Boston Collaborative Encyclopedia of Western Theology

George Tyrrell (1861-1909)

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

1. Background

The life and theology of George Tyrrell represent the unrelenting demand for an intellectually honest apologetics, one in which neither scholarly integrity nor religious authenticity were compromised. For Tyrrell, the former ultimately took form in his espousal of modernism, while the latter referred to his religious experience in the Catholic tradition. During his lifetime, however, these two sources of truth were in serious conflict. Because of his dual loyalties, this situation was for Tyrrell not only a matter of professional concern but also of great personal turmoil. Both his life and theology, then, are best seen in his passionate drive to synthesize these two sources of truth within the Roman Catholic Church.

Tyrrell’s Catholicism

On the 5th of February, 1861, George Tyrrell was born in Dublin, Ireland. Notable aspects of his childhood include the fact that his mother was widowed only two months before his birth; as a result, he and his two siblings were raised in often severe poverty. Also notable is the fact that, although he was reasonably bright, he failed to achieve any marked academic success. The most notable aspect of his childhood, however, is the fact that he grew up neither Catholic nor Modernist. He was raised in Low Church piety in the Church of Ireland. As a result, Tyrrell’s childhood religious education was extremely anti-Catholic. He was taught that Roman Catholicism was a vulgar and unrefined religion, suitable only for the uneducated and superstitious.

Despite the indoctrinated prejudices of his youth, Tyrrell became captivated by the sense of mystery preserved in the Catholic tradition. His initial response to this interest was to remain within the Church of Ireland, but attend one of the two High Churches in Dublin instead. This move, however, failed to satisfy his curiosity. Thus, when the opportunity presented itself in 1879, the eighteen-year-old Tyrrell moved to London; here, he thought, he could experience the best of what High Church Anglicanism had to offer. Yet even this failed to satisfy Tyrrell. He concluded that his church was at best "playing at" Catholicism. Incidentally, he would later write in his autobiography that if he would only have been "brought in contact with some more thoughtful representatives of Anglicanism, the results might have been different" (Vidler 1934, 145; from his autobiography, citation not given).

Tyrrell, however, was bent on Catholicism. This is largely because he had a highly idealistic view of that church, especially as it was represented by the Jesuits. He viewed the latter as "an Order whose every member was governed, from first to last, by a zeal for the propagation of truth and religion" (Vidler 1934, 145, citation not given). Thus, after only two months in London, he had already established contact with the Jesuits at Farm Street. Within weeks after their first meeting, Tyrrell was received into the Catholic Church. Immediately upon his reception therein, Tyrrell took a year’s probation to teach in Jesuit schools in both Cyprus and Malta. He undertook this position with the high expectations he attached to the Society in general. Of course, his experience failed to meet his unrealistic expectations. Yet Tyrrell was not so easily shaken, and in 1880, despite his disappointments thus far, he proceeded to enter his novitiate with the Jesuits.

In his year as a novice, his misgivings for Catholicism and especially the Society of Jesus only intensified. This was primarily manifest in the conflict he often felt between his obligation for submission to his superiors and his drive for independent judgement. His novice-master recognized this inner tension, and noted that it was a characteristic unbecoming of a Jesuit (Vidler 1934, 145-6). Because he was so insistent on becoming a Jesuit, Tyrrell reluctantly suppressed his independent judgement in favor of the required submission in order that he might achieve his goal.

Thus did Tyrrell pass his novitiate, and went on to receive seven years of training at the Jesuit college at Stonyhurst. During this time, he became an ardent supporter of Thomistic scholasticism, believing it to be best way to pursue his Jesuit ideal of "the propagation of truth and religion." He especially appreciated the way in which it provided a coherent philosophical system which preserved both faith and reason as compliments. In advocating Thomistic scholasticism, however, Tyrrell positioned himself against the vast majority of Jesuits. At this time, the Society heavily favored scholasticism as it was interpreted by the Jesuit Saurez. The latter position added a great many philosophical strictures on scholasticism, to the near exclusion of faith. Thus, Tyrrell concluded it too narrow an understanding, and argued Thomistic scholasticism in the attempt to preserve the mystery that faith entails. This counter-position would prove only the beginning of his larger attempt to correct what he considered the all-too-narrow views of the Jesuits. Despite his differences with the Society, Tyrrell finished his training and, after three additional years of study at Stonyhurst, was ordained a priest in 1891.

