Karl Barth’s (basically) Infralapsarian Theology: A Review Article

There can be no Christian truth which does not, from the very first, contain within itself as its basis the fact that from and to all eternity God is the electing God. There can be no tenet of Christian doctrine which, if it is to be a Christian tenet, does not reflect both in form and content this divine electing. … There is no height or depth in which God can be God in any other way” (CD II/2, p. 77).


Karl Barth’s theology defies glib appropriations. One could say, Dr. Shao Kai Tseng’s book, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology,[1] highlights how complex and layered Barth’s lapsarian theology really is. Does Tseng really intend on overturning what has been generally accepted as a truism in Barth studies,[2] namely, that Karl Barth was a Supralapsarian? Dr. Tseng marshals an impressive amount of evidence for this claim (evidence spanning from Romerbrief II through CD IV/1), and even offers a painstaking survey of the Reformed lapsarian debates as he argues that Barth inadvertently went astray at a few key points.

In the following review article I will trace out Tseng’s central argument (that Karl Barth holds to an essentially Infralapsarian view of the object of predestination with Supralapsarian elements) and, in my conclusion, offer an appraisal of the tenability of Tseng’s conclusion. Overall Tseng’s work deserves to be commended. His contribution to the Trinity debate, in Barth scholarship, is interesting to say the least. And while I disagree with some of his moves, I doubt many will find fault with the breadth of Tseng’s research. It is for that reason alone that I believe George Hunsinger may be right that Tseng’s contribution in the present volume will prove to be a lasting one.

Because Tseng’s work is so comprehensive, an adequate summary of the contents of this book would prove to be taxing on the patience of any reader. For that reason I will only offer a detailed summary of few sections, offering a cursory summary of others. I will be looking at chapters 1–2 because they contain the definitions and history necessary to understand the complex discussions that take place in chapters 3–8. I will then conclude with some critical remarks.

Chapter 1: Definitions

This section of the book came as an unexpected treat. Tseng carefully and clearly delineates the differences between the Infralapsarian and Supralapsarian camps in a way that prepares the reader to properly assess Barth’s own read on the tradition. The historiographical work in this chapter will no doubt draw many disparate readers.

The Lapsarian debates of the Reformation and Post-Reformation periods are not always easy to follow. Tseng comments, “The lapsarian controversy was essentially a theodicy inquiry” (Tseng, 47). The question being, how are we to understand God’s relationship to the “eternal decrees of double predestination, creation and permission of the fall” (Ibid.), in light of a commitment to His sovereignty and holiness? The search for an answer among the Reformed and Post-Reformed theologians is exacerbated by the variety of positions held.

To begin with, both Infra and Supralapsarian schools agree “that all humankind’s actual fall in history was eternally decreed by God, thus Adam’s sin was part of God’s eternal plan rather than a surprise to God” (Tseng, 48). The difference between the two positions lay in their placement of the Fall with regards to the decree of election. In other words, for the Supralapsarian “humankind’s fall presupposes election and reprobation” whereas for the Infralapsarian “election and reprobation presuppose the divine decree of the Fall” (Ibid.). So the truly distinguishing aspect of the two camps is their conception how they answer the question, “who is the object of [God’s] predestination [obiectum praedestinationis]?” (Ibid.) For the Infralapsarian, the obiectum is fallen humanity, while for the Supralapsarian the obiectum is unfallen humanity.

Tseng helpfully notes that these definitions (man as obiectum praedestinationis) do not refer to “humans in created actuality” but to “God’s eternal conception of the object of predestination” (Tseng, 53). Therefore, the decree does not come as a response to human sin on the Infralapsarian account. Tseng explains, “God’s foresight, Quodam-modo [in a certain respect], is strictly within God’s eternal predestination. … [Man as fallen] is strictly God’s eternal conception of the object of election-reprobation in God’s mind” (Tseng, 54).

Predictably, the differing conceptions of the object of predestination leads to a different “ordo decretorum” (order of decrees). For the Infralapsarian, the decree to create precedes the decree of the Fall of mankind. For the Supralapsarian, the decrees of election and reprobation precede even the decree to create.

These basic categories are employed throughout the book as Tseng, in meticulous detail, charts Barth’s theological development. Barth’s appropriation of elements from both Infra- and Supralapsarianism is complex and at times difficult to follow, but Tseng serves as a reliable guide, having himself trod the well worn paths of Barth’s major theological works. But he doesn’t stick merely to the old paths—he does seek to make a significant (though not earth shattering) adjustment, arguing that Barth is basically an Infralapsarian. He then attempts to bring this insight to bear in the current debate (which has cooled significantly) over the relationship between Trinity and election in Barth’s theology.

Chapter 2: Barth’s Lapsarian Position Reassessed

Barth’s extended footnote in CD II/2 §33 contains a lengthy engagement with the Reformed lapsarian debates. Tseng summarizes Barth’s position as Supralapsarian with regard to the ordo decretorum, but not with regard to the obiectum, which he conceives to be unfallen (Tseng, 63). He even candidly remarks, “as far as the object of election is concerned, it would be fair to say that he [Barth] is basically though not simply infralapsarian” (Tseng, 62).

