Karl Barth's Infralapsarian Theology

Origins and Developments, 1920-1953

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Shao Kai Tseng
New Explorations in Theology
  • Downers Grove, IL: 
    IVP Academic
    , March
     319 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Karl Barth, the 20th century Swiss Reformed theologian, is known for his magnum opus Church Dogmatics in which he provided his Christocentric theology. Among the doctrines that Barth revises in the light of Jesus Christ, election is one of the most complex and radical. In fact, the past two decades have seen a plethora of publications on Barth’s doctrine of election—which includes reprobation—as it relates to other core doctrines such as the Trinity and the divine attributes. Into this seemingly unending debate, Shao Kai Tseng enters with Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins And Developments 1920-1953, a revision of his doctoral thesis to argue that, although Barth considers his Christocentric revision of election (and reprobation) to be a “purified supralapsarianism,” he is–according to Tseng–closer to infralapsarianism while still upholding certain tenets of supralapsarianism. Therefore, Tseng employs a phrase throughout his work that Barth’s doctrine of election/reprobation is “basically infralapsarian,” or, as the object of divine election is fallen humanity, Barth’s doctrine of election is more in line with infralapsarianism than with supralapsarianism. Moreover, this is a work that traces the historical and genetic development of Barth’s doctrine of election from his Romans II era (1920-1921) up to and including his mature Christology and hamartiology in Church Dogmatics IV/1 (1951-1953).

Before entering Barth’s theology, in chapter 1 Tseng returns his readers to the lapsarian debates of the 17th century. He examines the long-standing debates over when God logically decreed his election of some humans out of the mass of perdition of the remainder of humanity. He looks to the precise and intricate terminology used by the supra- and infralapsarian groups, breaking down their central disagreement: whether God’s object of election is uncreated and unfallen humanity or created and fallen humanity. According to Tseng, this point of contention is the criterion which determines whether Barth is a “purified supralapsarian” or “basically infralapsarian.” In chapter 2, Tseng discusses section 33 of Church Dogmatics II/2, wherein Barth sets forth his “purified supralapsarianism,” arguing that, although there are still strong supralapsarian tendencies in Barth’s mature doctrine of election, he is “basically infralapsarian,” as he sees the object of election to be fallen humanity. In chapter 3, Tseng looks back at Barth’s theologically explosive commentary Epistle to the Romans (2nd edition) and contends that, although Barth is more supralapsarian regarding the eternality of divine election, he is more of infralapsarian regarding the temporal-historical actualization of God’s pretemporal election of humanity. In chapter 4, Tseng continue with Barth’s Göttingen-Münster period (1921-1930) in which Barth delivered two cycles of lectures on Christian dogmatics and began formulating a more infralapsarian Christology that would eventually unite with an ever-increasing infralapsarian view of election. Chapter 5 examines the Bonn years (1930-1935) during which Barth composed his influential book on Anselm of Canterbury’s theology and began Church DogmaticsI/1, in which Tseng notes Barth’s development of a robust infralapsarian posture due to the fact that the object of Barth’s doctrine of revelation is always the fallen, sinful human. Tseng detours in chapter 6 to a smaller, less-known work from 1936 titled Gottes Gnadenwahl (God’s Gracious Election). He contends that this work marks the beginning of Barth’s mature, Christocentric doctrine of election. In this work—under the influence of Pierre Maury—Barth argues for the first time that Jesus Christ is the electing God and the elect human in one, and that all humans are elect in him. As all humans are elected as fallen humans, Tseng believes Barth to be “basically infralapsarian.” This leads Tseng to Church Dogmatics II/2 (1939-1942) in chapter 7, arguing that Barth has finally united his implicit infralapsarian view of election and his emerging infralapsarian Christology in his mature doctrine of election. In chapter 8—the longest and most intriguing of the volume—Tseng analyzes Barth’s “historicized” Christology in Church Dogmatics IV/1, particularly as it pertains to his doctrine of sin. Tseng contends that, due to Barth’s view of human history as a fallen, sinful history, it must be presupposed in his mature doctrine of election, thereby giving it a “basically infralapsarian” stance. Tseng concludes the work by restating his core arguments in 10 succinct theses and then illustrates how Barth’s “basically infralapsarian” doctrine of election applies to other doctrines such as theodicy, public theology, and natural theology.

