St Mary's In-Depth Theology Course

Theology Course 10:
The Controversy of Honest to God (1963)

Resource Paper. There is also a discussion pageThe discussion addresses whether John Robinson treated 'Thomism' properly.

What is the general view of Honest to God, much of which is provided on its own pages? It is of a bishop, having to lie down a lot with back trouble, taking this time to wrote a small book in sympathy with people who find belief difficult, writing outside his expertise (so he suggests - 1963, 26-27); then arguing against much that is understood to be Christianity, breaking down Christianity into usable means of believing, and causing something of a media storm about a bishop that does not believe fully in God.

The central thesis of Honest to God is this: that just as the biblical God 'up there' can no longer be believed, so neither can its replacement the biblical God 'out there' be believed. God, especially drawing on Paul Tillich, is more to do with what you take most seriously and ultimately, much more then to do with depth. In another shift of perspective Jesus should be seen more 'from below' too, rather than from above, so that he is understood, according to Bonhoeffer's phrase, as the Man for Others. For the holy he is more Bonhoeffer than Tillich, just about, for while there is depth he wants the holy in the common. Holiness is sensitivity to the ultimate concern now and in this world. What we have then is a sort of mixing of Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and behind it all the project of demythologising that is associated with Rudolf Bultmann. We end up with a sort of humanistic and existential reworking of Christianity that is palatable for the ways we think since the Enlightenment and certainly into our times.
If this is the view we have generally about Honest to God, then it is inadequate to the direction and purpose of the book. And it is a much criticised book by those who discuss the three main theologians. As regards Robinson's use of Bonhoeffer, when he is lumped with secular and liberal theologians of the 1960s, and a general criticism is made (McEnhill and Newlands, 2004, 77) the charge is unfair because Robinson very much includes the suffering, edged out Christ as the man made more incarnate in life rather than religion. Use of Tillich, however, can be criticised, as it is a systematic theology and Robinson's use of Tillich is rather different.
First of all, John Robinson was already a highly competent biblical scholar who already, in his thesis, had translated that particular scholarship into a theological understanding according to a personalist philosophy that undermined Thomism, that is the Greek philosophical view mainly formed around Aristotle incorporated by Thomas Aquinas into theology after the rediscovery of Greek metaphysics from the Islamic centres of learning (Thomism: God is pure Being, eternal, first cause, creator, the source, giving order). So this is ejected. The personalist philosophy is as in Martin Buber of I-Thou fame, which Honest to God uses. In other words, the magnificent scheme of omnipotence and omnipresence that is said to characterise God, and the pre-existence of Christ in this magnificent Thomist scheme is changed to something that emphasises relationship between God's personality and our own personalities, and Jesus's own too but where in the biblical witness his self is emptied to show where God is most revealed. This is why Robinson is consistent with Bonhoeffer in this regard. Robinson is also keen throughout to emphasise the full humanity of Jesus (including having an ordinary situation of mum and dad) as well as the full Godness of Jesus revealed within the biblical witness. So Robinson is making a highly competent theological argument with biblical roots, and he is no happy amateur at this either (see Kee, 1988, 80).
As such, Robinson is closest not to Tillich, nor even to Bonhoeffer, but to Bultmann - the least used within Honest to God! Bultmann, we recall, is the person who sees the Christness of Christ contained within the text, not in history as such, though the text is history-like and historical categories are important. Bultmann, we have discussed, produces a limited demythologisation of biblical categories: his failure to be more radical is down to the untranslatability of some of these categories - so he was only partially successful - plus he maintained through these untranslated forms the kerygma of Christ within his system.
Robinson pushes further than Bultmann, even: he thinks the atonement as in, he quotes:
...the 'full, perfect and sufficient sacrifice, oblation and satisfaction for the sins of the whole world supposed to have been 'made' on Calvary requires, I believe, for most men today more demythologizing even that the Resurrection. (Robinson, 1963, 79)
He also rejects the more naturalistic view, even the Liberal Christian form, is shallow and discredited in its assessment of the world to which the atonement relates (1963, 79). He gets out of this by using Tillich's existentialist Christian system as close to us but not the usual naturalistic explanation, but of course that system parallels Christian answers (including Thomist) and Robinson is himself forced to the category of grace and that part of Tillich's existential language that refers to the crucified Christ generating New Being (80-82). In other words, he has not solved Bultmann's own dead end of limited demythologising.
