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Calvin and Calvinism » Blog Archive » Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) on Infra- and Supralapsarianism

Geerhardus Vos (1862-1949) on Infra- and Supralapsarianism

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in God who Covenants


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 wi th 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, 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, 1.770-772). 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 1 any other difference than that the former [supralapsarians 1 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, Mastricht. 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 Mastricht?

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 supralapsananism conclusive?

No, because:

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.

73. How does the Mediator figure in the decree of election?

Logically, only after sin. As Mediator He is surety. A surety presupposes a debt that must be paid. Debt presupposes sin. Christ as Mediator can only appear where sin is present. On this point one must judge as Beza does (see above in the quote of Trigland [65. e) 1.]). This must be so unless one wants to make Christ the Mediator of human nature for its glorification even in its sinless state and thus teach an incarnation apart from sin, as Comrie does. But this peculiar view does not flow from supralapsarianism as such, but from supralapsarianism connected with certain other ideas. A logical connection (nexus causalis) cannot exist between supralapsarianism and other doctrines, already simply because all the other parts of the doctrine of salvation presuppose sin.

74. Give a historical overview of the conflict between infra and supralapsarianism.

Augustine, who first worked out the doctrine of predestination, was an infralapsarian, since he derived the fall from God’s foreknowledge. Later the doctrine of Augustine was presented in supralapsarian terms. The presbyter Lucidus, who did this, was obliged to recant. In the Middle Ages the monk Gottschalk and Thomas Bradwardine appeared as supralapsarian defenders of predestination.

There has been dispute about Calvin. The truth is that sometimes he expressed himself in one way and at other times in another. But while his infralapsarian-sounding expressions can be explained as partial a posteriori representations, it is impossible to give a minimizing sense to his decidedly supralapsarian statements. One may compare the entire 23rd chapter of book three of his Institutes, where in connection with predestination he speaks very explicitly about the fall and the decree of the fall. Further, there is the following (Opera, IX.713), “Before man was created, in His eternal decree God established what He willed would happen with the entire human race. By this secret decree of God it has happened that Adam fell from the state of his natural rectitude and by his fall drew all his posterity with himself into the guilt of eternal death.” We find more such expressions. Finally, Calvin’s declaration, “God has created us in order to redeem us.”

Among Reformed theologians after Calvin the following were supralapsarians:

Beza, Peter Martyr Vermigli, Marlorat, Whitaker, Ferrius, Zanchius, Perkins, Gomarus, Maccovius (in part also, as appears from what was quoted above, Junius).

75. What has the Synod of Dordt declared regarding this issue?

It has maintained an infralapsarian position but without the intention of wanting to condemn supralapsarianism. In general one must keep in mind that an infralapsarian can never claim that what the supralapsarian says cannot be true. Were he to insist on this, he himself would have to give a positive explanation concerning the purpose of God in permitting sin. And he neither wants nor dares to enter precisely into that explanation. Therefore he says, “I keep to below the fall.” But, he does not judge the supralapsarian. At the most he could demand that the supralapsarian also leave the matter as uncertain or pass over it in silence. That the Synod of Dordt did not wish to condemn supralapsarianism is evident from the following:

a) Not a few of its members were supralapsarians: the president, Bogerman, Gomarus, Lydius, Voetius, Festus Hommius, in general the delegates from Gelderland and South Holland. These all signed the Canons of Dordt. So, they would have signed their own condemnation if supralapsarianism had been condemned.

b) Gomarus protested against the recommendation of Polyander, Thysius and Walaeus, but not against the canon [concerning predestination] itself. The first mentioned of these wanted to see infralapsarianism adopted in such a way that supralapsarianism was thereby excluded. On the other hand, Gomarus did not ask that his supralapsarianism be adopted, but that the question remain open. The canon was formulated differently than the recommendation of the professors named above against whom Gomarus protested.

c) Evidently, the supralapsarians who were at Dordt did not find their complete doctrine of predestination in the canon, but still a part of it was there and they could be resigned to the other part remaining unexpressed. Gomarus had clearly not meant that his position should replace what Walaeus and the others wrote, but only that it must be added if one wished to understand the matter in depth.

d) Among the charges that were brought against Maccovius was “that he taught that the object of predestination were not fallen man.” The Synod, however, did not wish to condemn him.

e) Supralapsarianism is later taught by theologians of good repute who were considered in the Netherlands as being orthodox, namely Heidanus, Burmann, Braun, Voetius, Engelhardus, and others.

Speaking against supra- and for infralapsarianism were Polyander, Walaeus, Rivet, Cocceius, Henry Alting, Molinaeus, Fr. Spanlleim, Fr. Turretin, Johann Heinrich Heidegger, Picket.

