Herman Venema (1697-1787) on Supralapsarianism

   Posted by: CalvinandCalvinism   in God who Ordains


III. Let us now inquire what place this general purpose holds in the order of the divine decrees–whether the first or the third. On this point two different opinions are held–the one by the Supralapsarians and the other by the Sublapsarians.

The Supralapsarians maintain that God in forming his decree first consulted the manifestation of his justice and mercy in saving some and condemning others of the human race, that all his decrees were designed to promote this end and are to be regarded as means to its accomplishment, and that the last of these means was the gift of his Son as Redeemer to some, i.e. to the elect, all the others being absolutely destined to destruction and therefore reprobate. But in order that man might be in a condition to illustrate the mercy and justice of God in his salvation or in his final ruin, in other words, in order that his decree to manifest these perfections might thus take effect, they say that God decreed that he should fall, and that by the fall he should become miserable, and that in order to bring this about he decreed to call him into being, so that his creation might prepare the way for his fall, and his creation and fall afford an opportunity for the manifestation of his mercy in saving some and of his justice in condemning others of his posterity.

Such according to them was the order of thought in the mind of God in forming his decree–the first, namely, being the manifestation not of his perfections in general, but of his mercy and justice in particular–the second, the permission of the fall–the third, the creation of man. They thus hold that man was regarded by God in the decree of predestination not as created and fallen, but as destined to be created and to be created in order to fall. This is the reason why they are called Supralapsarians. Among the most eminent of them were Beza, Gomarus, Macovius, and Piscator. Calvin, although regarded by many as entertaining their sentiments, was in reality a Sublapsarian.

The Sublapsarian view of the doctrine of predestination is this. God, it is said, proposed as the end of his decree the manifestation of his own glory. He then purposed to create man in order to afford an illustration of his goodness, wisdom, and power, to permit him to fall, and to magnify his mercy and justice in delivering some and in leaving others to perish. They thus assign to predestination the third place–after the creation and the fall, namely, and hold that man was viewed by God in the decree as destined to fall, or as already created and fallen. On this account they are called Sublapsarians or Infralapsarians.

There have been and still are many Supralapsarian divines in our church also. The Synod of Dort likewise pronounced in favour of this system, although for wise reasons they did not give a distinct deliverance on the question. Those who wish to see both systems reviewed may consult the treatise on predestination by Holzfusius. The opinion of men however is of little importance in our view, because we are discussing a point which must be investigated independently of any reference to numbers or to human authority.

There are some also who deem this opinion of little importance, who hold by the simplicity of the divine decree, and say that God understood all things simul et semel, and that it is a matter of very little consequence whether a man be a Supralapsarian or Sublapsarian. In this we think they are wrong. To maintain that there is an order of some kind in the decrees of God does not in the slightest degree affect the view we take of the simplicity of his essence, while it is of importance to us to understand what that order is. For although all objects were considered by God by a single act of his mind, they were nevertheless considered according to their real nature–causes as causes, effects as effects, means as means, and ends as ends. The right understanding of this point therefore is not a matter of indifference. We must, on the contrary, come to the conclusion that they were all considered by him in their proper order and connexion, and with a view to the accomplishment of the ends which he proposed. In the mind of God they must all be regarded as agreeable to his perfections and to the nature of things.

If it be asked then whether man was considered by God in forming his decree as to be created and to fall or as created and fallen, we say we entirely concur in the Sublapsarian opinioni.e. that man was regarded in the latter of these aspects, or in other words that he was already destined to be created and to fall; and our reasons are these.

The Supralapsarian system has no foundation to rest upon. The only thing which its advocates can plead in support of it is the famous maxim, What is last in execution must be first in intention, because it is the end which in any work is contemplated. Now he who is guided by wisdom in forming a purpose always considers the end before he devises means for attaining that end. But all the works of God terminate in the salvation or destruction of men as a manifestation of his justice and mercy. This therefore was the end or the first thing which he contemplated and to which all his other works were to stand in the relation of means.

But we answer this is a very weak foundation on which to rest their system. The axiom from which they reason holds true only in one work of a single series, not in those which are distinct from each other, and which have nothing in common. Now the works of God are of different kinds. His perfections are various and cannot all be manifested by any single work. Each of his works has its respective end, although they are all mutually connected and have the same end. Creation cannot have the same end as predestination and the permission of the fall, and therefore, it cannot be inferred that the works of God have been so arranged as that the antecedent should be the means of the consequent, and the consequent in its turn a step to the last which is the work of predestination, because it is distinct from the others, namely, creation and the permission of the fall, which have a subsistence by themselves and are in themselves complete. The argument therefore drawn from this axiom goes for nothing, and the system which it is employed to uphold must fall to the ground.

In the Supralapsarian system creation is regarded as having for its end the manifestation of the mercy of God in saving some men, and of his justice in leaving others to perish. We say, on the contrary, that it has more appropriate and feasible ends than this. Properly speaking the end of any work is that to which the work directly and immediately tends, and which, presents itself to the reflecting mind as flowing spontaneously from the work itself. No one however will say that creation considered in itself tends to manifest the mercy and the justice of God, for throughout its vast extent it presents nothing calculated to lead us to such a conclusion. It cannot be regarded, therefore, as a means suited to bring about the end designed in the decree of predestination, the salvation, namely, of some men and the final ruin of others. As there is no adequate proportion then between such an end and such means, and as creation does not present that end to our view, it cannot be said that in calling men into being, he did so for the purpose of consigning some of them to everlasting destruction.

