Some Thoughts on Bossuet's History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches

One of the things that some of the major Anglican blogs will throw out from time to time is the question of what their readers/commenters are reading on the side when they’re not keeping up with the latest Anglican debacle (like the recent Primates’ Meeting.)  Through the Christmas holidays, while waiting for some long runs to come out of the computer, I finished Bossuet’s History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, both volumes of same.  That may seem quaint to some, although this piece on the recent Primates’ Meeting strikes me as being taken out of the Variations without Bossuet’s ability to entertain and inspire.  (Most Catholic priests these days lack Bossuet’s ability both ways, but that’s another post…)

The Variations were Bossuet’s efforts to show the serious problems inherent in the Reformed churches.  So how successful was he? Part of how successful he seems depends upon how you accept his view of Roman Catholicism.  A Roman Catholicism which is more like Bossuet envisions it–conscious of Scripture, independent of the state, Augustinian in theology–would be a better entity to adhere to than the one that he had then and we have now.  A big part of the problem is that the reverends pères jesuites, or at least one in particular (Pope Francis,) are once again propagating their morale accommodante, as they did in Bossuet’s France (much to its long-term detriment.)  Unfortunately then and now the situation is more complicated, but Bossuet tends to ignore this.

His invective against Protestantism, however, works, and it does because he picks his battles carefully.  Although it’s easy to get lost in his nit-picking of the endless declarations of faith (they contradicted each other and Catholic doctrine,) the largest thing he goes after is the complete hash that Protestant churches made over the nature of the Eucharist.  It was the first major split in Protestantism, pitting Lutheran consubstantiation (with its multiple definitions) against Bill Clinton’s Eucharistic Theology as advocated by Zwingli, and the variations which followed…Bossuet succeeds in showing that, once you get away from the literal meaning of Christ’s words instituting the Eucharist, you get a mess compared to which the problems of transubstantiation pale.

That’s not the only thing Bossuet occupies his pages with, though.  Except for the Anabaptists and what we would call the “Radical Reformation,” he covers his subject pretty well.  Needless to say, his point of view is biased.  It becomes ferociously so when he gets to the English Reformation, which he depicts as a combination of duplicity and brutal state coercion (he conveniently ignores Queen Mary, but she simply kept up the pace set by her father, only for the other side.)  The one person that comes out of the narrative with her reputation intact is Queen Elizabeth I, whose settlement pulled back from the outlying positions of the Reformers (much to the distaste of the Puritans and other dissenters who spent the next century trying to pull in the other direction.)  For people who are enamoured with the myth-making of the English-speaking peoples, Bossuet’s viewpoint is hard to swallow but necessary.

Another interesting digression of Bossuet’s was his narrative of pre-Reformation groups such as the Albigensians, Waldensians (the “Vaudois” as he calls them) and the Bohemian Brethren.  The Reformers saw them as their forerunners and, indeed, looked to groups such as this as proof that there was always a “true church.” (This last point was revived in the nineteenth century in the “Baptist Succession” idea of J.R. Graves and those who came after him.)  Bossuet shows that the theology of these groups was at serious variance with what the Reformers taught, which led the latter to try to bring the former into line with their own idea.  Especially interesting are the Vaudois, who were in reality an unauthorised, non-celibate religious community in Catholicism more than a stand-alone church; their main fault is that they believed that unworthy priests did not administer valid sacraments.  (Anyone who has been in church work knows that gauging the worthiness of ministers can be a dicey proposition at best; I think the Vaudois were unreasonable in that regard.)

To my mind, the best part of the work was when Bossuet takes on Calvinism.  He hits the nail on the head when he characterises it as follows:

This doctrine of Beza was taken from Calvin, who maintains, in express terms, “that Adam could not avoid falling, yet was nevertheless guilty, because he fell voluntarily;” which he undertakes to prove in his Institution, and reduces the whole of his doctrine to two principles: the first, that the will of God causes in all things, even in our wills, without excepting that of Adam, an inevitable necessity; the second, that this necessity is no excuse for sinners.  Hereby it is plain, he preserves free will in name only, even in the state of innocence and after this there is no room for disputing whether he makes God the author of sin, since besides his frequently drawing this consequence, it is but too evident, by the principles he lays down, that the will of God is the sole cause of that necessity imposed on all that sin.

Bossuet goes on to show two characteristics of Reformed types that persist to this day: they spend half the time in their unbending insistence of their idea, and the rest of it back-pedalling from the fatalistic consequences of that idea.  The first was certainly in evidence in the smack-down that the Arminians experienced at the Synod of Dort, and the second started afterwards.  Much of the later history of Protestantism–especially the Wesleyan movement and its progeny–has been trying to fix this serious doctrinal problem, but given the Reformed strength in both the seminaries and the upper socio-economic strata of Christianity, it will always be an uphill battle.

As I alluded to earlier, Bossuet is an Augustinian; nevertheless, he has no sympathy with those who wanted to take Augustinianism (especially Calvin) in a new direction.  He also lays to rest Chesterton’s charge that Luther, an Augustinian monk himself, took Augustine’s doctrine (which certainly has problems of its own) to its logical conclusion.  Bossuet’s case for his own church would have been stronger had the Jesuits (with the backing of his own sovereign, Louis XIV) had not been undermining it with their casuistry, which Pascal (someone Bossuet was certainly familiar with) attacked with gusto in the Provincial Letters.

No matter where you’re at on the issues Bossuet discusses, the History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches is an interesting take on the Reformation, a process which did not end with Luther, Calvin and Cranmer but only began.

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