What Is Jansenism? Definition, Principles, and Legacy

Discover the Controversial History of Jansenism

Portrait of Cornelius Otto Jansen
Portrait of Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585-1638).

Museum Catharijneconvent, Utrecht, foto Ruben de Heer

Jansenism is a movement of the Roman Catholic Church that sought reforms in line with the Augustinian doctrine of grace. It is named after its founder, Dutch Catholic theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585–1638), bishop of Ypres in Belgium.

Jansenism flourished within Roman Catholicism mainly in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, but was condemned as heresy by Pope Innocent X in 1653. Jansenism was also condemned in 1713 by Pope Clement XI in his famous Bull Unigenitus.

Key Takeaways: Jansenism

  • Through rigorous study of the writings of St. Augustine (354-430), Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585–1638) came to the conviction that Roman Catholic theologians had deviated from the original doctrines of the Church.
  • Jansen’s most famous work, Augustinus (1640), formed the basis of Jansenism, a movement that emphasized the primacy of God’s grace in human redemption.
  • The Roman Catholic Church banned Augustinus as heretical for attacking the ethics of the Jesuits.
  • Under the leadership of Jean Du Vergier (1581–1643), Jansenism, as the philosophy came to be known, birthed a significant reform movement in the Roman Catholic Church, primarily in France.

Jansenism Definition

Jansenism arose as a controversial renewal movement within Roman Catholicism chiefly in France, but also in Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxemburg, and northern Italy.

In the wake of the Protestant Reformation, many Catholic theologians were divided on their ideas regarding the role of man’s free will versus God’s grace in salvation. Some favored the side of God’s grace excessively, while others gave superiority to man’s free will in the matter. Jansen held firmly to the position of irresistible grace.

As a strict and extreme version of St. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo’s doctrine of grace, Jansenism emphasized the impossibility of humans to obey the Lord’s commandments and experience his redemption without God’s special, divine, irresistible grace. Thus, Jansenism taught that Christ died only for the elect.

Dutch theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen
Engraving of Dutch theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen (1585 - 1638). Public Domain

Jansenism strongly opposed Jesuit theology, arguing that assertions of human freedom compromise God’s divine grace and sovereignty. Indeed, it was the Roman Catholic Jesuits who invented the term “Jansenism” to characterize members of the movement as having beliefs in line with Calvinism, which they opposed as heresy. But adherents of Jansenism saw themselves only as ardent followers of Augustinian theology. In truth, the ideas of Jansenism clashed with the Protestant reformers, affirming that there is no salvation apart from the Roman Catholic Church.

Cornelius Otto Jansen

Cornelius Otto Jansen was born on October 28, 1585, at Accoy, near Leerdam, in Northern Holland (current-day Netherlands). He studied philosophy and theology at the University of Louvain in Belgium and the University of Paris. Jansen was ordained in 1614 and obtained his doctorate in theology in 1617. Later, he was appointed Professor of Theology and Scripture and Rector of the University of Louvain (1635–36). It was here that Jansen formed a significant friendship with French fellow-student, Jean Du Vergier de Hauranne (1581–1643), who later introduced Jansen’s ideas to Catholics in France.

Jansen’s primary contribution as head of the University of Louvain was interpreting the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Old Testament. In 1637 he was consecrated bishop of Ypres, Belgium (1636–38).

Augustinus

Jansen began writing his life’s work, Augustinus, in 1627, and completed revisions in 1638, only a few days before dying of the plague. The work embodies 22 years of studying the writings of St. Augustine. According to Jansen’s own testimony, he read some of Augustine’s pieces at least ten times, and others no less than thirty times, determined to understand and illustrate not his own opinions, but the exact views of the esteemed church father.

Augustinus was not published until 1640, two years after Jansen died. Following his death, the "Jansenist movement" arose under the leadership of Jansen’s friend, Jean Du Vergier.

Augustinus was written within the framework of heated theological controversy in the Roman Catholic Church regarding the relationship between divine grace and human free will, not only against Protestantism but within the Church itself, specifically between Dominicans and Jesuits.

Augustinus, by Cornelius Jansen
Title page of Augustinus, by Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638), 1652 edition. De Agostini Picture Library / Getty Images

The book is divided into three volumes. In the first volume, Jansen gives a historical account of Pelagianism, and St. Augustine's battle against this heresy that exalts the power of free-agency and denies the original depravity of human nature, and, consequently, original sin.

In the second volume, Jansen sets forth the views of Augustine on human nature, both in its primitive purity and in its state of deprivation after the fall of man. Volume three presents Augustine’s ideas regarding predestination of humans and angels, and grace, by which Jesus Christ redeems humans from their fallen state.

