B.C. Askins

The Man With the Golden Gun

The Divine Decree

The Fall depicted in the Sistine Chapel by Mic...

The Fall depicted in the Sistine Chapel by Michelangelo (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

There is an intramural debate among Reformed theologians regarding some of the specifics of God’s eternal decree which results in the creation-fall-redemption-restoration of the universe (the “lapsarian debate” or the debate over the “order of the divine decrees”).

Essentially, God’s decree is what determines the course of history, down to the finest of details. I won’t be touching on the issue of whether or not the decree is compatible with contingency, human responsibility, secondary causality, etc. in this post.

You’ll notice that I’ve been referring to God’s decree (singular) not God’s decrees (plural). This is because it is biblical to say that God is eternal (timeless, “outside-of-time”, the Creator of time, pre-temporal, transcendent, something to that effect, etc.), which tends to constrain us to believe that God made a single decree which resulted in everything, not several successive decrees. Several successive decrees implies a sequence of thought or actions, which is inconsistent with eternal timelessness. There may be many intentions in the decree (and therefore many results from the decree in space and time), but there is only one, single, eternal decree of God.

It is a common theological misnomer in the intramural debate I mentioned above for some to speak of the “order of the decrees” of God in creation, redemption, predestination, etc. The fact is that all sides of the debate agree that God’s decree is singular, because God is one and eternal. This is not controversial.

The language of plural decrees sneaks into the discussion because the debate centers around questions regarding the “logical order” of events in the mind of God in decreeing all things which come to pass. (Note: Using the plural term “decrees” is not always inaccurate or something to be avoided in all circumstances. Indeed, Scripture often uses the plural term, but more often
as a synonym for God’s purposes, plans or intentions, rather than as a technical theological term for His divine ordination.)

There are generally three positions given in this regard: supralapsarian, infralapsarian and post-redemptionist. I will be foregoing any discussion of the history or evolution of these positions at this time. A brief synopsis of each position will be offered below, with my (humble) analysis following.

(Note: The suffix “-lapsarian” refers specifically to God’s ordaining of The Fall of Man in the Garden of Eden, when sin entered creation. “To lapse” into something is used as synonymous with “to fall.” So one’s view of the logical place of The Fall in relation to God’s other decrees largely determines whether one “falls into” the supra- or infra- camp (pun intended). More will be said on this shortly.)

Supralapsarianism

One of the “7 Habits of Highly Effective People” is to begin a project with the end in mind. It could be said that this is the driving principle behind the supralapsarian’s view of the order of the divine decrees. The supra position states that a rational mind begins with an intended end and works back from that end through the means to the beginning. It is a telelogical or purpose-driven view of the order of the decrees. The supra contention is that God is a supremely rational being (or *chuckle* one could say the “most
highly effective person”) and therefore the logical order of the decrees, beginning with the end in mind, is most commonly formulated as:

1.) The decree to elect some creatable people for salvation and blessing (and the reprobation of others).
2.) The decree to create.
3.) The decree that all men would fall.
4.) The decree to redeem the elect, who are now sinners, by the cross work of Christ.
5.) The decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect.
6.) The decree to glorify the elect.

This formulation is (obviously) inconsistent with its first principle of working from the end backwards, and this has been recognized by many theologians who have offered a more consistent supralapsarian framework. However, the above formulation remains the most common supralapsarian view point, so it is what I will use as the standard for the supra position. Also, I’m not interested (in this particular post) in explicating an intramural debate within an intramural debate within a particular theological tradition within historical Protestantism.

Infralapsarianism

Infralapsarianism, in contrast to the supra position above, takes chronology as its central principle, rather than teleology. God is said to logically progress in his decrees from the beginning to the end, reasoning from cause to effect. The order of the decrees reflects the order of the historical events which they produce. The infra position presents the order of the decrees as:

1.) The decree to create.
2.) The decree that all men would fall.
3.) The decree to elect some creatable people for salvation and blessing (and the reprobation of others).
4.) The decree to redeem the elect, who are now sinners, by the cross work of Christ.
5.) The decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect.
6.) The decree to glorify the elect.

It should be recognized at this point that the supra and infra positions are not in the kind of opposition that they are often thought to be. They are answering the question of the order of the decrees with a different conception of order: one telelogical (purpose-driven), one chronological (history-driven), both still logical. Much (though not all) of the disagreement between the two groups has to do with an unarticulated equivocation regarding the term “order.”

