French, b: 1857, Ambrières, Marne, d: 1940, Ceffonds, Haute-Marne. Cat: Philosopher of religion; Biblical critic and historian. Educ: The seminary in Châlons-sur-Marne and the Institut Catholique de Paris. Infls: Ernest Renan and Louis Duchesne. Appts:Ordained priest in 1879; 1881–9, Professor of Hebrew, 1890–3, Professor of Scripture, Institut Catholique; 1900–04, Lecturer, Ecole Pratique des Hautes Etudes; 1909–30, Professor of the History of Religions, Collège de France.
Catholic modernism, of which Alfred Loisy was a leading French exponent, applied to the study of the Bible the critical historical methods which had been developed primarily in Germany during the nineteenth century.
Despite Loisy’s official disclaimer that he was ‘only a poor decipherer of texts’ (quoted in Daly 1980, p. 54), his initial preoccupation with the critical study of the Bible, and in particular of the four Gospels, led to his conviction that there was a need to revise the traditional teachings of the Roman Catholic Church, and this in turn resulted in the development of his philosophy of religion.
Loisy’s view, as propounded primarily in L’Évangile et l’Église (1902), was that the contingent truths about the Jesus of history should be regarded as completely separate from those held by the Christian community about the Christ of faith. In his later work La Naissance du christianisme (1933), Loisy returned to these views in his specification that the only historical truths about Jesus were that Jesus was a prophet of Galilee in the first century AD and that he was crucified during the governorship of Pontius Pilate. The remainder of the Gospel accounts, and any later additions to the Christian message, were to be assigned to the realm of myth and symbolism.
In repudiating historical truths as a basis for Christianity he delivered a devastating criticism of the conclusions of the German Protestant theologian Harnack, who had maintained both the desirability and the possibility of cutting through the dogmatic accretions of centuries in order to recover the authentic and historical revelation of God in Jesus Christ.
Although Loisy’s attack on a major Protestant theologian did not on its own account alarm the Catholic authorities, this was not the case with his positive contribution to the philosophy of religion. As a continuation of his view that the Christian message was to be regarded as mythical or symbolic, he maintained that the teachings of neither the Catholic church, nor any other movement within Christianity, embodied the full and absolute essence of the truths of faith. Far from being static, these truths were in continuous flux and development, and found their expression in the life of the Christian community as guided by the Holy Spirit.
These views aroused considerable controversy, and Loisy’s own account of the dispute was published in 1903 in Autour d’un petit livre. The rift between Loisy and the Catholic Church widened over the next five years: five of his books were placed on the Index, and in 1908 he himself was excommunicated by Pope Pius X. From 1910 an anti-modernist oath was required of all clerical ordinands.
The implications of Loisy’s position on truth were made explicit in Autour d’un petit livre, where he stated: ‘truth is in us something necessarily conditioned, relative. Truth does not enter our heads ready-made; it comes about slowly, and one can never say that it is complete…[it] is no more immutable than man himself. It evolves with him, in him, by him’ (pp. 191–2).
Loisy stressed the crucial and creative role of the Christian community. The vitality of the community enabled it to gain a better, but never a complete, understanding of the myths and symbols of Christianity. He saw a tension between critical historical methodology and the traditional doctrines of the Catholic Church, and his refusal to relinquish humanity’s ongoing quest for understanding led him to reject the doctrines as a body of absolute and fixed truth.