It is necessary to occupy ourselves with that well-known dispute within the Reformed doctrine of election which is usually called the struggle between supra- and infralapsarianism. This controversy of the seventeenth century often reveals profound aspects, and although it was usually regarded as an intra-confessional dispute, the controversy sometimes revived with great sharpness as each opposing side discovered in the view of the other a total theological concept that exerted its influence on the understanding of the gospel as a whole. And it was certainly not because it wished to penetrate more deeply into the mystery of God’s election, but rather to keep peace, that the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 saw itself compelled to give a brief synopsis of this theological dispute. But also afterwards it has become clear that this difference in view does not belong merely to the past, for in the controversy about the Covenant questions were raised which were very reminiscent of those problems of the past even though the concepts supra and infra were not used. And for those who thought that this was only a matter of scholastic hairsplitting, it must come as a great surprise that Barth in his doctrine of election discusses this old struggle very thoroughly and attempts to trace its deepest motives.
But in spite of this renewed interest, many are aware of the fact that we face here a subtle controversy which owes its existence to a trespassing of the boundaries set by revelation. The terminology employed (supra-infra) sounds strange, and it has been asked whether theology has not become a gnosis which can never become quite transparent to the Church and can never really affect the Church’s belief.
There is also the fact that in the discussion of this dispute we often hear of partialities, both in supra and infra, and of the insolubility of this struggle. But we cannot brush these questions aside by appealing to the simplicity of the gospel. The Reformed churches have been, responsible for keeping this struggle alive, and if we now think that this burden is really too heavy, and that at least this one problem of the many can be thrown off, it will be at least necessary to see why that is possible and also necessary. This matter is all the more urgent since it touches upon the doctrine of election the heart of the Church and no speculation is permissible here.
Is it perhaps true that this controversy never reached a satisfactory solution because it was purely speculative? In other words, must we indeed choose between supra and infra? Or is it possible to say with Spanheim that in the pulpit we are supra, but in preaching and teaching infra? This strange way of putting the problem evokes the question whether we are here really confronted by a dilemma of faith and if we are not obeying the teaching of Scripture if we refuse to make a choice here.
The urgency of these questions is all the more obvious since the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 gave a short synopsis of this dispute and said “that our Confessions, certainly with respect to the doctrine of election, follow the infralapsarian presentation,” but that “this does–not at all imply an exclusion or condemnation of the supralapsarian presentation. The word “presentation” in both cases strikes our attention because it suggests specific approaches from both sides which do not necessarily exclude each other.
The apparent intention is to call for peace, and a confessional and therefore religious schism between infra and supra is denied. On the one hand it is said that it is not permissible to present the supralapsarian view as the official doctrine of the Reformed Church, but on the other hand it is not permissible to interfere with someone who adheres to the supralapsarian view. The word “view” which replaces the earlier “presentation” indicates again a certain outlook, an approach with an unmistakable subjective element which is subject to variation without affecting the heart of the Church.
The Synod of Utrecht in 1905 did not intend to give a definite solution to this problem but, rather, warned its members to speak as little as possible of such matters which go beyond the understanding of simple believers, and it gave the concrete advice to adhere as closely as possible in preaching and catechetical teaching to the presentation given by the confession. But even this attempt to keep peace, with its many qualifications and concessions, still confronts us with questions about the nature of this curious dispute, questions which are so urgent because they are directly related to the Confessions of the Church. Why was it said that the Confessions give an infra presentation but at the same time that a certain freedom must be allowed to the supra position?
The first thing to do is to give a description of the controversy. From the terms supra and infra it appears already that the point at issue is the relation between predestination and the fall (lapsus). The Latin words from which the struggle derived its name may give it a rather speculative appearance, as though to create the impression that we are far away from the simplicity of faith; but they may not prevent us from inquiring concerning the deepest motive of this controversy.
Many descriptions of this dispute present the point at issue as a difference of opinion regarding the order of God’s decrees. In this connection the impossible and unsatisfactory aspects of both these solutions is brought out, and the question arises whether this problem of order does not presuppose a transposition of the temporal succession into the eternity of God’s counsel, and whether that does not harbor the vitium originis of this insoluble problem.
It is quite apparent that there is more to this than meets the eye. otherwise the two sides would have come to a solution much sooner. Can it really be only a logical problem, a matter of sharp and consequent thinking, of speculation about the “eternity” of God’s counsel in the historical terms of “before” and “after”? The history of this dispute indicates clearly that much more is involved than a mere question regarding order. Dijk was therefore quite correct when he opposed the opinion that the actual point at issue lies it1 the At least that was not the original problem. Only in the later development of the doctrine of election the element of succession began to play an important role.
