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Colloque érasmien de Liège

Jean-Pierre Massaut

Seconde partie

Erasmus and the Concordia of Cornelius Jansenius, bishop of Ghent

Christian folly and catholic orthodoxy

M. A. Screech

Texte intégral

  • 1 See the brief entries in Enciclopedia Catholica (6: 350); — J. Hofer’s and K. Rahner’s Lexicon für (...)

1Cornélius Jansenius (1510-1574) does not spring immediately to mind when one thinks of Erasmus. He has, in any case, been a victim of homophony, since his name is most likely to evoke the famous Bishop of Ypres, whose Augustinus set the world ablaze, than his own modest person, an orthodox professor of theology at Louvain, a delegate at the Council of Trent and a bishop of Ghent. Yet few theological scholars have more eulogistic references to them in the hrief articles devoted to them in the standard works of reference. Many écho the judgement of Rodolf Cornely, who placed ail his works of Scriptural exegesis (with the sole exception of his book on the psalms) «among the most outstanding commentaries of that golden period of Catholic exegesis1».

2Cornelius Jansenius of Ghent produced one of the most influential of all works of New Testament scholarship: his Commentarii in suam Goncordiam, ac totam Historiam Evangelicam. This Concordia played for the Roman Catholic Church the rôle that Calvin’s Harmonie played for the Église Réformée. Its influence certainly extended way beyond narrowly Roman Catholic circles. No less than eighteen copies of the work are found in Oxford College Libraries or in the Bodleian, dated between 1590 and 1624.

3The Concordia or Historia Evangelica was first published, alone, by Johannes Bellère of Antwerp in 1558. Its embrace was wider than Calvin’s Harmonie which was limited to the Synoptic Gospels; Jansenius’s book covers all four Gospels with part of Acts.

4This attempt to work the New Testament accounts into a connected historical narrative is interesting in itself: it is made all the more interesting by the commentaries which accompany the text. There are editions of these Commentarii (all with the text as well) by Jan Maes and Peter Zangrius of Louvain in 1572 (with a colophon dated 1571) and again in 1576. A third edition (Omnia jam tertio renata) was published by Pierre Landry of Lyons in 1589, 1590 and 1597. (These may also include the editions dated 1591 and 1596). There were further editions in 1612 (1613), 1624 and, indeed, in the eighteenth century. No mean achievement for a densely printed folio volume of over a thousand pages, printed in double columns. (A good Epitome of the work was made by the Augustinian Canon, Matthaeus à Castro; Peter Bellère published it in 1593.)

5It would be interesting to study all these editions: I have limited myself here to a study of the copy most accessible to me: that of 1613 (published by the Widow and Heirs of Peter Bellère), in the Codrington Library at All Souls College, at S.R. 80.d.7.

6The name of Erasmus figures nowhere within its covers. Yet Erasmus is present in page after page. Many of Jansenius’s ideas derive directly from the Annotationes in Novum Testamentum of Erasmus. This is often the case even when he is opposing some of Erasmus’s dearest ideas.

7The elimination of all reference to Erasmus by name is not simply yet another case of plagiarism. It may well be connected with the increasing distaste for Erasmus in orthodox Roman Catholic circles. Certainly Jansenius’s Commentarii came to bear all the marks of stern orthodoxy. The 1613 édition contains the approbation of Professor Thomas Gozeus à Bellomonte (the Visitat or Librorum of Louvain) dated 2nd May 1570: of Johannes Molanus, the Censor Apostolicus et liegius (dated 3rd August, 1576) and of Laurentius Beyerlinck the Antwerp Censor. These, like the privilege on 4†8 v° are fulsome in their praises.

8Jansenius’s way of continuing to show his indebtedness to Erasmus is baldly to assume that everybody already knows whom he is talking about. In this way he pays direct tribute to Erasmus as well as ensuring that even some of his most daring ideas were given a not always reluctant place in orthodox exegesis. This is a reminder (if one were needed) that many XVIIth-century controversies were rooted in those of the Renaissance, kept alive by later editions, of course, but often embedded in the refutations or concessions found in the standard authorities.

