John Robinson (bishop of Woolwich)

This article is about the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich. For other bishops of the same name, see Bishop John Robinson.
The Right Reverend
John Robinson
Bishop of Woolwich
Church Church of England
Diocese Diocese of Southwark
In office 1959 to 1969
Predecessor Robert Stannard
Successor David Sheppard
Other posts Dean of Chapel of Trinity College, Cambridge (1969–1983)
Ordination 1945 (deacon)
1946 (priest)
Consecration 1959
by Geoffrey Fisher
Personal details
Birth name John Arthur Thomas Robinson
Born (1919-05-16)16 May 1919
Canterbury, Kent, England
Died 5 December 1983(1983-12-05) (aged 64)
Arncliffe, North Yorkshire, England
Nationality British
Denomination Anglicanism
Profession Clergyman and scholar
Alma mater Westcott House, Cambridge

John Arthur Thomas Robinson (16 May 1919 – 5 December 1983) was an English New Testament scholar, author and the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich.[1] He was a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later Dean of Trinity College[2] until his death in 1983 from cancer.[3] 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.[4]

Early life and education

Robinson was born on 16 May 1919 in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, England, where his father was a canon. He was educated at Marlborough College, then an all-boys independent school in Marlborough, Wiltshire. He studied at Jesus College, Cambridge and Trinity College, Cambridge, and then trained for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridge.[5]

Ordained ministry

Robinson was ordained in the Church of England as a deacon in 1945 and as a priest in 1946.[6] From 1945 to 1948, he served his curacy at St Matthew's Church, Moorfields in the Diocese of Bristol.[5] The vicar at the time was Mervyn Stockwood.

In 1948, Robinson became chaplain of Wells Theological College, where he wrote his first book, In the End, God. In 1951, he was appointed Fellow and Dean of Clare College, Cambridge and a lecturer in divinity at Cambridge University.[7]

Following an invitation from Mervyn Stockwood, by then the Bishop of Southwark, Robinson became the Bishop of Woolwich in 1959.[8] The appointment of Robinson as a suffragan bishop was in Stockwood's gift, and whilst the Archbishop of Canterbury (at that point Geoffrey Fisher) questioned the appointment on the grounds that he believed Robinson at that point would be doing more valuable work as a theologian, he accepted that once he had given advice he had "done all that it was proper for him to do" and proceeded to consecrate Robinson to the episcopate. Following a ten-year period at Woolwich, Robinson returned to Cambridge in 1969 as Fellow and Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, where he did not hold a teaching post but lectured and continued to write.


Robinson was diagnosed with terminal cancer in 1983[9] and died on 5 December of that year in Arncliffe, North Yorkshire.[10]

Selected writings

In the End, God (1950)

Modern Universalist writer Brian Hebblethwaite[11] cites Robinson's In the End, God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things[12] as arguing for the universal reconciliation of all immortal souls. Ken R. Vincent, in The Golden Thread[13] states: "Robinson notes that Christ, in Origen's old words, remains on the Cross so long as one sinner remains in [H]ell. This is not speculation: it is a statement grounded in the very necessity of God's nature." George Hunsinger, author of Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth[14] writes that "[i]f one is looking for an uninhibited proponent of universal salvation, Robinson leaves nothing to be desired."

Honest to God (1963)

Robinson wrote several well-received books. The most popular was Honest to God published in 1963.[15] According to Exploration into God in (1967), he felt its chief contribution was its attempt to synthesize the work of theologians Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, both of them well known in theological circles, but whose views were largely unknown to the people in the pews. The book proved contentious because it called on Christians to view God as the "Ground of Being" rather than as a supernatural being "out there". The modifications of the Divine image posited by Robinson have some aspects in common with the psychological deconstruction of God-ideas put forward by his fellow Cambridge theologian Harry Williams in his contribution to the symposium "Soundings" edited by Alec Vidler and published in 1962.[16] When that book was being produced, Robinson was not asked to contribute, because he was then thought to be too conservative a New Testament scholar.[17] This view has never quite dissipated, for in his later books, Robinson would champion early dates and apostolic authorship for the gospels, largely without success,[18] although in recent years the liberal Baptist theologian and spiritual writer John Henson has claimed some affinity with the idea that the Fourth Gospel was the earliest.[19]

