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LOISY, ALFRED (18571940), French scholar who held a dual role in the religious history of France: as a Roman Catholic biblical critic who employed the methods pioneered by German Protestant scholars and as the center of the conflict in Catholicism that would come to be known as the modernist controversy.

Alfred Firman Loisy was born in Ambrières (Marne) on February 28, 1857, and died on June 1, 1940, in Paris. While Loisy was a student in a rural seminary, he undertook the study of Hebrew as an antidote to the mediocrity of his theological education. His familiarity with the language gave him a taste for reading biblical texts for their original sense, a taste that developed into a lifelong preference for historical as opposed to theological approaches to biblical questions. In 1878 he was assigned to the fledgling Institut Catholique de Paris to complete his seminary education. There he attracted the attention of the church historian Louis Duchesne, who encouraged Loisy's interest in modern methods of historical research. There, too, he attended classes of Ernest Renan at the Collège de France; Renan embodied the conviction that it was not possible to be both a historian and a Catholic. Loisy's youthful ambition was to prove Renan wrong, to demonstrate in his own life and work that, as he put it, "the great march of history did not pass by Renan's door."

Nevertheless, Loisy's journals for these years indicate that he was deeply distressed by what seemed to be the unwillingness of the church to understand or explain its past in any but the most doctinaire theological categories. However troubled his private thoughts may have been, Loisy exhibited in his studies the clarity of mind, attention to detail, and remarkable discipline that would characterize all his later work. As a result, he was appointed instructor (1882) and then professor of New Testament (1890) at the Institut Catholique. In that position, Loisy began to expose his students to the requirements of a historical study of Christian origins. However, church authorities were wary of scientific studies that would alter or overturn traditional doctrines, and it was inevitable in this environment that a controversy would arise. Loisy soon found himself embroiled in an argument over the nature of biblical inspiration that led first to his demotion and finally to his dismissal.

Loisy's next appointment, to the chaplaincy of a convent school outside Paris, was probably intended to keep him out of higher education. However, unable to do technical research, Loisy began to think about the problem of modern religion in its wider bearings. He developed an entire program for teaching the Catholic faith in a way that would be consistent with the discoveries of modern historical research. When, in 1902, Adolf von Harnack's popular book on the essence of Christianity, Das Wesen des Christentums (English title, What Is Christianity? ), appeared in French translation, Loisy saw an opportunity to demonstrate that Catholics could have the better of an argument with Protestant historians simply on historical grounds; one could show, for example, that Harnack's conclusions were wrong, not because they violated doctrine but because they rested on inadequate research and hasty conclusions. Loisy's book L'évangile et l'église, published that same year, created a sensation. However, what proved significant about the book was not so much the success of Loisy's argument with Harnack as his acknowledgment that history allowed for considerably fewer claims about Jesus' divinity and foreknowledge than Catholic theology had traditionally made. When Loisy confirmed this position in a companion volume (Autour d'un petit livre ) the next year, the issue crystallized into a conflict between historians who would alter doctrine to suit their vision of history and theologians who would refuse historical fact to preserve doctrine. Loisy spent the next several months defending his position while trying to avoid condemnation by the church on whose behalf he understood himself to be speaking. By the end of 1903, he realized that the project to which he had given so much of his life was failing. When, in March 1904, Pius X's accusation that Loisy was not sincere in his wish to remain in the church was conveyed to him, "something inside came apart."

Loisy was excommunicated in 1907. Earlier that year, the encyclical Pascendi dominici gregis was issued by Pius X, describing and condemning "modernist" errors; prominent among them were the principles of biblical research drawn from Loisy's work.

During this controversy, Loisy had begun to teach courses at the Collège de France and to return to the kind of technical research he said he preferred. After his excommunication, he was appointed to the chair of history of religions, where he remained until his retirement in 1931. Loisy continued to publish a remarkable number of books until just before his death at the age of eighty-three. Besides his technical work on aspects of Christian origins, he continued his interest in the nature of religion and its place in the modern world. He understood these latter works as a kind of series that began with L'évangile et l'église in 1902 and concluded in 1937 with La crise morale du temps présent et l'éducation humaine.


For analysis of Loisy's thought and influence, see Maude D. Petre's Alfred Loisy: His Religious Significance (Cambridge, U.K., 1944) and John Ratte's Three Modernists: Alfred Loisy, George Tyrrell, William L. Sullivan, New York, 1967.

Several of Loisy's works have been translated into English. The Gospel and the Church (1903), Christopher Home's translation of L'évangile et l'église, has been reissued (Philadelphia, 1976) with a good introduction by Bernard Scott, and Loisy's autobiography, Choses passées (1913), translated by Richard W. Boynton with Loisy's approval and issued as My Duel with the Vatican (1924), is still available in a reprint edition (New York, 1968). Loisy's later three-volume Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire religieuse de notre temps (Paris, 19301931) has not been translated. His last major work on Christian origins, La naissance du Christianisme (1933), was translated by L. P. Jacks as The Birth of the Christian Religion (London, 1948) but is currently out of print.

New Sources

Heaney, John J. "Metaphor and Modernist: The Polarization of Alfred Loisy and His Neo-Thomist Critics." Theological Studies 49D (1988): 781.

Hill, Harvey. "French Politics and Alfred Loisy's Modernism." Church History 67, no. 3S (1998): 521536.

Hill, Harvey. The Politics of Modernism: Alfred Loisy and the Scientific Study of Religion. Washington, D.C., 2002

Jodock, Darrell. "Introduction II: The Modernists and the Anti-Modernists." In Catholicism Contending with Modernity, pp. 2027. Cambridge, U.K.; New York, 2000.

Kieran, Patricia Mary Brigid. "New Light on Alfred Loisy: An Exploration of His Religious Science in Essais d'Histoire et de Philosophie Religieuses (18981899)." Ph.D. diss., University of London, 1995.

Richard J. Resch (1987)

Revised Bibliography

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