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He was a lecturer at Trinity College, Cambridge, and later Dean of Trinity College until his death in 1983 from cancer. 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.
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.
He 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 and his first position, in 1945, was as a curate at St Matthew Moorfields Church, Bristol, where the vicar 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. He then was invited by Mervyn Stockwood, who was by this time Bishop of Southwark, to become Bishop of Woolwich. Eventually, in 1969, he returned to Cambridge to be Fellow and Dean of Chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge. He did not hold a university teaching post, but lectured and wrote several more books. He died on 5 December 1983 in Cambridge.
Modern Universalist writer Brian Hebblethwaite cites Robinson's In the End, God. A Study of the Christian Doctrine of the Last Things as arguing for universal reconciliation of all immortal souls. Ken R Vincent in The Golden Thread states "Anglican Bishop John Robinson notes that “Christ, in Origen's old words, remains on the Cross so long as one sinner remains in hell. 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 writes "If one is looking for an uninhibited proponent of universal salvation, Robinson leaves nothing to be desired."
Robinson wrote several notable books, the most famous being Honest to God in 1963. His own evaluation of Honest to God, found in the subsequent Exploration into God, stated that the chief contribution of this work was its synthesis of the work of the 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". After endorsing Paul Tillich's assertion that God is the "Ground of all being", 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". He also wrote: "For assertions about God are in the last analysis assertions about Love".
Honest to God caused a storm of controversy. While the bulk of his ideas have become integrated with the more liberal circles of Christian thought, he is considered an extremist, and his ideas considered anathema, by traditionalists and proponents of historical Christianity, both Catholic and Protestant, such as neo-orthodox, paleo-orthodox, and evangelicals.
Although Robinson was within the liberal theology tradition, he challenged the work of colleagues in the field of exegetical criticism. Specifically, 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".[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 Temple's AD 70 destruction. In relation to the four gospels' dates of authorship, Robinson placed 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 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 that bear his name, and that the apostle John wrote the fourth Gospel. Robinson also opined that because of his investigations, a rewriting of many theologies of the New Testament was in order.
C. H. Dodd, in a 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, Günther Zuntz, Carsten Peter Thiede, Eta Linnemann, Harold Riley, Bernard Orchard.
Robinson's early dates for the gospels, especially John, have not carried widespread conviction among modern-critical scholars, although some conservative and traditionalist scholars concur with his dating of the synoptics.
In The Priority of John, 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'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."
|Church of England titles|
Robert William Stannard
|Bishop of Woolwich|
David Stuart Sheppard