Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) on Infra- and Supralapsarianism

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in God who Ordains

[Explanatory notes: Most of what Bavinck says here is excellent and thought provoking. However, a couple of cautionary comments. 1) it is very doubtful that Calvin was a supralapsarian. For Calvin, While God is the ultimate cause of a man’s reprobation, the man is the proximate cause. Further, it is on the supposition of corruption that God predestines the reprobate to destruction. 2) Bavinck’s discussion of permission is problematic. At one point he says the one who permits sin is just as guilty as the one who commits sin. This is problematic because God is not bound to prevent sin. And if what he says holds good, then election itself is undercut and seen as seriously unethical. 3) Supralapsarian, though held by many Reformed theologians, is theologically unhealthy. It distorts one’s perception of God’s revelation to mankind. For sure, so does infralapsarianism, but supralapsarianism magnifies the distortion. 4) The so-called Amyraldian order of the decrees is also suspect given the denials and explanations of Amyraut himself.]


In Christian theology, however, the word “predestination” (poorosmos)h as been used in very different senses. Meanings varied from broad to narrow. On the Pelagian position it is nothing other than the decree to grant eternal salvation to those whose faith and perseverance God had foreseen, and to consign others, whose sins and unbelief he had foreseen, to eternal punishment. The creation, the fall, Christ, the preaching of the gospel and the offer of gate to all, a persevering faith or unbelief–they all precede predestination, are not included in it but excluded from it. This decree is restricted to the decision to predestine some to eternal life and others to eternal punishment. Here predestination is understood in the most restricted sense and is totally dependent on the bare foreknowledge of God. It is uncertain and undeserving of the name “predestination.” Not God but humans make history and determine the outcome of it. This view has been sufficiently rebutted above and needs no further discussion here.

What does need further consideration is the important difference between infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism. This, in fact, consists in nothing other than a more restricted or broader definition of the concept of predestination. Augustine, to cite a major figure in this discussion, restricted the word in two ways. In the first place, in the order of the decrees he had the decree of predestination follow that of creation and the fall; second, he usually construed the word in a favorable sense, equated foreordination with election, and favored describing the decree of reprobation with the word “foreknowledge.” Predestination tells us what God does, that is, the good; but foreknowledge refers to what humans do, that is, evil. Generally speaking, scholasticism Roman Catholicism, and Lutheranism followed this latter usage. The infralapsarians among Reformed theologians similarly had the decree of creation and fall precede that of election and reprobation. But while the majority of them were willing to include reprobation in the decree of predestination-provided it follows that of the fall–and hence spoke of “double predestination,” others preferred to restrict predestination to election and to treat reprobation separately under a different name. Now if the word “predestination” is not construed in a Pelagian sense and reprobation is not withdrawn from the jurisdiction of the divine will, as was done in the thinking of later Catholic and Lutheran theologians, this difference is not material but merely verbal. Still, it is characteristic for the infralapsarian position that the decree of creation and fall precedes that of election and reprobation. Supralapsarianism, by contrast, so expanded predestination that it includes the decree of creation and the fall, which are then considered as means leading to an ultimate end: the eternal state of rational creatures.

In Reformed churches and theology both views of predestination, the supra- as well as the infralapsarian, have always been accorded equal recognition. While the Dutch confessional standards are infralapsarian in outlook, no ecclesiastical assembly, not even the Synod of Dort, ever made things difficult for a supralapsarian. The Lambeth articles of 1595, which were included in the Irish Confession of 1615 (ch. 3) as well as the Westminster Confession, intentionally leave the issue undecided. Reformed theologians have always extended equal rights to both views. Spanheim used to say that when he lectured in a theological classroom, he was a supralapsarian, but when speaking to his congregation he was an infralapsarian. And indeed, both are fundamentally Reformed. On the one hand, supralapsarians teach as decisively as infralapsarians that God is not the author of sin but that the cause of sin lies in the human will. Although as the Omnipotent One God may have predestined the fall and exercised his government also in and through sin, he remains holy and righteous. Humans fall and sin voluntarily through their own fault. “Man falls as God’s providence ordains, but he falls by his own fault.” Also , supralapsarians did not arrive at their view by philosophical speculation, but presented this view because they deemed it to be more in harmony with Holy Scripture. Just as Augustine arrived at his doctrine of predestination by studying Paul, so the scriptural doctrine of sin led Calvin to his supralapsarianism. According to his own testimony, in passing on this perspective he was not giving his readers philosophy but the truth that is according to the Word of God.”‘ On the other hand, Reformed theologians of the infralapsarian persuasion fully recognize that God did not, by foreknowledge, merely foresee the fall and sin and eternal punishment but included and foreordained them in his decree.