For those engaged in the world of Barth scholarship, this work may seem like another well-intended attempt to break through the impasse between the debates on Barth’s doctrine of election, into which the “traditionalists” and “revisionists” camps have ossified. However, this is not the case. Tseng has crafted a daring and challenging interpretation of the development of Barth’s doctrine of election that will command wide readership for anyone interested in the thorny doctrine of election/reprobation (i.e., predestination) in general, and specifically in Barth’s theology. Tseng handles the difficult and dense terminology of lapsarian debates of the 17th century and clearly situates Barth within the Reformed tradition with its concepts, categories, and clashes over this doctrine. Especially pleasing is Tseng’s deft handling of the primary source material as he traces Barth’s development from Romans through to his mature doctrine of reconciliation, Church Dogmatics. Moreover, even if Tseng does not fully convince the reader that Barth’s doctrine of election is “basically infralapsarian,” he has illuminated a severely neglected aspect of Barth’s doctrine of election. However, there are a few formal and material criticisms. Formally, Tseng should have discussed Church Dogmatics II/2, section 33, not in chapter 2 but in chapter 7 where he discussed that volume in greater detail. Further, Tseng could also have included discussions of sections 34-35 as well, as here is where Barth discusses the election of the community (i.e., Israel and the Church) and the individual (i.e., Christian or not) respectively. Materially, although Tseng makes a bold thesis regarding Barth’s doctrine of election as “basically infralapsarian,” he unfortunately reads Barth through the lenses of the 17th century lapsarian controversy and not reading him as a late 19th to mid-20th century theologian engaged in the lapsarian issues of those times. Further, Tseng places so much emphasis on fallen humanity as the object of election that he overlooks the fact that, for Barth, the object of election is first, foremost, and eternally Jesus Christ, and then all humanity in him. Also, individual humans are only temporally fallen, but eternally elected (i.e., redeemed) for Barth, thus, when Barth speaks of individual humans as objects elected in Christ they are eternally viewed as redeemed, not fallen, although their temporal fallenness is presupposed. Therefore, Barth’s doctrine of election is ultimately “basically supralapsarian” which includes necessary infralapsarian elements. These intra-Barth debates aside, Tseng has provided the academy with a worthy piece of scholarship that should continue the dialogue and debates over the doctrine of election/reprobation and Barth’s theology

About the Reviewer(s): 

Bradley M. Penner is Adjunct Professor of Theology at Briercrest College and Seminary.

Date of Review: 
March 4, 2019
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Shao Kai Tseng is Assistant Professor of Systematic Theology at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei, Taiwan. He is the author of a chapter in the Oxford Handbook of Nineteenth-Century Christian Thought, as well as several books and scholarly articles in both English and Chinese. Previously he served as a pastor at Faith Chinese North American Baptist Church in his hometown of Vancouver, British Columbia.


Shao Kai Tseng

I am thankful for the honour of a very generous and incisive review by Professor Bradley Penner. The summary betrays careful reading and firm grasp of my Barth's Infralapsarian Theology. The formal and material criticisms are insightful. If I am to write a second edition to this book--which will require extensive revisions--these criticisms will certainly be helpful for the most part. As I have been contacted by the managing editor of Reading Religion to write a comment in response to the review, I thought I would address some of Professor Penner's material criticisms here. 

