God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism

God Owes Us Nothing: A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism

by Leszek Kolakowski

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God Owes Us Nothing reflects on the centuries-long debate in Christianity: how do we reconcile the existence of evil in the world with the goodness of an omnipotent God, and how does God's omnipotence relate to people's responsibility for their own salvation or damnation. Leszek Kolakowski approaches this paradox as both an exercise in theology and in revisionist Christian history based on philosophical analysis. Kolakowski's unorthodox interpretation of the history of modern Christianity provokes renewed discussion about the historical, intellectual, and cultural omnipotence of neo-Augustinianism.

"Several books a year wrestle with that hoary conundrum, but few so dazzlingly as the Polish philosopher's latest."—Carlin Romano, Washington Post Book World

"Kolakowski's fascinating book and its debatable thesis raise intriguing historical and theological questions well worth pursuing."—Stephen J. Duffy, Theological Studies

"Kolakowski's elegant meditation is a masterpiece of cultural and religious criticism."—Henry Carrigan, Cleveland Plain Dealer

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780226189499
Publisher: University of Chicago Press
Publication date: 11/09/2012
Sold by: Barnes & Noble
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 248
File size: 377 KB

About the Author

Leszek Kolakowski (1927-2009) was professor of philosophy at the University of Warsaw until the Polish political crisis of March 1968 when he was formally expelled. He then moved to universities in North America and the United Kingdom. From 1981 to 1994 he was a professor in the Committee on Social Thought and the department of philosophy at the University of Chicago. He is best known for his critical analyses of Marxist thought, especially his three-volume history, Main Currents of Marxism (1976). In his later work, he increasingly focused on philosophical and religious questions. He was the author of numerous books.

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God Owes Us Nothing

A Brief Remark on Pascal's Religion and on the Spirit of Jansenism

By Leszek Kolakowski

The University of Chicago Press

Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-226-45053-7


Why Did the Catholic Church Condemn the Teaching of Saint Augustine?

We are going to talk about what is perhaps the most formidable and intractable puzzle of Christian thinking — the confrontation of divine grace with the human free will — not in order to depict its centuries-long and very confusing history or, God forbid, to contribute to its solution, but to see how this puzzle became the focus of a struggle between modernity and reaction embodied respectively in Jesuit and Jansenist doctrines in the seventeenth century, how Saint Augustine became a victim of this battle, and what role was played in it by Pascal.

Grace: internal, external, habitual, sufficient, efficient, justifying, actual, prevenient, sanctifying, incongruous, perfect, imperfect, preparatory, stimulating (excitans), irresistible, versatile, equilibrated;

Grace: of adoption, of regeneration, of inhabitation, of sanity, of medicine.

This is a list, by no means exhaustive, of adjectives and nouns employed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century theological polemics to single out various kinds or various sides of divine grace. At first glance the list may look terrifying and suggest an extremely intricate battlefield which requires an enormous effort and erudition to be properly understood. In reality, while the controversy about grace was indeed obscured by a huge number of distinctions — invented for defensive or offensive purposes but adding little or nothing to the substance of the debate — the core of the problem was fairly simple (insofar as anything is simple in theology), and it is not very hard to grasp. Since, however, we are dealing with the problem of grace in the context of Jansenist-Jesuit strife, it seems reasonable first to state it as it was actually stated and phrased in this very context, and only later to reduce it to the basics, to skim over rapidly the antecedents of the quarrel and to try to reflect upon its meaning in the vicissitudes of the Counter-Reformation.

Within two centuries of the beginning of the Great Reformation, the Catholic Church issued a number of official doctrinal documents dealing, among other things, with the questions of divine grace, predestination, free choice, and the role of human will in people's salvation or damnation. The most important are: the bull Exsurge Domine (1520) condemning 41 heretical or scandalous propositions of Martin Luther; the decrees of the fifth and sixth sessions of the Council of Trent (1547); the bull Ex Omnibus Afflictionibus (1567) condemning 79 statements by Michael Baius; the bull Cum Occasione (1653) condemning 5 statements attributed to Cornelius Jansenius; and the constitution Unigenitus (1713) condemning 101 propositions of Pasquier Quesnel. The number of books devoted to the subject is immense; this was the core of the theological debate, the question par excellence which more than anything else — in theological terms — separated all churches, sects, and schools in Europe from each other. Lutherans and Calvinists, Arminians and Gomarists, Jansenists, Jesuits, Thomists — all defined their doctrinal stance first by giving their own interpretation of the canonical texts, in particular Paul's letter to the Romans: do we human creatures contribute in any way to our salvation and, if so, in what way? In no other concept are all the crucial aspects of Christian faith so concentrated as in that of grace: original sin, redemption, salvation, God the merciful, God the avenger.

