John Robinson (bishop of Woolwich)

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This article is about the Anglican bishop. For other people named John Robinson who have also served as bishops, see Bishop John Robinson (disambiguation)

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]

His book Honest to God caused controversy, as it called on Christians to view God as the "Ground of Being" rather than as a supernatural being "out there." In his later books, he championed early dates and apostolic authorship for the gospels, largely without success.[5]

Early life, ministry and academic career[edit]

Robinson was born in 1919 in the precincts of Canterbury Cathedral, England, where his father was a canon. He studied for ordination at Westcott House, Cambridge, after which his first position, in 1945, was as a curate at St Matthew Moorfields Church in Bristol. The vicar there 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.[6] Following an invitation from Mervyn Stockwood, by then the Bishop of Southwark, Robinson was made Bishop of Woolwich in 1959. He 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[7] and died later that year, on 5 December, in Arncliffe, North Yorkshire.[8]

Selected writings[edit]

In the End, God (1950)[edit]

Modern Universalist writer Brian Hebblethwaite[9] cites Robinson's In the End, God: A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things[10] as arguing for the universal reconciliation of all immortal souls. Ken R. Vincent, in The Golden Thread[11] 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[12] writes that "[i]f one is looking for an uninhibited proponent of universal salvation, Robinson leaves nothing to be desired."

Honest to God (1963)[edit]

Robinson wrote several notable books, the most famous being Honest to God published in 1963.[13] According to Exploration into God, published a few years lateer (1967), he felt its chief contribution was its attempt to synthesize the work of the theologians Paul Tillich and Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

Robinson proposed 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".[14] 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[15] ...... For assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about Love".[16]

Honest to God caused a storm of controversy. While the bulk of its ideas have been taken up by the more liberal circles of Christian thought, traditionalists and proponents of historical Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, reject them as anathema.[citation needed]

Redating the New Testament (1976)[edit]

Although Robinson was 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 willful blindness".[17][page needed]

Robinson concluded that much of the 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 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.[18][19] 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.[20][21][22]

In a letter to Robinson, the New Testament scholar C. H. Dodd wrote that "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."[23][24] 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 and Bernard Orchard.[citation needed]

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.[5]

The Priority of John (1984)[edit]

In The Priority of John,[10] 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. His 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 famous for his 1960 court testimony against the censorship of Lady Chatterley's Lover, claiming that it was a book which "every Christian should read".[25]

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."[26]

Bishop John Robinson has a Church of England Primary School named after him. The school is in Thamesmead in Greenwich -London , not far from Woolwich where he was Bishop

Further reading[edit]



  1. ^ Official Appointments and Notices, "New Bishop Suffragan of Woolwich", The Times (London, ENG, UK) (54477), 3 June 1959: 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), 7 December 1983: 30, col A .
  4. ^ Dybdahl, Jon, "Is There Hope for the Unevangelized?", Dialogue (Adventist), retrieved 29 November 2007 .
  5. ^ a b Cross, FL, ed. (2005), "Robinson, John Arthur Thomas", The Oxford Dictionary of the Christian Church, New York: Oxford University Press .
  6. ^ Crockford's Clerical Directory 1975-76, Lambeth: Church House, 1975, ISBN 0-19-200008-X .
  7. ^
  8. ^ New York Times Obituary 
  9. ^ Hebblethwaite, Brian (2 September 2010). The Christian Hope. Oxford University Press. p. 190. ISBN 978-0-19-162508-4. 
  10. ^ a b Robinson 2011.
  11. ^ Vincent, Ken R (5 August 2005). The Golden Thread. iUniverse. p. 6. ISBN 978-0-595-81105-2. 
  12. ^ 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. 
  13. ^ Robinson 2002.
  14. ^ Robinson 2002, pp. 63, 75, 105, 115f., 127, 130.
  15. ^ Robinson 2002, pp. 22, 75.
  16. ^ Robinson 2002, p. 105.
  17. ^ Robinson 2000.
  18. ^ Be thinking .
  19. ^ Robinson 2000, p. 352.
  20. ^ "The Historicity of Jesus Christ", The Christian Courier .
  21. ^ Grant R. Jeffrey Ministries .
  22. ^ "Robinson's views on the Shroud of Turin", Shroud story (FAQ) .
  23. ^ JMM, AU: AAA .
  24. ^ Robinson 2000, pp. 359-60.
  25. ^ "Attempt To Portray Sex As Something Sacred – Bishop A Witness For Defence", The Times, 28 October 1960; p. 6.
  26. ^ "The retired Bishop John Shelby Spong interview", Read the Spirit, 23 June 2013 .


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