1. Exposition de la Doctrine Catholique.
2. Histoire des Variations des Eglises Protestantes.
3. Sixieme Avertissement aux Protestants.
An eminent modern French historian describes Bossuet's defence of all established beliefs and institutions as one of the great spectacles of the seventeenth century. This is perfectly true. It would probably be difficult to find in the history of literature a career so pre-eminently deserving the name of glorious as Bossuet's. Glory was, we do not say the great object, but certainly the great result, of his whole life.
He stands, at the close of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century (born 27th September 1627, died 11th April 1704), as the expounder of a magnificent scheme of all things human and divine, in which religion, politics, law, morals, history, and science each occupy their appropriate place, and are each represented by their properly constituted authority, discharging its part without interfering with the functions of the others. Pope, kings, clergy, statesmen, generals, men of letters and of science, all fit into the places which have been assigned to them by God himself. The foundation-stone of the whole edifice is a body of revealed truth, embracing all the principal doctrines essential to be known, and expounded and interpreted, from time to time, by a vast organisation extending over the entire world, and lasting through all time. The superstructure has been raised by a long series of struggles, in which divine truth has finally won the victory, and has created a world in its own likeness.
It would be impossible for the human mind to conceive a grander vision, if it were only true; and it must be owned that, if such a state of things did exist, and were to be described by any single person, Bossuet would be that person. No one was ever better fitted to describe magnificent institutions in magnificent language, or to find sonorous and ingenious reasons for believing in the truth of any splendid scheme.
But was it all true? Was the world really organised in this superlative manner? Were Louis XIV. and his institutions, on the one hand, and the Popes and the Councils and the Church theology on the other, the visible representatives of God upon earth, and the depositaries of a divine authority which it was blasphemous to question, and impious to resist? With all his heart Bossuet answered, Yes. Authority of every kind, in Church and State, was the representative of God and the messenger of God to man. The enemies of authority, vice and crime in all their shapes, and emphatically and above all the vice and crime of disobedience in thought, word, or deed, were the offspring of an abuse of freedom, and were the direct result, or rather were so many particular illustrations, of the original crime of the first man, and of the guilt, in the proper sense of the word, which all his descendants had inherited from him.
Bossuet appears to have conceived of the world as a scene in which authority, arrayed in splendour of every kind, moral, spiritual, and material, was continually engaged in enforcing obedience upon rebels. His strong sense of the divine nature of authority, and his equally strong sense of the extreme wickedness of men, complete each other, and, when taken together, form a conception of the world which is full of gloomy magnificence. With such a starting-point it is by no means surprising that Bossuet should have regarded Protestantism with the most intense aversion, spiritual and intellectual. There was nothing in him which was not offended to the utmost by its fundamental principles. He hated its origin in an independent exertion of the human reason, he hated its ideal of morality, he hated its application to politics, he felt clearly that between his principles and its principles, when fully carried out and developed to their inevitable consequences, there must be a war of extermination, and he accordingly dedicated a great part of his life to the attempt to confound and silence its partisans.
His writings upon this subject fill a considerable proportion of his collected works, but the most memorable of them are not very voluminous. We may take by way of illustration the Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine, the History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches, and the controversial writings of which the History of the Variations was the occasion. The most remarkable of these last is the Sixième Avertissement aux Protestants, which sums up in a short compass the gist of the whole of his argument. The occasional importance of these books was very great. They were the great intellectual battery directed against Protestantism in France, and the Exposition prepared the way to the revocation of the Edict of Nantes, by converting many of the leading Protestants of that time, and in particular Turenne. Gibbon, in a later generation, was converted by the History of the Variations, and his case is a typical one, as it shows, in the neatest way, what is the true inference to be drawn from Bossuet's arguments—arguments which in a slightly different form are, and always will be, the most popular and specious plea which can be advanced in favour of the Roman Catholic Church.
