The Three Faces of Calvinism

In previous installments I’ve set out the basic beliefs (as I’ve come to savvy them, anyway) concerning predestination, election and foreknowledge of the three most prominent views in the Christian church; Calvinism, Arminianism and Universalism. But to say that every individual mind in each of those camps is unified in their assessments of what the Scriptures teach on those subjects would be a gross misstatement of fact. On the contrary, it would seem to be that if you’re a scholar of the Bible you’re irresistibly inclined to formulate ideas and concepts about certain heavy subjects that will line up in direct conflict with those held by the equally-respected scholar of the Bible sitting next to or across from you. I figure it’s the nature of the beast, so to speak. Yet neither Arminians nor Universalists can come near to matching the profound differences to be found amongst the Calvinists. They have three distinct perspectives that center on what’s called the “logical order of God’s decrees” and the dividing gaps between the competing theories are wide and pretty much chiseled into stone. I must admit that I discovered that wading into the controversy even as a curious observer is an invitation to develop a throbbing migraine. And many, even some Calvinists, consider the whole endeavor to be an unnecessary exercise in chasing one’s tail and highly speculative at best. But in order to have a well-rounded education on predestination, election and foreknowledge a fearless safari into that potentially bewildering jungle of thought can’t be avoided. One must dive in and hope that one’s mind can keep up.

One thing all three have in common is the consensus that the great I AM has a plan. A plan that, evidently, even the angels didn’t know anything about until approximately two millenniums ago. This plan is spelled out by the Apostle Paul in Ephesians 3:8-12; “To me – less than the least of all the saints – this grace was given, to proclaim to the Gentiles the unfathomable riches of Christ and to enlighten everyone about God’s secret plan – a secret that has been hidden for ages in God who has created all things. The purpose of this enlightenment is that through the church the multifaceted wisdom of God should now be disclosed to the rulers and the authorities in the heavenly realms. This was according to the eternal purpose that he accomplished in Christ Jesus our Lord, in whom we have boldness and confident access to God because of Christ’s faithfulness.” And it’s the last sentence, taking up verses 11 & 12, which gave birth to the argument I’m about to expand upon – God’s secret plan. Deciphering that plan can become so complicated and convoluted that I honestly wonder why they bother with it at all but, as the convinced Calvinist Robert Reymond wrote, to them the issue at stake is “one of the most important (and surely one of the most fascinating) topics that Scripture would give any man warrant to study: the nature of the eternal plan of salvation or, more technically, the specific order of the elements in the plan.”

Calvinists in general opine that 21st century Christians ignore delving into the intricacies of God’s plan out of fear that it will erode their certainty of salvation and because it tends to undermine their naïve conceptions of what “free will” really is. However, they insist that such trepidation and concern is unfounded and that a better understanding of what God is up to will only strengthen their faith and trust, not weaken them. They avow that such an investigation will show that God is definitely in charge of all that happens in the universe and that He does, indeed, have a perfect plan that is well under way. In the Calvinist mindset to think that God didn’t have what Paul called an overriding “eternal purpose” is preposterous because to them there was never a moment when the great I AM had a blank mind or a nanosecond in time when all the parts of His plan had not been devised and designed to culminate in Christ being the unrivaled centerpiece around which everything else revolves. Plus they still emphasize that God’s opting to save even one single sinner is a cause for rejoicing because we are all so totally depraved and undeserving of any mercy whatsoever.

The most liberal of the three positions is Amyraldianism, named after the French theologian Moses Amyraut (1596 – 1664) who, according to some Calvinists, veered dangerously close to Arminianism in some crucial areas. He was fully committed to the particularistic principle (unconditional election) but declared that God, before developing His decree of election, decided that His Son would atone for the sins of all mankind if they believed in Him as the promised Messiah. But upon foreseeing that no person would believe on their own volition, He then picked out a select number of souls that He would (and will) bring to faith in Jesus, thereby preserving His inviolate decree of unconditional election. Amyraut even went so far as to claim that John Calvin advocated universal atonement and that caused quite a stir in the scholarly circles in the era of the Protestant Reformation, as you might imagine. I could go into other areas of conflict but, in order to keep this discussion from bogging down into minutiae, I’ll stick to the five major elements (or decrees) of God’s eternal plan of salvation and how each of the three faces of Calvinism arrange them in a different order from the other two.

The Amyraldian list is:
1. God decreed to create the world and all humans.
2. God decreed that mankind as a whole would fall.
3. God decreed to redeem all men and women via Christ’s work on the cross.
4. God decreed the election of some of the fallen sinners to salvation in Christ and the damnation of others.
5. God decreed to apply Christ’s redemptive benefits to those He elected.

