Jansen, Cornelius

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Cornelius Jansen


Bishop Theologian

Education and Theological Influences.

In 1602, Cornelius Jansen entered the University of Louvain, then in the southern Netherlands (today modern Belgium). From his earliest student days he was affected by the teaching of his professor, Jacques Janson, who taught a form of theology that had been developed in the later sixteenth century by the Flemish theologian, Michel de Bay. De Bay's works taught that humankind was utterly wicked and could not hope to achieve salvation without an infusion of God's grace. In addition, his theology stressed divine election, the idea that God chose a small number of sinners to receive his gift of grace. Such teaching was part of the traditional orthodoxy of Roman Catholicism and stretched back to the writings of the ancient bishop and theologian St. Augustine (345–430). In the overheated world of Reformation and Counter-Reformation polemic, however, the Catholic church had come at the time to favor theories of salvation that stressed human participation. Although no papal pronouncements had outlawed ancient Augustinian teachings concerning the necessity of election and divine grace, the counter-reforming Jesuit order, in particular, favored teachings that stressed free will and voluntarism, the notion that human beings might choose or reject God's salvation. Many disputes had raged between the Jesuits and those who held to a more traditional Augustinianism, but in 1611, Pope Paul V had declared further discussions of these questions off limits. His pronouncement on the matter had stressed that the teachings of both the Jesuits and those who upheld the ideas of Augustine were orthodox. Although Jansen seems to have held to the Augustinian position throughout his life, he was cautious never to be drawn publicly into this dispute.


After completing his studies at Louvain, Cornelius Jansen went on to the University of Paris, and there he met his lifelong friend, Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, who later became known as the Abbé de Saint-Cyran. The two decided to work to reform theology, a field of study they believed had become populated with errors and which had sunk into a dry and arid intellectualism. Under Duvergier de Hauranne's influence, Jansen became the head of a seminary in the family's hometown of Bayonne, and in the period between 1612 and 1614, both friends devoted themselves to the study of the works of the early church. Returning to Louvain a few years later, Jansen took over a seminary there, directing the theological study of a number of candidates for the priesthood. At this time, he devoted himself more thoroughly to the study of Augustine, and was said to have read the ancient Father's work at least ten times over the next few years. Through his study he became convinced that the contemporary teaching of the Jesuits were heretical and that they mirrored those of the ancient Pelagians, who had argued that human beings had the freedom to save themselves by choosing or rejecting God's gift of grace. Soon Jansen began to work on his monumental opus, the Augustinus, a work he intended to defend the ancient teachings of Augustine and to condemn the Pelagianism of the contemporary Jesuit order. Powerful forces were arrayed in support of the Jesuits, though, and so Jansen worked for many years on his project secretly.

Success in the Church.

Despite the unconventionality of Jansen's religious ideas, he continued to rise in the church. His career was aided by the fact that he wrote several popular tracts critical of Protestantism. By 1635, he was appointed rector of the University of Louvain, and the following year, he was chosen bishop of Ypres. In this capacity he had a printing press installed in the bishop's palace so that he might supervise a secret printing of the Augustinus. Unfortunately, Jansen died only a few years later, in 1638, when an outbreak of plague struck Ypres. The publication of his famous book was undertaken by several of his friends, and in 1640, the Augustinus finally appeared. The character of the work was dense and learned, and it examined a number of technical points of Augustinian and Pelagian theology. It is hard to imagine now that it became a highly controversial work, but its violation of the papal decree forbidding discussion of the concepts of free will, predestination, and election meant that it was soon the center of a controversy. In France, the followers of Jansen's one-time friend, the Abbé de Saint-Cyran, saw in the work a theological underpinning for their disciplined and austere devotional movement, and they soon became known as "Jansenists." In this way, Jansen's severe Augustinian theology came to be identified with their reform movement, a movement that the Jesuits charged as being little more than a form of "crypto" or secret Calvinism within contemporary France.


William Doyle, Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the Revolution (New York: St. Martin's Press, 2000).

Alexander Sedgwick, Jansenism in Seventeenth-Century France (Charlottesville, Va.: University Press of Virginia, 1977).

F. Ellen Weaver, The Evolution of the Reform of Port Royal (Paris: Beauchesne, 1978).

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