Robinson's own take is this: that the biblical faith is for everyone and is never out of date - but it does have to be understood, rather as Bultmann thought. So it is the job of theology to make the faith understood. So here is a paradox: Robinson has less trouble with the 'up there' in the Bible than the 'out there' of Thomist theology! All 'up there' needs is translating into modern understanding, whereas 'out there' is a distortion of power and system.
Of course he does not tell us this in Honest to God, but we can discover this (and Alistair Kee points all this out across five chapters: 1988, 56-120) because of John Robinson's own thesis, Thou Who Art (unpublished, 1945) where the biblical categories' attack on Thomism was made and a new Summa was called for (Thomas Aquinas's Summa Theologica was written 1265-1274) and in part provided for the doctrine of the Trinity. Robinson was nothing if not ambitious and indeed very capable.
So, really, Honest to God is an extension of his thesis without telling us. So this raises some questions about how Honest to God reads and his use of theologians.
So in the absence of this information Honest to God is often regarded as a book that reheats the main three theologians he uses, and also is sometimes regarded as getting them wrong. Karl Barth himself was quite dismissive of the work at the time (Barth had six more years to live) but interestingly Rudolf Bultmann wrote an appreciative review (he got the point of the biblical translation going on) that found its way into The Honest to God Debate (1963). John Robinson for many seemed to underline the view that England was a theological backwater, in that here was an inadequate and populist book.
The different view is that these theologians were treated creatively. He reuses and re-means the theologians and their categories of thought. Not only can his use of Bonhoeffer be defended, but such a more positive view is also easier to defend because Bonhoeffer's work is unfinished and open to such creative reuse. It is more difficult regarding Tillich, because, the argument goes, Tillich produced Christian systematic answers to a set of questions but put into existential language; yes, Tillich was also involved in a "shaking of the foundations" and this is very useful for John Robinson, but it has to be said that Tillich is more observant of the Christian system in that he is a systematic theologian before being a biblical theologian, whereas Robinson really wants a system to bend to the Bible.
This is the view asserted by Alistair Kee (1980). The argument is this: that Robinson indeed has difficulties with the ancient biblical mythology, but this can be overcome by presenting a better theology. However, Robinson has greater difficulties with Christian ontology, that is layers and categories inherited from Aquinas and the rest, and especially when that system is defended by theological dogmatists: the whole theological system that turns Jesus into some heavenly pre-conceived docetic implant into the earth that compromises his humanity. Tillich is concerned principally with ontology, and seeks to redo Plato among others for modern ears - thus preserving the Christian scheme (Kee, 1988, 82). So one reality (Robinson's) is a biblical drama that witnesses to Christ, and another reality is from the direction of the system that describes Christian essentials (Tillich).
On the other hand, that Robinson comes from a different direction doesn't necessarily mean that he ends up with something that radically different and can indeed be creative in its reuse.
Now, more than with Tillich, Robinson thought the outcome of his sort of shaking of the foundations might take a very long time to settle. Really?
Robinson affirms a biblical claim in Honest to God, and what he calls the specific Christian claim (Robinson, 1963, 49), that the ground of being is where "nothing can separate us" from "the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord" (see Kee, 1988, 81; Robinson, 1963, 50). Notice that here ground of being has undergone a shift of use despite leaning on Tillich: ontology has been turned creatively into more purely a condition of action and revelation relationships (in action) rather than coming from a higher being.
We need to be clear about this: Tillich is using 'Being' rather than 'a Being' in a more verb like way than God as a noun, and that is understood and welcomed by Robinson, but Tillich then puts that existentialism back into an ontology explaining the way things are as a system. The parallel in Tillich is with that of a higher Being! Being, God, gives rise to New Being, Christ. It is dynamic, but systematic too. For Robinson, Being or the ground of Being is released in the activity of Jesus Christ Our Lord  as this outpouring of love in relationship - love shown ultimately on the cross. This dynamic is like more a moving cinema film than a system.
Why does Tillich in effect rewrite the cinema film back into a summary plot? Because he knows he has to, in order to preserve the Christian scheme.
To put it the other way around, how does John Robinson know that Christ is supremely this love of God in Jesus Christ Our Lord? Tillich solves the problem because ontology is its own solution: this is how it is and he describes the system. Clearly revelation is involved somewhere, but it is nicely parcelled up. John Robinson does not like parcelling up anything. He wants it to be accessible. He wants the wrapping paper to be different, and indeed to not be selotaped up very well.
