Frantz Brentano: The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance

Elodie Boublil

The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance. With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine' Book Cover The Teaching of Jesus and Its Enduring Significance. With an Appendix: 'A Brief Description of the Christian Doctrine'
Primary Sources in Phenomenology
Frantz Brentano. Translated by Richard Schaefer
Springer Cham
eBook 58.84 €
VIII, 122

Reviewed by: Elodie Boublil, Ph.D. (University of Paris XII; Alexander von Humboldt Fellow (2018-2020)

The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance brings together a set of texts written by Frantz Brentano at the end of his life and deals with the Christian doctrine of Revelation, the relationship between faith and reason, the teaching of Jesus reported in the Gospels, and the authority of the Church, as an institution, to define Catholic dogmas. This volume represents a valuable historical, biographical, and philosophical document that allows us to contextualize the genesis of Brentano’s reflection on natural knowledge and the limits of human understanding, and better understand the roots of his rejection of dogmatic theology.

Indeed, these texts reveal how much Brentano was affected by his tumultuous relationship with the Roman Catholic Church as he suffered exclusion and critiques in the aftermath of his opposition to the First Vatican Council. Brentano decided to leave the priesthood in 1873 and then the Church in 1879 because of an existential and spiritual crisis that, until the end of his life, left traces evidenced by this volume.

In his preface, Brentano explained and complained: “in spite of many subsequent attacks from those on the side of the Church, I determined never to act in an aggressive way, and even took pains to encourage a certain respect for the Church, that I myself still cherished, in the hearts of others. But I nevertheless would like to see other youthful souls, who are motivated by the highest aspirations, spared the difficult inner struggles that I suffered through.” Following a rationalist perspective, Brentano aims here to prove that the faith proclaimed by the Revelation and formulated by the Catholic Church does not meet the criteria of rational and objective knowledge. Brentano, a defender of natural theology, sees dogmatic theology as an illegitimate and invalid doctrine incompatible with the latter.

The rupture between Brentano and the Catholic Church followed the proclamation in 1871 of the dogma of papal infallibility on the occasion of the First Vatican Council. Brentano was involved in the discussions as Alfred Kastil’s introduction recalls: “Bishop Ketteler (…) before the opening of the Vatican Council, as the conflict over infallibility, began to surge, commissioned the young theologian Brentano, whose thorough knowledge of Dogmatics and Church history he so valued, to draft a memorandum on the contentious subject.” Brentano joined the leaders of the schismatic current of the “Old Catholics” in elaborating counterarguments to this dogma.

According to Brentano, the affirmation of papal infallibility would represent an abuse of power by the ecclesiastical authorities and an obstacle to intellectual freedom. As I will indicate later, such a statement reflects neither the spirit nor the letter of the texts promulgated by the First Vatican Council, even if it has the merit of alerting to the temptation of clericalism and power abuses.

Brentano’s aim in The Teaching of Jesus and its Enduring Significance is therefore twofold: on the one hand, to show the moral value of the person of Jesus, his authenticity and courage, and on the other hand, to demonstrate what he considers to be inconsistencies or even contradictions in the dogmas of the Catholic Church to justify his opposition to the Council and his rejection of the dogma. We will see, though, that he tends to compensate for his rejection of absolute truth by an absolutization of rationality that may itself be problematic.

This work also helps contextualize Brentano’s rationalism by revealing his personal and philosophical relationship to the Catholic faith and his defense of natural theology. The latter is situated within a broader philosophical movement opposing Catholicism – that of the secularization of the late 19th century – as the author’s references to Nietzsche in the last pages show. His emphasis on the moral and existential exemplarity of Jesus is also striking and original in this particular context. This review begins by summarizing Brentano’s arguments before offering a short critical analysis, both from a philosophical and a theological standpoint, to match the scope of this volume.

I. Jesus, The Gospels, or The Church?

As the book’s introduction indicates, Brentano repeatedly affirms his admiration for Jesus, for the moral law proposed by the Gospels and recognizes the existence of a unique God who is infinitely good. Unlike positivist philosophers supporting historicism, Brentano does not seek to compare the historical Jesus to his presentation in the Gospels. His critique is instead directed toward the Catholic Church and what he believes to be his relation to truth through the problematic question of dogmas’ definitions. According to Brentano, any search for objective truth is the privileged and exclusive domain of philosophy and rational metaphysics based on natural knowledge. Contrary to the Christian doctrine, Brentano does not think natural knowledge is compatible with the Revelation.

