ACR JournalChurch History

Things I’ve learned along the way: studying D. W. B. Robinson


In the year 2001, about fifty metres from where we now stand, a young West Australian skipped a Hebrew class to listen to a slightly and elderly man, dressed in bishop’s purple and a clerical collar, teach on the Epistle of James. The class stood as he entered the room and remained standing while he prayed. They addressed him, neither by his Christian name ‘Donald’, nor by the title of his most recent posting, ‘Archbishop’, but by the clerical order he occupied through the laying on of hands, ‘Bishop Robinson.’ 

The whole spectacle struck the young West Australian as otherworldly and exotic, but not pompous or inauthentic. The effect was to lull students into a false sense of security—a security quickly removed as this unassuming figure treated the class to an exegetical tour de force, with original and daring insights thrown at the unsuspecting class with a muzzle-velocity for which none were prepared. 


Today I have been asked to share some of what I have learned whilst studying the life and work of Donald Robinson. I feel I need to first offer some explanation of how I—someone not from Sydney and not an Anglican—became obsessed with this towering figure of Sydney Anglicanism.

I moved to Sydney from Perth in 2001 to study at Moore College. I was brought up in a wonderful Baptist family and Baptist theological environment—pious, conversionistic, dispensationalist and Arminian. Through a complex journey I found my way into the Reformed version of the faith and, after some years of work and ministry, I got in a car and drove across Australia to attend Australia’s most prominent College in the Reformed tradition, Moore College. 

My first year was thrilling, but also disorientating. The theology was rich and clearly evangelical, but the emphasis and approach to Scripture was distinct. The deck was reformed, but the cards were shuffled very differently. Matters I thought would be settled were open for discussion, exegesis was an adventure, covenantal theology was subsumed under the wider category of kingdom, critical theology was read generously, and biblical theology was everywhere. The categories of Reformed theology were servants to the task of reading the Bible, rather than a dominant voice which had decided beforehand what you would discover in the Bible before you had opened it.  

I was both bewildered and enthralled. Curious, I made it one of my projects to work out who had shuffled the deck in this way.

I began listening my way through the Moore College tape library. First was D. B. Knox, whose lectures were exciting and illuminating with respect to my question. I then moved onto the other figure whose name I also kept hearing (though not quiteas much), Donald Robinson. 

I was captured. The style of lecture was more formal and less Socratic than Knox, but the proposals were to my mind even more original and exciting. I devoured them all, talked about them enthusiastically with friends, palmed-off some of his exegetical insights as my own, and eventually became that West Australian who skipped a Hebrew class to listen to the man whose teaching was re-shaping my thinking. 

Biographical sketch

So, who was that small, elderly man in purple saying profound things to a classroom of Moore College first years?

Donald William Bradley Robinson was born in Lithgow, NSW in 1922, the son of prominent Anglican rector, R. B. Robinson. He grew up in Lithgow, Leichhardt, Chatswood and eventually Newtown as his father occupied various roles the diocese. His academic record at high school was patchy. Crucially, however, was able to begin Greek studies at school, which put him in a powerful position for biblical studies later on. Spiritually, he was a convinced evangelical. He has no awareness of a conversion experience, and was an active Christian witness and had a ministry right through his years of schooling. 

At Sydney University, he studied classics and languages, exercised Christian leadership in the Evangelical Union (EU), and stood at the very start of a long and noble tradition of EU presidents and vice-presidents marrying each other. University was interrupted by war service in Brisbane and PNG. 

He studied at Cambridge in the immediate post-war years and drank deeply from the cup of the Divinity department there. 

He and his treasured wife Marie returned to Sydney in 1951 and, after ordination and curacies, began teaching at Moore College in 1952, an institution at which he was to teach continuously until 2002. The only years in which he did not teach were the decade of the 1980s, when he served as Archbishop of Sydney and Metropolitan of NSW.