Tyrrell’s Modernism

The years following his ordination were years of mounting discontent and ultimately of transition for Tyrrell. For the first three years, he was a priest in a small parish mission, and for the next three years he taught philosophy and ethics at his alma mater. The contrast between these two positions—between the mystery inherent in faith that had initially attracted him to Catholicism and the self-assured scholastic philosophy in which he had so invested himself—suggested to Tyrrell that even his Thomistic scholasticism took too much for granted in its quest for religious truth. This conflict convinced Tyrrell that a more mediating approach was necessary.

Tyrrell would find this new approach when he was repositioned in 1897 to the Jesuit church at Farm Street, wherein Tyrrell had first been received into the Catholic Church. It was while he was here that he was introduced to more liberal thought, both within and outside of Catholicism. Most notably, it was then that he was introduced by a friend—Baron Friedrich von Hügel—to the work of Maurice Blondel. The latter sought after an authentic Christian philosophy: one that would take into consideration both the limitations of human reason and the human exigency for the supernatural. Blondel established this in his method of immanence, as expounded in his principal work, L’Action. This method accounts phenomenologically for the entirety of human activity as a series of developments in response to that which is immanent. However, in that such activity never ends, the immanent is never attained; that is, that which is immanent is ultimately also transcendent. Thus, humanity is engaged in a necessary but impossible task: it is bound to reach for that which it cannot grasp. Therefore, he concludes, where philosophy fails, there faith must ensue because, whereas the former can suggest the need for the transcendent, only the latter can support such a belief (Livingston 1997, 360-1).

Blondel’s "philosophy of action" was precisely the synthesis for which Tyrrell had been looking. It relieved the aforementioned tension by placing devotion within a philosophical framework that nonetheless preserved the sense of mystery inherent in that devotion. On the basis of this unity, Tyrrell was convinced that Blondel’s philosophy could accommodate an intellectually honest apologetics in a way that even his Thomistic scholasticism could not. In fact, this new philosophy stood at odds with scholasticism in general, inasmuch as it denied the latter’s philosophical claims regarding the transcendent (e.g., proofs for the existence of God). Thus, by accepting Blondel’s philosophy, Tyrrell initiated a serious divergence from the Jesuit tradition that would not go unnoticed.

Tyrrell’s break with Jesuit thought can first be seen in his article, "A Perverted Devotion". Published in 1899, it responded to an ongoing debate regarding the nature of punishment in hell. Tyrrell’s response was a call for a moderate agnosticism on the issue, given that nothing could be known for certain on the subject, barring that which was revealed. The doctrines of the church, he argued, are not properly the subjects of rationalistic critique. He suggested that the world outside of church was still learning that pure, unadulterated truth is not accessible via rational inquiry, but transcends the grasp of humankind. In the meantime, the church ought to purge itself of all rationalistic tendencies, maintaining itself instead as the storehouse of faith in that which has been revealed. In short, he concluded that the devotion of his Scholastic adversaries was perverted inasmuch as it involved the application of rationalism to a realm where it failed to apply: namely, the realm of faith.

This article made clear his break with scholasticism, and thus it provoked a great deal of controversy within the Society. The final word on the article came from Jesuit censors in Rome, who objected to his anti-rationalism. They re-affirmed that the doctrine of hell was completely defensible by means of rational theology, and would only be weakened if it were relinquished to mystery. In short, the Jesuit authorities made clear that the Society was unquestionably opposed to Modernist thought, and that Tyrrell, by expounding such thought, stood in opposition to the Society. Thus, after inducing from Tyrrell a statement of submission, they moved him to a small mission in Yorkshire, where his priestly duties were significantly reduced.

Tyrrell realized that he could not in good faith remain a Jesuit. His convictions placed him fundamentally at odds with the Society—as his continued publications revealed—and he realized that it would not be long before he was dismissed. He negotiated for a time with Jesuit authorities for an amicable release on the basis of these differences. However, when they demanded a repudiation of his recent work and he refused, he was in 1906 dismissed from the Society.

