In eternity, did God choose to elect His people to salvation based on His decision to permit humanity’s fall into sin, or was it the other way around? Today, Barry Cooper takes up this heady question and the two big words that seek to answer it.
Every year, a number of brand-new words and phrases are added to the dictionary. Some recent ones include reaction gif, hard pass, flex, and performative.
If the aim is to make most people over the age of twenty-five feel old and out of touch, then congratulations, mission accomplished. And yes, before I get lots of performative emails, taking a hard pass on my pronunciation of gif, it is pronounced jif and not gif. “No, it isn’t, Barry. Gif stands for Graphics Interchange Format. you don’t say jraphics, do you?” Yeah, I know. But it’s an acronym, like scuba, where the u stands for “underwater,” which is a short u, and if you’re walking around saying “scubba” you may be in need of more help than this podcast can give you.
I mention this because I’m about to say two different words. I know it’ll sound like I’ve just made them up to make you feel angry, but no, they actually exist. And they have done, apparently, since the middle of the eighteenth century at least. The two words are supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism.
The “laps” bit in each of those words may help you to remember what they mean. Because lapsus is from the Latin meaning “fall.” So these two words address a question related to the fall. And the question is this: When did God decide to elect people to salvation—was it before God made the decision to create the world and permit the fall, or was it after His decision to create the world and permit the fall? Those who think it was before are supralapsarians. And those who think it was after are infralapsarians.
Just to be clear, this isn’t a question about the order that things happened in time; it’s a question of what order these things were logically decided upon in God’s mind. And while there might be a hint of frostiness between supralapsarians and infralapsarians when they bump into each other at parties—great parties they must be—people holding these two positions have a great deal in common, and both fall within the parameters of Reformed theology.
After all, they both accept the biblical truth that God decreed all His redemptive acts before He ever created the world and before the fall ever happened.
But logically, what came first in God’s mind? The decree of election and reprobation, or the decree to create the world and permit the fall?
If you take the supralapsarian position, literally meaning “before the fall,” chances are you have God’s sovereignty uppermost in your mind. Before thinking of creating the universe and ordaining a fall, God had first thought to ordain some for life and some for death. The reason He then thought to create the world and ordain a fall was so that the wisdom and glory of His decision to elect some and not others would be displayed.
But if you take the infralapsarian position, literally meaning “after the fall,” chances are you have God’s mercy uppermost in your mind. It was after God thought of creating the universe and ordaining a fall that He purposed to show His mercy by electing some to salvation. Infralapsarians would argue, if they cornered you at that party I was talking about, that it makes more logical sense for God to think of election after there are hypothetical people to elect—after He decreed that there would be a fall. Without first decreeing a fall, why would God think to save anyone from that fall?
For what it’s worth, it’s this latter position, the infralapsarian one, that has been held by most Reformed theologians across history.
But there are notable exceptions, for example the Puritan Thomas Goodwin, who held to what has been called Christological Supralapsarianism. The end of all God’s decrees is the union of the elect with Christ, which is consummated in heaven. The last thing that will happen in time—that consummation with Christ in heaven—was the first thing that God intended in His mind: the final union of the elect with Him. Or to put it another way, God’s supreme motive, which lies behind the ordering of all His decrees, is simply the glory of Jesus Christ.
I know, heady stuff. And again, both positions are consistent with Scripture—you can make a reasonable case for both. So it’s not something to fall out over, unlike the very important matter of whether we should say gif or jif.
By the way, in real life, I do actually pronounce it gif. I was just flexing.