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The man who taught Australia to read the Bible

Posted: 12/09/18

Andrew Judd is Donald Robinson’s grandson, and lecturer in Old Testament at Ridley College. This article was first published by Eternity News (10 September, 2018)

If you read the Bible as “one big story” it’s likely you owe that largely to Donald Robinson, a former Anglican archbishop of Sydney who died last week aged 95. Australian Christians more than most have a ‘big picture’ view of the good book and Robinson was key to giving Christianity in our land – not just Anglicans – that special characteristic. Andrew Judd, a Bible scholar at the start of his career, remembers his grandfather for Eternity.

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Donald Robinson was a Bible scholar who taught generations of ministers to read and preach the Bible as one big story. He was a WW2 soldier who served in New Guinea analysing encrypted enemy radio signals to infer their movements and strategy. He was a churchman who brought diverse Australian Anglicans together behind a new prayer book. He was an archbishop who visited every parish in the diocese to promote a vision for church planting in Sydney’s west.

People who disagreed with him could be assured, always, of two things: he could argue their position better than they did, and he would never let their disagreement stand in the way of their friendship.

And to me he was grandpa: always kind, always cheeky, always careful about words. Pa (as we call him) who woke first every morning to bring his wife tea in bed. Who was never too busy to learn about his grandchildren’s worlds, or to share an etymology or two in return.

Donald Robinson, the scholar and the grandpa, embodied qualities that I think are as precious as they are rare. I once asked him what position I should take on a disputable matter of biblical interpretation. “I’m not going to tell you that,” he said. Instead, he gave me the two most convincing arguments I have heard (to this day) on the issue: one for each side.

People who disagreed with him could be assured, always, of two things: he could argue their position better than they did, and he would never let their disagreement stand in the way of their friendship.

It is hard to overstate just how influential Donald’s biblical theological way of reading the Bible – seeing the different parts of scripture as one big story centred on Christ – has been in Australia and around the world.

I’m struck by how warmly Donald is remembered by those who played on opposing theological teams. Brother Gilbert Sinden of Adelaide would tell the story of a heated debate with Donald during a meeting at Moore College. Their committee took a break, and he and Donald left the room together, sharing a joke between themselves. One fellow committee member was left mouth wide open in disbelief that two people who disagreed so much could moments later be laughing together over morning tea.

Donald was the type of conservative who knew that preserving our best traditions sometimes requires thoughtful change. He loved the 1662 Book of Common Prayer and the King James Version as much as anyone, but he also knew that their language – once accessible to all – had become obtuse. Donald was largely responsible for An Australian Prayer Book, the first in the world to use ‘you’ instead of ‘thou’.

The 1978 prayer book revision was a remarkable achievement of consensus, refusing to settle for cheap comprehensiveness. He was convinced that Anglicans must stick to their biblical foundation and their reformation roots: if a fellowship can accommodate anything, then it will soon mean nothing.

For me, however, Donald’s most significant and lasting contribution to the Australian church goes far beyond the Anglican fellowship.

By today’s standards of academic output, Donald’s scholarly publishing record looks thin. But I am reminded of his influence as a teacher every time I read a bedtime story to my son from his children’s Bible. In it, the great stories of the Bible are weaved together to form one big story about God, his King and his Kingdom.

… it strikes me how little anxiety he had about being “on the wrong side of history.”

It is hard to overstate just how influential Donald’s biblical theological way of reading the Bible – seeing the different parts of scripture as one big story centred on Christ – has been in Australia and around the world. His is not the only approach like this, but the biblical theology he taught at Sydney University and Moore College from 1964 until well after his retirement in 1993 inspired, and set a course for, generations of scholars and preachers. Graeme Goldsworthy recalls his structure of biblical revelation was “simple, profound, and like a bolt of lightning which produced a radical and permanent shift in my thinking on the Bible.”

In 1973, duty called Donald away from academia and into the fray of Anglican politics, first as Bishop in Liverpool and then as Archbishop of Sydney. In many ways this gave opportunity for a practical expression of his theological commitment to the local church gathering. Anticipating the growth of Sydney’s west, he led Sydney Diocese to embark on a pioneering church planting programme called Vision for Growth.

Reflecting on his time in office, it strikes me how little anxiety he had about being “on the wrong side of history.” Rory Shiner, whose doctoral thesis is on Robinson’s life and work, observed recently that his time in office was marked by two battles: one at the national level about the ordination of women, the other at the local level about consistency in Anglican forms of worship.

Both battles he lost. But in each he stood on his principles – principles which are hard for someone of my generation to fully understand: a sense of the duty of office, an integrity of conviction and action, and a commitment to institutional order and due process.

Early on Friday morning a message came that Pa had died peacefully during the night. After a long and slow decline into dementia, I dare say it was a relief for him. His self, his personality, his memories are now safe with God, ready for the resurrection of his body. Many knew and will remember him fondly; his greatest joy is to be known and remembered by his Lord.

 

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