Loisy, Alfred (1857–1940)

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Alfred Loisy, the French biblical exegetist, was the best-known and most controversial representative of the Modernist movement in France at the end of the nineteenth and beginning of the twentieth centuries. His scholarly investigation led him to the kind of destructive criticism of the Gospel narratives and Christian dogmas carried on earlier by such scholars as D. F. Strauss and Ernest Renan, whose lectures at the Institut Catholique Loisy attended from 1882 to 1885. Loisy's long career, from his entry into the priesthood in 1879 to shortly before his death, was one of much controversy and progressive estrangement from personal religion.

Loisy was born at Ambrière, Marne, and died at Ceffonds, Haute Marne. He became professor of Hebrew in 1881, and of Holy Scripture in 1889, at the Institut Catholique. Loisy's views on the date of the book of Proverbs soon aroused misgivings, and he was warned that continuation of such unorthodoxy would place him in danger of official censure.

Loisy's superior, Monsignor d'Hulst, was an enlightened man and not intolerant of the work of the modern critical school, but as head of the Institut Catholique he was in a responsible and difficult position. The head of the College of St. Sulpice had forbidden his students to attend the heterodox Loisy's lectures, and when in 1892 Loisy started his own periodical, L'enseignement biblique, for the instruction of young priests, d'Hulst felt obliged to urge caution. In 1892, soon after Renan's death, d'Hulst himself wrote an article on Renan in Le correspondant. Without condoning Renan's break with Catholicism, d'Hulst upheld his complaint, in Souvenirs d'enfance et de jeunesse, that the instruction given at such seminaries as St. Sulpice was out of touch with modern scholarship and the modern world. A further article by d'Hulst, aimed at promoting tolerance of the more searching kind of biblical criticism, gave offense in orthodox quarters, and d'Hulst felt obliged to clear his institute of any suspicion of unorthodoxy. Therefore, when Loisy continued to declare his critical independence of dogma and revelation, and to present a historical Jesus apart from the Christ of faith, he was forced to resign his chair in 1893.

As a reply to modernist exegesis, the pope issued the encyclical Providentissimus Deus (November 18, 1893), denying that error is compatible with divine authorship. Loisy wrote to Leo XIII, professing submission to the encyclical's demand that the truth of the Bible should not be questioned. His insincerity can be inferred, however, for his activities remained unchanged. In fact, on receiving a reply in a mollified tone that invited him to devote himself to less contentious studies, Loisy openly expressed his impatience.

Loisy criticized the Protestant scholar Carl Gustav Adolf von Harnack's Wesen des Christentums (Leipzig, 1900) in his L'évangile et l'église (Paris, 1902), which was condemned by the archbishop of Paris as undermining faith in the authority of Scripture and the divinity of Jesus Christ. Loisy wrote an apology, Autour d'un petit livre (Paris, 1903), which, with four other works of his, was condemned by the Holy Office and placed on the Index in 1903. The papal secretary of state required the archbishop of Paris to demand that Loisy withdraw the five offending volumes, but Loisy refused.

He wrote in conciliatory terms to Pope Plus X, but the development of his religious ideasor, in Catholic eyes, the disintegration of his faithcould ultimately lead only to his exclusion from the Roman communion. He regarded such mysteries as the incarnation of God as mere metaphors and symbols, and described his own religious belief as pantheistic, positivistic, or humanitarian rather than Christian. He conceived the basic problem facing the man torn between belief and doubt to be whether the world contains or embodies any spiritual principle apart from man's own consciousness.

In 1907 the papal secretary of state called upon Loisy to repudiate certain propositions, attributed to him and condemned in the decree Lamentabili (July 2, 1907), and to disown Modernism, condemned in Plus X's encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (September 6, 1907). Loisy replied that where his views were not misrepresented in the decree, he felt obliged to stand by them, since he regarded them as true. The demands were repeated, and Loisy was required to submit within ten days. He still refused and was thereupon excommunicated.

Loisy's break with the church in 1908 put an end to what had become a false and increasingly impossible position. In 1909 he was appointed professor of the history of religion at the Collège de France, a chair that he held until 1927 and that allowed him to continue publishing in freedom. He published memoirs of his most controversial years in Choses passées (Paris, 1913).

His Naissance du christianisme (Paris, 1933) drew together and presented more intransigently views that he had held and expressed earlier, but his disbelief in the truth of the Gospel narratives and the Acts of the Apostles was now more pronounced. The supernatural elements were discredited, and the view of the historical Jesus was not very different from those of Strauss and Renan. A prophet appeared in Galilee and was crucified while Pontius Pilate governed Judaea. The restthe alleged events of Jesus' life and his subsequent deification by his followersbelonged, for Loisy as for Renan, to the realm of myth and Messianic aspiration in search of its symbolic figure.

See also Harnack, Carl Gustav Adolf von; Modernism; Renan, Joseph Ernest; Strauss, David Friedrich.


additional works by loisy

Histoire du canon de l'Ancien Testament. Paris: Letouzey and Ané, 1890.

Histoire du canon du Nouveau Testament. Paris: Maisonneuve, 1891.

Histoire critique du texte et des versions de l'Ancien Testament. Paris: Letouzey and Ané, 1892.

Le quatrième évangile. Paris: A. Picard, 1903.

Les évangiles synoptiques. Paris, 1908.

Jésus et la tradition évangélique. Paris, 1910.

À propos d'histoire des religions. Paris: Nourry, 1911.

Les mystères païens et le mystère chrétien. Paris: Nourry, 1914.

La paix des nations et la religion de l'avenir. Paris: Nourry, 1920.

La morale humaine. Paris: Nourry, 1923.

works on loisy

Petre, M. D. Alfred Loisy: His Religious Significance. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1944.

Vidler, A. R. The Modernist Movement in the Roman Church, 67139. Cambridge, U.K.: Cambridge University Press, 1934.

Colin Smith (1967)