Consequently, Brentano does not recognize the logical and epistemic value of “the teaching of Jesus” and even less its dogmatic elaboration by the Tradition. He claims and reaffirms in these pages his apostasy, even if he maintains his moral admiration for the person of Jesus, his courage, his authenticity, and if he retains his providential role in the history of humanity. Brentano’s criticism thus pits the person of Jesus against the Church. This is a statement or hypothesis from the author. However, even if he is a theologian by training, he does not elaborate a theological refutation of the unity between the sacramental body of Christ and the ecclesial body, as affirmed by Saint Paul in the first epistle to the Corinthians.

The first chapter focuses on the moral teaching that can be drawn from the Gospels, contemplating the life and words of Jesus. After recalling the commandments of God’s law given to Moses, Brentano looks at the morality contained in the parables of the Gospels. The author insists on the exemplarity of Christ and the authenticity of his testimony and his life, contrasting with the disciples’ attitudes: “One should look to his example. One should learn from him to be gentle and humble of heart (Matthew 11:29 [NSRV]). The commandment to love one another is transformed into a new commandment by the addition of the words: “as I have loved you” (John 13:34 [NSRV]). One must thus also follow him by taking up his cross. He is the way, the truth, and the life (John 14:6 [NSRV])” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 36).

Nevertheless, expanding on his analysis and description of Jesus’ teaching, Brentano became interested in his humanity. He criticizes Jesus’ human traits, his anger, and legitimate outbursts at the religious authorities who consistently seek to trap him, discredit him, and put him to death. However, such a way to downplay Jesus’ personality because of his humanity reveals the way Brentano conceives of God (based on an ideal of impassibility or self-mastery). It does not contradict the Christian dogma, according to which Jesus is true God and Man and therefore endowed with human affectivity. In the following pages, we see that this criticism of Brentano may result from the fact that he was somewhat favorable to Monothelitism, a doctrine rejected by the Church and according to which Christ would have had two natures (human and divine) but only one will (divine). This heresy was rejected by the Lateran Council (649) and the Ecumenical Council of Constantinople III (680-681). Unfortunately, Brentano seems to endorse Monothelitism witfhout explicitly addressing the arguments that refute it.

Brentano insists on the figurative language and parables of Jesus to distinguish faith from reason. He argues that parables are less precise than logical demonstration and, therefore, less prone to convince: “Faith exists in a disproportion between the evidence and the level of conviction. For faith exists, to a certain extent, midway between opinion and knowledge, sharing with the former the absence of secure grounds and sharing with the latter absolute conviction and the suspension of doubt. One has often run up against this, but the Church has continually reaffirmed this paradoxical, logically and morally dubious anomaly (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 39).” Such a rationalist definition immediately rules out the supernatural dimension of faith, which would find its roots in grace, and reduces it to a form of unfounded certainty. These definitions endorsed the Kantian definitions of faith, opinion, and knowledge, proposed in the Critique of Pure Reason and the Critique of Practical Reason. God and the soul, in these contexts, are practical ideas of reason whose application should be limited to the field of morality. According to Brentano, the truth can only have a logical and epistemic value. Thus, if Christ has a moral value of exemplarity, one cannot, according to Brentano, rely on his words to found and legitimate dogmas: “Jesus’s moral teaching does not constitute significant progress because it heralded entirely new commandments, but rather because, through his life and death, he lived them in a way that offered an incomparable example of the possibility of such sublime virtue. His sublime courage enlivened others to imitate him. This example will shine forth forever, and no prophecy is more certain as when, in this sense, one says: Jesus for all time” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 41).

In a second chapter, Brentano focuses on the content of Jesus’ teaching concerning God, the world, and his mission. According to Brentano, Christ’s humility would conflict with his words about the glory of God and his identity as the Son of God. Brentano transposes here a human and worldly conception of glory and royalty since he qualifies the reign of Christ as a “monarchy,” to consider later this description contradictory and “untenable.”

Brentano’s approach to theology is based on the theology of substitution (supersessionism), which will be refuted by the Church in the 20th century, notably by the declaration Nostra Aetate and the constitutions of the Second Vatican Council (1965). In other words, Brentano’s reading manifests a theological and cultural bias that is entirely incompatible with his claim for an objective knowledge that would be deprived of any form of dogmatism. Moreover, on other occasions, Brentano provides explanations that result from several anti-Semitic prejudices.

II. Brentano’s Epistemology and the Absolutization of Natural Theology

In a third chapter, Brentano examines Blaise Pascal’s ideas and his apologetics of the Christian faith. However, as the volume editor explains, “his terse manner of formulating Pascal’s view is too much geared towards setting up his criticisms to be taken as a comprehensive introduction to, or interpretation of, Pascal’s text.” Brentano believes that Pascal’s argument about the original sin as the source of evil and suffering is irrational and unconvincing. He claims another explanation for the fallibility of human freedom could have been put forward without necessarily resorting to a theological argument. A strictly Aristotelian approach centered on acquiring virtues and analyzing incontinence would have been sufficient in line with his strictly human interpretation of Jesus’ moral perfection. Brentano advocates for self-control that could be acquired without the help of grace.

