Jansenism and Augustinianism on the Irresistibility of Grace

by Matthew Gaetano

Pierre Bayle (d. 1706), the rather enigmatic Huguenot writer who had a profound influence on the Enlightenment, expressed considerable frustration with the fine distinctions that often features in scholastic theology, whether Roman Catholic or Reformed. The Regensburg Forum seeks to take those details seriously, as it talks about those Calvinists, Thomists, Jansenists, and others who sought to remain faithful (in one way or another) to the Augustinian tradition. Here is what Bayle thought about such an enterprise (in his article on St. Augustine from his famous Dictionnaire):

The approbation which councils and popes have given St. Augustine, on the doctrine of grace, adds greatly to his glory; for, without that, the Jesuits, in these latter times, would have highly advanced their banner against him, and pulled down his authority. … It is certain, that the engagement which the church of Rome is under to respect St. Augustine’s system, casts her into a perplexity which is very ridiculous.

It is manifest to all men, who examine things without prejudice, and with sufficient abilities, that his doctrine and that of Jansenius, Bishop of Ypres, are one and the same; so that we cannot, without indignation, behold the court of Rome boasting to have condemned Jansenius, and yet preserved St. Augustine in all his glory. These are two things altogether inconsistent.

More than this, the Council of Trent, in condemning Calvin’s doctrine of free will, did necessarily condemn that of St. Augustine; for no Calvinist ever denied, or can deny, the concurrence of the human will, and the liberty of the soul, in the sense which St. Augustine has given to the words concurrence, co-operation, and liberty. There is not a Calvinist, but acknowledges free will, and its use in conversion, if that word be understood according to St. Augustine’s idea. Those condemned by the Council of Trent do not reject free will, but as it signifies a liberty of indifferency.

The Thomists reject it also under that notion, and yet pass for very good Catholics. Behold another strange scene! The physical predetermination of the Thomists, the necessity of St. Augustine, that of the Jansenists, and that of Calvin, are all one and the same thing at the bottom; and yet the Thomists disown the Jansenists, and both of them think it a calumny to accuse them of teaching the same doctrine with Calvin. If one might be suffered to judge of another’s thoughts, here would be great room for saying, that doctors are, in this case, great comedians, and are only acting a part, and that they cannot but be sensible, that the Council of Trent either condemned a mere chimera, which never entered into the thoughts of the Calvinists, or else, that it condemned, at the same time, both St. Augustine, and the physical determination. So that, when they boast of having St. Augustine’s faith, and never to have varied in the doctrine, it is only meant to preserve decorum, and to save the system from destruction, which a sincere confession of the truth must necessarily occasion. […]

The Arminians deal very sincerely with this father of the church: they might have perplexed the world, as well as the Jesuits; but they thought it much better to give up St. Augustine wholly to their adversaries, and to acknowledge him for as great a predestinarian as Calvin. Without doubt the Jesuit would have done the same, if they durst have condemned a doctor whom the popes and councils had approved.

There are some fascinating elements in this passage. Bayle thinks that Thomists, Jansenists, and Calvinists are basically saying the same thing regarding the relationship of grace and free choice, which leads him to scoff at the Thomistic condemnation of Jansenism and Calvinism as well as the fact that even Jansenists take offense when they are called Calvinists. (Bayle is certainly well-aware of the fact that the Jesuits even referred to the Dominican Thomistic position (say, that of Domingo Bañez) as falling into the “heresy” of Calvinism as well.) And he thinks that the Jesuits and Arminians have both departed from Augustine’s strong position on predestination but that the Arminians are a lot more honest about it because the Jesuits are hemmed in by the longstanding approval of Augustine as a Doctor of the Church by popes and councils.

In the face of Bayle’s warnings, I still think that it can be fruitful to see why Augustinians in the early-modern period did not allow Jansenism to claim the Augustinian legacy without a challenge. This is worth doing because, as Shaun Blanchard has discussed here at TRF, it is hard to overestimate the importance of Jansenism to our understanding of early-modern Catholicism. This is also worth doing because, if we don’t investigate these debates, we might end up reducing the controversies of that period to those between (condemned) Augustinian Jansenists and the Jesuits. The consequence of such an account would be to forget other Augustinian theologians who avoided the troubles experienced by the Jansenists. A couple of months ago, I mentioned the importance of the anti-Jansenist Augustinian theologian, Gianlorenzo Berti. This Augustinian friar didn’t see things as Bayle did. He thought that the differences between his Augustinian school and Jansenism (as well as Calvinism) were crucial.

