Frequently Assaulted Quotes
For a growing collection of quotes on what Westcott and Hort really believed about scripture, see the Fully Accurate Quotes: Scripture page, as well as James May's excellent article on B.F. Westcott and the Inspiration of the Bible.
Quote #1: "Our Bible as well as our Faith is a mere compromise." (Westcott, On the Canon of the New Testament, p.vii).
This quote comes from the very first page of the preface, where he explains why he's writing this book. The quote above is NOT a complete sentence in the context, but has been altered by capitalizing "Our" to make it appear that this is Westcott's complete thought and sentence, rather than him discussing (and rebutting) someone else's previous claim (specifically, a claim coming from the Tübingen School in Germany). Whoever originally "dug out" and altered this quotation of Westcott did so dishonestly, for to find the quote they would have had to read the surrounding text, which makes it clear Westcott is talking about what others have said, not what he himself believes. The misquote attempts to portray Westcott as believing the exact opposite of what he believed. Here is the quote in context, with the sub-quote in bold and Westcott's own view underlined:
"My object in the present Essay has been to deal with the New Testament as a whole, and that on purely historical grounds. The separate books of which it is composed are considered not individually, but as claiming to be parts of the Apostolic heritage of Christians. And thus reserving for another occasion the inquire into their mutual relations and essential unity, I have endavoured to connect the history of the New Testament Canon with the growth and consolidation of the Catholic Church, and to point out the relation existing between the amount of evidence for the authenticity of its component parts, and the whole mass of Christian literature. However imperfectly this design has been carried out, I cannot but hope that such a method of inquiry will convey both the truest notion of the connexion of the written Word with the living body of Christ, and the surest conviction of its divine authority . Hitherto the co-existence of several types of Apostolic doctrine in the first age and of various parties in Christendom for several generations afterwards has been quoted to prove that our Bible as well as our Faith is a mere compromise. But while I acknowledge most willingly the great merit of the Tübingen School in pointing out with marked distinctness the characteristics of the different books of the New Testament, and their connexion with special sides of Christian doctrine and with various eras in the Christian Church, it seems to me almost inexplicable that they should not have found in those writings the explanation instead of the result of the divisions which are are traceable to the Apostolic times."
Quote #2: "I reject the word infallibility of Holy Scripture overwhelming." (Westcott, The Life and Letters of Brook Foss Westcott, Vol. I, p.207)
This misquote comes in several flavours. Sometimes you will see it with or without a hyphen (sometimes the hyphen is removed to make it appear even more like a continuous thought, a complete sentence). Other times, you may also see the word "overwhelming" changed to "overwhelmingly", in an attempt to fix the grammar problem that arises from chopping off the first half of the original sentence. Both alterations are attempts to remove the clues that something is amiss with the quote - and there is definitely something amiss.
It comes from Life and Letters of Westcott, Vol. I, p.207, and here it is in entirety (misquote in bold, context in underline):
"My dear Hort - I am very glad to have seen both your note and Lightfoot's - glad too that we have had such an opportunity of openly speaking. For I too "must disclaim setting forth infallibility" in the front of my convictions. All I hold is, that the more I learn, the more I am convinced that fresh doubts come from my own ignorance, and that at present I find the presumption in favor of the absolute truth - I reject the word infallibility - of Holy Scripture overwhelming. Of course I feel difficulties which at present I cannot solve, and which I never hope to solve."
This quote is part of a three-way discussion between Westcott, Hort and Lightfoot, when they were initially considering working together to produce a commentary of the entire New Testament. Part of the discussion is lost, but a couple of letters from Hort remain (see misquote #3 below for part of one of them). The quote as originally presented was not the complete sentence, but was prefaced with with an affirmation of "the absolute truth of Holy Scripture". Any "difficulties" and "doubts" he sees in scripture "come from my own ignorance" - i.e. when he sees a problem, he recognizes and admits that the problem is with him, not with Scripture.
Also, how can he reject the infallibility of Scripture and affirm the "absolute truth" of Scripture in the same sentence? Note that Westcott is not rejecting the concept in inerrant scripture (as numerous other quotes demonstrate), but rather he has problems with the word "infallibility", which he felt was limited and "mechanical". Elsewhere, Westcott said "Mere mechanical infallibility is but a poor substitute for a plenary Inspiriation, which finds its expression in the right relation between partial human knowledge and absolute Divine truth." (Introduction to the Study of the Gospels, Westcott, p.41). By saying "I reject the word infallibility", he is not saying he rejects the idea that scripture is inerrant, but rather dislikes the word because he feels it is inadequate and doesn't go far enough - he feels it is "poor substitute for plenary Inspiration".