Here is the point: in the end Tillich has ended up with another form of 'out there' but with a shift of metaphors, though 'depth' matters not to Tillich in the way it does to Robinson. It looks like Robinson is doing the same metaphor-shift, but he may not be because Robinson would accept the best metaphor-communication that brings out the biblical faith, as he sees it, that nothing separates us from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord. Somehow this statement needs protecting, justifying, and in so doing doesn't Robinson end up somewhere similar as Tillich after all?
The problem is 'the unknown Fred Bloggs problem'. Fred Bloggs lives a pure, sinless life, and pressed against this heartless world he sacrifices himself for the other people and indeed all that lives around him. Why does this person not equally and equally-primarily show the love of God? What prevents the incarnation of Fred Bloggs? Why is Christ unique? For Tillich it is easy, in the end: it is because the system says so - the ontology is there.
What the Fred Bloggs question does is simply turn Christianity the system into religious humanism. So what if the Bible is evidence of the utter self-giving of Jesus Christ, when this is repeatable, and indeed may well be itself a repeat? And then, of course, we have the Bultmann point, that this is not a historical question anyway, after all, because history is not available, only that it is in the text, the text as presented, though the text has historical formations. So there is a kind of shift into the virtual here, a shift from actual person to a text-person.
Here is the argument then about Gandhi in comparison. Now all history is text; years pass and the arguments start around the documents. But historiography is supposed to be disciplined. The Biblical text is not  according to such rules: it is secondary and necessarily theological text. The documents about Gandhi are superior historical material. And the question can be put, when looking at the life and witness of Gandhi, eventually giving his life to the bullet from one of his own Hindu people because Gandhi was too generous to Muslims. Why not Gandhi, then, to show this love of God that cannot be separated? It is just as possible to compose a primary God-servant action-theology of Gandhi also under foreign domination based on his: Satyagraha - adherence to the truth in love; Ahimsa - non-violence; Sarvodaya - welfare for all; and Brahmacarya - total self control. Gandhi put himself at such considerable risk, ultimately failing in his task and being shot dead by those representing religions as tribal ideologies.
The answer to why not is, of course, theology: theology in the Bible, theology thanks to Paul, thanks to the early Church, thanks at least in part to Jesus himself and those texts closest to him as a historical character. This theology concerns both God and Jesus. The Bible is the chosen book.
In terms of being honest to God, John Robinson comes down in support of a panentheism that is apparently consistent with this Biblical witness. This is that God is in creation and the work of creation (including us), but not only in creation (as in pantheism). Many would argue against panentheism, that it takes away the choice God has in either not creating or creating the world (theism is God and the world), but for Robinson God will and has realised his love in the biblical witness, and only makes sense doing this: a God that is not omnipresent and omnipotent in a power manner as in Thomism, but is most omnipresent and omnipotent at the point of a dying Christ, one that was then raised. It is the release of love that demonstrates the Christlike God. In his later Truth is Two Eyed Robinson produces another word, "Incendence" for the heart of God, though here he allows for the thousness of theism too (Robinson, 1979, 28-29) and only contrasts away an impersonal pantheism.
However, the thouness personalism of God problem is much more easily solved in Robinson's theology than is the Christ uniqueness problem, when such love of God can come demonstrated from any person who is exemplary. Personally I find the weakness and suffering of God argument consistent with the experience we have of the world, certainly more than a God of power, but I find no argument for the uniqueness of Christ. And, furthermore, the uniqueness of Christ is undermined by having to rely on a bunch of brutal Roman occupiers to demonstrate by their killing the love of God.
And it is no good saying that everyone else, including my Fred Bloggs, or Gandhi, is at least a little sinful, but Jesus was different having no sin, because Jesus has to be fully human. I am further saying that the unknown Fred Bloggs was tempted or tested and simply did not sin. Why not him? Why not Gandhi? And Robinson emphasises the humanity of Jesus, so Jesus is tempted and has some awful thoughts like we do, at the very least. And, in any case, we simply have not got the historical record to say Jesus was sinless - all we have is the biblical text, and that text makes a theological claim.
Robinson extended his points in Honest to God in later books, such as Exploration into God (1967) and The Human Face of God (1973), and it is in The Human Face of God that he most emphasises Jesus's humanity - not the appearance of humanity, but actual and full humanity. We end up with a puzzle here, whether the theological claims of the biblical witness are mythical talk that needs demythologising. And the answer remains yes - but here we are no further forward because God is still that which is revealed in Jesus's self giving and such is no statement of uniqueness.