(.) Creation is a benefit which calls for our grateful acknowledgments. But it cannot be so if it tends to effect the end already specifiedthe destruction of men. It would in such a case be so far from deserving to be regarded as a blessing, that it would rather be a mighty evil in as far as these men are concerned, that God had given them being at all. It cannot therefore be viewed in the light of a benefit, if it be connected with an intention on the part of God to consign some men to destruction.

(..) Such an end is plainly repugnant to the goodness of God. As Creator he is supremely good, and creation is the result of his goodness and tends to manifest it. But how can it be said that he is good, and that creation is a proof of his being so in regard to those whom he has positively created for everlasting destruction ?

(∴) “The end of creation is not simply the manifestation but the recognition of the divine perfections, in the latter of which consists properly speaking the glory of God. It follows from this (and Scripture teaches the same truth) that the direct design is that men should behold and admire and celebrate these perfections as there exhibited. But men created for the purpose of being devoted to everlasting misery cannot be supposed to be in a condition to do this. Creation, therefore, cannot have for its end that which Supralapsarians assign to it. Their whole system is completely irreconcilable with the justice of God. Nay, it is in direct opposition to that justice which demands that when punishment is exacted, or when any one is destined to destruction, there be a reason founded in equity for adopting such a course. When God, therefore, purposed the destruction of a portion of our race, he must have had a just reason for doing so, for he does not act arbitrarily, but in strict conformity to the dictates of justice, which does not allow any one to be condemned without good and sufficient cause. This cause can only be sin and must have been present to the mind of God when he formed his decree. But this according to the Supralapsarian system was not the case, inasmuch as

God, it is said, acted from his mere pleasure without a just reason, i.e. sin; for he afterwards destined men to fall and to commit sin in order that they might he condemned. God cannot appoint to condemnation an individual whom he cannot actually condemn. But he cannot in consistency with his own justice actually condemn without a reason; therefore he cannot design any to such an end. The major term of this syllogism is self evident. God cannot will what he cannot accomplish. To decree is to will, to condemn is to execute. The minor term is also true, for God cannot beforehand condemn man as a creature but as a fallen and guilty creature. But according to the Supralapsarians he would do so without reason, for they say that the fall intervened in order to allow him to bring to pass the end to which he had decreed them. But how inconsistent is it with his justice thus arbitrarily to appoint men to such an end, and for the purpose of carrying i t into effect to decree their fall? The order of thought therefore compels us to regard man as having been in the view of God a sinner before be was destined to perish, because God cannot act unjustly and so cannot doom any to punishment unless they be looked upon as chargeable with guilt.

The Supralapsarian system moreover is opposed to the wisdom of God, which requires that there be a right and reasonable relation between the end and the means, between the subject to whom the decree refers and the purpose to which he is destined. On the hypothesis of our opponents man was made to manifest the mercy of God without any regard to his fall and misery. But what relation was there, we ask, between man not in a condition of wretchedness, and mercy which unquestionably supposes the existence of misery and is extended to those who have no claims upon its exercise? What relation is there between man not yet viewed as a sinner and justice which cannot be exhibited unless sin have been committed or be presupposed? What relation is there between man destined to salvation and salvation which he is incapable of enjoying–a salvation implying deliverance from evil in which at the same time he was considered as not yet involved? What relation is there, finally, between man doomed to destruction and destruction which he had done nothing to merit, seeing that he was considered in the decree as a creature merely and not as fallen and guilty.

The idea of election necessarily presupposes that of creation. And the reasons are these.

Election is the choosing of some from among a multitude placed in precisely the same circumstances and therefore involves the idea of several individuals existing in the same condition. Election is something accidental, creation is something essential, i.e. Creation gives being to man, election has in view his happiness as already in existence. Creation thus gives what is essential, and election what is accidental. But the former always precedes the latter and therefore the idea of creation necessarily precedes that of election and reprobation.

This opinion is countenanced and confirmed by Scripture, which affirms that the object of election is man in a state of apostasy and wretchedness. ” I have chosen you,” Christ said to his disciples, “out of the world,” John xv. 19. God compares himself to a potter who has “power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honor and another unto dishonor,” Rom. ix . 21. Now if the lump were pure the vessel to be formed of it would be “unto honor,” but from the same lump are formed “vessels of wrath” and “vessels of mercy,” and therefore we conclude that it was corrupted; in other words, that the human race were regarded in the decree of predestination as fallen, from among whom God in exercise of his own good pleasure chose some to be vessels of mercy and afore prepared them to glory, Rom. ix . 23.

Some have endeavored to reconcile the Supralapsarian and Sublapsarian system by distinguishing between the restricted and general meaning of predestination, but they have only given a new coloring to the opinion of the Supralapsarians. For some of those who hold that opinion have regarded mercy and justice as the end which God had in view and creation as the means by which he has manifested these perfections.

Hermann Venema, Institutes of Theology, trans., by Alex W. Brown, (Andover: W.F. Draper Brothers, 1853), 308-313. [Some spelling modernized; and underlining mine.]

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