Originally it was a matter of different interpretations of the relationship between predestination and the fall. The question arose whether in the counsel of God the fall of man had been willed by Him. According to Dijk, two different answers were given: the answer of Luther, Zwingli and Calvin, who all taught that the fall was comprised in the counsel of God, and the answer of Bullinger, who did not dare to go that far, but wanted to speak only of praescientia.
In this connection there was also a difference in the interpretation of rejection. According to the first view, rejection was ultimately based on the good pleasure of God, while according to the second view it was primarily connected with sin (praevisio peccati). “And this,” says Dijk. “is the fundamental difference between supra and infra.” He calls the view according to which the problem is a matter of succession, “incomplete.” Bullinger, as a representative of the original infra position, saw rejection as an act of God’s justice against sin, which therefore preceded the justitia, and upon which the divine answer of the justitia followed. This shows clearly that the relation between predestination and the fall is at stake. But at the same time it becomes understandable how later on out of this original controversy a modified controversy could issue. For when it was more and more generally understood that the concept of praescientia did not offer a solution for the relationship between the counsel of God and sin, the fall was considered part of the counsel of God. But at the same time the logical question arose as to how that was to be understood, for there was apriori an unhesitant adhering to the doctrine that God was not the author of evil, and that it was impassible to think of a predestination to evil. What, then, was to be the interpretation of the fall being part of God’s counsel? Was rejection as a part of the counsel of God a reaction against sin, or had rejection apriori no bearing on that sin? It was in connection with these questions that the difference between supra and infra received its aspect of a problem of succession.
In my opinion it can thus be said that the problem Bullinger met returned in the later form of the controversy as the infra view, but as a view which hat1 bearing only on what had been decided within the counsel of God. To be sure, the later infra concept did not seek the solution in the praesentia, but the problem is the same. Bullinqer’s question whether sin could have been part of the counsel of God continued to live in the question how that had happened and how that was to be understood. From this issued the question concerning the succession of God’s decrees, in which the relation between predestination and fall again became a problem, albeit now within the counsel of God.
The difference supra and infra has often been formulated thus: the object of predestination according to the supra position is the homo creatbilis et labilus, and according to the infra position the homo creatus et lapsus. This formulation is correct but it must be remembered that this homo creatus lapsus is not a concrete, already existing mankind, but man as he appears in the counsel of God as already created and fallen.
In the supra position the first decree is that of predestination, which is thought to precede the decree of creation all fall. The later decrees of God (creation and fall) are then subsumed under this first decree of God. They form, so to speak, the means by which that primary predestination decree becomes realized. The decree to election and rejection precedes all other decrees. In this decree man does not yet figure as fallen man. so that God’s primary goal is not connected with sin. To be sure, in this position there is also a connection between sin and ultimate rejection (the judgment), but this happens in time, in history, and sin does not play any part in the apriori decree. Hence, rejection is. in the counsel of God, more an act of God’s sovereignty than of justice. God’s primary plan, His first apriori decree also as decree to rejection is a decree of his eternal pleasure.
In the infra position the situation is different, especially the connection between the decree to rejection and that to creation and fall. In this position the relation between sin and judgment (on earth) are considered as being part of the counsel of God.
According to this position the decree to creation and fall logically precedes the decree to rejection and election, so that in the counsel of God rejection presupposes a fallen mankind. This rejection then changes its nature, and is more an act of His justice than of His sovereignty. This does not imply that the infra position denies the sovereignty of God, but in it the idea of God’s wrath and reaction (God’s justice) is dominant and central just as God’s mercy is in election.
Bavinck has pointed out that the supralapsarian presentation has not been incorporated in a single Reformed Confession, but that the infra position has received an official place in the Confessions of the churches. It is not difficult to understand what Bavinck means when we remember that in the Reformed Confessions predestination is continually brought to bear on the fallen human race. We read in Lord’s Day 21 of the Heidelberg Catechism, for instance, that the Son of God has chosen a Church to life eternal out of the human race, and in Article 16 of the Belgic Confession that God preserves from perdition all whom He in His eternal and unchangeable counsel out of mere goodness has elected. To be sure, there is mention here of saving from perdition as the act of God which refers to the elect, but the infra position is evident from the emphasis on God’s merciful election. Nothing is said of a separate decree of predestination preceding other decrees, for example, those of creation and fall. We notice the same thing in other Confessions, for instance, in the Confessio Helvetica Posterior, where we read of God’s sovereign predestination out of mere grace, and in the Confessio Gallicana, which speaks of (God’s goodness and mercy by which God elects and saves from corruption and damnation.” Also other Confessions speak in the same manner. In itself, however, this does not yet imply a decidedly infralapsarian presentation, because there is usually no mention at all of any succession in the decrees of God, but election is rather presented as having a bearing on the perdition from which God saves. Dijk has continually and correctly pointed this out, although there are exceptions when the infra position comes more explicitly to the foreground.