While the Supra/infralapsarian controversy may retain some room for conversation within Barth studies, one thing is undisputed: Barth had no place for a decretum absolutum or any decree that is located outside of the decree of God to be for humanity in Christ. But, as is well known, Barth is unwilling to totally jettison the idea of double predestination. The problem with both lapsarian camps, for Barth, was their inchoate natural theology. Barth’s solution is to absorb supralapsarianism and recalibrate it along Christological lines. “In a nutshell, Barth’s mature understanding of double-predestination is that election is in Christ—it is by him and with him” (Tseng, 64).

This leads Barth to adopt a (basically) supralapsarian position (with regards to the ordo), due to the “teleological priority of election-reprobation over all other divine decrees,” that exists at the very center of supralapsarianism (Tseng, 65). In other words, Barth adopts Supralapsarianism (with the intent to recalibrate/purify it) because “[e]lection is the sum of the Gospel” (CD II/2, 3).

Throughout this chapter, Tseng identifies several weak points and inaccuracies in Barth’s understanding of the Reformed lapsarian positions. But most interesting is his handling of John Owen’s own flavor of infralapsarianism. Briefly, Owen holds to a sort of Christological infralapsarianism whereby, “all the decrees are centered on God’s works in Christ [so] that predestination is designed to manifest God’s self-giving glory in the incarnate Son” (Tseng, 73). One of Tseng’s most interesting contributions is his bringing Barth and the English Puritans into conversation with one another.

Tseng also engages contemporary interpretations of Barth, particularly that of Edwin Van Driel who argues that “since election on Barth’s view is God’s decision to become incarnate, Barth’s doctrine of election is also supralapsarian” (Tseng, 75). Van Driel suggests a sort of Christological supralapsarianism in which “God had motives to become incarnate that were not contingent upon sin” (Tseng, 74–75). The problem with this view, according to Tseng, is it fails to yield sufficient attention to the infralapsarian elements of Barth’s theology. In other words, Van Driel’s interpretation is not sufficiently dialectical in that it does not recognize that election in Christ presupposes sin, but sin could not exist apart from God’s decision to elect in Christ (Tseng, 76).

While Tseng wishes to argue vigorously for the basically infralapsarian character of Barth’s doctrine of election, he carefully sets up a couple of provisos: First, Barth’s infralapsarianism is closer to supralapsarianism to the extent that it places an “emphasis on the teleological priority of election-in-Christ is closer to supralapsarianism” (Tseng, 79), and second, “[w]ith regard to the obiectum praedestinationis, Barth is also not simply infralapsarian, because he identifies Christ, who is without sin in himself, as the proper object of election; sinful humanity becomes the object of election only by partaking of Christ” (Tseng, 79). What Tseng is trying to avoid is any undialectical, straightforward assertion that fails to do justice to the complexity of Barth’s dialectical theology.

Chapter 3: merbrief II

This possibility, described with the most paradoxical expression ‘impossible-possibility,’ is conceived as something foreign to the reality of the world, an alien power whose potency can in no way derive from the energy (as the Greeks called reality) of the world; it is indeed impossible within the context of the world” (Jungel, Karl Barth: A Theological Legacy, 66).

The second edition of Barth’s Romans commentary was the “clearing away of debris (aufraumungsarbeit)” (McCormack, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936, 245) created by the publication of the first edition in 1918. And as anyone who’s ever made an attempt on the Römerbrief knows, Barth’s writing style can be frustrating to follow. Barth’s form was “expressionistic” and “Kierkegaardian,” often “indirect,” not intending “to convince the reader of an argument as it does to clear away obstacles to the Spirit’s work of making her to be a witness to the truth” (McCormack, Critically Realistic, 243).

In this chapter Tseng argues that this stage of Barth’s theological development bears evidence of a lean towards infralapsarianism. While Barth’s doctrine of election could still be described as basically Supralapsarian, the infralapsarian elements are undeniably present. This infralapsarian trajectory is made possible by the “impossible-possiblity” dialectic that holds together the theology of Romans II (Tseng, 86).

To guide the reader, Tsung notes “[s]even impossible possibilities,” human impossibilities which are overcome by the gracious act of God in the “process of Aufhebung[3]” (Tseng, 87). These impossibilities do not correspond to man’s sin, but to “God and God’s act” (Tseng, 88). It is revelation rendered subjectively impossible by the Fall that must be overcome. Tseng explains, “Given that God has revealed Godself to enable human knowledge of God, what is it that made this impossibility possible?”[4] (Tseng, 88). That is to say, man as sinner cannot know God. Sin has destroyed the immediacy with God enjoyed by our prelapsarian parents. Sin brought death and death brought time. We have passed from Creation[5] (unfallen) to world (fallen), and the result was a profound noetic rupture (Tseng, 90).[6]

But Barth, as we noted earlier, presupposes the possibility of revelation. Or more precisely, he understands revelation not as “an uncritical, straightforward possibility,” but as an “impossible made possible and yet remaining impossible in this world” (Tseng, 89).[7] Mankind in its unfallen state had no need of revelation because “human knowledge of God was immediate because God was directly intuitable to humanity [emphasis mine]” (Tseng, 90). This state is designated by Barth as “Creation,” which as such is “beyond our observation” (Ibid.). Therefore, revelation, “the event central to which is God’s act of election” necessitates an understanding of mankind as Fallen (Tseng, 89). Now the infralapsarian elements become a bit clearer. The “impossible-possible” dialectic presupposes a fallen world and humanity (Tseng, 91). If revelation presupposes a fallen humanity, and election is at the center of revelation, election for Barth must presuppose (at this phase of his development) a fallen humanity.