The books themselves are essentially popular. They are arguments addressed to men of the world, by a man of consummate ability, though not, as competent critics say, of equal learning; and they have the same sort of merits that belong to the English apologetic writers against the Deists. Bossuet is by no means unlike a Roman Catholic Paley. He begins by stating with transparent clearness what he means to prove, and he then proceeds to argue in favour of his different propositions with a degree of life, vigour, and ability which it would be scarcely possible to overrate. It may reasonably be doubted whether, in the matter of style, any one has ever surpassed him.
His plan, however, is exceedingly simple, and his art may be practised by almost any one who has sufficient courage, for, after all, the effectiveness of his style depends more on his moral, than on his intellectual characteristics. He is not, for instance, more vigorous than Chillingworth, or than Voltaire. His whole art consists in being singleminded and thoroughgoing. A man who thinks with perfect simplicity, and faces his thoughts in his own mind with unflinching courage, is sure to be consistent and thoroughgoing, and thus to gain real, or at all events apparent, triumphs over persons who may have a firmer hold of the truth than himself, but who embrace it with less energy and simplicity than that with which he embraces error.
The order of the publication of the books we have mentioned is as follows: The Exposition of the Catholic Doctrine was published in 1671; the History of the Variations in 1688; the Sixième Avertissement in 1691. The Exposition, which was the occasion or the excuse of the conversion of Turenne and many others, is very short, not filling more than sixty or seventy octavo pages. Its object is to put the Roman Catholic system in as reasonable a light as possible, and to show that, whilst it retains all the essentials of Christianity, its distinctive features are not unreasonable when duly understood, and regarded as they are explained by the Council of Trent.
Historically, the Exposition was a bridge of gold for a retreating enemy. Theoretically, like the whole of Bossuet's writings on that subject, it is open to the objection that it answers only one set of difficulties, whilst it leaves a much more formidable set unanswered. To a layman who assumes all the premisses of technical theology to be true, and who is willing to recognise the methods employed in theological controversy as appropriate, the Exposition is no doubt a powerful argument. No one can, of course, affect to deny that the general outline of Christianity is common to all, or almost all, the bodies which call themselves Christian. In Bossuet's time the Socinians— a very small and, except in Poland and a few other places, an illegal sect— were the only body of professed Christians who would not have accepted the Nicene Creed. It is easy to show that the same sort of arguments which may be used in support of that creed, and the same kind of assumptions which are implied in a thorough submission to it, may be urged with a good deal of plausibility in favour of transubstantiation as against consubstantiation.
It is easy, too, to show that the official theories of the Council of Trent about the invocation of saints, and the respect paid to images and relics, do not deserve the hard names applied by zealous Protestants to the practices founded upon them. So, too, the theory which Bossuet uses to justify indulgences is by no means unlike theories as to merit and satisfaction which may be heard from Protestant pulpits.
With regard to the authority of the Church, the conduct of the different Protestant synods gave him an excellent opportunity of saying that, after all, the question was only as to a choice of masters; and as to the authority of the Pope, he states it so very mildly that it almost drops out of sight. His whole doctrine on the subject is comprised in the following short passage:
'The Son of God having willed that his Church should be one, and solidly founded on unity, has established and instituted the primacy of St. Peter to keep and cement it. For this reason we acknowledge this same primacy in the successors of the Prince of the Apostles, to whom are therefore due the submission and obedience which the Holy Councils and Holy Fathers have always taught to all the faithful. ... As to the matters on which, as we know, they dispute in the schools, though the ministers continually allege them to render this power odious, it is unnecessary to speak of them here, because they are not of the Catholic faith. It is enough to recognise a chief established by God to conduct the flock in his ways, which those who love brotherly concord and ecclesiastical unanimity will always readily do.'This view puts the Pope's authority so low, and qualifies it so largely, by restricting it to that amount of submission which the Holy Councils and Holy Fathers have always taught to all the faithful, that it is consistent with attributing to the Pope little more than an honorary presidency over the Christian world.
