Joseph Barber Lightfoot was born in Liverpool, England, on April 13, 1828. He was to become one of Anglicanism’s most notable bishops – W. Robertson Nicoll describes him as “pre-eminently the scholar of the Church of England” (Princes of the Church, page 22).
The Dictionary of English Church History speaks of his “profound learning and matchless lucidity of exposition” (page 328), whilst Warren Wiersbe approvingly quotes The Times newspaper that stated, “He was at once one of the greatest theological scholars and an eminent bishop. It is scarcely possible to estimate adequately as yet the influence of his life and work” (Listening to the Giants, page 52).
After graduating from Trinity College, Cambridge, he was ordained to the priesthood, and eventually became Canon of St Paul’s Cathedral. In 1879 he was appointed Bishop of Durham. He also had a continuing role as a professor at Cambridge, where he had great influence over the students who came under his care.
We are told that he was a gifted linguist – fluent in six languages and able to use six more.
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His ‘sons’ – men training for ordination – breakfasted with him regularly before listening to his lectures and advice for ministry.
His Commentaries on Galatians, Philippians, Colossians and Philemon “ought to be in every minister’s library”, says Warren Wiersbe. These commentaries were noteworthy in that Lightfoot departed from the idea of using the text as a source of homilies, or to investigate previously held interpretations. Instead, he aimed to arm the reader with such insight as to come to his own conclusions, thus giving the text itself to the reader, not the beliefs of the commentator.
Lightfoot was also one of the scholars who translated the New Testament for the Revised Version (1870-1884). (Spurgeon said that this translation was “strong in Greek but weak in English”.)
It is said of him, “His sermons were not remarkable for eloquence, but a certain solidity and balance of judgment, an absence of partisanship, a sobriety of expression combined with clearness and force of diction, attracted hearers and inspired them with confidence.” Four volumes of his sermons were published in 1890.
As a member of what was known as the Cambridge School, with fellow graduate Dr BF Westcott, he soundly rebutted the influence of German theologians and criticism, which were gaining some currency in England at that time.
Bishop JB Lightfoot never married, and his assiduous studies and diligence to his commitments robbed him of good health. He died in Bournemouth on 21 December, 1889, and his Bishopric passed to his life-long associate Dr Westcott.
[This Bishop Lightfoot is not to be confused with John Lightfoot, also an English divine – a member of the Westminster Assembly in the 17th century.]
This post is based on notes by my late friend Donald Prout. I have updated these historical posts with information gleaned from other sources. I am indebted to Don for awakening in me an interest in Church History. Don’s notes can be found at: www.donaldprout.com
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