9What we find in Jansenius is not Erasmus noster but a quiet quidam-, for example:

De quorum sententia prolixè disputât quidem in Annotationibus... (69.i.A);


... ex quo [Ambrosio] quidem hausisse singularem ilium... quem in Annotationibus in cujus jam meminimus prolixè nititur statuere (929.ii.B);

11or again:

Sic et quidam in Paraphra. (453.i.A).

12The assumption lying behind the third example is that the very name of Paraphrases evoked Erasmus’s great works: those, at least, who needed to recognise this source were assumed to be able to do so, even from so slight a reference as Quidam in Paraphra.

13I first recognised Jansenius’s interest in Erasmus when working on my book Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly (Duckworth, London, 1980). For, in the Index Rerum et Verhorum of the Commentarii in suam Concordiam (3†1 v°) one cornes across the arresting entry: Parvulis, id est stultis. This means that Jansenius was prepared to accept one of the most controversial of all the interpretations of Christ’s words made by Erasmus, one widely known not only from the Annotationes and the various controversial works which defend them, but from the Praise of Folly itself.

14In the Praise of Folly we read:

Ptursum cum agit gratias, quod cellasset sapientes, parvulis autem, hoc est stultis, aperuisset. (Kan, p. 176).

15This snappy assertion, doubtless a little mystifying when thrown out by Folly en passant was expanded in 1519 so as to continue:

Nam Graecè pro parvulis est νηπίοις
quos opposuit σοφοῖς

16Jansenius uses in the Index Rerum et Verhorum a formula close to that of Erasmus in the Praise of Folly, ensuring that any alert reader who knows Erasmus at his wittiest can grasp the points at issue in these sober-sided Commentarii.

17When Erasmus read the ipsissima verba of Christ telling about «little ones» and the Kingdom of Heaven, he believed Christ to be talking not about pygmies, nor even about children, but about those who appear mad in the eyes of the world. That this was no mere quip, acceptable in the Fraise, of Folly but out of place in the more austere realms of biblical translation and exegesis, can be seen from the original text of Novum Instrumentum of 1516, when Matthew 11, 25 is rendered this way:

Gratias ago tibi pater domine coeli et terrae, quod absconderis haec a sapientibus et prudentibus, et revelaris ea stultis.

18Pressure, not least from Lopes Stunica, made Erasmus change stultis to parvulis in 1519. From there on, it remained the only authorised reading for Erasmus. But Erasmus never changed his mind. His Annotationes defend his original interprétation as do many other of his works.

19The relevant passage in the Annotationes reads:

  • 2 These Annotationes in Novum Instrumentum hâve been edited by Anne Reeve, with all the variants of (...)

... Ac mox Parvulis, est, νηπίοις, quod et stultum significat et infantem. {hoc est, qui aetatis vitio nondum sapiat. Non enim dixit μωροῖς quod annotavit et Chrysostomus.} At his magis quadrabat stultis, ut opponatur sapientibus. Nec est quod quenquam offendat stulti cognomen, cum palàm dicat Paulus: Quae* (μῶρα, id est) stulta sunt mundi elegit Deus. Nec enim hic sapientes vocat, qui vere sapere. Sic stultos vocat, non qui vere stulti sint, sed qui mundo stulti sint. Et tamen nos hac in re quorundam sensum nostro judicio praetulimus2.

20The parallel note to Luke 10, 21 does concede that stultis for parvulis could seem «just a little harsh» (duriusculus). On the other hand in his relpy to Stunica (L.B., t. 9, col. 298 C) he is impenitent

Confiteor tibi Pater Domine coeli et terrae. Hic Stunica mihi geminam impingit dicam, primum quod ἐξομολογοῦμαι verterim gratias ago, deinde quod νηπίoις pro parvulis verterim stultis. Non dissimulat tamen, a me lectum Hieronymum, qui admonuerit confessionem non semper esse peccatum agnoscentis, sed fréquenter laudantis et gratias agentis; sed Hieronymus, inquit, illic non de verbiproprietate, sed de sensu disputat...

