Book Reviews

Book Review: “Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology” by Shao Kai Tseng

kbitShao Kai Tseng’s Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology is a thorough examination of Barth’s lapsarian position. There are two major positions in Reformed circles regarding how God ordered the divine decrees. Supralapsarianism teaches that God decreed election (who would be saved) and reprobation (who would be condemned) prior to the Fall, while infralapsarianism teaches that God first decrees the Fall, then election and reprobation (among other things). Not all Reformed thinkers hold to one of these two positions. For a fuller explanation, see here, or look more deeply at the book. Barth, historically, has been understood as a supralapsarian, and even at times explicitly claimed that position for himself. Tseng argues, however, that Barth’s position is truly infralapsarian.

Tseng argues for his thesis through an examination of Barth’s developing thought. He begins with Barth’s earliest works and then traces his thought on problems of atonement, decree, and redemption throughout his life. Tseng interacts with numerous interpreters of Barth, utilizing them to support his theory or showing where they are mistaken.

The two greatest difficulties with the book are linked. Tseng’s tone is relentlessly even, such that there are few breaks for readers to pause and consider the contents, and few examples of application of the texts are given. This means that there is little reason given to investigate the central topic of the book: Barth’s lapsarian position. Why, exactly, does Barth’s lapsarian position actually matter to us now? Other than scratching a curious itch, what application does it have? Surely, for historical reasons, it is good to know where Barth ought to line up, but beyond that Tseng doesn’t give much of a reason for seeing why this impacts broader theological studies.

Of course, that doesn’t mean the book is without merit. Those deeply interested in Barth will want to engage with it and debate its contents. Moreover, because Tseng looks deeply at Barth’s developing thought, it provides some analysis of Barth’s overall theology.

Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology is dry and fairly esoteric. For those who are deeply interested in Barthian thought, however, this will be necessary reading, particularly if one wants to engage in Barth’s doctrine of election. If one wishes to delve deeply into Barthian thought and Reformed disputes over lapsarian positions, this is a good read, but its audience is limited to that group.

The Good

+Exposes readers to large amounts of Barth’s thought
+Utilizes interpreters of Barth well
+Detailed look at the central topic

The Bad

-Little reason offered to pursue central topic
-Tone doesn’t put much “life” in the text itself

Disclaimer: I was provided with a review copy of the book by the publisher. I was not required to provide any specific kind of feedback whatsoever.


Shao Kai Tseng, Karl Barth’s Infralapsarian Theology (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 2016).


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About J.W. Wartick

J.W. Wartick is a Lutheran, feminist, Christ-follower. A Science Fiction snob, Bonhoeffer fan, Paleontology fanboy and RPG nerd.


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