Austin Farrer

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The Reverend
Austin Farrer
Warden of Keble College, Oxford
In office
Preceded by Eric Abbott
Succeeded by Dennis Nineham
Personal details
Born Austin Marsden Farrer
(1904-10-01)1 October 1904
Hampstead, London, England
Died 29 December 1968(1968-12-29) (aged 64)
Resting place Holywell Cemetery, Oxford
Citizenship United Kingdom
Nationality English
Spouse(s) Katharine Farrer
Children One
Education St Paul's School, London
Alma mater Balliol College, Oxford
Ripon College Cuddesdon
Profession Clergyman and academic

Austin Marsden Farrer, FBA (1 October 1904 – 29 December 1968) was an English theologian and philosopher. His activity in philosophy, theology, and spirituality led many to consider him the outstanding figure of 20th-century Anglicanism.[1][verification needed] He served as Warden of Keble College, Oxford from 1960 to 1968.


Farrer was born 1 October 1904, the only son of the three children of Augustine and Evangeline Farrer, in Hampstead, London, England. His father was a Baptist minister and Farrer was brought up in that faith. He went to St Paul's School, in London where he gained a scholarship to Balliol College, Oxford. Encouraged by his father to value scholarship, he nevertheless found the divisions within the Baptist church dispiriting, and while at Oxford he became an Anglican. Finding his spiritual home at St Barnabas church in Oxford, his theology and his spirituality became profoundly Anglo-Catholic, although centred on the Book of Common Prayer. After gaining a first in Greats, he went up to Cuddesdon Theological College where he trained with the future Archbishop of Canterbury, Michael Ramsey. He served a curacy in Dewsbury, West Yorkshire, after which he was invited to become chaplain and tutor at St Edmund Hall, Oxford in 1931 (a post he held until 1935).

He became Fellow and Chaplain of Trinity College, Oxford, from 1935 to 1960. On the death of Oliver Quick in 1959, the Regius Professorship of Divinity became vacant and Farrer's name was widely canvassed. However, his typological approach to the reading of Scripture, notably in his books on St. Mark and the Book of Revelation, was out of the mainstream of biblical scholarship, and his article 'On dispensing with Q' (one of the supposed lost sources of the Gospels) raised a furore on both sides of the Atlantic. Henry Chadwick was appointed instead. The following year, Farrer was appointed as Warden of Keble College, Oxford, a post which he held until his death shortly after Christmas in 1968, aged 64. He was married to Katharine Farrer, the mystery novelist.[2] They had one child, a daughter Caroline, who was unstable and required care as an adult as well as a child.

After Farrer's sudden death, Spencer Barrett as Sub-Warden presided over the change of college statute which removed the requirement for Keble College's Warden to be an Anglican clergyman.[3] However, in the event the Warden appointed to succeed Farrer, Dennis Nineham, was another clergyman.

Farrer is buried in Holywell Cemetery, Oxford.


According to Farrer's hypothesis Mark was written first. The Gospel of Matthew was written using Mark as a source. Then the Gospel of Luke was written using both Mark and Matthew.

Apart from his biblical scholarship, which was considered maverick, Farrer's work was mainly philosophical, though again he was out of the mainstream. He was not influenced by the empiricism of such contemporaries as John Wisdom, Gilbert Ryle and A. J. Ayer. The 'Metaphysicals', as his small group of fellow thinkers were called, were of an entirely different temper. His thinking was essentially Thomist, not only in his being heavily influenced by Thomas's thought but also in the dialogical way in which he presents his arguments, playing as he said, 'out of dummy' (a term from the game of bridge) the views and objections of real or imaginary opponents of the thesis he was advancing at the time. His desire to be fair resulted in his almost never being sharp with his opponents.

One of his closer friends was the Christian apologist C. S. Lewis who dedicated his book Reflections on the Psalms to him. Farrer took the last sacraments to Lewis before his death. Others included J. R. R. Tolkien and Dorothy Sayers. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Farrer has been more studied and more admired since his death in the United States than in his own country.

