Sweeney’s Booknotes: Claude Pajon and the Academy of Saumur

Albert Gootjes, Claude Pajon (1626-1685) and the Academy of Saumur: The First Controversy over Grace, Brill’s Series in Church History (Leiden: Brill, 2014)

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This book never mentions Edwards, but it does have much to do with the background to his celebrated doctrine of natural ability, that is, his doctrine of the natural or physical capacity of unconverted sinners to repent and turn to Christ.

The centerpiece of Edwards’ book on the Freedom of the Will (1754) was his doctrine that all humans are naturally free to do what they will. Our choices are necessitated only from the inside, by our moral inclinations. They are usually not coerced and, when they are, we are not to blame for their outcomes.

The upshot of this for Edwards’ evangelistic preaching was that sinners were naturally free to convert and live for God, and should be kept from using the doctrine of predestination as an excuse for their failure to repent. They would certainly never change unless and until God reoriented their moral inclinations. But whether or not that happened, they were naturally/physically free to meet the terms of their redemption. They were free to do what they pleased. They had no one but themselves to blame for sinning against the Lord. Everyone always gets what they want, he claimed. They choose what they prefer. The problem was that the wayward never wanted the right things.

Edwards was not the first to teach the doctrine of natural ability. In fact, the thinkers who put this notion on the theological map were the Huguenot theologians of the Academy of Saumur (in western France). The best known of these thinkers was a man named Moïse Amyraut (in Latin, Moses Amyraldus). Their Academy was founded by a Scot, John Cameron. And over the course of the seventeenth century many others joined their cause, causing a stir throughout the region with their famous via media between strict Calvinism (as defined at the Synod of Dort, 1618-1619) and Arminianism. The Amyraldians and their doctrine of the sinner’s natural ability were condemned in the Helvetic [Swiss] Formula Consensus (1675), which was shepherded in part by Edwards’ favorite polemical Calvinist, Geneva’s Francis Turretin. Ironically, however, only 79 years later, Edwards retrieved the hotly contested notion of natural ability and used it as a weapon in his war against Arminianism, granting it a nobler place in subsequent Calvinist history.

Albert Gootjes’ new book began as a doctoral dissertation at Calvin Theological Seminary. It features Claude Pajon, one of the most controversial theologians at Saumur. Pajon advocated a version of the doctrine of natural ability according to which the Spirit works only through the Word to convert the minds of sinners and, through their minds, their wills as well. He denied that the Spirit works immediately on the will. In fact, eventually, he denied that the Spirit works immediately in any way at all in the conversion of wayward sinners–on the will, on the mind, or in support of any secondary causes of conversion (through what schoolmen called concursus). God always works mediately, through the Word, Pajon contended. This seemed to invest natural ability with real salvific potential, for many people could access and understand the gospel as presented in the Word (without waiting for an immediate act of God upon their souls). But it also seemed to some to domesticate, or de-supernaturalize, the doctrine of conversion.

Edwards taught a very different doctrine of natural ability, and retained a more supernatural doctrine of conversion. But his manner of articulating the freedom of the will, and the natural power of sinners to repent and be reborn, owed much to the intellectual history of Saumur–a history represented with painstaking research and analysis in Gootjes’ monograph.

This is serious, heavy reading. Nonetheless, it is essential for those seeking to understand Edwards’ theological world and his place and historical significance within it.