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Reading Karl Barth on Election (14)

Selection: The Church Dogmatics II/2:127-134, Excursus on Supra- and Infralapsarianism.

Having detailed his theology of Jesus Christ as electing God and elected human, Barth inserts a lengthy excursus surveying the supralapsarian-infralapsarian controversy in Reformed theology from the early seventeenth century. He begins by noting that this was a controversy within the one church that did not disturb or rend the church, but nor was it ultimately settled. He identifies the central question of the controversy: “Is the one elected or rejected homo creabilis et labilis [i.e. humanity to be created and fallible], or is he homo creatus et lapsus [i.e. humanity created and fallen]?” Barth develops his argument in three sections. The first section provides an overview of the two sides of the dispute, plus a mediating position proposed late in the century (127-133). The second section (133-139) analyses what the two sides have in common, as well as the particular strength of each side, together with a suggestion of each side’s weakness. In the third section Barth proposes his own assessment of the controversy (139-145). The whole is an exemplary piece of historical theology and argument.

In Barth’s exposition the supralapsarian position is characterised as “a system of consistent theistic monism” (129). It is an audacious and consistent attempt to exalt the divine sovereignty as the rationale and originating cause of all things, and in particular, the eternal destiny of every person, whether to life or to damnation. God’s primal and basic purpose is the divine self-revelation, viz. the glory of his mercy and justice, with creation, the fall, and salvation ordained as means toward this end.

Infralapsarianism is a derivative position, formulated in response and opposition to supralapsarianism. It proposes a more modest understanding of the divine purpose. Whereas the supralapsarian “knows” God’s basic and primal will, and why it is that the creation and fall had to take place, and that God has created each individual in order that they might fulfil either this destiny or that as a revelation of either the divine mercy or the divine justice (128),

The infralapsarian does not think that he has any exact knowledge either of the content of God’s primal and basic plan or of the reasons for the divine decree in respect of creation and fall. On the contrary, he holds that the reasons for this decree are ultimately unknown and unknowable (129).

The decree of election is the first and chief of those decrees which relate to the destiny of sinful man, but it is not the first and chief of all the divine decrees. Between creation and the fall on the one hand and salvation on the other there is no necessaria connexio et subordinatio (130).

The infralapsarians insist that God’s decree of election concerns actual humanity, created and fallen, rather than a hypothetical humanity with no real existence. Creation and the fall are not the means of election by which God achieves the ultimate aim of self-glorification, but the presupposition of election. Thus the divine decrees which establish creation and allow the fall precede the decree of election.

In the second section, Barth finds four presuppositions common to the two parties (133-134). Both groups emphasise the priority of divine grace which selects human individuals as the object of election. Both understand the divine decree as a determinative “system” according to which the entirety of history is played out. Third, God’s election is balanced:

When God set up this fixed system which anticipated the life-history and destiny of every individual as such, then in the same way, in the same sense, with the same emphasis, and in an exact equilibrium in every respect, God uttered both a Yes and a No, accepting some and rejecting others. … The two attitudes together, the one balancing the other, constitute the divine will to self-glorification, and God is glorified equally in the eternal blessedness of the elect and the eternal damnation of the reprobate (134).

Finally, both sides understand the divine good pleasure which issues this decree in terms of the decretum absolutum; God’s grace is understood in terms of an absolute freedom whose basis and meaning are completely hidden.

Behind both these views (at a different point, but with the same effect in practice), there stands the picture of the absolute God in Himself who is neither conditioned nor self-conditioning, and not the picture of the Son of God who is self-conditioned and therefore conditioned in His union with the Son of David; not the picture of God in Jesus Christ (134).

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