Jansenists hardly ever called themselves "Jansenists," of course; the name was coined by their Jesuit enemies almost at the beginning of the controversy; it suggested a kind of a new sect set up by one recently deceased theologian. Jansenius's followers called themselves disciples of Augustine, whose authority had been unshakable in Christianity. They insisted that they — and their master, Jansenius — had nothing new to say; they simply followed and repeated the most traditional teaching of the Church, which conformed to the Gospels and to the epistles of Saint Paul and was codified in Augustinian theology. The "Molinist" doctrine, on the other hand, was, they argued, a novelty in the Catholic Church, even though it brought back to life the most dangerous heresy of the Pelagians or semi-Pelagians (the so-called "Marsilians"). The Jesuit writers were indeed in an awkward position when they were challenged by the authority of Augustine, and most of the time they preferred to avoid the issue. When pressed on this point, they either issued gratuitous denials or sometimes — not often — pointed out that the great saint, much as he deserved respect, was not infallible, after all, and his writings were not dogmatically binding; they also averred that their own theory of grace was perfectly in keeping with the teaching of Thomas Aquinas, whose authority they often invoked. They accused the Jansenists, however, of being tainted with the horrors of the Calvinist heresy.

Good arguments may be advanced to show that both sides were right in their accusations. Jansenists were on firm ground in saying that they were faithful to the Augustinian teaching, and quite justified in scenting Pelagian errors in the Jesuit theology. The Jesuits were no less right in demonstrating the fundamental conformity of Jansenist tenets with Calvin's theory of predestination. This amounts to saying that Calvin was, on this point, a good Augustinian and that, by condemning Jansenius, the Church was in effect condemning — without, of course, stating it explicitly — Augustine himself, its own greatest theological authority. The pronouncements and the anathemas of the Council of Trent left some ambiguities which both Jesuits and Jansenists could plausibly interpret in their favor; the successive condemnations of Baius, Jansenius, and Quesnel, however, sealed the fate of the Augustinian tradition on this crucial point in the Catholic world. This was a momentous event in the history of Christianity and thus in the European history of ideas, not a long-forgotten quarrel of hair-splitting medieval minds.

Jansenius's Augustinus appeared in Lovanium in 1640, slightly over two years after the author's demise; the Jesuits, who had unsuccessfully tried to prevent publication, started their anti-Jansenist campaign immediately. They were not quite wrong in insisting that the other side had been the first to incite this squabble, but this was when nobody had ever heard of "Jansenism"; Saint-Cyran's attacks on Father Garasse appeared in 1626. There is no good answer to the question of when, precisely, to date the birth of Jansenism; much as the movement, later on, had a clear and strong awareness of a common cause and in fact acted, in many ways, as a kind of a party, it had never been set up in a formal way and could not do so without destroying itself. Saint-Cyran was arrested on Richelieu's order in May 1638 on the pretext of doctrinal error in the question of "attrition"; this was an important issue that was to appear time and again in Jansenist literature; it had a doctrinal and psychological — but not logically compelling — connection with the question of predestination and grace. In the same year Antoine le Maître — the nephew of Antoine Arnauld — left his worldly professional life to retire, as a layman, in the Port-Royal monastery, the first of the "solitaires." Once Arnauld's Fréquente Communion was published in 1643 one may speak of a conscious "movement."

