The Logical Order of the Decrees

I have been requested to post something on the order of the decrees. Here is a basic outline:

The Order of the Divine Decrees

There are usually three logical plans given by theologians which attempt to answer the question, “In what logical order did God plan His redemptive acts?” These are known respectively as supralapsarianism, infralapsarianism, and sublapsarianism.[1] The term “Lapsarian” is from the Latin word lapse meaning “fall.” Hence, lapsarianism has to do with belief in the Fall of Adam and its concomitants. This is especially the case as regards the relation of the Fall to the eternal decrees of God. Since God foreknew that Adam would fall (and that mankind would fall in him), and that He would send His Son to restore those whom He elected to save, the question arises as to the order – both scriptural and logical – of the soteric decrees. It also must relate the soteric decrees to the creative decrees so as to insure harmony in God’s eternal plan. Therefore, theologians have posited various orders of the decrees to try to address the problem.

The Supralapsarian Order

The supralapsarian (supra – over) position teaches that in the order of the decrees the decree to elect certain individuals and to reprobate others is logically prior to all the rest. Chafer[2] lists the order set forth by supralapsarianism as follows:

1. Decree to elect some to be saved and to reprobate all others.

2. Decree to create men both elect and nonelect.

3. Decree to permit the fall.

4. Decree to provide salvation to the elect.

5. Decree to apply salvation to the elect.

In this order there are some obvious difficulties. First, the question comes up right away as to how God can logically contemplate elect and reprobate men before He can contemplate them as men generally. Second, if God has decided to create men as elect and non-elect then how can Paul use the analogy of the saved and the lost originating from “one lump” in Romans 9:21? Third, there is the problem of theodicy. As Chafer says, “In reality, by this system men are consigned to perdition before they sin and without a cause, except it be by the sovereign will of God.”[3]

These problems have traditionally led most Calvinists to avoid the supralapsarian scheme (although such prominent leaders like Beza, Gomarus, Perkins, Gerhaardus Vos, and Gordon H. Clark have embraced it).

One modern advocate of the supralapsarian order of decrees is Robert Reymond. He has recently proposed a changed order:

1. The election of some sinful men to salvation in Christ (and the reprobation of the rest of sinful mankind in order to make known the riches of God’s gracious mercy to the elect).

2. The decree to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to the elect sinners.

3. The decree to redeem the elect sinners by the cross work of Christ.

4. The decree that men should fall.

5. The decree to create the world and men.[4]

What Reymond accomplishes by this revised delineation is an avoidance of the dualism inherent in a decree which, at the very outset, separates the group of the elect from the group of the non-elect without viewing them as sinners. But the difficulty still remains in God comprehending a group (i.e. mankind) who He has not “first” comprehended as actual. Moreover, the problem of theodicy seems if anything to be heightened in this arrangement, for it has God contemplating man-as-sinner even before man is created. Also, the fourth point (the decree that man should fall) appears superfluous in this scheme since man is already viewed as fallen in point 1.

The Infralapsarian Order

Among those who call themselves Reformed this is the most common of the lapsarian positions. It is the acknowledged position as set forth in most of the historic Reformed creeds and confessions: e.g. the Westminster Confession; the Belgic Confession; and the Articles of Dordt (although none of these is anti-supralapsarian). The infralapsarian (i.e. after the Fall) order may be set down thus:

1. The decree to create men.

2. The decree to permit the fall

3. The decree to elect those who believe and to leave in just condemnation all who do not believe.

4. The decree to provide a Redeemer for the elect.

5. The decree to apply salvation to the elect.

Note well that this list follows the standard Reformed works (e.g. Berkhof, Reymond), and differs from that which is set down by Chafer (see below under sublapsarianism).[5]

The infralapsarian view is often criticized as inconsistent with the doctrine of election as it applies to the angels. Also, since we are talking here about what went on in God’s mind logically (not chronologically), it could be pointed out that infralapsarians turn logical planning on its head. The normal order is to design from the top down. That is, to use Berkhof’s words, “in planning the rational mind passes from the from the end to the means in a retrograde movement, so that what is first in design is last in accomplishment.”[6]

The Sublapsarian Order

Although very few Reformed theologians recognize it, this is the position customarily set forth by dispensationalists. The order of decrees in the sublapsarian position is as follows:

