Donald William Bradley Robinson (1922-2018)

We at Moore College rejoice today that our dear brother and father in the faith, Archbishop Donald William Bradley Robinson AO, has been called home to be with Christ, ‘which is better by far’. The debt we owe to this faithful disciple and Bible teacher is truly incalculable. Hundreds of thousands of people worldwide, many of whom do not even know his name, have been shaped in their reading of the Bible by the approach to biblical theology that he pioneered at Moore College in the 1950s and 1960s. Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom and Vaughan Roberts’ God’s Big Picture have taken that approach around the world.

Donald William Bradley Robinson was born on 9 November 1922, the son of a clergyman in the Diocese of Sydney. He studied classics at Sydney University, graduating in 1946, and theology at Queen’s College, Cambridge, graduating in 1950. He then returned to Sydney where he served at St Matthew’s Manly and then in 1952 at St Philip’s Sydney, while at the same time commencing as a Lecturer in Old Testament at Moore College. Two years later he was appointed a senior lecturer at the College, this time concentrating on New Testament. When Broughton Knox became Principal of Moore College in 1959, Donald became his Vice Principal. Their partnership would prove to be one of the most fruitful in the history of  Australian Christianity, both in terms of theological stimulus and evangelical churchmanship: Donald the creative biblical scholar whose commitment to what the words of the text actually say was almost relentless; and Broughton the insightful theologian who addressed many of the same issues at the larger conceptual level and who refused to be a prisoner of theological or ecclesiastical convention. They were genuinely formidable. Donald stayed at Moore College alongside Broughton until he became Bishop of Parramatta in 1972 and he was elected Archbishop of Sydney in 1982. He retired in 1993. Donald and his wife Marie (Taubman) were blessed with four children: Martin, Peter, Annie and Mark.

 From Graeme Goldsworthy's Gospel and Kingdom, p. 32

From Graeme Goldsworthy’s Gospel and Kingdom, p. 32

In his early years on the Moore College faculty, Donald constructed a course on Acts and another on the doctrine of the church, and from these came a special course on biblical theology. His colleague Broughton Knox described this innovative course as one which ‘related the two testaments to one another so that they could be seen as one and their doctrines become the framework of a student’s future studies and ministry’ (Donald Robinson Selected Works Volume 3, (ed. E. A. Loane, Sydney: ACR/MTC, 2018), 3). In time it would become one of the most valued courses in the entire College curriculum and it continues to be one of the College’s most significant distinctives.

Graeme Goldsworthy was a student of Donald’s in those days and he tells the story of how, in response to a student’s question, Donald sketched what would become the famous ‘coat hanger’ diagram of biblical history. Donald was able to excite his students because he was able to see thematic connections across the canon that had gone unnoticed by many. He asked questions they had never thought of asking and helped them see the text of the Bible with fresh eyes. For him the Bible was exciting, a unified whole with a dominant theme and an integrated theology (DRSW 3, 237). He regularly asked questions such as ‘how is it that the Old Testament feeds our “hope” of eternal life in Christ Jesus?’ (DRSW 3, 241).

In 1996, Donald gave some mature reflections on biblical theology in a paper presented at the Moore College School of Theology. Here he explained his approach to the Bible as a whole.

… we enunciated a biblical ‘typology’ using three stages in the outworking of God’s promise to Abraham, that is, (a) the historical experience of the [partial] fulfilment of God’s promise to Abraham through the exodus to the kingdom of David’s son in the land of inheritance, (b) the projection of this fulfilment into the future day of the Lord by the prophets, during the period of decline, fall, exile and return, and (c) the true fulfilment in Christ and the Spirit in Jesus’ incarnation, death, resurrection, exaltation and his parousia as judge and saviour in a new heaven and new earth. (‘Origins and Unresolved Tensions’, in R.J. Gibson (ed), Interpreting God’s Plan: Biblical Theology and the Pastor (Carlisle: Paternoster, 1977), 9).

Many years later he told a group of students I was caring for at Moore that one of many influences on his thoughts in this area came when he and Broughton read what they regarded as an important article on covenant theology by Jim Packer which came out in those years. As they discussed it, Donald came to the conclusion that covenant was not in fact the basic organising principle of the Bible. He was convinced it was the promise of God that played that role. The essential structure of biblical revelation remained for him ‘promise and fulfilment’ rather than a succession of interrelated covenants. Covenant, while important, he argued, operates as a mechanism for conveying the more basic idea of God’s promise under particular circumstances. One of the benefits of this insight is that there is no need to read the concept of covenant where the terminology is conspicuously absent, most controversially in Genesis 1–2.

This attention to the overarching ‘Pattern of Biblical Truth’ was matched by a determination to give careful attention to the actual words of Scripture. In the 1996 paper, Donald confessed himself to be ‘a thoroughgoing believer in the inspiration and the integrity of the Bible as a whole’ (‘Origins’, 2) and just a few years earlier his colleague Broughton Knox recollected,

He insisted on accurate exegesis of a passage. He would not allow his students to fall unchecked into the common evangelical aberration of importing extraneous ideas into the passage being expounded, just because these ideas seemed pious and helpful and were able to be connected by some word or phrase to the passage. In this way he taught his students to be honest expositors of what God is actually saying to the congregation through that passage (DRSW 3, 2 emphasis added).