Thus the result of the whole tract is to exhibit the Roman Catholic system in the most attractive light to those who are naturally disposed to believe in, and to like, ecclesiastical systems. Bossuet says, in substance, 'You cannot honestly deny that our system is Christian, and you perceive that the parts of it to which you object are really very like parts of your own system, and have been considerably misunderstood by your most popular writers.' The effect of this was as great as it might have been expected to be in an age in which people were growing tired, on the one hand, of theological methods and scholastic disputes, whilst, on the other, they were by no means prepared to apply to theology the methods of inquiry which they had been devising for the treatment of other subjects.
Under such circumstances, nothing can be more seductive than the suggestions that spiritual guides are indispensable; that, when properly understood, the Roman Catholic system is more self-consistent than Protestantism, and not more unreasonable; and, indeed, that Protestantism is not a system at all, but a common name for many discordant sects, whose debates will infallibly end in universal disbelief unless the Romish authority averts such a calamity.
The Exposition enforces the first part of this case in the manner which we have already described. The History of the Variations deals with the second. It is a book which, in the present day, may be read pretty quickly, as the greater part of it is filled by the history of technical disputes between the Lutherans, the Calvinists, and the Zuinglians, about Justification and the Sacrament, which are so remote from our present state of mind that it is hard to take even a faint interest in them, or to understand what they are about. But this is interspersed with a number of interesting discussions of a more general kind, and the whole has the merits which distinguished the best controversial style of the seventeenth and the beginning of the eighteenth century— merits which in the present day are occasionally to be found in our very best journalists, and which are perhaps displayed more forcibly in some of the articles in Bayle's Dictionary than in any other writer who could be mentioned.
With all these advantages, the Histoire des Variations is no more than a party pamphlet, written to prove a point which no one in the present day would dispute —the point, namely, that the word Protestantism represents no one definite and complete system of theology. Most modern readers of the book, indeed, will be inclined to agree with Mr. Hallam's criticism, that it is odd that Bossuet should have found so few variations amongst the Protestants of his day, for certainly the differences on which he dwells are for the most part so technical that few laymen would care about or even understand them. They leave completely untouched the broad outline of Christianity which is drawn in the three creeds, and they need not of necessity much affect forms of public worship.
The art of the whole book consists in dwelling upon the points of difference, to the exclusion of the points of agreement, between the various Protestant bodies, and in tacitly assuming that there can be no revelation at all from God to man, which does not include the means of solving, in a conclusive manner, every question which human ingenuity can connect with any part of it.
The only difference between the controversies among Protestants and the innumerable controversies which before and after Bossuet's time occurred in the Christian Church, quite apart from Protestantism, was that Protestantism recognised no general ecclesiastical judge of controversy whose decisions were to be binding on all. Not only was controversy no new thing among Christians, but Bossuet himself was engaged in a variety of eager controversies with the members of his own communion, not the least of which was the great controversy as to the rights of the Pope over the Gallican Church, and as to the rights of General Councils, Popes, and Bishops respectively.
Thus the real distinction which the Histoire des Variations brings out between Protestants and Roman Catholics is not that the Protestants differ amongst themselves while the Roman Catholics agree amongst themselves, but that the Roman Catholics submit their differences to a common authority, while the Protestants do not.
That the decisions of this authority are perfectly consistent and infallibly true are further propositions, quite distinct from the proposition of fact just laid down. They are, however, essential to Bossuet's case, which is very pointedly stated in his preface.
'Faith speaks simply; the Holy Spirit diffuses pure lights, and the truth which he teaches has always a uniform language. It requires little knowledge of the history of the Church to know that she has opposed to every heresy proper and precise explanations which she has never changed; and attention to the expressions by which she has condemned heretics will show that these explanations always attack the error in its source, by the shortest and straightest road. This is why whatever varies, whatever is encumbered with doubtful and intricate terms, has always been suspected as not only fraudulent, but moreover absolutely false, because it shows an embarrassment which truth does not know.'The most compendious and, as it appears to us, by far the most interesting and pithy of Bossuet's controversial performances is the last part of the Sixième Avertissement aux Protestants, It is his final answer to Jurieu, who had replied to the Histoire des Variations by pointing out that the Roman Catholic system was open to precisely the same criticisms as the different forms of Protestantism, and that it was not only impossible to show that that system, as expounded at the Council of Trent, had come down from heaven, but easy to demonstrate that it had been put together by degrees, and was in fact nothing more than the aggregate of a number of quasi-judicial decisions upon controversies as they happened to arise, delivered by an authority which could make out no reasonable claims to infallibility. To this home-thrust Bossuet answers by an argument exactly like those with which Dr. Newman has made the present generation familiar, about the tendency of Protestantism to universal disbelief, and to universal tolerance and indifference in religion.
