Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1959)

Table of Contents
1. Background
2. Works (Selected List)
3. Themes
4. Outline of Major Works
5. Relation to Other Thinkers
6. Bibliography and Works Cited
7. Internet Resources
8. Related Topics

Alfred Firmin Loisy (February 28, 1857–June 1, 1940) was a French Roman Catholic priest, professor and theologian who became the intellectual standard bearer for Biblical Modernism in the Roman Catholic Church. He was a critic of traditional views of the biblical accounts of creation, and argued that biblical criticism could be applied to interpreting scripture. His theological positions brought him into conflict with the Church's conservatives, including Pope Leo XIII and Pope Pius X. In 1893, he was dismissed as a professor from the Catholic Institute of Paris. His books were condemned by the Vatican and in 1908 he was excommunicated.

This article presents Loisy’s theology. Loisy is widely recognized as an intellectual leader of the modernist movement in the Roman Catholic Church, as well as one of the prominent biblical scholars of his generation. His theology articulated a vision of traditional Catholic theology cognizant of contemporary philosophy, history, psychology, and sociology. He dedicated himself to historical research using the modern critical method. Yet, his findings did not make him attack the Church as the liberal Protestants such as Adolf von Harnack did. Rather, he proposed that the church ought to adopt the critical method in understanding its nature and constructing its teachings. Despite Loisy's intention to construct a faithful theology for the Roman Catholic Church, the church eventually condemned his theology. He remained as a Catholic priest (ordained in 1879) until his excommunication in 1908 (Livingston 1997, 365-66).

1. Background

Life and Works

Born in 1857, Alfred Loisy grew up in rural France on a farm in Ambrieres. After attending high school at the College de St. Dizier, in 1874 he entered the diocesan seminary at Chalons-sur-Marne at the age of seventeen. He continued his studies under Abbe Duchesne’, a famous church historian, at the Insitutes Catholiques at Paris in 1878. In 1879 he was ordained to the priesthood, and was assigned to rural parishes for two years. 

In 1881 Loisy returned to the Institut Catholique, and became a member of the faculty of theology as a lecturer in Hebrew. In his earlier career one of Loisy’s goals was to write an apologetic based on the historical critical method, and he defended a thesis on the Canon of the Old Testament along these lines in 1890. The thesis passed, but at the same time went against traditional beliefs and caused some controversy. The thesis also sparked years of critical study on the Bible.

The results of historical criticism of the Bible prompted him and others (Louis Duchesne, Maurice D’Hulst, George Tyrrell, Herman Schell, and Baron von Hugel) to advocate modernizing the church’s traditional biblical views.  Loisy argued against the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, the reliability of Genesis’ creation accounts, and against the historical dependability of the Bible in general. He took these findings as evidence of real doctrinal development in Scripture. In 1893 Loisy was dismissed from his professorship at the Institut Catholique when Mgr. D’Hulst, rector wrote an article in defense of Loisy’s form of Biblical study. This article also provoked the issuance of the encyclical Providentissimus Deus by Leo Xiii. The encyclical dealt with the question of Biblical Study, and was a reaction against non- traditional biblical criticism. Loisy was released from his duties at the Institut Catholique, and was made a chaplain at a girls school at Neuilly. In 1900 Loisy became lecturer at Ecole des hautes Estudes at the Sorbonne. Where he was able to continue spreading his ideas as a modernist.

After his termination, he became chaplain of a girl’s school at Neuilly for five years. Between 1885 and 1895, he preoccupied himself with biblical studies.  The Scriptures raised questions about inspiration and inerrancy which demanded reconsideration of revelation and faith, of the function of the Church in preserving and expressing revealed truth, and of particular dogmas that were founded in Scripture. It was during the years at Neuilly that he put his theology in order.  He had the leisure for study, research, and reflection during these years and read books that gave him a foundation for his theology. These included but were not limited to Newman’s Development of Doctrine, Apologia, and Grammar of Assent; Harnack’s Dogmengeschichte, and Auguste Sabatier’s Esquisse d’une philosophie de la religion. In 1900, he assumed a lectureship at Ecole des hautes Estudes at the Sorbonne. 