Donald Robinson - Courtesy of Ramon Williams
Courtesy of Ramon Williams

I am reminded of a conversation he had with a group of young graduates of the College during an ordination retreat at what was then the Anglican conference centre Gilbulla. He had found us standing around in the bookshop looking at collections of published sermons by a very well known British preacher. ‘Whenever you preach’, he reminded us, ‘you are doing two things. You are teaching what God is saying in this passage and you are showing those to whom you preach how to read the Bible. Over time your congregation will treat (or mistreat) the Bible the same way you do.’ This perspective of preaching being an aid to each Christian’s own reading of the Bible is often lost today, but it wasn’t lost on Archbishop Robinson.

The second area where Donald Robinson’s contribution continues to be seen is his doctrine of the church. Forged against the background of a triumphalist ecumenism associated with the World Council of Churches and the struggles towards a constitution for the Anglican Church of Australia (then known as the Church of England in Australia), and once again in collaboration with Broughton Knox, Donald challenged the loose use of biblical language which gave an unwarranted theological dignity to denominations and even interdenominational structures. Taking as a starting point a careful study of the word ekklesia in the Bible (but going beyond word study to bring biblical-theological considerations to bear), he insisted that ‘church’ or ‘congregation’ is something that actually gathers. What is more, when such a gathering gathers, it is not so much ‘part of the church’ as the church in that place. It is the gathering of God’s people in a particular location, gathered by the Spirit around the word of God, where relationships of care and service with one another are of very great importance. The idea of a universal earthly church is a misnomer. Believers are gathered both locally and around the throne of Christ as the heavenly church (Heb 12.22–23).

This did not, of course, mean that there are no relationships, or even no obligations, beyond the local congregation. Donald was not a congregationalist, though that charge was levelled at him, or more precisely at his doctrine of the church, from time to time. The apostolic ministry; a common concern for those who are in need (as in the need of the Jerusalem saints for whom the collection was taken); a common participation in the worldwide mission of reaching the lost, as godly and gifted men and women are set apart and sent out of the local congregation to engage in that mission (a la Saul and Barnabas in Acts 13) – all point from within the New Testament to trans-congregational commitments. Some expositions of Donald’s ecclesiology fail to do justice to this and to his own long and productive involvement at a diocesan level, not to mention his willingness to serve as a bishop and Archbishop. The priority of the local congregation and the unique dignity it carries as the arena in which a ministry of the word and sacraments is exercised and believers serve each other with the goal of building each other to maturity in Christ, did not mean each congregation could or should live in splendid isolation from all others. Too often his ecclesiology has been read selectively and piecemeal. Thankfully some fine work has been done on Donald Robinson’s theology in general and his ecclesiology in particular in recent years, notably that by Rory Shiner and Chase Kuhn.

A third area of impact, example, and influence has been his willingness to stand with the teaching of the Bible even when this provokes opposition both inside and outside the churches. Donald Robinson was a man of extraordinary courage. I remember the nightly news coverage of Lambeth 1988 and his almost lone stand against the tide pushing for women’s ordination. ‘I must do all in my power to persuade my brother bishops not to make such a departure from Scripture and the apostolic tradition’, he said with both clarity and dignity. He was ridiculed by some at home and abroad for the position he held, but he refused to back away from it because he was convinced it was the teaching of God’s word written. His willingness to consecrate a bishop for the Church of England in South Africa (CESA) as a gesture of peace and reconciliation in 1984, despite opposition from a number of quarters and, earlier still, his opposition to the proposed constitution for the Anglican Church of Australia in 1961, out of concern for the preservation of gospel ministry in Sydney and elsewhere throughout Australia, were also acts of biblical and evangelical courage. Sometimes he lost a debate. Very often he won. Nevertheless, the debate itself was not conducted with rancour or ill-feeling from his side. That doesn’t mean he wasn’t sometimes exasperating or that the debate wasn’t rigorous. Yet he could take a person to task strongly in debate and yet leave the room in unbroken fellowship and, as a friend of mine mentioned just a few months ago, ‘his smile could light up a room’.

Mark Thompson and Donald Robinson - Courtesy of Chase Kuhn
Courtesy of Chase Kuhn

When the Moore College Library was moved into the new building at the beginning of 2017, it was named the Donald Robinson Library. He had a very significant part to play in setting the trajectory of the library towards the world class resource it is today. However, that was not the only reason it was named in his honour. His contribution to the modern College, especially through the development of an approach to biblical theology which still characterises all we teach, his willingness to sit with the text of the Bible to understand what precisely is being said and how that integrates with the Bible’s overarching message, his willingness to be disciplined in his own teaching and his own practice by what Scripture teaches, is something for which the most profound thanks are due to our heavenly Father.

The Lord called Donald Robinson home early yesterday morning. He had not been well for some time and so we rejoice that he has been released from all the burdens of these last few years. We know we have lost a profoundly useful servant of the Lord, a mentor to many, a scholar, a pastor, a friend. So, alongside his family we grieve. Yet we know that to depart and be with Christ is far better, as one of Donald’s heroes, the apostle Paul, once wrote (Phil 1:23). We here at Moore College benefited from his ministry even more than we know. So today we give thanks to God for the privilege it has been to have Donald among us.


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30 Aug 2018

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