About eleven years ago a slipped disc immobilized an Anglican bishop, and the result was Honest to God. This was a potpourri of old German radical theology garnished for local consumption and dished up with an odd combination of flashy sensationalism and engaging diffidence. It questioned the biblical view of God, declared that the only intrinsic evil was lack of love, scoffed at the Atonement as “frankly incredible to ‘man come of age’ ” and requiring “for most men today more demythologizing even than the Resurrection,” and referred to the Incarnation in terms of “God dressed up—like Father Christmas.”
A poll taken among English booksellers in 1963 showed that Bishop Robinson’s volume sold more copies than Tropic of Cancer, and even edged the New English Bible into second place. Just when scandal and sales were receding, publisher and author fanned the flames with The Honest to God Debate, more than 100,000 copies of which were ordered before publication. It incorporated, inter alia, fifty letters, of which only five were hostile, and twenty-three reviews, not one of them from an evangelical source.
John Robinson, currently dean of chapel at Trinity College, Cambridge, has now produced a book on Christology entitled The Human Face of God (SCM, £2.50)—269 pages of the mixture as before. I make merely some general comments on a first reading of the book. It has seven chapters under the headings “Our Man,” “A Man,” “The Man,” “Man of God,” “God’s Man,” “God for Us,” and “Man for All.” “Who is Christ for us today?” it asks. What language can be used about his humanity, divinity, historicity, sinlessness, uniqueness, finality, and atoning work? Even more relevant, why do we go into these matters at all?
Before embarking on his subject, the author tells us that his views might lead to his sharing the fate of the “white liberal” in politics, and to accusations of “reductionist,” “adoptionist,” “humanist,” “and the rest.” He believes such potential critics will be wrong. Such an attitude suggests a self-identification with those who thanklessly confront long-entrenched evils (can’t you see that slogan: HERESY IS HEALTH?), tacitly assumes that to anticipate criticism is somehow to rebut it (a Muggeridgean ploy), and betrays Robinson into that characteristic dogmatism which does not tally with his oft-repeated disclaimer that he is merely “raising questions” to “test reactions.”
Let me confess that I have difficulty with the bishop, and not just on theological grounds. In this new book, as in Honest to God, I found myself diverted, puzzled, irritated, not just by what he is trying to say, but by the language in which he wraps it up. Such a self-proclaimed pursuer of truth might be expected to take more trouble over communication.
This may, of course, reflect my own intellectual inadequacy, but I cannot forget Robinson’s indiscreet admission near the beginning of Honest to God: “I cannot claim to have understood all I am trying to transmit.” This is a procedure permissible only in prophets and poets, and John Robinson is manifestly neither. If he could not understand his own message, how could we trust him, and how could he later claim that he was misunderstood?
In the latter book, moreover, that he is not greatly concerned that others should not be misunderstood can be seen from the preface: “There are great writers and thinkers in the field to whose position as a whole I am well aware that I have not been just. I have used, or abused, what they have said for my own purposes.” Disarming candor in its place is all very well, but such tactics do not make more credible the battery of 1,042 footnotes in his book.
The champion of Lady Chatterley’s Lover has predictably in this volume too something to catch the secular press headlines: a point about whether Jesus was sexually aroused when the woman wiped his feet with her hair. And what emerges is the suggestion that in order to be “perfect” Jesus must have been an ambidextrous bisexual of middle height and no one particular blood group—behind which is a valid discussion in danger of being vitiated by the skittish way in which it is presented.
Among the traditional Christian beliefs Robinson here discards, or interprets differently, are the Atonement (p. 232), the Resurrection (131 f.), the pre-existence of Christ (37), the integrity of Scripture (passim), the Second Coming (117), and direct access to God in prayer (218 f.; cf. Honest to God, where Robinson tells how long ago he discovered he was “not the praying type”), and the uniqueness of Christianity (223). He questions our knowledge of the historic Jesus (“and does it matter anyhow?”) (p. 28), and the relevance today of patristic views of the humanity of Jesus (39). The saints come out of this book badly at the hands of one who is unsympathetic to their testimony and who thinks nothing of wresting words out of context.
Robinson has a maddening habit of not only “testing our reactions” but prescribing how we should react if we are not complete dunderheads. Thus page 39: “Hilary was canonized for views which can only cause us the acutest embarrassment” (views later defended by Thomas Aquinas). This, it should be noted, is not just the literary “we,” for the writer is elsewhere more than usually addicted to “I”—and his bibliography lists no fewer than ten of his own works, more than those of Barth, Brunner, Forsythe, Cullmann, and Mascall combined.
But the real giveaway in Robinson’s book is not something he said but a missing dimension. It reminded me of the Scots dominie trying to teach the Apostles’ Creed by allocating a phrase to each pupil, so that the class could go through the creed with each making his contribution at the right moment. One day all went well until an expected voice did not chime in with his part. There was silence for a moment before a voice piped up: “Please, sir, the boy who believes in the Holy Ghost is not here today.” Robinson mentions the Holy Spirit ten times, in different contexts but never later than the first century. For one so obsessed with contemporaneity (“Who is Christ for us today?”), the omission might be thought astounding. It may be that even the resourceful bishop could not find words to describe an emanation from the Ground of Being.
Some years ago I invited a Cambridge theological professor, now a colleague of John Robinson, to a gathering of evangelicals in the city. “Is it,” he inquired gently, “the sort of thing that will make me angry?” (It wasn’t; he came.) John Robinson’s book will make many people angry; one Scot is already feeling guilty that some sixty cents of the sum he spent on it will sustain the author for the writing of further books. His one comfort is that there can’t be much left for Robinson to demolish.
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