Alfred Firmin Loisy.

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Introduction . • • •



The Sources op the Gospels

. 23


The Kingdom op Heaven .

. 53


The Son op God . • , •

. 88


The Church . . • •

. 139


The Christian Dogma •

. 180


The Catholic Worship , .

. 226



Professor Harnack's famous volume of lectures,
What is Christianity? and the Abbe Loisy's epoch-
making book, The Gospel and the Church, serve to
mark on opposite sides the progress of modern theo-
logical thought. Both in their similarities and by
their contrasts these two books may help an in-
quirer find his way amid the confusions of new
biblical investigations to clearer appreciations of the
origins and values of Christian institutions and be-
liefs. The two conceptions of Christianity which
are presented in these volumes confront each other
like separate cliffs; if one takes his stand at the top
of either of them he will find no bridge across to the
other; but if he follows the way which runs between
them at the bottom, he will be led out to a larger
conception of Christianity in which their separation
disappears. Fundamentally, the revolt of Harnack
from received Protestant dogmatism, and the protest
of Loisy against official Romanism, have, more than
at first may appear, a common ground in historical


The first of these books represents a natural and
necessary development of free, rational Protestant
thinking. It is a legitimate fruit in its season of the
Reformation. The other volume represents a neces-
sary and vital adaptation of Roman Catholic belief
to the conditions of modern thought. It is a natural
development in its season of Catholic tradition. In
thfs respect the two are alike; they are modern in-
terpretations of the primitive faith. Harnack is a
thoroughly trained historian ; so also is Loisy. Both
pursue with scientific sincerity the methods of
modern critical research. They resemble one an-
other also, while they differ, in the effort to deter-
mine what is essential by what is vital in Christian-
ity. But at this point their divergence begins.
Harnack will extract from the Gospels their essen-
tial truth, and that truth, as it is realized in the
experience of the soul, is the essence of Christianity.
Other elements, however closely related to it or his-
torically added to it, do not constitute Christianity
what it is in the life of the soul. Loisy, on the con-
trary, follows the historical development of Chris-
tianity as an organic whole, and throughout the con-
tinuous Christian tradition he seeks to discover the
vitalizing and formative principles of its develop-
ment. To Loisy dogma, government, institutional
forms, and rites of worship are not adventitious


accretions, they are necessary growths of religion;
they had to be in order that Christianity might con-
tinue to live.

Some similarity, likewise, may be noticed in the
reception which these two representative books re-
ceived. Harnack's volume called forth a storm of
replies from orthodox quarters; Loisy's book brought
down upon him the condemnation of the Congrega-
tions of the Index and the Holy Inquisition. The
principle of the opposition in both cases is much the
same. It is authority against criticism; received
dogma or official tradition against historical scholar-
ship. The difference is not so much in the attempt
to exercise authority, but in the kind of authority to
which appeal is made. In the Protestant reduction
of Divine revelation to a system of theology, author-
ity rests upon a written code; its law book is the
Scriptures; and the judge of the law is reason, ulti-
mately the reason of the individual teacher, but
ecclesiastically the received interpretation of a par-
ticular Church. Harnack met with disapproval
from many Protestant theologians, not because he
endeavored to distil from historical Christianity its
doctrinal essence, but because in the process of dis-
tillation he allowed many elements to evaporate
which they regard as essential elements of the true
faith. Loisy is condemned by the Roman Curia, not


