Calvinists and Cartesians (Part III)

Walter E. Rex in his book Essays on Pierre Bayle and Religious Controversy (Martinus Nijhoff: The Hague, 1965) makes a sustained argument that throughout the 17th century Calvinist orthodoxy was fundamentally altered by currents of the developing “Age of Reason” which were taken up by many Calvinist polemicists and used as weapons against the Jesuits and other Counter-Reformation forces. One of the most significant alterations that Rex observes occurred with the work of John Cameron (1579-1625). Born in Glasgow, he lived much of his life in France, and became associated with other prominent French Calvinist polemicists, one of whom, Duplessis-Mornay, called him “The Pope of Calvinism” (pg. 10). Rex argues that Cameron was largely responsible for the revivification of Calvinism in France that followed “the stultifying rigidity of the post-Dordrecht conservatives” (pg. 88), and that “his re-thinking of the theological commonplaces set Calvinism on a new path after his death…every important change which occurred in French Calvinism between 1634 and the Revocation [of the Edict of Nantes in 1685] can be traced eventually back to him” (pp. 88-89).

The innovation of Cameron’s that is relevant to the subject of this post is his use of that age’s “faculty psychology”, which was the basis for everything from Descartes’s philosophy of “objectivity” to Pascal’s distinction between “heart” and “reason” to Bishop Bossuet’s oratories in favor of absolute monarchy. Basically, “faculty psychology” divides the human soul (i.e., “the rational soul”, which distinguishes humans from animals) into two “faculties”, the intellect and the will. In the Aristotelian tradition the intellect performed two functions. The first was “seeing” data transferred to it by the senses, and the second was analyzing the data and rendering judgments of truth and falsehood. The will, on the other hand, had only one function: to assent to whatever was presented to it. The traditional conservative Calvinism of Cameron’s day held that in conversion God changed both faculties in two separate actions: first convincing the intellect of His truth and second making the will assent to the truth. Cameron, following a rationalist trajectory, altered this theory by making the will absolutely dependent upon the intellect and then restricting the converting operation of God’s grace to the intellect. This resulted in what Rex describes as “the act of conversion has become centered upon the intellect to a degree unknown in conservative theology” (pg. 93). Faith, for Cameron, presupposes “right reason”–that is, it presupposes infallible intellectual apprehension of truth. As Rex puts it, “It is not faith that seeks understanding, but understanding that produces faith, and reason is the way to truth” (pg. 95).

Cameron thus tied the regeneration of the heart to the total renewal of the intellect. Conversion became primarily the action of the Holy Spirit upon the intellect of a man, which in turn exercised its infallible conviction of rational truth to perform a “moral persuasion” (persuasio moralis) upon the will. Rex goes on to demonstrate from the work of Cameron’s disciple, Moise Amyraut, that this emphasis upon the priority of the intellect (again, based in Cartesian philosophy) was initiated for the main purpose of refuting Counter-Reformation polemicists who were trying to exempt certain disputed dogmas (such as Transubstantiation) from the scope of rational theological inquiry entirely. Thus, although Amyraut agreed generally speaking that no one should ever reduce Christianity to merely what the human mind can comprehend (the extreme to which later skeptics would take the Enlightenment critique of all supernatural religions), he at the same time refused to entirely exempt the doctrines of Christianity from rational demonstration. For instance, while he admitted that reason cannot “directly” comprehend such mysteries as the Trinity and the hypostatic union, nevertheless no one can honestly claim to believe these doctrines if he does not have some sort of rational demonstration of them in his mind–i.e., rational demonstration from Scriptures or from comprehension of necessary rational links between the mysterious doctrines and other less mysterious ones (pp. 99-103).

