Further on a shocking sentence—a different correspondence

In addition to writing to the Church Times about the shocking sentence in a review of Anthony Thiselton’s Systematic Theology, I wrote to the author of the review, the Revd Dr Edward Dowler. He’s expressed willingness for me to share his response publicly, and I’m pleased to do so, particularly given that he clarifies below that he had not intended his sentence to be understood as critical of evangelicals as unlearned and unbalanced. I think from our correspondence that he now recognises that his wording was at best ambiguous, and easily open to be read as offensive—as the majority of my readers and facebook friends took it to be. The fly in the ointment is, of course, the key word ‘Although’—there is all the difference in the world in tone between these two:

Anthony Thiselton is from the evangelical tradition in the Church. He reads widely and writes in a balanced way.

Although Anthony Thiselton is from the evangelical tradition in the Church, he reads widely and writes in a balanced way.

Here’s Dr Dowler’s email to me:

Dear Professor Walton

Thank you for your message.

I am concerned that it seems what I have written has clearly been taken as offensive to evangelical brothers and sisters in the church.  I entirely agree with you that we should get beyond caricaturing people according to their different groups and I hope you will accept my reassurance that this is something that I would never intend to do.

Having said this, I can’t accept your comparison with what I might say about black or female writers.  In the review I was writing about Professor Thisleton’s theological viewpoint – something that is freely chosen and which concerns his intellectual and spiritual commitments – quite a different matter from unchosen characteristics such as gender or colour.

The point I was trying to make is that theological writers, myself included in things I have written, often tend almost exclusively to quote and reference writers who come from a similar stable to themselves.  For example, at the moment, I am reading Dom Gregory Collins OSB’s book ‘Meeting Christ in His Mysteries’ which, incidentally, I can highly recommend.  I could imagine myself writing: ‘Although Dom Gregory Collins is a Roman Catholic, he is on the whole balanced, and often happy to refer to Orthodox, Anglican and Protestant writers.’

I would not mean this to be a criticism of Dom Gregory, rather a commendation of the fact that, although you can never forget he is a Roman Catholic Benedictine monk, he values and embraces other viewpoints.  Similarly, this sentence about Professor Thisleton was intended to be a positive comment before what I admit was a largely critical review of a book that, frankly, I did find very disappointing from someone who, as you say, is so distinguished.  In summary, I was simply trying to say that, although his book is weighted towards evangelical and Protestant authors (as one would expect it to be) he takes in many other viewpoints as well.

I hope this may answer at least some of your concerns and beg your pardon for the offence that has clearly been caused.

Yours sincerely,

Edward Dowler

I’m disappointed, I confess, that he does not recognise the accuracy of the analogy I draw with women and black people. I wonder if ‘Although he is a Muslim [or substitute any non-Christian faith], he reads widely and writes in a balanced way’ would be acceptable, since this is ‘freely chosen and which concerns his intellectual and spiritual commitments’? I do not think it would myself.


4 thoughts on “Further on a shocking sentence—a different correspondence

  • Philip Richardson

    I take his point about Dom Gregory, but even that sentence is poorly expressed. When he writes, “In summary, I was simply trying to say that, although his book is weighted towards evangelical and Protestant authors (as one would expect it to be) he takes in many other viewpoints as well.”, I don’t know why he didn’t just say that in the review. It would be better to say something like, “Anthony Thiselton is from the evangelical tradition in the Church but he does not restrict himself solely to engaging with scholars from his own tradition, rather, he interacts with writers across the theological spectrum in a balanced way”. As it stands, his sentence does leave him open to the charge that you make in your analogy with women and black people.

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  • Paul Roberts

    I think if Revd Dr Dowler didn’t wish to express things in a way that was intended to cause any offence, we should take him at is word. We are, as he says, brothers and sisters, and that means occasionally we get things wrong in our dealings with each other.

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  • Sorin Sabou

    If ‘evangelical’ is seen or was seen as a somehow pejorative within the Church of England, then you have a point; it is a patronizing comment. But not everywhere ‘evangelical’ is a term used to ridicule or to dismiss someone as not being balanced. Being evangelical is to share a decent theological position which demands respect. I know that our liberal secular colleagues patronize us, and that is not acceptable, but it is not something shameful to be identified according to the theological position you share. I am not ashamed in being labeled a Romanian Baptist Pietist, and be evaluated by my own work.

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