Honest to God


Honest to God is a book written by the Anglican Bishop of Woolwich John A.T. Robinson, criticising traditional Christian theology. It aroused a storm of controversy on its original publication by SCM Press in 1963. Robinson had already achieved notoriety by his defence of the publication of Lady Chatterley's Lover.

Robinson's own evaluation of Honest to God, found in the subsequent Exploration into God stated that the chief contribution of this book was its successful synthesis of the work of seemingly opposed theologians Paul Tillich, Dietrich Bonhoeffer and Rudolf Bultmann.

Major themes in Honest to God

The overwhelming theory of Honest to God is the idea that having rejected the idea of 'God up there', modern secular man also needs to recognise that the idea of God out there is also an outdated simplification of the nature of divinity. Rather, Christians should take their cue from the existentialist theology of Paul Tillich and consider God to be 'the ground of our being'.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer's notion of religionless Christianity is also a major theme in the book. Robinson's interpretation of this phrase is - inevitably - controversial. He claims that secular man requires a secular theology. That is, that God's continuing revelation to humanity is one brought about in culture at large, not merely within the confines of "religion" or "church."

The book also introduced the idea of situational ethics to an English speaking audience. This was a form of relativism, based on the idea that morals codes are not set in stone, but may be subject to circumstances.

Controversy and criticism

The book was controversial even before its publication, as an interview about it with Robinson in the Observer bore the provocative headline 'Our Image of God Must Go'. Some of the letters and articles for and against Robinson's views were published by the end of the year in The Honest to God Debate. A flurry of books on the subject appeared by everyone from the Ceylon Rationalist Association to Patience Strong.

The book was almost universally condemned by traditionalists, but was hailed as a breath of fresh air by many liberals. However, not all liberals were in favour: many, including Michael Ramsey, Archbishop of Canterbury, thought that Robinson's theology was weak, and that he had only a vague understanding of many of the issues he attempted to bring into the mainstream.

In his last interview before his death, C. S. Lewis was asked, "What do you think of the controversial new book Honest to God, by John Robinson, the bishop of Woolwich? Lewis replied, “I prefer being honest to being ‘honest to God.’”


Further reading

  • The Economist interviews: the Archbishop of Canterbury June 13, 1964
  • Robinson, J A T Honest to God, 1963, John Knox Press. reprint edition: ISBN 0-664-24465-3, 40th anniv. edition 2003: ISBN 0-664-22422-9

External sources

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