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Modern Reformation: Thinking Theologically

On Infra- and Supralapsarianism: A Primer

Published Friday, March 19, 2021 By Michael Lynch

There’s something of a disconnect between modern discussions about infra- and supralapsarianism and early modern treatments of the subject. In modern—often popular—treatments, one often finds lists of various divine decrees arranged under the headings: “infralapsarianism,” “supralapsarianism,” “Amyraldianism,” or “Arminian.” Such lists and headings, though they can be found from time to time in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, often hide the true point of dispute among the two positions. In the early modern debate over infra- and supralapsarianism, the stated question solely concerned the relationship between the decree of predestination and the decree to permit the fall of man. In this post, I want to give something of a primer on the question.

Terminology

First off, let’s talk terminology. The two terms infra- and supralapsarianism were directly related to the decree of predestination. Usually, but not always, early modern theologians defined predestination as a divine decree about either: (1) God’s will to bring certain people to eternal life, or (2) God’s will to grant such means of grace (both internal [think: regeneration] and external [think: preaching of the gospel]) whereby God brings certain people infallibly to eternal life. In other words, predestination was said to be either a decree about the end or the means. Some theologians even said it was about both! Early moderns also discussed the object of the decree of predestination. Who is predestinated? Is it certain fallen human beings or unfallen (creatable) human beings?

In the early modern period, the question of infra- versus supralapsarianism was answered by what a theologian believed to be the object of the divine decree of predestination, as stated above. Does predestination presume the fall, thus making fallen humanity the object of divine predestination? Then predestination is infralapsarian, downhill, as it were, from the permission of the fall. Alternatively, does predestination not assume the fall of Adam, thus making the object of divine predestination a humanity which is unfallen? Then predestination is supralapsarian, uphill from the permission of the fall.

A Caveat

A big caveat is in order. When theologians talked about God decreeing something before something else, they made a logical distinction, as opposed to a temporal one. This was in accordance not with how God considers his decrees, but how we understand them. Early modern theologians emphasized that God’s decree is a single reality, insofar as he sees all things from eternity in a single glance (as it were), and that there is no succession in his decree, as if something were first and another second. Yet, because we are finite, we cannot help but think of things in accordance with their causes and ends. And, of course, God wills some things to exist for the sake of others and some things to be dependent upon others.

The Connection between Definition and Object of Predestination

With that caveat in mind, it is evident that one’s definition of predestination will shape what one thinks about the object of predestination. Let’s suppose for a moment that you define predestination in the first sense above—as a decree about merely the end to be reached. Then, whether one is fallen or unfallen is really beside the point. In this case, the question of predestination is primarily who will get eternal life, not how. There is little need, according to this definition of predestination, to consider any moral qualities of those who are made the object of predestination. All they need to be is creatable rational creatures. According to this definition of predestination, the decree need not suppose fallenness, because, after all, whether the rational creature falls or not, the end in predestination has not changed—it is still to bring him, her, or it (an angel) to eternal blessedness. All other decrees, such as the decree to permit the fall or the decree to send Christ, become subordinate and downhill from the end of predestination. Accordingly, this definition of predestination allowed for the supralapsarian position; there is no need to presume the fall of mankind for the decree of predestination—though one could just as easily assume the object of predestination to be fallen humanity and maintain the infralapsarian position even when predestination was primarily about the end of eternal life.

Yet, what if one were to define predestination in the second way, according to Augustine’s famous definition: “Predestination is nothing other than foreknowledge and the preparation of the benefits of God, by which whosoever is freed is most certainly freed?” If predestination concerns the means of bringing one to eternal life, then it is much more important to discuss the qualities of the object of predestination. After all, the grace necessary to bring unfallen Adam to eternal life is quite different than the grace necessary to bring fallen Adam infallibly to eternal life. Those who defined predestination as primarily about the infallible means for eternal life were basically necessitated, by their very definition of predestination, to affirm infralapsarianism.

The Predestination of Angels: Infra- or Supralapsarian?

Modern readers might be surprised to learn that early moderns also discussed the predestination of angels at great length. How might one discuss the decree to predestine some angels to heavenly blessedness? A moment’s consideration will prove that, in this case, their predestination was supralapsarian. First, all the angels who stood firm were elect. Second, the reason they stood firm was that God had determined to give those whom he wished the grace to persevere and, hence, not fall from their heavenly blessedness. This is what we call the predestination or election of the angels. Were these angels presumed as fallen or unfallen when God decided to give some of them grace to persevere? Obviously, they were unfallen. In fact, it is the very decree of predestination that decrees that they maintain their holiness. Therefore, the decree of divine predestination with respect to the angels is what differentiated those who did not fall, rather than assuming them as fallen. As the English delegate to Dordt, John Davenant put it: “Election […] does not necessarily presuppose, from the nature of the [act itself], the foreknowledge of sin in a subject—for, this is not the case with the angels.”

To bring this full-circle, when we discuss the predestination of angels, predestination is undoubtedly supralapsarian—the object of predestination is unfallen angels. However, who is the object of predestination when it comes to mankind? In the early modern world, the answer to that question usually hinged on how one defined predestination. Infra- and supralapsarianism concerned the object of predestination.

Next time, we’ll take a look at the nature of predestination in more detail.

Dr. Michael Lynch teaches language and humanities at Delaware Valley Classical School in New Castle, DE. He is the author of John Davenant’s Hypothetical Universalism (Oxford University Press, forthcoming).

  • Michael Lynch


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