But instead of talking about free choice, as Bayle did, I wanted to highlight a couple of passages where Berti explains the second condemned proposition from Jansen’s work: “In the state of fallen nature one never resists interior grace.” (All five are listed in Shaun’s piece mentioned above.) Of course, this article is of special interest at TRF because it obviously resonates with the “I” of the modern Calvinist TULIP (though one should note that the TULIP is not as essential to the historic Reformed tradition as some might think).

In Berti’s De theologicis disciplinis, he takes up the second proposition in several places. Here are a few that seem especially interesting.

At one point, Berti says that the condemned proposition would be true if Jansenists would limit it to efficacious grace (to be discussed in a moment). In other words, efficacious grace can be referred to as something that is never resisted. But it is heretical, he says, to assert that any grace is irresistible. Berti compares the difficulty with condemning this Jansenist proposition to the Nestorian controversy over calling Mary the Christ-bearer. Since Nestorius used the term to signify that Mary gave birth to a “pure human being” instead of a divine person with two natures, it was right for the Church to proscribe this term, even though one can obviously say that Mary is a Christ-bearer in a way that is entirely in keeping with orthodox teaching. Likewise, the sense of the proposition in Jansen is false because he is denying that any grace can be resisted, even though he is right that there are some graces that are never resisted. Despite these complexities, Berti believes that the Church is correct in forbidding such dangerous terminology (168).

The key theological issue here, for Berti the Augustinian friar, is that Jansen does not acknowledge any actual grace distinct from efficacious grace. He quotes Jansen as saying that “the sufficient grace which the scholastics have brought into theology” is opposed to the teaching of Augustine, is made up by the semi-Pelagians, and is just a useless and pernicious idea (181). So, the controversy between Berti and Jansenism is in part over the reality of sufficient grace, with Jansenists denying it and the “approved” Augustinian school affirming it.

The distinction between efficient or efficacious and sufficient grace is a complex one. According to Berti, his Jesuit opponents who followed the teaching of Luis de Molina (d. 1600)–also opposed by Jansen–used this distinction in a problematic way. The Molinists held that God gives grace sufficient for the will to act. But the grace only becomes effective for some supernatural act of faith, hope, love, etc., or for conversion, if that sufficient grace is given determination by the human will. So, to simplify the point a bit, God gives sufficient grace, but the human will is the determining factor–inasmuch as the human will accepts or rejects the sufficient grace–in whether that divine grace has its effect.  By contrast, for the Dominican Thomists and Augustinians, sufficient grace will only produce pious desires, etc. It inspires; it illuminates. Sufficient grace does not produce conversion or supernatural acts on its own. Efficient grace is when God acts on the soul in a way that is intrinsically efficacious. Such divine activity actually brings about its effect. Efficient grace is that by which the supernatural act actually takes place.

This distinction of sufficient and efficient grace deserves more attention in future posts. But the main point for Berti is that, since Jansen rejects sufficient grace (i.e., he thinks that all actual grace is efficient grace), he ends up arguing that interior grace is never resisted. While Berti think that it is entirely appropriate to say that efficient grace is never resisted, the Augustinian believes that it is necessary to insist that there are some ways that God acts on the soul which can be resisted.

Berti argues this point by pointing to Scripture. Bethsaida and Chorazin are said to have been able to believe, something which requires sufficient grace. And they obviously did not actually believe; God did not will to remove their stony hearts (with efficient grace). These cities did not receive efficient grace, but, for Berti, it is still the case that the members of these cities rejected the activity of God on their hearts. Perhaps even more relevant is Berti’s reference to Stephen’s cry in Acts 7:51 that “you always resist the Holy Spirit.”

Berti then moves to Augustine. Berti mentions a few passages, but the clearest is arguably Augustine’s statement in the Exposition on the Psalms that the heart of some “is made hard against the shower of his grace” (195-96).

Berti, though, needs to deal with some evidence on Jansen’s side of the argument. There are those famous passages like Romans 9:19: “Who resists His will?”  Once again, Berti acknowledges that efficient grace is never resisted. God’s (consequent and absolute) willing is never frustrated; it is infallible. Nonetheless, there are other passages of Scripture and in the works of Augustine, which, in Berti’s view, provide a basis for sufficient grace–for inspiring, illuminating grace that works on the soul and that ends up being rejected before producing its effect. For the Augustinian friar, this frustration is ultimately rooted in God’s will to permit the human will’s rejection of this grace. But this sufficient grace is still–to oversimplify a bit–part of God’s plan to extend His grace even to those who will eventually reject it.