Brentano criticizes Pascal for not tolerating theological and philosophical criticism and for not subjecting Christian dogmas to rationalist scrutiny: “instead of attempting to bring these doctrines into harmony with reason, Pascal hurls the crassest insults against the presumption of a reason that seeks to evaluate whether real contradictions exist (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 58).” Brentano puts forward scientific arguments to refute creationism and reproaches Pascal for not questioning dogmatic theology’s ontological foundations. Moreover, according to Brentano, Pascal’s work is judged contradictory since Brentano opposes the Jansenist argumentation of the Provincial Letters to the later mysticism of the Thoughts.

In this chapter, Brentano examines more specifically the arguments in favor of the Church offered by Pascal in a passage of The Thoughts: the spread of Christianity in the world, the sanctification of Christians, the divine source of Scripture, the person of Jesus, the testimony of the apostles, the life of Moses and the prophets of the Old Testament, the history of the Jewish people,  the timeless continuity of the religion, the doctrine of original sin, the holiness of Church teaching, the behavior of “worldly-minded people.” To address these doctrinal points, Brentano provides historical counterexamples and rephrases the definitions. To refute prophecies, for instance, Brentano defines them as “predictions” or divinations, whereas such characterization corresponds somewhat to the activities of the “false prophets” described in the Scriptures. The authentic prophet is indeed the one who, as Paul Ricoeur says, “is that man capable of announcing to the King that his power is weak and vain;” in other words, the one who does not respond to the libido dominandi and the libido sciendi of the powerful,  but somewhat reminds them of the vanity of their overly human desires for control over people and events before the almightiness of God. In this sense, the type of divination criticized by Brentano is also undermined by St. Paul as it may contradict the virtue of hope: “For we are saved by hope: but hope that is seen is no hope at all: Who hopes for what he can already see?” (Rom, 8.24). So, paradoxically, Brentano unconsciously sided with Christian theology and the reasoning behind Pascal’s wager.

The point on which Brentano insists the most is the continuity of the Christian religion, and even more so of the unity of dogma through the centuries. According to him, the variability of the Church’s decisions and attitudes over the centuries and the disagreement between certain popes would show contradictions that would make it impossible to proclaim the dogma of papal infallibility. He criticizes the turning point made under the pontificate of Innocent III (1160-1216), during which the “vicar of Peter” was henceforth called “vicar of Christ” – and the institution of the pontifical theocracy continued and accomplished during the reign of his successor Boniface VIII (1235-1303). Indeed, according to Brentano, the condemnation for the heresy of Pope Honorius I (x- 638), who supported the monothelitic doctrine, shows, in retrospect, that a Pope can be wrong, and his teaching refuted by his successors.

According to Brentano, the affirmation of papal infallibility represents an absolutization of the power of the Church as an institution, which he does not hesitate to compare to the absolutism of Louis XIV, recalling the famous phrase of the French monarch: “I am the State.” It is important here to clarify how Brentano (mis-)understands papal infallibility. According to him, it seems that any statement uttered by a Pope would always be considered universally valid. Thus, the example of Honorius I would have shown that such an assertion would be a contradiction de jure and de facto.

Finally, taking up the example of the moral perfection and goodness of Jesus, Brentano concludes this chapter with a critique of clericalism, the Inquisition, and the political power of religious authorities by emphasizing the incoherence and violence of persecutions against intellectuals and scientists who conducted research contrary to the teaching of the Church (Giordano Bruno, Galileo, and Copernicus). He thus reaffirms – quoting the Gospels – that the command of love cannot be taught through abuses of power, violence, surveillance, calumny, and persecution. Brentano ends his reflections by comparing Jesus to Nietzsche to reaffirm better the moral superiority of Jesus due to his life’s testimony and genuine sense of compassion.


Several points must be critically assessed to contextualize Brentano’s text and examine his demonstration.