"The media furore concerning "Honest to God" – one which was to portray him as anything but conservative in the public mind - led to a criticism of Robinson in the Church Assembly – the precursor of the General Synod by the Archbishop of Canterbury Michael Ramsey, and there were calls from many quarters for Robinson to resign or be deposed. Whilst Ramsey took Robinson to task for his views, Ramsey's pamphlet "Image Old and New" rushed out as a response, did not entirely dismiss what had been said.[20] Indeed, Ramsey would later admit in a letter to Mervyn Stockwood that he regretted the way in which he had handled the matter.[21] The book, which has remained almost consistently in print, proposes abandoning the notion of God "out there", existing somewhere 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 as "Love".[22] After endorsing Paul Tillich's assertion that God is the "ground of all being", Robinson wrote: "For it is in [Jesus] making himself nothing, in his utter self-surrender to others in love, that he discloses and lays bare the ground of man's being as Love[23] ... For assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about Love".[24] While some of its ideas have been taken up by more liberal circles of Christian thought, proponents of the traditional interpretation of Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, reject Robinson's thesis as an unnecessary capitulation to Modernism.[25]

To what extent this is in fact the case depends very much on the frame of reference of the reader. However, the work of Robinson in Honest to God provided a departure point which would be followed up in the writings of the radical theologians Don Cupitt and John Shelby Spong and in the 1977 symposium The Myth of God Incarnate, edited by John Hick. Whether Robinson would have gone as far as Cupitt did in declaring the idea of God to be an entirely human creation is something which can only be conjectured. However, he said as he was dying that he "never doubted the essential truth of Christianity,"[26] which suggests he had not abandoned the idea of God. Robinson seemed to rapidly become a person upon whom religious people projected their own ideas of what he was like, and the book The Honest to God Debate, edited by Robinson and by David L Edwards, also published in 1963, contains a mixture of articles which either praise Robinson for his approach or accuse him of atheism.[27]

Redating the New Testament (1976)

Although Robinson was considered a liberal theologian, he challenged the work of like-minded colleagues in the field of exegetical criticism. Specifically, Robinson examined the reliability of the New Testament as he believed that it had been the subject of very little original research during the 20th century. He also wrote that past scholarship was based on a "tyranny of unexamined assumptions" and an "almost wilful blindness".[28]

Robinson concluded that much of the New Testament was written before AD 64, partly basing his judgement on the spare textual evidence that the New Testament reflects knowledge of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem in AD 70. In relation to the four gospels' dates of authorship, Robinson placed Matthew as being written sometime between AD 40 and the AD 60s, Mark sometime between AD 45 and AD 60, Luke sometime during the AD 50s and 60s and John sometime between AD 40 and AD 65 or later.[29][30] Robinson also argued that the letter of James was penned by a brother of Jesus Christ within twenty years of Jesus' death; that Paul authored all the books attributed to him; and that the "John" who wrote the fourth Gospel was the apostle John. Robinson also suggested that the results of his investigations implied a need to rewrite many theologies of the New Testament.[31][32][33]

In a letter to Robinson, the New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd 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."[34][35] Robinson's call for redating the New Testament  or, at least, the four gospels  was echoed in subsequent scholarship such as John Wenham's work Redating Matthew, Mark and Luke: A Fresh Assault on the Synoptic Problem and work by Claude Tresmontant, Günther Zuntz, Carsten Peter Thiede, Eta Linnemann, Harold Riley, Jean Carmignac, and Bernard Orchard.

Robinson's early dates for the gospels, especially those for John, have not been taken up among most modern scholars of Biblical historicism. Some conservative and traditionalist scholars, however, concur with his dating of the synoptic gospels.[18]

The Priority of John (1984)

In The Priority of John,[12] Robinson furthered the argument put forward in Redating the New Testament that all the books were written before 70 AD, by focusing on the book that is placed early least often. He also wanted to prove that John is independent of the Synoptics and better than them at describing the length and time period of Jesus' ministry, Palestinian geography, and the cultural milieu of the early first century there.

This work was put together posthumously by J. F. Coakley according to Robinson's basically complete but unfinished notes for his Bampton Lectures.


