Home > Calvinism, Christian Authors, church history > Calvin, Beza, Supralapsarianism and the Puritans (J.I. Packer on the Puritans)

Calvin, Beza, Supralapsarianism and the Puritans (J.I. Packer on the Puritans)


Continuing through RTS’ (Reformed Theological Seminary) iTunes University collection, my current study is an interesting and informative series done by J.I. Packer, on the English Puritans and their theology, a set of 16 lectures done in 1988.

Having already studied this subject at a basic, overview level, including volume 1 of the Puritan Papers (see this previous post), it is nice to see that this series presents much additional information. Among the interesting features of the Puritans: they were Reformed Medieval, in several ways different from Reformed Moderns. Their view of church and state was still like that of Medieval times, understanding the difference in theory though not in practice. The Puritan era did not consider “plagiarism” as any offense; it was common, accepted practice to borrow from the writings of others without giving them credit – such a contrast from our day, that Packer observed that modern-day scholars are perhaps too “provincial” about their own contributions. The Puritans also were far more homogeneous in their thinking as a group – more interested in learning from and respecting the views of others within their “tradition,” not so individualistic as today’s evangelical scholars accustomed to “critical thinking” in terms of studying out issues for themselves and sometimes coming to different conclusions on particular doctrinal matters.

The earliest Puritans were greatly influenced by the early work of William Perkins, who popularized Calvinist teaching in the late 16th century. Perkins borrowed heavily from John Calvin’s successor, Beza (again, the Puritans were not concerned about plagiarism) and popularized Beza’s presentation of God’s sovereignty in election, complete with diagrams with bubbles, publications intended for the common man who in many cases was illiterate.

An interesting consideration here, a point developed by Packer through a few lectures: the order of presentation of theology matters. Calvin’s final version of the Institutes for the Christian Religion (1559) presents doctrines in the same order as Paul in Romans, starting with man’s depravity, later the topics of justification by faith and sanctification, coming to the doctrine of God’s sovereignty in election (Romans 9-11) only after these other other points have been presented. However, Calvin’s successor, Beza, preferred the idea of classical Greek thinking, that what is first in intent is last in execution.  Therefore, since God’s glory, and His election of His people is the first intent, this teaching should be presented first. In this way Beza introduced the concept known as supralapsarianism: that the decree of God to save some and damn others, came before the creation and the fall.  Perkins followed this, as the first to present the idea in English and popularize it, and thus supralapsarianism took hold of the Puritans for the next 50 years. Later Puritans, including John Owen, were infralapsarian, but the first generation held without questioning (again, Reformed Medievalism) to Perkins’ idea.  Packer also notes that John Calvin himself really cannot be classified as either infra- or supra-lapsarian, since neither idea itself was yet defined as a particular category and this just wasn’t an issue.  Calvin taught both God’s sovereignty in election, and God’s love and the promises of God to sinners who come to Him in repentance, and thus the argument can be made (and has by some) for Calvin being infralapsarian — but the issue wasn’t defined in such terms (infra versus supra) in his day.

From Packer’s explanation of this history along with his own pastoral ideas, I now better understand the differences between the two ideas (supra- and infra- lapsarian), in how it affects the presentation of gospel truth.  Perkins’ approach to assurance focused on the evidences a person could look to, the fruit in their own lives, as to whether a person is truly saved. Yet his approach neglected the scriptural truths of God’s love in providence (reference Acts 17:25-27, He himself gives to all mankind life and breath and everything), and ignored the “whosoever will” promises of scripture: the promise that those who come to Him, who look to Him for mercy, will never be turned away; the one who trusts in Him shall never be ashamed. Packer well summarized the infralapsarian approach (his view): to the unsaved we present the truths of the first part of Romans – man’s depravity, justification, atonement, God’s mercy to the sinner; we don’t begin with the teaching of election, telling unsaved people about God’s saving some while giving some over to reprobation. We teach election and what it means, to the family of God, those already saved. People understand assurance based on the scriptural promises, rather than wondering “if I am one of the elect or not.”

Packer’s lectures include more details about this issue and much more, the above is a brief summary of a few lectures up through number 7 in the set.  I look forward to the remaining lessons in this RTS iTunes series.

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