Karl Barth and Lapsarian Theology

Today we speak with Austin Reed about Karl Barth’s theology of election. Austin is a student at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary and walks us through a critical review of Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development, 1920–1953 by Shao Kai Tseng. Tseng challenges the scholarly status quo, arguing that despite Barth’s stated favor of supralapsarianism, his mature lapsarian theology is complex and dialectical. It demonstrates elements of both supra- and infralapsarianism, though it favors the latter. In Tseng’s assessment, Barth’s theology is basically infralapsarian because he sees the object of election as fallen humankind and understands the incarnation as God’s act of taking on human nature in its condition of fallenness.

Be sure to read Austin Reed’s review of Reading Barth with Charity: A Hermeneutic Proposal by George Hunsinger.

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Christ the Center focuses on Reformed Christian theology. In each episode a group of informed panelists discusses important issues in order to encourage critical thinking and a better understanding of Reformed doctrine with a view toward godly living. Browse more episodes from this program or subscribe to the podcast feed.

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George Hunsinger

3 years ago

Forum on Tseng

Very nice discussion, conducted at an admirably high level.

I give an account of Aufhebung in my recent book Evangelcial, Catholic, and Reformed. Briefly, don’t forget that Hegel started out as a theology student. He turned the historical sequence from Incarnation to Crucifixion to Resurrection away from something unique and particular into something symbolic and universal as a dialectical-historical process–Aufhebung. That’s why there’s no one word that can translate it. For Barth there was often finally no “synthesis” that was non-mysterious and transcendable in itself.

Barth is not adequate, in my opinion, on the transition from a state of integrity to a state of corruprion, but he did not teach that humanity was created in a state of corruption. (He of course denied that.) He just took the state of corruption as an inexplicable mystery. It is false to suppose that he saw God as responsible for creating humanity in a state of corruption. He didn’t know how to square the transition from integrity to corruption with an acceptance of evolutionary biology. Who does? But he stayed too close to Schleiermacher at this point, in my opinion.

Barth was definitely Chalcedonian. He explicitly and repeatedly accepted the bounds of the Chalcedonian Definition. He actualized Chalcedon, but never departed from it. He regarded the Chalcedononian Definition as (i) offering a set of rules within which to work out an understanding of the person of Christ as well as (ii) making open-ended material affirmations. See my Charity book.

Barth has no “ontology” in a substantive sense. His “actualism” was an alternative to “ontology.” It was a motif, not a quasi-metaphysical or speculative construct.

As I tried to suggest in my Preface to Tseng, Barth does not fit within the traditional supra- and infra-lapsarian categories, even as Tseng retrieves them, because he establishes a new framework for understanding as seen from a center in Christ. He argues that the eternal God foresaw the fall into sin, mysteriously permitted it, and dealt with it in his pre-temporal christocentric decision of election from before the foundation of the world.

I’m glad to see you give Barth a fair hearing even if you don’t agree with him.

By the way, Tseng wrote his dissertation at Oxford. I was his Th.M. advisor at Princeton.

Ted Michaels

3 years ago

Reams of Protestant Scholastics sit unread while students pour over one of the most overrated men in Church history, if not European history. Who cares about the lapsarian views of a universalist?

Is Austin Reed paying seminary tuition to write term papers about Barth?

Austin Reed

3 years ago

Ted, thank your for the comment.

I spend a good amount of time reading the scholastics, as did Barth.

As I stated in the review, this book has a lot to offer, even for those who aren’t interested in Barth. The entire first section of the book is dedicated to the lapsarian debates of the 17th century, and the definitions given by men like Owen, Rutherford, Perkins, Baxter and a host of others.

This was a project I’ve been working on for fun, quite apart from my studies as a seminary student.

Nigel Wehrmann

3 years ago

Jesus Christ, the electing God and the elect man. Definitions of God’s decrees quickly turn into mechanistic ways of making God fit into a program, and the freedom and mystery of God quickly turns into formulaic adjectives and attributes projected onto God. Barth’s relocating of election and predestination discussed under the rubric of Christ as the first and last of all the ways and works of God remind us that we are pilgrims here on earth and the way of the theologian is the way of the pilgrim. This book interests me (from what I know of it) because of the shifts that Barth’s wider work makes.



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