His major contribution to Christian thought is his notion of 'double agency', that human actions are fully our own but also are the work of God, though perfectly hidden. He described God for such purposes as 'intelligent act'.[4]

He presented his own solution to the Synoptic Problem, the so-called Farrer hypothesis in a short essay entitled 'On dispensing with Q'. Q was the hypothetical source of those parts of Luke's and Matthew's gospel which are not in Mark but which are pretty much identical. He argued against the possibility of reconstructing Q noting that while it might have been impossible to reconstruct Mark from the other gospels had it been lost, Mark had not been lost. 'I have a copy of it on my desk.' His making short work of such an established hypothesis infuriated many scholars and may have contributed to his not being made Regius Professor of Divinity.. Michael Goulder was both a pupil and a notable defender of his thesis.

His scepticism about much orthodox scholarship extended to a typically short but powerful critique of the German collection of essays 'Kerygma and Myth' whose major contributor was Rudolf Bultmann. He averred, against them, that without the concept of miracle, the Christian project was fatally flawed, preferring the forms of existential defence of the faith of such as Gabriel Marcel to that of the Germans. His teasing style is indicated by his suggestion that Bultmann had freed the gospel from its fetters by amputating its limbs.

He was known as a fine preacher and several books of his sermons were printed, all but one posthumously. His style was always to be generous to the despisers of the faith, illuminating his defences with glimpses into his own spiritual life. He had the gift of marrying considerable scholarship with profound spirituality.[peacock term] Serving at a weekday mass with him was said[by whom?] to be a moving experience.[peacock term]


His books included several on St. Mark, two commentaries on the book of Revelation, a study of the Temptations, entitled The Triple Victory (an Archbishop of Canterbury's Lent Book), philosophical works such as The Freedom of the Will, Finite and Infinite and Faith and Speculation, the apologetic books A Science of God (a Bishop of London's Lent Book) and Saving Belief, a defence of the goodness of God called Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited: an essay on providence and evil, a meditation on the Creed called Lord, I believe and numerous collections of sermons. Articles written by him, some of which were subsequently collected, run into dozens.

  • 1943: Finite and Infinite: A Philosophical Essay. Westminster: Dacre Press, 1943 (Second Edition with a revised preface, 1959.)
  • 1948: The Glass of Vision. (The Bampton Lectures; 1948). Westminster: Dacre Press. [Lectures on "the sense of metaphysical philosophy, the sense of scriptural revelation, and the sense of poetry (ix)].
  • 1949: A Rebirth of Images: the making of St. John's Apocalypse. [Farrer's first commentary on Revelation]
  • 1955: On Dispensing with Q, in Dennis E. Nineham (ed.): Studies in the Gospels: Essays in Memory of R. H. Lightfoot, Oxford, pp. 55–88.
  • 1958: The Freedom of the Will: The Gifford Lectures delivered in the University of Edinburgh, 1957. London: Adam and Charles Black, 1958. (Second Edition, including a ‘Summary of the Argument,’ New York: Scribners, 1960.)
  • 1960: A Faith of Our Own. With a Preface by C.S. Lewis.
  • 1962: Love Almighty and Ills Unlimited: an essay on providence and evil, containing the Nathaniel Taylor Lectures for 1961. London: Collins
  • 1964: Saving Belief: a discussion of essentials. London: Hodder and Stoughton
  • 1964: The Revelation of St. John the Divine: commentary on the English text. Oxford: Oxford University Press [Farrer's second commentary on Revelation, a rewriting of his earlier Rebirth of Images]
  • 1965: A Triple Victory: Christ's Temptations According to Saint Matthew. London: Faith Press, 1965
  • 1966: A Science of God? London : Geoffrey Bles. Published in the United States as God is Not Dead. New York: Morehouse-Barlow, 1966. Republished, with a Foreword by Margaret M. Yee, London: SPCK, 2009
  • 1967: Faith and Speculation: an essay in philosophical theology; containing the Deems Lectures 1964. London: A. & C. Black
  • 1972: Reflective Faith: essays in philosophical theology; edited by Charles C. Conti. London: SPCK ("Chronological list of published writings: 1933–1973": p.[227]- 234.)
  • 1973: The End of Man; [sermons edited by Charles C. Conti]. London: SPCK
  • 1976: The Brink of Mystery: (sermons) edited by Charles C. Conti. London: SPCK
  • 1976: Interpretation and Belief; edited by Charles C. Conti. London: SPCK ISBN 0-281-02889-3
  • 1991: Austin Farrer: the Essential Sermons; selected and edited by Leslie Houlden. London: SPCK


