A common objection to theoretical theologizing is that it is, at the end of the day, completely impractical. It is largely viewed as an unnecessary exercise that seeks to tease out answers to questions to which no one wants or needs an answer. Critics of speculation often speculate that speculation is the triumph of the trivial; a morbid fascination with the perversion of heretical hypotheticals. “One might as well ask how many angels can dance on a needle’s point,” is a common, well-worn retort. But one wonders if the irritated interlocutor ever stops long enough to ponder whether or not there are actually practical reasons for such a query. Just because the questions arise over needle points doesn’t mean that they address needless points.
The specific question mentioned is certainly not without metaphysical implications. Are angels disembodied spirits? If so, how do they occupy space and time? If they are not disembodied spirits, how have they possessed other creatures (such as we read of demons doing)? How does the description of their appearance in apocalyptic visions square with the descriptions of their appearance as men? These and other similar questions certainly warrant consideration if for no other reason than in the interest of logical coherence. There is more at stake than whether or not Gabriel can dance the foxtrot.
There is also the fact that simply thinking through difficult issues is a healthy, cognitive enterprise. One learns to think by thinking. The medieval scholastics were interested in learning how to draw sound inferences without falling into contradictions. This is certainly a helpful club to have in one’s bag. Worldview analysis, apologetics, and evangelism often requires more of us than what is written in John’s gospel. It can be argued that one will never be able to confer knowledge if one isn’t able to infer knowledge. While it may be true that such disputes have often generated much heat and little light, it does not follow that the little light generated is actually darkness. Seeing men as trees walking is no small thing to a man once blind.
Having established the validity (and dare I say value) of raising questions of a speculative nature, I now turn to the supralapsarian/infralapsarian debate. Yes, that old chestnut. A lot of ink and a little blood has been spilled over the question concerning the order of God’s pre-temporal decrees. Though I am not willing to resist unto blood, I am willing to spill a little cyber ink in pursuit of a little more light on the matter.
It should be pointed out that the dispute is not over the content of the decrees but the order of the decrees. That God elects some sinners to salvation and others to damnation is a shared commitment. That God chose to create the world, permit the Fall, provide redemption for the elect, and apply the benefits of that redemption are also mutually shared commitments. The debate is an “in house” debate among Reformed theologians.
In order to keep this article brief, I offer a short argument in defense of a supralapsarian understanding of the decrees.
An Argument from Teleological Principle
The Scriptures are abundantly clear that the works of God are according to the “purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:11). That purpose, or telos, serves as the foundation for all divine working and willing. In the same verse Paul mentions that all of the elective purposes of God are according to the plan of God. The whole of Scripture testifies to the fact that God has both a guiding purpose and a governing plan by which he operates with reference to his creation. This is no small consideration for the purposes of our present discussion. If God is working according to an overarching, established purpose then this means that he is working toward a logical end; a specific telos. That end is his glorification, with his Son, by the Church, through the Spirit.
The famous Westminster Divine William Twisse was fond of saying, “That which is first in mind is last in time.” That is another way of saying that logical order is the reverse of historical order. If your goal is to build a house then your first stop isn’t at the hardware store, it’s at the architect’s office. The first thing that you decide to do when you decide to build a house is to decide to build a house. You begin where you want to end. Then you work backwards from the goal, covering all that is necessary to achieve that goal in between, back to the initial starting point. On paper your logical ordering would be the mirror image of the historical application.
On supralapsarianism, God decrees the redemption of elect sinners in order to display his grace world without end. So the order looks like this:
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.
On the flip side, infralapsarianism seems to lack any clear purpose. It simply wants to account for things as they fall out in history. This seems to be a less than satisfactory position from which to argue. Another way of saying that supralapsarianism works with a view toward the teleological principle is to say that protology is rooted in eschatology, and not the other way around.
Infralapsarianism seems to lack a guiding eschatology. Creation is formed, then the Fall is later decreed, and eventually salvation is seen as a rescue from the Fall. According to supralapsarianism, the creation is never considered apart from the consummation. Salvation is not merely rescue from the Fall, but the final realization of God’s original creative purpose. On an infralapsarian scheme we are left to ask a simple question at every turn, “why?”
Supralapsarianism bequeaths a narrative trajectory to the world and to each individual life. Every rising empire, every falling sparrow, every shifting grain of sand upon the seashore is working toward the same eschatological goal. Every person is defined by the whole story that God is telling; a story written for a purpose. I am what I am because of God’s decision to make me a particular way in order to tell a very particular story as part of the grand narrative. On an infralapsarian scheme, there is creation, and then a second stage of grace that restores that fallen creation. This all seems to lose the sense of story.
It seems that infralapsarianism will not sustain a narrative theology. You have men created without telos, without plot, no story, without ultimate destiny. They are considered as just “created.” They will eventually fall, and then be redeemed or damned, but what are they while they are “created?” And what is this creation before the Fall and final redemption? A stasis? A static arrangement? Where is it headed? Anywhere?
Supralapsarianism says that there is a story line from before the moment of existence. There is a telos and climax and eschaton already decided for individuals in particular and the world in general. There is not a logical “moment” of existence in the mind of God when men are not considered in their concrete realities as elect or reprobate. It is logically incoherent to conceive of God knowing that which isn’t so. This entails the notion that there cannot be a moment when the world is not contemplated in the light of its full and final eschatological state. Barth was correct to assert that covenant precedes creation. In like manner, we affirm that consummation logically precedes creation.
There are dozens of practical implications that one can extract as consequences of a supralapsarian approach but I leave you with one, very personal application.
God’s yes concerning man was pronounced before the creation of the world. If God had said no before the beginning then there would have been no beginning for man at all. Further still, God said yes in Jesus Christ concerning you, dear child of God, before the mountains were brought forth or the world received it’s frame. That means that there never has been a “maybe moment” in the mind of God concerning you. All of the promises of God in Christ Jesus concerning you are yes and amen. So much for idle speculation…