1. The decree to create all men.

2. The decree to permit the fall.

3. The decree to provide salvation for [all] men.

4. The decree to elect those who do believe and to leave in just condemnation those who do not believe.

5. The decree to apply salvation to those who believe.

Comment:

It will be noted that whereas the first two systems place the decree to elect some men before the decree of Christ’s atonement, this latter view has the decree to send Christ at position 3 and the decree to elect certain sinners at position 4. A glance back at the supralapsarian and infralapsarian schemes will reveal that these positions are reversed. There is a good reason why five-point Calvinists cannot permit the sublapsarian order described above. To put the decree to redeem mankind prior to the decree to elect some from among mankind is to invite the strong possibility of a universal atonement.[7]

On the other hand, to reverse the order logically invites a limited atonement. For why would God provide an atonement for those He has already passed over in His decree of election? Thus, limited atonement implies infra or supralapsarianism, and this has crucial knock-on effects. If the decree to elect is logically prior to the decree to atone a universal atonement makes no sense. Not only that, but it would make no sense to give the gift of faith to anyone but the elect. And if faith is given only to the elect it would again seem logical that it is given them at the point when they are made alive or regenerated by the Holy Spirit. That would seem to require that the ordo salutis have regeneration coming logically before faith (another thing that five point Calvinists are insistent upon).

Now comes the rub. If this scenario is true it will be born out by exegesis of the text of Scripture. But, of course, this is what the vast majority of dispensationalists deny. One of the main reasons they give for this is “the normal and literal meaning” disallows a limited redemptionist  interpretation.[8] In short, dispensationalists are not by and large limited redemptionists because of their hermeneutics. But this ought to mean that they cannot hold to regeneration preceding the gift of faith either., for if they do (and many do hold this belief) I do not see how they can escape from the logic of the previous paragraph, or, indeed, from John Owen’s arguments in The Death of Death.   We believe a little thought about what was said above about the relationship between supra and infra-lapsarianism and limited atonement will make a “four-point” dispensationalist think twice about affirming regeneration prior to faith.  Finally, in view of the fact that consistently applied grammatico-historical hermeneutics cannot produce any  “proof texts” to sustain a belief in regeneration preceding faith, a dispensationalist who tries to make the Bible teach it (or even limited atonement) is invalidating their hermeneutical consistency, and so in principle, denying a key tenet of dispensationalism.

Thus, just as consistent literal hermeneutics naturally leads to belief in pretribulationism, so also it ought to lead to a denial of regeneration before faith.

We could argue the same way about other beliefs, such as infant baptism, which we hold to be an incongruity for a dispensational theologian to believe in.

Our point is that a “theology from the ground up” – founded upon consistent normative interpretation, will produce its marks in every area of dispensational theology.[9]


[1] Although it should be noted that Reformed writers will normally identify sublapsarianism with infralapsarianism.

[2] Chafer, Systematic Theology, 3.179.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Robert L. Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, 489.

[5] It may be worthwhile setting out Chafer’s infralapsarian order in comparison:

1. The decree to create all men

2. The decree to permit the fall

3. The decree to provide salvation for men (notice Chafer does not say “some men”)

4. The decree to elect those who do believe and to leave in just condemnation all who do not believe (again, note that in the above list this stands third)

5. The decree to apply salvation

It is even more surprising when Chafer himself (3.181) quotes Hodge who gives the correct order as we have presented it.

[6] Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1974), 119.

[7] It should be pointed out that the supposed problem of a universal atonement leading to universalism in salvation is avoided by separating the oblation or achievement at Calvary from its application. Notice how Dispensational methodology issues in biblical perspectivalism.

[8] For instance, Robert P. Lightner, The Death Christ Died: A Biblical Case for Unlimited Atonement, (Grand Rapids: Kregel, 1998), 109.

[9] We say it with the greatest respect, but it is our belief that many dispensationalists have “piggy-backed” on Reformed theology, only fully dismounting once they reach eschatology.

Advertisements

19 comments

  1. “If they do we believe a little thought about our example about the order of the decrees will make obvious the logical force of them holding to an infralapsarian arrangement, which, in turn calls for a belief in limited atonement.”

    I’m not sure I understand this sentence. Is something missing?