21On the first point Jansenius quietly accepts the point made by Erasmus:

Confiteor tibi, hoc est, gratias ago tibi, vel laudo te. (Jansen, 360.i.B).

22Like Erasmus, he stresses that it is an hebraicism.

23Jansenius’s exposition of the second point at issue is a fair statement of Erasmus’s own theology:

Porrò pro parvulis, Graecè est νηπίοις, quae dictio propriè quidem infantes significat, et eos qui per aetatem adhuc loqui non possunt nec sapere. Transfertur tamen ad animum, et significat stultos, ineruditos, ac usu rerum carentes. Et videri potest ea dictio magis hic vertenda per, stultis aut insipientibus, quòd opponatur sapientibus & prudentibus. Quomodo si accipiatur hic dictio Graeca, intelligendum est Dominum loqui non de vere stultis, sed de his, qui mundo sunt stulti: sicut non de verê sapientibus loquitur sed de his qui mundo taies sunt. Sic enim Paulus: Quae stulta, inquit, sunt mundi, elegit Deus, ut confundat sapientes. Interpreti verò magis placuit propriam vocabuli sequi significationem, quam et Chrysostomus sequitur, qui annotavit: dictum esse non stultis sed parvulis, hoc est simplicibus, ut ostenderetur quibus sapientibus & quare abscondita sint Evangelica mysteria, scilicet ob superbiae fastum. Parvuli enim et infantes, de quibus Christus loquitur, sunt qui humiles erant in oculis suis, quique velut infantes, ineruditi erant in mundo, quales erant piscatores quos delegerat Dominus.
(Jansen, 360.ii.C-E).

24Even the allusion to Chrysostom is probably taken straight from Erasmus, who cites him more than once in this context; for example, in his reply to Stunica:

Verum e Chrysostomo docet, hoc loco non dictum esse μωροῖς, sed νηπίοις, hoc est, simplicibus, et fuci ignaris.

25So one of the main contensions of the Philosophia Ghristi of Erasmus finds its place in one of the most lastingly influential of Roman Catholic commentaries. The «folly of the Gospel» as Erasmus saw it is an integral part of Jansenius’s theology.

26That Jansenius did not remain merely on the fringe of this doctrine is shown by this exploitation of Erasmus on another key text: that moving épisode in the third chapter of St Mark when οἰ παρ’ αὐτοῦ came out to lay hold of Christ, who, they thought, was mad. The Vulgate’s rendering sui, «his own», has a lot to say for it. But Erasmus is much more precise.

οἰ παρ’ αὐτοῦ, id est, qui ad ilium pertinebant, & illius erant familia seu cognatione; itidem paulo inferius τὰ παρ’αὐτὰ vertit sua. Sentit enim cognatos et affines ejus.

27This is linked with the next annotation, in which Erasmus glides significantly from cognati to agnati. These relations went out to lay their hands on Christ and to restrain him, because it is the responsibility of agnati to do that, if anyone begins to go insane (Si quis commotae mentis esse coeperit).

  • 3 For further details see The ‘Mad’ Christ of Erasmus and the Legal Duties of his Brethren, in Essay (...)

28In the Paraphrases Erasmus makes it plain that these agnati who arrived with chains to restrain the lunatic Christ were acting in accordance with the laws of men — in fact, in accordance with the Law of the Twelve Tables as subsumed into Roman Law (Institutes: Book I, tit. XXIII, De curatoribus, § Furiosi quoque)3.

