Richard Hanson’s criticisms of Honest to God

Honest to God Debate

Now that I have dealt with Bonhoeffer’s prison letters, I am curious to explore the Death of God movement that appealed to Bonhoeffer for support. At the seminary library, I stumbled across The Honest to God Debate, a very interesting volume featuring Richard Hanson, among several other notable contributors.

R. P. C. Hanson (1916-1988) was one of the English-speaking world’s most accomplished patristics scholars, beginning with his first major academic post as Lightfoot Professor of Divinity at the University of Durham in the early 60’s. His later roles included professorships at Nottingham and Manchester, plus stints as a bishop in the Church of Ireland and an assistant bishop in the Church of England. His many publications include monographs on Origen and, most importantly, his magisterial tome, The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God (T&T Clark, 1988), first published in the year of his death. It was republished by Baker Academic in 2006 and remains unsurpassed in technical detail and discussion of emerging Nicene orthodoxy. He also contributed to Sources Chrétiennes.

During his time at Durham, Richard Hanson contributed to The Honest to God Debate, a collection of short reviews and articles in response to John A. T. Robinson’s infamous 1963 volume. The firestorm of controversy and debate is indicated by the fact that SCM Press was able to publish this response volume in the same year! Among the several short reviews are those written by C. S. Lewis, E. L. Mascall, Rudolf Bultmann, and Herbert McCabe, and then there are a few articles, featuring John Macquarrie, Daniel Jenkins, Alisdair MacIntyre, and John Robinson himself. There are even several letters from readers. It’s a fascinating volume, that I’ve only had a chance to skim through, reading bits and pieces. It is still in print by SCM Press, but I would buy it used.

Hanson’s review of Honest to God is especially good. Hanson notes that Robinson’s book is “full of warm piety and strong faith,” on account of his belief in a personal God. Yet, Hanson is wary about how Robinson is also “deeply influenced by Bonhoeffer, Tillich and Bultmann and by the current flight from metaphysics in philosophy.” Here is Hanson:

I suspect that at the critical point of his philosophical argument there lurks a confusion. This God is not ‘outside’ the world and is not a divine Being separate from it, yet he must be a Person, for how can love (which is his very essence) be anything but personal or experienced by persons? Dr Robinson never faces this dilemma. Again, a transcendence which is not ‘outside’ or ‘above’ our world, but part of it, without being pantheistic, sounds philosophically ersatz. The terms in which both Jewish and Christian thought as reflected in the Bible stated God’s transcendence were not those of metaphysical abstraction nor separation but of sovereignty, control. Dr Robinson never recognizes this. His brief Christological sketch (pp. 70-75) is a fine piece of work which will command the assent of many scholars. But he never faces the fact that what gives the self-emptying and self-abandonment of Christ its burning power and irresistible attraction is that this act is the act of the sovereign God of the Old Testament who is in command of the world which he is redeeming. We cannot apprehend the depth of the divine love displayed in the self-emptying until we apprehend the mightiness of the God who empties himself. Or is this mightiness merely ‘primitive philosophically’ (p. 33), and part of an obsolete myth, a ‘superworld of divine objects’? Again, our Lord did not claim to reveal to us the love of the ‘transcendental, the unconditional in all our experience’ (p. 131), but of our heavenly Father. There is something slightly ludicrous in the Bishop’s attempt to reduce God to ‘the ground of existence’ after the manner of Tillich, and then to insist that he is nothing but love. Dr Robinson will have to consider much more carefully what he means by ‘love’.

Hanson recognizes the incoherence in appealing to a transcendent “unconditional in all our experience,” which is also somehow personal and yet also somehow not “outside”! It’s bewildering indeed. Hanson then continues by discussing the influence of Bonhoeffer on Robinson:

The Bishop appears to be intoxicated with the thought of Bonhoeffer as a martyr, but we must also remember that the Arians in the fourth century appealed for support in their heresy to the words of the martyr Lucian of Antioch. Bonhoeffer’s theory, much admired by the Bishop of Woolwich, that man has now ‘come of age’ seems to me a silly and unprofitable one. How can we know whether the human race has come of age till we know for how long it is going to exist? Robinson appears to use this concept in order to maintain the autonomy of modern man, his non-dependence upon God. …

Finally, will the Bishop succeed in commending the Christian faith by his new ideas? He may commend it effectively to intellectuals. But will this new approach appeal to the housewife in the housing estate, the trade-unionist in the factory, the railwayman on the footplate? ….