On the decrees themselves and on their content, accordingly, there is no disagreement. Both parties reject free will, and deny that faith is the cause of election and that sin is the cause of reprobation, and thus combat Pelagianism. Both parties ultimately rest their case in the sovereign good pleasure of God. The difference only concerns the order of the decrees. Infralapsarians adhere to the historical, causal order; supralapsarians refer the ideal, teleological order. The former construe the term “predestination” in a restricted sense and have the decree of creation, fall, and providence precede it. The latter subsume all the other decrees under the term “predestination.” In the thinking of the infralapsarians, the emphasis lies on the plurality of the decrees; in that of the Supralapsarians, on the unity of the decrees. In the former, all the decrees to some degree have a significance of their own; in the latter, the preceding decrees are all subordinate to the final decree.

This difference is not resolved by an appeal to Scripture. For while infralapsarianism is supported by all the passages in which election and reprobation have reference to a fallen world and are represented as acts of mercy and of justice (Deut. 7:6-9; Matt. 12:25-26; John 15: 19; Rom. 9: 15-1 6; Eph. 1:4-12; 2 Tim. 1:9), supralapsarianism finds support in all the texts that declare God’s absolute sovereignty, especially in relation to sin (Ps. 1 15:3; Prov. 164; Isa. 10:15; 45:9; Jer. 18:6; Matt. 20: 05; Rom. 9:17, 19-21). The simple fact that each of these views rests on a specific group of texts and fails to do full justice to the other group already suggests the one-sidedness of both groups. Infralapsarianism deserves praise for its modesty inasmuch as it does not offer a solution and abides by the historical causal order. Also, it seems less harsh and shows greater consideration for the demands of [pastoral] practice. However, it does not satisfy the mind, because reprobation can no more be understood as an act of divine justice than election. Faith and good works, we know, are not the cause of election; but neither is sin the cause of reprobation, which lies solely in God’s sovereign good pleasure. The decree of reprobation, accordingly, always in a sense precedes the decree to permit sin. Moreover, if in the divine consciousness the decree of reprobation did not occur until after the decree to permit sin, the question inevitably arises: then why did he permit sin? Did that permission consist in an act of bare foreknowledge, and was the fall actually a frustration of God’s plan? But no Reformed believers, even if they are infralapsarians, can or may ever say such a thing. Reformed believers must in a sense include the fall in God’s decree and conceive of it as having been foreordained. But why did God, by an act of efficacious permission, foreordain the fall? Infralapsarianism has no answer to this question other than God’s good pleasure, but in that case it says the same thing as supralapsarianism. Reprobation cannot be explained as an act of divine justice, for the first sinful act at any rate was permitted by God’s sovereignty. Infralapsarianism, reasoning backward, still ends up with a supralapsarian position. If it refused to end up there, it would have to resort to “foreknowledge.”

Add to this, finally, that it puts the decree of reprobation after that of the fall, but where? Was original sin, the sin committed by our first ancestor, the point at which God decided to reject the “many,” and in making this dreadful decree did God leave actual sins totally out of consideration? But if reprobation must be traced to God’s justice, as infralapsarianism insists, why not rather place it, not only after the entrance of original sin, but after the completed commission of actual sins and so reject every reprobate individually? This was in fact the teaching of Arminius, who also included the sin of foreseen unbelief in this decree. But that, of course, would not do for a Reformed theologian. For then reprobation would depend on bare foreknowledge, that is, on the conduct of human beings. In that case the sinful deeds of humans would be the ultimate cause of reprobation. For that reason theologians rather arbitrarily placed the decree of reprobation immediately &er the fall and stopped there. In reality, therefore, with reference to all actual sins infralapsarianism taught exactly the same thing as supralapsarianism. Reprobation, here, may not precede original sin, but it certainly precedes all other sins. Infralapsarianism may seem more gentle and fair, but upon deeper reflection this proves to be little more than appearance.

