Richard Hanson’s criticisms of Honest to God
March 31, 2015
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.