Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Alex Tseng on the Lapsarian Dilemna, and Karl Barth's doctrine of election

The 17th century Reformed Scholastic movement saw the beginning of what became known as the Lapsarian controversy, with the two main contenders being Supralapsarianism and Infralapsarianism (Amyraldianism and Arminianism being minor contenders in this fight). The controversy centers on the logical order of God's decrees, especially as it centers on whether the decree of Creation is logically antecedent (Infralapsarian) or consequent (Supralapsarian) to the decree of election and reprobation. This in-house debate has continued to this very time, although widespread apostasy, liberalism, and dead formalism and traditionalism have placed the subject in the background most of the time. Nevertheless, the debate still rages once in a while, and the debate continues on in our paper and review for today.

With the development of Neo-Orthodoxy by Karl Barth and his disciples such as T.F. Torrance and Bruce McCormack, as a "conservative" response to the Liberalism of their age , another element has entered into the Lapsarian debate. While keeping the terminology of the Reformed Evangelical faith tradition and claiming continuity to that tradition, Neo-Orthodoxy eviscerates the contents of the Reformed tradition. Without digressing, since Neo-Orthodoxy claims continuity with the Reformed tradition, it creates its own lapsariam scheme and thus join in the lapsarian debate — an alien as it is.

In this paper, Alex Tseng has written an interesting paper on this particular topic. Entited The Lapsarian Dilemna and Karl Barth's Christocentric Doctrine of Election, it interacts with both of the two main lapsarian scheme, as well as Karl Barth's unique lapsarian scheme. An excerpt:

Christianity affirms that God is sovereign and perfect. Understanding the sovereignty of God’s will and perfections of God’s being becomes a challenge when the presence of evil is taken seriously: How can there be evil in this world if God is good and almighty? In this paper, I will discuss Calvinism’s answer to the problem of evil and demonstrate an intrinsic difficulty in the Calvinist-Augustinian formulation of predestination played out in the lapsarian controversy of the 17th Century. I will discuss the strengths and weaknesses of Karl Barth’s Christological formulation of the doctrine of election and how it hints to a way out of the lapsarian dilemma. Finally, I will appeal to John Owen’s Christological treatment of the doctrine of predestination to suggest a Reformed orthodoxy solution.


Joel Tay has written a well thought out response to Alex's paper here. An excerpt:

In his paper, Alex Tseng affirms the sovereignty of God and presents the problem of evil as a launching pad for rejecting supralapsarianism. Having done so, he puts forward his own formulation based upon infralapsarian thought combined with elements of Barth’s doctrine of election, which supposedly covers the holes in traditional infralapsarian theology.


This paper and its review are now open for discussion.


PuritanReformed said...

Alex's paper is indeed thought-provoking, and thus I think it has contributed to our understanding more regarding the different lapsarian views. As the editor of both the paper and the review, I must say that reading them has given me much food for thought.

I will of course go with Joel's take on this issue, after all being convinced by Dr. Robert Reymond's position on this issue (which Joel quotes liberally from) as written in his Systematic Theology, which I will recommend as one of the best in the world.

CREDO500 said...

Thanks Alex for the profound piece, and Joel’s review also a very good work. I always find Barth a little unaccessible and you guys had helped me somewhat, will join the discussion after finish reading it.

Here are two brief thoughts from
Pastor Linus Chua(PCC singapore) via facebook(I appreciate his point of view too).

1) In setting up the lapsarian dilemma, the author has left Christ out of the picture. But both lapsarian positions hold that God elects some sinful men to salvation in Christ and supralapsarians particularly hold that God's eternal purpose is directly and centrally concerned with Christ so that Christ and His Church stands at the beginning, the centre and the end of God's purpose. I'm not sure that Owen's discussion contributes anything new. Barth certainly doesn't. In fact, Barth confuses more than clarifies.

2) The author needs to include a discussion on Romans 9:14-18 and the way in which Paul answers the charge that God is unjust. A consideration of this passage will make the initial question raised about God being arbitrary unnecessary.