Given the thesis of this book, the 7th “impossible-possibility,” namely election, is of particular interest. The decree of election (not a hidden “decretum absolutum”) originates in the freedom of God, so that “an individuals faith or unbelief depends entirely on God’s sovereign decision” (Tseng, 103). But for Barth, election is the overcoming of temporality, not for some, but for all. Double predestination therefore refers to humanity en toto. This means, election is predicated upon the rejection (reprobation) of mankind. Tseng notes, the reprobation/election dialectic corresponds to the faith/unbelief of all mankind. He explains, “[Barth’s] predestinarian thinking on this level is clearly supralapsarian: ‘election in Christ’ precedes ‘the divine predestination of men to destruction,’ and it is for the purpose of election that God predestined the fall” (Tseng, 106). Humanity is, in pre-temporal eternity, rejected (reprobated) for the sake of election. But as Tseng again notes, “Barth’s formulation of double predestination on the present-actualistic level does not fit neatly into any lapsarian theory of Reformed theology, even in the minimalist sense” (Tseng, 107). With this in mind Tseng argues that Barth still had infralapsarian “patterns of thought” (Ibid.) present during this phase of his theological development. These patterns are most clearly manifested in the “impossible-possibility” dialectic, which in and of itself is not enough to overcome the supralapsarian elements.[8]

Chapter 4: The Göttingen-Münster Period

After the publication of the Römerbrief Barth was called to Göttingen to serve as the professor of Reformed theology, but it is at Göttingen that Barth encountered Reformed orthodoxy and discovered the “pneumatological ordo salutis” as well as the “anhypostaticenhypostatic” distinctions (Tseng, 114–115). These two breakthroughs had a significant impact on Barth’s doctrine of revelation. The pneumatological insights culled were used to formulate a doctrine of revelation that simultaneously affirms its (revelation’s) possibility with God and impossibility with man. It is a “pneumatologically charged” doctrine of revelation (Tseng, 116.) These Christological and pneumatological discoveries will shape Barth’s understanding of the objective and subjective possibilities of revelation.

During this period, Barth produced a significant work entitled the Göttingen Dogmatics [GD], and while there is sharp discontinuity between the GD and the Römerbrief, there is some continuity as well. This continuity is particularly noticeable, according to Tseng, in the assumption of the givenness of revelation, that is, as an “a posteriori given” (Tseng, 122). In other words, the consideration of the possibility of revelation presupposes the reality of revelation (Ibid.). Tseng explains, “For Barth the central significance of the enhypostaticanhypostatic union is again epistemological: it is the only way in which revelation is possible” (Tseng, 126). The impossible-possibility dialectic is replaced with the question, how do we encounter God without ceasing to be human (temporal) and how does God reveal Himself without ceasing to be who He is (eternal)? The answer is found in the union of eternity and temporality in the Incarnation. This means, Barth’s Christology at this stage is not “primarily soteriological” (Tseng, 127), but is intended to bridge the “epistemological gap” caused by sin, that exists between God and humankind (Ibid.). This implies that the Incarnation was a response to the Fall. Tseng explains, “God’s decision to become incarnate logically follows God’s decision to reverse the fall, thus his Christology during this period leans very clearly toward infralapsarianism, even more so than in his mature Christocentric doctrine of election, in which he claims that Christ eternally incarnandus is the beginning of all God’s ways and works” (Tseng, 128).

In addition to the retrieval of a two nature Christology, Barth acquired (from Calvin and the Reformed orthodox) the “notion of faith as the Holy Spirit’s work to effect the subjective possibility [of revelation]” (Tseng, 130). This entails an understanding of humanity as fallen and thus incapable of discerning or responding to the Gospel. The inward work (call) of the Holy Spirit, however, makes the saving response of faith and obedience possible. For Barth, this means, the Holy Spirit ensures that revelation is not only objectively possible but subjectively possible as well (Tseng, 131). “A sinner has no choice between faith and unbelief apart from God since unbelief is inherent to fallen humanity” (Tseng, 134). This means, both belief and unbelief are grounded in God’s veiling and unveiling (McCormack, Critically Realistic, 250) and so are only conceivable with reference to God’s free decision to conceal and reveal (Tseng, 135). This move by Barth involves a shift towards an actualistic doctrine of predestination, whereby, God’s decree of election is understood to occur in eternity, with eternity understood as “eternity in actuality” (Tseng, 136). Now this has some import for Tseng’s thesis, in that, Barth’s infralapsarian argument only applies to God’s eternal decretive will insofar as it is “manifested in present actualities” (Tseng, 141); it does not speak to a static (as Barth would understand it) conception of election and reprobation before the foundation of the world” (Ibid.). In other words, God’s will to overcome sin is the sole foundation for the Incarnation, which clearly leans in the direction of infralapsarianism.

Chapter 5: The Bonn Years

In chapter 5 Tseng examines Barth’s Christology and doctrine of predestination in light of Bruce McCormack’s magisterial work, Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936. The first half of the chapter includes a brief summary and exposition of McCormack’s thesis[9] and exposition of Barth’s work, Anselm: Fides  Querns Intellectum. The second half of the chapter is dedicated to CD I/1–2. In the first half Tseng argues that Barth’s work on Anselm is “generally unconcerned with the lapsarian question” (Tseng, 149). The second half argues that Barth’s doctrine of election in CDI/1 continues to move in an infralapsarian direction (Tseng, 163).