When Adolf Harnack published his classic liberal Protestant account of Christian origins, Das Wesen des Christentums, Loisy already had in hand all the material for a comprehensive refutation, which was critical of Harnack’s individualistic understanding of the gospel and his rejection of apocalypticism, but in some respects was even more radical than Harnack on questions of gospel criticism. Previously he had published several pseudonymous, apologetic articles in Revue du clerge francais. Here he wondered if it was sufficient “to justify the Church, to say that it has become what it had to become to live and preserve the gospel…If in fact the Catholic Church appears to us to be a marvelous institution, does it not also appear to be too exclusively human?” The question was rhetorical. “Can one claim for biblical criticism a real autonomy, comparable to that acquired by philosophy and history?” (Ratte, 106) In L’evangile et l’egisle (Paris, November 1902), he further elaborated about these issues and finally systematized his view of the Church’s dogmatic teaching.  In this treatise, Loisy stressed the continuity between the ministry of Jesus and the life of the church.  However, the sharp distinction he made between faith and history, and the concession he allowed at the historical level, were unacceptable to Rome. Although his ideas may have appeared novel to the authorities, they had been developing since his seminary days. His doubts about traditional Catholic teaching, the Thomist proofs for the existence of God, and other doctrinal issues seemed unsatisfactory to him. Over the years he became convinced that the Church must give up its resistance to the progress of biblical scholarship outside of it and cease to insist on its current orthodoxy.  Five of his works, including L’Evangile et l’egisle, were placed on the Index in 1903 by Puis X, who succeeded Leo.  Loisy formally submitted to papal authority in 1904, but in 1907 Pius X’s Lamentabilt sane exitu condemned sixty-five modernist propositions (fifty drawn from Loisy’s writings) and Pascendi gregis condemned misguided reformers as instigators of schism.  In 1908, following the publication of volume two of his Les Evangiles Synoptiques, Loisy was excommunicated.  He later taught at the College de France (1909-1930).  He died in 1940. 

In spring of 1902 Loisy began writing his famous work, The Gospel and the Church which resulted in his excommunication. Loisy had been wanting to write an apologetic for Roman Catholicism for a long time, and Alfred Von Harnack’s, explication on Protestant liberalism What is Christianity gave him a perfect opportunity to do this. The Gospel and the Church was under the guise of a response to Protestant liberalism, but was actually Loisy’s way of trying to bring together Catholicism and modern thought. The Catholic Church called the book a summation of all the modern heresies. In The Gospel and the Church Loisy went line by line comparing Harnack’s Protestant liberalism to what he purported to be the Catholic view (Livingston 1971, 277).

The Modernist Movement—Background

Modernism was a movement in the Roman Catholic Church which began around 1890 and ended in 1907 with the Papal encyclical written by Pius X called, Pascendi gregis. The modernist movement was understood by the church to be a group of individuals trying to make the church conform to the current modern trends. The modern argument was that the church was not integrating modern thought into church teachings. Some influential modernist thinkers besides Loisy, were George Tyrell and Edward LeRoy. Tyrell and Loisy were both very influenced by historical critical studies.

2. Works (Selected List)

Autour d'un petit livre (1903), Evangile et l'Eglise (The Gospel and the Church) (1903, 1912, ET 1976, 1988), Les évangiles synoptiques (1907-8), La religion d'Israël (The Religion of Israel) (ET 1910), My Duel with the Vatican: the Autobiography of a Catholic Modernist (1924), La naissance du Christianisme (The Birth of the Christian Religion) (ET 1948), Les origines du Nouveau Testament (The Origins of the New Testament) (ET 1950).

3. Themes

Loisy on Dogma

Jesus proclaimed the kingdom and the church fulfilled this role. Loisy’s argument for the Catholic churches integration into modern history and knowledge along with a changing gospel, stems from his belief that as the church changes and grows it is inevitable that the gospel will change. That is why he emphasized a historical critical view of the scriptures.

Loisy makes an argument for changing gospel based on the notion of dogma. Loisy describes the dogmatics of the church from a historical view by suggesting that they exist for the mere fact of coming to terms with what was believed in the past as regards faith, and relating that and reconciling it to what is believed in the present. He suggests that a progression and change takes place over the course of history and the understanding of faith changes also. When speaking about the function of dogmatics, Loisy suggests that dogmatics expand the vision of belief, "The artifices of interpretation serve carelessly to enlarge and spiritualize the meaning of symbols to promote the development and intelligence of religion..."(Loisy 1976, 221). Loisy’s idea of a living faith is that truth revealed in living, therefore as faith lives and evolves truth is revealed.

