly, so that they refer the creation of man and the permission and directing of the fall, not to predestination but to God’s general providence. From this it is evident that the difference does not lie in the doctrine itself but in the explanation of the doctrine.”
2.A difference in connecting the various parts of the divine decree. The older supralapsarianism at least maintained that in God’s decree the permitting of the fall of man together with creation was subordinated to the highest end, the glorification of His justice and mercy. Thus, permitting the fall appears here as a means. Note carefully, not as a means for punishment itself but as a means for revealing God’s justice and mercy. Infralapsarianism did not maintain a connection here between means and end in this sense. It certainly acknowledged that the fall was permitted for God’s glorification, but did not dare to go further than this general proviso. It declared itself unable to explain how the fall was for God’s glorification. It let the various parts of God’s decree stand unconnected beside each other.
3.A difference in extending the personal-distinguishing character of predestination, especially of election, to include the decree of creation and the fall. The supralapsarian taught that in His decree to create God already had in view the elect as His personal beloved; likewise for the decree to permit the fall, there was not a moment in God’s counsel in which the elect stood outside this personal relationship to God of being beloved. The infralapsarian, on the other hand, thinks that the personal relationship, the distinguishing, only begins after the decrees of creation and of fall, that therefore in these two decrees the elect were included in the general mass of men and did not appear as objects of God’s special love.
One will perceive how the question whether in predestination God viewed man as still having to be created and still having to fall (creabilis et labilis), or as created and fallen (creatus et lapsus), is only a short formula for this difference. It would perhaps be better to say creandus [to be created] et lapsurus [to be fallen] for characterizing supralapsarian sentiments. Creabilis et labilis leads to the idea that sin was not at all taken into account. “Will be created” and “will be falling” gives a sense of how sin was certainly taken into account.
66. In what respects do various supralapsarians still differ from one another?
The older supralapsarians taught that from its very outset predestination (election) was personal. God determined to create with these or those particular persons in view as His elect and beloved and likewise to permit the fall with them in view. On the other hand, later supralapsarians understood the decree at its outset less personally. So, for example, Maestricht. He distinguishes:
a)The purpose of God to reveal the glory of His mercy and His retributive justice. This is impersonal.
b)The purpose to create all men in one common root and permit them to fall in that one root. This also is impersonal.
c)The purpose to elect some specific persons and reject some specific persons out of this created and fallen humanity.
d)The purpose to prepare the means and ways fitting for carrying out the preceding decree. This is supralapsarianism for the two parts of humanity, not for specific persons.
67. In what does the distinctiveness reside of the supralapsarianism taught in “The Examination of the Concept of Tolerance” (Alexander Comrie)?
That sin accidentally becomes a transition point for a double predestination idea that lies above it and is maintained above it. Originally God predestined some to great beatitude, others to a natural state outside that beatitude (not, however, to permit sin). The former would reach that state of supernatural bliss because the second person of the Trinity would take on human nature, and be most closely united with them in that human nature. The latter would remain outside that union. That was the pinnacle in God’s decree of predestination. Now, however, the decree appears that God will permit sin to lay hold of both these predestined groups. Thereby the predestination of the elect is changed insofar as it becomes a predestination to save from sin and by that salvation to glorify them with Christ. A simple glorification is replaced by a glorification after antecedent redemption. At the same time the predestination of the nonelect is changed, in the sense that it now becomes a decree not to leave them in their natural state but to leave them in sin and destruction.
68. What are the objections against this opinion?
a)It considers predestination as operating initially apart from redemption, while Scripture constantly brings it into connection with redemption. The entire dispensation that flows from election is a dispensation of redemption, “vessels of mercy.”
b)It necessitates positing an incarnation of Christ even apart from sin. On this point it agrees with many more recent opinions that otherwise have an entirely different origin.
c)It teaches an addition of something supernatural to nature apart from sin, which in an objectionable way calls to mind the Romish system.
69. What objection is to be made against the opinion of Maestricht?
That it lets predestination originally be impersonal and thus removes its practical and comforting element. Scripture always provides a personal representation. It says that the first act of election is already a personal love (that is, “foreknowledge”).
70. Are the logical objections against supralapsarianism conclusive?
a)There always remain objections in such an abstract matter. We can never explain these things completely.
b)The objection that for the supralapsarian the object of predestination is a non-ens (a non-entity) rests on a misunderstanding. It is not a non-ens concerning the knowing part of God’s decree but only concerning the willing act. Also, if this reasoning is extended, God could never have made a decree of creation.
71. Does not supralapsarianism suffer from great harshness?
We must acknowledge this. However, one should certainly keep in view that this harshness resides in the doctrine of God’s decree as such, and supralapsarianism merely brings it out clearly. Supralapsarianism teaches, for example, that God has permitted that for the glorification of his justice certain persons, through their own fault, would fall into sin in order not to be redeemed from it. The infralapsarian also says that God permits man to fall into sin for His own glorification. Now, is it so much harsher when the supralapsarian says: for the glorification of His own justice? Does something harsh become harsher by strengthening the splendor of God’s justice?
72. Can we question God’s action in this?
No, we cannot and must not attempt that. This must remain certain as it was for the apostle: it is strictly just and not tyrannically arbitrary. But on the other hand, we have no right to apply the standard of our concept of disinterested love to God’s action, as if He were not the center of all things, the highest good of everything, who can therefore also make all things subordinate to His own glory.1
1. Geerhardus Vos, Vol. 1: Reformed Dogmatics (R. B. Gaffin & R. de Witt, Ed.) (A. Godbehere, R. van Ijken, K. Batteau, D. van der Kraan & H. Boonstra, Trans.) (106–112). Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press.) Q. 64-72.