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ALFRED FIRIIIIN LOISY (1857– )

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Originally appearing in Volume V16, Page 928 of the 1911 Encyclopedia Britannica.
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ALFRED FIRIIIIN LOISY (1857– ), French Catholic theologian, was born at Ambrieres in French Lorraine of parents who, descended from a long line of resident peasantry, tilled there the soil themselves. The physically delicate boy was put into the ecclesiastical school of St Dizier, without any intention of a clerical career; but he decided for the priesthood, and in 1874 entered the Grand Seminaire of Chalons-sur-Marne. Mgr Meignan, then bishop of Chalons, afterwards cardinal and arch-bishop of Tours, ordained him priest in 1879. After being cure successively of two villages in that diocese, Loisy went in May 1881, to study and take a theological degree, to the Institut. Catholique in Paris. Here he was influenced, as to biblical languages and textual criticism, by the learned and loyal-minded Abbe Paulin Martin, and as to a vivid consciousness of the true nature, gravity and urgency of the biblical problems and an Attic sense of form by the historical intuition and the mordant irony of Abbe Louis Duchesne. At the governmental institutions, Professors Oppert and Halevy helped further to train him. He took his theological degree in March 1890, by the oral defence of forty Latin scholastic theses and by a French dissertation, Histoire du canon de l'ancien testament, published as his first book in that year. Professor now at the Institut Catholique, he published successively his lectures: Histoire du canon du N.T. (1891); Histoire critique du texte et des versions de la Bible (1892); and Les Evangiles synoptiques (1893, 1894). The two latter works appeared successively in the bi-monthly L'Enseignement biblique, a periodical written throughout and published by himself. But already, on the occasion of the death of Ernest Renan, October 1892, the attempts made to clear up the main principles and results of biblical science, first by Mgr d'Hulst, rector of the Institut Catholique, in his article " La Question biblique " (Le Correspondant, Jan. 25th, 1893), and then by Loisy himself, in his paper "La Question biblique et l'inspiration des Ecritures" (L'Enseignement biblique,Nov.–Dec. 1893), promptly led to serious trouble. The latter article was immediately followed by Loisy's dismissal, without further explanation, from the Institut Catholique. And a few days later Pope Leo XIII. published his encyclical Providentissimus Deus, which indeed directly condemned not Abbe Loisy's but Mgr d'Hulst's position, yet rendered the continued publication of consistently critical work so difficult that Loisy himself suppressed his Enseignement at the end of 1893. Five further instalments of his Synoptiques were published after this, bringing the work down to the Confession of Peter inclusively. Loisy next became chaplain to a Dominican convent and girls' school at Neuilly-sur-Seine (Oct. 1894-Oct. 1899), and here ma -ired his apologetic method, resuming in 1898 the publication 01 longer articles, under the pseudonyms of Despres and Firmin in the Revue du clerge francais, and of Jacques Simon in the lay Revue d'histoire et de litterature religieuscs. In the former review, a striking paper upon development of doctrine (Dec. 1st, 1898) headed a series of studies apparently taken from an already extant large apologetic work. In October 1899 he resigned his chaplaincy for reasons of health, and settled at Bellevue, some-what farther away from Paris. His notable paper, " La Religion d'Israel " (Revue du clerge francais, Oct. 15th, 1900), the first of a series intended to correct and replace Renan's presentation of that great subject, was promptly censured by Cardinal Richard, archbishop of Paris; and though scholarly and zealous ecclesiastics, such as the Jesuit Pere Durand and Monseigneur Mignot, archbishop of Albi, defended the general method and several conclusions of the article, the aged cardinal never rested henceforward till he had secured a papal condemnation also. At the end of 'goo Loisy secured a government lectureship at the Ecole des Hautes Etudes Pratiques, and delivered there in succession courses on the Babylonian myths and the first chapters of Genesis; the Gospel parables; the narrative of the ministry in the synoptic Gospels; and the Passion narratives in the same. The first course was published in the Revue d'histoire et de litlerature religieuses; and here also appeared instalments of his commentary on St John's Gospel, his critically important Notes sur la Genese, and a Chronique biblique unmatched in its mastery of its numberless subjects and its fearless yet delicate penetration. It was, however, two less erudite little books that brought him a European literary reputation and the culmination of his ecclesiastical troubles. L'Evangile el l'eglise appeared in November 1902 (Eng. trans., 1903). Its introduction and six chapters present with rare lucidity the earliest conceptions of the Kingdom of Heaven, the Son of God, the Church, Christian dogma and Catholic worship; and together form a severely critico-historical yet strongly Catholic answer to Harnack's still largely pietistic Wesen des Christentums. It develops throughout the principles that " what is essential in Jesus' Gospel is what occupies the first and largest place in His authentic teaching, the ideas for which He fought and died, and not only that idea which we may consider to be still a living force to-day "; that " it is supremely arbitrary to decree that Christianity must be essentially what the Gospel did not borrow from Judaism, as though what the Gospel owes to Judaism were necessarily