Infra- versus Supra-


In a surprising chapter of his book defending and developing the doctrine of a common grace of God, He Shines in All That’s Fair: Culture and Common Grace (Eerdmans, 2001), Fuller Seminary theologian Richard J. Mouw raises the old Reformed debate over supra- and infralapsarianism. This chapter must have sent Mouw’s non-Reformed readers scurrying to their theological dictionaries. Upon turning to the chapter titled, “‘Infra-‘ versus ‘Supra-,'” many a Reformed reader must have wondered what this difficult and now largely forgotten controversy could possibly have to do with common grace.

The debate among Reformed theologians over infralapsarianism and supralapsarianism concerned the order of the decrees of God with regard to predestination. Specifically, the question was whether God’s decree of election and reprobation preceded or followed His decree of creation and the fall. Supralapsarianism (literally, above, or before, the fall) holds that the decree of predestination precedes the decree of creation and the decree of the fall. Infralapsarianism (literally, below, or after, the fall) thinks that predestination follows the decrees of creation and the fall.


Infra- and Common Grace


In raising this issue in connection with his defense of common grace, Dr. Mouw shows himself an astute Reformed theologian. First, he sees the necessity of grounding common grace in God’s eternal counsel. Many defenders of common grace are woefully weak here. They make much of a common grace of God in history that has no source in God’s eternal plan and no goal in God’s everlasting purpose. Their common grace comes out of the blue on the day that Adam sinned and returns to the blue on the day that Christ comes again. It is not part of the plot of history. God’s common grace appears unexpectedly after the fall of Adam as a contrived solution to the problem of sin—a deus ex machina. Mouw intends to correct this serious weakness of common grace theory.

Second, in the infralapsarian understanding of the order of the decrees Mouw finds the basis for his contention that God has two distinct purposes with history. For those who defend common grace, the redemption of the elect church by special grace is not the only purpose of God in the world. God also purposes that the ungodly develop a good, God-glorifying culture. This purpose God realizes by means of common grace.

Mouw is convinced that the “underlying issue at stake in the longstanding intra-Calvinist debates between ‘infralapsarians’ and ‘supralapsarians'” is that of “multiple divine purposes” of God with history (p. 51). Supralapsarianism makes the redemption of the elect church the one purpose of God with history inasmuch as it has the decree of creation and the fall after the decree of election. Thus, every creature and all of history are subordinated to God’s one purpose of redeeming and glorifying the church. Supralapsarianism has no place for another purpose of God alongside the redemption of the church. This rules out the theory of common grace.

But infralapsarianism, on Mouw’s reading, although recognizing that one of God’s purposes is the redemption of the church, allows for another purpose of God with history, distinct from redemption. Inasmuch as infralapsarian-ism puts the decree to create before the decree to elect, it suggests, if it does not require, an original purpose of God with creation that has nothing to do with redemption. This purpose, according to the defender of common grace, is the development of good culture. God carries out this purpose in history by the cultural works of the ungodly alongside His activity of redeeming the church. After the fall of Adam, He carries out this original purpose by means of common grace.

Mouw contends that by virtue of His infralapsarian decrees God “is committed both to the election of individuals to eternal life and to a distinguishable program of providential dealings with the broader creation” (p. 68). This explains why “an infralapsarian [can] view God as taking delight in a display of athletic prowess because of ultimate purposes that stand along side of, rather than being subservient to, the goal of bringing about election and reprobation” (p. 62). Infralapsarianism means that God rejoices in the putting prowess of a Tiger Woods, if not as much as He rejoices in the redemption of the church, then certainly independently of the redemption of the church.

Mouw’s discovery in the infralapsarian arrangement of the decrees of the basis for common grace’s teaching that God has two distinct purposes with history is a masterstroke on the part of the Fuller theologian. If Dr. Mouw’s explanation of infralapsarianism is valid, it gives strong support to the theory of common grace.

Infra- and Two Purposes of God


That God has two distinct, independent purposes with history is basic to the theory of common grace. The very reason for common grace is to empower the ungodly world’s development of good culture as a purpose of God alongside His purpose of saving the church. The theory of common grace is senseless, if God does not, in Mouw’s words, “pursue separate decretal programs” (p. 68).

In his groundbreaking work on common grace, Abraham Kuyper proposed the notion of God’s two purposes in the history of the world.

Therefore every view that would confine God’s work to the small sector we might label “church life” must be set aside. There is beside the great work of God in special grace also that totally other work of God in the realm of common grace. That work encompasses the whole life of the world.