First, Professor Penner considers it unfortunate that I read "Barth through the lenses of the 17th century lapsarian controversy and not reading him as a late 19th to mid-20th century theologian engaged in the lapsarian issues of those times." In response to this, I would just briefly point out that in almost all the passages where Barth brings up the "lapsarian issues," he is addressing them against the background 17th-century Reformed scholasticism. Recent works in historical theology have probed into lapsarian discussions in modern theology (e.g. Edwin Van Driel's work on Schleiermacher's supralapsarian Christology), but the fact is that Barth's contemporaries were hardly interested in the lapsarian debate at all. Even Reformed theologians of a more confessionally orthodox heritage (e.g. Herman Bavinck) considered the 17th-century issue to be unduly metaphysical and speculative. Barth's engagement with the lapsarian issues was exceptional in his time. He was retrieving and reappropriating a theological category from the period of Reformed orthodoxy that had fallen out of favour in the long nineteenth century. There were not many significant "lapsarian issues of those times" for him to engage with.

Second, Professor Penner comments: "Tseng places so much emphasis on fallen humanity as the object of election that he overlooks the fact that, for Barth, the object of election is first, foremost, and eternally Jesus Christ, and then all humanity in him." I am afraid that is an instance where Professor Penner is technically wrong about my text. The fact is that I repeatedly emphasise that the proper object of election is Jesus Christ, and I devote an entire section (pp. 282-87) to argue that Barth does not hold to what some have described as a "fallenness view" (see pp. 31, 271, 279) of Christ's human nature.

Here are a few instances where I stress a supralapsarian aspect of Barth's doctrine of election according to which Christ as the proper object of election is sinless and unfallen:

"I use the description 'basically infralapsarian' only to refer to the basic thesis that the object of double predestination is homo lapsus... Even here, the caveat must be issued that for Barth, Christ is the first and final object of election, and fallen humankind is elected only in and with Christ. As the proper object of election, Christ in himself is without sin--not even homo labilis or nondum lapsus but simply 'he who knew no sin.' Therefore homo lapsus describes the human race elected in and with Christ, and Christ 'became sin for us' only by imputation through participation... In this way, then, Barth's basically infralapsarian view of the obiectum praedestinationis dialectically carries a supralapsarian aspect as well" (pp. 30-31).

"With regard to the question of the obiectum, though Barth is basically in line with the infralapsarian thesis, there is also a deeply supralapsarian aspect in his Christocentric doctrine of election: he identifies Christ, who took on humanity's sin but is without sin in himself, as the proper object of election; sinful humanity becomes the object of election only by participatio Christi. There is thus a profound sense in which Barth sees the object of election as without sin. Christ as the primary object of election can be secundum quid described as homo lapsus only in the sense that he who knew no sin is made to be sin for us, that he who is without sin participates in our status corruptionis" (p. 62).

"With 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" (p. 79). 

Third, Professor Penner argues that "individual humans are only temporally fallen, but eternally elected (i.e., redeemed) for Barth, thus, when Barth speaks of individual humans as objects elected in Christ they are eternally viewed as redeemed, not fallen, although their temporal fallenness is presupposed. Therefore, Barth’s doctrine of election is ultimately 'basically supralapsarian' which includes necessary infralapsarian elements."

Here I only need to briefly point out that in the Lapsarian Controversy, both sides agreed that redemption presupposes the fall, and that the elect are eternally elected. Infralapsarians considered election to be God's eternal decision to redeem fallen human beings; supralapsarians considered election to be God's eternal, non-redemptory decision to endow human beings with the gift of eternal life. As for Barth, election is the eternal sublation of reprobation. Golgotha is the outward basis of election, and election is the inward basis of the crucifixion. Reconciliation presupposes human fallenness, and human fallenness is a result of reprobation, which Barth defines as God's decision to conclude all humanity in the prison of disobedience (Rom. 11:32). On this view, to say that humanity is eternally elected in a redemptory sense is precisely to ascribe to Barth a basically infralapsarian position. 