of secondary worth "; that " whether we trust or distrust tradition, we know Christ only by means of, athwart and within the Christian tradition "; that " the essence of Christianity resides in the fulness and totality of its life "; and that " the adaptation of the Gospel to the changing conditions of humanity is to-day a more pressing need than ever." The second edition was enlarged by a preliminary chapter on the sources of the Gospels, and by a third section for the Son of God chapter. The little book promptly aroused widespread interest, some cordial sympathy and much vehement opposition; whilst its large companion the Etudes eve'zgeliques, containing the course on the parables and four sections of his coming commentary on the Fourth Gospel, passed almost unnoticed. On the 21st of January 1903 Cardinal Richard publicly condemned the book, as not furnished with an imprimatur, and as calculated gravely to trouble the faith of the faithful in the fundamental Catholic dogmas. On the 2nd of February Loisy wrote to the archbishop: " I condemn, as a matter of course, all the errors which men have been able to deduce from my book, by placing themselves in interpreting it at a point of view entirely different from that which I had to occupy in composing it." The pope refused to interfere directly, and the nuncio, Mgr Lorenzelli, failed in securing more than ten public adhesions to the cardinal's condemnation from among the eighty bishops of France. Pope Leo had indeed, in a letter to the Franciscan minister-general (November 1898), and in an encyclical to the French clergy (September 1899), vigorously emphasized the traditionalist principles of his encyclical Providentissimus of 1893; he had even, much to his prompt regret, signed the unfortunate decree of the Roman Inquisition, January 1897, prohibiting all doubt as to the authenticity of the " Three Heavenly Witnesses " passage, r John v. 7, a text which, in the wake of a line of scholars from Erasmus downwards, Abbe Paulin Martin had, in 1887, exhaustively shown to be no older than the end of the 4th century A.D. Yet in October 1902 he established a " Commission for the Progress of Biblical Studies," preponderantly composed of seriously critical scholars; and even one month before his death he still refused to sign a condemnation of Loisy's Etudes evangeliques. Cardinal Sarto became Pope Pius X. on the 4th of August 1903. On the 1st of October Loisy published three new books, Autour d'un petit livre, Le Quatrieme Evangile and Le Discours sur la Montagne. Autour consists of seven letters, on the origin and aim of L'Evangile et l'Eglise; on the biblical question; the criticism of the Gospels; the Divinity of Christ; the Church's foundation and authority; the origin and authority of dogma, and on the institution of the sacraments. The second and third, addressed respectively to a cardinal (Perraud) and a bishop (Le Camus), are polemical or ironical in tone; the others are all written to friends in a warm, expansive mood; the fourth letter especially, appropriated to Mgr Mignot, attains a grand elevation of thought and depth of mystical conviction. Le Quatrieme Evangile, one thousand large pages long, is possibly over-confident in its detailed application of the allegorical method; yet it constitutes a rarely perfect sympathetic reproduction of a great mystical believer's imperishable intuitions. Le Discours sur la Montagne is a fragment of a coming enlarged commentary on the synoptic Gospels. On the 23rd of December the pope ordered the publication of a decree of the Congregation of the Index, incorporating a decree of the Inquisition, condemning Loisy's Religion d'Israel, L'Evangile el l'Eglise,Etudes evangeliques, Autour d'un petit livre and Lc Quatrieme Evangile. The pope's secretary of state had on the 19th December, in a letter to Cardinal Richard, recounted the causes of the condemnation in the identical terms used by the latter himself when condemning the Religion d'Israel three years before. On the 12th of January 1904 Loisy wrote to Cardinal Merry del Val that he receivedthe condemnation with respect, and condemned whatever might be reprehensible in his books, whilst reserving the rights of his conscience and his opinions as an historian, opinions doubtless imperfect, as no one was more ready to admit than himself, but which were the only form under which he was able to represent to himself the history of the Bible and of religion. Since the Holy See was not satisfied, Loisy sent three further declarations to Rome; the last, despatched on the 17th of March, was addressed to the, pope himself, and remained unanswered. And at the end of March Loisy gave up his lectureship, as he declared, " on his own initiative, in view of the pacification of minds in the Catholic Church." In the July following he moved into a little house, built for him by his pupil and friend, the Assyriologist Francois Thureau Dangin, within time latter's park at Garnay, by Dreux. Here he continued his important reviews, notably in the Revue d'histoire et de lilterature religieuses, and published Morceaux d'exegese (1906), six further sections of his synoptic commentary. In April 1907 he returned to his native Lorraine, to Ceffonds by Montier-en-Der, and to his relatives there. Five recent Roman decisions are doubtless aimed primarily at Loisy's teaching. The Biblical Commission, soon enlarged so as to swamp the original critical members, and which had become the simple mouthpiece of its presiding cardinals, issued two decrees. The first, on the 27th of June 1906, affirmed, with some significant but unworkable reservations, the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch; and the second (29th of May 1907) strenuously maintained the Apostolic Zebedean author-ship of the