While there remained for Tyrrell the lingering possibility of being "regularized" as a secular priest, as he realized in his falling out with the Jesuits, his message would only be stifled within the censure of the Church. In short, he recognized that a change in tactics was in order. In light of the failure of internal reform, Tyrrell came to accept that the transformation of the church could only be accomplished through outright revolt. Such revolt entailed for Tyrrell a self-sacrifice to the Church for the sake of the Church’s reform. He wrote that "if the old Churches reform themselves it will be … after first having crushed the reformers" (Ratté 1967, 206, citation not given). This new attitude was made manifest when in 1907 he publicly criticized the anti-Modernist encyclical Pascendi gregis in two letters published in The Times (interestingly, a Protestant publication). He was immediately excommunicated.

2. Works (Selected List)

Nova et Vetera (1897); Hard Sayings (1898); The Faith of the Millions (1901); Oil and Wine (1900); Lex Orandi (1903); A Much Abused Letter (1906); Lex Credendi (1906); Through Scylla and Charybdis (1907); Medievalism (1908); Christianity at the Crossroads (1909, 1963); Essays on Faith and Immortality (1914)

3. Themes

A Cry for Revolution

From outside of the Church, Tyrrell was free to express in greater detail his defense of Modernism and his vision of a reformed Catholic Church. The most significant change in his theology at this point is the fact that he was no longer convinced that the Catholic Church, in its present form, could effectively preserve the truth of Christianity. This is reflected in his book Through Scylla and Charybdis (1907), in which he characterizes modern thought and rigid traditionalism as the two mythical perils between which true Christianity must pass. Both extremes, as seen by Liberal Protestantism and the existing Catholic Church, fail to relay the truth of Christianity; only a careful synthesis can effect such truth.

Tyrrell’s most developed work, however, was his last publication, Christianity at the Crossroads (1909), which was published posthumously. The book is essentially a defense of his position as a Modernist. In it, Tyrrell argues two points: first, he argues that Roman Catholic Modernism is not only opposed to Liberal Protestantism, but is consistent with "idea" of Christ as preserved within Catholicism; second, he argues that only through the acceptance of his Modernist reforms can the Catholic Church preserve that "idea" of Christ in an effective way.

He begins by noting that the church authorities in Rome, in their ignorance, associated the movement with Liberal Protestantism on the basis of their similar historical critical work. This, he argues, is certainly not the case. For Liberal Protestants, the inquiry was an article of faith. They sought, on the basis of their critical work, to establish the facts of the life of Jesus, which would in turn provide the fundaments of the Christian faith. The problem with this approach, according to Tyrrell, is that the Christ that results from such a quest will inevitably reflect the biases of whoever sets the criteria for what is acceptable as fact. Thus, he writes, "The Christ that Harnack sees, looking back through nineteen centuries of Catholic darkness, is only the reflection of a Liberal Protestant face, seen at the bottom of a deep well" (Tyrrell 1909, 49). Yet, he remarks, "Whatever Jesus was, He was in no sense a Liberal Protestant" (22).

Modernists, he continues, are not susceptible to this error, because they engage in such criticism only as an instrument of inquiry. That is, for the Modernists, the idea of Christ is never in question, because it is believed to have been preserved in the doctrine of the Catholic Church. This notion of the "idea" of Christ is a conscious development of Newman, defined by Tyrrell as "the religious idea in a certain stage of development, along a particular line" (60). Therefore, when Catholic Modernists undertake historical criticism, it is only in the interest of distinguishing the underlying "idea" from the historical particulars of Christ's self-understanding. Only with such an understanding can the Catholic theologian determine how the Church needs to change in order to continue to preserve the idea inherent in Christ's message.

Thus, he distinguishes Catholic Modernists from Liberal Protestants in that, while both accept the truths of modernism, the former also accept the truths of Catholic tradition. By proposing a synthesis between modernism and tradition, Catholic Modernists remain consistent with the Church in a way that Liberal Protestants cannot. Thus, the "idea" of Christ that results, "in its substance and character, is identical with that of Catholic Christianity and opposed at nearly all points to that of Liberal Protestantism" (49, italics mine). Thus, he concludes, Roman Catholic Modernists are genuinely Roman Catholic and in no way compromise the Church.

