Honest with God

A look at the new book of John A.T. Robinson

BERNARD E. SETON, Departmental Secretary, Southern European Division

Sometime ago a certain bishop was confined to bed for about three months. During his en­forced rest he did some theological thinking and prepared material for a book that has since be­come world famous. The writer is Dr. John A. T. Robinson, Anglican bishop of Woolwich, in London. The book?—Honest to God

The slim volume (141 pages) was an immediate best seller. In fourteen months it passed through ten editions, and is still selling apace. A reading of the book, how­ever, makes some wonder why it achieved such fame, for it is not well written, and it contains very little original thought. It is largely a compilation of other men's thoughts—as the author admits. Why, then, the stir that attended this publica­tion?

Any answer to a query concerning the book's popularity must deal with its thesis, which in simple language may be fairly summarized as follows:

Our long-held anthropological ideas of God are invalid, and should be abandoned along with our outmoded concepts of a flat earth with heaven above and hell be­neath. We should go further, urges Robinson: we should jettison all ideas of a per­sonal God, a Supreme Being who exists apart from ourselves in some other section of space. We should, in harmony with the scientific thought of our age, be ready to ac­knowledge God as "the Ground of our be­ing"—that is, the very center of our own consciousness—and as nothing more. The bishop, in fact, recommends a religion that dispenses with all thought of a personal transcendent Deity, and a Christianity that speaks only of a human Christ.

This thesis, as before suggested, is by no means original with the bishop of Wool­wich. The greater part of the author's thought is drawn from the writings of Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and Rudolf Bultmann, men whose names carry consid­erable weight in contemporary theology but whose views are known to be incompat­ible with conservative teaching. The ac­claim that greeted Robinson's book no doubt arose from the fact that he had gath­ered scattered ideas on one topic—mod­ern interpretations of the nature of God—between the covers of a slim paperback, that he expressed those ideas in slightly less technical language than that of his main sources, and, above all, that such thoughts harmonize with the antitheistic spirit of our age, a spirit that is glad to dispense with God and to cry, "Glory to man in the highest! for man is the master of things." Dr. Robinson has told the world just what the world today has wanted to hear.

But let us utter no cheap jibes against the author of Honest to God and his fel­low travelers. The bishop has written sin­cerely; he is being honest. But millions of honest men have traveled wrong roads be­fore him and reached wrong conclusions, and we believe the bishop is keeping them company. We, however, must recognize that he is taking thousands upon thousands with him. There is no doubt that his phi­losophy is shared, in varying degrees, by the vast majority of Western men. The num­ber of those who believe in the personal God portrayed in the Bible and in the di­vine-human Jesus Christ of the New Testa­ment is a small number indeed. And it is better for us to face that distasteful fact than to delude ourselves, to hide our heads in the sand of ignorance, and to refuse to recognize the current climate of opinion. Here there is no bliss in ignorance and no folly in being wise.

This situation presents our evangelists, our Bible teachers, our theological stu­dents, and our administrators with a grave and inescapable problem, namely: How can we effectively preach the Advent mes­sage to such an educated but skeptical gen­eration? How can we persuade men to re­spect the Bible that they have abandoned, to believe in the God they consider out­moded, and to follow the Christ they judge to be divested of all meaningful divinity?

Can we, if we wish, bypass the problem and work only for those who are relatively unaffected by modern trends, or who are simple enough to be unconcerned with contemporary opinion? But those people are becoming increasingly fewer in num­ber and are generally drawn from the least thoughtful classes. If we content ourselves by ministering only to this minority we shall be guilty of neglecting the greater part of mankind, and shall be leaving a mass of humanity unaided, unaffected by the message we have been commissioned to preach. We must face the challenge of our age and find a way or ways of meeting its Godlessness and overcoming its baleful un­belief. How can we do this?

First we must prayerfully think. Some of the theologians with whom we so readily disagree have thought far more deeply than some of us have ever dreamed of do­ing. We need to do some down-to-earth and up-to-heaven thinking—to think deeply and highly about God, Christ, and His word. We need to measure up to the mental activity of those with whom we dif­fer; then, and not till then, we may gain a hearing and earn their respect, even if we do not gain their instant conversion.

But we need to do more than this. We need to consider our message in the light of the age in which we live. This is not heretical counsel. Noah, Moses, Paul—all the great evangelists—worked that way, and we should work similarly. We should restudy our doctrines and find ways of formulating them in twentieth-century rather than nineteenth-century terms. The essence of the doctrines need not change, but our ways of expressing them must make God's doctrine obvious to twentieth-cen­tury man. Such expression will not be easy, but it will be well worth attempting.

We then need to present to modern man a persuasive basis for belief in the Bible as the ever-relevant word of God. The ques­tion of inspiration, the inspiration of the Scriptures, lies at the very foundation of our faith and the very root of modern un­belief; and until we settle that question for ourselves, we are wasting our time in trying to build on shifting sand. Next, we need to clarify our own ideas of the God revealed in the Bible, and to learn to in­troduce thoughtful men and women to His personality and His power. Then the Son of God in the person of the Son of man must be convincingly portrayed to our con­temporaries; and the Holy Spirit, who alone can guide all men to truth, must be set forth as an eternal third of the eternal Trinity. When these four beliefs are squarely established, the remainder of our message will be relatively simple to present. Unless these four are accepted, we shall never make headway with today's in­telligentsia.

Let us, then, be honest with God and give Him the very best and highest con­sideration of which we are capable. Let us study His Word thoughtfully, with an ev­er-deepening understanding of its teach­ings. Let us study to find not a string of so-called proof texts with which to smite opponents but rather to uplift Jesus Christ as Creator and Redeemer. Paul declares that it is "the preaching of the cross," which "is the power of God" (1 Cor. 1:18), that will demand the attention of the thoughtful, and will bring the sincere face to face with One before whom they will bow and confess, "My Lord and my God."

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BERNARD E. SETON, Departmental Secretary, Southern European Division

April 1965

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