What do the terms “supralapsarianism,” and “infralapsarianism” mean, and does the bible teach one or the other?
The terms“supralapsarianism,” and “infralapsarianism” (sometimes called “sublapsarianism”) have to do with the logical order of God's eternal decrees of salvation. The question, basically, is this: did God's decree to save a certain people come before (supra) or after (infra) his decree to permit the fall (laps). Infralapsarians argue that, in order not to charge God with injustice or sin, it is necessary that God's election of men to salvation be made from a field of men who are sinners already; hence, the decree to ordain the fall must logically come before the decree to elect men to salvation. Otherwise, in ordaining to destruction men who had not yet fallen, the charge could be made against God that he was responsible for their sin and rebellion, which his eternal plan demanded of them. But no, the supralapsarian responds, God's eternal plan to redeem some and not others from the outset, while requiring sin and the Fall, does not logically make God culpable, and furthermore, it better fits the biblical evidence of God's prerogative to use evil for the accomplishment of his prior designs. God's ultimate purpose for creation and redemptive history is the triumph of the Lamb both in the destruction of his enemies and the salvation of his people; and this plan logically requires the existence of sin, and also of God's triumph over that sin through righteous judgment and sovereign mercy. If God's ultimate purpose in history is the display of his glory in the person and work of Christ; and if the manifold glory of Christ includes righteous wrath against sin; then God's eternal purpose of redemption necessitated the Fall, and did not just respond to it.
The basic schema of infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism may be displayed as follows:
1. the decree to create the world and (all) men
2. the decree that (all) men would fall
3. the election of some fallen men to salvation in Christ (and the reprobation of the others)
4. the decree to redeem the elect by the cross work of Christ
5. the decree to apply Christ's redemptive benefits to the elect
1. the election of some men to salvation in Christ (and the reprobation of the others)
2. the decree to create the world and both kinds of men
3. the decree that all men would fall
4. the decree to redeem the elect, who are now sinners, by the cross work of Christ
5. the decree to apply Christ's redemptive benefits to these elect sinners
These lists display the traditional understandings of the lapsarian question. However, recent theologians have noted that neither list accurately depicts the logical way in which all reasonable creatures pursue their goals: first, they determine what they ultimately and primarily want, and then they walk backwards, as it were, through all the steps necessary to get there. If God's ultimate goal is the glory of the Lamb in sovereign mercy and righteous judgment, then there is a need for sinners; if there are to be sinners, there must be a fall; if there is a fall, there must be a world created in righteousness; hence, the logical order of God's decrees would be a modified supralapsarianism, as follows:
1. the election of some men to salvation in Christ (and the reprobation of the rest of sinful
mankind in order to make known the riches of God's gracious mercy to the elect)
2. the decree to apply Christ's redemptive benefits to the elect sinners
3. the decree to redeem the elect sinners by the cross work of Christ
4. the decree that men should fall
5. the decree to create the world and men
In any discussion of the lapsarian debate, it should be emphasized what all the views have in common: and that is, that God decreed all the events of his eternal redemption from before the creation of the world. Logically, perhaps, the last scheme is the most defensible; however, no position should be so heartily embraced as to be made binding upon men's consciences; the scriptures do not address the topic clearly enough for so firm an adherence. Perhaps a story from the life of Martin Luther would be instructive here: when some inquisitive theologian asked him what God was doing before he created the world, Luther quipped, “He was busy creating hell for foolish theologians who pry into such questions”. The response is a little tongue-in-cheek, of course, but perhaps there is some wisdom in it, particularly when we are addressing the lapsarian question.
[All of the above lists are taken from Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers, 1998), pp. 479-489.]
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Further Reading ~ Development of the Doctrine of Predestination - Herman Bavinck