  2. My goodness Randall you’re right. I don’t even know what I meant! Well, i do, but I certainly didn’t say what I wanted to say. I’ll change it. Thanks brother!

  3. Thanks for this concise explanation.

    We say it with the greatest respect, but it is our belief that many dispensationalists have “piggy-backed” on Reformed theology, only fully dismounting once they reach eschatology. I heartily agree!

  4. I am new to your site and being a dispensationalist with a reformed soteiology, have enjoyed it thus far very much. I have a comment/question. In Phil Johnsons bookmarks, under “Notes on Supralapsarian and Infralapsarian, he has the the sublapsarian order listed here on your page as Amyradism. Also, the first point under infra., he says: “this view (infra.), is also called sublapsarianism.

    http://www.spurgeon.org/~phil/articles/sup_infr.htm

    Historically, which term is proper under which catagory?

    Thanks!

  5. Thanks Paul for your question.

    Yes, the “sublapsarian” position as I have it above is the traditional Amyraldian order. I don’t mind being included among their number as long as it is understood that I hold to it primarily on the basis of the implications of an exegesis of the salvation passages in the New Testament (I will have to address this in another post). I think it is possible to label classic Amyraldianism as somewhat rationalistic in the way it formulated the order of the decrees.

    In footnote (1) above I state that, “…it should be noted that Reformed writers will normally identify sublapsarianism with infralapsarianism.” I use the designation mainly to keep within the lapsarian categories rather than going outside them (I think this is what men like Chafer did when making sublapsarianism a separate category). However, “infra” and “sub” are close in meaning and could be and are used as synonyms by many in the Reformed community.

    The important thing, at least for me, is that one arrives at his order, which is somewhat speculative, only after discovering exactly what the texts SAY. If the Bible said that Christ died and shed His blood only for the elect I would gladly believe it, and so I would be either supra or infra. But if the Bible plainly says that Christ died for “the whole world” or for “the ungodly” or “for all” then I think it my duty to embrace what it says and base my theological formulations upon it.

    That is where I am coming from. I hope this helps.

    Your brother,

    Paul

  6. For the short time that I have been familiar with these concepts I have not liked any of them. So, to do the very dangerous and chronologically prideful I will present a somewhat different approach. This is in the infantile stages in my mind so blast away.

    Order of God’s decrees:
    1. Glorify Himself in creation
    2. Glorify Christ as firstborn of all creation
    3. Glorify Christ through the punishment of all who are in Adam.
    4. Glorify Christ through all who are elect in Christ Jesus.

  7. So I slept on it last night and decided that I have not dealt clearly with the issue of the fall (which this whole argument is about). So here goes again with the order of decrees:

    1. God’s decree to glorify his Triune self through the work of creation.
    2. God’s decree to glorify the Son as the firstborn of all creation.
    3. God’s decree to allow sin in order to further glorify the Son.
    4. God’s decreee to glorify himself by electing those who are in Christ.
    5. God’s decree to glorify himself by punishing those who are in Adam.

    I guess this makes me a modified sublapsarian.

  8. If I can reply to Ray’s question first, I confess that I am no expert on Baxter’s theology (neither do I know of anyone who is! Packer maybe?). On the decrees I would see no reason why one could not include him within Amyraldianism, he clearly held to unlimited atonement, although his governmental view of the atonement (wherein the transgression of God’s law rather than the state of the transgressor is emphasized) is more Arminian (well Grotian) than Amyraldian.

  9. Paul, thanks so much for your thoughts. I have not come across your scheme before. It focuses more on Christ than it does on the sinner. However, even though you do not expressly refer to the atonement and its placement within the decrees, I think your scheme could be adapted to suit either limited or unlimited views of the atonement.

    Your brother,

    P.

  10. Hey there,

    Someone linked back to my old blog site. I decided to check in and see what’s happening. I would argue that some of your characterizations are incorrect. I do not see how infralapsarianism leads to limited expiation or vice versa. Further, Amyraut himself rejected the idea of decretal ordering. As an aside: Baxter did not hold to a governmental theory of the atonement.

    If you are interested in looking at some of the historical material, free free to check out my index page: Classic and Moderate Forms of “Calvinism” Documented Thus Far

    Scroll down to see all the other subjects listed. Check out the entries on Richard Muller too.

    If anyone wants to converse with me about any of this, feel free to post a comment over there.

