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Geneva's “Enlightened Orthodoxy”: The Middle Way of Jacob Vernet (1698–1789)

  • David Sorkin (a1)


Jacob Vernet (1698–1789) numbers among those eighteenth-century theologians whose relationships to the philosophes have saved them from being forgotten but at the cost of being misrepresented. Vernet is usually remembered for editing the first edition of Montesquieu's De l'esprit des lois, helping to restore Rousseau to Calvinism, and corresponding and then crossing swords with D'Alembert and Voltaire: it is especially the controversy with D'Alembert surrounding the article on “Geneva” in the seventh volume of the Encyclopédie (1757), as well as a sustained conflict with Voltaire over many issues, that have secured him scholarly attention. The scholars who have noticed Vernet have accordingly concentrated on aspects of his person: ascertaining whether he was mendacious, conniving, and hypocritical, as some of the philosophes, especially Voltaire contended, or the figure of impeccable behavior and conscience suggested by his office and his hagiographers. This one-sided emphasis on his person obscures the fact that Vernet wrote a shelf of books and was such an influential figure that he was the representative Genevan theologian of his day. The neglect of his thought is hardly astounding, however, since it is characteristic of the treatment accorded eighteenth-century theology in general. Theologians and students of religion have for long dismissed eighteenth-century theology as derivative; students of the Enlightenment have considered it outside the canon of Enlightenment literature and thus beyond their purview. Both these assumptions should be challenged.



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1. For Vernet's representative status, see, for example, Falletti, N. Charles, Jacob Vernet: Théologien genevois, 1698–1789 (Geneva: Charles Schuchardt, 1885), 2526; Good, James I., History of the Swiss Reformed Church Since the Reformation (Philadelphia: Publication and Sunday School Board of the Reformed Church in the United States, 1913), 282: “the theological leader of Geneva for a half century”; Gargett, Graham, “Jacob Vernet: Theologian and Anti-Philosophe,” British journal for Eighteenth-Century Studies 16:1 (1993): 3552, esp. 36: “the most outstanding theologian and most important Genevan pastor of his generation”; Taylor, Samuel S. B., “The Enlightenment in Switzerland,” in The Enlightenment in National Context, ed. Roy, Porter and Mikulás Teich, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981), 80: “Jacob Vernet was in some ways the ‘ideal type’ of the Liberal Protestant”; Rosenblatt, Helena, Rousseau and Geneva: From the First Discourse to the Social Contract:1749–1762 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997), 1517. Gargett, Graham gives an exhaustive account of Vernet the person, though a superficial and unreliable account of the theology, in Jacob Vernet, Geneva and the philosophes (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1994).

2. For the commonplace, see Bradley, James E. and Dale K. Van, Kley, ed., Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe (Notre Dame, Ind.: University of Notre Dame Press, 2001), 24: “eighteenth-century Europe was not a century of very distinguished or original theological reflection.” For an awareness of the problem, see Ward, W. R., Christianity under the Ancien Régime (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 237: “Even the history of theology in the eighteenth century is substantially unknown territory.”

3. Pocock, J. G. A., Barbarism and Religion, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999); Israel, Jonathan, Radical Enlightenment: Philosophy and the Making of Modernity, 1650–1750 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001); and Bradley, and Van, Kley ed., Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe. For an attempt to rehabilitate two neglected Protestant theologians, see Sorkin, David, “Reclaiming Theology for the Enlightenment: The Case of Siegmund Jacob Baumgarten (1706–57),” Central European History 36 (2003): 503–30, and “William Warburton: The Middle Way of ‘Heroic Moderation,’” Dutch Review of Church History 82:2 (July 2002): 139.

4. For the term “moderate Enlightenment,” see Israel, , Radical Enlightenment, 445562. For the term “religious Enlightenment,” see Sorkin, David, Moses Mendelssohn and the Religious Enlightenment (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996); “Reform Catholicism and Religious Enlightenment,” Austrian History Yearbook 30 (1999): 187219; and “‘A Wise, Enlightened and Reliable Piety’: The Religious Enlightenment in Central and Western Europe, 1689–1789,” Parkes Institute Pamphlet no. 1, University of Southampton (2002).