Augustinus, Jansenius's magnum opus, is an immensely long theological treatise divided into three volumes. The first deals with the Pelagian heresy; the second with the grace given to the first couple in Paradise and the state of fallen nature; the third with "the grace of Christ the Savior." Heretical ideas were to be discovered in all three volumes but especially in the last. The work is provided with a number of approbatur and with the customary caveat expressing the author's readiness to submit his views to the judgment of the Church. Quotations from Augustine's works fill a very substantial part of the text; among other fathers, Prosper and Fulgentius (both followers of Augustine) are quoted fairly frequently; only occasionally do we find reference to medieval authorities: Anselm, Bernard of Clairvaux, Thomas Aquinas, Bonaventure.

There is no need to depict here all the innumerable intrigues, plots, accusations, and counter-accusations during the almost thirteen years that elapsed between the printing of Augustinus and the papal bull. The first decisive attempt to obtain the official condemnation of Jansenius took place in July 1649, when the syndic of the Faculty of Theology, Nicolas Cornet, a pupil of the Jesuits and with a reputation for being their servant, tried to prompt the Sorbonne to condemn five anonymous statements which everybody knew he attributed to Jansenius. The maneuver fizzled out, in spite of the fairly strong influence the Jesuits had by then managed to build up at the Sorbonne; shortly thereafter, however, a collective letter was dispatched to the Holy See by a large group of anti-Jansenist bishops, demanding the condemnation of those very statements. The request did not attribute the authorship specifically to Jansenius but claimed that such opinions were being spread by some doctors. This unusual procedure proved efficacious.

The Apostolic See was apparently not enthusiastic about the resumption of a quarrel which had lasted for many decades, on an almost intractable question. Molina's celebrated treatise on the agreement of human free will with the gifts of grace and divine providence, the classic text of what Augustinians perceived as brazen, modern Pelagianism, was published in 1588, three years after the birth of Jansenius. It was attacked by Thomists, especially of the Dominican order, it produced a hostile commotion in various universities, and its doctrinal soundness was even examined, though without a damning verdict, by a special commission during the pontificate of Clement VIII. Under the next pontiff, Paul V, the Holy Office issued a decree prohibiting public discussion on the question "de auxiliis" and demanding that all books on the subject, even written in the form of commentaries on Saint Thomas, be first examined by the Inquisition. The injunction was twice repeated by Urban VIII but could not be properly enforced. Rome clearly wanted to avoid a major dispute that would set powerful orders against each other, spread to the entire body of the Church and split it. The condemnation of Jansenius might seem an accident in the sense that it was almost forced on the pope (who, for that matter, was not a theologian either by education or by inclination). But it was to turn out that, after decades of strong opposition in the most prestigious centers of Catholic learning, Lovanium and Paris, the Jesuit spirit of modernity did win. Both sides, the defenders and the attackers of the late bishop, sent their delegations to Rome to explain their position and to influence the tribunal and the pope.

The Jansenist strategy, from the very beginning, was, first, to prove that the five statements were arbitrarily concocted by Cornet or by other Molinists, and could not be found in Jansenius's text (apart from the first statement, but this, they claimed, had been altered by their detractors to suit their sinister purposes); second, that all the statements, as phrased, were ambiguous and could be interpreted either in an orthodox or in a heretical sense; third, that the aim of the Jesuits was to obtain the condemnation of Saint Augustine on the pretext of a condemnation of Jansenius. They took the same line of defense both before and after the bull of 1653, even though, understandably enough, once they faced the formal condemnation they tended rather to emphasize the fact that nobody — in particular neither Jansenius nor they — defended the prohibited doctrine. Arnauld even argued that the papal constitution condemned the heresy in the abstract and not in Jansenius's sense, the latter's book being only an "occasion" ("cum occasione impressionis libri, cui titulus Augustinus Cornelii Iansenii ...") for the decree. This device was rather unconvincing; while the bull, indeed, does not use exactly the expression "in sensu Iansenii," it clearly says that its target is his opinions ("inter alias eius [Iansenii] opiniones") and includes a proviso that the pontiff does not thereby approve other opinions expressed in the book ("non intendemus tamen per hanc declarationem ... aprobare ullatenus alias opiniones, quae continentur in praedicto libro Cornelii Iansenii"). One may imagine, certainly, a condemnation phrased in even stronger terms but the existing text leaves no room for doubt: five propositions, declared to be Jansenius's "opinions" are declared heretical (some of them being in addition "false," "blasphemous," "scandalous," "impudent," etc.).