But with that we are confronted with a very peculiar state of affairs, namely, that the Reformed Confessions are called infra (follow the infra presentation), but do not intend to exclude the supra entirely. What did the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 mean by saying that it is not permissible to present the supralapsarian view as the doctrine of the Reformed Churches, when it did not add that the infra is the doctrine of the Churches, although this view seems to be found in the Confessions. Are we confronted here with an impossible compromise, or is there a pure and responsible motive for the purpose of keeping peace? The complexity of the situation is accentuated still more when we read what Bavinck says, namely, that the infra position has been officially adopted in the confession of the Church, while later on in his analysis of supra and infra he says that each view errs at a certain point. They both are guilty of one-sidedness and neither of the two is quite satisfactory.
Nowhere in the field of symbolics and dogmatics are we confronted with such problems regarding the official formulation of the Church as we are with regard to supra and infra. One wonders whether it is possible at all to shed any light on these remarkable complication.
For that purpose we must first of all investigate why those who are really inclined to one or the other view sometimes make such vague statements. Bavinck has attempted to show that the two views are not completely contrary to each other, and Dijk writes: “Although the supra presentation is the one of the Reformation, no one will maintain that the infra presentation is contrary to Calvin’s teachings.”
According to Dijk, there is no contrast of principles Each uses the other’s terms to such an extent that there is no infra that does not turn to the supra, while both not only appeal to Scripture, but have a right to do so. No doubt Dijk refers here to the supra and the later infra, because both saw the fall as part of the counsel of God. Only concerning supra and the later infra does Dijk mean to say that they together do justice to the riches of revelation.
Bavinck, too, says that there are points of contact, and he thinks the matter is one of approach. There is no difference regarding the decrees proper and their content, but while infra adheres to the historical-causal order, supra emphasizes the apriori sovereignty. The infra, says Bavinck, appeals to all those passages in Scripture “where election and rejection have bearing on a fallen world and are presented as acts of mercy and justice,” while supra refers to those texts that speak of God’s sovereignty. But since each of them appeals to “a certain group of texts” and does not do justice to other passages, they suffer from one-sidedness.
The infra presentation must be praised for its modesty, but it does not give complete satisfaction because if God made the decree of rejection after that of allowing sin, the question still arises why God has permitted sin. If that allowing is more than nuda praescentia, then the fall must ultimately have Been part of God’s counsel and therefore it “rests” in God’s sovereign pleasure. But in that case the infra concept says the same as the supra.
However, these objections against the infra position do not alter the fact that the supra “is at least as unsatisfactory,” because it gives only the “appearance of a solution.” It embraces only hypothetical persons in election and rejection and even as with Comrie’s hypothetical Christ. Bavinck finds this error inherent in the concept of supra. Furthermore, the supra concept leads to making eternal punishment the object of God’s will in the same manner and in the same sense as life eternal. and to making sin “in the same manner anal. the same sense” a means to perdition as redemption in Christ is the means to salvation. For that reason Bavinck calls the infra position Modest, temperate, sober. and a mild form of the doctrine of predestination in comparison with the supra, which also gets itself entangled in antinomies.
Abraham Kuyper, too, has reflected on the difference between supra and infra. His criticism of supra is sharp: it is a theory which is open to severe criticism, especially because thus the fall into sin is not only deduced from man, but forms a link in the divine decree; moreover, it evokes the idea of a divine creating in order to destroy. Kuyper speaks of this as a horrible thought, in flagrant opposition to the concept of God’s inscrutable mercies.
But that does mean that Kuyper therefore chooses the infra presentation. For, says Kuyper, the, infra presentation entails almost equal objections, because it seeks the solution in the praescientia, the foreseen fall. Neither in supra nor in infra does he see a solution, and he further mentions the unyielding fact “that the connection between God’s eternal decree and the fall is inscrutable to us.
We cannot, says Kuyper. deduce the fall from the decree, for that eliminates sin; nor can we deduce the decree from the fall, for then there is no longer a decree of the counsel, with the result that there is no room left for God. “All systems that have tried to find a solution for this mystery end either with a weakening of man’s consciousness of sin and guilt, or with a weakening of the sovereignty and self-sufficiency of God.” According to Kuyper, we must conclude with the acknowledgment that the connection between God’s sovereignty and man’s sin “is not revealed to us.”
When we ponder all this, there is one conclusion which forces itself upon us, namely, that the heart of the matter concerns the “relation” between God’s counsel and man’s fall into sin. Bullinger’s questions, his concerns us and fears, have remained, even though in the later concept of infra the fall is considered part of God’s counsel. The very words “supra” and “infra” already indicate this core of the dispute.
What else could infra mean when its adherents speak of going “above” the fall and of remaining “below” the fall? To be sure, one can say of the supra as well as of the later infra that they both went beyond the fall to the counsel of God, but it is nevertheless understandable that the terms supra and infra continued to be used to indicate the difference. For the problem remained, even in the acknowledgment of the all-comprising counsel of God, and it made its influence felt.