  1. ^ "Farrer, Austin Marsden." Cross, F. L., ed. The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church. New York: Oxford University Press. 2005
  2. ^ The Fellowship: The Literary Lives of the Inklings: J. R. R. Tolkien, C. S. Lewis, Owen Barfield, Charles Williams by Philip and Carol Zaleski, page 454
  3. ^ Hollis, Adrian, Spencer Barrett, Oxford don devoted to classics and his college, obituary in The Guardian, 17 October 2001, online at, accessed 14 August 2008
  4. ^ see his Faith and Speculation (1968)

Further reading

  • Conti, Charles (1995). Metaphysical Personalism. Oxford: Clarendon Press
  • Crombie, I.M. 'Farrer, Austin Marsden (1904–1968).' Oxford Dictionary of National Biography: Volume 19. Eds. H.C.G. Matthew and Brian Harrison. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004: 121–3
  • Curtis, Philip (1985). A Hawk among Sparrows: a biography of Austin Farrer. London: SPCK.
  • Duncan, Steven (2008). The Proof of the External World: Cartesian Theism and the Possibility of Knowledge. Cambridge, James Clarke.
  • Hebblethwaite, Brian, and Edward Henderson, eds. (1990). Divine Action: Studies Inspired by the Philosophical Theology of Austin Farrer. Edinburgh: T & T Clark.
  • Hebblethwaite, Brian and Douglas Hedley, eds. (2006) The Human Person in God’s World: Studies to Commemorate the Austin Farrer Centenary. London: SCM Press.
  • Hebblethwaite, Brian (2009). 'Austin Farrer (1904–68).’ The Blackwell Companion to the Theologians, Volume 2. Ed. Ian S. Markham. Chichester: Wiley-Blackwell, pp257–62.
  • Hefling, Charles (1979). Jacob's Ladder: Theology and Spirituality in the Thought of Austin Farrer. Cambridge, MA: Cowley.
  • Hein, David (2004). “Farrer on Friendship, Sainthood, and the Will of God.” In Captured by the Crucified: The Practical Theology of Austin Farrer, edited by David Hein and Edward Hugh Henderson, 119–48. New York and London: T. & T. Clark.
  • Hein, David (2007). "Austin Farrer on Justification and Sanctification." In The Anglican Digest, vol. 49, no. 1, pp. 51–54.
  • Hein, David, and Edward Hugh Henderson, eds. (2004). Captured by the Crucified: the practical theology of Austin Farrer. New York and London: T & T Clark / Continuum ISBN 0-567-02510-1 See the bibliography in this book for secondary works — books, articles, dissertations, and discussions in books — about the philosophy, theology, preaching, and biblical studies of Austin Farrer.
  • Henderson, Edward (2011). "Austin Farrer: The Sacramental Imagination." In Hein, David, and Edward Henderson, eds. C. S. Lewis and Friends: Faith and the Power of Imagination, pp. 35–51. London: SPCK.
  • MacSwain, Robert, 'Centenary Perspectives on Austin Farrer: A Review Article', Philosophy Compass 5/9 (2010): 820–829
  • Obituary notice in The Record (Keble College); 1969, pp. 1–7 (includes funeral address by B. G. Mitchell, 1 February 1969)
  • Smith, Simon (2017). Beyond Realism: Seeking the Divine Other. Delaware/Malaga: Vernon Press.

External links

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