The Order of Decrees – Which Came First?

A reader asked:

Please clarify for me, which came first, the decree of God to reprobate and damn this or that particular individual or that individual’s sin against God and then the decree to reprobate and damn him for his sin?

The issue of the order of decrees is a topic that seems to be of the greatest interest to us Calvinists and a few of our more learned critics. The issue is not one that directly addressed in Scripture. In other words, the Bible nowhere explicitly sets forth a logical order of decrees.

I say “logical order,” because we Calvinists believe that the decrees of God are his eternal purpose, according to the counsel of his will, whereby he has foreordained whatsoever comes to pass. They are an eternal purpose, not something that God developed over time by taking thought like a man. They consequently have no temporal order to them. God did not literally first decree “x” and then “y,” but rather God has decreed all things from all eternity.

Nevertheless, there may be a logical priority to things. For example, one might say that logically God cannot ordain to make Fred Astaire a famous personality until he first decrees to create Fred Astaire. Thus, God’s decree of creation of Fred Astaire would come logically prior to God’s decree to make Fred Astaire famous.

But what about the decrees of reprobation/damnation and permission of sin? Which of those comes first? That, after all is the reader’s question. On this question, Calvinists are themselves divided. The view held by the real Francis Turretin and many of the Continental reformers was what is called the Infralapsarian view. On the other hand, men like Twisse (who served essentially as moderator of the Westminster Assembly) held to what is called the supralapsarian view. There are also views held by classic Amyraldians and Arminians with respect to these decrees (some modern “Arminians” and some “four point Calvinists” wouldn’t necessarily fall into the same classification. Furthermore, recently Robert Reymond has proposed what he calls the “Modified Supralapsarian” position as another alternative.

The term “-lapsarian” refers to the “lapse” or “fall” of man. Supralapsarians place the decree of election (and consequently also reprobation) prior to the decree of the fall. Infralapsarians (as well as classical Amyraldians and Arminians) place the decree of election logically subsequent to the decree of the fall. Robert Reymond’s modified Supralapsarian position actually places the specific decree of the fall after the decree of election, but nevertheless makes the election an election from among sinful men.

Here is a summary of the views (based on Phil Johnson’s helpful page).

Summary of Views on the Order of Decrees
SupralapsarianismInfralapsarianismAmyraldismArminianismReymond’s Modified Supralapsarianism
  1. Elect some, reprobate rest
  2. Create
  3. Permit Fall
  4. Provide salvation for elect
  5. Call elect to salvation
  1. Create
  2. Permit Fall
  3. Elect some, pass over the rest
  4. Provide salvation for elect
  5. Call elect to salvation
  1. Create
  2. Permit Fall
  3. Provide salvation sufficient for all
  4. Elect some, pass over rest
  5. Call elect to salvation
  1. Create
  2. Permit Fall
  3. Provide salvation for all
  4. Call all to salvation
  5. Elect those who believe
  1. Elect some sinful men, reprobate rest
  2. Apply redemptive benefits to the elect
  3. Provide salvation for elect
  4. Permit Fall
  5. Create

I’m hesitant to be overly dogmatic about the matter. Twisse championed the cause of the Supralapsarian position by suggesting that what is last in time must be first in mind, since God does nothing without a purpose. In other words, the goal must be what God logically considers first, and then how to obtain that goal. On the contrary, men like the real Francis Turretin argued that the discussion of God’s electing some men of the same lump to be vessels of “mercy” and others of “wrath” (Romans 9:22-23). This lump, it is argued, must be the lump of fallen humanity, otherwise it would not be “mercy” or “wrath.” One possible response is that the descriptions “mercy” and “wrath” are descriptions of them vessels as they stand, not as God considered them and that God’s election was either to glory or destruction.

Reymond’s modified position seems to attempt to get the best of both the Supra- and infralapsarian views, in that it places things in reverse chronological order, while also considering the men who are elected as sinners. My understanding is that Dr. White favors this approach, though I do not claim to speak for him on this subject. I would encourage people to follow the example of the Westminster assembly and not make the order of decrees itself a point over which to divide fellowship or exclude ministers. While only one logical order of decrees can be true, we should be careful in what amount of knowledge of the truth we demand from our fellow Christians regarding things that are less explicitly and clearly stated in Scripture.

– TurretinFan

P.S. Infralapsarianism is also sometimes referred to as “Sublapsarianism.” “Sub-” and “Infra-” are supposed to mean the same thing. Personally, I find that “Infra-” contrasts better in sound to “Supra-,” providing a modicum of clarity in what is often a very confusing discussion.