[The Honest to God Debate, pp. 108-110]

I gather that Hanson is not a fan of the later Bonhoeffer.



    • And the connection to Robinson’s (and DoGs) appeal to Bonhoeffer as the Arians appeal to Lucian as martyr is punchy as well.

      Hanson has some rhetorical fire hidden in his mild English manner! 🙂

      • I recently acquired Hanson’s The Search for the Christian Doctrine of God from a retired pastor. I read some journal reviews, as I like to do before I purchase or read a book, and one of the reviewers listed several examples of his punchy jabs and quirky analogies, mostly in the second half of the volume. I am looking forward to it. Considering the tedium of detail (also noted by reviewers), it is good to know that he is also capable of being rhetorically colorful.

  1. Should the later Bonhoeffer be considered more of a development of aspects of his earlier thought or a radical break under extraordinary circumstances? I know it’s not necessarily an either-or, but which is closer?

    • “Radical break” may be too strong of a way to put it, but it does appear to be a significant divergence, as he warned Bethge about his new thoughts. If we were to discuss a line of continuity, then we could perhaps say that Bonhoeffer always prioritized ethics, and his “non-religious interpretation” is an extension of this prioritization.

  2. Radical immanence turns out to be another form of transcendence, though not a self-aware one; you won’t find more metaphysics anywhere than you’ll find in the theology of Thomas J.J. Altizer, that most radical of the Death of God theologians.

  3. By the way, guys, y’all may be interested in this documentary on the Death of God movement, featuring interviews with Altizer and the none-too-impressed local folks!

    • Altizer was a smart guy, and capable of deep thinking. He had some profound insights that were not out of keeping with traditional kenotic theology.

      But he had gotten on the relevance train, and there was nothing more important to him than making Christianity relevant to the new age of secularism that he and many other Western thinkers were absolutely certain would sweep the world. He tried to do so by remaking Christian theology in the image of secular academics and literary critics; in so doing, he ironically put himself into a now anachronistic secularization theory ghetto. As a result, he could freely speak his new “Christian” language to intelligentsia who had no interest in it, but had absolutely nothing to say to the hundreds of millions of people throughout the world hungering for Jesus Christ.

      What a sad misapplication of a brilliant mind.

      • Yes, it is rather isolated and anachronistic now. We have to say that the DoG theology and all that it represents has been a failure. As far as I can tell, it has no appeal for anyone except for the nouveau intellectuels of former evangelical patronage and the scattered few within the mainline Protestant churches who care about such things. It is completely irrelevant and entirely off-base for any serious Catholic dogmatics.

      • On the plus side, I appreciate how Altizer is trying to challenge the complacency of the church and think seriously about theology. If I were a student at Emory in the 60’s, I could see myself flocking to Altizer’s classes.

      • I think Altizer is fascinating. As a former student of Zen Buddhism, I’m especially interested in his 1963 essay “Nirvana and the Kingdom of God,” wherein he draws on the development of radical immanence in Mahayana Buddhist philosophy to extend his own theology of God’s total and irreversible immersion in the secular, non-transcendent world (this is what he meant by the death of God). Heady stuff, and imaginative, but no staying power.

  4. Christologically speaking, if you want to know why Robinson and Altizer might get some traction, even 50 years later, check out Jared Byas’ cri de coeur against conservative evangelicalism’s bad transcendence and risible caricature of Chalcedon in his post on “Human Jesus” [sic] over at Peter Enns’ blog. As an observer, I felt like an anthropologist on Mars.

    • On the other hand, evangelicals are routinely accused of having a too human Jesus, which one of my professors simply described as “Jesus spirituality,” referring to the “personal relationship” emphasis in evangelicalism and the dominance of friend (or lover) images in evangelical worship songs. I guess Byas’ comeback would be that this is a too clean, antiseptic human Jesus, not gritty enough.

      • Yeah, that too. Go figure. Cf. the following in my next batch of doodlings:

        A new dating app in the US is providing a service called “The Invisible Boyfriend”, which lets you text an imaginary partner. It should immensely enrich the prayer-life of teenage girls in conservative evangelical churches.