“With Amyraut, following Cameron,” Rex writes, “…the heart adores because of the force of the demonstration to the intellect, and it is comprehension alone which leads to the acceptance of the mystery.” (pg. 104). This leads Amyraut to a typical Cartesian “foundationalist” theology: namely, he proceeds to build a grand edifice of indubitable rational theology on top of a few self-evident “clear and distinct ideas”. And this theology is infallibly comprehended by the intellect. Ultimately, according to Rex, this Protestantized Cartesian rationalism transfers into the 17th century Calvinist defense of sola Scriptura, turning that doctrine from the relatively straightforward statement that Scripture is the only infallible rule of faith into a principle that actually subordinates Scripture to the “negative authority” of human reason (pg. 111). To sum this up in my own words, this paradoxically makes it possible for these Calvinists to theorize that other authorities (particularly reason) are valid insofar as they agree with Scripture, while in practice actually making the meaning of Scripture co-extensive with Cartesian-style “clear and distinct ideas.”

At any rate, in 1664 a bright young 22 year old named Jean-Robert Chouet was inaugurated to fill a chair of philosophy in the Protestant Academy of Saumur, which had up until that point been defending the old Aristotelian ways against the new ways of Cartesianism being espoused by the Catholic philosophers at their own rival Academy at Notre Dame des Ardilliers. (Note the irony: 17th century Protestants defending “tradition” while their Catholic opponents were defending “novelty.”) Chouet apparently won his way to the chair of philosophy via three weeks of public disputation with many other applicants which culminated in his persuasive (to the other Calvinists at the Academy) demonstration of the superiority of Descartes to Aristotle. One reason that Cartesianism, as demonstrated by Chouet, was so readily accepted by these Calvinists (that is, one reason other than the fact that they already had a rationalistic frame of mind) was that Descartes’s concept of physics seemed to implicitly and decisively uphold the traditional Protestant critique of Transubstantiation. Accepting Cartesianism thus seemed to give the Protestants an edge against their Catholic opponents – a kind of rhetorical “gotcha!” move, that is, using a Catholic philosopher against Catholic theology. A few years later Chouet was induced to teach philosophy instead at the school in Geneva, and it was only a year after he got there and began indoctrinating the Protestant intellectuals in Cartesianism that Pierre Bayle arrived there to study. And as is sketched in my paper on Bayle, it was the Calvinist Bayle who used Cartesianism to devastating effect against all comers and helped to pave the way for the next century of “Enlightenment”.

Given today’s often very superficial treatments of the Reformation’s relationship to Modernity, it is intriguing to note of the 17th century in France that although a big agent who helped the slide into Modernity was a Calvinist, the material which that agent used was Catholic material adopted by Protestants for the purpose of defeating Catholicism. The importance of Rex’s chronicle of all of this early 17th century Calvinistic-Cartesian rationalism is that ultimately it leads to the crisis which the Calvinist Pierre Bayle experienced and to which he applied a rigorous method of skepticism about the ability of human reason to finally prove anything at all, thus requiring the Christian to seek after a “faith founded on the ruins of reason” (see my paper on Bayle, on this website). Bayle, in turn, unwittingly provided the next century’s Enlightenment philosophes (such as Voltaire and Diderot) with an arsenal of skeptical arguments with which to refute not merely Christian truth claims over society, but all claims of supernatural religion. Bayle’s work would also inspire that of the Scottish skeptic David Hume, who declared all treatises about metaphysics and religion to be worthy only of the flames. Hume in turn inspired Kant’s motto “sapere aude!”, “Dare to understand [for yourself]!”– the battlecry of the Enlightenment world in which we all now live.

If Rex’s arguments pan out in terms of his analyses of men such as Cameron and Amyraut and of events such as the Synod of Dordt, it would appear that Calvinists in the 17th century, particularly in France, made significant concessions to the rising tide of Cartesian philosophy which, although originally conceived as a defense for a badly divided and war-torn Christendom, was actually instrumental in bringing about Modern Secularism instead. If these arguments are true, they stand as evidence to a profound tragedy that occurred in the post-Reformation period as a result of the inflexible polarization of Roman Catholic and Protestant forces. All reunification efforts throughout the 16th century and early 17th century having failed, all that was left for Catholics and Protestants was increasingly bitter civil war. And since a house divided against itself cannot stand and nature abhors a [cultural] vacuum, it is really no surprise that the Age of Reason so easily and quickly swept in to rebuild and aggressively occupy the positions of cultural power shattered and abandoned by the Christians of the West.

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