A Remarkable Theologian

ONE OF THE MOST interesting and remarkable men to live and teach in Oxford was MARTIN JOSEPH ROUTH. Thomas Mozley regarded him as the greatest name in patristic theology at Oxford and a reputation in Europe. Dean Church (History of the Oxford Movement. p. 304.) said, that he “stood alone among his brother Heads in his knowledge of what English theology was.” Church was describing the reaction of the authorities who, attacked and condemned Tractarian teaching in violence and ignorance. Oxford was the home of what was especially accounted Church theology. Church’s point was that Tractarian teaching, in its foundation and main outlines, should have been perfectly familiar to any one who had studied the great Anglican divines. Dr. Routh, President of Magdalen College, had gone below the surface, and was acquainted with the questions debated by the Tractarian divines, so that what they stood for and taught did not alarm him in the same way in which they alarmed his contemporaries, whether he agreed or not. “But Dr. Routh stood alone among his brother Heads in his knowledge of what English theology was. To most of them it was an unexplored and misty region; some of the ablest under the influence of Dr. Whateley’s vigorous and scornful discipline, had learned to slight it. But there it was.”

Advice to America

Routh was born in 1755 and died in his one hundredth year. In his twenty-eighth year he gave advice to the envoys of the American Church to save them from taking a step which would have been fatal to the Catholicity of their Church. Samuel Seabury came to Europe to seek consecration and give the American Church its own Episcopate. When the Danish Church offered to assist, Routh stated that the validity of the Danish Apostolic Succession was doubtful and “strongly urged the unimpeachable claims of the Scottish Episcopate, ‘of whose succession there is no doubt’.”

His Great Work

He lived through the period immediately preceding the Oxford Movement when there was great bitterness in many quarters against the Church of England, and it was seriously thought, both by friends and foes, that her days as a national church were numbered. A classical scholar he turned to the study of the Fathers. In I788 he published what became the Preface of his great work Reliquiae Sacrae which appeared in four volumes over a period until 1818, with the final volume appearing six years before his death. His object had been to bring together and to edit the remains of the Fathers of the second and third centuries of whose works only fragments survive. He took as his “limit the epoch of the first Nicene Council… because the period is so illustrious in the annals of the Church, and because, in matters of controversy, those Fathers are chiefly appealed to who preceded that epoch.”

Friend of Tractarians

He had a high personal regard for John Henry Newman whom he described as that “clever young gentleman of Oriel” or later on as “the great Newman”. Newman dedicated to him in 1837 his volume of Lectures, To ‘ MARTIN JOSEPH ROUTH, D.D, President of Magdalen College, who has been reserved to report to a Forgetful Generation what was the Theology of their Fathers, This Volume Is Inscribed …’

Routh’s perusal of many of the acknowledged writings of “Dr. Pusey and Mr. Newman” enabled him to express his admiration “of the ardent piety, holy views, and scrupulous adherence to the ancient summaries of Catholic belief displayed in them. I likewise state my persuasion that these, in conjunction with other estimable works, have contributed to correct many erroneous notions too long prevalent amongst us, and subverting the unity and authority of the National Church.”

What was so alarming to many minds in the teaching of the Oxford Revival was perfectly natural to Routh with his solid patristic learning and wide knowledge of English theology since the Reformation. The Tractarians’ appeal to antiquity created no alarm for him. He alone of the Heads of Oxford Colleges, with the exception of Dr. Richards, the Rector of Exeter, stood by them in the conflict, and he followed the course of the Movement with sympathy and understanding, counting among his friends some of its strongest supporters. The appeal to antiquity of the Elizabethan and Caroline divines found in him the heartiest approval. It was upon the doctrine of the Church as expressed by the Fathers that he took his stand.

His Kindness to Newman

During the period of suspense between Newman’s retirement to Littlemore in 1842 and his reception into the Roman Church in 1845, no one showed greater kindness to him than Dr. Routh. Dr. Bloxam wrote years afterwards to a friend that in these perplexing days he ‘knew of many annoyances’ heaped upon the baffled leader of the Oxford Movement ‘which were not generally known’. He was ‘snubbed and bullied by every body in authority except the old President’. ‘If all in authority had treated him as the old President of Magdalen did, he would not have left the Church of England.’ Is this not a lesson for those in authority today?

Arthur Middleton is Rector of Boldon, an Honorary Canon of Durham and a Tutor at St. Chad’s College Durham.