Future posts will certain deal with debates over predestination, reprobation, sufficient and efficient grace, free choice, and other related topics that took place during this period. I offer these thoughts here to show that Berti, as an Augustinian friar and as a theologian devoted to the teaching of St. Augustine, believed that Jansen and his followers failed to do justice to Scripture and the Doctor of Grace. This was not part of some game–as Bayle argues above–to maintain the Roman Church’s approval of Augustine, while obviously compromising his fundamental teachings. Berti thinks that Jansen could have said that interior grace is never resisted (one of the condemned propositions), if he had only clarified that he was referring to efficient grace. Without these distinctions, in Berti’s view, Jansenism ends up ignoring fallen man’s stubborn rejection of the Spirit’s actual inspiration and illumination.

Of course, Bayle’s condemnation of all of these debates and parties continues to haunt us. But it seems that historians and theologians should, at the very least, attempt to do justice to the theologians of this period who thought that these fine distinctions between Jansenism, “approved” Augustinianism, Thomism, Molinism, and so on were worthy of clarification, debate, and even ecclesiastical direction and censure.

7 thoughts on “Jansenism and Augustinianism on the Irresistibility of Grace

  1. It’s certainly something that should be done before we make confident claims about Jansenism.

    But Berti’s account *might* help us to know what to look for in Jansen’s Augustinus. Indeed, I would be very happy if someone could show from the text itself that Berti was actually misreading or misunderstanding Jansen’s work.

  2. Kolakowski did, but I get the feeling from most other recent literature that no one else has. I apologise if I have unintentionally smeared anyone, not my aim; I would certainly love to hear from someone who has read it. And thank you for the post – it was informative and enjoyable.

    1. Berti refers to Scriptural examples where the work of the Holy Spirit, etc., is resisted. People in the Bible aren’t only resisting external “graces” like preaching.

      In terms of theology, Berti thinks that sufficient grace is granted to the non-elect. I haven’t read him say what follows, but I would assume that those reprobates who receive these illuminating graces, etc., and reject them are going to be more responsible for their condemnation than those–say, unbaptized infants–who (perhaps) do not receive sufficient grace.

  3. Can we not say, as Catholics, that the POTENTIAL for Christ’s sacrifice on the cross is of infinite value, and that the SACRIFICE is sufficient as a source, for all to be saved, but in point of fact God has not willed to grant the ultimate fruit of final perseverance to any except the elect?

    Or rather, perhaps another view altogether should be taken- God’s sufficient grace is not something that is given to some and not others, and it is not logically prior or after any man’s choice, I would say that it is universal and penetratingly available, constantly. It is like the air we breathe. Sufficient grace is an ocean in which we swim. It is constantly inundating and inspiring and prodding man on toward God. There is no place where it is not.

    But efficacious grace is a current. It is the Victorious delight of grace. But that victory is cumulative. Sufficient grace must be a mounting crescendo to lead to the victory of efficacious grace, to overcome our cupidity.

    But if we swim in a sea of sufficient grace, what then will direct the heart to the currents of victorious grace, efficacious grace? I would say PERHAPS our continued cooperation with what is offered to us in sufficient grace, our wills, which CAN NEVER be conceived of as operating apart from that same sufficient grace.

    So sufficient grace is resistible. But its power is in its immanence. What will acts apart from it when it chooses to do good and avoid evil? Where are such choices made that are purely natural? I would say there is not a single choice for good that is made that is made apart from sufficient grace. And every act of our own that strengthens it leads to a cumulating effect that will eventually propel us toward efficacious grace.

    But can we frustrate the mounting crescendo? Yes, through our own inaction, which is a withdrawal from grace.

    Can you comment on this and perhaps help refine it?

  4. Thanks for commenting!

    As far as your first point, Aquinas would agree that perseverance to the end requires special divine assistance: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/2109.htm#article10

    And he would say that the predestined will infallibly be saved and that their number is certain: http://www.newadvent.org/summa/1023.htm#article6

    As far as sufficient grace, this is a difficult issue. Your language of a “current” resonates in some way with Domingo de Soto’s discussion just after Trent of God always “paratissimus”–ever at the ready, standing at the door and knocking. But I believe that sufficient grace in the early-modern period goes beyond this sort of account and involves an elevation by which a supernatural act becomes possible (though it only becomes actual with efficient grace). Here is the twentieth-century Dominican theologian, Garrigou-Lagrange: https://www.ewtn.com/library/Theology/grace6.htm. The second part should be especially relevant.

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