In essence, Amyraut was championing a brand of Calvinism that leaned towards acknowledging and emphasizing God’s love, mercy and compassion a lot more than the old school traditionalists were wont to do. He also established the roots of “hypothetical universalism,” a belief in which God foreordained an all-inclusive salvation (courtesy of the universal sacrifice of Christ) that He then mercifully offered to all humans on the condition of faith, so that, as concerns His will and desire, the grace involved can be deemed universal. But ultimately it still comes down to God picking and choosing certain individuals according to His preordained plan. (Baffled? Don’t feel alone. See, I told you this is tricky stuff!)

This leads us to the other two factions. The term “lapsarian” comes from the Latin lapsare, “to fall,” so supralapsarianism (also referred to as the Teleological Governing Principle) means “before the fall” and infralapsarianism (also known as the Historical Governing Principle) means “after the fall.” Both agree, in contrast to Amyraldianism, that Jesus died exclusively for the elect and no one else, that the Holy Spirit applies his benefits to those who have been elected and that together the Son and the Spirit work consistently to fulfill the Father’s single redemptive purpose – to save the elect. Where they differ is in determining the order the five elements of God’s plan came down in. Infralapsarians move the previously listed element #4, whereby some of the fallen souls are selected for salvation in Christ and others are left behind to face God’s divine judgment (the election decree), ahead of element #3 that implies that God utilized Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross in order to accomplish His election decree. By moving this element up a notch they assert that God’s decision to save some of the human race from encountering the fury of His wrath didn’t come about until after Adam and Eve had disobeyed His direct instructions not to partake of the fruit of the tree of knowledge in the Garden of Eden. In other words, God changed His mind about people once they proved to be defiantly rebellious and that He, in turn, adjusted his master plan accordingly. Supralapsarians have big problems with that assertion.

Supralapsarians take to heart what they identify as and conclude is the Scripture-based truth that God is foremost a God of purpose who must, by pure logical necessity, do all He does purposively and thus He is a God who does things in an orderly, rational way. Therefore it is inconceivable to them that the great I AM would decree to create the world for no particular purpose or that He would do so for some end result to be determined by Him down the line based on how things go. They can’t accept that he would do such a thing. This forces them to realign the five elements into the order that follows:

1. God first elected to save some of His sinful children to salvation in Christ and others to reprobation (the discriminating decree) in order to make known the riches of God’s gracious mercy to those so elected.
2. God then decreed that He would apply His only begotten Son Jesus’ redemptive benefits to the elected sinners.
3. God decreed that the elect’s redemption and salvation would be accomplished by Christ’s atoning death on the cross and His subsequent resurrection.
4. God decreed that it would be the sins of Adam and Eve that would instigate the fall of all mankind.
5. Only then did God decree that He would create the world and the people who would populate it.

While this appears to be in backwards order they beg to differ and argue that it’s a matter of the student having to look at it the big picture correctly for it to make sense. They use the act of buying a house (or anything, for that matter) as an example. A rational man or woman would determine the end aim (in this case procuring a home) before they did anything else and then they would plot out a course of action to achieve that end. No one in their right mind would secure a loan for tens of thousands of dollars without having any clue about what they intended to purchase with that money. By the same reckoning, God Almighty would never decree anything to come into existence without any rhyme or reason being behind it. Therefore His decision to save some select souls and have them dwell with Him for all eternity had to come first and then He mapped out how His plan would unfold.

Supralapsarians, Infralapsarians and Amyraldians alike acknowledge that their proposition (that places God’s sovereignty and His “good pleasure” above the lives, loves and destinies of individuals so blatantly) is bound to offend even the most dedicated modern-day Christian when they initially glance over the theory of unconditional election. They attribute this to the uninformed person’s stubborn insistence and desire for a doctrinal system that allows them room to contribute in some ultimate and decisive way to their own salvation, which harkens back to the whole “justification by works” thing that the Apostle Paul pronounced repeatedly to be a futile endeavor and a symptom of pride. Calvinists concur that God’s grace, as embodied in our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is the only avenue to heaven and few Christians would deny it to be so.

While all this scholarly speculation about what God’s intentions were in the beginning of time, how He set out to achieve His goals and in what order He implemented certain actions on His part to make sure it all worked out to His satisfaction may be, to some, the equivalent of guessing how many angels can fit comfortably on the head of a pin. Perhaps all you’ll get out of this brief exposition is the ability to impress and/or garner a strange look from your pastor by asking him if he’s a Supralapsarian or an Infralapsarian. (Then again, he may not have an inkling of what you’re inquiring about.) What it boils down to is this – anyone who wants to become better educated about the subject must familiarize themselves with what the whole spectrum of well-meaning folks have come to believe. Once again I’ll reiterate that I’m not passing judgment on Calvinists, Arminianists or Universalists (or anyone at all) but merely encapsulating their views on the prickly subject of predestination, election and foreknowledge as best I can. It is my humble opinion that only through one’s own commitment to reading and studying God’s Holy Word, prayer and one’s willing acquiescence to being led by the Holy Spirit can one come to have an informed opinion about those weighty issues.

3 faces


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