29Erasmus is sensitively and extensively used by Jansenius when expounding this part of Mark 3. He fully accepts that oἱ παρ’αὐτoῦ were not «friends» but Cognati vero Christi:

Itaque quoniam erant cognati, juxta leges humanas putabant esse sui officii, ut mentis impotem & a spiritu quopiam arreptum cohiberent...
(Jansenius, 374,i. A.B.)

30That (and more) is textually from the Paraphrase on Mark 3 (L.B., t. 7, col. 183 DF). So too is the following:

Qui enim contemptis rebus omnibus terrenis, atque ipsa tota vita coelestem philosophiam toto pectore amplectuntur, insani videntur iis, quibus nihil sapit nisi terrenum, et caducum. Qui patrimonium infundit in usus pauperum, insanit ei, qui vitam praesidium in divitiis collocavit.
(Jansenius, 374.ii. A.B.)

  • 4 Further details in Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly.

31And so on4.

32Erasmus is never mentioned, but his concept of the «insane» philosophia Christi dominates the fourty-ninth chapter of the Commentarii in suam Concordiam which is entitled, Curato daemoniaco caeco et muto confutantur Pharisaei (drawn from Mark 3, Matthew 12 and Luke 11).

33Other parts of the Commentarii in suam Concordiam show that Jansenius really did completely accept Christian folly, as Erasmus conceived it, using some of the very words with which Erasmus expressed it. The differences are only ones of nuance.

34To give an example. Jansenius returns to this theme towards the end of his eight-fourth chapter, which is entitled Reprehendit praeposteram Pharisaeorum Munditiam (p. 617 ff.). This section is based squarely on Luke 11, 37-53. A particularly clear case is concerned to explain Luke 11, 53:

Cum haec ad illos diceret, coeperunt Pharisaei et legis periti graviter insistere, et os ejus opprimere de multis...

35The point at issue specifically concerns the meaning of et os ejus opprimere de multis in the light of the original text, ϰαὶ ἀποστομα τίζειν αὐτὸν περὶ πλειόνων. What does ἀποστοματίζειν mean, — or ἀποστοματίζειν, — for Erasmus admits both readings?

36Jansenius writes:

Graece est ἀποστοματίζειν αὐτὸν περὶ πλειόνων. Non enim ’επιστομτίζειν, quomodo legisse videtur interpres.

37This very use of «the Interpreter» to avoid ascribing the Vulgate — and its errors and howlers — to Jerome, is itself redolent of Erasmus. Jansenius continues:

Nam illud est proprie os alieni occludere: in qua significatione usus est eo verbo Paulus ad Titum 1 [11]: οὓς δεἴ έπιστομτίζειν, id est, quibus oportet silentium indici, vel, ut nos legimus, quos oportet redargui. Verum hic est ἀποστομίζειν, quod verbum apud probatos authores significat memoriter recitare, ut annotavit quidam, sed significatio huic loco non convenit.
(Jansenius, 627.i and ii. A-C)

38The quidam who annotavit is, again, Erasmus, as is clear from a simple reading of his long note on Et os ejus opprimere (Reeve, p. 192).

39Ad loc. Erasmus’s commentary includes these words:

Consimilem in modum usus est Paulus in epistola ad Titum cap. 1. οὓς δεἴ’επιστομτίζειν, ubi Hieronymum velit silentium indici, Theophylacti interpres, redargui.

40Jansenius more clearly reminds his readers that redargui is the reading of the Vulgate text of Titus, I, 11, but his use of the ver b occludere shows that he had turned to Erasmus’s note on this verse:

Quos oportet redargui (έπιστομίζειν): id est occludere. Sive obturare eos. Hieronymus leget, silentium indici. (Reeve, p. 646).

41Erasmus by quietly drawing attention to the fact that Jerome renders the relevant verb (elsewhere) as silentium indici is suggesting that he may not have been responsible for the Vulgate. Jansenius brings us back firmly to the Vulgate with the redargui of Titus I, 11.