Loisy makes the argument that since the whole development of dogma takes place within the Christian faith, it makes sense that dogma would be fluid, because the origins come from knowledge and are influenced by history. For example, Loisy writes that the dogmas of the trinity and the incarnation are influenced by Hellenism, this proves that history informs dogma (ibid., 198). Loisy describes the formation of dogmatics by stating that Christianity actually borrowed from philosophy to give value to its teachings. Dogmas did not fall from the air but are man made, and he points out that they will change as science and human society changes. Dogmas are interpretations of religious beliefs, and therefore he suggests that because they are man made they are fluid, "Though the dogmas may be Divine in origin and substance, they are human in structure and composition" (ibid. 211).

For Loisy, dogmatics must change with history and knowledge in order for truth to be revealed. Loisy writes that knowledge and interpretations change, therefore the church should acknowledge that dogma changes (Loisy 1976, 276). Loisy claims that the church is a constantly changing entity and that as the church changes so does dogma, "But in so acting, she continues in the way she has walked from the beginning, she adopts the gospel to the constantly, changing condition of human life and intelligence" (ibid., 217). Truth is unchanging, but the elements that define it, and represent it, must change so that truth will remain constant. Loisy’s point to the Catholic church seems to be that truth evolves. There is one truth, and humans come closer and closer to that truth through history and developments and knowledge, at the same time, he makes it clear that since dogmas are only expressions of the truth it makes sense that they would be in process. Faith actually expresses itself to the truth in dogma.

Loisy suggests the church changed in the past and will continue to do so, therefore the church must be more progressive in integrating these changes into church teaching.

The Gospel and the Church

Loisy described Christianity as a living faith that changed with history and growth in knowledge. He believed that truth could not be changed, but the representations of this truth could be changed. As the church evolves according to changes in the world, dogma changed also (Livingston 1971, 281). Loisy makes a strong point that, to try to know Jesus purely by what is written in the gospel is a mistake, because he claims the only way to know him is through his work. For Loisy the Kingdom of Heaven is the essence of Jesus’ message, because everything after Jesus’ death and resurrection leads to this (Loisy 1976, 59). The aim of both the church and Jesus is to bring to fruition the kingdom of God. The kingdom of God for Loisy, "is properly an era of goodness in justice, which was going to be inaugurated by a manifestation of power, a sudden transformation of everything; the exultation of the messiah" (Scott, 1976 viii). For Loisy what is inherited in the past is developed in the future (ibid. xi). He suggests the gospel merely lays the groundwork for what we will come to know about Christ through his work which is seen in the apostles and the church, which will ultimately lead to the coming kingdom.

For Loisy the gospel is understood by a critical exploration of the text. Loisy suggests one cannot know Christ fully just by a reading of the gospel, but it is in Christ’s work, and the work of the church that one knows him. Knowing Christ actually extends to and goes beyond the resurrection because it is after the resurrection that Christ’s work of building the kingdom of heaven begins, according to Loisy. From this perspective tradition and the interpretation of the gospels cannot be separated (Loisy 1976, 13). Loisy points out that the teachings under which the church was formed exist no longer, so of course this calls for a re-interpretation of the gospel. Another part of his argument is that while the church is necessary to preserving the gospel—Jesus may not have purposefully established an institutional church (Livingston 1971, 280). He also points out that the church was meant to inform and educate people, so that they would be able to discern according to their own conscience (ibid.).

What is essential for Loisy is how the community carries out Jesus’ message (ibid., 279). For Loisy the resurrection of Christ is what enables the establishment of the early church, "The resurrection is the pivotal event in the transition from Jesus to the Church" ( Scott 1976, xiii). Loisy interprets the gospel as a preparation for the kingdom of God. For Loisy society as it is does not exist apart from the approaching kingdom of God (Loisy 1976, 79). According to Loisy Human laws and forms of authority are not in participation with the kingdom of heaven. He says that the gospel is preached independently from society and authority (Ibid 81-82).

Pascendi: The Roman Catholic Church's Response

As the modernist movement took shape there was fear in the Roman Catholic Church of it spreading. While the movement began around 1890 the first Pope to take the strongest action against it was Pope Pius X, Pope from 1903-1914. He wrote a catalog of errors entitled Lamentiabile sane exitu, which condemned modernist errors on scared scripture and church teachings. It spoke out against the historical study of scripture and tradition. On September 8, 1907 he wrote Pacendi Dominici Gregis, which describes what the modernist movement is, affirms the churches’s traditional teaching, and describes the steps it will take to stop the movement (Livingston 1971, 292). They removed anyone who was a modernist from teaching in seminaries or Catholic universities. The anti-modernist oath came out in 1910, which required all clergy and priests to sign an oath stating that they were in agreement with the church. Pius X’s encyclical had a profound effect on the church, and did succeed in abolishing modernism for the time being.