fourth Gospel, and the strictly historical character of the events and speeches recorded therein. The Inquisition, by its decree Lamentabili sane (2nd of July 1907), condemned sixty-five propositions concerning the Church's magisterium; biblical inspiration and interpretation; the synoptic and fourth Gospels; revelation and dogma; Christ's divinity, human knowledge and resurrection; and the historical origin and growth of the Sacraments, the Church and the Creed. And some forty of these propositions represent, more or less accurately, certain sentences or ideas of Loisy, when torn from their context and their reasons. The encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (Sept. 6th, 1907), probably the longest and most argumentative papal utterance extant, also aims primarily at Loisy, although here the vehemently scholastic redactor's determination to piece together a strictly coherent, complete a priori system of " Modernism " and his self-imposed restriction to medieval categories of thought as the vehicles for describing essentially modern discoveries and requirements of mind, make the identification of precise authors and passages very difficult. And on the 21st of November 1907 a papal motu proprio declared all the decisions of the Biblical Commission, past and future, to be as binding upon the conscience as decrees of the Roman Congregations. Yet even all this did not deter Loisy from publishing three further books. Les Evangiles synoptiques, two large 8vo volumes of 1009 and 798 pages, appeared " chez 1'auteur, a Ceffonds, Montieren-Der, Haute-Marne," in January 1908. An incisive introduction discusses the ecclesiastical tradition, modern criticism; the second, the first and the third Gospels; the evangelical tradition; the career and the teaching of Jesus; and the literary form, the tradition of the text and the previous commentaries. The commentary gives also a careful translation of the texts. Loisy recognizes two eye-witness documents, as utilized by all three synoptists, while Matthew and Luke have also incorporated Mark. His chief peculiarity consists in clearly tracing a strong Pauline influence, especially in Mark, which there remodels certain sayings and actions as these were first registered by the eye-witness documents. These doctrinal interpretations intro-duce the economy of blinding the Jews into the parabolic teaching; the declaration as to the redemptive character of the Passion into the sayings; the sacramental, institutional words into the account of the Last Supper, originally, a solemnly simple Messianic meal; and the formal night-trial before Caiaphas into the original Passion-story with its informal, morning decision by Caiaphas, and its one solemn condemnation of Jesus, by Pilate. Mark's narratives of the sepulture by Joseph of Arimathea and of the empty tomb are taken as posterior to St Paul; the narratives of the infancy in Matthew and Luke as later still. Yet the great bulk of the sayings remain substantially authentic; if the historicity of certain words and acts is here refused with unusual assurance, that of other sayings and deeds is established with stronger proofs; and the redemptive conception of the Passion and the sacramental interpretation of the Last Supper are found to spring up promptly and legitimately from our Lord's work and words, to saturate the Pauline and Johannine writings, and even to constitute an element of all three synoptic Gospels. Simpler Reflexions sur le decret Lamentabili et sur l'encyclique Pascendi, I2mo, 277 pages, was published from Ceffonds a few days after the commentary. Each proposition of the decree is carefully tracked to its probable source, and is often found to modify the latter's meaning. And the study of the encyclical concludes: " Time is the great teacher . . . we would do wrong to despair either of our civilization or of the Church." The Church authorities were this time not slow to act. On the 14th of February Mgr Amette, the new archbishop of Paris, prohibited his diocesans to read or defend the two books, which " attack and deny several fundamental dogmas of Christianity," under pain of excommunication. The abbe again declared " it is impossible for me honestly and sincerely to make the act of absolute retractation and submission exacted by the sovereign pontiff." And the Holy Office, on the 7th of March, pronounced the major excommunication against him. At the end of March Loisy published Quelques Lettres (December 1903–February 1908), which conclude: "At bottom I have remained in my last writings on the same line as in the earlier ones. I have aimed at establishing principally the historical position of the various questions, and secondarily the necessity for reforming more or less the traditional concepts." Three chief causes appear jointly to have produced M. Loisy's very absolute condemnation. Any frank recognition of the abbe's even general principles involves the abandonment of the identification of theology with scholasticism or even with specifically ancient thought in general. The abbe's central position, that our Lord himself held the proximateness of His second coming, involves the loss by churchmen of the prestige of directly divine power, since Church and Sacraments, though still the true fruits and vehicles of his life, death and spirit, cannot thus be immediately founded by the .earthly Jesus him-self. And the Church policy, as old as the times of Constantine, to crush utterly the man who brings more problems and pressure than the bulk of traditional Christians can, at the time, either digest or resist with a fair discrimination, seemed to the authorities the one means to save the very difficult situation.
End of Article: ALFRED FIRIIIIN LOISY (1857– )
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