Jansenism was a system of doctrine that began with the writings of Cornelius Jansen, a Catholic theologian in France in the 17th century. Jansenism was basically an attempt to reform Catholicism by bringing in some Calvinistic doctrines such as the depravity of man, predestination, irresistible grace, and limited atonement. Jansenists also rejected the infallibility of the Catholic Church and spoke against the authority of the pope.
Jansen’s core ideas were published posthumously in 1640 and carried on by his followers for some time after his death. The famous mathematician and philosopher Blaise Pascal defended many of the theological and philosophical positions of Jansenism. The Jansenist view relied heavily on the teachings of Augustine of Hippo, particularly Augustine’s views on original sin and the grace of God.
Jansenists were concerned that Counter-Reformation Catholic teachings were going overboard in their response to Reformers like John Calvin. Calvin and others held that original sin had left man in a totally depraved moral state such that man can do nothing to bring about his own salvation. The Counter-Reformers emphasized man’s ability to freely accept or refuse God’s grace (through the sacraments). Jansen believed that, in countering the Reformers, the Roman Catholic Church was slipping into the ancient heresy of Pelagianism, which taught that human beings are essentially good and that the will of man is not tainted or bound by original sin.
Jansenism agreed with several points of Reformed theology, namely the state of man before and after the fall, the extent of Christ’s atonement, and a narrow view of human free will. For these reasons, Jansenists were destined to be at odds with Catholic teaching, and they clashed especially with the newly organized Jesuits. Many saw Jansenism as a political threat, and the movement thus faced opposition from French royalty as well as Catholic clergy. A series of papal decrees from 1653 through 1713 condemned Jansenism as heretical. After 1730 Jansenism as a movement waned in influence except in some areas in Italy and in Holland—where a Jansenist church still exists today.
The central points of Jansenism seem to fall within the general bounds of evangelical and Protestant orthodoxy, although there is widespread disagreement among evangelicals about the relationship between human free will and divine sovereignty. While Jansenism is in some ways comparable to Protestantism, it remained a reform effort within the Catholic Church. For all its disagreements with the Catholic hierarchy, Jansenism continued to promote strict observance of the sacraments, justification by works, and faithfulness to Rome.
In the final analysis, Jansenism was “Calvinism lite,” a compromise between Catholicism and Protestantism. Christians must “test everything [and] hold fast what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21, ESV). It follows that any teaching of man must be checked against Scripture for accuracy. The Bereans (Acts 17:10–12) provide a great example, as they “examined the Scriptures every day” to see if what the apostle Paul said was true concerning Christ. There may be some good biblical notions within Jansenism, but there are also ideas that should be quickly discarded.