A few short specimens of this vigorous appeal may be new to some of our readers, and they have, it must be owned, a strangely modern air. First, he says,
'you will get civil toleration, but civil toleration— that is to say, impunity granted by the magistrate to all sects—is necessarily connected in the spirit of those who maintain it, with ecclesiastical toleration; and we must not consider these two sorts of toleration as opposed to each other, but the last as the pretext with which the other conceals itself. If men openly professed ecclesiastical toleration—that is to say, if they recognised all heretics as true members and true children of the Church— they would mark too clearly religious indifference. They pretend, therefore, to confine themselves to civil toleration. For what do those who consider all religions indifferent care for the condemnation of the Church? No one need fear its censures except those who have churches, pulpits, or ecclesiastical pensions to lose; as for the other indifferents, so long as the magistrate leaves them in repose they will tranquilly enjoy the liberty which they allow themselves of thinking as they please, which is the charm by which men's minds are thrown into these libertine opinions.'Intolerance, civil as well as ecclesiastical, is the corner-stone of Bossuet's system. He speaks of 'the Catholic religion, the most severe and the least tolerant of all religions.' He says, 'We see then what makes the' (Roman Catholic)' Church so odious to Protestants. It is principally, and above all her other dogmas, her holy and inflexible incompatibility, if I may use the phrase; it is that she will be alone, because she considers herself the wife, a title which does not admit of being shared.'
Elsewhere he speaks of it as 'a Church which lays down as its foundation that there is neither life nor salvation out of its communion,' and he says of Jurieu that he 'confesses formally the crime of- which he is accused, which is that people may be saved in the Socinian communion'—people, that is, who, though not Socinians, externally conformed to Socinianism. And again, 'It is still worse, if possible, to save such a hypocrite than to save a Socinian, because one may be a Socinian through ignorance, and with a sort of good faith.' The consequence of toleration is utter unbelief. 'If we must of necessity let loose human reason' ('mettre au large la raison humaine'), 'and if this is the great achievement of the Reformation, why not free it from all the mysteries, and in particular from that of the Trinity and the Incarnation, as well as that of the Real Presence, for reason is not more shocked with the one than the other.'
The most striking passage of all is one in which he exposes, certainly with triumphant success, the absurdity of the view entertained by Jurieu himself that the civil magistrate ought to punish heresy. If so, he argues, the civil magistrate must decide what is heresy; and what will be the consequence?
'They will prove to him by refined criticism that one passage, and then another, and then another, have been foisted into the Gospel. He will not know how far that goes, but it is clear that it goes to everything. Soon he will be led to see that neither the apostles nor the evangelists nor the prophets were really inspired, that it required no inspiration to reason like St. Paul, and still less to relate what one had seen oneself, like St. Matthew; in a word, that nothing is certainly inspired except the very words of the Saviour, and that even he accommodated his language to common opinions, in quoting the prophets and the other sacred writers as being truly by God when they were not. All this, you will say is impiety. Still it is the question which is now at issue with the Socinians.'He contrasts with the magistrate who is obliged to listen to all this 'fine critique,' the Fathers of the early Church, 'where the sovereign reason was to say, We baptize to-day in the same faith in which we have been baptized, and we consider worthy of anathema those who, by condemning their predecessors, suppose that they have discovered error in the Church of Jesus Christ.'