In order to describe the problem the more closely, some have advocated changing the term supralapsarianism to supercreationism.” Otto Ritschl, for instance, wrote: “Strictly speaking, this theory could be more correctly called supracreatianism.” But there are objections here. For, although supra and infra, for that matter goes beyond creation, it is nevertheless quite understandable that the terms in this controversy are focused on the lapsus, on man’s fall. To be sure, the question concerning the meaning and significance of creation entered in whether creation did not have its own God-given purpose and hence was not more than just a “means” to realize God’s primary decree but the main concern was nevertheless the question concerning the relation between predestination and fall, so that Ritschl’s proposal obscures rather than clarifies the problem.
Once we have seen that the struggle between supra and infra does not primarily concern the problem of order but that this problem arose out of reflection on predestination and fall, the question returns whether supra infra is indeed an unavoidable dilemma. Is there such a drastic difference? Is there a clear indication in the many vague formulations and in the peace attempt of 1905 that we are here confronted with an insoluble problem?
he problem cannot be solved by an analysis of succession. The problem of time and succession in supra and infra (the order of God’s decrees) his part of an altogether different problem. Neither supra nor infra is interested in an abstract time problem, but rather in the background of history and human life, creation, fall. and redemption; and, in all that, especially in the reality of man’s fall and sin.
Infralapsarianism especially has always feared that this reality, in all its destructive and sinful power, becomes vague in a predestination decree to salvation and to destruction which precedes the decree of creation and the “allowing” of the fall. It is feared that such a conception. by which everything (also the fall and sin) serves the purpose set by the predestination decree, destroys the character of the doctrine of predestination. To avoid that, the decree of creation and of allowing the fall are placed before the predestination decree. In this way the attempt is made, not to isolate these decrees from God’s omnipotence but to emphasize the reality of sin in its negative, antithetical character. Election and rejection are for that reason brought to bear on this reality of sin, and although in the infra concept, too, the issue is one of presupposed fall and sin in the counsel of God, the reality of sin is accentuated by the order in which the decrees are placed. Fall and sin are no longer means, but first of all factors of rebellion and violation of God’s holiness. Furthermore, the adherents of this viewpoint wish to stress the connection between God’s decree and sin, so that God’s mercy and justice are brought to bear on the reality of the human race. It cannot be said. in my opinion, that the Reformed Confessions are infra in the sense :hat they make explicit pronouncements on the order of the decrees of God, but they evidence great sympathy for the infra presentation when predestination is continually mentioned in such a manner that it is brought to bear on sin and guilt. That is not only the case in the Heidelberg Catechism, Lord’s Day 21. and in Article 16 of the Belgic Confession, but also in the Canons. That is especially the case when with respect to the decree of rejection the Canons say that this decree does not make God the author of sin, hut declares Him to be an awful, irreprehensible, and righteous Judge and Revenger thereof (CD, I, 15). This shows clearly the relation between the decree to rejection and sin.
The inclination towards the infra concept in the Confessions is shown by the fact that always reference is made to sin and perdition whenever predestination is mentioned. In the supra concept the condemnation in time is directly related to sin because actual judgement presupposes guilt, but not to the decree to rejection itself. This connection is not present, because the decree of predestination is thought to precede all merits and demerits, hence also the decree to creation and the “decree” of the fall. But that the Confessions follow the infra presentation does not imply an obvious and exclusive choice with respect to the succession of God’s decrees. Rather, in abstracto no reflection on the decrees and their order is intended, but salvation from perdition is seen in the perspective of eternal election (BC, 16). Exactly on that account we see that Reformed theology sometimes contains criticism of infra as well as of supra, but also an unmistakable appreciation for what is called the infra-presentation in the Confessions. That, in my opinion, is the only possible explanation for the peculiar fact that Bavinck, for example, calls the confessions “infra” while at the same time he criticizes the infra as well as the supra presentation. Apparently Bavinck did not intend a criticism of the Confessions themselves, for the Reformed Confessions do not speak about the order of the decrees.
It can therefore been said that in spite of the contrast between supra and infra t he Church has been kept from making a definite confessional statement with respect to succession in the decrees of God. If that had actually been done in the so-called infra presentation, it would have been illogical not to reject the supra. And that this did not happen is the bright spot in the struggle between supra and infra, for now we can take a responsible attitude toward the Confession with its “infra presentation” and at the same time understand that the problem of succession in the theological supra and infra is a self-created and therefore insoluble problem which does not touch upon the essential faith of the Church.
It may never be forgotten that the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 spoke of doctrines “which go far beyond the understanding of the simple.” It may even be asked whether this body went far enough when it gave the advice to refrain as much as possible from preaching about such questions. It seems that in this “as much as possible” there still is some feeling that the problem of succession has significance for the pulpit.