because he maintains that Christianity is a social
fact to be known in its whole historical development,
but because he could not submit to the claim of the
Pope to sole supremacy in the teaching Church.
Moreover, notwithstanding the differences, the de-
fense in each case is fundamentally the same. Har-
nack falls back upon religious experience; for him
dogma was made for faith, and not faith for dogma;
the religious experience of the Christian man is lord
of his beliefs. For Loisy, the life of the whole Chris-
tian society, continuous throughout the history of the
Church, is always more than the institutional forms
of it; the life is lord of its historical symbols. The
final appeal, alike for the liberal Protestant theologian
and for the progressive Roman Catholic, must be,
not to the individual reason merely divorced from
history, nor to tradition alone uninterpreted by
reason; the highest court of Christian appeal is the
collective experience of the Christ in the thought and
life of the world until he comes. By the witness of
the Christ after the Spirit and in the life of man, all
that claims to be Christian is to be tried and judged.
He said of his words, "They are spirit and they are
life." In this common law of Christianity of the
Spirit and the Life, there is secured, as could be
done by no law of the letter, both historical con-
tinuity and personal initiative, both organic direc-


tion and individual freedom; and the Church lives
forever young, and can never die.

From this notice of the relations between these
two books we pass to a more particular account of
Loisy's life and work, and the significance of his
position in the Roman Catholic Church.

Loisy has recently published a volume of letters
relating to "actual questions and recent events" of
his life. In one of these letters he thus describes
the aims and studies which for many years he has
pursued: "I became a priest to the regret of my
family, who preferred that I should choose another
career; but I desired to serve the Church, and to
serve it from the side that suited my aptitudes, by
science and instruction. I can say, without the least
vanity, that since my entrance into the great semi-
nary of Chalons, in October, 1874, I have not
ceased to work, always in the line of my ecclesiastical
studies, and without allowing myself to turn towards
those specialties which would have diverted me from
my original object: the study and defence of catholic
Christianity. I have applied myself wholly and
spontaneously to the study of the Bible; circum-
stances have made it possible for me to give myself
entire liberty in this for more than twenty-five years.
But in proportion as I advanced in my researches, I
perceived that our official instruction was a custom-


ary formula, which did not correspond to the reality
of things. Then, instead of abandoning my apolo-
getic design, instead of taking the miserable part of
defending, under the respected name of tradition,
the theses of which I saw the decay (between our-
selves, Monsieur, I will tell you that I might have
had in the Church a career sufficiently brilliant and
honored, if I could have lied), I have undertaken,
after years of labor, after long reflections, and why
shall I not say it ? after a long period of inward suf-
ferings, during which I saw falling, one by one, as
dead leaves, the received ideas with which my youth
had been prejudiced, and I sought what I might
recover in that ruin of the edifice where I had be-
lieved my faith to be sheltered for eternity — I have
undertaken, I say, to show how the essential of
Catholicism can survive the crisis of contemporary
thought, how the Church can justify its past, and
assure itself of the future. See, Monsieur, what I
have undertaken, and I leave it to you to decide if
it was a 'work of demolition.' " *

When Harnack's What is Christianity ? appeared,
in May, 1900, many Roman Catholics looked upon
it with favor, thinking, as Loisy said, that a refuge
that had been built for the last extremity of the
Protestant faith might serve equally as an asylum
l Quelques Lettres, p. 116.


for a Catholicism of erudition. But he could not
take refuge in Protestantism; and having at that
time thought out his method of reconstructing Roman
Catholic apologetics, he wrote several chapters of a
volume which was published in November, 1902, and
which, with some additions, constitute this volume.

Together with the publication of other critical
studies, this book aroused intense curiosity. Com-
plaints concerning it were soon carried to Rome;
but Leo XIII, wisely refusing to interfere, left full
liberty to the Archbishop of Paris and the Papal
Nuncio there to proceed with regard to it as they
might think best.

Cardinal Richard appointed a committee of his
theologians to examine the book, and in consequence
of their report he prohibited the reading of it by the
faithful in his diocese. The reasons given for its
condemnation were two: it had appeared without
the imprimatur, or proper ecclesiastical authoriza-
tion, and it was of a nature to disturb faith in the
fundamental doctrines of Catholicism. This was
the beginning of the procedure which in 1908 ended
in excommunication from the Roman Church of its
most learned biblical scholar, who had set before
himself the task of saving the faith of the Church in
the educated world. Leo XIII, however, seemed
not inclined to proceed further, and he was un-


