Book Write-Up: Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology

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 reprobation.

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 him.

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 infralapsarian elements.

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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About jamesbradfordpate

My name is James Pate. I study the History of Biblical Interpretation at Hebrew Union College in Cincinnati, Ohio, as part of its Ph.D. program. I have an M.A. in Hebrew Bible from Jewish Theological Seminary, an M.Div. from Harvard Divinity School, and a B.A. from DePauw University. This blog is about my journey. I read books. I watch movies and TV shows. I go to church. I try to find meaning. And, when I can’t do that, I just talk about stuff that I find interesting.
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