The title of this episode is Faith in the Age of Reason, Part 2.
In our last episode we briefly considered Jakob Hermanzoon, the Dutch theologian who’d sat under the tutelage of Theodore Beza, John Calvin’s successor at the Academy in Geneva. We know Hermanzoon better by his Latin name Jacobus Arminius.
Arminius took exception to Beza’s views on predestination and when he became pastor of a church in Amsterdam, created a stir among his Calvinist colleagues. It was while teaching a series of sermons on the Book of Romans that Arminius became convinced Beza had several things wrong. The implication was that because Beza was Calvin’s successor and the standard-bearer for Calvinism, Arminius contradicted Calvin. Things came to a head when Arminius’ colleague Peter Planck began to publicly dispute with him.
Arminius hated controversy, seeing it as a dangerous distraction to the cause of the Gospel and pressed for a synod to deal with the matter, believing once his views were set alongside Scripture, he’d be vindicated.
In 1603, Arminius was called to the University at Leiden to teach when one of the faculty members died. The debate Arminius had been having with Planck was shifted to a new controversy with one of the other professors at Leiden, François Gomaer.
This controversy lasted the next six yrs as the supporters of both Calvinism and Arminius grew in number and determination. The synod Arminius had pressed for was eventually held, but not till nine years after his death in 1609.
In the meantime, just a year after his death, Arminius’ followers gathered his writings and views and issued what they regarded as a formal statement of his ideas. Called the Five Articles of the Remonstrants, or just the Remonstrance, it was a formal proposal to the government of Holland detailing the points of difference that had come to a head over the previous years in the debate between Arminius and Gomaer.
Those 5 points were –
- That the divine decree of predestination is conditioned on Faith, not absolute in Election.
- That the intent of the Atonement is universal;
- Man cannot of himself exercise a saving faith;
- That though the grace of God is a necessary condition of human effort it does not act irresistibly in man; and finally –
- By the enabling power of the Holy Spirit, believers are able to resist sin but are not beyond the possibility of falling from grace.
In 1618, the Dutch Church called the Synod of Dort to answer the Remonstrance. The results of the Synod, called the Canons of Dort, strongly upheld Theodore Beza’s formulation of the Calvinist doctrine of predestination and developed their own five-point response to the Remonstrance.
It comes as a major surprise to most students of Church history to learn that TULIP, or the famous Five Points of Calvinism were a RESPONSE to the challenge of Arminianists; that they’d come up with their 5 points first. Most people who’ve heard of Calvinism and Arminianism have never even heard of the Remonstrance; yet it’s the thing that formalized the debate between the two camps; a debate that’s continued to today and has led to some prolific arguments and controversies among Christians.
Put a Presbyterian elder and Methodist deacon in a room together and let the fun begin!
Now, lest we think the Protestants fell out in the Calvinist-Arminianist brouhaha while the Catholics sat back, ate popcorn and watched the show, realize things were FAR from being all united and just one big happy family over in the Roman sector of the Church. Catholics were no monolithic entity at this time. It was a mixed bag of different groups and viewpoints with their own internal disagreements.
In the late 16th and early 17th Cs there was a long dispute between the Jesuits and the Dominicans over how divine grace and human free-will interacted.
In the late 17th C, Pope Innocent XI, spent his reign playing a power game with Louis XIV and the Gallic theologians who believed in the authority of the Church, but not the Pope.
More serious was the rise of Jansenism. This movement grew out of the work of Cornelius Jansen, a professor at Louvain University. Jansen published a book in 1640 titled Augustinus, in which he stated what he believed were the doctrines of Augustine. Jansen sounded a lot like Calvin and argued that divine grace can’t be resisted, meaning it overrides the human will. He fiercely opposed the doctrine of the Jesuits that salvation depended on cooperation between divine grace and human will. So, the Jansenists believed in predestination, which meant that although they were Catholics they were in some ways more like Calvinists.