III. Faith and Reason: Best Enemies?

Brentano’s text leaves no room for the dimension of mystery when he considers the Incarnation, the Trinity, or the Redemption, and the free compliance it entails through the supernatural gift of faith, as conceived by the Christian doctrine. For the Fathers of the Church, faith is not opposed to human reason but opens it to a dimension that exceeds its finite capacities while fulfilling them. The hermeneutic circle described by Augustine between faith and reason, taken up by phenomenology and hermeneutics throughout the 20th century, defines human reason in its relationship to transcendence and its desire for the absolute. Such a conception overcomes the Kantian dichotomy, which may sound quite reductive, between belief as a subjective conviction and truth as objective certainty. The subject-object dichotomy has notably been considerably revised throughout the 20th century. Any attempt to take Brentano’s arguments for granted on the sole basis that he discredits faith as being “subjective” would have to endure and refute, as well, the critiques raised against rationalism and classical empiricism provided by critical epistemology and phenomenology.

Moreover, the First Vatican Council, which Brentano opposes, had precisely defined the respective perimeters of theology and philosophy. Far from rejecting philosophy and rational knowledge, it asserted its value in the search for truth: “There exists a twofold order of knowledge, distinct not only as regards their source, but also as regards their object. Regarding the source, we know in one by natural reason, in the other by divine faith. With regard to the object, because besides those things which natural reason can attain, there are proposed for our belief mysteries hidden in God which, unless they are divinely revealed, cannot be known” (Dei Filius, IV: DS 3015). It is not the First Vatican Council that rejected philosophy but Brentano, who philosophically rejected dogmatic theology, as a reliable way to truth. In other words, from a post-Kantian perspective, Brentano limits the scope of any possible experience to the gnoseology he developed during his philosophical career. For him, faith statements cannot have a truth value.

Brentano’s summary of Christian doctrine is based on the “God of the philosophers,” the “architect” of Malebranche and Leibniz, and not on the God of Christian Revelation defined by dogmatic theology. Consequently, Brentano’s demonstration reveals more of his philosophical option  – a kind of philosophical supersessionism – than it constitutes a viable refutation elaborated from within. From a methodological point of view, Brentano relies on deist dogmatism to refute the Christian dogma of the Trinity. Brentano’s text is instead a counter-apologetic in favor of an alternative definition of God that would make it possible to dispense with dogmas and the Roman Catholic Church, rather than an honest discussion – in the sense of a medieval disputatio – of the arguments given by the Fathers of the Church, moreover rarely cited, on the respective roles of faith and reason in these metaphysical endeavors.

Consequently, Brentano’s text is less a systematic and consistent refutation than a polemical attempt to put down the Christian doctrine. In this sense, it bears historical significance as it reveals the bellicose spirit of the late 19th century. It deserves attention to better understand the sources of division and quarrels between philosophers and theologians around the turn of the 20th century.

IV. On Papal Infallibility and the Catholic Church: Historical and Theological Discussions

One may be surprised while reading Brentano’s critique of the dogma of papal infallibility as it deliberately seems to ignore the decrees of the First Vatican Council that do not match his interpretation. Providing the historical context of the Council would have been helpful. The political history of Europe and Italy (notably the Risorgimento), as well as the history of the Church, showed that affirming the dogma of papal infallibility also responded to a need for unity in the context of growing secularism and a recurrent battle within the Church between Gallicanism and ultramontanist doctrines. Second, Brentano is wrong in implying that the declaration of papal infallibility amounts to an abusive absolutization of the power of the Pope as an individual.

The constitution states: “the Roman Pontiff, when he speaks ex-cathedra, that is, when in the discharge of the office of pastor and teacher of all Christians, by virtue of his Apostolic authority, he defines a doctrine regarding faith or morals to be held by the Universal Church is, by the divine assistance promised to him in Blessed Peter,  possessed of that infallibility with which the divine Redeemer willed that his Church should be endowed in defining doctrine regarding faith or morals; and that, therefore, such definitions of the Roman Pontiff are of themselves, and not from the consent of the Church, irreformable” (Vatican I, chap. 4, s. 9).

The declaration specifies that it applies when the Pope speaks “ex-cathedra” and that it concerns dogmatic definitions in matters of faith and morals. These definitions are not meant to be new definitions that would be completely independent of the Magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church, as the content of the doctrine is believed to have been revealed once and for all by God in the Scriptures and forever complete. In other words, papal infallibility means that dogmatic definitions (such as the dogma of the Assomption in 1950) proclaimed by the Pope ex-cathedra necessarily match the deposit of faith. It also affirms the supernatural and spiritual vocation of the Pope – that exceeds his individual nature – in the sense that the Pope is not meant to be the representative of the Bishops, as in a political party, but rather the “Servant of the servants of God” as other texts will recall (Ecclesiam Suam, 114). Considering this vocation, one should understand the dogma of papal infallibility from the Christian perspective, and not by projecting a strictly secular point of view onto it, as if some rational perfections were granted to a single individual because he would have institutional power. Such a standpoint would contradict Jesus, who declared, “If anyone wants to be first, he must be the last of all and the servant of all” (Mark 9, 35). Ex-cathedra then means endowed with the Holy Spirit, in the spirit of Peter, who learned how to let himself “be led by someone else where he does not want to go” (John 21:18), precisely giving up on his own subjective will to obey God rather than men (Acts 5, 29), in other words, to obey the command of love and unity, rather than the lust for power and reputation.

