The Dutch Roman Catholic theologian Cornelis Jansen (1585-1638) wrote an interpretation of St. Augustine's teachings on original sin and grace. Although condemned by the Church, his teachings, known as Jansenism, had an enormous impact.
Cornelis Jansen was born near Leerdam, Holland, and he received his early education in Leerdam and Utrecht. In 1602 he went to the Catholic University of Louvain in the Spanish part of the Netherlands (now Belgium). Soon he was introduced to the theology of Michael Baius, a former master of divinity at the same university. Baius's doctrine on grace and original sin had been condemned in 1567, but the battle continued between his Augustinian supporters and the Jesuits (led by Leonard Lessius). The young student's sympathies were all with the Augustinians.
In 1604 Jansen fell ill and went to live in Paris, where he became more and more intimate with a fellow student of his Louvain days, Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, the future Abbé de St-Cyran, who later would be the most ardent and political defender of his theology. In 1612 both went to live in Bayonne, where Jansen first directed a diocesan college but soon withdrew entirely from the active life in order to devote all his time to the study of St. Augustine. In 1617 he returned to Louvain, where he became headmaster of a university college. During the following years his ideas reached full maturity. Although some of his views came quite close to Calvinism, he strongly opposed the Protestant churches which, he felt, had no legal status outside the Catholic community. By 1630 Jansen had become a controversial theology professor whose development was followed with a great deal of distrust in Rome and Madrid. In 1636 he was appointed bishop of leper in West Flanders, where he died 18 months later, possibly from the plague.
Jansen's lifework, Augustinus, was published posthumously at Louvain in 1640 despite the strong opposition of the Jesuits. The book contains the entire doctrine that came to be called Jansenism and that was to exercise an enormous influence upon the Catholic life of France, of the Low Countries, and, via the Irish clergy trained in Flanders, of America. The three-volume study claims to be an interpretation of Augustine's thought on original justice, sin, predestination, and grace. Jansen's synthesis was undoubtedly based upon Augustine's anti-Pelagian writings, all of which he had read 30 times. The first part is devoted entirely to the history of Pelagianism, a doctrine which in various ways upheld the thesis that man needs no other grace to be saved than that of his own efforts.
In the second and third parts Jansen stated his own controversial interpretation of Augustine. He held that man had been created in a state of original justice, free from concupiscence. Although man needed divine grace to do good, this grace was required by human nature itself and could therefore not be considered gratuitous. After the Fall, which consisted in, and was transmitted through, concupiscence, man lost his freedom. The original grace is no longer sufficient for salvation. Man's "freedom" can efficaciously be restored only by a grace that helps him overcome his irresistible inclination toward evil and that predetermines him to do good. There is no place for human merit in the process of salvation: all depends on God's undeserved, efficacious grace.
Jansen's theory leads him directly to predestinarianism. God does not confer his sufficient grace to all men, nor did Christ die for the salvation of all. Yet, contrary to Calvinist doctrine, Jansen teaches that faith alone is not sufficient for man's justification: cooperation through good works is essential, even though for the elect this cooperation itself is assured through God's grace.
In 1642 Pope Urban VIII condemned Augustinus mainly on grounds of its appearance without the previous approval then required for all publications on grace. A more specific condemnation of five theses found in Augustinus was made by Innocent X in 1653. One of the most confusing episodes in the dogmatic history of the Catholic Church followed, with Jansenists admitting that the censured theses were unacceptable but denying that they were to be found in Augustinus. Innocent's successor, Alexander VII, tried to cut the knot by declaring that the pope had the right to decide whether a de jure pronouncement applies to a de facto situation, and then formally applied the previous condemnation. Later a written submission of the Jansenist leaders was required. The movement, however, remained strong in France through the first half of the 18th century under the intellectual guidance of Henri Arnauld and Blaise Pascal, and later of Pasquier Quesnel.
The standard work on Jansen in English remains Nigel J. Abercrombie, The Origins of Jansenism (1936), which contains an analysis of Augustinus and an extensive bibliography.