Post-Redemptionism

The third, and least popular, view of the divine decrees is post-redemptionism (sometimes called ante-applicationism).
Post-redemptionists are rarely welcome to sit at the same cafeteria table with the supras and infras at the theological academy. Post-redemptionism is the view of the decrees most commonly associated with Amyraldianism (a view commonly, though mistakenly, called “4-point Calvinism”). The post-redemptionists hold to a view of the decrees which reflects their convictions regarding both universal and particular aspects of the atonement of Christ and the conditional and unconditional nature of divine covenants. The post-redemptionist view of the order of the decrees is:

1.) The decree to create.
2.) The decree that all men would fall.
3.) The decree to redeem all men by the cross work of Christ.
4.) The decree to elect some creatable people for salvation and blessing (and the reprobation of others).
5.) The decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect.
6.) The decree to glorify the elect.

This view is called “post-redemptionist” because it places the decree to elect after the decree to redeem, in contradistinction with the other two positions.

Some Thoughts on the Divine Decree

All sides of the debate agree that God’s decree is, in itself, singular (as I mentioned early in this post). This is the testimony of both Scripture and reason and is not debated by any of the three positions above.

Let me then raise the questions: what warrant do we have for going any further in the discussion? What warrant is there for going beyond the testimony of Scripture and reason in an effort at applying our own logical intuitions and inferences to the mind of God?

“For who has known the mind of the Lord or who has been His counselor?” (Romans 11:34)

“The secret things belong to the Lord our God, but the things that are revealed belong to us and to our children forever, that we may do all the words of this law.” (Deuteronomy 29:29)

“For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways, declares the Lord.” (Isaiah 55:8)

It is my contention that there are at least four problems with the debate over the “logical order of the divine decrees”:

1.) As mentioned above, the debate largely rests on an unarticulated equivocation over the term “order,” since both telelogical and chronological orders are logical in their own way.

2.) Practically-speaking, the debate itself seems to center less on the actual question under investigation and tends to locate itself more readily on the issue of The Fall or the Problem of Evil. When viewed from this perspective, the debate between the supra and infra positions tends to merely be over a difference of emphasis rather than difference of content. One tends to emphasize a logical place for evil in God’s plan (supra), the other emphasizes the heinous nature of sin (infra). But the one abstracted from the other can be problematic. The supra might present sin and evil as merely one link in a logical chain to God’s glory, while the infra might not make clear the wisdom and harmony of God’s eternal plan.

3.) All of the above positions tend to exert an inordinate amount of influence over one’s biblical interpretations. It is not proper hermeneutics for an extra-biblical discussion of the logical order of the divine decrees to be the controlling influence of one’s understanding of the Scripture. Scripture must be our sole infallible authority, and all other secondary authorities must bow the knee to it (including, and I might say especially, our own intuitions regarding the logical inner workings of God’s mind). It becomes far too easy to implicitly and almost unconsciously make supralapsarianism into the filter through which all of Scripture must be viewed.

4.) There is no warrant for exceeding the revelation of Scripture in seeking to “read God’s mind,” prying into the “secret things (which) belong to the Lord our God,” seeking to apply our thoughts to His thoughts. In fact, Scripture explicitly warns against such things. It seems that the debate as it is most commonly framed is condemned as unethical by Scripture. Therefore, I advocate a fourth position regarding the “logical order of the divine decrees in the mind of God”: agnosticism.

The debate itself seems to be a strange sort of rationalistic mysticism. The ancient mystics sought to contemplate, think and meditate until they gained insights into the divine nature (but largely appear from their own writings to only gain greater insight into their own thoughts and feelings, then project them onto God). The lapsarian debate is largely indistinct from those activities, apart from the deep commitment to rational investigation rather than the more common emotional mysticism. But, to paraphrase Martin Luther on the matter, when one seeks to find the “hidden God” (Deus absconditus) apart from His self-revelation, one will only find the “naked God” (Deus nudus). And a naked God is always an angry God.

So, it is my contention that the lapsarian debate is essentially akin to attempting to catch a glimpse of God’s “secrets” while He is “getting dressed”. Some will no doubt find this statement irreverent, but it is in fact merely an accurate analogy for the starkly inappropriate nature of the lapsarian debate. One would do well not to go beyond what one’s Father has revealed to us.

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  1. Pingback: the rebirth of God « JRFibonacci's blog: partnering with reality

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