C.K. Barrett— A Helpful Blog Post

The following is a blog post of Jonathan Watson of the Logos company, reprinted her with permission.


C. K. Barrett: The Consummate Academic in the British Tradition

When I began my journey into theological territory, one name kept popping up among friends and acquaintances who take the study of Scripture seriously. I asked questions about this person and his work, and eventually purchased several volumes of his writings, including his commentary on the book of Romans—a resource which has since aided me countless times in my study of the Bible. The name is C. K. Barrett—a man who has left a remarkable legacy of faithfulness and exegetical excellency which has been felt by thousands of seminarians and students of Scripture, including myself.

Charles Kingsley Barrett (1917–2011) was born the son of a Methodist minister in Salford, Greater Manchester. He was a devoted student and a remarkable cricket player. After finding and excelling in the study of theology, he was eventually elected as a professor at the University of Durham. During his career, he not only lectured prominently and published numerous theological works, but he also sustained an active pastoral ministry, preaching nearly until his passing.

Perhaps one of the greatest ways (apart from his published works) that we today benefit from C. K. Barrett is through his students and protegés. I had the opportunity of speaking with one of them—Ben Witherington III—on memories of his old mentor.

“Studying under C. K. Barrett was an honor and a privilege. He was the consummate academic in the British tradition. He stressed the need to go ad fontes (back to the original language sources) to get to the bottom of things. He would have none of this shoddy idea that you can really get at the meaning of biblical texts by purely examining English translations.
He was also very reticent to give you his straight opinion on your work, lest he unduly influence that work. He knew that doctoral students tended to imitate those that they admired, and he was having none of it. He wanted us to develop our own voice, not be a clone of him. Of course he would tell you if you were clearly wrong or way off base, but in general he would allow you to run your own arguments and make your own case.

“Like many British academics, he was strong behind the lecturn or pulpit, but frankly hated the telephone, and was often shy after “hello,” if we are talking about normal conversation. Now, get him talking about something within his wheel house, like Paul’s view of women, and he would go to town. Or even if you happened to get him going about cricket and his favorite players.

“And by the way, he never drove a car.
“He was very much a family man, and very, very loyal to the Methodist church. He was preaching almost every Sunday even until the end of his life, and when at last he was in a nursing home, he spent his last days singing his favorite Wesley hymns, like John Wesley himself, until he passed.”

Witherington and others who knew him paint the picture of a mild-mannered, humble man who dearly loved the church, as well as his students and colleagues. His passion for hard work and academic rigor was inspiring, even contagious. His care for academics and his students is evident in this anecdote from Ben Witherington:

“After the oral defense of my dissertation, the external examiner wanted some significant additions and modifications to the dissertation. So, I spent a year doing that and sent the thesis back to the academic office Old Shire Hall. It was their job to get the thesis back to the external examiner quickly, to see if I had indeed passed muster, and could be given the degree.
Well, it sat on the desk in Old Shire Hall gathering dust for months. Finally, I called Kinglsey and asked him, “What is happening?” I told him that in the interim I had sent the revised manuscript to Cambridge, to the SNTS monograph series editors. They both wanted to see it published. Kingsley said he’d get back to me soon.

“When he discovered that through administrative incompetence the thesis had never been sent out for the second reading, he blew up! Now, this is a man who was normally not that way, and was typically very patient. Quickly thereafter the external examiner saw it, approved it, and it went on to be published. It became the best-selling monographs in that series.
But without Kingsley’s swift intervention on my behalf, who knows what might have happened?”

Barrett’s areas of study were diverse, but he applied the same meticulous care to each work, whether on the book of Romans, John’s Gospel, the Corinthian epistles, or Acts. His works onPauline studies and Romans have been of particularly great aid to theologians and students, though his work on John’s Gospel also remains a standard, well-respected textbook in seminaries today. While we grieve his passing, we rejoice that his legacy still echoes today, and will continue for generations to come.


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