My PhD topic was Bishop Robinson’s thought and influence, and I am currently working on a biography. What lessons have I learned along the way? Very briefly, I have four:

  • Reading the Bible is an adventure.

First, Robinson taught me that reading the Bible is an adventure. He taught his students that the world of the Bible was untamed, wild, not garden, but wilderness. To enter into the world of the Bible was to enter into a world where we are visitors, not proprietors. We are like guests in another person’s country, and we are required to exercise the associated virtues of humility and curiosity. It is not our job to colonise the Bible, but to understand it on its own terms, and—if we are disciples —to allow its patterns and concerns to shape our own. 

Robinson was the consummate curious and humble guest. His powers of observation led him to see sometimes startling and uncomfortable features in the biblical landscape. He believed that ‘the saints’ in the NT was a technical term for Jewish Christians, that question of the extent of the canon was a live one for us today, that the church was not the new Israel, that ‘baptism in the Spirit’ is not a synonym for conversion but a post-conversion Pentecostal experience and so forth. Indeed, his book of baptism in the NT was rejected by evangelical UK publishers on the grounds that it was too radical. It was apparently said that Robinson’s work would be for baptism what John Robinson’s Honest to God was for theism.  

Robinson relentlessly interrogated the text for what was there, which made reading the Bible an adventure, rather than an exercise in theological confirmation bias.

  • Tradition creates obligations.

The second thing I’ve learned from Robinson, which sits in some tension with the first, is the obligating power of tradition. Alongside Robinson’s sometimes radical exegesis sat a tenacious loyalty to the traditions of the Anglican communion. Indeed, the contrast between Robinson the scholar and Robinson the archbishop was so profound that many felt he had abandoned his scholarship by the manner in which he approached the role of archbishop. He put down his radical scholar’s pen and picked up a conservative bishop’s staff, somehow seeing the two roles hermetically sealed-off from each other.

There’s something in that. But for what it’s worth I have found myself resistant to the idea that he set aside the one role in order to take up the other. 

I believe there is a greater through-line between his scholarship and his episcopacy than has generally been realised. History creates something of an optical illusion here, giving the impression of two distinct phases when in fact there was great overlap. For example, Robinson was writing some of his most original scholarly work whilst serving as bishop in Paramatta. And whilst he was thrilling students with his radical NT ecclesiology in the 1960s, he was simultaneously immersed in the liturgical revisions that would lead to the publication of An Australian Prayer Book. Somehow, these things were happening together rather than in succession. 

His doctrine of church has both affinities and key differences with what Knox was also teaching. A careful disentangling of the Knox from the Robinson view of church can be helpful in this respect.

Conversely, Robinson continued to exercise his original scholarly judgement in the debates of the day as archbishop. His argumentation against the ordination of women to the priesthood is an example. For this he drew deeply on his understanding of the canon, of the nature of apostolic authority, of the roles of ‘Gospel’ and ‘Apostle’, and on the nature of biblical paradoses(tradition). It was a distinct formulation of the argument, grounded in the NT theology he first began to hammer out at Cambridge, and it won the respect of theological opponents such as Kevin Giles.

I think what we can see in Robinson is a kind of Burkean regard for tradition. The primary obligations placed on us by the tradition of Scripture do not then render as nothing the obligations of the traditions in which we find ourselves. Non-scriptural tradition can (and in some cases must) be put aside. But the process by which this is done is iterative, complex, and patient. He shared the spirit of Chesterton in seeing tradition as a democracy of the dead, giving a voice to the most obscure of all classes, our ancestors. And he shared Burke’s intuition that institutions and societies are complex, and any lever of change you pull will almost always cause other changes you did not anticipate and may not welcome.

I am here being descriptive rather than programmatic, trying to make sense of what was, rather than prescribe what ought to have been. Robinson’s commitments were extremely frustrating to those seeking urgent reform in the 1980s. But his commitment to those traditions was principled, and part of consistent pattern of thought. If I am too much a creature of my own generation to embrace the same commitments, I have come at least to admire them and the coherence of his commitment to them.