42But relying on second-sources not cited as such is always a dangerously revealing activity, not least so when the secondary source contains a resounding error.

43In Luke 11, 53, Erasmus believed that the Gospel showed Christ «looking daft», because he could not answer all the questions being maliciously thrown at him by his enemies all at once. That meaning cannot be got from Luke 11, 53. Erasmus nevertheless read it into it under the influence of the New Testament commentary of Theophylact of Ochrida, which he fundamentally misread.

44Jansenius wrote:

Theophylactus dupliciter exponit. Priori modo, Fit, inquit τò ἀπoστoµίζειν, cum plures interrogant unum de aliis atque aliis argumentis, tum enim qui non potest respondere, speciem praebet insipientis.

45This is taken over (with much else) directly from Erasmus’s Annotations, except that, not unnaturally, Jansenius jibbed at the very last words of this sentence, which in Erasmus read: speciem praebet stulti, quod haereat.

46Even with this modification this is a classic example of transferring an error through an unacknowledged borrowing. Erasmus, when he first discovered the manuscript of Theophylact in Basle, was still in the first flood of his enthusiasm for finding Christian folly in his New Testament. Theophylact (whom he variously mistook for «Vulgarius» and Athanasius) appeared to give him unexpected ammunition with his gloss on Luke 11, 23. Something of Erasmus’s excitement cornes through the words which introduce his transcription from Theophylact:

Si quis mihi parum habet fidei, ipsius Theophylacti verba subscribam, quod ad hune attinet locum.

  • 5 Further details in Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly, pp. 149-150.

47But in his transcription from the manuscript (the relevant part of which is still in Basle, at MS. A. 11.15) Erasmus in his rushed enthusiasm omitted the crucial word ail (Christ could not reply «to all») and misread others5.

48But although Jansenius was copying Erasmus here, copying even his errors, he saw, independently, the need for the word «all» to be present. Perhaps he independently checked at least a Latin translation of Theophylact. He goes on to write:

Itaque secundum eum sensum erit, coeperunt Dominum de multis interrogare. Ut sic eum ad haesitentiam deducerent. Nec habens quod omnibus responderet, videretur insipiens et indoctus.

49That little word omnibus softens the picture considerably. But it is implicit in Erasmus’s expanded explanation (Quo pacto enim unus posset multis respondere, alia atque alia interrogantibus.) At all events, the Christian folly remains intact.

50The second, alternative, interpretation suggested by Theophylact also is taken over by Jansenius. Erasmus translated Theophylact as saying:

Quamquam potest ἀποστομίζειν et sic accipi, pro eo, quod est illaqueare eum, & ab ore capere. Cum enim quis capitur ex his, quae dicit, ἀποστομίζεσθαι videtur, hoc est, ab ore trahi ac condemnari. Quaerentes enim, inquit, venari quippiam ex ore illius. Quod enim paulo ante dixerat ἀποστομίζειν, hoc nunc dicit venari quippiam ex ore ejus.

51Jansenius could hardly be doser:

Altero modo exponit, ut ἀποστομίζειν sit illaqueare aliquem, et ab ore ejus capere ilium. Cum enim, inquit, quis capitur ex his quae dicit, videtur, hoc est ab ore trahi et condemnari.
(Jansenius, 627.ii. A-B).


52This is enough to show that Jansenius really did work with his Erasmus open before him and that Jansenius’s very silences and discretions assured a wide and lasting public for the learning and piety of Erasmus.

53It would be easy to give many more examples. But they would be out of place in this short study. Two further points can, however, be briefly made here and developed elsewhere later on.

54A vital text for understanding the doubts and certainties of Erasmus occurs in Matthew, 2. It concerns the visit of the Magi to the infant Christ. Erasmus realised that the différences between the text of Micah as cited by the scribes before Herod and the original text (in both the Hebrew and the Septuagint) cast in doubt the verbal and factual inerrancy of Scripture in all its detail. Jansen would have none of this. Erasmus’s sceptical scholarship leads straight to faith in Christ alone. Jansenius insisted upon the inerrancy of Scripture, one of the columns, for him, of Catholic infallibility.

