The order of God's decrees, according to the Westminster Shorter Catechism, is "...His eternal purpose, according to the counsel of His will, whereby, for His own glory, He has fore-ordained whatsoever comes to pass." In discussing the order of decrees, we are referring to the logical relationship of the various aspects of God's one eternal purpose regarding the creation, predestination and salvation of man. The primary interest in the decrees of God usually relates to the understanding of divine predestination or divine election and its place in God's plan of redemption.
A discussion of the logical relation of divine decrees is valuable because it helps clarify and distinguish various theological positions regarding God's plan of redemption. It is especially helpful in understanding the differences between Calvinism, Arminianism, and Pelagianism, as well as the variations thereof.
First, it should be emphasized that the decrees of God are understood as one single eternal intention; not an order of succession in His plan either in time or deliberation. As A. A. Hodge has stated, "The question as to the Order of Decrees is not a question as to the order of acts in God decreeing, but it is a question as to the true relation sustained by the several parts of the system which He decrees to one another," (Outlines, p. 230). In other words, it has to do with the logical relationship between creation, predestination, and redemption established by the eternal purpose of God?
The chart below presents five selected schemes and their respective differences regarding the order of decrees, (adapted from Plan, p. 23). The subsequent discussion will proceed from right to left, beginning with the Pelagian view.
The Order of Decrees
Supralapsarian Infralapsarian Amyraldian Arminian Semi-Pelagian Pelagian To create mankind To elect some to eternal life and the rest to eternal separation To permit the fall of man To permit the fall of man - physical and moral deterioration Gift of free will whereby each may do all that is required of him To permit the fall of man To elect some to eternal life, leaving the rest to their just deserts The atonement of Christ - where all men are made savable, with salvation conditioned on individual faith. The atonement of Christ - where satisfaction is made for all men and all are given sufficient grace to believe, if they will The atonement of Christ - to make possible the gift of sufficient grace and give this grace to all Gift of the law and gospel to illuminate the way and persuade men to walk in it. The atonement of Christ - where satisfaction is made for the elect thus securing their redemption To elect some to receive moral ability and the necessary grace to believe To predestine to eternal life those whom He foresaw would believe of their own free will Salvation of all who freely cooperate with this grace Gift of Christ to (expiate past sin and) set a good example The gift of the Holy Spirit to regenerate and sanctify the redeemed The gift of the Holy Spirit to sanctify believers Sanctification of all who cooperate with the sufficient grace Sanctification by cooperation with God's grace Acceptance of all who walk in the right way
This view is basically a naturalistic view of salvation as opposed to a supernaturalistic view. The primary issue between the naturalist and the supernaturalist may be summed up in one question: Does man save himself or does God save him? In its purity, Pelagianism affirms that all the power exerted in saving man is native to man himself. It is basically a salvation by works mentality that continues to show up in various forms today.
Pelagianism denies that human nature has been corrupted by sin, and hence maintains that every infant comes into the world in the same condition as Adam before the Fall. Man thus has a free will and the ability to justify himself before God. St. Augustine was successful in having Pelagianism condemned by the church at the council of Ephesus in the year 431.
Semi-Pelagianism is only a mild improvement over blatant Pelagianism. Like Pelagianism, it is a naturalistic view of salvation that has man saving himself with God's help. According to this view, man is not by nature totally depraved, but does suffer a physical and moral deterioration resulting from the Fall. In this view, man has retained his natural free will and the ability to improve on the grace God has provided to all.
Like Pelagianism before it, Semi-Pelagianism was condemned at the Council of Orange in 529 in favor of a moderate Augustinian view. Even though the sovereignty of God's grace in salvation was upheld by Augustinianism to this point, compromises made at the Synod of Orange left an incipient semi-Pelagianism which was eventually revived and accepted by the church at large during the middle ages.