Jansenism proved a thorn in the side of the Catholic Church, and especially the Jesuits, for quite a while. Its leading exponent after Jansen himself was Antoine Arnauld, an intellectual and cultural giant of the 17th C. Arnauld corresponded with such philosophical luminaries as Descartes and Leibniz. He possessed a penetrating critical faculty; and as a theologian he was no less brilliant.
But back to our previous theme, stated at the beginning of the last episode – Protestant Scholasticism, or the Age of Confessionalism, in which the various branches of the Protestant church began to coalesce around distinctive statements of their theology.
The Anglican Church of England occupied a curious position in the midst of all this. On the one hand it was a Protestant church, having been created in the 1530s when King Henry VIII took command of the existing Catholic Church in England. The Lutheran sympathies of his advisers, like Thomas Cranmer and Thomas Cromwell, influenced the new church, but so too did the Catholic tendencies of later monarchs like Charles I and churchmen such as William Laud. Unlike other churches throughout Europe, the Church of England rarely had to struggle for the soul of its nation with another movement. So it had never been forced to define its beliefs and practices in the face of opposition to others. By the turn of the 18th C, the one thing all Anglicans agreed on was a shared distrust of Roman Catholics.
The doctrinal openness of the Church of England meant that it was in England that religious free-thinking had the greatest chance of taking root. In the late 16th C it was still possible to be burnt at the stake in England for denying the Trinity, but a C later those who asserted such things had no need to fear anything more damaging than government censure and a deluge of refutations by the clergy. The Church of England prided itself on its doctrinal orthodoxy, understood in terms of common sense, and a middle way between what were regarded as the bizarre excesses of continental Protestants and Catholics. This middle way was based on what its followers felt was a healthy respect, but refusal to fawn, for tradition. This took shape in the principle of the apostolic succession, an ancient Christian notion we’ve examined in previous episodes. Apostolic succession claims that Christian doctrines can be known to be trustworthy because they are taught in churches which were founded by the apostles or their immediate followers. In other words, great trust was placed in the notion of an unbroken chain of tradition going back to the apostles themselves. It was this ‘apostolic succession’, together with the Scriptures, themselves handed down as part of this authoritative tradition, that mainstream Anglicans felt guaranteed the trustworthiness of their church. By contrast, many thought, the Catholics had added to that tradition over the centuries, while the more extreme Protestants had subtracted from it.
There was considerable tension between the churches. The worst example was France, where after the Revocation of the Treaty of Nantes in 1685 Protestants were an actively persecuted minority: they felt especially threatened by surrounding Catholics, and all the more determined never to give in to them. Persecution only strengthened their resolve and inspired sympathy from Protestants throughout the Continent, who by the same token became increasingly hostile to Catholicism.
In England, Catholicism was the minority faith: officially banned, its priests had to operate in secrecy.
There’s a story from this time of a Catholic bishop who, functioning as a kind of religious spy, held Mass in an east London pub for a congregation of Irish workers disguised as beer-guzzling patrons.
Many people were scared of Catholics, whom they regarded as tools of a foreign power; those sneaky French or the Pope. There was also great suspicion of ‘Dissenters’—members of any churches other than the Church of England. ‘Dissenters’ and Catholics alike, it was feared, were eating away at the social fabric of the country, and the policies of tolerance followed by the Whig party were opposed by many. Some Anglican churchmen formed a party with the slogan ‘Church in Danger’, which spent its time campaigning against Catholics, Dissenters, deists, the principle of toleration and, essentially, everything that the Enlightenment had produced.
In 1778, the English Parliament passed the Catholic Relief Act, which decriminalized Catholicism—to the enormous anger of a sizeable minority in the population. Two years later a Scottish aristocrat named Lord George Gordon led a huge mob to London, resulting in a week of riots in which Catholic churches were looted, foreign embassies burnt, and nearly 300 people were killed.
But we ought not think it was all petty small-mindedness that ruled the day. There were some who worked tirelessly to effect peace between the warring camps of Christendom. In the 17th C, a number of attempts were made to open a dialogue between Roman Catholic and Protestant churches with the aim of reuniting them.