willing to pronounce a final condemnation against
Loisy. That was reserved for the present Pope.
An opportunity for his intervention soon occurred.
In. October, 1903, Loisy had published another
volume entitled Autour d'un petit lime, besides a
volume on the Fourth Gospel, and also a second
edition of The Gospel and the Church. All these
volumes appeared without the ecclesiastical au-
thorization. Loisy explained as a sufficient reason
for this omission that he was not writing a sacred
history for the use of catechists, or a manual of
theology for seminarians, which the Church might
directly control, but a critical and scientific reply to
a Protestant scholar; and that the " first duty of a
scholar, Catholic or not, is sincerity/' That is why,
he said, he did not see what it might signify to place
at the head of his work the suffrage of a theological
censor or the approbation of an archbishop. 1

Two months afterwards the blow fell. In De-
cember, 1903, his five books were put on the Index
and condemned by the Holy Inquisition with the
approval of Pius X. In transmitting the decree
Cardinal Merry del Val gave these reasons for it:
"The very grave errors which abound in these
volumes concern chiefly: the primitive revelation,
the authenticity of the facts and the teachings of the
1 Autour d'un petit livre, p. xi.


evangelists, the divinity and the knowledge of
Christ, the resurrection, the divine institution of the
Church, the sacraments." To what extent Loisy
felt that as an honest scholar he could submit as a
Catholic to this decree of authority, appears from
his reply that he would receive with respect the judg-
ment of the Holy Congregation, and condemn in
himself whatever can be found reprehensible. He
wrote: "I ought nevertheless to add that my adhe-
sion to the sentence of the S. S. Congregations is of a
kind purely disciplinary. I reserve the right of my
conscience, and I do not intend, in bowing before
the judgment rendered by the S. Congregation of
the Holy Office to abandon or to retract the opinions
which I have expressed as an historian and critical
exegete." He did not, however, profess to attach to
these opinions a certitude which did not comport
with their character, and he was assured that they
would be completed and corrected by himself and
by others in the future. But in the present state of
his knowledge, he said: "They are the only form in
which I can represent to myself the history of the
sacred writings and of religion." '

This answer not being deemed sufficient at Rome,
the Archbishop of Paris, Cardinal Richard, wrote to
him requiring an immediate retraction, full and
1 Quelques Lettres, p. 26.


entire, with a menace of excommunication, should
he refuse. This Loisy wrote again that he could
not do. It was in a letter to a friend concerning
this action that he used the phrase which has since
been often quoted among his followers as a motto:
"Catholic I have been, Catholic I remain; critic I
have been, critic I remain." This may be com-
pared with Lacordaire's last pathetic words : "I die
a penitent Catholic, but an impenitent liberal. ,,
This position which Loisy took at the beginning he
has consistently maintained to the end of his con-
flict with the Vatican. His loyalty both to his
science and his Church is shown in the following
personal appeal which he made in a reply addressed
to the Pope on the 28th of February, 1904: "I know
all the good will of your Holiness, and it is to your
heart that I address myself to-day. I would live
and die in the communion of the Catholic Church.
I do not wish to contribute to the ruin of the Catholic
faith in my country.

"It is not in my power to destroy in myself the
result of my labors.

"So far as in me lies, I submit myself to the judg-
ment pronounced against my writings by the Con-
gregation of the Holy Office.

"In evidence of my good will and for the pacifica-
tion of spirits, I am ready to give up my course of


instruction in Paris, and likewise I will suspend the
scientific publications which 1 have in preparation."