Biblical Christianity was revived in the 16th century Protestant Reformation. However, it didn't take long after the Reformation for some of the same theological issues that Augustine faced to resurface, e.g. the sovereign grace of God versus the free will of man. This is not surprising since variations of free will Semi-Pelagianism had become the accepted position of both the Eastern and Roman churches.
At the Synod of Dort, 1618–1619, the Reformed churches of the day officially condemned what was perceived as the revived Semi-Pelagianism of the Dutch Remonstrants in favor of a strict Calvinistic position as expressed in the Belgic and Helvetic Confessions. Although officially rejected, this view continued to exist and grow in the Protestant churches under the name of Arminianism from Jacob Arminius, 1560–1609, whose teaching formed the basis of the Remonstrants' position.
Arminianism sees itself as a fundamental improvement over the Pelagian and Semi-Pelagian views in that it is supernaturalistic, attributing the primary work of salvation to God at all points. However, it maintains that by virtue of God's universal prevenient grace all men have a free will and the ability to savingly respond to God. It also maintains that predestination is based on God's divine foreknowledge, where foreknowledge is erroneously equated with foresight.
Arminianism is "universalistic" since in its view God does no more for any man than He does for all. This reduces to the point where the deciding factor in salvation is in man himself, which thus approaches Semi-Pelagianism where man saves himself with God's help. Reformed theologians therefore see a rather gray line that distinguishes Arminianism from Semi-Pelagianism.
Amyraldism developed historically following the Synod of Dort as a compromise between Calvinism and the early Arminianism by giving up what was perceived as some of the harshness of Calvinism. The Amyraldian view, named after French Theologian Moses Amyraut, 1569-1664, is associated with Calvinism because it retains a particularistic element by acknowledging God's distinguishing grace in the election of individuals.
The logic the of Amyraldians, however, places divine election after the decree to provide an atonement. This makes the atonement universal in nature and the application of the atonement particular in nature through divine election. This view is sometimes referred to as Four-Point Calvinism since it gives up the Calvinist doctrine of limited atonement in favor of a universal atonement. It is also known, perhaps more descriptively, as Hypothetical Redemptionism. Although Amyraldianism may be a recognizable form of Calvinism because it retains the principle of particularism in election, it is not necessarily a good form of Calvinism. According to B. B. Warfield, "it is a logically inconsistent and therefore unstable form of Calvinism. For another more important reason, it turns away from a substitutionary atonement, which is as precious to the Calvinist as his particularism," (Plan, p. 98).
This view maintains that Christ died for all men alike, making all men savable, with actual salvation conditioned on individual faith. Then God, seeing that no one would respond because of their depravity, chose (or elected) some to receive the grace to believe. Some see this as inconsistent, for how is it possible to contend that God gave His Son to die for all men alike and equally, and at the same time to declare that when He gave His Son to die, He already fully intended that His death should not avail for all men equally, but only for some which He would select.
Looking now at the chart, the primary characteristic of the Amyraldian scheme is the placement of election after the atonement. However, opponents contend that Scripture indicates Christ came in order to execute the purpose of election. He came to die for and give eternal life to as many as the Father had given Him. See John 10:15 and 17:2, 9. If this point is true, then the decree to elect some of mankind should necessarily precede the decree to provide an atonement. The Amyraldian scheme assumes the reverse to be true.
This term comes from the Latin. Infra means 'subsequent to' or 'below' and lapsus means 'fall'. This pertains to the placement of divine election in the order of decrees with respect to the Fall of man. In the case of Infralapsarianism, election is logically after the Fall.
Infralapsarianism recognizes that election has to do specifically with salvation. It maintains that the principle of particularism, in the sense of distinguishing grace, belongs to the sphere of God's plan of redemption. Therefore, Infralapsarians place election at the head of those decrees that look to salvation and subsequent to the decrees of creation and the Fall. In the order of thought, election falls subsequent to the decrees of creation and the Fall because these refer to all men alike, since all men are certainly created and all men have certainly fallen. Likewise, election falls prior to the decrees of redemption and its application because it is just as certain that all men are not redeemed and all men are not saved.
