Brooke Foss Westcott

Brooke Foss Westcott

Today the Church commemorates Westcott. Here is a summary of some of the hihglights  of his remarkably high achieving life and ministry. His work covers many of my own interests and places of significance ( The Delhi Brotherhood, Westcott House Cambridge where I was trained and, of course, Durham).

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He was born in Birmingham. His father, Frederick Brooke Westcott, was a botanist. Westcott was educated at King Edward VI School, Birmingham, under James Prince Lee, where he became friends with Joseph Barber Lightfoot.

The period of Westcott’s childhood was one of political ferment in Birmingham and amongst his earliest recollections was one of Thomas Attwood leading a large procession of men to a meeting of the Birmingham Political Union in 1831. A few years after this Chartism led to serious disturbances in Birmingham and many years later Westcott would refer to the deep impression the experiences of that time had made upon him.

In 1844 Westcott entered Trinity College, Cambridge, where he was invited to join the Cambridge Apostles. He became a scholar in 1846,  and took  his BA degree in January 1848, obtaining double-first honours.

After obtaining his degree, Westcott remained in residence at Trinity. In 1849 he obtained his fellowship; and in the same year he was ordained deacon and priest by his old headmaster, Prince Lee  later Bishop of Manchester.

As well as studying, Westcott took pupils at Cambridge; fellow readers included his school friend Lightfoot and two other men who became his attached and lifelong friends, E.W. Benson and F.J.A. Hort. The inspiring influence of Westcott’s intense enthusiasm left its mark upon these three distinguished men; they regarded him not only as their friend and counsellor, but as in an especial degree their teacher and oracle.

He devoted much attention to philosophical, patristic and historical studies, but his main interest was in New Testament work. In 1851 he published his Norrisian prize essay with the title Elements of the Gospel Harmony.

In 1852 he became an assistant master at Harrow School, and soon afterwards he married a Miss Whithard. He succeeded in combining with his school duties an enormous amount both of theological research and of literary activity. He worked at Harrow for nearly twenty years under Dr C.J. Vaughan and Dr Montagu Butler, but he was never good at maintaining discipline among large numbers.

The writings which he produced at this period created a new epoch in the history of modern English theological scholarship. In 1855 he published the first edition of his History of the New Testament Canon, which, frequently revised and expanded, became the standard English work on the subject. In 1859 there appeared his Characteristics of the Gospel Miracles.

In 1860 he expanded his Norrisian essay into an Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, a work remarkable for insight and minuteness of study, as well as for reverential treatment combined with considerable freedom from traditional lines. Westcott’s work for Smith’s Dictionary of the Bible, notably his articles on “Canon,” “Maccabees,” “Vulgate,” entailed most careful and thorough preparation, and led to the composition of his subsequent popular books, The Bible in the Church (1864) and a History of the English Bible (1869). To the same period belongs The Gospel of the Resurrection (1866). As a piece of consecutive reasoning upon a fundamental Christian doctrine it attracted great attention. Its width of view and its recognition of the claims of historical science and pure reason were thoroughly characteristic of Westcott’s mode of discussing a theological question. At the time when the book appeared his method of apologetic showed both courage and originality, but the excellence of the work is impaired by the difficulty of the style.

In 1865 he took his B.D., and in 1870 his D.D. Later he received honorary degrees of DC.L. from Oxford (1881) and of D.D. from Edinburgh (1883). In 1868 Westcott was appointed examining chaplain by Bishop Connor Magee (of Peterborough); and in the following year he accepted a canonry at Peterborough, which forced him to leave Harrow.

For a time he was enthusiastic about a cathedral life, devoted to the pursuit of learning and to the development of opportunities for the religious and intellectual benefit of the diocese. But the Regius Professorship of Divinity at Cambridge fell vacant, and J. B. Lightfoot, who was then Hulsean professor, refused it in favour of Westcott. It was due to Lightfoot’s support almost as much as to his own great merits that Westcott was elected to the chair on November 1, 1870.

He now occupied a position for which he was supremely fitted, at a point in the reform of university studies when a theologian of liberal views, but universally respected for his massive learning and his devout and single-minded character, had a unique opportunity to contribute. Supported by his friends Lightfoot and Hort, he threw himself into the new work with extraordinary energy, sacrificing many of the privileges of a university career in order that his studies might be more continuous and that he might see more of the younger men.

His lectures were generally on Biblical subjects. His Commentaries on St John’s Gospel (1881), on the Epistle to the Hebrews (1889) and the Epistles of St John (1883) resulted from his public lectures.

One of his most valuable works, The Gospel of Life (1892), a study of Christian doctrine, incorporated the materials upon which he was delivered a series of more private and esoteric lectures on week-day evenings. Lecturing was an intense strain to him, but his influence was immense: to attend one of Westcott’s lectures was an experience which encouraged those to whom the references to Origen or Rupert of Deutz were unintelligible.

Between 1870 and 1881 Westcott was also continually engaged in text critical work for an edition of the New Testament, and, simultaneously, in the preparation of a new text in conjunction with Hort. The years in which Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort could thus meet frequently and naturally for the discussion of the work in which they were all three so deeply engrossed formed a happy and privileged period in their lives.

In the year 1881 there appeared the famous Westcott and Hort text of the New Testament, upon which had been expended nearly thirty years of incessant labour.

The reforms in the regulations for degrees in divinity, the formation and first revision of the new theological tripos, the inauguration of the Cambridge mission to Delhi and the subsequent founding of St. Stephen’s College, Delhi, the institution of the Church Society (for the discussion of theological and ecclesiastical questions by the younger men), the meetings for the divinity faculty, the organization of the new Divinity School and Library and, later, the institution of the Cambridge Clergy Training School (renamed Westcott House in 1901 in his honour), were all, in a very real degree, the result of Westcott’s energy and influence as regius professor. To this list should also be added the Oxford and Cambridge preliminary examination for candidates for holy orders, with which he was from the first most closely identified.

The departure of Lightfoot to become Bishop of Durham in 1879 was a great blow to Westcott. Nevertheless, it resulted in bringing him into still greater prominence. He was compelled to take the lead in matters where Lightfoot’s more practical nature had previously been predominant. Westcott was himself to become Bishop of Durham in 1890.

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