In Pascendi Pius X wrote that the modernist theologian presents the Christian faith in such a way as to suggest that representations of divine reality are symbolical, and this Pius X points out, is the gravest of all matters. He claimed that there was no difference between the modern philosopher and the modern theologian, in that they both used the principles of immanence and symbols (Pius X 1907, 13). Pius also criticized and accused the modernists of having the notion that the believer should not hold fast to formulas (dogmas), but rather use them only to help define his/her personal faith. Pius accused the modernists of believing in the evolution of dogma. He writes that they interpret dogma as a man made form created from thought and therefore should change as knowledge changes (ibid. 7-8). Pius X condemns the modernist movement for their idea of vital immanence—which suggests that religious beliefs cannot only be intellectual, but must be "living".

According to Pascendi, the modernists criticize the church for not distinguishing between the religious sense’ and the moral sense’. The modernists only want to focus on the religious sense. Pius criticized modernists for their idea of tradition. Tradition for the modernist was, a communication’ with others of an original experience, through preaching by means of the intellectual formula (ibid. 10). Modernists were condemned for separating faith and science. They claim that in science faith does not enter at all but is concerned with phenomena. He condemns the modernist view that faith and science never meet and therefore are not in contradiction. Pius claims the modernists want a religious evolution that is subservient to science. Modernist reading of the scriptures is also an issue raised. Pius writes that the churches view of divine inspiration and the modernist view are very different. Pius disagrees with the modernist view of immanence in man, and that everything written in scripture was divinely inspired (ibid., 15).

Loisy takes issue with papal infallibility and suggests that the church calls herself infallible as a way to create continuity and steer clear of individualism. This he contends is why dogmas are so important for the church, and why the church is unwilling to loosen the reigns. As an advocate for religious education Loisy says that even though human knowing comes from externals it can still enhance the understanding of religion, and therefore should not be suppressed (Loisy, 221). In response to the notion of outside interference of what the church holds to be truth PiusX quotes Vatican council, "The doctrine of the faith which God has revealed has not been proposed to human intelligences to be perfected by them as if it were a philosophical system, but as a divine deposit..." (Pius X, 21). At the end of Pascendi scholastic philosophy is made the basis of all sacred sciences.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers

Loisy and Harnack

One main difference between Harnack and Loisy is the way that each interprets the gospel and history. Harnack suggests that it is important for the historian to discern what is of value in tradition, "not to cleave to words but find out what is essential" (Scott 1976, xiv.). In such a system one must separate the kernel (gospel) from the husk (history). For Loisy tradition is key to the gospel because the only way to know Jesus and interpret the kingdom of heaven is by history. If any part of tradition is separated out one loses the gospel. Loisy sees the development of the church as proof of Jesus’ mission to work toward the kingdom of heaven, and Christ’s resurrection makes this possible. In Harnack’s model the gospel did not and does not need to develop because it was already given in Jesus Christ. Harnack’s focus is then on how the church was formed around the gospel (ibid. xii). For Loisy the gospel needs to change as history and knowledge change. He claims the gospel changes because man changes (Livingston 1971, 280). For Harnack the essence of Christianity is everything not Jewish. On the other hand, Loisy suggests that the Old Testament is essential in understanding the New Testament, because what Jesus preached was a development of Judaism (ibid. iii.). The true kernel of the gospel for Harnack is that Jesus knows the father and through him others will know the father. This is a bone of contention for Loisy, because he suggests that without a historical basis there is nothing to back up Harnack’s theology.

The Essence of Christianity: Adolf von Harnack and Alfred Firmin Loisy

L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church) is Loisy’s most exposed book. He laid the foundation of this book while he served as a chaplain to a girl’s school at Neuilly. Nevertheless, it was not until the spring of 1902 that he began writing the book under the inspiration of Adolf von Harnack’s viewpoints on the essence of Christianity (Livingston 1997, 366). As is well known, Harnack was a church historian who was often regarded by the contemporary scholars as a spokesman of the Liberal Protestantism in the nineteenth century. For this reason, perhaps, Loisy presented an exciting theological dialogue with Harnack in his book. Accordingly, we must juxtapose Harnack’s Das Wesen des Christentums (What is Christianity?) with Loisy’s L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church) in order to understand Loisy’s theology. Without a doubt, these two theologians triggered a significant modern controversy regarding the essence of Christianity in the church history.

