Wednesday, November 16, 2022

Today on the show, we look at Jansenism and the life of Pierre Nicole.

*** This is a rough transcript of today’s show ***


It is the 16th of November 2022. Welcome to the Christian History Almanac brought to you by 1517 at I’m Dan van Voorhis.


Sometimes, as a Protestant, I see the unity of the Roman Catholic Church and wonder, wistfully, “oh, if only we could have that kind of unity in our churches.” Then I remember some post-Reformation controversy in the catholic church and am reminded that schism, sects, and denominational wrangling seem built into us. Today on the show, I want to tell you about Pierre Nicole, someone you may never have heard of, but whose life can give us insight into one of the more important schisms and sects of the post-Reformation world: Jansenism.


It was on this, the 16th of November in 1695, that Pierre Nicole died at the age of 70. His last years had been relatively quiet in Chartres and Paris, which was welcome for the man who may have been happy as a hermit, but whose life was marred by theological controversy from his home at the Cistercian Abbey in Port Royal- the center of all things Jansenist. I’ll unpack a few of those words in a second.


Pierre Nicole was born in 1625 in Chartres to a family of high-ranking magistrates. The Nicole family had been associated with the Abbey of Port Royal for generations- he had two aunts who were nuns there and would visit periodically while a student at the Sorbonne. But the old abbey had undergone something of a revolution at the beginning of the 17th century. Under the encouragement of St. Frances De Sales Mere (or Mother), Angélique Arnauld would reform the abbey and open a school and then a series of schools. A nephew of Mother Arnauld, Antoine would teach theology there, influenced by Cornelius Jansen- the Bishop of Ypres, who stressed the thought of Augustine. Port Royal would attract a number of famous pupils, from the playwright Racine to the mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal.


While Nicole was at the Sorbonne, a controversy had broken out between two of his professors- one an Augustinian and the other a Molinist. Put a pin in Molinism for another day but remember that the Jansenist at Port Royal emphasized Augustine. When they heard that young Pierre had ably defended Augustinian thought, they invited him to the abbey.



By going, he doomed his prospects of being ordained. Still, his disposition seemed so private that he was pleased with a quiet life- defending Jansenism and helping create textbooks for the school and those who had begun to see Jansenism and Port Royal as a decidedly French take on education. Unlike the Jesuits, they didn’t teach Latin. They taught in French. Also, they were under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Paris. Furthermore, philosophically they adopted the new thought of the celebrated Frenchman Rene Descartes. So, it was a distinct French movement, it opposed the Jesuits (often seen as too close to the Pope and Italian politics), and it celebrated the thought of St. Augustine.


At the Reformation, Augustine- especially his doctrines of sin and grace were heralded by the Protestant Reformers. As the Jesuit order opposed Reformation thought, they distanced themselves from Augustine- the Jansenists believed to a fault.


Jansenist thought would come to be synonymous with five propositions. Let me summarize them: we are more fallen and in need of divine grace than the Jesuits think. Others err when they think that we can affect our own salvation. God has grace on whom he chooses and saves them. (Perhaps there was something to an old professor of mine who called the Jansenists the Calvinists of the Catholic Church).


Pierre Nicole would be one of Jansenism’s most ardent defenders. He would translate the Provincial Letters of Pascal into Latin- these were groundbreaking essays that defended Jansenism and Arnauld with wit and satire. They would become the model not just for French philosophical thought but also for the free-wheeling French literature of the next century from Voltaire, Rousseau, and others.


Nicole would write his own essays in a similar vein to the Provincials- he would write on grace and freedom; he would write on morality but with an emphasis on humankind’s fallen nature and argue on behalf of the Catholic Church (albeit a different kind than the Jesuits) against Protestantism. He benefitted from the religious peace called between the Jesuits and Jansenists but had to flee when the peace ended. Towards the end of his life, he is believed to have moderated his views to retire quietly back to Chartres and Paris- the place he was born, and the place he would die on this, the 16th of November in 1695.




The Last Word for today comes from the lectionary for today from Matthew 23 (you know the church year is close to an end when you get these kinds of texts!):


37 “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, you who kill the prophets and stone those sent to you, how often I have longed to gather your children together, as a hen gathers her chicks under her wings, and you were not willing. 38 Look, your house is left to you desolate. 39 For I tell you, you will not see me again until you say, ‘Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord.’


This has been the Christian History Almanac for the 16th of November 2022 brought to you by 1517 at


The show is produced by a man we should all wish a very happy Indiana Day- Christopher Gillespie.


The show is written and read by a man celebrating the unrelated “have a picnic with your bear” day- I’m going to assume they mean stuffed. I’m Dan van Voorhis.


You can catch us here every day- and remember that the rumors of grace, forgiveness, and the redemption of all things are true…. Everything is going to be ok.

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