Book Review: ‘Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920-1953’, by Shao Kai Tseng

Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920-1953‘, by Shao Kai Tseng, IVP Academic, 319 pp. $31.20

One may be forgiven for a quizzical look upon reading the title of the volume under review, considering that no less a theologian than Karl Barth declared his theology to be of a supralapsarian type. Tseng is out to prove pretty much everyone, Barth included, wrong here, and his attempt is a valiant, scholarly and exceedingly well-documented one. Does he succeed? Well, to give a suitably Barthian answer: yes, and no.

The first thing to note is that this is a fairly technical book. It is not a light read, by any stretch. Those familiar with Barth will find some well-known and well-trod ground, but the going remains fairly tough throughout the entirety of the book. For those unfamiliar with Barth (or, as was my case, the infra/supralapsarian debates in Reformed orthodoxy), this is not the place to start.

Tseng’s first section begins with an overview chapter of the seventeenth century debate(s) in Reformed orthodoxy on infra/supralapsarianism. This was the toughest chapter for me, for the simple fact that Reformed orthodoxy is not an area on which I have a great deal of knowledge. Having said that, this chapter functions something like a crash course in Reformed orthodox and Puritan thought. There are a lot of names here, and a lot of technical terms, and lots of these names use these lots of technical terms in lots of similar but subtly different ways. A good deal of this chapter is underlined for future reference in my copy. The key point Tseng wants to stress here is that Reformed orthodoxy is concerned with the logical order of God’s predestinarian decrees in eternity – with infralapsarianism holding that the object of predestination is God’s eternal conception of fallen man, and supralapsarianism holding that the object of predestination is God’s eternal conception of neutral, un-fallen man. The second chapter of the first section is an assessment of Barth’s lapsarian position. There is a lot of ground covered here, but the basic point is that Barth’s thinking here is what Tseng calls basically infralapsarian, while acknowledging that there is a dialectical interplay between both infralapsarian and supralapsarian elements.

Part two is the meat of the book: the development of Barth’s infralapsarianism from 1920-1953. There is a lot of material here, so I’m only going to give a brief recap of each section (you’ll have to read the book for the full story). Chapter three focuses on Romans II, with some the key points being (1)Barth’s doctrine of predestination is, at this point, supralapsarian – though inconsistently so, since in terms of eternity and eschatology it is supralapsarian, while in terms of the present/actual world, it is infralapsarian. Tseng sees Barth’s christology, on the other hand, as moving towards infralapsarianism, since for Barth, the person and work of Christ is pretty much predicated on the fall. Tseng notes, however, that Barth’s own definitions of infra/supralapsarian leave much to be desired, since his definitions are based more on secondary sources than in 17th century texts.

Chapter four is centered on the period from 1921-1930, and during this period, Tseng argues that Barth’s christology has reached a ‘basically’ infralapsarian point, since Barth ‘describes the incarnation as having been made necessary by God’s decision to deal with the creature’s sin.’ (p. 146) Tseng also sees Barth’s predestination moving more towards infralapsarianism here as well, due to Barth’s ‘actualistic pneumatology’.

Chapter five has two themes: the first theme gives an exposition of Barth’s book on Anselm, which Tseng sees as giving little indication of Barth’s lapsarian development, and here Tseng criticizes Balthasar’s reading of the Anselm book which sees it as a picture of Barth’s own theology, as opposed to Barth critically engaging and learning from Anselm. The second theme shows the role central of the Word of God in election and predestination – the key point Tseng presses here is that Barth is eliminating the actualistic, pneumatological concept of election in favour of a more Christocentric concept.

The sixth chapter is a weighty chapter. Tseng shows how there is a deep convergence between christology and election in Barth’s concept of Christ as both the elect and reprobate, which terminates on the object of God’s gracious election being fallen man. I appreciated Tseng’s exposition of Barth’s idea of Aufhebung (a lifting up through the negation of a negation), which Barth uses to attack the ‘classical’ idea of election and reprobation as being balanced in a state of equilibrium. Rather, this double predestination ‘serves the purpose of election, as Christ died in order to conquer death.’ (p. 197) This, Tseng points out, is clearly infralapsarian.

Chapter seven shows Barth’s ‘purification’ of election in action. Barth, as is well known, attacks the ‘classical’ decretum absolutum on christological grounds, making Christ the object as well as the subject of predestination (Barth also rejects the idea that there are two classes of people, the elect and the damned, as a result of double predestination), in a combination that Tseng notes is part supralapsarian (which Tseng argues, due to Barth’s dubious definitions, is actually closer to infralapsarianism) and part infralapsarian, due to Barth seeing the object of election in Christ as fallen man. The incarnation, as Barth sees it, is ‘God’s seeking and creating fellowship with the sinful creature.’ (p. 240)

The eighth and final chapter was both the most enjoyable and the most challenging. The focus here is on Barth’s use of the concept of ‘history’ in his lapsarian theology, both ‘Adamic’ history and the history of Christ.Tseng here treats the issues of Barth’s concept of ‘fallen human nature’ as well as Christ’s assumption of that nature. There is a good deal of interaction with contemporary scholars, and those with their fingers on the pulse of the ‘Barth Wars’ will find this a very edifying chapter. Tseng issues a strong challenge to those who argue that Barth has Christ assuming a fallen human nature (which, I will say, challenged my own views quite seriously), and clearly marks himself in the ‘traditionalist’ camp of the Barth Wars. Bruce McCormack, George Hunsinger, Edwin van Driel, Paul Jones and Paul Nimmo are all conversation partners here, and this chapter is, for my money, the most constructive chapter. Tseng’s clear and concise exposition of Barth’s concepts and uses of ‘history’ (which has caused a lot of folks grief) is one of the best I’ve read, and his interaction with contemporary Barth scholarship will surely provide a good deal of material for readers and students of Barth to discuss. After the final chapter, Tseng provides a helpful and much-appreciated conclusion and summary of his major themes and arguments. Readers who feel a bit lost or overwhelmed can turn here should a quick ‘you are here’ reminder be needed (I certainly needed such a reminder or two).

Tseng has provided a masterful survey of Barth’s theology, with copious documentation (the footnotes are significant and need to be read closely, as they contain some crucial argumentation). The large amount of material and the timespan covered almost make me wish the book was longer, as there are sections which feel somewhat rushed, for lack of a better term. The first two chapters seem to be the most guilty of this – twenty or so pages to cover a technical debate that spanned an entire century and countless theologians will necessarily leave one’s head spinning. The saving grace is that, though a bit rushed feeling, the quality of the material does not suffer.

A minor complaint ought to be registered: we quickly learn that Barth’s infralapsarian theology actually means ‘Karl Barth’s basically, dialectically, not really fitting with classical definitions of infralapsarian’ theology. The conclusions drawn are perhaps not as strong as the reader is led to believe. Tseng brilliantly draws out infralapsarian themes from Barth’s theology that haven’t received much attention, but it seems a bit of a stretch to call Barth’s theology infralapsarian. Tseng recognizes this, which is why he uses ‘basically infralapsarian’ when describing Barth’s theology. However, some of the hoped-for force of the conclusions is lost in doing so.

Minor complaints aside, this is a fantastic book. Anyone interested in Barth’s theology will only be a better person after reading it, and Tseng will no doubt have provided a good deal of material for scholars, students and readers of Barth. to debate, discuss and write on.



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