Before we enter Loisy’s thought, we ought to briefly summarize what Harnack had purported in his book. Apparently, the main question raised in his book is: what is Christianity? For Harnack, we can only answer the question exclusively from the historical perspective by employing the methods of historical science (Harnack 1957, 6). As a historian, he looked at the person Jesus Christ and his gospel. However, this did not mean that he paid his attention solely to what Jesus said and did. He found that the first generation of Jesus’ disciples, who made Jesus their master; and the later product of Jesus’ spirit and life, must be included in the historical study. For this reason, Harnack pointed out that the historical study is to determine what is of permanent value and what is essential; the gospel is not in its earliest form but contains something is of permanent validity under various historical forms. Harnack made an analogy for this distinction, namely, a kernel that is in the husk (Harnack 1957, 10-15). In order to find the kernel, he peeled off the husk. Harnack began to examine Jesus’ message proclaimed in the synoptic gospels, not in the gospel of John. Harnack believed that the gospel of John has no historical basis (Harnack 1957, 19). Yet, he asserted that the teaching of Jesus alone is not the essence of Christianity (Harnack 1957, 10). Rather, Jesus’ spirit and life have to do with the essence of Christianity. For Harnack, Jesus’ gospel has to do with the Father only and not with the Son. Jesus is the way to the Father as the Father has appointed him, and therefore he is the judge of the coming kingdom (Harnack 1957, 144-145). Jesus’ gospel stems from the soil of Judaism (the husk), yet having faith in God the Father (the kernel) boldly underlined Jesus’ gospel. This is Harnack’s historical finding of primitive reality of Christian community (i.e., Palestinian Christianity). Further, Harnack made a distinction between Palestinian Christianity and Pauline Christianity. For Harnack, the apostle Paul delivered Christianity from Judaism and gave Christianity its place in the history of the world (Harnack 1957, 176-189). Nevertheless, by examining the church history, Harnack found that the later development of Catholicism in general, Latin Catholicism in particular, completely uprooted the gospel from the soil of Judaism and successfully planted in the soil of Greco-Roman culture. He argued that the Roman Catholic Church founded by law and force was fully in contradiction to the gospel (Harnack 1957, 264). 

We have briefly summarized what Harnack had purported in his book. Now, let us turn to Loisy’s book, L’Évangile et l’Église (The Gospel and the Church). Loisy, with a growing historical consciousness, purported to refute Liberal Protestantism represented by Harnack in this book, but this was not its primary aim. For Loisy, the critique of Harnack’s Liberal Protestantism rendered an ideal occasion for developing a modern Catholic position in terms of the church theology (Livingston 1997, 366). Loisy clearly pointed out that the aim of the book is just to take the viewpoint of history and to identify the link that brings together Jesus’ gospel and the Catholic Christianity. Neither was this book an apologetics for the RCC, nor a traditional dogma. In his reading of Harnack, Loisy concluded that the essence of Jesus’ gospel “consists solely in faith in God the Father, as revealed by Jesus Christ” (Loisy 1988, 36). Loisy agreed with Harnack in his attempt to reconcile the Christian faith with science. However, he disagreed with Harnack’s scientific approach in the exegesis of the gospel. Loisy considered that it is dangerous for Harnack to interpret Jesus’ gospel simply based on two scripture texts, namely, Matthew 11:27, “No one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son (NRSV);” and Luke 17:21, “The kingdom of God is among you (NRSV).” For Loisy, selecting a small number of texts in support of one’s theory is uncritical. Instead, he proposed that we must place the whole gospel in the historical context. We must know Christ in the tradition, defining the essence of Christianity apart from the tradition cannot succeed (Loisy 1988, 37-41). The essence of Christianity, for Loisy, revealed itself in the development of Christianity. Loisy made an analogy in encounter with Harnack’s; namely, Christianity as a plant growing out of a seed (Loisy 1988, 44). It seems that Loisy intended to see the whole tree of Christianity while Harnack intended to peel off the husk in order to find the kernel of Christianity. Without a doubt, Loisy distrusted Harnack’s methodology in finding the essence of Christianity.