5. Religion and Politics in Enlightenment Europe, 15.

6. For “enlightened Orthodoxy,” see Rosenblatt, Helena, “The Language of Genevan Calvinism in the Eighteenth Century,” in Reconceptualizing Nature, Science and Aesthetics: Contribution à une nouvelle approche des Lumières helvétiques, ed. Patrick, Coleman, Anne, Hofmann, Simone, Zurbuchen (Geneva: Slatkine, 1998), 6978; Klauber, Martin I., “The Eclipse of Reformed Scholasticism in Eighteenth-Century Geneva: Natural Theology from Jean-Alphonse Turretin to Jacob Vernet,” in The Identity of Geneva: The Christian Commonwealth, 1564–1864, ed. Roney, John B. and Klauber, Martin I. (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood, 1998), 129–42; and Jean-Louis, Leuba, “Rousseau et le milieu Calviniste de sa jeunesse,” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la crise contemporaine de la conscience (Paris: Beauchesne, 1980), 1324. The German term is “reasonable Orthodoxy (vernünftige Orthodoxie).” See Wernle, Paul, Der schweizerische Protestantismus im XVIII. Jahrhundert, 4 vols. (Tübingen: Mohr, 19231928), 1:468–69. Ulrich Im Hof applies the term to developments in Catholicism as well as Protestantism. See Aufklärung, in der Schweiz (Berne: Francke, 1970), 1417, 5761.

7. Maria-Cristina, Pitassi, De L'Orthodoxie aux Lumières: Genève, 1670–1737, Historie et Société, 24 (Geneva: Labor et fides, 1992), 1115; Klauber, Martin I., Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism: Jean-Alphonse Turretin (1671–1737) and Enlightened Orthodoxy at the Academy of Geneva (Selinsgrove: Susquehanna University Press, 1994); and Benedict, Philip, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 2002), 316–17, 335–39, 348–52.

8. Heyd, Michael, Between Orthodoxy and Enlightenment: Jean-Robert Chouet and the Introduction of Cartesian Science in the Academy of Geneva (The Hague: M. Nifhoff, 1982), 6972, 80, 86; and Vernet, Jacob, “Eloge Historique de Mr. Chouet,” Bibliothèque Italique 12 (09-12 1731): 108.

9. Pitassi, , De L'Orthodoxie aux Lumières, 17–20; Benedict, , Christ's Churches Purely Reformed, 348–52; and Gaberel, J., Histoire de I'Eglise de Genève depuis le commencement de la Reformation jusqu'a nos jours, 3 vols. (Geneva: J. Cherbuliez, 18531962), 3:145–50, 158–68.

10. Vernet, Jacob, “Eloge Historique de Mr. Jean Alphonse Turrettin, Pasteur and Professeur en Thèologie and en Histoire Ecclèsiastique à Geneve,” Bibliothèque raisonnèe des Ouvrages des Savans de I'Europe 21 (07-09 1738): 434–74; Klauber, , Between Reformed Scholasticism and Pan-Protestantism; and Maria-Christina, Pitassi, “L'Apologetique raisonnable des Jean-Alphonse Turrettini,” in Apologetique 1680–1740: Sauvetage ou naufrage de la théologie? ed. Pitassi, (Geneva: Labor et fides, 1991), 99118.

11. Falletti, , Jacob Vernet: Théologien genevois, 91.

12. The figures he met in Paris included the famous Jesuit, Jean Hardouin (b. 1646), Noël-Antoine Pluche, 1688–1761, author of a defense of Christianity, as well as many luminaries of the French Enlightenment, including Fontenelle.