God takes “delight in that high human development” in the world of the ungodly. In the course of history, common grace will

achieve a purpose of its own. It will not only serve to bring about the emergence of the human race, to bring to birth the full number of the elect, and to arm us increasingly and more effectively against human suffering, but also independently to bring about in all its dimensions and in defiance of Satanic opposition and human sin the full emergence of what God had in mind when he planted those nuclei of higher development in our race…. The fundamental creation ordinance given before the fall, that humans would achieve dominion over all of nature thanks to “common grace,” is still realized after the fall (Abraham Kuyper, “Common Grace,” in James D. Bratt, ed., Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader, Eerdmans, 1998, pp. 176-179).

But the basis in God’s counsel for the theory of two purposes has been lacking. This lack, Dr. Mouw claims to have supplied in a right understanding of the infralapsarian order of the decrees. In doing so, he has, in fact, acted on the suggestion of the Dutch Reformed theologian Herman Bavinck. Writing on the issue of supra- and infralapsarianism, Bavinck urged that “in the doctrine of God’s decree common grace should receive a much more detailed discussion than was formerly the case, and should be recognized in its own rights” (The Doctrine of God, Eerdmans, 1951, p. 394).

So far is it from being true, therefore, as one superficial reviewer has recently suggested, that the chapter in He Shines in All That’s Fair on infra- and supralapsarianism should be relegated to an appendix, that on the contrary this is the most important chapter in the book.

Regardless of the truth or falsity of Mouw’s use of the issue of supra- and infralapsarianism, it is significant that that knotty doctrinal debate, regarded even by many Reformed theologians as akin to the medieval discussion of how many angels can dance on the point of a needle, is today revived as important for the lively, practical matter of the Christian’s view of culture and life in the world. There is something about the issue of supra- versus infra- that is of great importance for the gospel and the Christian life. The Reformed fathers were not fools when they studied and debated this issue.

Weighty Objections

Weighty objections to Mouw’s analysis of infralapsarianism come to mind at once. For one thing, Abraham Kuyper, father of the theory of a culture-forming common grace, was himself a supralapsarian. Whereas, according to Mouw, Kuyper ought to have taken the position that God has one purpose with history—the redemption of the church—in fact he taught that God has two, independent purposes.

For another thing, the Reformed confessions, which are infralapsarian, know absolutely nothing of two purposes of God with history. As comes out especially in their treatment of providence, the only purpose of God with history that the confessions know is the redemption of the church, including the perfect security of the individual believer. According to Question 27 of the Heidelberg Catechism, the one purpose of God’s government of the world in history is that all things work together for the welfare of elect believers. Article 37 of the Belgic Confession teaches that the one goal of God with history is the gathering of the elect church. “When … the number of the elect [is] complete,” Christ will come again from heaven.

Yet another objection to Dr. Mouw’s use of infralapsarianism is that, historically, the Reformed debate over supra- and infralap-sarianism had nothing whatever to do with any independent cultural purpose of God with history. At the time of Dordt and for hundreds of years thereafter, the debate concerned the relation of the fall of man into sin to the counsel of God and the relation, in the counsel, of predestination to the fall of man. The infralapsarians had no intention of, or even interest in, establishing a cultural purpose of God with history alongside the purpose of redeeming the elect church. Both infralapsarians and supra-lapsarians were agreed that the one purpose of God with history, to which all creatures and the history of the world are subordinate, is His own glory in the redemption of the elect church by Jesus Christ.

Bavinck’s tentative proposal around the turn of the twentieth century that the infralapsarian arrangement of the decrees be interpreted as giving independent meaning and value to the development of the creation in history was novel. And Bavinck’s motivation, as he himself indicates, was to promote the theory of common grace, of which he was as enamored as Kuyper.

The discovery in infralapsari-anism of a purpose of God with history distinct from, and along-side of, God’s purpose with Jesus Christ as head of the elect church is not necessarily the result of new insight into the longstanding debate over the order of the decrees. It may well be the imposition of the false doctrine of common grace upon the counsel of God itself, to the diffusing and confusing of the grand purpose of God with all things, as God has revealed this purpose in His Word. Like an aggressive cancer, common grace, by this time pervasive in the history of both the world and the church, now extends the malignancy into the eternal counsel of God.

That this is indeed the case will be evident when we take note of the weightiest, indeed decisive, objection against Richard Mouw’s contention, on behalf of common grace, that God has two separate purposes with history. And this will require that we clearly see the deepest intention of the issue of supra- versus infra- in the light of Scripture.