According to Tseng, CD I/1 “is the opus that best represents Barth’s theology in 1930–1935” for it is during this period that he hones in on “the Word of God itself (rather than the subjective-objective distinction),” which causes Barth’s doctrines of “Christology and predestination” to “become much more closely interwoven” (Tseng, 160). Furthermore, it is in the context of CD I/1 that we see a shift in emphasis for Barth. Now the emphasis lay in answering the question, “How can theology as human talk be truly talk about God?” (Tseng, 163). Barth answers, it is only possible “on the basis of divine election” (Tseng, 164). Election makes this speech possible insofar as “God Himself acts towards men” (Tseng, 165) and so gathers men and women into the Church. The act of election is accomplished by the Holy Spirit when God creates what is lacking in man (a relationship with his creator) via “His own presence in that creature” so that God in man establishes the divine relationship. God is therefore “the life of the creature” (CD I/1, 450; Tseng, 165). This is the work of election. God makes man capable and willing to receive revelation by creating faith in man, closing any gap between revelation and reconciliation (Tseng, 167). Tseng argues that this indicates an infralapsarian leaning in that the word of God itself (revelation/reconciliation) assumes the supposition of man’s sinfulness (Ibid.).

Tseng also appeals to Barth’s famous threefold distinction of the Word of God,[10] in particular the word as “proclaimed” (Tseng, 167), as additional evidence of a basically infralapsarian orientation. “Proclamation and the church are earthly media that are inherently secular because believers are sinners” (Ibid.). Scripture is indirect and secular, only becoming revelation through God’s gracious act. Revelation is the logos ensarkos (Tseng, 169). Revelation is incarnation for it bridges the gap between God and man, restoring a once-lost immediacy (Ibid.). And so, according to Tseng, Barth’s basically infralapsarian bent surfaces in the form of the “infralapsarian orientation of Barth’s Christology.” He explains, “God’s will to become incarnate presupposes God’s intention to confront humanity’s sin, without which God’s speech to humanity would have been direct, and the Word incarnate would not have been necessary for human knowledge of God” (Tseng, 171).

Chapter 6: Gottes Gnadenwahl

Gottes Gnadenwahl” (God’s gracious election) was understood by Bruce McCormack to signal the decisive shift[11] in Barth’s doctrine of election, but as Tseng points out, McCormack adjusts his thesis a bit, indicating the change “was not immediate but gradual” (Tseng, 177). Tseng’s own contribution includes an examination of “the marriage of Christology and predestination in Gottes Gnadenwahl – the decisively new idea – in relation to Barth’s lapsarian treatment of the two doctrines” (Tseng, 179). Basically, Tseng sets forth a very in depth read of Gottes Gnadenwahl in which he argues that reprobation and election must be understood as mutually interdependent ideas, “in election the purpose and rationality of reprobation are fulfilled and preserved” (Tseng, 202).

In short, in this chapter Tseng demonstrates how Barth’s “Christology and doctrine of election converge throughout his treatment of the reprobation and election of all humankind in Christ as a process of Aufhebung” (Tseng, 210). In other words, in the event of the Incarnation, God becomes human without ceasing to be God and endures reprobation vicariously for all humanity so that all may be elect in Christ (Tseng, 211). This is God’s “act of election.” Obviously, this “act of election” presupposes a fallen humanity. Tseng explains, in “speaking of God as being-in-act, [Barth] begins not with the immanent Trinity, but with the particular person and work of Christ as God’s act of election, which mediates and reveals God to sinners, and since this act of election is to take care of the problem of sin, it carries a deeply infralapsarian aspect” (Tseng, 211).

Chapter 7: CD II/2

What becomes increasingly apparent in this important chapter of Tseng’s work, is a motivation of Barth’s that drove his revision of the classical Reformed categories of “infra” and “supralapsarianism.” By applying a radically actualistic Christocentrism to his doctrine of election, Barth is seeking to jettison any vestige of (what he considers) caprice in the counsel of God (Tseng, 234). This is, in part what led Barth to abolish the decretum absolutum[12] of Reformed orthodoxy in favor of a doctrine of the Incarnation in which God is wholly revealed as being eternally Deus pro nobis, “the One who loves in freedom” (CD II/2, 3).

It is in the second half volume of the Church Dogmatics that Barth finally puts to paper his famous statement that Jesus Christ “is both the electing God and the elected man in One” (CD II/2, 3). Tseng explains, “Since the incarnate one, who is the electing decree of God, is himself the electing God, to know Jesus is to know the God who elects” (Tseng, 215). Not only do we know the electing God solely through Christ, “human beings are united to Christ on the basis of their consubstantiality with Christ” (Ibid.).[13] But even in His act of election, according to Tseng, God remains in Himself immutably and eternally what He “is in [His] eternal trinitarian act ad intra” (Tseng, 216).

From the outset Tseng has rightly argued that Barth sought to free the love of God from an “arbitrary” hidden decree. Tseng argues that for Barth, God’s love is founded upon His eternal Triunity and aseity. “God’s covenantal love [with mankind] perfectly corresponds to the intratrinitarian love between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and this love draws the creature into union with God in Christ” (Tseng, 219). In other words, according to Tseng, God’s ability to love the creature in freedom is a possibility only because of His aseity (Tseng, 217), though we have no access to this idea of God in Himself abstracted from His sovereign decision to be for mankind (Tseng, 218). Tseng notes, this understanding of God’s freedom implies a freedom even from aseity (Tseng, 219). This lack of constraint is what allows God to be for mankind. Additionally, it means that even in God’s decision to take the form of a servant, He still remains “utterly free” (Ibid.). So on this understanding, Deus pro nobis is understood as an act of “self-determination” not “self-constitution” (Tseng, 220).