As we have seen, Harnack merely examined Jesus’ message recorded in the synoptic gospels, not that in the gospel of John. Loisy argued that the gospel of John was historically valid as well. Nevertheless, we must not only read gospels as literary works or historical documents, but also as an expression of a great movement proceeding from Jesus’ preaching (Loisy 1988, 56). Further, Harnack made a distinction between Palestinian Christianity and Judaism. In his discussion, he considered that there was perhaps a common ground mutually shared with Judaism and the Palestinian Christianity. Yet, Christian ideas pointed far beyond the Judaic, in other words, Christian ideas had substituted the Judaic ideas. For Loisy, Jewish tradition was part of the Christian tradition and therefore they were inseparable. Loisy seemed to say that the primitive tradition did involve in the searching for the essence of Christianity. In addition, Harnack made another distinction between Palestinian Christianity and Pauline Christianity. Such a distinction points out a fact that there was discontinuity between Jesus’ gospel in Judaic form and that in Greco-Roman form. Furthermore, Harnack also regarded that the later development of Catholicism deviated itself from the origin of Jesus’ gospel. In particular, the RCC founded by authority and law was in contradiction to the gospel. In a sense, Loisy agreed with the factor of discontinuity, but he considered that the discontinuity was essential for the later Christian development. It was necessary to develop and change the form of the gospel in order to preserve the gospel in any new historical conditions (Loisy 1988, 151). For Loisy, development is not a way of abasement because the form of gospel had to change in order to survive and meet the needs of history. The church, as the historical embodiment of the gospel, should grow and change in order to meet the challenge of changing conditions. Therefore, the church ought to constantly develop the new forms of dogma to conform to the contemporary knowledge and religious experience. Pauline Christianity is a good example of this historical transformation of Christianity because the doctrine of Incarnation and Trinity are Greek dogma, unknown to Palestinian Christianity. For Loisy, dogmatic definitions are relative and variable. The dogmatic formula and its religious meaning should be distinctive. The former is relative; the latter endures in the changing knowledge (Livingston 1997, 368-369). According to the above discussion, we may clearly find that Loisy intended to present the church with a program of modernization. His book called for a radical reform of the church’s attitude toward biblical research, the nature of its authority, and its conception of dogma.

Roman Catholic Modernism

The term “Roman Catholic Modernism” refers to a loose-knit movement within the RCC at the end of the nineteenth century and beginning of the twentieth century. Its aim is to bridge the gap between the RCC and the world of modern thought and knowledge. According to Bernard M. G. Reardon, he points out that the word modernism did not come into application until about 1905. Yet, the movement could have emerged from the RCC about 1890 and brought to an end some twenty years later by an anti-modernist oath imposed upon the RC clergy. Modernism did not present itself as a system of thought in the RCC. Rather, it referred itself to a development of theological program based on the modern scientific research method. If so, who were the modernists? It seemed that the movement widely spread among England, France, and Italy. Nevertheless, there are few Catholic scholars or theologians involved in this movement. Among them, most Christian scholars from both theological circles agreed to identify two distinctive Catholic scholars as leaders of the movement; they are Alfred Loisy and George Tyrrell (Smart 1985, 2:141-145).

Although most scholars regard Loisy and Tyrrell as leaders of the movement, it is problematical to identify the intellectual precursors of Modernism. The assumption that J. A. Möhler and the Tübingen School were the precursors of modernism, or that John H. Newman was the Father of Modernism, were suspicious. Evidence did not support such allegations. Although Loisy and Tyrrell both studied Newman’s work, they took a new approach to history and dogma that Newman probably never intended. It was fair to say that Newman might have influenced Loisy and Tyrrell, but Loisy and Tyrrell did not follow Newman’s approach in constructing theology. On the contrary, the most important influence on Loisy and Tyrrell was the new historical criticism of the Bible and tradition. This influence probably associated with Abbé Louis Duchęsne (1843-1922), the first important Catholic historical-critical scholar in France. He had been Professor of Church History at the Catholic University of Paris since 1877. Duchęsne’s historical-critical study greatly influenced Loisy in particular while Loisy pursued his further study in Paris (Livingston 1997, 365).

