Alfred Loisy and Modern Biblical Studies

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Jeffrey L. Morrow
  • Washington, DC: 
    Catholic University of America Press
    , December
     248 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Continuing a trend of incisive political analysis of modern theology and church history, Jeffrey L. Morrow has accomplished an important task by providing a brief yet detailed account of the origins and context of a hotly debated topic in 20th-century theology: the historical-critical method. Despite its near ubiquity in contemporary theological education, the historical-critical method remains embedded within an elusive web of competing tendencies and ambitions: earnest scholarship, virulent partisan religious politics, and honest attempts at reconciling biblical faith with the facts of religious history. Alfred Loisy and Modern Biblical Studies fills an important academic niche by describing the role of biblical scholarship in the modernist crisis. Morrow serves systematic and fundamental theologians by providing a brief, clear-sighted, and, most importantly, unbiased assessment of the theological and cultural landscape of critical historicism and shows “how such intellectual currents entered the modern Catholic world” (36).

With Paris being “the geographical origin of the tradition of German oriental studies” (37), Morrow shows how this new historiography owes much to its French heritage. Since Parisian scholars played a leading role in deciphering the major languages of biblical antiquity—Mesopotamian cuneiform or Akkadian, Egyptian hieroglyphs, and the crucial intermediary language of Persian—this Parisian milieu fostered an atmosphere of advanced philological study, probing literary analysis, and subsequent creative reconstructions of religious history through biblical criticism.

Alfred Loisy (1857–1940) came up in the heart of this theological environment, having a pedigree on both sides of the secular and religious divide: a faithful young Catholic ordained as a priest and educated at the Institut catholique de Paris and the Sulpician seminary, whose religious climate he ultimately found “deeply unsatisfying” (58). His dissatisfaction with his seminary education pushed him to move towards a secular academic environment at the École pratique des hautes études and to follow the courses of Ernest Renan on biblical criticism at the Collège de France—though even these he found wanting as Renan disregarded a close study of the Akkadian language (59). The education under Renan pushed Loisy to learn Assyriology and master the ancient Mesopotamian cuneiform of Akkadian, a fateful turn as “his work in Assyriology was fundamental for his biblical studies, which was at the heart of his program that was censured as modernist” (50).

Morrow discusses Loisy’s research into Babylonian texts such as the Enuma Elish and the Epic of Gilgamesh. Both texts appear to contain source material for the creation account in the book of Genesis, where, as Morrow quotes Loisy’s Les Mythes Chaldeans (Amiens: Rousseau-Leroy, 1892): “The tohu-bohu of Genesis, ‘the void and formlessness,’ is nothing other than Apsu of the Chaldeans, and the mass of water that moves in the void and is mixed with it is Tiamat” (85). Morrow shows how the Akkadian Epic of Gilgamesh and Epic of Atrahasis both provide apparent source materials for the Genesis narrative of Noah and the flood, as these texts contain literary content that parallels the form and style of the biblical text—though being of much greater antiquity.

This research led Loisy to posit that the composition of the Bible occurred through a long period of “assimilation and transformation,” in which these legends and myths were passed down “through intermediary cultures” (87). These insights into the composition of the biblical texts would coalesce into a rich field of critical study, encompassing source, form, and redaction criticism—all becoming common place in later biblical scholarship with such historical models as the documentary hypothesis. While Loisy conducted his research hand in hand with the more notable German scholars, such as Hermann Gunkel and Julius Wellhausen, Loisy was more robust in his approach as he “was one of the few biblical scholars at that time who employed both a comparative ancient Near Eastern studies approach as well as the more literary historical critical approach to biblical exegesis” (159).

It is fitting that this book both begins and ends with a meditation upon the impact such critical biblical scholarship has had upon Catholic theology and the ecclesiastic policies developed to govern such research. Morrow brings out this influence in the context of the so-called modernist crisis, where the Catholic church came to define the opaque term “modernism” as the “synthesis of all heresies.” Through the papacy of St. Pius X (1835–1914), these sorts of ecclesial pronouncements became commonplace, reaching a fever-pitch with the encyclical Pascendi Dominici Gregis (1907). This open hostility against “modernism” was on clear display, as Morrow explains, with a relatively clear list of condemnations: “agnosticism, defined as the view which limits reason to sensible reality; immanence, wherein religious knowledge is sought in an individual’s subjectivity and faith is identified as a sentiment; a view of religion . . . as the result of a natural historical process of development . . . ; dogmas understood as symbols, ‘inadequate expressions’ of the object of faith” (17).

This climate of anxiety was a major stumbling block to advances in both theology and historical research and seemed to put the whole effort of modern philosophy on trial. This draconian intellectual position, manifested in a kind of mandate, led to “antimodernist Witch Hunts” where bishops, theologians and even lay people were rallied together, setting in motion “a juridical infrastructure intended systematically to eradicate modernism from the Catholic church” (24). Alfred Loisy was one victim of this campaign: he was excommunicated in 1908.

This is a commendable book, as it draws light upon the personal trials of an overlooked figure, who while suffering from the fear of modernism in the Church nevertheless thrived as the prestigious Chair of History of Religions at the Collège de France from 1909 to 1931 and published nearly forty books until his death (160). Morrow presents a useful text for students of systematic and fundamental theology, provides a comprehensive bibliography and basic introduction to the key figures and ideas, and carefully outlines the general picture of biblical scholarship leading up to the modernist crisis, a defining moment in recent church history.

About the Reviewer(s): 

William L. Connelly is a doctoral student at the Institut Catholique de Paris.

Date of Review: 
August 28, 2020
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Jeffrey L. Morrow is Chair of the Department of Undergraduate Theology at Seton Hall University.


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