Accordingly, supralapsarianism undoubtedly has in its favor that it refrains from all useless attempts at justifying God. In the cases of both reprobation and election, it grounds itself in God’s sovereign, incomprehensible, yet always wise and holy good pleasure. Yet it is, if not more unsatisfactory, at least as unsatisfactory as infralapsarianism. While it assumes the appearance of a solution, in fact at no point and in no respect does it offer a solution.

In the first place, while it is true that the revelation of all God’s perfections is undoubtedly the ultimate goal of all God’s ways, supralapsarianism is mistaken when it immediately includes in this ultimate end the manner in which this glory of God will in the hereafter manifest itself in the eternal state of his rational creatures. For that eternal state, both of blessedness and of perdition, is not itself the ultimate goal, but a means designed to reveal all God’s perfections on a creaturely level. After all, one cannot say that God could not have manifested his glory in the salvation of all, had he so desired. Nor is it correct to say that in the eternal state of the lost, God exclusively reveals his justice, and in that of the elect he exclusively reveals his mercy. Also, in the church, purchased as it was by the blood of his Son, God’s justice becomes manifest; and also, in the place of perdition there are degrees of punishment and hence of his mercy. The ultimate goal of all God’s works indeed is, and has to be, his glory, but having said this we have not yet said a word about the manner in which his glory will shine forth. This manner has been determined by his will, and although God also had his wise and holy reasons for it, we cannot say why he chose precisely this means and not another, why he planned the destruction of many and not the salvation of all. A further objection to supralapsarianism is that according to it the objects of the decree of election and reprobation are possible humans and, as Comrie added, a possible Christ. Granted, this last component has been eliminated from the supralapsarian position by others, but this does not remove the principle from which this error arose in the first place. Logically speaking, if the object of election is the salvation of possible persons, the decree must include the incarnation of a possible Christ, for the church and its head cannot be separated.

But aside from this, God’s decree of election and reprobation, whose sole object is “humans capable of being created and of falling,” is not yet actual but only provisional. Before very long supralapsarianism must again proceed to the infralapsarian order. For following the first decree concerning the election and reprobation of humans, comes the decree actually to create these possible humans and to let them fall. This decree must then be succeeded by another with respect to these humans–now no longer regarded as possible but as actually existing entities–to elect some and to reject others. The logical order in supralapsarianism, therefore, leaves a lot to be desired. Actually it differs from infralapsarianism only in that, like Amyraldism, it prefaces the infralapsarian series of decrees with a decree concerning possibilities. But just what is a decree concerning possible human entities whose actual future existence is still absolutely uncertain? In the consciousness of God there is an infinite number of possible humans who will never really exist. The objects of the decree of election and reprobation, therefore, are “nonbeings,” not specific persons known to God by name. A final problem associated with supralapsarianism is that it makes the eternal punishment of reprobates an object of the divine will in the same manner and in the same sense as the eternal salvation of the elect; and further, that it makes sin, which leads to eternal punishment, a means in the same manner and in the same sense as redemption in Christ is a means toward eternal salvation.