  5. Oh man. So much to say. First, the documentary, I think, says more about the smallmindedness of 1960’s Georgia than it does about how Altizer is wrong (gotta love the correlative connection made by the good doctor between drinking beer and atheism!). But, of course, that’s just my bias coming out. Second, though I can’t support where Altizer goes in his appropriation of Bonhoeffer’s questioning, I see his as an important voice in contemporary theology, particularly in attempting to answer theologically questions about the disconnect between felt experience of the divine and the reality of revelation.

    The way I see it, attacking Altizer’s “Death of God” is sort of like kicking your grandma after she’s said something silly. It may be silly, but she still loves you! Altizer (and Hamilton–I wonder why the documentary didn’t say anything about him?) presented a theological hypothesis and ran with it. They have done those of us who have come after them a service, in testing this hypothesis and attempting to understand what it might look like (and revealing some of their pitfalls).

    Altizer reminds us (or SHOULD remind us) that psychoanalysis, human experience, social research and the like should all play a role in developing theology. Whenever we keep theology solely in the realm of metaphysics, we begin to lose grounding, just as keeping theology solely in the realm of sociology or political theory would do. Because Christian theology is grounded in the revelation of God (per Barth) as found in scripture, we must bring not only metaphysics, but also political science, literary theory, anthropology and the like in order to read it (per Bonhoeffer and Tillich).

    All that is to say that I believe this argument is less about “authority” or “orthodoxy” and more about what we bring with us when we engage the hermeneutical process. Altizer brings a unique mix to the table (both consciously and subconsciously), and thus arrives at his conclusion as he does. Hanson was an Irish Patrick scholar, among other things, so that’s what he brings to the table (a knee-jerk reflex to bring the conversation into the realm of the Arian controversy, such as a patristics scholar would do). As soon as we begin divorcing theologies from those who hold them, we are on dangerous ground–because we then start holding our own ideas up as though we’ve “arrived.” And in the process we start to box God in (which is precisely what radical theology is critiquing). I didn’t read Robinson’s piece, but it seems like he was trying to do just this (however effectively), based on what Hanson says. The radical theology community is an immensely important voice in theology for this exact reason.

    • Matt, you know that radical theology leads to drunkenness! 😉

      I agree that we cannot divorce theologies from those who hold them, but Hanson was just making an analogy, whether good or bad, of Robinson’s appeal to B’s martyrdom. What Hanson brings to the table is a scholar’s expertise on patristics and the role of metaphysics in the development of Christian doctrine. St. Patrick was a side interest.

      Anyway, the legitimacy of “political science, literary theory, anthropology” within the theologian’s toolkit is fine with me. The problem is that they routinely condition what is true of God and his work, hence the problem with Tillich’s method of correlation. I know you disagree, but that’s why you’re a Tillichian and I’m a Barthian. Of course, we are just speaking in generalities here, and we would need concrete examples to flesh this out — maybe at another time.

      • Yes, later. This is a conversation worth having. I’m interested to know your own perspective on what conditions what is true of God. What would Barth say about this?

      • CD I.I and II.1 are the best places for understanding how Barth handles the use of philosophical and cultural concepts, invariably as we must since we use language. There is always some conditioning (of our understanding of God) as a result, but the question is how we allow God’s own revelation (“self-disclosure” as Barthians like to say) establish itself as the final norm and authority.

    • I use to be entranced by the radical-critique of ‘boxing God’.

      I believe it’s true that this is a constant attempt at too systematic attempts at theology. We take the Lord over All, and tell Him what He can and can’t do. I recall a bus ride for a class where one guy was asking questions about theodicy and contemplating the Euthyphro dilemma. A girl spoke up saying bad things happen because free will, God can’t step in without violating. Putting God in a box is bad news.

      But that is different than God creating the conditions in which He approaches us. After all, providentially, nothing exists that He did not ordain and, inspirationally, He made Human words sacred that were previously common.

      So Tillich (and Robinson) sound so edgy when divorced from the fact that the Bible becomes just another box for God. It’s apart of why Jesus’ identification with God tends to be sketchy. How could the Incarnation be THE fullness of Godhead?

