Review: Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology

9780830851324Shao Kai Tseng is assistant professor of Systematic Theology at China Evangelical Seminary in Taipei, Taiwan. Tseng has a D.Phil. from the University of Oxford and has authored a number of books and scholarly articles in both English and Chinese. Much of Tseng’s ongoing research has centered around the theology of Karl Barth. Tseng brings an interesting perspective to the current trends within Barth studies, and the present volume is a clear example of keen reflection and distilled scholarship.

Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology: Origins and Development 1920-1953 is made up of two major sections: (1) Reappraising Barth’s Lapsarian Position and (2) Barth’s Lapsarian Position in Development, 1920-1953. The first portion of Tseng’s investigation provides some definitional groundwork for the lapsarian problem. Tseng explains, “what defines supralapsarianism in general is the thesis that in election-reprobation God considers humanity as unfallen, while what defines infralapsarianism is the view that eternal double predestination—before the actual creation of the world—God conceives of fallen humanity as the object of election-reprobation” (p. 61). It is here that Tseng then reevaluates Barth’s position and his self-identification with the former lapsarian position.

Still, Barth’s lapsarian convictions are far more complex than that allowed by a simple ascription to a supralapsarianism position. For Tseng, the complex and dialectical nature of Barth’s lapsarian thinking, along with his doctrine of election outlined in CDII/2, could be described as basically infralapsarian (p. 79). Thus, the second portion of Tseng’s investigation seeks to establish this conclusion further by chronologically examining the development of Barth’s lapsarian position from Römerbrief II (1920-1921) to CDIV/1 (1951-1953). This latter section comprises the majority of the book and Tseng does well in guiding the reader to his intended conclusions. Tseng concludes that regardless of Barth’s avowed sympathy for the supralapsarian ordering of divine decrees, “Barth’s Christocentric doctrine of election . . . has in fact been a robustly complex scheme in which supra- and infralapsarian theological incentives and patterns of thinking . . . have been dialectically interwoven” (p. 290). In other words, a simple ascription to a supralapsarianism in Barth’s theology is just that—simple.

Those familiar with the landscape of Karl Barth and Barth studies will be able to examine the investigation of this book with more scrutiny than others. This is not a book written with a general readership in mind. It is both technical and dense, but rich with insight and theological reflection. If anything the reader will walk away encouraged that new explorations in theological studies are possible, which makes this title a perfect fit for the series in which it resides. This is a book that I can recommend for those interested or invested in Barth studies. It is a new page turned in the complex study of one of the twentieth centuries most influential figure. Still, for those who are looking for an entrance ramp into the conversation, I would recommend looking elsewhere.


I received a review copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.

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