When the constitution states that whoever denies the definitions proclaimed by the Pope ex-cathedra should be declared “anathema,” it only means “separated from Christ” (Rom 9, 3), as Catholics believe that the Church is the body of Christ, and the Pope, the vicar of Christ. This means that if someone refutes this doctrine (for instance, Brentano), he has the absolute right and freedom to endorse another doctrine of faith or none of them, but he is not legitimate in trying to change the deposit of faith of the Catholic doctrine according to his subjective, personal views and to present them as theologically valid for the people.

So, Brentano’s theological position conflated two aspects: a political one and a theological one. One shall necessarily agree with Brentano’s critique of power abuses and the extreme violence committed against those who raised questions or asserted different points of view. However, papal infallibility is not meant to lead to a one-sided homogenization or some ideological arbitrariness but rather to affirm the believers’ capacity through grace to trust in the Pope and the Church so that there will not be “in the Church as many schisms as they are priests” (St. Jerome; Paul VI, Ecclesiam suam, 113), and unity could be preserved throughout history. It is worth noting, though, that the Catholic Church’s aggiornamento in the 20th century has encouraged dialogue with humanities and sciences to make progress in understanding the world and people.

V. Classical empiricism and positivism as appropriate methodological tools to address theological questions?

The phenomenologists of the Göttingen Circle and Edith Stein will reflect extensively on the question of the relationship between phenomenology and religion from both an epistemological and a moral point of view. According to Edith Stein, opposing these two fields should give way to a dialogue that broadens our philosophical conception of truth. In her last treatise (Finite and Eternal Being, IV, #10), entitled “an attempt at a deeper comprehension of truth (logical, transcendental, ontological truth),” Edith Stein carries an in-depth analysis of the Aristotelian and Thomistic definitions of truth to show, from a phenomenological point of view, how transcendental truth and logical truth are articulated, and subsequently how divine truth would be inherently different from any truth. According to her, philosophy would become an ideology if it presents itself as a closed-off system, restricted to logical truths or the propositions of the natural sciences: “Reason would be unreasonable if it persisted in stopping at the things it can discover by itself” (Stein). Philosophy and theology, according to Stein, are not settled: “Pure philosophy, as a science of being and being in its ultimate causes, as far as man’s natural reason can carry is, even in its most complete completion imaginable, essentially unfinished. It is certainly open to theology, and from there, it can be completed. However, theology is also not a closed or enduring doctrine. Historically, it unfolds as an appropriation and intellectual and progressive penetration of the revealed truth of the Tradition.” (Stein)

Brentano’s critique of dogmatic theology should be put into perspective with what Christian doctrine says about the dynamism and spiritual growth of the spirit while contemplating the teaching of Jesus – teaching that for Christian theology are not “logical propositions” to be understood by a few initiates, but the revelation of a personal God accessible to all. In this perspective, a phenomenological approach would instead state that God is less an “object” of investigation than the “subject” of an encounter: “phenomenology is a philosophical style that can be attentive to religious, moral, and ecological evidence without reducing that experience to the presentation of objects” (A. Steinbock.  2012. ‘Evidence in the Phenomenology of Religious Experience, The Oxford Handbook of Contemporary Phenomenology (Edited by Dan Zahavi), Oxford: Oxford University Press, pp. 590-593).

Ultimately, Brentano’s text points to the methodological differences between philosophy and theology. Acknowledging their discrepancies does not mean ruling out one another but encouraging an honest and respectful dialogue. The translation of this volume is timely in that it draws attention to the necessity to think anew about the way we conceive of faith and reason in a disoriented world where, paradoxically, blind scientific positivism confronts new forms of obscurantism and plot theories – two opposite yet similar ways to disfigure the human mind, her reason as well as her heart.

In theology as well as in philosophy, the word of Edith Stein resonates acutely: “accept nothing as love if the truth is missing, accepts nothing as truth if love is lacking.” To Brentano, Jesus is the only teacher who ever managed to fully reconcile these two dimensions of human existence and prove their significance: “If one interprets it consistently and pays close attention to its essential elements, then Jesus’s teachings have not been superseded by history. On the contrary, they have yet to be realized in their fullest sense” (The Teaching of Jesus, p. 41).

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