55For Jansenius, Erasmus’s fideistic scepticism actually weakened truth and overthrew Scripture:

De quorum sententia [the quorum being «the scribes»] prolixe disput quidam in Annotationibus. Verum ea sententia tanquam enervans veritatem, et authoritatem Scripturae sacrae, omnino rejicienda videtur.
(Jansenius, 68.i.AB)

56Yet even while rejecting him he remains indebted to him.

57No wonder the saine applies to the desperate attempts of Erasmus to place his own brand of almost total pacificism into the mouth of Christ. For Erasmus the stumbling-block was Christ’s command in Luke 22, 36:

Then said he unto them, But now, he that hath a purse, let him take it, and likewise his scrip: and he that hath no sword, let him sell his garment, and buy one.

58Here, Erasmus’s skill as prophet and exegete are severely put to the test. Jansen owes him a great deal, as can be seen by any comparison of Erasmus’s long gloss on Qui non habet sacculum (Reeve, p. 209 ff.) and Jansenius’s treatment of the theme in Chapter 133 (p. 928.ii.ff). Jansenius accepts the reality of the problem posed by Erasmus (How can this injunction to buy a sword be made compatible with the spécifie and general tenour of Christ’s insistence on practical charity?); he also follows Erasmus in rejecting the interprétation of Nicolas of Lyra (that Christ conceded to the Apostles the right to defend themselves «moderately» in times of persécution). But with Erasmus’s (doubtless unconscious) wish to force his ideas on to Luke 22, 36, he had no sympathy. He saw that one of the influences on Erasmus was St Ambrose. He cited Ambrose and then remarked:

Haec Di vu s Ambrosius, inquirendo potius quam quicquam asserendo, ex quo versisimile est quidem hausisse singularem ilium suum de gladio spirituali intellectum, quem in Annotationibus in cujus jam meminibus prolixe nititur statuere.
(JANSENITJS, 929.ii.A)

59The adverb prolixe is justified for an ever-expanding note of over one and a half folio pages. But Jansenius’s remark does not hide the fact that he was making use of Erasmus. Quite the contrary. His words contain, in fact, justified criticism of Erasmus (he often is prolix in the Annotations) but they do draw attention to Erasmus in ways which post-Tridentine orthodoxy often found impolitic.



1 See the brief entries in Enciclopedia Catholica (6: 350); — J. Hofer’s and K. Rahner’s Lexicon für Theologie und Kirche, 1966;—and two articles: R. Guelluy, L’évolution des méthodes théologiques à Louvain d’Érasme à Jansénius, in Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique, t. 36, p. 83-85, ad fin., 1941, and A. Vaccari, S. J., Esegesi ed Esegeti al Concilio di Trento, in Biblica, pp. 320-337, especially pp. 366-367, 1946.
I have not been able to consult yet the earliest editions of the Commentarii. It would be revealing if Erasmus were to have been openly present in them and if his name were only expunged later.

2 These Annotationes in Novum Instrumentum hâve been edited by Anne Reeve, with all the variants of 1516, 1519, 1522, 1527 and 1535. They are now printing with Duckworth’s of London. The brackets above represent the varying layers of text: { } = 1519; ᐸ ᐳ = 1522; *( ) = 1527. The words cited above appear on p. 53.

3 For further details see The ‘Mad’ Christ of Erasmus and the Legal Duties of his Brethren, in Essays in Early French Literature Presented to Barbara M. Craig, ed. N. J. Lacy and J. C. Nash, French Forum Publishers, Lexington, Kentucky, 1982.

4 Further details in Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly.

5 Further details in Ecstasy and the Praise of Folly, pp. 149-150.

© Presses universitaires de Liège, 1986

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