To this it may he said that the quite general criticism of the idea of succession in infra and supra virtually excludes this possibility. Here we agree with Van der Zanden, who says that “we cannot speak of before and after in God’s eternal decrees as we do in time, hence the difference between supra and infra can be called imaginary because it implies the application of a temporal order to eternity.
Rut he who cannot and will not make a choice here can still accept the emphases of the Confessions where they fully honor the implication of predestination regarding the fallen human race. That makes it impossible for us abstractly to discuss the decrees of God. Infra for all the inacceptability of its problem of succession has made that more clear to us than supra. It is the pattern of the infra position which is followed in the Confessions, and that is why Utrecht in 1905 gave the advice to adhere as closely as possible to the presentation of the Confessions.
We find the infra motif in Article 16 of the Belgic Confession when it speaks of election from perdition. Salvation is confessed in connection with sin and guilt. There is no apriori mention of the counsel of God; but the depth and the stability and the eternal source, not out of us, but out of God, are confessed in the light of salvation as it is revealed in history. W. H. Gispen says: “From these words it is clear that the Confession does not go beyond the fall and that it does not use preconceptions of God, His sovereignty, etc., but that it adheres closely to history and Scripture, to the revelation of God.” For that reason Gispen correctly goes beyond the problem of succession in both supra and infra when he remarks: “It is therefore not the most important question whether God in predestination has accepted man as already created and fallen or as not-yet-created and therefore before the fall, hut the most important thing is that man’s salvation is seen in the light of God’s mercy.
It is clear that the problems of succession cannot shed any light. For if supra and infra were taken seriously in this respect, one would have to conclude that in God there are a number of independent decrees. The concept of succession in the doctrine of predestination is a clear form of humanization of God. This judgment is not based on an abstract contrast between time and eternity, but cm the simplicity, the majesty, the mercy, and the glory of God. Our rejection of the concept of succession is based on the Biblical testimony regarding the election in Christ. In that light it is impossible to speak in abstracto of a predestination decree which is realized by another independent decree to create and to ordain the fall. Nor may that be done for the sake of emphasizing God’s sovereignty, as if God’s attributes were honored and praised by positing one fundamental attribute on which all others are based. To be sure, the confession of God’s sovereignty belongs to the essence of Christianity, and the Church has had to be continually on its guard against attempts to minimize God’s sovereignty. But the Church may never defend God’s sovereignty by isolating it, for that would unavoidably result in speaking of primary and secondary attributes of God. It has often happened that in speaking thus the Church has confused the concept of God so that this concept revealed the traits of arbitrariness.
Nor is it possible to defend an isolated, apriori decree, whereby God’s plan in creation and through sin is not yet immediately transparent, by referring to the glory of God as though this were revealed in a separate predestination decree. Scripture never speaks abstractly of God’s glory. That glory meets us in the hymn of praise of creation, but especially where “glory to God” is sung in the fields of Ephratha. And that glory is certainly not meant as a contrast to the salvation which He grants. What is revealed in history and through sin is not the glory of abstract sovereignty, but the glory of sovereign love and loving sovereignty.
That is what the infra position correctly recognizes. But to express this insight, infra has chosen a form that of succession in which the doctrine of the unity of God’s decrees and acts is in jeopardy. The idea of succession takes the form of a preceding decree of creation and a preceding “ordinance” of the fall from which emerges after that the decree of predestination. And thus in spite of the good intentions of the infra presentation the election in Christ is obscured, and the abstraction of the preceding decree of creation threatens to overshadow the unity of God’s decrees and acts.
For that reason it can be said that some benefit resulted from the struggle between supra and infra in that they kept each other in check, that the one was something like a conscience to the other even though it was against the background of the concept of order. At least this background served as a warning.
In the struggle at and around the Synod of Dort we hear of the phrases darers in connection with supralapsarianism. After what we have said about that in Chapter I, we now can add that infralapsarianism also has its dangers. These dangers are not speculative (predestinatio ad peccatum!) , but they have to do with historicizing the acts of God. Bavinck’s criticism of infra as well as of supra is striking, especially when he points out that the infra position at times has given the impression that the “allowing” of the fall is part of the counsel of God. When Reformed theology occasionally points out the relative correctness of the supra, it does so with an eye to this particular danger in the infra concept.
The Synod of Utrecht in 1905 was also unwilling to choose either supra or infra. It only indicated and that was sufficient the infra motif (the orientation of predestination to the fallen human race) as the way for preaching and catechetical teaching. We do not hesitate to add that this way is the only safe way for theological reflection too. But this infra motif can degenerate when it attempts to inquire into the counsel of God by way of the concept of succession, so that the mystery in the unity of God’s acts is obscured. And that this danger is not imaginary appears from the fact that under the influence of the concept bf succession the solution has at times been sought in the praescientia. In the concept of succession of both supra and infra the dual danger ultimately k o m e s unavoidable: an explanation is given of the relation between God’s counsel and sin, and that which can be understood only in the way of faith is rationalized.