Robinson was also noted for his 1960 court testimony against the censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover, claiming that it was a book which "every Christian should read."[36]

Robinson's legacy includes the work of a now retired Episcopal bishop, John Shelby Spong, in best-selling books that include salutes by Spong to Robinson as a lifelong mentor. In a 2013 interview, Spong recalls reading Robinson's 1963 book: "I can remember reading his first book as if was yesterday. I was rather snobbish when the book came out. I actually refused to read it at first. Then, when I read it – I couldn’t stop. I read it three times! My theology was never the same. I had to wrestle with how I could take the literalism I had picked up in Sunday school and put it into these new categories."[37]

The Bishop John Robinson School in Thamesmead, south-east London, which is within the area for which he was responsible as Bishop of Woolwich, is named after him. (See External links below.


Notes and references

  1. "New Bishop Suffragan of Woolwich". Official Appointments and Notices. The Times (54477). London. 3 June 1959. p. 12, col G..
  2. Who was Who 1897–1990, London: A&C Black, 1991, ISBN 0-7136-3457-X.
  3. "Deaths", The Times, London, ENG, UK (61706), p. 30, col A, 7 December 1983.
  4. Dybdahl, Jon, "Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?", Dialogue, Adventist, retrieved 2007-11-29.
  5. 1 2 "ROBINSON, Rt Rev. John Arthur Thomas". Who Was Who. Oxford University Press. April 2014. Retrieved 14 November 2016.
  6. "John Arthur Thomas Robinson". Crockford's Clerical Directory (online ed.). Church House Publishing. Retrieved 14 November 2016. (subscription required)
  7. Crockford's Clerical Directory 1975–76, Lambeth: Church House, 1975, ISBN 0-19-200008-X.
  8. Crockford's Clerical Directory, 1977-79, Oxford University Press
  9. Belcher, Fred (19 October 2008). "Living with cancer". Sermons from Sherborne. Archived from the original on 2014-05-03.
  10. New York Times Obituary
  11. Hebblethwaite, Brian (2 September 2010). The Christian Hope. Oxford University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-19-162508-4.
  12. 1 2 Robinson 2011.
  13. Vincent, Ken R (5 August 2005). The Golden Thread. iUniverse. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-595-81105-2.
  14. Hunsinger, George (1 January 2001). Disruptive Grace: Studies in the Theology of Karl Barth. Wm B Eerdmans. p. 237. ISBN 978-0-8028-4940-3.
  15. Robinson 2002.
  16. Vidler, A. R. (1962). Soundings, Essays Concerning Christian Understanding. Cambridge: CUP.
  17. Vidler, A. R. (1977). Scenes From A Clerical Life. London: Collins.
  18. 1 2 Cross, F. L., ed. (2005), "Robinson, John Arthur Thomas", The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, New York: Oxford University Press.
  19. Henson, John (2014). Make Christmas Real. Author House. ISBN 978-1-4969-7894-3.
  20. Ramsey, Michael (1963). Image, Old and New. London: S.P.C.K.
  21. Stockwood, Mervyn (1982). Chanctonbury Ring: An Autobiography. Hodder and Stoughton. ISBN 978-0-340-27568-9.
  22. Robinson 2002, pp. 63, 75, 105, 115f., 127, 130.
  23. Robinson 2002, pp. 22, 75.
  24. Robinson 2002, p. 105.
  25. Wright, N. T. "Doubts about Doubt: Honest to God Forty Years On".
  26. James 1988.
  27. Robinson, J. A. T. & Edwards, D. L. 1963 and 2012. The Honest to God Debate. London. SCM.
  28. Robinson 2000, pp. 310, 307.
  29. Be thinking.
  30. Robinson 2000, p. 352.
  31. "The Historicity of Jesus Christ", The Christian Courier.
  32. Grant R. Jeffrey Ministries.
  33. "Robinson's views on the Shroud of Turin", Shroud story (FAQ).
  34. JMM, AU: AAA.
  35. Robinson 2000, pp. 359–60.
  36. "Attempt To Portray Sex As Something Sacred – Bishop A Witness For Defence",The Times, 28 October 1960; p. 6.
  37. "The retired Bishop John Shelby Spong interview", Read the Spirit, 23 June 2013.

External links

Church of England titles
Preceded by
Robert Stannard
Bishop of Woolwich
Succeeded by
David Sheppard
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