by John Frame
[Originally published in Donald McKim, ed., Encyclopedia of the Reformed Faith. Used by permission of Werstminster/John Knox Press.]
In the period following the death of Calvin, there was much discussion among Reformed theologians concerning the “order of the decrees of God.” The two chief views of this order were infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism (q.v.).
Both parties agreed that God brought all things to pass according to his eternal plans, his decrees. They disagreed, however, as to what precisely went on in the divine mind, as God formulated these eternal plans. On the supralapsarian view, God’s highest purpose was to glorify himself in the salvation of certain human beings. In order to accomplish this purpose, he determined to create these people and also to permit them to fall into sin. They described this eternal divine thought process by an ordered list of decrees: 1. election-salvation, 2. creation, 3. permission of the fall.
The infralapsarians, however, objected that this order made the fall a kind of upward step to the fulfilling of God’s redemptive purposes; thus it compromised the evil of sin. They posited a rival order which rejected any attempt so to explain the fall: 1. creation, 2. permission of the fall, 3. election-salvation. On this scheme, election is more clearly an election of @UN(fallen) human beings.
Most reformed theologians have been infralapsarian. The reformed confessions generally express themselves in infralapsarian ways without condemning the other position. More recently, some theologians such as Herman Bavinck have refused to endorse either position. In favor of such neutrality, it may well be argued that both parties exaggerated their competence to read the divine mind. In this writer’s view, the most that can be learned from scripture itself is that each of God’s thoughts takes each of the others into account, i.e. that his purposes form a unity. Granted this premise, many “orders” are possible: God may do A for the sake of B and also B for the sake of A. Thus there may be truth in many suggested orders, and these may be mutually exclusive less often than theologians have thought.
The discussion might seem to have little bearing on contemporary theological issues, but there are parallels here with modern theology. An “order of the decrees” is something like what modern theologians do when they propose one biblical concept as the “central message” of scripture and then try to explain everything else in relation to that central concept. Hence “theologies of” this and that: hope, liberation, word of God, covenant, personal encounter, crisis, etc. It is as if God’s first decree were to create hope or liberation or whatever and that God then did everything else he did as means to carrying out that first decree. In my view, therefore, the lesson sketched in the previous paragraph applies to many modern theologies as well as to classical reformed thought.
Frame, John, Doctrine of the Knowledge of God (Phillipsburg , N. J.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publ. Co., 1987), pp. 260-267.
Muller, Richard, Christ and the Decree (Durham , N. C.: Labyrinth Press, 1986).
Warfield, B. B., The Plan of Salvation (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1942).