So in extending Honest to God to The Human Face of God, Alistair Kee (1988, 96-114), for example, is pointing out that Robinson develops the view that Christ is "God's man" not on a mythological basis (the Bible neat), nor ontological (Aquinas, Tillich etc.) but functional (Kee, 1988, 109). But that's the problem: functional can still be anybody's. It is also process thought, in the biblical event, after a modern John Knox (Kee, 1988, 111) and this implies God is wholly within Jesus as the Christ, and indeed this is God - God not anywhere but within Christ working out his purposes. Well, if so, then this is just another kind of ontology, isn't it, God located within Jesus the Christ. It is definitely not theism, but it is hardly panentheism either, except within the one person so chosen.
If Kee is right, then this has to be the answer to the issue of uniqueness - and it is a form of dogmatics. How does Robinson know? Because he simply asserts it. It is there, it is to be stated. Kee later on says you cannot defend uniqueness either through abnormality (peculiar difference) or through contestable historical evidence (Kee, 1988, 119).
These dogmatics one finds over and over again with John Robinson. When he gets associated with the liberals, of whom he gives some approval, he criticises those liberals who cannot start with the incarnation of Christ. Robinson just holds fast.
Arguably the two best books by John Robinson are Exploration into God (1967) and Truth is Two Eyed (1979). Exploration into God is a further examination of Honest to God in the God department, which focuses on prayer. There are of course implications for prayer when an 'up there' and 'out there' is replaced more by Being and depth, when God is panentheistic. It is then not so much about setting up a telephone line or sending an email (and lots of spam!), but rather a getting to one's own being and thus Being by the activity of prayer. What Truth is Two Eyed does is get Robinson back to more in the way of a theology of Christianity as a system, because he compares Christian theology with Hindu theology (on necessarily a broad brush basis: Hinduism, it should be said, is highly internally diverse). The comparison emphasises again Robinson's panentheism, but also in Christianity the place of the affirming the material (Hinduism is comparatively spiritual) and the rooting in some sort of history (Hinduism is more clearly story-based and cyclical). Christianity, Robinson thinks, also emphasises love of the neighbour over Hinduism's coming to terms with the self, and Christianity emphasises transforming suffering rather than coming to terms with it (Robinson likes to include Buddhism in this particular discussion because Buddhism deals with suffering more directly). He also finds Christianity much more equalitarian and democratic than the hierarchical faiths of the East. (See Kee, 1988, especially 116-118, and Truth is Two Eyed as a whole)
Against this I suggest that Hinduism is highly philosophically nuanced, and can equally be considered as panentheistic (not mainly pantheistic), that the materiality of Christianity is compromised in the ontology of an inevitable gnostic (knowing) uniqueness, that the selflessness involved in the release of the love of God in Robinson's scheme is rather like the selfless release that loses Buddhist samsara into Nirvana or the Hindu's joining pure self Atman with Brahman, and that the story basis of biblical Christianity and Hinduism in its sagas has rather closer parallels than might be admitted, plus both religions are heavily cultural in formation. Krishna may not be historical (some say he is) but what is the love of God in Christ? In what sense are these theological-belief terms, historical?
Kee says (119) that perhaps it is simply faith that says that God is revealed more in Christ than in Krishna, and that objective uniqueness in the end belongs to the ontological scheme. Robinson sometimes prefers the "decisiveness of Christ" (Kee, 1988, 119). But here is an important point: that although for Robinson Christ defines God, God is not confined to Christ (119), and despite his own affirming stance Robinson realised that his theology was not complete regarding Christ and his uniqueness,  arguing (posthumously) in 1987 that the Church had to learn how to state its conviction in the uniqueness of Christ (120).
The argument of this course is that the modern theologians of the twentieth century had done this; and were different from the openness in Essays and Reviews and the time of the Colenso controversy (the liberal schismatic bishop in South Africa). On this Robinson says:
I believe there are all too uncomfortable analogies to the ecclesiastical scene of a hundred years ago, when (as we now recognize) the guardians of traditional orthodoxy all but rendered impossible the true defence of the Gospel. When we consider the distance we have all moved since then, we can see that almost everything said from within the Church at the time has since proved too conservative. What I have tried to say, in a tentative and exploratory way, may seem to be radical,  and doubtless to many heretical. The one thing that I am fairly sure is that, in retrospect, it will be seen to have erred in not being nearly radical enough. November 1962. John Woolwich. (Robinson, 1963, 9-10)
In the end, John Robinson's Christological heart was a statement of dogmatics. He realised the problem he had left, in a process-functional approach to the realisation of the love of God decisively in one man Jesus Christ: but in the end he just asserted it, and said that the Church had to learn how to assert it. In this sense he was not radical, not in the sense that the authors of Essays and Reviews were.
John Arthur Thomas Robinson was born in 1919 and died in 1983 from cancer. After being Bishop of Woolwich he was Dean of Trinity College until his death.