13. On the English political system, see his letter to Turretin quoted in Eugene de, Budé, Vie de Jacob Vernet: Théologien Genevois, 1698–1789 (Lausanne: G. Bridel, 1893), 6364. On his travels, see Gargett, , Jacob Vernet, Geneva and the philosopher, 1664; Falletti, , Jacob Vernet: Théologien genevois, 2325. On the impact of Anglican moderation on his theology, see Falletti, ibid., 30, 41, 85. In his controversy with D'Alembert, Vernet chose to use the persona of an English clergyman. See his Lettres critiques d'un voyageur anglois sur I'article Genève du Dictionnaire encyclopédie, et sur la lettre de Mr. d'Alembert à Mr. Rousseau touchant les spectacles, 3rd ed., 2 vols. (Copenhagen: Chez C. Philibert, 1766).

14. Falletti, , Jacob Vernet: Théologien genevois, 26.

15. Vernet wrote that the mathematician Cramer found it easy to be a believing Christian because of a “purified, reasonable and tolerant theology such as ours (une Thèologie èpurée, raisonnable and tolèrante comme la nôtre).” See “Eloge historique de Monsieur Cramer, Professeur de Philosophie and de Mathématiques à Genève,” Nouvelle bibliothèque qermanique 10 (1752): 368.

16. For Vernet's consideration of natural religion, see Instruction chrétienne, divisée en cing volumes; seconde edition, Retouchée par I'Auteur and augmentée de quelques Piéces, 5 vols. (Geneva: n.p., 1756), 1:157. I have used the augmented second edition of 1756. The work was reprinted in 1771, 1807 (twice), and 1808. One historian called it, “the classic manual of religious instruction for two generations.” See Baron Hermann Freiherr von der, Goltz, Genève religieuse an dix-neuvième siècle: Tableau des faits qui, depuis 1815, ont accompagnè dans cette Ville le développement de l'individualisme eccléssiastique du réveil mis en regard de L'Ancien système théocratique de l'église de Calvin (Geneva: Bale, H. Georg., 1862), 89. I have chosen to concentrate on the Instruction because it was entirely Vernet's; was written at the height of his powers; and did not undergo any revisions after the second edition. Most scholars have focussed on the better known Traité de la Verité de la Religion chrétienne, but that work poses numerous textual problems, that is, distinguishing Vernet's ideas from Turrettin's and making sense of the multiple editions with their myriad substantive revisions over half a century. For example, in an otherwise excellent article Olivier Fatio slips from treating the Traité as a collaboration between Turretin and Vernet to reflecting solely Vernet's ideas. See “Le Christ des liturgies,” in Le Christ entre Orthodoxie et Lumières, ed. Maria-Cristina, Pitassi (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1994), 1216, 27. On Turretin and natural religion, see Heyd, Michael, “Un Rôle nouveau pour la Science: Jean-Alphonse Turrettini et les Débuts de la Théologie naturelle à Genève,” Revue de Théologie et de Philosophie 112 (1980): 2542.

17. Instruction chrétienne, 1:iv, 1:58–64; 2:146. He would reiterate this idea in his Reflexions sur les Moeurs, sur la Religion et sur le Culte (Geneva: Chez Claude Philibert and Part. Chirol., 1769), 17: the “gospel morality… is natural law and the law of mankind brought to all their perfection.”

18. For Jesus as the “restorer of natural religion and sound morals,” see Instruction chrétienne, 1:77. For the dangers of atheism and idolatry, see 1:11–16, 177; 2:35; 3:70. For the same idea, see Abrégé de l'histoire universelle, pour la Direction des Jeunes Gens, 2nd ed. (London: Cadell et Davies, 1801), 12; and Reflexions sur les Mœurs. sur la Religion et sur le Culte, 15 and 76–77.

19. Instruction chrétienne, 1:63. On Adam and Eve, see 1:196.

20. Ibid., 1:59–60, 64, and 172; 2:148; 3:277.

21. Ibid., 1:75, 282–83, 288; 2:249; 5:7. For Turretin's similar views, see Traité de la Verité de la Religion chrétienne, vol. 2.