To me(Linus), the best discussion on the lapsarian question can be found in Reymond's Systematic Theology chapter 13. For a further discussion on the problem of evil, see Gordon Clark's treatment of it in chapter 5 of his "Religion, Reason and Revelation".

Note: Alex was the student of George Hunsinger while doing the particular thesis in Princeton. He actually cut a few corners to fit the conference space, that does help.

Have a great day!

PuritanReformed said...

I agree with Linus's two points.

Augustinian Successor said...

"In fact, Barth confuses more than clarifies."

Touche (spot on).

The Hedonese said...

A Primer on Barth



PuritanReformed said...


long time no see.

I disagree with you on Barth. I disagree that Barth's theology is "from above", and I disagree that the dialetical methodology is ontologically neutral.

Barth's theology is basically existential mysticism, borrowing elements from the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. Instead of saying his theology is "from above", it should rather be said that his theology is "from within" as compared to Liberalism's "from without".

With regards to the Hegelian dialetic, that is a direct attack on the Word (Logos) of God which is supremely reasonable. Those without God are considered irrational (aloga) (2 Peter 2:12). It is superemely erroneous to adopt the worldview and methodology of the world and the reprobate mind.

Augustinian Successor said...

"Barth's theology is basically existential mysticism, borrowing elements from the existentialist Soren Kierkegaard. Instead of saying his theology is "from above", it should rather be said that his theology is "from within" as compared to Liberalism's "from without".

Spot on.

Joel Tay said...

John Calvin on why:

1) the Supralapsarian view does not face a problem with theodicy and

2) why an appeal to God's will is the ultimate answer anyone can give for His decree.

"..it is very wicked merely to investigate the causes of God's will. for his will is, and rightly ought to be, the cause of all things that are."..."For God's will is so much the highest rule of righteousness that whatever he wills, by the very fact that he wills it, must be considered righteous. When, therefore, one asks why God has so done, we must reply: because he has willed it. But if you proceed further to ask why he so willed, you are seeking something greater and higher than God's will, which cannot be found." John Calvin, Bk 3, Ch 23, s. 1

Joel Tay said...

Barth's "dialetical methodology" understood dialetically, cannot be understood.

Augustinian Successor said...

"Barth's "dialetical methodology" understood dialetically, cannot be understood."


Alex Tseng said...

Joel, I noticed in one of your lines that you put "Amyraldianism" in brackets after "infralapsarianism." I just want to clarify: Are you identifying infralapsarianism with Amyraldianism? That would be a technical mistake that discredits most of your review. Amyraldianism's lapsarian position is called "sublapsarianism," and is very different from infralapsarianism. I do not subscribe to Amyraldianism.

To Pastor Linus Chua: Just a note of clarification in case someone from our conservative Reformed circle would think that I adopted my lapsarian position from my beloved and well-respected teacher, Professor George Hunsinger: I first attended Regent College as a supralapsarian, and after long conversations with my other beloved teacher J. I. Packer (to whom even Dr. Hunsinger looks up), I was convinced that the vast majority of Reformed theologians after the second half of the 17th Century, including Dr. Packer himself of course, had good reason to abandon supralapsarianism. Dr. Packer once complained that Louis Berkhof's rejection of supralapsarianism in his Systematic Theology is way too soft. In contrast, my Princetonian teacher, George Hunsinger, prefers supra- over infralapsarianism. This is just to clarify some possible speculation about where I got my lapsarian position. The majority of Barthians are supralapsarian, while the majority of orthodox Reformed theologians after the second half of the 17th Century are infralapsarian. I just wanted to make sure that nobody would make the silly move of suspecting on account of my infralapsarian position that I am leaning towards Barthianism. (Oh yeah, and that derogatory term so easily misused and abused in Chinese Reformed circles--"Hyper-Calvinism"--actually refers to supralapsarians instead of mean and intolerant Calvinists; see L. Boettner, The Reformed Doctrine of Predestination).

