Alfred Loisy

Alfred Firmin Loisy (1857-1940)

Alfred Loisy

      “The believer of the past is above all one who confesses, who frequently confesses—who does so more often even than Catholic morality requires to atone for sinfulness. He is a man who practices intellectual obsequiousness, acknowledging what the Church requires by fiat and accepting all that it teaches him without examination, contesting neither the sense nor the logic of what he believes and considering himself a minion who learns from the Church all that he needs regarding the great subjects touching upon his existence—what he must do in order to be a good person and (above all) what he must accomplish to be a good Christian. His activity is thus ultimately regulated by an exterior authority and he does not bother to think for himself—indeed, undertaking such foolishness creates in him a sense of guilt. Such a man views intellectual timidity as a virtue and refuses to consider questions of a deep nature simply for fear of thinking wrongly. In religion, he instructs himself according to the good books recommended by his director and presumes no ideas save those absolutely guaranteed to be orthodox and safe.
      “Thankfully, this sort of Catholic may not be very common today, though it is useless to deny that he exists. The Church attempts to increase their numbers, but those who consider themselves perfect disciples in this way are not numerous. For this type of person exists only by abdicating that which nature herself has given him. Many resist such an abdication by instinct, while others repudiate it as a violation of their very personhood.”—Alfred Loisy (Choses Passées)

Not robust in constitution, the young Loisy was of a studious bent and his parents sent him to the church school of Saint-Dizier with a view towards entering the seminary. From there, Alfred matriculated to the Catholic Institute of Paris and was ordained a priest in 1879. Meanwhile, he had made such rapid progress in Hebrew that the rector assigned Loisy a class to teach. However, the young man’s modernist views led to a revocation and Loisy was reassigned to a more out of the way post, namely the chaplaincy of a convent where he assisted in the education of young ladies.

Loisy continued his researches, but his developing views were coming more and more into conflict with traditional Roman Catholic doctrine and the young priest published under a series of pseudonyms. He fell gravely ill in 1899 and resigned his position as chaplain. Loisy also refused the small pension the Church was prepared to grant him as an infirm priest.

At the aegis of friends, Loisy was appointed lecturer at the École Pratique des Hautes Études, which was not an ecclesiastical institution. From 1901 to 1903 he wrote several works that would be condemned by the Church, including La Religion d’Israel, Études évangéliques, L’Évangile et L’Église (“The Gospel and the Church”, ostensibly written to refute the German theologian Adolf von Harnack), Autour d’un petit livre, and Le quatrième Évangile. His 1908 Les Évangiles Synoptiques led directly to his excommunication.

In July 1907 the Holy Office (renamed by Vatican II the Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith) issued a decree, signed by pope Pius X, entitled Lamentabili Sane Exitu (“A Lamentable Departure Indeed”), which formally condemned sixty-five modernist or relativist propositions (this was the first appearance of these terms in an official religious context) which employed the “scientific exegesis” of scripture and concerned the nature of the Church, revelation, biblical interpretation, the sacraments, and the divinity of Christ. This decree was followed by the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (“Feeding the Lord’s Flock”), which characterized Modernism as the “synthesis of all heresies.” The encyclical (text) remonstrated against those who “assail all that is most sacred in the work of Christ, not sparing even the person of the Divine Redeemer, whom, with sacrilegious daring, they reduce to a simple, mere man.”

These documents made Loisy realize that there was no hope for reconciliation. In fact, he made a comparative study of the papal announcements and demonstrated the condemned propositions in his own writings. He also confirmed as true his various earlier New Testament interpretations, some of which he had previously formulated in conditional form. In his journal he wrote: “Christ has even less importance in my religion than he does in that of the liberal Protestants: for I attach little importance to the revelation of God the Father for which they honor Jesus. If I am anything in religion, it is more pantheist-positivist-humanitarian than Christian.” Loisy refused to publicly endorse the encyclical and was excommunicated vitandus, that is, all Catholics were henceforth forbidden to communicate with him.

Shortly thereafter Loisy was nominated to the History of Religion chair at the Collège de France, where he taught for the next twenty-five years.

Perhaps Loisy’s most famous observation was that “Jesus came preaching the Kingdom, and what arrived was the Church” (“Jésus annonçait le Royaume et c’est l’Église qui est venue”). But for all his clashes with the Roman Catholic hierarchy, Loisy did think that Jesus intended to form some sort of society or community. It was the aping of civil government (“comme celle d’un gouvernement établi”) that he doubted Jesus intended.

Loisy proclaimed five principal theses:
– the Pentateuch was not the work of Moses
– the first five chapters of Genesis are not literal history
– the New Testament and the Old Testament do not possess equal historical value
– there has been a development of religious doctrine in scripture
– the sacred writings have the same limitations as all other documents authored in the ancient world.

Contra Harnack, Loisy tried to show that it was both necessary and inevitable for the Catholic Church to form as it did. He argued that God intended this and compared his own ideas on this to those of John Henry Newman. In La Religion d’Israel Loisy drew the controversial distinction between a pre-Moses period, when the Hebrews worshipped the god El (also known by the plural of this name, Elohim), and a later stage, when Yahweh gradually became the only deity of the Jews.

My review of Loisy’s Le Mandéisme et les Origines Chrétiennes (1935) is here. Loisy retired from his position at the Collège de France in 1932 and passed away in 1940.

(PDF’s of most of these titles are available for download at

1890, Histoire du canon de l’Ancien Testament.
1891, Histoire du canon du Nouveau Testament.
1892, Le livre de Job
1892-1893, Histoire critique du texte et des versions de l’Ancien Testament.
1901, Les Mythes babyloniens et les premiers chapitres de la Genèse.
1902, L’Évangile et l’Église   English: The Gospel and the Church (277 pp.)
1903, Études bibliques (336 pp.)
1903, Le discourse sur la montagne
1903, Autour d’un petit livre
1903, Le Quatrième Évangile.
1906, Morceaux d’exég&#232se (Extraits de la Revue d’histoire et de littérature religieuses)
1907-1908, Les Évangiles synoptiques: Volume 1Volume 2
1908, Simples réflexions sur le décret du Saint-Office Lamentabile sane exitu et sur l’encyclique Pascendi dominici gregis. (307 pp.)
1908, La Religion d’Israël English: The Religion of Israel
1910, Jésus et la tradition évangélique
1911, À propos d’histoire des religions (324 pp.). PDF Contents: Remarques sur une définition de la religion
          – De la vulgarization et de l’enseignement de l’histoire des religions. – Magic, science et religion. – Jésus ou Christ? – Le mythe du Christ.
1912, L’Évangile selon Marc (500 pp.)
1913, Choses passées (autobiographie)
1915, Guerre et religion
1916, L‘Epitre aux Balates (204 pp.)
1917, La Religion.
1919 Les Mystères païens et le Mystère chrétien
1919, De la discipline intellectuelle
1920, Les Actes des Apôtres (963 pp.)
(1921) Le Quatrième Evangile (602 pp.)
1922, Les Livres du Nouveau Testament: traduits du Grec en Français avec introduction générale et notices par Alfred Loisy (711 pp.)
1923, La morale humaine.
1923, L’apocalypse de Jean (406 pp.)
1924, L’évangile selon Luc (600 pp.)
          La Religion (406 pp.)
1925, Les Actes des Apôtres.
          L’Eglise et la France (237 pp.)
1926, Religion et Humanité (266 pp.)
1928, La Morale Humaine (306 pp.)
1930, Les Mystères apïens et le mystère chrétien (352 pp.)
1933, La naissance du christianisme (The Birth of the Christian Religion)
          Les Origines du Nouveau Testament (The Origins of the New Testament)
          La Religion d’Israël (328 pp.)
1934, Le Mandéisme et les Origines Chrétiennes (179 pp.)
1935, Remarques sur la littérature épistolaire du Nouveau Testament

About René Salm

René Salm is the author of two books on New Testament archeology and manages the companion website

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