After quoting as a portent Chillingworth's famous passage about the Bible being the religion of Protestants, and Burnet's disclaimer of infallibility, he sums up the whole in a passage of which the following expressions give the essence. 'You now see the present state of the Reformation, and the tendency of these pretended Churches, the foundation of which is, that there is on the earth nothing living and speaking to which we ought to subject ourselves in matters of religion. Socinianism pours in to them like a flood, under the name of toleration; the mysteries go one after the other; faith is extinguished, human reason takes its place, and they fall in a torrent into religious indifference.' In another part of the same tract he contrasts this with the flourishing state of religion in France, as to which he says that, if there were any Socinians, he should probably know them, and that he cannot mention a single one.
This is a slight sketch of Bossuet's famous argument against the Protestants. It admits of being stated shortly, because the greater part of the books in which it is contained are occupied with matter which is now pretty nearly obsolete. We will make one general observation upon it.
It is very common to assert that whether the Roman Catholic view as put forward by Bossuet— and no one ever put it forward with equal power or plausibility— be true or false, it is at least thoroughly logical, and far superior to the half-meanings, subterfuges, and inconsistencies of Protestant writers. In short, Dryden's famous lines, 'To take up half on faith and half to try,' express, in a few words, the criticism which people who like to dispose of large subjects in a compressed succinct way have generally made upon such writings. Surely, however, when the matter is fairly considered, this is an entire fallacy.
A very short answer may be given to the whole of Bossuet's argument. The Protestants might have replied to him, 'All that you say is, that upon our principles we ought to be Socinians, or Deists, or Atheists if you please, if their views are supported by stronger arguments and better evidence than ours. This we admit, and so must every one else who is not prepared to give some other reason for believing in his creed than that it is true, and to give some other test of truth than reason and evidence. Authority is only another name for evidence. If God himself asserted a fact, such an assertion would not be evidence of the fact addressed to the reason of the person to whom the assertion was made, unless truth were assumed or proved to be an attribute of God. Take, therefore, the highest possible view of Church authority, and you never alter the case. Judges, as Chillingworth unanswerably says we all must be, the Protestant judges that this is the road, and the Catholic that this is the guide who knows the road.'
In a word, Bossuet's whole argument is either an appeal to reason as to the infallibility of the Church— which is just as much an appeal to reason as if the issue were as to the truth of the doctrines of the Church—or else it is a passionate exhortation to keep your eyes shut as tight as possible, because, if you once open them, you will see what you do not like. Believe all this without inquiry, because perhaps inquiry will prove that it is false.
If Bossuet did not mean to say that the Socinian and the Deist could out-argue the Lutheran and Calvinist, his argument is pointless. If he did, it proves that their views are true, for he uses no arguments at all against them which are not open to the Protestant as well. His sole argument on behalf of Church authority may be thus expressed: There must be an infallible Church, for if there is none, who is to put down the Socinians? which is no argument against Socinians, and not an honest argument against the orthodox Protestants. Jurieu might have retorted conclusively upon Bossuet by asking how he proposed to deal with the Socinians? He might of course burn them, but, if he had to answer them, he must do so upon some other principle than that of Church authority, which they denied; and whatever other answer he found would he available to Protestants as well as to himself.
Perhaps the most obvious remark on Bossuet as a controversialist is that he was, beyond all question, the forerunner of Voltaire. As Lord Macaulay well observed, you have only to join the proposition that transubstantiation is nonsense to the proposition that it is an essential doctrine of Christianity, and you obtain an obvious inference. It is very remarkable, and strongly characteristic of the rash, heated, vehement temper of the man and of his nation, that he should not have appreciated the tremendous risk to which he was exposing his creed by the way in which he stated it. Notwithstanding all his predictions, England, at the end of the century of which Bossuet saw the beginning, was far more orthodox than France, and English theologians made an incomparably better fight against the Deists in the eighteenth century, than was made by the Roman Catholics. It would be difficult to find amongst the French writers of the eighteenth century Christian apologists who could be compared in power or in influence to the line of writers of whom Tillotson and Horsley mark the two extremities.
Saturday Review, November 17, 1866.