Shao Kai Tseng. Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development, 1920-1953. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2016. See here to purchase the book.
The twentieth century Christian theologian Karl Barth professed to be
a purified supralapsarian. Shao Kai Tseng, however, contends that
there were infralapsarian elements to Karl Barth’s thought.
What is the difference between supralapsarianism and
infralapsarianism? Essentially, they address this question: Was God’s
decree for God the Son to become incarnate in Jesus Christ and to elect
people to salvation and reprobation made in light of human sin?
Supralapsarians answer “no.” They believe that God would have become
incarnate in Jesus Christ even had human beings not sinned. The
incarnation, for them, was not God’s salvific plan to save sinners.
Rather, God planned to become incarnate for other reasons, such as
becoming intimate with human beings, or displaying God’s glory.
Similarly, for supralapsarians, God’s election of certain people unto
eternal life was unrelated to human sin. God’s plan was to glorify
these people, even had they not sinned. For many supralapsarians, God
also elected certain people unto damnation to display God’s justice.
Infralapsarians, by contrast, hold that the incarnation and election
were in response to human sin. For infralapsarians, God planned to
become incarnate as part of God’s plan to save sinners. God also
elected to save some sinners from sin, while leaving other sinners for
Some may say that my summary here is simplistic, perhaps even
inaccurate. Indeed, there are other considerations besides the ones
that I just attempted to explain. Supralapsarians and infralapsarians
are not monolithic. Plus, many supralapsarians and infralapsarians hold
that God decreed for human beings to sin before God created the
universe, so, technically, both regard human sin as inevitable. Neither
thinks that God decreed the incarnation and elected people after Adam
and Eve had actually sinned. For both, the incarnation, the election,
and human sin were all decreed prior to God’s creation of the universe.
What distinguishes supralapsarians and infralapsarians is the
question of whether the incarnation and election relate primarily to
human sin, or if they have meaning and significance apart from human
sin. Infralapsarians maintain that God decreed them in light of human
sin (which God also decreed); supralapsarians think that the incarnation
and election have significance apart from human sin.
Karl Barth called himself a purified supralapsarian. Barth was not
entirely in agreement with the views of Reformed supralapsarians and
Reformed infralapsarians. For one, Barth rejected the idea that God
elected people to be reprobate. Second, Barth appeared to have problems
with the idea that God decreed for human beings to sin. For Barth, God
elected one man, Jesus Christ, and all of humanity would be elect in
Shao Kai Tseng argues that there are indications in Barth’s writings
that Barth saw the incarnation as a response to human sin. Barth
regarded the incarnation as God’s revelation of God-self to human
beings, and Barth doubted that such a revelation would have been
necessary had humans not sinned. For Barth, had humans not sinned, they
would have known God apart from the incarnation. According to Tseng,
Barth here is infralapsarian.
Why, then, did Barth call himself a supralapsarian? Tseng contends
that Barth misunderstood supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism. My
impression is that, according to Tseng, Barth wrongly thought that
infralapsarianism regarded the incarnation and election as God’s Plan B
after Adam and Eve had actually sinned. Barth valued the incarnation
and election too much to go that route.
But my understanding of Tseng’s argument regarding Barth is this:
Barth, a severe critic of natural theology, wanted to understand all
theological concepts in light of God’s revelation in the incarnate
Christ. For Barth, people should look at what God did through Christ
and (with the Holy Spirit’s illumination) draw conclusions from this
that human beings are sinners and what sin meant. Barth seemed to think
that supralapsarianism prioritized Christ, whereas infralapsarianism
prioritized sin, and Barth wanted to prioritize Christ. But Barth still
presumed, in places, that the incarnation was God’s plan in light of
fallen humanity, an infralapsarian idea.
Tseng discusses related aspects of Barth’s thought. Tseng chronicles
a development in Barth’s thought on divine revelation: Barth went from
treating divine revelation primarily as God’s illumination of people, to
focusing on the incarnation. Tseng also discusses Barth’s views on sin
and human sinfulness: Barth saw sin as nothingness, and Barth shied
away from the idea that humans inherited a sinful nature from Adam and
Eve. For Barth, humans are good, as God said in Genesis 1, but they are
trapped in a fallen condition.
The Forward to the book by George Hunsinger may indicate that there
were supralapsarian dimensions to Barth’s thought. The passages that
Hunsinger cites are relevant, as are Tseng’s arguments that there are
infralapsarian aspects to Barth’s thought. There were parts of Tseng’s
book that were abstruse, but Tseng clearly demonstrated those
Overall, Tseng explained the difference between supralapsarianism and
infralapsarianism rather well. A question remains in my mind about
supralapsarianism, though: Does not God’s election of certain people
unto reprobation to display divine justice, which many supralapsarians
believe, itself presume human sin? Is not divine justice only
meaningful in response to human sin for God to judge? But
supralapsarians maintain that God’s election of certain people unto
reprobation was unrelated to human sin. How can this be? It seems to
me that many supralapsarians cheat and embrace infralapsarianism on the
issue of election unto reprobation. Tseng should have included more
about supralapsarian stances on divine election unto reprobation,
assuming that supralapsarians have sufficiently addressed this issue.
To his credit, Tseng discusses why supralapsarianism,
infralapsarianism, and Barth’s views on them should matter to
Christians, from a practical standpoint. Overall, however, Tseng did
not appear to me to flesh this out adequately. For example, Tseng
mentioned distinct political implications of supralapsarianism and
infralapsarianism, without clearly explaining how these political
implications follow from the beliefs.
At the same time, I cannot leave Tseng’s book thinking that
supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism are uninteresting, unimportant,
or arcane. After reading Tseng’s book, I see them as part of a profound
discussion about God’s activity and plans, and the rationale for them.
I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher, in exchange for an honest review.
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