The Pope replied that "whatever of good there
was in the letter was nullified by the phrase: "It is
not in my power to destroy in myself the result of
my labors." Pius X insisted on an absolute retrac-
tion, and said: "Certainly one not merely demands
of him to write no more, but to write to defend the
tradition, conforming to the word of St. Clovis:
'Adore that which you have burned, and burn that
which you have adored.' " *

Loisy's outward submission to the decree of au-
thority was not enough for the Vatican. The rest
of the story is quickly told. It was demanded of him
that he should condemn without reservation all and
each of the propositions condemned in the recent
deliverances of the Pope — all which the Pope had
condemned as Modernism; and he was "to refrain
from publishing in the future any article or writing
like those which had already become the objects of
Papal reprobation. " The Roman Cardinal, in com-
municating this ultimatum, graciously offered this
prayer for the great French scholar: "May God will
that M. Loisy conform to this last appeal of grace,
and that he may care for his soul, so that the Holy
Father may not be obliged to take the necessary
1 Quelques Lettres, pp. 35-6.


measures for relieving the scandal which is caused
by his remaining in the Church/' Upon Loisy' s
reply that the submission demanded of him would
not be "a meritorious sacrifice," but that it would be
an act "devoid of sense, and contrary to all moral-
ity," the Archbishop of Paris put under the ban also
his last published books in reply to the Syllabus and

Loisy' s final reply was characterized by a simple
dignity; after referring to what he had previously
written as a sufficient answer, he said: "It is im-
possible for me to make honestly, with sincerity, the
act of retraction and of absolute submission which
the Sovereign Pontiff requires." 1 Then the curtain
fell upon this religious tragedy; Loisy remains with-
out the Church, but with a large company of friends
and readers within the Church who are "Catholics
and critics still."

Although as an historical student and Catholic
teacher Loisy has had but a single aim, events have
thus brought him into prominence as a representative
leader in the midst of many of the pressing problems
of modern religious life. A simple priest, quietly
pursuing a favorite line of study, he has found him-
self put by the force of circumstances at the very
focus of modern religious thought. We need, there-
^ee documents, Jan -March, 1908. Ibid., pp. 254; 286/.


fore, to survey Loisy's work from several different
points of view, if we would gain a fair and full esti-
mate of the man and his influence.

First of all, he is to be viewed as an historian and
biblical critic. In one of his letters Loisy has him-
self happily expressed his conception of the task of
biblical criticism and the qualifications needed for
it. He speaks of it as something infinitely more
complex and delicate than the theologians of the
Vatican, according to their scholastic methods, rep-
resent it to be. He says: "Historical criticism is
an experience, not a deduction. It is to comprehend
it the wrong way to present its general results as
the principles of its special conclusions." *

This reveals both the strength and the weakness,
the virtue and the temptation, of the higher criticism ;
and Loisy shares with many others these qualities.
It is true, indeed, that the method of criticism is not
merely deduction; that from experience is to be
gained the facility of true insight and the poise of
assured judgment. Only through laborious studies,
and as a result of much patient familiarity with the
diversified and perplexing facts of the origins of
religious beliefs and Scriptures, can a reasonable
critical capacity and authority be acquired. But
herein lies also the peril of it. It is the tendency of
l Ibid., p. 236.


the critic to do exactly what Loisy says he should
not do, to use his own method reversely, to allow,
sometimes unconsciously, certain general conclu-
sions at which he has arrived, to determine his judg-
ment in relation to special critical questions. If,
for example, he has formed a certain theory of the
supernatural, that preconception may constitute a
mental bias in his consideration of a narrative of a
miracle. Even although without such prejudgment
he might regard the evidences for it as imperfect,
the bias of his theory may lead him to discover ex-
planations of this or that feature of the narrative
which otherwise and by the ordinary reader could
not be suspected. Hence it happens that the critic
may become over-confident and miss the real sig-
nificance of his historical material. Indeed, some
biblical critics seem to have constructed for them-
selves a favorite guide mark, and then have taken it
along with them, as a man once lost in the woods
took a signboard from the roadside with him, and
at every subsequent cross-path turned as it read.
The uncritical reader may be lacking in sagacity to
observe the signs of reality in history, but he will
often wonder how so large a conclusion can be drawn
so confidently from so small a text. Moreover, the
higher criticism must recognize the necessity of
leaving sufficient historical ground in early Christian


history to render intelligible the whole subsequent
development of the Christian faith. The roots in
history of the Christian faith must have been firm
and broad enough to bear the full growth of its
Scriptures and its life in the age after the apostles.
A critical theory of the New Testament times may
be suspected, if it seems to render the growth of
Christianity top-heavy.