Abraham Kuyper once described the difference between supra and infra by saying that infra looks at the counsel of God from the point of view of man, whereas supra looks at it from the point of view of God. And that, to him, constituted the insolubility of the controversy. If this were actually the difference between supra and infra, then new questions would arise; first of all, whether man may look at the counsel of God from the side of God; and secondly, whether in that case the Synod of Utrecht should not have warned against supra. When Kuyper says of the infra that “it stood squarely on the level plane below” we may ask whether that is humanly not the only place from where we can understand anything at all of God’s mystery, the mystery of election. For that “from the human side” means that man is a subject to revelation in time, and that in the light of that revelation he understands more and more of the height and depth, length and breadth of salvation, but that this is possible only by being subject to revelation in time. There is not another way, for instance, the way of deduction which proceeds from God’s side and from the counsel of God. If the essence of supra lies in that, then the Synod of Utrecht made an irresponsible attempt to keep peace, because it did not repudiate the two possibilities: “from God’s side” and “from man’s side.” But it is not very likely that Kuyper meant such a contrast. He probably had in mind another distinction which has often played a role, namely, that between the apriori and the aposteriori treatment of predestination. Bavinck points out that the Reformed position usually employed the apriori order, since it mentioned predestination already in the locus de Deo instead of waiting until the locus de salute. And, says Bavinck, in this synthetic apriori method is involved a deeply religious matter.
Clearly Bavinck does not intend here to defend speculation, as if it were quite all right and possible to proceed from the counsel of God. Bavinck is not concerned with an apriori deduction, based on the counsel of God and apart from revelation, but also in the locus de Deo with the teaching of Scripture. All he intends to reject is an anthropological construction of the doctrine of salvation which would shift the doctrine of predestination from the locus de Deo to the locus de salute. In the locus ds Deo, too, he thinks it possible to speak responsibly of predestination without falling into abstraction .
It all depends on how predestination is discussed. The term apriori (as opposed to aposteriori) can give the impression of abstraction and speculation. But it can, and also does, mean that God’s acts, His sovereign and merciful works, are discussed of course, from man’s point of view. And now we see that the infra presentation, too, is no less apriori than the supra, in that it proceeds from the revelation regarding God’s decrees. And for that reason, supra and infra cannot he simply contrasted as apriori and aposteriori.
Both want to proceed from God’s revelation. It is understandable, however, that frequently the supra presentation has been connected with the apriori approach because it places the preceding decree of predestination by itself and does not connect it with redemption from sin and perdition until afterwards. Thus, the supra position indeed obtains specifically apriori traits, even though it intends to have this primary decree logically, not temporally, precede the other decrees. These apriori traits open the way to speculation for the epigones, and election and rejection are at times spoken of in a manner hardly distinguishable from determinism. The opposition of the infra adherents is not concerned with a preference for an apriori doctrine, but with a defense against the possibility of abstraction and a plea for the original relation of God’s counsel to salvation and redemption. Only in this way can the controversy be understood. The point at issue in this controversy is the apriority as such. The difference becomes transparent as soon as one decree is considered independently and apart from the other. For in so far as either supra or infra makes one decree primary, they become involved in problems which generate apriori and aposteriori motifs.
When the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 emphatically pointed out and warned against absolutizing the infra, it made a contribution to peace without propagating a compromise. It is necessary to pay attention to Karl Barth’s extensive analysis of the controversy. He first indicates what he thinks to be common to the two presentations, namely, that they emphasize the freedom of God’s grace over the individual, and they consider predestination as a stable system which is then realized in history by way of the symmetrical balance between election and rejection, which originates from and is given with the decretum absolutum.
To a certain extent Barth appreciates the supra as well as the infra motifs. Supra is not as speculative as it may seem at first sight. If one wants to call its adherents ‘”theistic monists,” then it is at any rate “a Biblical-Christian monism” to which they adhere. They are concerned with the contemplation of the works of God. Supra does not want to make that dependent on other decrees and ordinances, and for that reason it serves “the glorification of free grace” more than infra. But infra, too, may claim appreciation, especially with respect to “its greater reserve regarding the reality of the fall and the presence of evil in the world,” as becomes evident from the reference to a decree to “allow” evil, and from the thesis that sin is not simply a “means” to realize the decree of predestination. Infra wants to avoid the danger of supra by leaving the mystery of evil unsolved, and by not making it a component part, a necessity of nature. Infra recognizes evil in its enigmatic character and obscurity, more so than supra does.