It should be mentioned that the book had been condemned earlier on, in the bull In Eminenti in 1642; this, however, did not satisfy the Society of Jesus, because no particular tenet was included in the verdict and the point was rather to blame the author for breaching the order of silence imposed on theologians in the matters of grace and predestination (but the injunction had not reached Brussels). Jansenius himself could not, of course, be branded as a heretic, as the condemnation was posthumous, and one became a heretic, according to canon law, not just by having uttered a heretical sentence but by defending it, ecclesiastical warnings and condemnations notwithstanding; a heretic by definition has to be obstinate. Posthumous condemnation did not affect the person of the author, only the doctrine.

In the following remarks I confront, as basic texts (apart from Augustinus), first, a series of Arnauld's writings dealing with the subject; second, the two-volume attack on Arnauld by "the Calvinist Pope" Pierre Jurieu; and third, two works by Father Franciscus Annatus, the famous Jesuit polemicist (and, for a number of years, the king's confessor and one of the chief organizers of the persecutions); the discussion of the five propositions is one of the main themes of Jurieu's work, along with a lot of personal abuse. This confrontation is instructive, as all three men were immensely erudite in theology and in the history of the Church, and one hardly imagines that any of them might have missed any relevant historical or theological point supporting their arguments. Arnauld argues that the five statements taken in the heretical sense are indeed a part of the abominable Calvinist doctrine and are opposed to everything Jansenius taught. Whereas interpreted in the orthodox sense, if there is one, they simply express the Augustinian tradition which has always been Catholic theology par excellence. Jurieu insists, on the contrary, that the statements are not very ambiguous, that they are indeed Augustinian, that they reflect properly Jansenius's meaning and are, yes, Calvinist; moreover he says that Arnauld knows very well what is at stake; he himself accepts the Augustinian-Calvinist-Jansenist soteriology but, trying to remain in the papist Church for opportunistic reasons, he invents (mala fide) nonexistent differences between Jansenius and the reformed faith. Annatus, the first of whose two works under scrutiny was published before the bull and the second shortly thereafter, displays his fairness by making distinctions between Jansenist and Calvinist doctrines on some of the five points and opposes both doctrines to genuine Catholic dogma, conforming, as he avers, to Saint Augustine's teaching and to the "Sensus Alienus," i.e., to what the Jansenists said (wrongly) was the real target of the bull.

Ultimately the whole problem boils down to the perplexing difficulty in reconciling two tenets of Christianity: God is omnipotent and it is impossible to imagine that his will might be foiled by men; men are responsible for their damnation or salvation.

Does God Command Impossible Things?

The first proposition: "some of God's commandments are impossible for just people — with the forces they actually have — who will and try [to fulfil them]; and they lack the grace whereby those commandments would become possible."


Excerpted from God Owes Us Nothing by Leszek Kolakowski. Copyright © 1995 The University of Chicago. Excerpted by permission of The University of Chicago Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Pt. 1: Why Did the Catholic Church Condemn the Teaching of Saint Augustine?
Does God Command Impossible Things?
Does God Compel Us to Be Good?
Although Unfree, We Are Free
Can We Reject God?
For Whom Did Jesus Die?
What Was Wrong with Augustine?
A Remark on the Antecedents of the Quarrel
A Note on the Provinciales
How to Avail Oneself of the Heavenly Bread
How to Repent: Saint-Cyran's Answer
A Note on Philosophy
Infants in Hell
The Gnostic Temptation
Winners and Losers
Pt. 2: Pascal's Sad Religion
Pascal's Heresy
The Strategy of Conversion
Our Death, Our Body, Our Self-Deception
Spotting God in the Lifeless Universe
Good Reason, Bad Reason, Heart
Gambling for Faith: The Discontinuity of the Universe
Pascal's Modernity
A Note on Politics
Pascal after the Pelagian Conquest
Was Pascal an "Existential" Thinker?
A Note on Skepticism and Pascal's Last Word

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