Main Points Summary:


Some Relevant Titles, all by Robinson, J. A. T. unless stated otherwise, focussing on theological issues and problems.

(1945), Thou Who Art, Cambridge: University of Cambridge unpublished thesis.

(1963, 1994 imprint), Honest to God, London: SCM Press, .

Edwards, D. J. (ed.) (1963), The Honest to God Debate, London: SCM Press.

(1967), But that I Can't Believe! London: Collins Fontana.

(1967), Exploration into God, London: SCM Press Ltd., .

(1967), Jesus and His Coming: the Emergence of a Doctrine, London: SCM Press Ltd.

(1973), The Human Face of God, London: SCM Press.

(1977), On Being the Church in the World, London: Mowbray.

(1980), Roots of a Radical, London: SCM Press Ltd., .

(1979), Truth is Two Eyed, London: SCM Press Ltd., .

(1987), Where Three Ways Meet, London: SCM Press.

Kee, A. (1988), The Roots of Christian Freedom: The Theology of John A. T. Robinson, London: SPCK.

McEnhill, P., Newlands, G. (2004), 'Bonhoeffer, Dietrich', 70-80, 'Bultmann, Rudolf', 85-90, 'Tillich, Paul', 255-263, Fifty Key Christian Thinkers, Routledge Key Guides, London: Routledge.


<-- Previous SessionClick for the previous session's resource paper on Essays and Reviews  <-- Discussion -->Click for the discussion on John Robinson  Next Session -->The Myth of God Incarnate (1978) - Meanings of Myth


Adrian Worsfold