Aside from these three objections, I am thankful for Professor Penner's well-balanced and thoughtful review. I would like to seize this opportunity to issue three points of criticism of my own against Barth's Infralapsarian Theology. These have to do with serious mistakes that need to be corrected if a second, extensively revised or even re-written, edition is ever to be published.

First, chapter three on Romans II is fraught with technical mistakes. The theological framework and philosophical background that I construe do not accord with Barth's letters from that period. The reconstruction of the commentary in light of the "impossible possibility" dialectic is arbitrary in many places. This chapter needs to be re-written.

Second, chapter six, which deals with Gottes Gnadenwahl, also needs to be rewritten. I have recently translated this 1936 booklet into English (currently undergoing rights-related processes with Barth's literary estate), and found that my quotations of the text in this chapter are fraught with translational errors, which inevitably lead to interpretational errors. 

Third, and more seriously, the interpretational framework I adopted throughout the book is still basically in line with Professor Bruce McCormack's post-Kantian paradigm, even though I explicitly disagreed with his ontological assertion that nature/essence is a function of actual histories/activities/decisions. I have moved away from that paradigm in the past two years.

I my recent monograph, Barth's Ontology of Sin and Grace (Routledge, 2018), I have adopted a new interpretational framework that I would now describe as "post-idealist." The thrust of this new framework is to recognise Barth's extensive use of the substantialist vocabularies of the Latin tradition and the process terminologies of nineteenth-century German idealism as both meaningful and functional in his texts. In Barth's Infralapsarian Theology I failed to take note of Barth's extensive engagement with Hegel, Schleiermacher, Schelling, Fichte, and other idealists of that generation, as well as the pervasiveness of their technical vocabularies in his writings. This is symptomatic of the post-Kantian paradigm that presently dominates much of Anglophone Barth studies. 

The key to what I have only recently come to call a "post-idealist interpretation" lies in the way Barth understands the term Nachdenken. If Barth understood theology to be a (neo-)Kantian sort of Nachdenken, he would have treated God's eternal essence as a mere Postulat, a regulative principle, an object of a Kantian sort of "faith" that does not qualify as knowledge. 

However, I think Barth's understanding of theology as Nachdenken should be interpreted in light of nineteenth-century German idealism. It resonates with this broad school of metaphysics in that it adopts a speculative method characterised by the fides quaerens intellectum program. However, it is fundamentally anti-metaphysical: it differs fundamentally from the speculative philosophy of nineteenth-century German idealism in that the idealist fides is in the Cartesian ego (Hegel famously remarked that his science of logic was aimed at reviving Descartes's speculative tradition once "extirpated root and branch" by Kant's antinomies of pure reason), but Barth's faith is in the Augustinian-Anselmian God greater than whom nothing can be conceived--the immutable God whose triune essence cannot be sublated. According to the former, God must (come into) exist(ence) because we are rational; according to the latter, we are rational because God necessarily and eternally exists as the triune God and has revealed Godself to us without ceasing to be God (God-in-and-for-Godself became God-for-us without ceasing to be God-in-and-for-Godself).

Barth's basically Augustinian-Anselmian understanding of theology as Nachdenken means that he rejects the Kantian dichotomy between faith and knowledge. Faith is for Barth the very starting-point of knowledge: knowledge consists in both fides and intellectum. This, I think, is one fundamental reason why I think we should move away from the post-Kantian paradigm of Barth interpretation.

Here I freely admit that this key understanding of Barth's view of theology as Nachdenken is only implicity in my 2018 monograph. It was not until I read a work published in the same year, which I consider to be monumentally consequential to Barth studies, that I came to comprehend this key that I was still looking for in my Barth's Ontology of Sin and Grace. I would thus like to take this opportunity to recommend this work by a friend who has been a major source of inspiration to me since I began my career in Barth studies:

Sigurd Baark, The Affirmations of Reason: On Karl Barth's Speculative Theology (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018). 


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