In fact, Modernism was born of discontent with the inadequacies of the church’s intellectual response to the needs of the age, particularly in the realm of philosophy, apologetics, and biblical exegesis. More importantly, challenges from the Protestant church particularly in Germany were unable to ignore. The liberal Protestants consistently assailed the conventional views of the RCC on the scripture, the doctrine, and the tradition. Modernists hereby claimed that the church must confront these crucial questions posted by the modern world. Modern scientific research method was a tool adoptable for the church to confront these challenges (Smart 1985, 2:145-147). Indeed, Leo XIII, who succeeded Pius IX in 1878, welcomed modernists’ suggestions and encouraged modernists to do the program. Yet, good times did not last long; Pius X who succeeded Leo XIII in 1903 suspended the program and eventually condemned the “heretic” theology proposed by the modernists (Loisy 1988, 9-13). Although the RCC ended the movement by imposing an anti-modernist oath upon the RC clergy, the movement had entailed some significant impact among the RCC scholars. As we might have seen, modernism was a liberal movement in the RCC. It is a liberal movement calling for the reconciliation between the church and the modern world in the realm of politics, science, and culture. If so, why did this liberal movement end up with heretic movement in the eyes of the church? What was the program that modernists called for? According to R. Joseph Hoffmann’s analysis, first, the modernists called for the emancipation of theology from the church authority and for the reconciliation between theology and the modern science (i.e., freedom of the academic research). Second, the modernists called for the autonomous authority of the state that religious authority should not hamper (i.e., freedom of the state politics). Third, they asserted that the church should respect private conscience, not override (i.e., personal freedom). Fourth, the church should be in accord with the spirit of the times (i.e., universal conscience). Fifth, the church should recognize the “spirit of change” in the course of history, and thus recognize that dogma is not a fixed or final static statement of the church (i.e., power of the development). Sixth, they called for the reconciliation between the church and the people of different beliefs (i.e., inclusiveness of Christianity). These appeals did not go off as severe attacks on the church as the modernists intended to. Nevertheless, in the eyes of the Roman pontiff, these appeals undermined the spiritual authority of the papal magisterium. On September 8, 1907, Pius X issued an encyclical, Pascendi dominici gregis, condemning the liberal movement proposed by the modernists (Loisy 1988, 20-23). It was not until Vatican II (1962-1965) that the RCC scholars recovered the valuable impact of the modernist.

6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Harnack, Adolf von. 1986 [1957]. What is Christianity? Translated by Thomas Bailey Saunders. With an Introduction by Rudolf Bultmann. Philadelphia: Fortress Press.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1903. Autour d'un petit livre. 1903. Paris: A. Picard et fils.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1903. Evangile et l'Eglise (The Gospel and the Church). Bellevue: Chez l'auteur.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1907-8. Les évangiles synoptiques. Ceffonds: Loisy.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1910. La religion d'Israël (The Religion of Israel). London: Leipzig: T. Fisher Unwin.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1924. My Duel with the Vatican: the Autobiography of a Catholic Modernist. New York: E. P. Dutton & Company.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1948. La naissance du Christianisme (The Birth of the Christian Religion). London: G. Allen & Unwin.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1950. Les origines du Nouveau Testament (The Origins of the New Testament). London: Allen and Unwin.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1976 [1903]. The Gospel and the Church. Ed. Bernard Scott. Trans. by Christopher Home, Ibister and Company (reprinted 1912). New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons.

Loisy, Alfred Firmin. 1988 [1902]. The Gospel and the Church. With a Forward by R. Joseph Hoffmann. New York: Prometheus Books.

Livingston, James C. 1971. Modern Christian Thought. New York: Macmillan Company.

Livingston, James. 1997 [1988]. Modern Christian Thought. Vol.1, The Enlightenment and the Nineteenth Century. Upper Saddle River: Prentice-Hall, Inc.

Pius X, Pope. 1963 [1907] Pascendi Dominici Gregis. National Catholic Welfare Conference.

Reardon, Bernard. 1970. Roman Catholic Modernism. Stanford: Stanford University Press.

Reardon, Bernard M. G. 1985. Nineteenth Century Religious Thought in the West. Edited by Ninian Smart, John Clayton, Steven T. Katz, and Patrick Sherry. Vol.2. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Welch, Claude. 1985. Protestant Thought in the Nineteenth Century. Vol.2, 1870-1914. New Haven: Yale University Press.

7. Internet Resources

Loisy on Wikipedia

E-text of The Birth of the Christian Religion

8. Related Topics

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)


Editors: Wesley Wildman and Derek Michaud, incorporating material submitted by Michelle Charles (1998), Chijen James Wu (2000), and Echol Lee Nix, Jr. (2000).


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