    Thanks
    David

  11. David, your site looks interesting. Let me answer your points quickly. 1. I believe my article showed why infralapsarianism leads to limited atonement. If the decree to elect precedes the decree to atone why would the atonement be for more than the elect? 2.I did not say that Amyraut devised what is known as the “Amyraldian order.” He was well known to hold that such matters were a scholastic gloss on Calvin. 3. You may be right about Baxter. I think I got the “governmental” thing from a former lecturer, but I can’t remember. I also recall reading that he held that Christ’s sacrifice was not substitutionary so much as that it achieved the judicial ends needed to secure our freedom. But I can’t find the article so I may be daydreaming. I am therefore happy to be corrected by you as regards Baxter.

    God bless,

    P.

  12. Re: your point 1. A decree to elect doesn’t preclude the atonement being for more than the elect. Several possible answers to your question: for example, to serve other purposes? So that no man is without excuse? I would say because the atonement (which I assuming here to mean Christ’s death in and of itself and nothing more) is not a commercial transaction which is itself limited in any way. It is a sin offering, acceptable to God. The atonement does not carry its own application. It is a glorious provision but it only avails to those who believe.

  13. Hey there,

    I didnt realise you had replied to me. Sorry for the belated response.

    You say: Let me answer your points quickly. 1. I believe my article showed why infralapsarianism leads to limited atonement. If the decree to elect precedes the decree to atone why would the atonement be for more than the elect?

    David: The problem is that your conclusion by way of rhetorical question, is not a necessary consequence: it does not necessarily follow. Why could God not elect some to life, passing by others, and still so ordain a satisfaction of such a nature that it is universal? He could do this if the intentionality of God was manifold.

    That highlights the whole lapsarian project’s problem: its reductionist. It assumes a monist or singular teleology. If God has multiple intentions then one can with reason assume that the lapsarian schema only captures one aspect of God’s intentions. If infralapsarianism admits this, as a more humble stance, such that it is not claiming that it images or captures an exclusive intentionality on the part of God, then unlimited satisfaction is compatable.

    So why would the atonement be for more than the elect? Well I might say 1) in order to ground a true offer to all men, 2) to display his goodness in providing a means of salvation to all, 1ns 3) to increase culpability for rejection etc.

    Let me speak to the idea of grounding the offer. I know many say the offer is grounded and so sincere, on the basis of the conditional offer. However, this avoids the real problem. So like this, the benefits of payment not made for a man, can never be offered to that man. If I may a payment for John only, which secures for him certain benefits, then never ever will my attempt to offer those benefits to Joan–for whom the payment was never made–ever be well-meant or credible. The payment I made for John and only John, will never ever be sufficient for Joan (apart from a bare hypothetical sufficiency–in that it could have been sufficient for Joan, had I so chosen to have made the payment for her as well).

    Think about it.

    And so speaking of compatible, this shows that infralapsarianism is not incompatible with an unlimited satisfaction view.

    You say: 2.I did not say that Amyraut devised what is known as the “Amyraldian order.”

    David: Sure, okay, but calling it Amyraldian order is the problem.

    You say: He was well known to hold that such matters were a scholastic gloss on Calvin. 3. You may be right about Baxter. I think I got the “governmental” thing from a former lecturer, but I can’t remember. I also recall reading that he held that Christ’s sacrifice was not substitutionary so much as that it achieved the judicial ends needed to secure our freedom. But I can’t find the article so I may be daydreaming. I am therefore happy to be corrected by you as regards Baxter.

    David: Ive read Baxter on this and while governmental aspects are present–as much as they are present in J Edwards, C Hodge and Shedd–he also affirms penal substitution.

    Thanks and take care,
    David

  14. David,

    Your response raises more questions than it answers. It is unclear to me whether you have read the original article. The question I posed (which was not rhetorical) was related to the article itself.

    I think it would clarify things if you gave your “version” of infralapsarianism (I place the word in quotation marks because you seem not to like any lapsarian system). That will better show me how the atonement could be universal under an infra scheme.

    As to my use of “Amyraldian.” Well, one can’t rewrite history. Calvinism does not always teach what Calvin taught. The same can be said of Wesley and others. So I am not to be blamed for using the term Amyraldian in my post.

    God bless,

    Paul

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s