  • The value of principled collaboration in scholarship

Thirdly, I think I learned from Robinson the value of principled collaboration in scholarship. 

The Sydney diocese has sometimes been accused of organizational and theological isolation. It has become one of my regular dinner party set-pieces to argue that this is not so. Robinson’s scholarship is an excellent counter-example. Two examples will serve the point.

First, Donald Robinson is increasingly and correctly recognized as the father of the Australian biblical theology moment—this discipled attempt to understand the Bible on its own terms. Robinson’s work on this in the early 1950s was hammered out in continual conversation with Father Gabriel Hebert, a leading Anglo-Catholic biblical scholar. 

Secondly, across the 1960s and into the 1970s, Robinson’s work on AAPBwas in very large measure a product of an intellectual partnership between Robinson and Brother Sinden, the Anglo-Catholic liturgist. 

Indeed, if we go back to the 1940s, it is interesting that Robinson went to Cambridge because of the work of critical scholars such as C. H. Dodd and C. F. D. Moule, at a time when many English evangelicals went to Cambridge with the strong encouragement to ignore anything they were taught in the Divinity School. 

Robinson’s capacity to combine evangelical conservatism with a principled and generous interaction with non-evangelical scholarship was both remarkable and fruitful, bequeathing to us artefacts such as the AAPB and Goldsworthy’s biblical theology, both resources that no sane evangelical would now want to do without.

  • Leadership beyond personality 

Finally, I have learned an important leadership lesson from Robinson. Robinson is remembered as a scholar more than an archbishop. His conservatism was frustrating for those clergy shaped by his exegesis. Both of the major battles of his episcopate—the battle for mutually recognized orders in the national church through a male priesthood, and the battle for Anglican forms of worship in Sydney, were both battles that did not go his way. 

However, Robinson’s personal integrity and almost superhuman ability to play the ball and not the man were deeply impressive. He had a strong sense of the role, and did not allow personality or personal loyalties to move agendas forward. Much like his scholarly collaborations, he seemed able to argue vigorously for his position in the context of debate, and then maintain warm and affectionate relationships with his opponents when off the field of battle. 

There is a (perhaps apocryphal) story that Robinson was once at a function. A young girl came up to him and said, “You are a very important man”, to which he replied, “No, but I have an important role.” 


Mark McKenna, Manning Clark’s biographer, describes Clark’s archive as a kind of testimony to a monumental ego. As McKenna began working through the archive, he discovered notes and annotations from Clarke’s pen all through, directing the researcher to grudges, personal vendetta and historic animosities, which Clark felt his biographers ought to factor in. Clark’s vanity led him to engage in a futile post-mortem attempt to control the opinions of others.

In this respect Robinson is Clark’s very opposite. His archive, which I am slowly working through at the moment, is free of vanity, ego, or any attempts to exercise control over public opinion, save the occasional Edwardian sense of discretion. Having occupied the highest office in the diocese of Sydney, when his duties ended, he happily returned to teaching, preaching, family, and parish service. Sydney rector Raj Gupta, when a student at Moore College recalls door-knocking with the elderly and retired bishop in his home suburb of Pymble. Robinson enthusiastically door-knocked his local street—in bishop’s purple of course—but knowing the names and circumstances of most of his secular neighbours. He spoke warmly and personally. And yet he would get to the point: “Now, let me tell you what we are doing. We have students here for a College mission and we are going about sharing the news of Jesus Christ.”

To me, it seems fitting that his last lectures were to a small group of non-Hebrew students, most of whom were blissfully unaware of the roles he has held, or the fact that the biblical theology which has encouraged so many of us to seek a Moore College education was largely of his making, or that the sermons of Phillip Jensen or the instruction we’d received in the AFES owed so much to this unassuming figure, who stood in front of us, saying surprisingly radical and insightful things about the Epistle of James. 

Order your copy of the new volumes of Donald Robinson’s Works through Matthias Media: