1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Loisy, Alfred Firmin
LOISY, ALFRED FIRMIN (1857– ), French Catholic theologian, was born at Ambrières in French Lorraine of parents who, descended from a long line of resident peasantry, tilled there the soil themselves. The physically delicate boy was put into the ecclesiastical school of St Dizier, without any intention of a clerical career; but he decided for the priesthood, and in 1874 entered the Grand Seminaire of Chalons-sur-Marne. Mgr Meignan, then bishop of Chalons, afterwards cardinal and archbishop of Tours, ordained him priest in 1879. After being curé successively of two villages in that diocese, Loisy went in May 1881, to study and take a theological degree, to the Institut Catholique in Paris. Here he was influenced, as to biblical languages and textual criticism, by the learned and loyal-minded Abbé Paulin Martin, and as to a vivid consciousness of the true nature, gravity and urgency of the biblical problems and an Attic sense of form by the historical intuition and the mordant irony of Abbé Louis Duchesne. At the governmental institutions, Professors Oppert and Halévy helped further to train him. He took his theological degree in March 1890, by the oral defence of forty Latin scholastic theses and by a French dissertation, Histoire du canon de l’ancien testament, published as his first book in that year.
Professor now at the Institut Catholique, he published successively his lectures: Histoire du canon du N.T. (1891); Histoire critique du texte et des versions de la Bible (1892); and Les Évangiles synoptiques (1893, 1894). The two latter works appeared successively in the bi-monthly L’Enseignement biblique, a periodical written throughout and published by himself. But already, on the occasion of the death of Ernest Renan, October 1892, the attempts made to clear up the main principles and results of biblical science, first by Mgr d’Hulst, rector of the Institut Catholique, in his article “La Question biblique” (Le Correspondant, Jan. 25th, 1893), and then by Loisy himself, in his paper “La Question biblique et l’inspiration des Écritures” (L’Enseignement biblique, Nov.-Dec. 1893), promptly led to serious trouble. The latter article was immediately followed by Loisy’s dismissal, without further explanation, from the Institut Catholique. And a few days later Pope Leo XIII. published his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which indeed directly condemned not Abbé Loisy’s but Mgr d’Hulst’s position, yet rendered the continued publication of consistently critical work so difficult that Loisy himself suppressed his Enseignement at the end of 1893. Five further instalments of his Synoptiques were published after this, bringing the work down to the Confession of Peter inclusively.
Loisy next became chaplain to a Dominican convent and girls’ school at Neuilly-sur-Seine (Oct. 1894–Oct. 1899), and here matured his apologetic method, resuming in 1898 the publication of longer articles, under the pseudonyms of Desprès and Firmin in the Revue du clergé français, and of Jacques Simon in the lay Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses. In the former review, a striking paper upon development of doctrine (Dec. 1st, 1898) headed a series of studies apparently taken from an already extant large apologetic work. In October 1899 he resigned his chaplaincy for reasons of health, and settled at Bellevue, somewhat farther away from Paris. His notable paper, “La Religion d’Israël” (Revue du clergé français, Oct. 15th, 1900), the first of a series intended to correct and replace Renan’s presentation of that great subject, was promptly censured by Cardinal Richard, archbishop of Paris; and though scholarly and zealous ecclesiastics, such as the Jesuit Père Durand and Monseigneur Mignot, archbishop of Albi, defended the general method and several conclusions of the article, the aged cardinal never rested henceforward till he had secured a papal condemnation also. At the end of 1900 Loisy secured a government lectureship at the École des Hautes Études Pratiques, and delivered there in succession courses on the Babylonian myths and the first chapters of Genesis; the Gospel parables; the narrative of the ministry in the synoptic Gospels; and the Passion narratives in the same. The first course was published in the Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses; and here also appeared instalments of his commentary on St John’s Gospel, his critically important Notes sur la Genèse, and a Chronique biblique unmatched in its mastery of its numberless subjects and its fearless yet delicate penetration.
It was, however, two less erudite little books that brought him a European literary reputation and the culmination of his ecclesiastical troubles. L’Évangile et l’église appeared in November 1902 (Eng. trans., 1903). Its introduction and six chapters present with rare lucidity the earliest conceptions of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Son of God, the Church, Christian dogma and Catholic worship; and together form a severely critico-historical yet strongly Catholic answer to Harnack’s still largely pietistic Wesen des Christentums. It develops throughout the principles that “what is essential in Jesus’ Gospel is what occupies the first and largest place in His authentic teaching, the ideas for which He fought and died, and not only that idea which we may consider to be still a living force to day”; that “it is supremely arbitrary to decree that Christianity must be essentially what the Gospel did not borrow from Judaism, as though what the Gospel owes to Judaism were necessarily of secondary worth”; that “whether we trust or distrust tradition, we know Christ only by means of, athwart and within the Christian tradition”; that “the essence of Christianity resides in the fulness and totality of its life”; and that “the adaptation of the Gospel to the changing conditions of humanity is to-day a more pressing need than ever.” The second edition was enlarged by a preliminary chapter on the sources of the Gospels, and by a third section for the Son of God chapter. The little book promptly aroused widespread interest, some cordial sympathy and much vehement opposition; whilst its large companion the Études évangéliques, containing the course on the parables and four sections of his coming commentary on the Fourth Gospel, passed almost unnoticed. On the 21st of January 1903 Cardinal Richard publicly condemned the book, as not furnished with an imprimatur, and as calculated gravely to trouble the faith of the faithful in the fundamental Catholic dogmas. On the 2nd of February Loisy wrote to the archbishop: “I condemn, as a matter of course, all the errors which men have been able to deduce from my book, by placing themselves in interpreting it at a point of view entirely different from that which I had to occupy in composing it.” The pope refused to interfere directly, and the nuncio, Mgr Lorenzelli, failed in securing more than ten public adhesions to the cardinal’s condemnation from among the eighty bishops of France.
Pope Leo had indeed, in a letter to the Franciscan minister-general (November 1898), and in an encyclical to the French clergy (September 1899), vigorously emphasized the traditionalist principles of his encyclical Providentissimus of 1893; he had even, much to his prompt regret, signed the unfortunate decree of the Roman Inquisition, January 1897, prohibiting all doubt as to the authenticity of the “Three Heavenly witnesses” passage, 1 John v. 7, a text which, in the wake of a line of scholars from Erasmus downwards, Abbé Paulin Martin had, in 1887, exhaustively shown to be no older than the end of the 4th century A.D. Yet in October 1902 he established a “Commission for the Progress of Biblical Studies,” preponderantly composed of seriously critical scholars; and even one month before his death he still refused to sign a condemnation of Loisy’s Études évangéliques.
Cardinal Sarto became Pope Pius X. on the 4th of August 1903. On the 1st of October Loisy published three new books, Autour d’un petit livre, Le Quatrième Évangile and Le Discours sur la Montagne. Autour consists of seven letters, on the origin and aim of L’Évangile et l’Église; on the biblical question; the criticism of the Gospels; the Divinity of Christ; the Church’s foundation and authority; the origin and authority of dogma, and on the institution of the sacraments. The second and third, addressed respectively to a cardinal (Perraud) and a bishop (Le Camus), are polemical or ironical in tone; the others are all written to friends in a warm, expansive mood; the fourth letter especially, appropriated to Mgr Mignot, attains a grand elevation of thought and depth of mystical conviction. Le Quatrième Évangile, one thousand large pages long, is possibly over-confident in its detailed application of the allegorical method; yet it constitutes a rarely perfect sympathetic reproduction of a great mystical believer’s imperishable intuitions. Le Discours sur la Montagne is a fragment of a coming enlarged commentary on the synoptic Gospels. On the 23rd of December the pope ordered the publication of a decree of the Congregation of the Index, incorporating a decree of the Inquisition, condemning Loisy’s Religion d’Israël, L’Évangile et l’Église, Études évangéliques, Autour d’un petit livre and Le Quatrième Évangile. The pope’s secretary of state had on the 19th December, in a letter to Cardinal Richard, recounted the causes of the condemnation in the identical terms used by the latter himself when condemning the Religion d’Israël three years before. On the 12th of January 1904 Loisy wrote to Cardinal Merry del Val that he received the condemnation with respect, and condemned whatever might be reprehensible in his books, whilst reserving the rights of his conscience and his opinions as an historian, opinions doubtless imperfect, as no one was more ready to admit than himself, but which were the only form under which he was able to represent to himself the history of the Bible and of religion. Since the Holy See was not satisfied, Loisy sent three further declarations to Rome; the last, despatched on the 17th of March, was addressed to the pope himself, and remained unanswered. And at the end of March Loisy gave up his lectureship, as he declared, “on his own initiative, in view of the pacification of minds in the Catholic Church.” In the July following he moved into a little house, built for him by his pupil and friend, the Assyriologist François Thureau Dangin, within the latter’s park at Garnay, by Dreux. Here he continued his important reviews, notably in the Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses, and published Morceaux d’exégèse (1906), six further sections of his synoptic commentary. In April 1907 he returned to his native Lorraine, to Ceffonds by Montier-en-Der, and to his relatives there.
Five recent Roman decisions are doubtless aimed primarily at Loisy’s teaching. The Biblical Commission, soon enlarged so as to swamp the original critical members, and which had become the simple mouthpiece of its presiding cardinals, issued two decrees. The first, on the 27th of June 1906, affirmed, with some significant but unworkable reservations, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and the second (29th of May 1907) strenuously maintained the Apostolic Zebedean authorship of the fourth Gospel, and the strictly historical character of the events and speeches recorded therein. The Inquisition, by its decree Lamentabili sane (2nd of July 1907), condemned sixty-five propositions concerning the Church’s magisterium; biblical inspiration and interpretation; the synoptic and fourth Gospels; revelation and dogma; Christ’s divinity, human knowledge and resurrection; and the historical origin and growth of the Sacraments, the Church and the Creed. And some forty of these propositions represent, more or less accurately, certain sentences or ideas of Loisy, when torn from their context and their reasons. The encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Sept. 6th, 1907), probably the longest and most argumentative papal utterance extant, also aims primarily at Loisy, although here the vehemently scholastic redactor’s determination to piece together a strictly coherent, complete a priori system of “Modernism” and his self-imposed restriction to medieval categories of thought as the vehicles for describing essentially modern discoveries and requirements of mind, make the identification of precise authors and passages very difficult. And on the 21st of November 1907 a papal motu proprio declared all the decisions of the Biblical Commission, past and future, to be as binding upon the conscience as decrees of the Roman Congregations.
Yet even all this did not deter Loisy from publishing three further books. Les Évangiles synoptiques, two large 8vo volumes of 1009 and 798 pages, appeared “chez l’auteur, à Ceffonds, Montier-en-Der, Haute-Marne,” in January 1908. An incisive introduction discusses the ecclesiastical tradition, modern criticism; the second, the first and the third Gospels; the evangelical tradition; the career and the teaching of Jesus; and the literary form, the tradition of the text and the previous commentaries. The commentary gives also a careful translation of the texts. Loisy recognizes two eye-witness documents, as utilized by all three synoptists, while Matthew and Luke have also incorporated Mark. His chief peculiarity consists in clearly tracing a strong Pauline influence, especially in Mark, which there remodels certain sayings and actions as these were first registered by the eye-witness documents. These doctrinal interpretations introduce the economy of blinding the Jews into the parabolic teaching; the declaration as to the redemptive character of the Passion into the sayings; the sacramental, institutional words into the account of the Last Supper, originally, a solemnly simple Messianic meal; and the formal night-trial before Caiaphas into the original Passion-story with its informal, morning decision by Caiaphas, and its one solemn condemnation of Jesus, by Pilate. Mark’s narratives of the sepulture by Joseph of Arimathea and of the empty tomb are taken as posterior to St Paul; the narratives of the infancy in Matthew and Luke as later still. Yet the great bulk of the sayings remain substantially authentic; if the historicity of certain words and acts is here refused with unusual assurance, that of other sayings and deeds is established with stronger proofs; and the redemptive conception of the Passion and the sacramental interpretation of the Last Supper are found to spring up promptly and legitimately from our Lord’s work and words, to saturate the Pauline and Johannine writings, and even to constitute an element of all three synoptic Gospels.
Simples Réflexions sur le décret Lamentabili et sur l’encyclique Pascendi, 12mo, 277 pages, was published from Ceffonds a few days after the commentary. Each proposition of the decree is carefully tracked to its probable source, and is often found to modify the latter’s meaning. And the study of the encyclical concludes: “Time is the great teacher . . . we would do wrong to despair either of our civilization or of the Church.”
The Church authorities were this time not slow to act. On the 14th of February Mgr Amette, the new archbishop of Paris, prohibited his diocesans to read or defend the two books, which “attack and deny several fundamental dogmas of Christianity,” under pain of excommunication. The abbé again declared “it is impossible for me honestly and sincerely to make the act of absolute retractation and submission exacted by the sovereign pontiff.” And the Holy Office, on the 7th of March, pronounced the major excommunication against him. At the end of March Loisy published Quelques Lettres (December 1903–February 1908), which conclude: “At bottom I have remained in my last writings on the same line as in the earlier ones. I have aimed at establishing principally the historical position of the various questions, and secondarily the necessity for reforming more or less the traditional concepts.”
Three chief causes appear jointly to have produced M. Loisy’s very absolute condemnation. Any frank recognition of the abbé’s even general principles involves the abandonment of the identification of theology with scholasticism or even with specifically ancient thought in general. The abbé’s central position, that our Lord himself held the proximateness of His second coming, involves the loss by churchmen of the prestige of directly divine power, since Church and Sacraments, though still the true fruits and vehicles of his life, death and spirit, cannot thus be immediately founded by the earthly Jesus himself. And the Church policy, as old as the times of Constantine, to crush utterly the man who brings more problems and pressure than the bulk of traditional Christians can, at the time, either digest or resist with a fair discrimination, seemed to the authorities the one means to save the very difficult situation.
Bibliography.—Autobiographical passages in M. Loisy’s Autour d’un petit livre (Paris, 1903), pp. xv. xvi. 1, 2, 157, 218. A full account of his literary activity and ecclesiastical troubles will be found in Abbé Albert Houtin’s La Question biblique au XIX e siècle (Paris, 2nd ed., 1902) and La Question biblique au XX e siècle (Paris, 1906), but the latter especially is largely unfair to the conservatives and sadly lacking in religious feeling. The following articles and booklets concerning M. Loisy and the questions raised by him are specially remarkable. France: Père Durand, S.J., Études religieuses (Paris, Nov. 1901) frankly describes the condition of ecclesiastical biblical studies; Monseigneur Mignot, archbishop of Albi, Lettres sur les études ecclésiastiques 1900–1901 (collected ed., Paris, 1908) and “Critique et tradition” in Le Correspondant (Paris, 10th January 1904), the utterances of a finely trained judgment; Mgr Le Camus, bishop of La Rochelle, Fausse Exégèse, mauvaise théologie (Paris, 1902), a timid, mostly rhetorical, scholar’s protest; Père Lagrange, a Dominican who has done much for the spread of Old Testament criticism, La Méthode historique, surtout à propos de l’Ancien Testament (Paris, 1903) and Éclaircissement to same (ibid. 1903); P. Lagrange, Mgr P. Batiffol, P. Portalié, S. J., “Autour des fondements de la Foi” in the Bulletin de litt. eccl. Toulouse (Paris, December 1903, January 1904), very suggestive papers; Professor Maurice Blondel’s “Histoire et dogma,” in La Quinzaine (Paris January 16, February 16, 1904), F. de Hugel’s “Du Christ éternel et des christologies successives” (ibid. June 1, 1904), the Abbé J. Wehrle’s “Le Christ et la conscience catholique” (ibid. August 16, 1904) and F. de Hügel’s “Correspondance” (ibid. Sept. 16, 1904) discuss the relations between faith and the affirmation of phenomenal happenings; Paul Sabatier, “Les Derniers Ouvrages de l’Abbé Loisy,” in the Revue chrétienne (Dôle, 1904) and Paul Desjardins’ Catholicisme et critique (Paris, 1905), a Broad Church Protestant’s and a moralist agnostic’s delicate appreciations; a revue of Les Évangiles synoptiques by the Abbé Mangenot, in Revue du Clergé français (Feb. 15, 1908) containing some interesting discriminations; a revue by L. in the Revue biblique (1908), pp. 608-620, a mixture of unfair insinuation, powerful criticism and discriminating admissions; and a paper by G. P. B. and Jacques Chevalier in the Annales de philosophie chrétienne (Paris, Jan. 1909) seeks to trace and to refute certain philosophical presuppositions at work in the book’s treatment, especially of the Miracles, the Resurrection and the Institution of the Church. Italy: “Lettres Romaines” in Annales de philosophie chrétienne (Paris, January–March 1904), an Italian theologian’s fearless defence of Loisy’s main New Testament positions; Rev. P. Louis Billot S.J., De sacra traditione (Freiburg i. Br. 1905), the ablest of the scholastic criticisms of the historical method by a highly influential French professor of theology, now many years in Rome; Quello che vogliamo (Rome, 1907, Eng. trans., What we want, by A. L. Lilley, London, 1907), and Il Programma dei Modernisti (ibid. 1908), Eng. trans., The Programme of Modernism ed. by Lilley (London, eloquent 1098), pleadings by Italian priest, substantially on M. Loisy’s lines; “L’Abate Loisy e il Problema dei Vangeli Sinottici,” four long papers signed “H.” in Il Rinnovamento (Milan, 1908, 1909) are candid and circumspect. Germany: Professor E. Troeltsch, “Was heisst Wesen des Christentums?” 6 arts. in Die christliche Welt (Leipzig, autumn 1903), a profound criticism of M. Loisy’s developmental defence of Catholicism; Professor Harnack’s review of L’Évangile et l’Église in the Theol. Literatur-Zeitung (Leipzig, 23rd January 1904) is generous and interesting; Professor H. J. Holtzmann’s “Urchristentum u. Reform-Katholizismus,” in the Prot. Monatshefte, vii. 5 (Berlin, 1903), “Der Fall Loisy,” ibid. ix. 1, and his review of “Les Évangiles synoptiques” in Das zwanzigste Jahrhundert (Munich, May 3, 1908) are full of facts and of deep thought; Fr. F. von Hummelauer, Exegetisches zur Inspirationsfrage (Freiburg i. Br. 1904) is a favourable specimen of present-day German Roman Catholic scholarship. America: Professor C. A. Briggs, “The Case of the Abbé Loisy,” Expositor (London, April 1905), and C. A. Briggs and F. von Hügel, The Papal Commission and the Pentateuch (London, 1907) discuss Rome’s attitude towards biblical science. England: The Rev. T. A. Lacey’s Harnack and Loisy, with introduction by Viscount Halifax (London, 1904); “The Encyclical and M. Loisy” (Church Times, Feb. 20, 1908); “Recent Roman Catholic Biblical Criticism” (The Times Literary Supplement for January 15th, 22nd, 29th, 1904), and “The Synoptic Gospels” (review in The Times Literary Supplement, March 26, 1908) are interesting pronouncements respectively of two Tractarian High Churchmen and of a disciple of Canon Sanday. Professor Percy Gardner’s paper in the Hibbert Journal, vol. i. (1903) p. 603, is the work of a Puritan-minded, cultured Broad Church layman. (F. v. H.)