The Infralapsarian view is that of historic Calvinism (the heart of Reformed Theology). According to Warfield, this is the only view that is self consistent and consistent with the facts of Scripture.
John Calvin said in the final edition of the his Institutes, "No one who wishes to be thought religious dares simply deny predestination, by which God adopts some to hope of life, and sentences others to eternal death. But our opponents, especially those who make foreknowledge its cause, envelop it in numerous petty objections. We indeed, place both doctrines in God, but we say that subjecting one to the other is absurd." Institutes III.21.5 (Translation Battles & McNeill)
Supra basically means 'prior to' or 'above'. Supralapsarianism thus puts God's decree to elect some to eternal life prior to His decree to permit the Fall. This view is usually associated with High Calvinism and is sometimes improperly called Hyper-Calvinism. A variation of Supralapsarianism places the decree to elect prior even to the decree to create man. This view thus holds that God's distinguishing grace is the primary means by which He brings glory to Himself, and therefore makes it His foremost concern.
The question raised between the Supra- and Infra-lapsarian views boils down to this: Does God discriminate between men in order to save some, or does He save some in order to discriminate between men? Or, as Warfield phrased it: "Is God's motive an abstract desire for discrimination so that He may have some variety in His dealings with men?… Or, is the motive that moves Him an unwillingness that all men should perish in their sins?" (Plan, p.19).
While there have been logical arguments articulated for the Supra-views, opponents contend there is little scriptural support. They argue that the language of Scripture indicates the elect are chosen from a mass of fallen, sinful humanity, not an innocent (or uncreated) mass. Therefore, election should be viewed as logically subsequent to the Fall. See also John 15:19 and Romans 11:5–7. Scripture also declares that the elect are chosen unto sanctification and to the sprinkling of the blood of Christ. They must therefore have been regarded as guilty and defiled by sin when they were chosen. See 1 Pet. 1:2, and Eph. 1:4–6.
Calvinists give a predominate place to God's predestination and election as applied to individual men. Consequently, the doctrine of unconditional election, which is typically seen as the trademark of Calvinism, shows up in the first three columns of the chart. Although the Amyraldian view is considered a hybrid, nevertheless it is considered a brand of Calvinism because it does hold to an "unconditional" election.
In looking at the chart as a whole and tracking the doctrine of unconditional election, it is noted that the placement of election finds it's highest point in the first column with the Supralapsarian view, notably prior to the Fall of man. In the second column we have Infralapsarianism, representing a low or common Calvinist position, where election has moved down a level so that it now follows the decree to permit the Fall. As explained earlier, this seems to be the most biblical view. In the third column, Amyraldianism has moved election down another position so that it now comes after the decree to provide an atonement.
In the next column we see Arminianism, where God's unconditional election has been replaced with a predestination where God chose unto salvation those whom He foresaw would believe of their own free will. Here the salvation of men is no longer dependent on God but dependent on man himself. God has done His part, now man must do his part by believing in Christ of his own free will. Arminianism is perhaps the most popular scheme in professing Christianity today.
The last two columns represent naturalistic views which were historic predecessors of Arminianism. Here we see no hint of divine election at all, rather we see God providing salvation to those who merit it through their own works. Once you leave Amyraldianism, which still has its own inherent weaknesses, you have God doing no more for any man than He does for all men. What this means is that nothing that God and Christ have done can save us unless we add something to it. According to these views, the determining factor in salvation is man himself, which is contrary to Calvinism and the Reformed tradition.
- B. B. Warfield, The Plan of Salvation (Simpson Publ., 1989). ISBN 0-9622508-0-5 The basic information shown in the chart above is condensed and adapted from a broader, more detailed chart in this referenced work, p. 23.
- A. A. Hodge, Outlines of Theology (6th printing, Zondervan, 1980). ISBN 0-310-26200-3