Quote #3: "If you make a decided conviction of the absolute infallibility of the N. T., I fear I could not join you, even if you were willing to forget your fears about the origin of the Gospels." (Hort, The Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort, Vol. I, p.420)
The context of this altered quote (a complete phrase was removed from the middle) is when Westcott, Lightfoot and Hort were considering working together to produce a commentary of the entire New Testament (which they started but did not finish). There was some question at this point in time as to whether Hort would participate in the endeavor, because Lightfoot has some question and concerns about Hort's thoughts about what "infallibility" entails. The quote is part of Hort's response to Lightfoot on this matter, and Hort is saying that if a conviction about absolute infallibilty of the NT was a prerequisite for participating on the commentary work, then Hort did not think he could participate, because although he did not believe the NT to be fallible as usage of the quote attempts to convey, he simply wasn't quite sure it was by default "infallible" even though he recognized its truthfulness, authority and its canon controlled by God. The quote as provided makes it look like Hort rejected the infallibility of the NT when he didn't. He didn't reject it, he was just unsure of whether to accept it as a "sine qua non" (Latin for "without which not", meaning an essential element, an absolutle prerequisite) for work on a commentary, and thus he was also unsure whether or not he should participate in the commentary project. Here's some context (taken from pages 417-422) I've included the first paragraph because it clarifies what is being to referred to by "the origin of the Gospels" comment, but the comments about "infallibility" is in the second paragraph. The quote above is from the top of the second paragraph, but note especially the words that follow the quote (misquote in bold, relevant context in underline):
So the most that we can gather from the original misquote was that Hort, in 1860 (21 years before the NT of 1881) believed the NT was inspired by God but that he wasn't 100% sure yet if that required it to also be absolutely infallible (but accepted it was probable and preferable). In a follow-up letter to Westcott, Hort stated (The Life and Letters of Fenton John Anthony Hort, Vol. I, p.422):
"I do most fully recognise the special 'Providence' which controuled the formation of the canonical books: my only difficulty is to understand how you can have had any doubt about the matter, considering how often we have talked over subjects in which such a belief was implied if not expressed. Certainly the unlucky suggestion, which gave rise to your doubts, seems to me quite consistent with it. But I am not able to go as far as you in asserting the absolute infallibility of a canonical writing. I may see a certain fitness and probability in such a view, but I cannot set up an a priori assumption against the (supposed) results of criticism. So perhaps you would say—in terms, at least—but you would deny that the fair results of criticism, making allowance for our imperfect knowledge, prove the existence of any errors. I am as yet prepared neither to deny nor to assert it. I shall rejoice on fuller investigation to find that imperfect knowledge is a sufficient explanation of all apparent errors, but I do not expect to be so fortunate. If I am ultimately driven to admit occasional errors, I shall be sorry; but it will not shake my conviction of the providential ordering of human elements in the Bible. It is perhaps possible that these words might be used in various senses; but I am sure that, saving my doubts about infallibility, you and I mean precisely the same thing by them. I shall be glad to know whether, after this express explanation, you still are perfectly content to take me as a coadjutor in the commentary. The difference does not seem to me essential; but you may think otherwise, and will, I am sure, speak freely."
Note that he says "I am as yet prepared neither to deny nor to assert it. I shall rejoice on fuller investigation to find that imperfect knowledge is a sufficient explanation of all apparent errors....". In other words, he was not going to let bias affect his view, but was going to examine the matter more fully before deciding. Note also that he is NOT talking about the original autographs of scripture, but I think of available, later copies - thus the comments about criticism revealing the textual inaccuracies of those documents. In other words, I don't see Hort's position here as any different than any translator or compiler of manuscripts throughout history - that's why new translations and Greek/Hebrew texts are produced, because it is believed by those that produce them that although God's word is infallible and inerrant, the current specific existing documents (ink on paper) are in and of themselves not infallible. For example, the KJV translators believed in the absolute truth and infallibility of God's word, but they (like Hort) did not believe that any current specific existing scriptures were in and of themselves infallible (that's why they made the KJV, "to make a good one better, or out of many good ones, one principal good one") - yet I see nobody spreading information and quotes about the KJV translators trying to paint them as disbelieving in infallibility of God's word. If the KJV translators believed in the type of infallibility that this quote of Hort's is intended to portray Hort as arguing against, they would never have made the KJV in the first place but simply adopted whatever infallible Bible they believed existed (if in English), or translated exclusively, strictly and unflinchingly from whatever document (if in another language).
False claim #1: "Hort stated that those who believed in biblical authority were perverted. [Hort, 400.]" (Crowned With Glory, by Dr. Thomas Holland, chapter 2).
This claim from Dr. Holland is a gross misrepresentation of what Hort said. Rev. Dr. Rowland Williams, the vice-principle and Professor of Hebrew at St. David's College, invited Hort to contribute to a upcoming publication of essays on theology. Hort wrote a short letter containing a polite declination, due to that although he felt that he had much in common with the other contributors, his differences in beliefs would be too big of a problem. He states his case as follows:
" ...Further I agree with them in condemning many leading specific doctrines of the popular theology as, to say the least, containing much superstition and immorality of a very pernicious kind. But I fear that in our own positive theology we should diverge widely. I have deeply-rooted agreement with High Churchmen as to the Church, Ministry, Sacraments, and, above all, Creeds, though by no means acquiescing in their unhistorical and unphilosophical treatment of theology, or their fears and antipathies generally. The positive doctrines even of the Evangelicals seem to me perverted rather than untrue. There are, I fear, still more serious differences between us on the subject of authority, and especially the authority of the Bible; and this alone would make my position among you sufficiently false in respect to the great questions which you will be chiefly anxious to discuss."
First, he does not say those who believe in biblical authority were perverted, he said that some doctrines (he does not specify which ones) of the Evangelicals were "perverted rather than untrue" - meaning that they weren't necessarily outright wrong, but that they were "marked by misinterpretation or distortion" (from a modern dictionary) or "distorted; corrupted; misinterpreted; misemployed" (from Webster's 1828 dictionary). I daresay any Anglican, including the KJV translators, would agree. The comments on "Biblical authority" were not even part of this comment, but were about the differences in understanding Biblical authority (again, Hort does not specify what the differences are) than the other contributors have. He does not say he is against Biblical authority, but rather his position is different than the others'. As a devout Anglican, Hort would have a very high view of the authority of Scripture.