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John Robinson (bishop of Woolwich)

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The Right Reverend Dr John Arthur Thomas Robinson (1919 in Canterbury, England December 5, 1983) was a New Testament scholar, author, and former Anglican bishop of Woolwich, England. He was a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later Dean of Trinity College until his death in 1983 from cancer. Dr Robinson was considered a major force in shaping liberal Christian theology. Along with Harvard theologian Harvey Cox, he spearheaded the field of secular theology and, like William Barclay, he was a believer in universal salvation.


Honest to God

Robinson wrote several notable books, the most famous being Honest to God in 1963. Robinson's own evaluation of Honest to God, found in the subsequent Exploration into God stated that the chief contribution of this work was its successful synthesis of the work of seemingly opposed theologians Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Robinson proposed abandoning the notion of a God "out there", existing somewhere out in the universe as a "Cosmic supremo," just as we have abandoned already the idea of God "up there", the notion of the old man up in the sky. In its place, he offered a reinterpretation of God, whom he defined as Love, spelled with a capital L (Robinson, 1963a, pp. 63, 75, 105, 115,116, 127, 130). After endorsing Paul Tillich's assertion that God is the "Ground of all being" (ibid., p. 22, italics added), Robinson wrote: "For it is in making himself nothing, in his utter self-surrender to others in love, that [Jesus] discloses and lays bare the Ground of man's being as Love" (ibid., p. 75, italics added). He also wrote: "For assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about Love" (ibid., p. 105).

Honest to God caused a storm of controversy as the first publication by a leading churchman which asked the question

"Now that we have rejected the ancients' view of God living in a material heaven above the actual sky what does God's existence mean?"

While the bulk of his ideas have become integrated with the more liberal circles of Christian thought, he is considered an extremist by some. His ideas are considered anathema by Barthian evangelicals and by those whose concept of a supernatural God supersedes other theological concerns.

Redating the New Testament

Although Robinson was firmly within the camp of liberal theology, he did challenge the work of colleagues in the field of exegetical criticism. Specifically, Dr Robinson examined the New Testament's reliability, because he believed that very little original research had been completed in the field during the period between 1900 and the mid 1970s. Concluding his research, he wrote in his work, Redating the New Testament that past scholarship was based on a "tyranny of unexamined assumptions" and an "almost willful blindness".

Robinson concluded that New Testament was written before AD 64, partly based on his judgement that there is little textual evidence that the New Testament reflects knowledge of the Temple's AD 70 destruction. C. H. Dodd, in a frank letter to Robinson wrote: "I should agree with you that much of the late dating is quite arbitrary, even wanton, the offspring not of any argument that can be presented, but rather of the critic's prejudice that, if he appears to assent to the traditional position of the early church, he will be thought no better than a stick-in-the-mud." Robinson's call for redating the New Testament was echoed by subsequent scholarship such as John Wenham's work Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem. Other subsequent works calling for redating of some or all of the gospels were written by such scholars as Claude Tresmontant, Gunther Zuntz, Carsten Peter Thiede, Eta Linnemann, Harold Riley, Bernard Orchard.

In relation to the four gospels dates of authorship, according to Norman Geisler, "Robinson places Matthew at 40 to after 60, Mark at about 45 to 60, Luke at before 57 to after 60, and John at from 40 to after 65." Robinson went on to state that the book of James was penned by a brother of the Jesus Christ within twenty years of Jesus’ death, that Paul authored all the books that bear his name, and that John, the apostle, wrote the fourth Gospel. Dr. Robinson believed the result of his investigations argued for the rewriting of many theologies of the New Testament. .

Other claims to fame

Robinson was also famous for his 1960 court testimony against the censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Two books have been written about Dr Robinson: A life of Bishop John A.T. Robinson: Scholar, pastor, prophet by Eric James and The Roots of Christian Freedom: The Theology of John A.T. Robinson by Alistair Kee.

Books by Robinson

  • The Body: A Study in Pauline Theology, 1952
  • Jesus and His Coming: The Emergence of a Doctrine, 1959
  • On Being the Church in the World, 1960
  • Honest to God, 1963a, Philadelphia: Westminister Press, paperback ed.
  • Honest to God, 1963b, John Knox Press. reprint edition: ISBN 0-664-24465-3, 40th anniv. edition 2003: ISBN 0-664-22422-9
  • Exploration into God, 1967
  • But That I Can't Believe!, 1967
  • In the End...God: A Study of Last Things, 1968
  • The Difference in Being a Christian Today, 1971
  • The Human Face of God, 1973
  • Redating the New Testament, 1976, Wipf & Stock Publishers: ISBN 1579105270
  • “The New Testament Dating Game,” Time (March 21, 1977), p. 95.
  • Truth is Two-Eyed, 1979
  • Wrestling With Romans, 1979
  • The Roots of a Radical, 1981
  • Where Three Ways Meet, 1983
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