By incorporating the truths of modernism, however, Catholic Modernists suggest that something of the tradition apart from its substance and character must now be changed to better cohere to a modern understanding. This change is necessitated by precisely that problem with the historical Jesus that had apparently derailed Liberal Protestant criticism: namely, the fact that He presented His message in apocalyptic form, a form which can no longer be taken literally by the modern Church. He writes, "we can no longer believe in the little local Heaven above the flat earth, from which Jesus is to appear in the clouds; not in all the details of the vision governed by this conception" (77). The context through which Christ’s message was portrayed is simply no longer the context of the modern mind.

By invoking a theory of symbols, however, Tyrrell argues that the apocalyptic form of Christ’s message—while certainly related to the content of the message—is not essential to the eternal truth-value of the message. That is, the form is merely a symbol of that truth. Given the failure of that symbol to operate effectively in the modern mindset, the Church must incorporate new symbols more congenial to the interpretive context of that mindset.

Given this framework, Tyrrell posits that the truth-value of Christ’s message, within apocalyptic form, was understood as the relationship via Christ between this world and the other-worldly. In the modern philosophical context, this corresponds to the contrast between the finite and the infinite. Therefore, he concludes, the "idea" of Christ is best understood within the modern context as essentially the need for harmony between oneself and the transcendent (84). Only in such a framework can the "idea" expressed within Christ’s context be translated meaningfully into the present context.

In short, Tyrrell is claiming that the "idea" of Christ cannot be taken literally. The Catholic Church had preserved this "idea" unchanged for well over a millennium. Only gradually, as the interpretive context changed, had the "idea" become relatively ineffective in its (then) present form. On this basis, Tyrrell calls for what would be the first of many eventual translations of that "idea" into forms not originally its own. This form, he has argued, is subject to change and will continue to be so. "Our own symbolism," he forecasts, "would be as unacceptable for a later age as the apocalyptic symbolism is for us" (81). Therefore, he concludes, "the only remedy lies in a frank admission of the principle of symbolism" (81).

Thus has Tyrrell expounded and defended a distinctly Roman Catholic Modernism. On the one hand, he maintains that his Modernism is authentically Catholic in that it affirms the "idea" of Christ as preserved by the Catholic Church. On the other hand, me maintains that Roman Catholicism ought to be Modernist in that only by admitting the principle of symbols can it continue to preserve effectively that "idea". This synthesis culminates in a Christianity in which the mystery of faith and the convention of modern reason fail to contradict, but are joined through the medium of symbol. Evident in this final position is Tyrrell’s affirmation of the truth of the Catholic "idea", his rejection of Scholasticism, the influence of Blondel, and his revolutionary cry for change within the Church. In short, this book is the summation of Tyrrell’s life and theology.

Exactly one week after writing the preface to Christianity at the Crossroads, Tyrrell fell ill with Bright’s disease. Nine days later, on July 15, 1909, George Tyrrell died at the age of 48. Alfred Loisy would later write, "When Tyrrell died, it may be said that Modernism, considered as a movement of overt resistance to the absolutism of Rome, died with him" (Loisy, Mémoirs, III, 127; taken from Livingston 1997, 372). Although he had been excommunicated, Tyrrell received priestly ministrations—including the sacraments—on his deathbed. Yet he was denied a Catholic burial because, immediately upon his death, his friends publicly stated that he had never retracted. The posthumous publication of Christianity at the Crossroads confirmed this: he never varied.

4. Outline of Major Works


5. Relation to Other Thinkers


6. Bibliography and Cited Works

Livingston, James. 1997. Modern Christian Thought, 2nd edition [1988]. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hall. [As always, a concise and revealing source.]

Ratté, John. 1967. Three Modernists. New York: Sheed and Ward. [Consistently fails to give citations.]

Tyrrell, George. 1963 [1909]. Christianity at the Crossroads, forward: A.R. Vidler. London: George Allen and Unwin, Ltd.

Vidler, Alec R. 1934. The Modernist Movement in the Roman Church: Its Origins and Outcome. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. 143-184. [Also consistently fails to give citations.]

7. Internet Resources

“George Tyrrell” article on Wikipedia

Online Books by George Tyrrell

8. Related Topics

Pius IX (1861-1918)

Roman Catholic Modernism

Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1959)

Protestant Liberalism

Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889)

Adolf von Harnack (1851-1930)

Johann Wilhelm Herrmann (1846-1922)


Editor: Derek Michaud, incorporating material by Robert W. Smid (1998).


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