We could summarize Barth’s view thus: supra recognizes and indicates the danger of dualism; infra the danger of monism. But Barth does not plead for neutrality, nor does he advocate choosing according to personal preference; he is of the opinion that supra is relatively more correct. The criticism of supra amounts to no more than an indication of its dangers, without thereby proving that supra is unacceptable as such. Furthermore, says Barth, all of these dangers are really connected with the mutual presuppositions of both supra and infra (the stable system of election and rejection of the individual). By accepting a decretum absolutum, the supra thesis becomes indeed dangerous and even untenable. But if supra is detached from these suppositions and the doctrine of election is understood Christologically, and seen in connection with God’s first decree in Jesus Christ the triumph of light over darkness then supra is to be preferred to infra. For then Jesus Christ becomes the actual object of predestination, and the object of the supra presentation can be realized: the predestination in election and rejection of Christ as the “sum of the gospel.”
On the other hand, infra always represents the point of view derived from the dangers of supra. Hence, it presupposes a decree of creation and a decree of the fall which precede the actual predestination. This view cannot really be corrected but only criticized as leading to the dualism of a natural theology. That is why infra is less able to shed light on the problems that lie at the basis of both supra and infra. The infralapsarians “have offered nothing in the way of a better solution to the problem of the objectum praedestinatonis.”
It is clear, in the light of the preceding discussion, that we cannot possibly accept this criticism of the infra presentation. It strikes us that Barth somewhat retracts his original appreciation for infra. The question is whether the reserve which Barth originally appreciated in the infra presentation does not actually render a positive contribution to the pure doctrine of predestination. For that caution concerned the reality of the fall and of evil in the world. Precisely at this point much deeper matters are at stake than simply a contradiction derived from the dangers of supra. Infra has rendered undeniable service as a positive warning against and a legitimate rejection of the idea that sin is a “means” to the realization of the predestination decree. It is correct that this rejection took place in the form of an objectionable arrangement of succession, but that does not justify a lack of appreciation for the positive element in this defense. And for that reason, it is incorrect to see infra as a gateway to natural theology. Its succession-concept first creation and fall can give that impression, but the deepest motive is not to make creation independent of the counsel of God, but to warn against “monism,” which also an the basis of succession makes the decree of predestination independent so that it can no longer fully and legitimately relate this decree to creation, fall, and redemption. That positive warning gives us the sense in which the Reformed Confessions are said to be infralapsarian.
Not independence of creation was the deepest concern of infra, but rather the reality of sin as opposition to God. The interest of infra is not directed at the domain of an oeconomia naturalis providentiae as such, but at the significance of creation and the disturbance of sin. The infralapsarians cannot and do not see creation and fall as simply a means to realize God’s prime decree. By this rejection, infra can the better avoid a symmetry between election and rejection.
Ultimately infralapsarianism does not solve anything, but it indicates a view of the counsel of God which does not hold God causally responsible for everything, including sin and hell, although it confesses the superiority of God’s decrees and acts over evil. Supralapsarianism also tries to avoid this causality, but it cannot really do so legitimately. This supra position can merely say “nevertheless, God is not the author of evil,” while infra finds a stouter defense in its (faulty) succession concept. And that, we think, is why Barth’s criticism of infra and his relative plea for supra betrays a misrepresentation of doctrinal history. He interprets the hesitation of infra negatively, as being a reaction without any real contribution to the solution of the problem. Actually, it is much more than a negative reaction. Its reserve is essentially related to the inscrutability of God’s counsel, and at the same time it points to the superiority of God’s plan, and to the place of man before God, a place from which man does not as a spectator survey God’s works at one glance but from which he is called to God’s electing grace. After paying some attention to this struggle, it is a joy to find that variations in theological thinking cannot prevent a meeting of minds in the Church of God. The call to peace and tolerance which came from Utrecht in 1905 was in the interest of the Church. That does not mean that the struggle between supra and infra was either valueless or without dangers. But it is striking that in the way of faith with which doctrine is concerned things often become clearer than in the way of theologizing. It cannot be denied that the problem of supra and infra, the succession of God’s decrees, has found no echo in the Church, and that the controversy, as far as I know, has not entered into the preaching of the gospel. That is not true, however, regarding the background problem from which infra issues, and which especially concerns the place of sin in God’s counsel and world rule. This issue concerns not merely theology but the Church and each individual believer as well. Here aberrations can arise which may be injurious to the Church. One may make monistic deductions from God’s all encompassing counsel, and thus see sin “implied” and “ordained” in such a manner that one loses sight of the teaching of Scripture concerning the destructive power of evil. Sin then seems unavoidable and “necessary” a mode of thinking which always leads to silent or expressed excuses. God’s counsel with respect to sin is then interpreted causally, and thus one ultimately becomes receptive to the idea that evil is ordained and that this accounts for the tragic fate of man.