The godfather of this endeavor, sometimes known as ‘syncretism’, was a German Lutheran theologian named George Callixtus. He devoted huge effort in the early 17th C to find common ground between the different groups. Like his contemporary Hugo Grotius in the Reformed Church, he believed it should be possible to use the Apostles’ Creed, and a belief in the authority of the Bible alone, as a basis for agreement among Christians.
Callixtus made progress with Calvinists but the Catholics were less receptive. The Conference of Thorn, called by King Vladislav IV of Poland in 1645, attempted to put these ideas into practice, but after several weeks of discussions the Catholic, Lutheran and Calvinist theologians were unable to pull anything substantive together.
Sadly, Callixtus’s efforts met with the greatest opposition from his fellow Lutherans.
Let’s turn now from the acrimony and controversy that marked Protestant Scholasticism for a moment to take a look at a guy more like the rest of us; at least we probably hope so.
He was an obscure, uneducated Frenchman of the late 17th C.
Nicolas Herman, a manservant from Lorraine, tried to live his life around what he called ‘the practice of the presence of God’. He was not a very good manservant, having a pronounced limp from his army days and appallingly clumsy; but he performed his duties diligently until 1651, when, at the age of 40, he went to Paris and became a Carmelite monk. His monk’s name was Lawrence of the Resurrection.
Brother Lawrence was put to work in the monastery’s kitchen—a task he hated, but which he did anyway because it was God’s will. To the surprise of the other monks, he not only did his work calmly and methodically, but spoke to God the entire time. Brother Lawrence declared that, to him, there was no difference between the time for work and the time for prayer: wherever he was, and whatever he was doing, he tried to perceive the presence of God. As he wrote to one of his friends:
“There is not in the world a kind of life more sweet and delightful, than that of a continual conversation with God: the only ones who can understand it are those who practice and experience it. But I do not advise you to do it from that motive. It is not pleasure which we ought to seek in this exercise, but let us do it from a principle of love, and because God would have us. If I were a preacher, I would, above all other things, preach the practice of the presence of God. And if I were a spiritual director, I would advise all the world to do it. That is how necessary I think it is—and how easy, too.”
Brother Lawrence became a minor celebrity among the hierarchy of the French Catholic Church, and he was visited by more than one archbishop, anxious to see if the reports of his humility and holiness were true. Lawrence’s sixteen Letters and Spiritual Maxims testify of his sincere belief in God’s presence in all things and his trust in God to see him through all things. They also testify to the way in which holy men and women continued to devote themselves to God’s will, both in and out of monasteries, even as the intellectual revolutions of the Enlightenment were at their height.
It’s easy when considering the Age of Reason, to suppose theology was increasingly being seduced by philosophy, and that the simple, heartfelt faith of the commoners of the Middle Ages and the Reformation was being replaced by rationalism. That was true in some quarters, but the 17th and 18th centuries had their share of sincere and pious saints, as well as heretics, as much as any age; and there were some important movements that recalled the faithful to a living and wholehearted religion. As the theologians bickered, ordinary Christians were getting on with things, as they always had.
As we bring this episode to a close, I want to end with a look at Blaise Pascal. That’s a great name, isn’t it? Blaise. Sounds like a professional skateboarder.
Pascal was a Jansenist, that is, a member of the Roman Catholic reform movement we took a look at a moment ago. While the Jansenists began as a movement that sought to return the Roman Church to the teachings of Augustine, since Augustine’s doctrines were considered as being based in Scripture, the Jansenists were a Roman Catholic kind of back to the Bible movement.
A few days after Blaise Pascal’s death, one of his servants noticed a curious bulge in the great scientist’s jacket. Opening the lining, he withdrew a folded parchment written by Pascal with these words . . .
The year of grace 1654. Monday, November 23rd.,… from about half past ten in the evening until about half past twelve, God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob, not of the philosophers and scholars. >> Certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace. >> God of Jesus Christ, I have separated myself from Him. I have fled from Him, Renounced Him, crucified Him. May I never be separated from Him. Renunciation, total and sweet.
For eight years Pascal had hid those words in his coat, withdrawing them now and again to read them and be reminded of the moment when grace seized his soul.