22. Instruction chrétienne, 2:5é40.

23. Ibid., 1:46, and 194. For man being destined for happiness and perfection, see 1:1–7, 49, 194, 250; 3:229–37. For man as reasonable, see 3:290–94.

24. Ibid., 2:53. Cf. 2:46.

25. Ibid., 1:194–201. Vernet recognizes the hereditary nature of Adam's sin on 1:198. Not surprisingly, Vernet praised Pelagius for finding the “middle way” between Manicheanism's view of man as necessarily sinful and Jovinian's exculpation of man from all sin. See his review of Noris, P., “Histoire du Pélagianisme,” in Bibliothèque italique 5 (05é08, 1729): 88. For these issues, see Falletti, , Jacob Vernet: Théologien genevois, 6770.

26. Instruction chrétienne, 1:163.

27. Ibid., 2:102–3. See also 2:53, 76, 83.

28. Ibid., 2:388.

29. Ibid., 2:93. For the advantages derived from Jesus' death as a victim, see 2:189–95.

30. Instruction chrétienne, 2:399. Cf. 2:381.

31. Ibid., 3:201.

32. Ibid., 2:4; 1:271, 110; 2:484.

33. Deux Lettres a Monsieur L'Abbe Chanoine de Nôtre Dame de Paris, Sur le Mandement de Monseigneur le Cardinal de Noailles, due 10. Aout 1725, au sujet de la guerison de la Dame La Fosse, femme d'un Ebeniste du Faux-bourg St. Antoine (Cologne: Chez Pierre Martau [sic], 1726), 14. See also Instruction chrétienne, 3:140. Vernet argued that church leaders after the Apostles have no claim to supernatural illumination. See 2:467 and 470. For the Jansenist miracles, see Kreiser, B. Robert, Miracles, Convulsions and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978).

34. Piéces fugitives sur l'eucharistie (Geneva: Bousquet, 1730), 161.

35. Ibid., vi–vii, 163–73.

36. Ibid., 176: “le juste milieux entre ceux qui énervant le Sacrement, and ceux qui le défigurent à force de l'exalter.”

37. Ibid., 175. Vernet reiterated his acceptance of mysteries in the Lettres critique d'un voyageur anglois, 1:116; 2:261.

38. Instruction chrétienne, 1:71,136–38, 53; 2:12, 54. For these categories, see Traité de la Verité de la Religion chrétienne, 1:236–55.

39. Instruction chrétienne, 1:112. This method of first analyzing a subject using reason and then citing Scripture structures all five volumes of the Instruction.

40. Quotations at ibid., 1:101, and 1:70.

41. Vernet's use of accommodation followed Turretin's. Turrettin, in the tradition of Grotius and the Remonstrants, attributed the obscurity of the Old Testament to its being accommodated to the ancient Israelites, and in consequence made little effort to defend the accuracy of the accounts in Genesis; instead, he vindicated their doctrinal content. In general he dismissed the problem of the errancy of the Old Testament by treating questionable aspects as accommodated. He employed the principle to defend the New Testament's integrity and divine inspiration. See Klauber, Martin I. and Sunshine, Glenn S., “Jean-Alphonse Turrettini on Biblical Accommodation: Calvinist or Socinian?Calvin Theological Journal 25 (04 1990): 727.

42. The Israelites were a rude or primitive people, still in their infancy (Instruction chrétienne, 1:282–83,288); the revelation they were given was “proportional to the[ir] condition and needs” (1:282–83); the “holy writers accommodated themselves to the common language of the people”(1:279). The revelation to the Jews, the mosaic law, was “une excellente Police religieuse” (2:249).

43. Instruction chrétienne, 2:57, 82–83; 1:90; 2:152, 257. Vernet also used accommodation in regard to the early church. The early councils of apostles did not make dogmatic judgments or pronouncements of faith but rather regulated matters of discipline or “ecclesiastical police” as a form of accommodation to their congregation. See ibid., 2:469–70.

44. Ibid., 1:v, and 93; 3:5. Cf. 2:396.

45. Ibid., 3:312 and 132.

46. Ibid., 4:17.

47. Quotations at ibid., 4:8–9, 29–44, and 4:69, 234, 137, 211, and 19; 4:252.

48. ibid., 4:17.

49. ibid., 4:2.

50. ibid., 5:3–4.

51. Relation des Affaires de Genève (Geneva: n.p., 1734), 15.

52. For a Dutch Huguenot republican (Jean Luzac, 1746–1807) with similar views, see Popkin, Jeremy, News and Politics in the Age of Revolution: jean Luzac's Gazette de Leyde (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1989). In general see Pocock, J. G. A., The Machiavellian Moment (Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1975).

53. Instruction chrétienne, 4:256.

54. ibid. 2:462.

55. Quotations at ibid., 5:16é20. For an application of the law (1731é35) that shocked contemporaries, see Walker, Mack, The Salzburg Transaction: Expulsion and Redemption in Eighteenth-century Germany (Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1992).

56. Instruction chrétienne, 5:80, 83; 2:474.

57. Burlamaqui, J. J., The Principles of Natural and Politic Law, trans. Nugent, Thomas, 3rd ed., 2 vols, (London: C. Nourse, 1784), 2:70, 8788, 9396. For Vernet's, views, see “Eloges historique de Monsieur Burlamaqui,” Mercure suisse (04 1748): 307–31.

58. “Description abrégée du gouvernement de Genève,” in Oeuvres de D'Alembert, 5 vols. (Paris: A. Belin, 1822), 4:419–22. For a recent discussion of the accuracy of these charges, see Fatio, , “Le Christ des liturgies,” 1130.

59. Lettres critiques d'un voyageur anglois, iv–v.

60. Ibid., 1:7–10, 16–17, 81, 87, 182–85. Quotation at 2:259. A motif in Vernet's controversy with Voltaire and D'Alembert is the conflict of Switzerland versus France: an affirmation of Swiss intellectual independence as well as a critique of French luxury and morals. Both of these ideas were characteristic of the Swiss Enlightenment. See Francillon, Roger, “The Enlightenment in Switzerland,” in Reconceptualizing Nature, Science and Aesthetics: Contribution à une nouvelle approche des Lumières helvétiques, ed. Patrick, Coleman, Anne, Hofmann, Simone, Zurbuchen (Geneva: Slatkine, 1998), 1327.

61. Lettres critiques d'un voyngeur anglois, 1:17, 116–17, 129, 169, 218–19, 261–62. Quotation at 1:198. Vernet analyzed D'Alembert's vindication of the Geneva article as well.

62. Ibid., 2:119–20.

63. Ibid., 1:58–60. Quotation at 60.

64. Ibid., 1:40–42. Here Vernet refers to D'Alembert's “Lettre a J. J. Rousseau,” in which he wrote that the heresy “which began by attacking indulgences ended by abolishing the mass.” See 1:433.

65. Ibid., 1:249–61.

66. Ibid., 1:268–69. Vernet thought D'Alembert's understanding of Protestantism resembled such seventeenth-century polemical works as Aubert de Verse, Nouvelle apologie de la foi Catholique contre les Sociniens and les Calvinistes (1692). For Voltaire's attitude to Protestantism, see André, Delattre, “Voltaire and the Ministers of Geneva,” Church History 13 (1944): 243–54.

67. Lettres critiques d'un voyageur anglois, 1:65. Cf., 2:130.

68. Ibid., 1:276. For the same point, see Gaberel, , Historie de l'Eglise de Genève, 3:192.

69. Lettres critiques d'un voyageur anglois, 2:124–25.

70. Ibid., 1:65.

71. Quotations at ibid., 2:149, 157–58, 154.

72. Reflexions sur les Moeurs, sur la Religion et sur le Culte, 41é46.

73. Lettres critiques d'un voyageur anglois, 2:119é43.

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