Now, Reformed theologians all agree that sin and its punishment are willed and determined by God. It is also perfectly true that words like “permission” and “foreknowledge” in fact in no way contribute to the solution of difficulties. The questions, after all, remain precisely the same: Why did God, knowing everything in advance, create humans with the capacity to fall, and why did he not prevent the fall? Why did he allow all humans to fall in the fall of one person? Why does he not have the gospel preached to all humans, and why does he not bestow faith on all? In short, if God foreknows a thing and permits it, he does that either willingly or unwillingly. The latter is impossible. Accordingly, only the former is a real option: God’s permission is efficacious, an act of his will. Nor should it be supposed that the notion of permission is of any value or force against the charge that God is the author of sin, for one who permits someone to sin and hence to perish, although he is in a position to prevent it from happening is as guilty as he who incites someone to sin. On the other hand, all agree also that sin, though not outside of the power of God’s will, is and remains nevertheless contrary to his will, that it is not a means to the ultimate goal but a serious disruption of God’s creation, and therefore that Adam’s fall [into sin] was not a forward step but most certainly a fall. It also has to be granted that, though we can with good reason take exception to such terms as “permission,” “foreknowledge,” “preterition,” and “dereliction,” no One is able to come up with better ones. Even the most rigorous supralapsarian cannot dispense with these words, either from the pulpit or from behind an academic theological 1ectern. For though one may assume that there is a ”predestination to death,” no Reformed theologian has ventured to speak ‘predestination to sin.” Every one of them (Zwingli, Calvin, Beza, Zanchius, Gomarus, Comrie, et al.) has maintained that God is not the author of sin. that humans were not created for perdition, that in reprobation also the severity of God’s justice is manifested, that reprobation is not the ”primary cause but only the “accidental cause” of sin, that sin is not the “efficient” bur the “sufficient” cause of reprobation, and so forth.

Accordingly–and fortunately!–supralapsarianism is consistently inconsistent. It starts out with a bold leap forward but soon afterward it shrinks back and relapses into the infralapsarianism it had previously abandoned. Among the proponents of supralapsarianism this phenomenon is very clear. Almost all of them were reluctant to place the decree of reprobation (in its entirety and without any restriction) before the decree to permit sin. The Thomist differentiated between a negative and a positive reprobation, the former preceding creation and fall, and the latter following them. This distinction, though is a more or less modified form, regularly returns in the works of the Reformed theologians. All of them acknowledge that the decree of reprobation must be distinguished from condemnation (which is the implementation of that decree), occurs in time, and is prompted by sin. But in the decree of reprobation itself many of them again differentiate between a preceding more general decree of God to reveal his perfections, notably his mercy and justice, in certain humans “capable of being created and falling-and a subsequent specific decree to create these “possible humans,” to permit them to fall and to sin, and to punish them for their sins.


Thus neither supralapsarianism nor infralapsarianism succeeded in solving this problem and in doing justice to the many-sidedness of Scripture. In part this failure is due to the one-sidedness that characterizes both views.

In the first place, it is incorrect, as we stated above, to describe the ultimate end of all things as the revelation of God’s mercy in the elect and of his justice in the lost. Most certainly, the glory of God with the manifestation of his perfections is the ultimate goal of all things; yet the double state of human blessedness and human wretchedness is not included in that ultimate goal but is related to it as a means. It is strictly indemonstrable that this double state has to be an integral part of the ultimate goal of God’s glory. When God accomplishes his works ad extra, he can never have in view anything other than the honor of his name. But that he seeks to establish his honor in this and in no other way, is to be ascribed to his sovereignty and nothing else. Even aside from this, however, it is not true that God’s justice can only be manifested in the wretched state of the lost and his mercy only in the blessedness of the elect, for in heaven, too, his justice and holiness are radiantly present, and even in hell there is still some evidence of his mercy and goodness.

