The Decrees of God

March 2, 2011 — 2 Comments


[This post is part of The Christian Faith series]

I thought in light of some of the buzz about Horton’s The Christian Faith replacing Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, it might actually be helpful to pick up a copy of Berkhof to make comparisons. Having done so, I’ve now got a reputable single volume Reformed systematic theology useful for that very purpose. So far Horton’s is much more aesthetically pleasing in terms of design and layout (i.e. font, print size, and margins), but Berkhof seems to be a little more adept at what he is doing. Horton gives the appearance of having streamlined the discussion and just hitting the high points, but that is why they call it an aesthetic fallacy.

In chapter 9, dealing with the decrees of God, over a span of about 15 pages, Horton’s outline covers:

  • Drame to Doctrine to Doxology (4pg)
  • Historical Interpretations of God’s Decree (little over 2pg)
  • The Logical Order of God’s Decree (2 ½ on traditional Reformed position, 5 ½ wrangling with Barth)

So, in this particular chapter, interacting with Barth is what is most important in terms of space delegated. Whether explicitly intended or not, the discussion climaxes in talking about Barth. Everything is a kind of cursory prelude to the section on Barth, and I’m not sure we’re clear on Horton’s own position. We move quickly through the opening pages that are dealing with Scripture and on to the real meat of the chapter which is Barth’s position. This is, I think, weakness number one.

Weakness number two is that his actual explanation of the decrees is rather bush league for a systematic theology (my opinion compared to other discussions).[1] I would imagine that after reading Horton you would be hard pressed to articulate the difference between supralapsarianism and infralapsarianism (beyond Horton’s short description on pg 315-16) or why it really matters in the first place. John Frame makes a compelling argument (to me at least) that making a big deal on the order is a somewhat misguided quest. I would imagine for lay readers then it might have been better to engage Frame’s arguments over the relevancy of order in the first place than to quibble with Karl Barth on how to formulate it.

For one thing, Frame notes that there are many different relations referred to by the phrase “logical order.” He lists 13 different kinds of relations that can be implied by “logical order.” (Space does not really permit listing those, but you can look it up in Frame’s Doctrine of the Knowledge of God on pgs 260-263.) Horton does not indicate which one he has in mind when he qualifies that we are dealing with logical rather than temporal order, and so his analysis really does not clarify in what way the logic works out. Too see the different order, here’s a handy chart courtesy of Frame:

Supralapsarianism Infralapsarianism
Decree to bless the elect Decree to create
Decree to create Decree to permit the fall
Decree to permit the fall Decree to elect
Decree to send Christ Decree to send Christ
Decree to send the Spirit Decree to send the Spirit
Decree to glorify the elect Decree to glorify the elect

Tell me this isn’t much clearer now. Seeing that the final three decrees are identical between the two schemes, Horton’s simplification of supra = decree to save first vs infra = decree create first is correct, but does not clarify in what logical way either is first. The problem though, is not particularly with Horton but with the whole discussion itself. Neither side has been forthright in clarifying which relations they are implying by “logical order.” Even looking at the scheme as it stands, it would be hard to posit a single relation that unites the flow of all six decrees.

Horton, not having the tools of an analytic philosopher, is left without a way to really analyze the whole debate and so spends a little bit of time with Scripture and then plays with Barth. The critiques Frame offers against making too big of an issue over an ordering of events like this also applies to things like the ordo salutis, but we’ll get to that later. The point is that Horton’s handling of this topic is not clarifyied by invoking logical order unless he then clarifies what “logical order” means in this discussion since it is not monolithic like “temporal order” is (which upon further analysis may not be all that monolithic either).

What would have been much more helpful would be to follow Berkhof’s order (sorry). Consider for example Berkhoff’s outline (this covers about 25pgs):

  • The Divine Decrees in General
  • The Doctrine of the Decrees in Theology
  • Scriptural Names for the Divine Decrees
  • The Nature of the Divine Decrees
  • The Characteristics of the Divine Decrees
  • Objections to the Doctrine of the Decrees
  • Predestination
  • The Doctrine of Predestination in History
  • Scriptural Terms for Predestination
  • The Author and Objects of Predestination
  • The Parts of Predestination
  • Supra- and Infralapsarianism
  • The Exact Point at Issue
  • Negatively, the difference is not found (3 enumerated pts follow)
  • Positively, the difference does concern (again 3 enumerated pts)
  • The Supralapsarian Position
  • Arguments in favor of it
  • Objections to it
  • The Infralapsarian Position
  • Arguments in favor of it
  • Objections to it

It is a novel concept to enumerate your outline so clearly, but that was how Berkhof rolled (he learned well from Bavinck apparently). I expanded the section on Supra and Infra-what-not so you could see the detail just in his headings, but the other sections are also similar. Consider also Berkhoff’s conclusion: “From what was said it would seem to follow that we cannot regard Supra- and Infralapsarianism as absolutely antithetical. They consider the same mystery from different points of view, the one fixing its attention on the ideal or teleological; the other, on the historical, order of the decrees. To a certain extent they can and must go hand in hand” (pg. 124). Or Frame’s: “The supras were saying, in effect, ‘See everything in the context of God’s electing love.’ The infras were saying ‘See everything in the context of God’s unfolding, historically ordered drama.’ (The infras were the ‘biblical’ theologians of their day)” (pg. 265 in DKG). In both cases, it is not really a logical order in the sense of premises and conclusions or even logical order in the sense of necessary causality but more of a pedagogical order for explaining things from two different but not mutually exclusive perspectives.

So all in all, this chapter is a rather weak contribution to the discussion on the topic and at best you could say that is thoroughly engages Barth. The degree of significance you allot to that particular discussion is also the degree to which this chapter will seem relevant. I found though that much more wisdom in about the same space was to be found elsewhere.

[1] This is a baseball term referring to play that is unprofessional or of minor league quality. Minor league teams are usually in the sticks, or the bush, as it were. This is different than being “in the weeds” which is a restaurant industry term for getting hopelessly behind. It is also an Anchorman reference.



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I'm an avid reader, musician, and high school Bible teacher living in central Florida. I have many paperback books and our house smells of rich glade air freshners. If you want to know more, then let's connect!

2 responses to The Decrees of God

  1. I am reminded of something John Frame wrote:
    “For thirty years or so there has been a movement in American evangelicalism to recover the past, to remedy the “rootlessness” that many have felt in evangelical churches. In the 1950s and ‘60s, the intellectual leaders of evangelicalism were for the most part biblical scholars, apologists, and systematic theologians. But at the end of the twentieth century, church historians, and theologians who do their work in dialogue with ancient and recent history, have become more prominent. Reformed theology has participated in this development, so that many of its most prominent figures, such as David Wells, Donald Bloesch, Mark Noll, George Marsden, Darryl Hart, Richard Muller, and Michael Horton, do theology in a historical mode…. Though this emphasis has done some good by revitalizing interest in the Reformed heritage, some have found deficiencies in the theology emerging from this movement. The main issue is sola Scriptura. The Reformed tradition consists, not in merely repeating previous Reformed traditions, but, as with Calvin, in using the Scriptures to criticize tradition. The history-oriented theologians tend to be uncritical of traditions and critical of the contemporary church. But their arguments are often based on their preferences rather than biblical principle and therefore fail to persuade. The Reformed community, in my judgment, needs to return to an explicitly exegetical model of theology, following the example of John Murray. The exegetical approach is also (perhaps paradoxically) the most contemporary approach, for it applies Scripture directly to our lives today. This question is, of course, one of emphasis. We should never ignore our past. But my view is that the pendulum has swung too far in the direction of a historical emphasis. “

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