Initially the Westminster Assembly appeared to intend to adopt supralapsarianism. In the end, however, it adopted a formulation with which both views could identify. Its Prolocutor Twisse was a strong supralapsarian.

In the Netherlands, Maresius firmly contended for infralapsarianism against Gomarus and Voetius.

76. What is the difference between the infra- and supralapsarians on the doctrine of reprobation?

According to infralapsarians, reprobation has two parts: (a) praeteritio, “passing by,” God’s decree not to grant the grace of salvation to certain persons lying in sin; and (b) praedamnatio, "predamnation;’ God’s decree to commit these persons to eternal destruction because of their sin. According to the supralapsarians, reprobation has three parts: (a) the decree to set apart certain persons for the revelation of God’s retributive justice in the punishment for their sins; (b) permission in God’s decree for ilie fall of man; (c) the decree not to grant grace to thiese persons, being once fallen, but to condemn them because of their sin. Thus, in the latter sense reprobation is God’s sovereign and just decree to ordain certain persons known to Him for the revelation of His punitive righteousness and therefore to permit them to fall into sin by their own fault and thereafter not to grant them grace in Christ.

77 Where must the infralapsarian seek the cause of reprobation?

This can be answered in three ways.

a) If one asks for the reason why just this or that particular person perishes, then the infralapsarian answers: that flows from God’s sovereign good pleasure. It cannot result from sin, for in God’s decree all Adam’s posterity is also equally subject to sin, without all being reprobate.

b) If one now asks for the reason for the withholding of grace, then from an infralapsarian standpoint the answer must again be: God’s sovereign good pleasure is the reason for this withholding. He was not obliged to grant His grace to anyone.

c) If one now asks for the reason why in general-without considering the antithesis with the elect, the reprobate perish-then for the infralapsarian the answer is that the reason did not lie in God’s predestination, but in man’s sin. If one asks further where the ground of certainty for sin lies, then the infralapsarian answers: in God’s decree. If one asks still further what moved God to permit sin, he answers: I want to stay out of that question. Someone perishes because of his sin; the certainty of the sin comes from God’s decree (although not the reality). But that God decreed to permit his sin for glorifying His justice, the infralapsarian dare not say. Therefore he does not include it in predestination.

The supralapsarian says: The legal ground why men perish lies in sin that they deliberately commit within time. Nobody perishes other than because of his own sin. But this sin itself cannot occur apart from the permission of God’s decree. Therefore, this permission, that is, God’s predestination, is the highest ground for the reality of perishing, although not the legal ground. Naturally sin cannot be the ground for God’s decree that sin would occur. It had other grounds that we cannot fathom as far as their justness is concerned but that are nevertheless just.

78. What do we understand concerning the hardening that God causes to come upon man?

Regarding this Scripture teaches the following:

a) That generally hardening is the consequence of contact with the revelation or the truth of God against which sinful men rebels (so, for Pharaoh, Exod 7:3; Isaiah’s contemporaries, Isa 6; Matt 13:11-16). “An odor of death to death.”

b) That hardening is also caused by God simultaneously withdraw, ing the common grace of the Holy Spirit and permitting sin to break out and spread unhindered. Here, then, is a real act of God, but it is an act of withdrawing. God does not cause sin to arise in man but withdraws all influences that work for good. This is called, “given over to a depraved mind,” “to dishonorable passions,” “to the desires of their hearts” (Rom 1:28,26,24; Psa 81:13).

c) That sometimes hardening arises from resistance to extraordinary enlightenment that God has given man, but with no regenerating grace accompanying it. Something like this is indicated in Hebrews 6:4-8.

d) That becoming hardened by God can at the same time be the hardening of oneself. That is said of Pharaoh.

79. Is Christ the meriting cause of election?

No, this would imply that the gift of Christ preceded election and so was generally intended for all mankind. One says, God cannot Condescend to grant election to a sinful humanity if Christ is not already there as Mediator. answer, He also cannot condescend to a sinful humanity with the gift of a mediator if the mediator is not already there. And so one never reaches a conclusion.

Turretin says, “The question is not whether Christ is the foundation and the meriting cause of a decreed salvation with respect to its matter but whether Christ is the meriting cause and the foundation of the decree of salvation with respect to God. The first question must be answered affirmatively, the second negatively. Everything that in reality comes to us flows from Christ, but Christ Himself, with all that flows from Him, has been given to us out of the free mercy of God. Scripture speaks this way everywhere (1 Cor 1:30 ).”

Geerhardus Vos, Reformed Dogmatics tran. Richard B. Gaffin (Bellingham, WA: Lexham Press, 2014),148-155. [Some minor reformatting; italics original; and underlining mine.]

[Note: Some of Vos’ historical and theological claims should be taken with caution.]

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