In the second place, it is incorrect to represent the wretched state of the lost as the goal of predestination. Admittedly, sin cannot be traced to a bare foreknowledge and permission of God. The fall, sin, and eternal punishment are included in the divine decree and in a sense willed by God, but then always only in a certain sense and not in the same manner as grace and blessedness. God takes delight in the latter, but sin and punishment are not occasions of pleasure or joy to God. When he makes sin subservient to his honor, he does it by his omnipotence, but this is contrary to the nature of sin. And when he punishes the wicked, he does not delight in their suffering as such; rather, in this punishment he celebrates the triumph of his perfections (Deut. 2863; Ps. 2:4; Prov. 1:26; Lam. 3:33). And though on the one hand, with a view to the comprehensive and immutable character of God’s counsel, there is no objection to speaking of a “double predestination,” on the other hand we must bear in mind that in the one case predestination is of a different nature than in the other. “Predestination is the disposition, end, and ordering of a means to an end. Since eternal damnation is not the goal but only the termination of human life, reprobation cannot properly be classified under predestination. For these two things–to order to a goal and to order to damnation–are at variance with each other. For by its very nature, every goal is the optimal end and perfection of a thing. Damnation, however, is the ultimate evil and the ultimate imperfection, so that it cannot properly be said that God predestined some humans to damnation.” Hence, no matter how emphatically and often Scripture says that sin and punishment have been determined by God, the words “purpose,” “foreknowledge,” and “predestination” are used almost exclusively with reference to “predestination to glory.”

In the third place, there is still another reason why it is less proper to coordinate “predestination to eternal death” with “predestination to eternal life” and to treat the former as the ultimate goal in the same sense as the latter. The object of election is not just an aggregate of certain individuals, as in the case of reprobation, but the human race reconstituted under a new head: Christ. Hence, by the grace of God not just some individuals are saved, but the human race itself in conjunction with the entire cosmos. Moreover, in this salvation of the human race and the world as a whole, it is not just some of God’s perfections that are manifested, so that in addition a realm of eternal perdition would be needed to manifest his justice, but in the consummated kingdom of God all his virtues and perfections are fully unfolded: his justice as well as his grace, his holiness as well as his love, his sovereignty as well as his mercy. Hence, this state of glory is the real and direct end–although also subordinated to his honor–that God has in view with his creation.

In the fourth lace, both supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism erred in that they placed all the things that are antecedent to the ultimate goal as means in subordinate relations also to each other. It is true, of course, that the means are all subordinate to the ultimate goal, but they are not for that reason subordinate to each other. Creation is not just a means for the attainment of the fall, nor is the fall only a means for the attainment of grace and perseverance, and these components in turn are not just a means for the attainment of blessedness and eternal wretchedness. We must never lose sight of the fact that the decrees are as abundantly rich in content as the entire history of the world, for the latter is the total unfolding of the former. Who could possibly sum up world history in a logical outline of just a few terms? Creation, fall, sin, Christ, faith, unbelief, and so forth, are certainly not just related to each other as means, so that a preceding one can fall away the moment the next one has been reached. As Twisse already noted: “These elements are not just subordinated to each other, but are also related coordinately.”Certainly the creation of the world did not just occur to make room for the event of the fall, but resulted in something that will continue even in the state of glory. The fall did not just take place to produce creatures existing in a state of misery, but retains its meaning as a fact with all the consequences that have arisen from it. Christ did not only become a mediator–a position that would have been sufficient for the expiation of sin–but God also ordained him to be head of the church. The history of the world is not a means that can be dispensed with once the end has come; instead, it has continuing impact and leaves its fruits in eternity. And election and reprobation themselves do not follow two straight parallel lines, for in unbelievers there is much that does not arise from reprobation, and in believers there is much that cannot be attributed to election. On the one hand, both election 2nd reprobation presuppose sin and are acts of mercy and justice (Rom. 9: 15; Eph. 1: 4); on the other, both are also acts of divine sovereignty (Rom. 9: 11 , 17, 21). Similarly, even before the fall Adam was already a type of Christ (1 Cor. 15:47ff.), yet in Scripture the incarnation is always based on the fall of the human race (Heb. 2:14ff.). Sometimes Scripture uses language so strong that reprobation is completely coordinated with election, and eternal punishment is as much God’s goal as eternal blessedness (Luke 2:34; John 3:19-21; 1 Pet. 2:7-8; Rom. 9: 17-18,22; etc.). At other times eternal death is entirely absent from the biblical portrayal of the future: the end will be the triumphal consummation of the kingdom of God, the new heaven and the new earth, and the new Jerusalem, where God will be all in all (1 Cor. 15; Rev. 21-22). All things will be subordinate to the church as the church is to Christ (1 Cor. 3:21-23), and reprobation is totally subordinated to election.