The fundamental proposition of the work is that "since the fall of Adam, free-agency exists no longer in man, pure works are a mere gratuitous gift of God, and the predestination of the elect is not an effect of his prescience of our works, but of his free volition."

In Augustinus, Jansen argued compellingly for irresistible grace and against man’s ability to perfect himself. Jansen proposed that without a special grace from God, it is impossible for humans to perform the commands of God. And since the operation of God’s grace is irresistible, humans are victims of either a natural or a supernatural determinism. This dogmatic pessimism was evident in the harshness and moral rigorism of the movement.

Three years after its publication, Augustinus was banned by Pope Urban VIII as heresy and consigned to the index of prohibited books because it attacked the ethics of the Jesuits. But under the leadership of Jean Du Vergier, Jansenism birthed a significant reform movement in the Roman Catholic Church in France.

Five Propositions

In 1650, the Jesuits outlined five propositions associated with Augustinus as proof of its heretical doctrine:

  1. Some commandments of God are impossible for the righteous to obey with the present strength they have, however much they may desire and strive to do so if they also lack the grace with which it is possible.
  2. In the state of fallen nature, grace is irresistible.
  3. In order to be worthy and unworthy in the state of fallen nature, the human being does not require the freedom of necessity, but rather the freedom of compulsion suffices.
  4. The Semi-Pelagians admitted the need for inner prevenient grace for every action, even to begin in the faith, and they were heretics because they desired that grace to be such that the human will could decide to resist it or obey it.
  5. It is Semi-Pelagian to say that Christ died or that he shed his blood for absolutely all.
Jean du Vergier de Hauranne
Engraving of Jean du Vergier de Hauranne (1581-1643) Saint Cyran abbot, Jansenist. Apic / Hulton Archive / Getty Images

These propositions were forwarded to Pope Innocent X, who condemned the work in 1653. Jansenism is considered heresy according to Roman Catholic doctrine because it denies the role of free will in the acceptance and application of grace. Jansenism affirms that God’s impartation of grace cannot be resisted and does not require human consent. The Catholic Catechism states that "God's free initiative demands man's free response." This means that humans can freely accept or refuse God’s gift of grace.

After the death of Jean Du Vergier, Antoine Arnauld (1612–1694) carried the torch of Jansenism. Arnauld was the learned doctor of the Sorbonne, who, in 1643, published De La Fréquente Communion, a work about the basis of the doctrine of predestination as taught by Augustine and Jansen. In 1646, the great French philosopher Blaise Pascal (1623–1662) encountered Jansenism and introduced it to his sister, Jacqueline, who eventually entered the convent of Port-Royal, a center of Jansenism. Along with eighty other doctors, Pascal stood in support of Arnauld in 1656 when he was expelled from Sorbonne.

Portrait of Antoine Arnauld
Portrait of Antoine Arnauld (1612-1694) by Jean-Baptiste de Champaigne. Heritage Images / Contributor / Getty Images 

Legacy and Jansenism Today

The Bull Unigenitus, secured by Louis XIV and the Jesuits in 1713, produced a great disturbance in France and essentially put an end to the Jansenist movement. French Jansenism survived only as the private conviction of a few Catholics and as the guiding spirit of a handful of religious institutions.

Although Jansenism and Augustinus stirred violent controversy, the push for reform eventually led to a religious movement that continues to reverberate outside of France.

No permanent trace of Jansenism remains in Belgium or France, but in Holland, Jansenism led to the formation of the Old Catholic Church. For more than two centuries, the church has popularly been called "Jansenist." Its members reject the name, calling themselves the Old Catholic Church of Holland. The church holds to the doctrines of the first seven ecumenical councils and has set out its position fully in the Declaration of Utrecht in 1889. It maintains a married clergy and since 1932 has been in full communion with the Church of England.

The theological debate spotlighted by Jansenism lives on today in Western Christianity, as does the lasting influence of St. Augustine’s writings, in both Catholic and Protestant branches of the Christian faith.

Sources

  • Dictionary of Theological Terms (p. 242).
  • The Westminster Dictionary of Theological Terms (Second Edition, Revised and Expanded, p. 171).
  • "Jansenism." The Thiselton Companion to Christian Theology (p. 491).
  • "Jansenism." New Dictionary of Theology: Historical and Systematic (Second Edition, pp. 462–463).
  • The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church (3rd ed. rev., p. 867).
  • "Jansen, Cornelius Otto." Who’s Who in Christian history (p. 354).
  • "Jansen, Cornelius Otto (1585–1638)." The Westminster Dictionary of Theologians (First edition, p. 190).
  •  Cyclopædia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature (Vol. 4, p. 771).