This peril of over-confident judgment is one into
which an eager and free pursuit of a new method of
investigation may naturally fall; and the second
thought of the Higher Criticism has in many in-
stances been more sober and restrained than its
first. If Loisy has gone farther in the way of de-
structive criticism than many other untrammelled
scholars can follow, it should be remembered that he
never has asserted the infallibility of any of his
critical judgments. If he has been disposed to deny
the historical value of visible evidences of any super-
naturalness in the life and the resurrection of Jesus,
it should be remembered that, nevertheless, amid his
critical negations he has not lost his own faith in the
living Christ. It may be difficult to understand how
he sacrifices so much of the outward supernatural-
ness in the Gospel narratives, and yet retains so much
of the inner divineness of the life of Christ; but the
fact that he does so is not lightly to be brushed aside


as a logical inconsistency by one who would under-
stand how the Christ of history may draw all men
of this modern world unto himself.

This volume will help us follow Loisy from his
critical analysis of the Gospels into his Catholic faith;
for while this book in its opening chapters is based
on the results of his critical studies, it is, throughout,
positive and constructive, and hence it is of value as
a corrective of what Loisy regards as the tendency
of Protestant theology to empty Christianity of its
historical content and vitality.

We have next then to consider Loisy as a believer.

The chapters on dogma in this volume indicate
the way in which he has arrived at a point of view
from which he looks down on the course of religious
history as a critic, and also can look up to the
heavens into which the Christ has ascended with the
adoration of a believer.

A key to Loisy' s whole method of belief is fur-
nished by a simple definition of faith which he gives
quite incidentally in a passage concerning the idea
of the Messiah. He speaks of that idea as "ad-
dressed to faith, that is to say, to the man, judging
with all his soul the worth of the religious doctrine
presented to him." l Whether we accept or not his
opinions as a biblical critic, we may thank Loisy
'P. 50.


for this conception of faith. And we must take it
with us, if we would understand how he can dis-
tinguish, as he does, between the results reached by
the historian and the beliefs gained by the man who
will know the real values of the life and teaching of

Together with this great conception of faith an-
other principle of essential moment in Loisy's belief
is brought out with repeated emphasis in this answer
to Harnack; it is his insistence, against what he re-
gards as a Protestant rationalism, that the Catholic
development of doctrine has proceeded with vital
necessity from the Gospel, and that the whole de-
velopment of Christian belief "is not outside the
faith, but within the faith." Hence he regards the
doctrines of the Church as true, though imperfect,
interpretations and symbols of the preaching and
life of Jesus — doctrines of Christian faith which are
perfectible, and which are capable of still further
adaptation to man's knowledge and thought. They
have their root in the ministry of Jesus, and their
continued vitality in Christian experience. The last
summit of doctrine has not been reached. 1 "Every-
thing," he says, "by which the Gospel continues to
live is Christian."

Several passages in Loisy's published letters throw
»P. 210.


further light over his beliefs and the processes
through which he has reached them.

In answer to an inquiry from one of his corre-
spondents, he has stated in words of clear simplicity
his view of the fundamental religious question of our
times, and the reason also for his primary religious
conviction: "The question which lies at the bottom
of the religious problem of the time is not whether
the Pope is infallible, or whether there are errors in
the Bible, or whether Christ is God, or whether there
is a revelation — all obsolete problems, or which have
changed their meaning, and depend upon the one
great problem; but the question is to know whether
the universe is inert, empty, deaf, without soul, with-
out heart; if the conscience of man is without echo
more real and more true than itself. Yes or no,

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Online LibraryAlfred Firmin LoisyThe gospel and the church → online text (page 1 of 16)