On a different note, it appears to me that appealing to Reymond might not be the best way to understand the lapsarian controversy. Sure I am aware that Romans 9 is important in the lapsarian debate, but my paper was on systematic theology and not exegesis. If someone is interested in the centrality of Romans 9 in the historical developments of the lapsarian controversy, John Fesko's ThM thesis at RTS and PhD dissertation at Edinburgh are the most thorough references I have yet seen. For a brief but accurate presentation on the controversy, Loraine Boettner's all-time classic on Predestination is recommended. (Boettner bashes supralapsarianism violently).

Alex Tseng said...

(continued from the last post)

About the role of Christ in classical Reformed lapsarianism, Turretin bluntly states in his Institutes that "Christ is not the foundation of election" (see my response to David Chen's paper). I have not read anything significant in classical Reformed literature that places Christ at the center of any lapsarian scheme. I, with textual support (e.g. Turretin) in my ThM thesis, still maintain that Owen's Christological treatment of election was unheard-of in his time.
If anyone wishes to claim the contrary, I would appreciate some textual evidence.

Gordon Clark is cool, but I am a Van Tilian. It's fair to say that Barth confuses, but I think the same ratio of readers get confused by Van Til as the readers of Barth. We have to be careful when we label an author as "confusing." Sure there's some truth to the saying that "there are as many Barths as there are Barthians." I witnessed it at Princeton Seminary myself: Each one of those world-renown Barth scholars at Princeton--Hunsinger, MacCormack, Migliore, Stacey Johnson, etc.--has a different take on Barth, and the chief representatives of the two camps in the biggest debate in Karl Barth studies today both reside in Princeton. I go with Dr. Hunsinger's take on Barth, and that means I do think that there is a correct interpretation of Barth after all.

Does Barth contribute anything new, be it positive or negative? If not, then why would some of the top Evangelical scholars today (M. Horton, P. Helm, etc.) bother to collaborate in publishing a volume to "engage with Barth"? That is, if Barth's so-called "neo-orthodoxy" were not neo, why would there be so much bashing on Barth from our camp that claims to be truly orthodox? To say that Barth contributes nothing new seems to me to be an emotional dismissal of a very innovative theologian. Even though people in our camp would see him as an opponent, we should at least be responsible enough to recognize him as a formidable opponent.

Back to Joel: Sure my interpretation of Owen can be wrong, but I won't be convinced that it is wrong unless my reviewer can back up his criticism with textual support from Owen's original writings. Dr. Packer did not think my take on Owen was wrong when I submitted my 50-page paper on Owen's lapsarianism to him. He responded enthusiastically instead.

On a different topic, if anyone thinks that my discomfort with the "good pleasure" language is a move away from mainline Reformed theology, let him be reminded of Bavinck's critique on this notion. Bavinck certainly was not the only orthodox Reformed theologian who disliked that language. By the way, on a lighter note, our grandpa Stephen Tong said in 2003 at the Reformed Institute in New York that this "good pleasure" language shows that the Westminster Standards are not inspired by the Holy Spirit after all. I'm not appealing to Papa Tong as an academic authority, but I think there's truth to what he said.

Finally, on that touchy phrase with which I presented Owen's view, "God rejected those who reject Jesus Christ." Mark my footnote to that sentence: "Of course, 'no one who speaks by the Spirit of God says, “Jesus be cursed,” and no one can say, “Jesus is Lord,” except by the Holy Spirit' (1 Cor. 12:3)." No, I am not an Arminian, nor do I subscribe to hypothetical universalism. Christ died for the elect and the elect only--that's the central point in Owen's Death of Death and that's my conviction as well. How this conviction is to be reconciled to that touchy phrase above would be impossible to understand with an analytical mode of thought. (Our dear mentor-friend Dr. Stephen Chan amusingly said to me once that this word "analytical" should be taken as a dirty word when he says it).