Out of reaction the other side wishes to defend man’s independence. But this leads to a conception which is not monistic but dualistic. It is so impressed by the power of evil and the destructive potentialities of sin that it comes to consider evil, if not the equal, then at least the relatively independent opponent of God’s plan for the world, so that it almost overshadows the absolute power of God. What is sin? “Is this dark realm, with its forbidding mysteries, in which depth-psychology aimlessly pokes about, this realm which might justly be called chaos and demonry is it nature, is it super-nature, is it both or. . . what is it?”
It is clear that both the aspect of triumph and of threat are closely linked to the question concerning the reality of sin in the world. Hence it is that theology, if it refuses to be satisfied with simplistic conclusions, repeatedly encounters this reality, and not in the locus de peccato only! That is certainly true with respect to the doctrine of election, as we may discover most clearly in the problems of infralapsarianism. If infra is reserved and even hesitant, that is not because it lacks courage to think logically, but because it believes that man may not deduce his sin from God. This hesitancy does not concern the majesty and glory of God’s counsel over all things; it concerns a refusal to explain sin in terms of a causality in God. Infralapsarianism fervently desires to make clear that God is not the author of sin and it is always careful not to introduce in a roundabout way a causality on the basis of the symmetry between election and reprobation.
The most striking aspect of this reservedness is that infralapsarianism is nevertheless able to maintain what can be called the essence of the doctrine of election. There is no hesitation when it comes to confessing God’s election from before the foundation of the world, without human merit and without praevisa fides. The hesitation originates when it becomes impossible to draw lines of “causality” from man’s religious relation to God. It is especially the infra adherents who see through the seeming logic of referring belief and unbelief back to God, and this explains the infra emphasis in the Confessions, to which the Synod of Utrecht in 1905 so urgently referred.
The danger of infra is its susceptibility, especially at this point, to a dualism which renders God’s counsel both independent and relative. He who sees these dangers and avoids them, will always return to that reserve which neither deducts sin causally from God, nor forgets that God’s counsel is independent of man’s activity.
It was especially Bavinck who occupied himself with these questions when he reflected on what he called the incorporation of sin in the counsel of God. He, too, spoke of God’s will, but he always surrounded his words with reservations. He rejected dualism – sin as an independent power over against God but also every form of predestination ad peccatum. Bavinck’s solution was to emphasize the seriousness of sin, which in a certain sense only is willed and determined by God, but not in the same , manner as grace and salvation. Sin is made subservient to the revelation of God’s attributes and thus it does not violate God’s counsel. In all of Bavinck’s discussions we notice the same reservedness. When he discusses the idea that there is necessitas in sin rather than chance or arbitrariness, but felix culpa by virtue of God’s purpose, then he adds that in spite of the truth and attractiveness in this presentation, it cannot and may not be accepted, because it still makes God the author of sin.
Over against that he places the unreasonableness of sin. Sin is not necessary for the existence of man and still less for the existence of God. If sin often serves to reveal the good more clearly, that happens only by virtue of God’s wisdom and sovereignty. There is, indeed, a relation between sin and the counsel of God, but it is not the relation of causality.
>Nor can the concept of “allowing sin” bring the solution. This concept actually removes sin from God’s counsel and providential government. When Bavinck himself begins to formulate after rejecting the permission we notice his hesitations. They become, as it were, tangible : God is at the most the negative cause, not causa efficient, but causa deficiens. His only concern is to reject aberrations and to think in terms of God’s superiority, His counsel, and His acts in and over and through evil. He has “allowed” sin but He “would not have condoned it if He had not been able to rule it in an absolutely holy and sovereign manner.” As the Almighty, He did not fear its existence, because He knew He could rule absolutely ‘over sin. Here the way becomes visible on which man, although he does not see the connection, can walk before the eyes of God. For now there is on the one hand the impossibility of excuse, and on the other hand the refuge of God’s grace.
Thus theology refrains from taking a way other than the one on which every believer may walk. Perhaps it is precisely at this point that the deepest motifs of supra and infra touch each other without conflict. They are motifs of the simplicity (unity) of God’s almighty counsel on the one hand, and of the rebellion contra, but not praeter, voluntatem Dei on the other. In this harmony between supra and infra motifs the concept of succession has fallen away, and there is no reason to create a distance between the preacher and the theologian. The prospect and the call for the Church remain safeguarded. We confess that “now we see in a mirror, darkly,” and “now I know in part” (I Cor. 13 :12), but in so doing we do not merely set limits to our knowledge. For these limits are established in the love and hope of the believer, who me day will know fully face to face. Within this boundary it is possible truly to walk, not by sight, but by faith (I1 Cor. 5:7).
G.C. Berkouwer, Divine Election (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Eerdmans, 1972), 254-277. [Footnotes are not included.]