All of these considerations touch upon Barth’s lapsarian thinking to the extent that Barth understood Incarnation to serve “the purpose of God’s will to seek and create fellowship with the creature” (Tseng, 224). At face-value this would seem to be supralapsarian (unfallen humanity as the object of predestination), but there is more: “this seeking and creating of fellowship already began with creation, and the incarnation, which is for the ‘reconciliation of fallen man,’ is not a continuation but a supersession of the work of creation” (Ibid.). The humanity sought by God is fallen, which indicates a lean towards infralapsarianism.

If we’re to follow Barth as he seeks to purge his doctrine of election of any vestige of arbitrariness or abstract speculation, we are to, according to Tseng, understand Christ Himself to be the “loving covenant with humankind” (Tseng, 225). The concrete expression of God’s love for us, and the “immutable decree” that so determines His being that “He could not be God without it” (Tseng, 226). To say it another way, God could not act “apart from Christ the God man-proleptically present in pretemporal eternity by virtue of divine election to be the beginning of all God’s ways and works” (Ibid.). So Christ is the decree of election, but He is also the electing God (Subject) and elected humanity (Object). But the truly revolutionary nature of this formulation is in, according to Tseng, “Barth’s identification of Jesus Christ as electing God” as it applies not only to the Logos asarkos, but to the “Incarnate God-man” (Logos incarnatus) who is “the beginning of all God’s ways and works from and to all eternity” (Tseng, 227).

By using the concept of prolepsis, Tseng (following Hunsinger) argues for an “abiding distinction between Christ’s two natures and thus the subject and object of election in the Person of Christ” (Tseng, 228). And just as Jesus as electing God signaled a significant re-calibration of Reformed Christianity, so does the formulation of Christ as “object of election” represent a dramatic shift as this entails “that the Son of God, and not merely the human Jesus, is the object of election” (Ibid.).

Returning again to the matter of Barth’s lapsarian thinking, Tseng notes that Barth’s Christological formulation reflects a pull towards infralapsarianism with regards to “the logical relations between election and creation” (Ibid.). For election, in this instance, involves the union of humanity with Christ with reference to creation, contra to the supralapsarian position “that election does not presuppose God’s decree of creation” (Tseng, 229). Tseng goes on to argue, along these lines that, “election-in-Christ includes within itself reprobation and judgement” (Tseng, 230). In one sense, Christ is the only reprobate man, but in another sense by way of humanity’s participation in Christ, “the reprobation that Christ alone suffered also applies to all humankind that is in Him” (Tseng, 231). So election was for the purpose of “negating humanity’s sin that negates God” (Tseng, 232). This process of Aufhebung is basically infralapsarian in structure as it envisages humanity’s sin as that which is to be overcome via election. (Ibid.) That said, there is also a supralapsarian aspect present in that “reprobation serves the purpose of election” (Ibid.). To say it another way, “God’s Yes-because it is Aufhebung – presupposes God’s No” (Tseng, 234).

Given this inner tension in Barth’s lapsarian theology, Tseng turns to answer the question: What is meant by “purified” supralapsarianism? (Tseng, 234–235). In short, Barth’s fear is that an “order of decrees” that is composed based on the economy of salvation will leave room for natural theology (Tseng, 235). Tseng contends that Barth mistakenly identified this incipient natural theology in infralapsarianism but not in supralapsarianism which he believed would “[allow] him to seek to know all God’s ways and works as finding their beginning in the election of Jesus Christ” (Ibid.). To say it another way, Barth “purifies” supralapsarianism by re-calibrating it along actualistic Christological lines: “Barth’s solution is that instead of considering election and its object in abstracto as he thinks Reformed orthodoxy does, he insists on treating them in concreto, which for him means in Christo” (Tseng, 237).

Tseng concludes this chapter with an important guiding observation, “Even with regard to the obiectum, however, Barth’s basic lapsarian thesis does not resonate with infralapsarianism in any simple way [emphasis mine]: for him the object of election is first and finally Jesus Christ, who is in himself without sin and became sin for us only by imputation and participation. Sinful humanity is the object of election only by participation in Christ” (Tseng, 240). This sentence is important for a few reasons, but most notably, for its implied hermeneutic. Barth defies formalism. By this I simply mean, Barth defies straightforward categorizations. This is made abundantly clear by Tseng throughout the entirety of his book, and it is in my opinion, one of the great strengths of the work. It presents a forthright argument that seeks to do justice to the complexity and dialectical nature and development of Barth’s theology.

Chapter 8: CD IV/1

“[T]he Trinity-election debate in recent Barth scholarship reflects at least a certain tension in Barth’s own theology.” (Tseng, 280)

For many, chapter 8 will prove to be the most engaging (and frankly enjoyable) section of this book as Tseng has reserved most of his critical remarks of the McCormack proposal for this chapter. Tseng’s approach differs slightly, however, from much of the contemporary secondary literature. Tseng explains, “While much secondary literature has been written on the Christology of §59 [“The Obedience of the Son of God”] in recent years, this chapter focuses instead on §60 in order to gain an understanding of the Christological doctrine of election underlying Barth’s development of the notion of human sin and fallenness” (Tseng, 242–43).

Working from Barth’s Christocentric doctrine of sin, Tseng argues that God’s response to sin “presupposes a basically infralapsarian Christology” (Tseng, 243), but equally as important, Tseng lays out Barth’s understanding of “sin” and “fallen humanity” and why it bears out his claim that Barth leans in a basically infralapsarian direction. He explains, for Barth, knowledge of Christ presupposes knowledge of sin (Ibid.), and our sin can only be understood in light of Christ’s obedience. Quoting R. Scott Rodin, “God did not positively will the fall…, but in His eternal election of Jesus Christ…the Fall is fully assumed as the state of humanity” (Tseng, 244). The infralapsarian contours are obvious. To borrow Barth’s own words, “Access to the knowledge that [man] is a sinner is lacking to man because he is a sinner” (CD IV/1, 360–361). Therefore, knowledge of sin and all that it implies is inextricably Christological (Tseng, 245), if it is to be possible at all. But even more fundamental, with regards to sin itself (according to Barth), is God’s lordship over sin in Christ, whereby God “impressed” sin into His service (while simultaneously rejecting it as an instrument), “contrary to its own nature” so that it “became necessarily an instrument of the divine triumph” (Tseng, 246). Tseng goes on to explain, “Nothingness ‘is not’- it negates God and creation – because God has negated it. Nothingness exists precisely because of God’s absolute rejection and could not have existed apart from God’s ‘nonwilling.’Paradoxically this divine nonwilling becomes the ground whereupon nothingness exists … God rejects nothingness absolutely, and only in rejecting it does God permit it” (Tseng, 246–47; emphasis mine) This understanding of sin as paradoxical and absurd (CD IV/1, 410) undergirds the rest of Barth’s harmartiology. (Tseng, 247) But the question remains, from whence came sin? Barth’s answer, according to Tseng, “It has no basis” or to marshal an earlier concept, it is an “impossible possibility” (Ibid.).[14]

Returning again to the question of Barth’s lapsarian orientation, it is worth noting that for Barth God is fulfilled in the incarnation, that is, “in His act of choosing to be God with us … in the act of election God has eternally negated humankind’s sin by the incarnation” (Tseng, 248). Tseng explains, “The incarnation fulfills the concept of God because by the incarnation God rejects that which negates God and God’s covenant partner, and remains true to God’s absolute perfection.” (Ibid.) The incarnation, for Barth, was for the purpose of overcoming sin, as the “Aufhebung of reprobation presupposes the sin of all humankind communicated to Christ” (Tsung, 249).[15]

By the end of the first half of the chapter, Tseng argues that the “Christ-Adam relation is basically infralapsarian in both the Christological and predestinarian senses” (Tseng, 269). That is, election in Christ and the Incarnation as “drawing Adam’s fallen race into participatio Christi” (Ibid.), each point to a basically infralapsarian priority in Barth’s theology.

Tseng asks the question, “How much and which aspects, if any, of traditional substantialist ontology” does Barth retain in his “historicized Christology”? (Tseng, 270). His primary conversation partners in this second half of chapter 8 are Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, Paul Nimmo, and Paul Dafyyd Jones. His interactions in this chapter track fairly closely with what has been called the “traditionalist”[16] camp in Barth studies as he argues that Barth’s “antimetaphysical impulse” did not necessarily lead to the wholesale rejection of the substantialistic metaphysics found in the Chalcedonian Creed (Tseng, 270). He argues instead, with Hunsinger, that Chalcedon served as a regulative framework for Barth as he worked out his Christocentric actualism (Tseng, 271).

Tseng argues that Barth’s continued use of the term “nature”, even as late as CD IV/1, is evidence that he preserved at least certain aspects of substance metaphysics, which in turn even preserves such critical points as the Creator-creature distinction (Tseng, 271–72). Tseng comments, “It would be erroneous to think that Barth would simply reject or redefine everything in substantialist ontology and classical theism in constructing some modern sort of ‘ontology’” (Tseng, 273).[17]

Tseng turns his attention specifically to McCormack’s proposal that “election-Incarnation constitutes God’s triune being: The Trinity is a function of and logically follows God’s decision to be incarnate” (Tseng, 274). This proposal, according to Tseng, “raises some difficult questions when we take into account what Barth has said about history” (Ibid.). But even more interesting, the difficulties notwithstanding, McCormack’s historicized Christology does seem to lean in an infralapsarian direction as “the incarnation is necessarily bound up with fallen history” (Tseng, 275). So that, “God’s electing grace could not have been apart from or without regard to the Fallen Adamic history that has been taken up into Christ and in which Christ participates” (Tseng, 276).

Tseng admits that those who hold to the “traditionalist” position in the Trinity-election debate may feel the pull of Christological Supralapsarianism (Tseng, 276–77) The problem is, as Tseng again recognizes, “if the covenant partner to whom God has pledged faithfulness, the obiectum praedestinationis, is sinful humankind – homo lapsus – would this not imply that by incarnation God actually took sin into God’s very own being-in-act? Does the incarnation not make the Son of God a sinner and a reprobate?” (Tseng, 277). Tseng finds the solution to this problem in positing a fully self-existent Trinity prior to the act of election, making election a free act (Ibid.). Furthermore, given the amount of evidence amassed in favor of his central thesis, Tseng concludes that election and incarnation must “presuppose the fallenness of humanity” (Tseng, 278).

In the final subsection of this chapter, Tseng offers a response to Paul Dafydd Jones’ work, The Humanity of Christ: Christology in Karl Barth’s Church Dogmatics. While Tseng finds much to praise in Jones’ work, he does take issue with Jones’ dismissal of the term “nature” in Barth’s mature Christology (Tseng, 282). Tseng agrees with Hunsinger, that the central problem with Jones’ thesis is a historicization of God’s being that leads to the “contingent” properties of God modifying the “non-contingent” along with a historicization of “Christ’s human nature in much the same way as to render the notion of nature completely meaningless on its own apart from the notions of history and act” (Tseng, 283). He then goes on to criticize Jones for not interacting with §60 of the CD “The Pride and Fall of man” (CD IV/1, 358–478) and for failing to strike out a via media between a radically anti-metaphysical Barth and a qualified substantialist Barth (Tseng, 285), but positively, he recognizes that on Jones’ read of Barth, humanity’s sinfulness is presupposed in the act of election (Tseng, 286). Again, the infralapsarian orientation is obvious.


In his conclusion to this fine work, Tseng comments that the lapsarian problem is not some relic of arid scholasticism,[18] but has profound implications for the life of Christ’s Church as “it struggles with the perplexing reality of humankind’s fallenness in light of God’s universal sovereignty and immutable holiness” (Tseng, 295). This sentiment will likely deeply resonate with many who’re not content with the current state of much of evangelical theology. As a non-Barthian myself, I appreciated this book and the questions it raised. Not simply for the challenges it raises to my reading of Karl Barth, but for the challenges it raises to my understanding of what it means that “He chose us in Him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love He predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of His will, to the praise of His glorious grace, with which He has blessed us in the Beloved” (Eph. 1:4–5).

This is a densely argued and extremely detailed book. If you’re looking for a guide to help you work through some of Barth’s major works, this book may prove helpful. Tseng’s central thesis is also very interesting and provocative to say the least. And though Tseng does soften it a bit at the outset (Barth’s theology is only basically infralapsarian) the careful distinctions he introduces along the way are helpful in parsing out the trajectory of Barth’s theological development. Additionally this book will be of interest not only to those already invested in the study of Barth’s theology, but also for those who’re interested in the history of the lapidarian debates—they will find much to chew on in the first part of Tseng’s work.

But most interesting, to me at least, is the polemical edge this work has as it is an important foray into the Trinity-election debate in Barth circles. And while I don’t agree with all of his conclusions, particularly as he brings them to bear on the present discussion, he does make some interesting arguments that need to be engaged. While this book may not change the landscape of Barth studies, it will no doubt be a lasting contribution for the simple fact that Tseng is so comprehensive in his exposition of Barth’s theology, and detailed in his outlining of one of the “chief factors” driving Barth’s theological development.

[1] Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920–1953 (Downer’s Grove: IVP Academic, 2016).

[2] It is clear from his own historical work in the Church Dogmatics (particularly in CD II/2, 127–145) that Barth had no intention of merely receiving the title “Supralapsarian.”

[3] The matter of how one ought to translate “Aufhebung” is notoriously difficult. Garrett Green has argued that Aufhebung be rendered as “sublimation” though even that translation brings with it certain difficulties (see Karl Barth, On Religion: The Revelation of God as the Sublimation of Religion, trans. Garret Green [New York: Continuum, 2006] vii-xi, 1–29).

[4] McCormack in his Karl Barth’s Critically Realistic Dialectical Theology: Its Genesis and Development 1909–1936 is particularly helpful. He remarks, “But for God to be known, in the sense that He’s possessable by His revelation, is impossible. For in that moment He would cease to be Lord over His revelation, He would cease to be God. In other words, “Revelation must remain distinct from its medium” (McCormack, 249). Therefore, God can only be known only indirectly (Ibid.). “He hides Himself and remains hidden in the medium of revelation” (Ibid.). The act by which the veil of revelation is lifted is the “impossible possibility.” It is the event of revelation. It is an impossible possibility that the veil (means of concealing) becomes the medium (means of revelation). McCormack explains, “Revelation thus has the character of an event. That the veil is made transparent for faith, that it truly becomes a medium, requires an act of God. God is the Subject of revelation and must always remain so” (Ibid. 250).

[5] “‘Creation’ denotes this prelapsarian state of humanity, which is its ‘Origin’ (Ursprung) that even today still ‘evokes in us a memory of our habitation with the Lord of heaven and earth’” (Tseng, 90).

[6] Note the basically Kantian dualism between Creation and World, eternal and temporal.

[7]The act by which the veil of revelation is lifted is the “impossible possibility.” In other words, the means of concealing (veil) becomes the means of revealing (the medium). The Impossible-possible dialectic is itself “deeply eschatological” (Tseng, 101) due in part to the idea that the eternal (revelation for example) cannot be directly identified with the temporal. Therefore, “revelation is in history, but it is not of history.” See McCormack, Critically Realistic, pp. 241–88.

[8] Tseng notes that at this phase of Barth’s development, it is impossible to clearly identify his lapsarian position in a straightforward manner given his lack of explicit dogmatic reflection on the Incarnation (Tseng, 110).

[9] Tseng sums up the basic thrust of McCormack’s thesis nicely: “Part of McCormack’s paradigm is the thesis that Barth’s theology has always remained dialectical even after the so-called turn to analogy, and that the Anselm book with its emphasis on the analogia entis did not give rise to any essentially new methodology or theological material in Barth’s thinking” (Tseng, 150). But as Tseng goes on to argue, “To treat Anselm as a key to understanding the shifts in the methods and contents of Barth’s theology is thus to miss out a crucial aspect of his theological development” (Tseng, 159).

[10] Preached, written, and revealed (CD I/1, 98–140).

[11] The shift is Barth’s indentification of Jesus as “electing God” and the “correlation of election and reprobation with the crucifixion of Jesus” (Tseng, 178).

[12] A decretum absolutum would entail a non-Christological (i.e. natural theological) revelation of God. That is a problem for Barth. Just as understanding humanity as the “obiectum praedestinationis” is to understand humanity in abstracto, and thus non-Christologically (Tseng, 236).

[13] Tseng is here in agreement with George Hunsinger’s thesis that Barth’s Christology was “basically Chalcedonian.” While he does footnote Bruce McCormack’s essay, “Karl Barth’s Historicized Christology: Just how ‘Chalcedonian’ is it?” See Bruce McCormack, Orthodox and Modern: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2008), 201–35. He does not spend much time interacting with its central claim that CD II/2 saw Barth discard the Greek metaphysical categories of “person,” “nature” in favor of his actualism and its decidedly anti-metaphysical bent (McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 201–202). Tseng’s detailed critique of McCormack’s proposal appears in chapter 8.

[14] Though by CD II/1 Barth’s doctrine of sin undergoes a significant revision and is understood as the “paradox of sin” (Tseng, 248).

[15] The shape of the Incarnation, or the way in which if fulfills the “concept of God” is humility (Tseng, 250). And just as God is fulfilled through the humiliation of Christ, so the very “concept of man” (CD IV/1, 419; Tseng, 248) is contradicted by the pride of sin. There is an absurdity to the “human act of sin” (Tseng, 250). And so we know human pride only in light of Christ’s humility, this is how Barth conceives of the epistemic ground of our knowledge of sin. If Christ negates sin through His humble suffering, it was man’s pride (sin) which made the cross necessary in the first place.

[16] Briefly, “traditionalist” and “revisionist” are terms coined by George Hunsinger to denote the two main approaches to Barth’s doctrine of the Trinity and election. This distinction has precedence primarily in T.F. Torrance’s differentiation of “evangelical” and “rationalistic” Calvinism with the “traditionalists” falling under the “evangelical calvinist” and the “revisionists” lumped in with the “rationalistic Calvinists.” For Hunsinger, the “traditionalist” approach is more faithful to the “actual textual Barth” while the “revisionist” relies upon deductive reasoning to arrive at conclusions alien to Barth’s dogmatic intent. For a critical review of Hunsinger’s proposal see Matthias Gockel, How to Read Karl Barth with Charity: A Critical Reply to George Hunsinger (Modern Theology 32:2 April 2016, 259–67).

[17] Whether or not Barth did, in CD IV/1, historicize (or actualize) the category of “nature” is up for debate. But briefly consider the perspective of one of Tseng’s conversation partners, “The ‘essence’ of God therefore is not something that can be spoken of rightly without reference to the divine humiliation which takes place in the history of Jesus Christ. And the “essence” of the human is not something that can be spoken of rightly without reference to the exaltation that takes place in the history of Jesus Christ….God is what God does-and humanity is what Jesus does….And it can be this [the exaltation of humanity in the exaltation of Christ] because what it means to be human has been decided in eternity by means of our election in Jesus Christ [emphasis mine]. We are ‘chosen in Him’ – this is a statement pregnant with ontological significance” (McCormack, Orthodox and Modern, 239–40).

[18] To borrow a term of recent vintage.

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3 Responses

  1. Since when did the Orthodox Presbyterian Church no longer consider Barth a heretic? Inerrancy and historicity of Biblical history ring any bells? What about that whole thing he had going on with Charlotte von Kirschbaum?

  2. I guess my book didn’t get any affirmative reviews, only the negative one by Goeckel.

    “Hunsinger demonstrates that the revisionist view of Barth offers only a partisan and historicist position that will not bring Christians together in faith in the triune God. … He demonstrates, in ways that I believe are simply irrefutable to any reasonable person reviewing the texts, that such views are definitely not Barth’s. … This book is must reading not just for Barth scholars … but for any Christian interested in understanding … divine freedom … as it is grounded in the eternal Trinity.” — Paul D. Molnar, Journal of Reformed Theology

    “Lutheran teaching about the Trinity per se historically matches Hunsinger’s. … [Contrary to Barth-revisionists] traditional Lutherans have never thought of God in such voluntaristic terms as to reduce the triune life to God’s decision to become incarnate. Instead, with Nicene faith, Lutherans have always believed in the eternal nature of the triune life.” — Mark Mattes, Lutheran Quarterly

    “I judge Hunsinger’s book a success and side with him in judging the revisionist interpretation of Barth to be mistaken. … Contrary to the McCormack thesis regarding Barth, God’s election of Jesus Christ does not constitute God’s being as the Trinity.” — J. Mark Beach, Dean of Students, Mid-America Reformed Seminary

    1. Dr. Hunsinger,

      Thank you for the comment, and I do wish to clarify that it was not my intention to draw exclusively negative attention to your book. I referenced Goeckel’s review because it was the only journal length review I could find, though I did resonate with some of the concerns he raised in the review.

      If there are other journal length reviews of “Reading Barth with Charity” currently in print I would very much enjoy reading them, and would take the opportunity to share them with others as well.

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