      Even though Hanson doesn’t say it, it’s the same kind of consideration for many of the Arians. They took the philosophical idea of their day as paramount, and any naive biblicism needed to be contextualized.

      God may have used Arius to drive us back to the Bible. The man should chasten certain kinds of Nicene theologies that begin to unweld from the Scripture. But doesn’t mean it’s not bad theology and shouldn’t be rejected. Radical theology functions similarly.

      • I agree that we can (and must?) reject elements of what Altizer and Hamilton were saying. I don’t think we can say the transcendent God of creation is dead. So in that sense, I agree with you. But I disagree with your implication that Altizer, Hamilton, and all those who have come since represent the fullness of radical theology. The “death-of-godders” as they’re called are just one iteration of the radical camp.

        I profoundly disagree with your characterization of radical theology as taking “the philosophical idea of their day as paramount, and any naive biblicism needed to be contextualized.” Tillich doesn’t do this at all. His ground of being concept comes as much from the OT books of prophesy as it does from Kierkegaardian philosophy. Bonhoeffer certainly didn’t do this. His late works were soaked in the sweat from the struggle to justify the God of Abraham with his felt experience. Augustine himself sought throughout his life to pair scripture with with the “ideas of his day” (can you even begin to understand Augustine without first understanding 4th century neo-Platonism?). Calvin’s system is extra-biblical and is only possible with the fusing of the textual criticism of Greek and Hebrew scripture and the individualizing tendencies of 16th century humanism. ALL theology is contextualized.

        Radical theology fundamentally rejects the notion that ANY theology can be separated from the “ideas of the day.” But Radical theology, in its highest form, does not dismiss scripture as naive. Contextualizing is not dismissing. Within the arc of scripture itself, we see contextualizing over and over again, which is why Paul’s letters are so different, depending on the community to which he was writing (and which is also why we can see Paul’s theology develop as he moves through Asia minor to Rome).

        You say that God “made Human words sacred that were previously common.” First of all, that statement alone can be interpreted in profoundly different, and even mutually exclusive, ways. Second, it is an extra-biblical contextualization (such a statement is found nowhere in scripture, though it may in fact bear some truth which is supported in scripture). This is what radical theology does–it points out false assumptions we make about our theologies, and perpetually forces us back to the drawing table. I understand this is frustrating to structural theologians (just as postmodern philosophy is frustrating to structural philosophers), but that should not be the reason we use to summarily dismiss it.

        I disagree with much of what Altizer and Hamilton say. I believe God is very much alive. But I take seriously their criticism because it is only in doing so that my own theology is tested and reformed.

      • I’m not arguing against contextualizing and pairing up Augustine and Calvin against Tillich and Bonhoeffer. They all lived in their own times and used the language, tools etc. available for their parsing through Scripture.

        Augustine had the humility to be cautious in his thinking. Works like the Confessions and the Retractions are vestiges to an attitude of incompleteness and constant reformation. Is this constitute “radical theology”? Is this nothing more than an ‘ad fontes’ approach?

        I guess what I really see is problematic is a doctrine of Scripture that does not possess infallibility through its relation to Christ. This, zealously enjoined with ‘ad fontes’ and an understanding of context, is the best place to walk. Can we allow the Biblical Witness to blow out the back of our own terms and languages for the divine, the world, and ourselves?

        If this is what you regard, then I retract my criticisms.

  6. I agree with whitefrozen that the kenotic suggestions of Hanson are indeed compelling. I think that folks found Robinson’s Honest to God appealing but it is simply another run of cultural captivity for the gospel. I really sympathize with Robinson and those who seek to follow in his steps. It can seem like heady and breathtaking stuff if you are a recovering right wing fundamentalist, however, it becomes bland and un-inspiring in short order.

    This prioritization of cultural norms for theology reminds me of Tillich’s existential approach, which in the end allows culture to establish the criterion for acceptable theology or Bultmann who simply guts the Bible.

    That is why i enjoyed Hanson’s comment:
    “Again, our Lord did not claim to reveal to us the love of the ‘transcendental, the unconditional in all our experience’ (p. 131), but of our heavenly Father.”


    It is commitment to the Biblical language itself, even in its most obtuse and puzzling passages that holds such power and effiacy, not by translating into modern idiom.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s