Pascal’s mother died when he was only three. His father, Stephen Pascal, began the education of his children, Gilbert, Blaise, and Jacqueline. Occasionally he took the young Blaise with him to meetings of the Academy of Science. The youth’s scientific curiosity was aroused.
Before he reached the age of 27 Pascal had gained the admiration of mathematicians in Paris; had invented the calculating machine for his father who was a busy tax-collector; and had discovered the basic principles of atmospheric and hydraulic pressures. He belonged to the age of the Scientific Greats.
Blaise’s initial contact with the Jansenists came as the result of an accident his father had. On an icy day in January, 1646, Stephen tried to prevent a duel. He fell on the hard frozen ground and dislocated a hip. The physicians who treated him were devoted Jansenists. They succeeded not only in curing their patient but in winning his son to their doctrines.
They told the Pascals physical suffering was an illustration of a basic religious truth: man is helpless; a miserable creature. Blaise had seldom enjoyed a day without pain. He knew how helpless physicians could be, so the argument struck him with unusual force. It deepened his sense of the tragic mystery of life.
He also learned from these Jansenist physicians how profoundly the Bible speaks to the human condition. He became an avid student of Scripture, pondering its pages as he had atmospheric pressures. He came to see the Bible as a way to a transformed heart.
In 1651, Pascal’s personal tragedy deepened with the death of his father. The loss brought him to a crisis. His sister, Jacqueline, renounced the world by entering the Port-Royal convent, and Blaise was left alone in Paris.
He now gave himself to worldly interests. He took a richly furnished home, staffed it with servants, and drove about town in a coach drawn by four horses; an extravagance. He pursued the ways of elite but decadent Parisian society. After a year of pleasure he found only a “great disgust with the world,” and he plunged into quiet desperation. He felt abandoned by God.
Blaise turned again to the Bible, to the 17th ch of the Gospel of John, where Jesus prepares for His sacrifice on the cross. It was then that Pascal felt a new blaze of the Spirit. As he wrote, “Certainty, certainty, feeling, joy, peace.”
Pascal’s new faith drew him magnetically into the orbit of the Jansenists. Late in 1654, he joined his sister, Jacqueline, as a member of the Port-Royal community. He was then asked by one of the Jansenist leaders for assistance in his defense against the attack of the Jesuits.
Pascal responded brilliantly. He penned eighteen Public Letters exposing Jesuit errors in flashes of eloquence and sarcastic wit. As each letter appeared, the public snatched them up. They were instant best-sellers. Port-Royal was no longer an obscure Jansenist monastery; it was a center of public interest. The Pope condemned the Letters, but all educated French read them, as succeeding generations did for the next two centuries.
Upon completing the Letters in March, 1657, Pascal planned a book on the evidences for Christianity. He was never able to complete it. In June, ‘62, he was seized with a violent illness and, after lingering a couple months, died on August 19 at the age of just 39.
Friends found portions of his writing on faith and reason, and eight years after his death they published these notes under the title Thoughts (Pensées-Pahn’-sees). In the Pensées, Pascal is a religious genius who cuts across doctrine and pierces to the heart of man’s moral problem. He appeals to the intellect by his passion for truth and arouses the emotions by his merciless descriptions of the plight of man without God.
Man, Pascal said, is part angel and part beast; a Chimera. In Greek mythology the chimera was a she-goat with a lion’s head and a serpent’s tail. Pascal wrote, “What a Chimera is man! What a novelty, a monster, a chaos, a contradiction, a prodigy! The glory and refuse of the universe. Who shall unravel this confusion?”
Reason, as great a faculty as it is, is no sure guide, Pascal warns. If we trust reason alone, we will doubt everything except pain and death. But our hearts tell us this cannot be true. That would be the greatest of all blasphemies to think that life and the universe have no meaning. God and the meaning of life must be felt by the heart, rather than by reason. It was Pascal who said, “The heart has its reasons which reason does not know.”
He saw the human condition so deeply yet so clearly that men and women in our own time, after three centuries, still gain perspective from him for their own spiritual pilgrimage.