Accordingly, neither the supralapsarian nor the infralapsarian view of predestination is capable of incorporating within its .perspective the fullness and riches of the truth of Scripture and of satisfying our theological thinking. The truth inherent in supralapsarianism is that all the decrees together form a unity; that there is an ultimate goal to which all things are subordinated and serviceable; that the entrance of sin into the world was not something that took God by surprise, but in a sense willed and determined by him; that from the very beginning the creation was designed to make re-creation possible; and that even before the fall, in the creation of Adam, things were structured with a view to Christ. But the truth inherent in infralapsarianism is that the decrees, though they form a unity, are nevertheless differentiated with a view to their objects; that in these decrees one can discern not only a teleological but also a causal order; that the purpose of the creation and the fall is not exhausted by their being means to a final end; and that sin was above all and primarily a catastrophic disturbance of creation, one which of and by itself could never have been willed by God.

Generally speaking, the formulation of the ultimate goal of all things as God’s will to reveal his justice in the case of the reprobate and his mercy in the case of the elect, is overly simple and austere. The state of glory, Scripture tells us, will be rich and splendid beyond all description. We look for a new heaven, a new earth, a new humanity, a restored creation, an ever-progressing development never again disturbed by sin. To that end the creation and the fall, Adam and Christ, nature and grace, faith and unbelief, election and reprobation–all work together, each in its own way, not only consecutively but in concert. Indeed, even the present world, along with its history, is as such already an ongoing revelation of God’s perfections. It is not only a means toward the higher and richer revelation that is coming but has an inherent value of its own. It will continue to exert its influence in depth and in breadth also in the coming dispensation, and to furnish a new humanity with ever new reasons for the worship and glorification of God. Accordingly, inherent in the decrees reciprocally, as in the facts of world history, there is not only a causal and teleological but also an organic order. Given our limitations, we can only put ourselves in one or the other position, so that the proponents of a causal and the proponents of a teleological world-and-life view may at any time clash with each other. But for God the situation is very different. He surveys the whole world-historical scene. All things are eternally present to his consciousness. His counsel is one single conception, one in which all the particular decrees are arranged in the same interconnected pattern in which, a posteriori, the facts of history in part appear to us to be arranged now and will one day appear to be fully arranged.

This interconnected pattern is so enormously rich and complex that it cannot be reproduced in a single word such as “infralapsarian” or “supralapsarian.” It is both causally and teleologically connected. Preceding components impact subsequent components, but even future events already condition the past and the present. The whole picture is marked by immensely varied omnilateral interaction. Accordingly, predestination in the ordinary sense of the word as the foreordination of the eternal state of rational creatures and of the steps leading to that state, is not the one all-encompassing decree of God. While it is an utterly significant part of the counsel of God, it does not coincide with it. The counsel of God is the master concept because it is comprehensive. It covers all things without exception: heaven and earth, spirit and matter, things visible and invisible, creatures animate and inanimate. It is the one will of God governing the whole cosmos, past, present, and future. Predestination, however, concerns the eternal state of rational creatures and the steps or means leading to it, but it cannot include among those means everything that exists and occurs in the world. That is why in a previous section we discussed “providence” separately as a decree of God, though not as one that is separate from predestination. Much more than was the case in the past, the subject of common grace must be given its due also in the doctrine of the counsel of God. In short, the counsel of God and the cosmic history that corresponds to it must not be pictured exclusively–as infra- and supralapsarianism did–as a single straight line describing relations only of before and after, cause and effect, means and end; instead, it should also be viewed as a systemic whole in which things occur side by side in coordinate relations and cooperate in the furthering of what always was, is, and will be the deepest ground of all existence: the glorification of God. Just as in any organism all the parts are interconnected and reciprocally determine each other, so the world as a whole is a masterpiece of divine art, in which all the parts are organically interconnected. And of that world, in all its dimensions, the counsel of God is the eternal design.

Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker, 2004), 2:382-392.

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