The Goldilocks Zone: Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey – A Review

Let me take you back to one year ago.  I had just finished reading “Your Will Be Done” by my old college principal, Mike Ovey. I mentioned to my wife that I should drop him an email to say I’d enjoyed reading it and that he should write more books.

I never got to send that email because not long after, we received the shocking news that Mike had died suddenly. In the aftermath, as we read other people’s reflections, the theme “why didn’t Mike write more books?” came up again and again,  and the response kept coming back, “his books were his students.”

However, Mike did write so many things including articles, essays and conference papers and here is a wonderful volume bringing together some of those pieces. Chris Green was Mike’s Vice-Principal at Oak Hill and a close friend, so who better to do the job of carefully selecting and assembling the material?

The Goldilocks Zone is divided into four sections:

  1. “Off the record” – a collection of editorial pieces written for the online theological journal, Themelios.
  2. The Cambridge Papers (produced by the Jubilee Centre to help Christians think about contemporary issues).
  3. Essays on The Gospel and Atonement, picking up Mike’s engagement with the debate on Penal Substitution.
  4. Papers delivered at the two GAFCON conferences in Jerusalem (2008) and Nairobi (2013).

Additional contributions include an introduction to Mike’s theological thinking from Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College, Sydney and to Mike the person from Chris Green. Chris does this through a series of imagined photographs describing different stages in Mike’s life. This essay is helpful and vital because we need to read Mike Ovey the theologian in the context of Mike Ovey the pastor. Mike wasn’t some isolated academic sitting in his study but a man who cared deeply about others – more on that later.

The volume closes with further contributions from people who knew Mike well. First of all, there is Peter Jensen’s sermon from Mike’s memorial service at All Souls and then Dan Strange provides an afterword reflection on Mike’s passion for theological training, namely that our future vicars and pastors should be the “best possible gift” to the church.

And so, to the body of the book.

Part 1 Off The Record

The opening section models Mike’s ability to comment on culture, politics and theology thoughtfully, concisely and engagingly from a Biblical perspective. In quite a short space, we are introduced to a wide range of literature, cultural illustrations and historical context as we meet Goldilocks and the three bears, Darcey from Pride and Prejudice and John Milton through his poem Paradise Lost, among others.

A key theme emerges in the first essay (The Goldilocks Zone, p34-36) about knowledge and our relationship to it. Mike identifies the twin idolatrous dangers of believing that either exhaustive knowledge is possible or that true knowledge is unobtainable, leading to an arrogant ignorance of truth.

This is exemplified in the need for a “Goldilocks zone” in theology. Just as the earth is seen as a Goldilocks planet just right for life, so Mike believes it is possible to find a place that balances both local and global theology. By local theology, Mike means the focus on particular contexts such as black, Pentecostal, Liberation or charismatic theologies. He argues that local theologies are necessary because humans are finite:

“But ‘local’ theologies have their perils. A local theology can so stress the particular that what falls outside my own particularity becomes alien to me. Thus the UK does not legally recognize slavery: if I restrict myself to my particularity of white middle-aged professional UK male, then Paul’s slavery passages, including the duties of slave owners, seem existentially irrelevant to me. Moreover, precisely because what falls outside my ‘location’ is alien to me, I can be isolated and deaf to some of what calls me to leave aspects of my location.”[1]

This means that we need a global theology which gives us permission to speak and listen beyond our own contexts but the danger here is that I come to see my knowledge as exhaustive, becoming like God. If I can know truth exhaustively then my study becomes more anthropology (focused on me) than theology.

The theme of knowledge continues to be picked up as we are introduced to Hilary of Poitiers and his engagement with the hermeneutics of suspicion when people read scripture with cynical distrust (The Covert Thrill of Violence, Reading the Bible with Distrust p57-60).

True knowledge of who we are is dependent on our knowledge of God as Calvin argued (Projection Atheism; Why Reductionist Accounts of Humanity Can Lead to Reductionist Accounts of God, p 61-64).[2] This leads Ovey to engage with Feuerbach’s argument that religion is a product of humanity meaning that theology is really just anthropology again. Feuerbach is correct insofar as he assesses human religion as opposed to God’s revelation. We make God in our image. However, not only that, but, as Greg Beale has observed, we become like our idols. This means that without true revelation of God, we are left with an echo chamber of idolatry: I am like God and God is like me (The Echo Chamber of Idolatry, p88-91).

The danger of scepticism is also picked up in “The Art of Imperious Ignorance” p83-87. Here Mike takes on the way in which we can claim not just that we are uncertain about something, but that no-one can be certain. Such an approach to knowledge and truth is both arrogant and manipulative.

The knowledge and idolatry themes come together in “Choose Your Fears Carefully” (p92-95). This article seems particularly pertinent to our current context where our fear of the other and the unknown were so evident in the EU and Scottish Independence campaigns, in the US Presidential election and the fear of an economically uncertain future. Mike would warn us that our ignorance causes us to fear some things whilst failing to fear the one thing we should fear.

Part 2 Cambridge Papers

The articles in this section provide greater space for Mike to flesh out and give depth to his thinking as he engages theologically with life. In “Deconstruction: the Gagging of God” (p107-116) he explores theories about how we use language including Structuralism and Deconstructionism with a classic example of Ovey satire through a newly discovered passage from Lewis Carroll’s “Alice”. He goes on to show how such language theories not only prevent us from communicating with each other but also seek to silence God.

In chapter 20 (Idolatry and Spiritual Parody: Counterfeit Faiths, p137-147) he provides incisive analysis of idol worship. Idolatry replaces truth with lies and diminishes the extent and effect of Christ’s work. He reminds us that we, as believers, are “Idolaters Anonymous.”

Mike’s particular area of interest was Trinitarian Theology (the focus of his PHD research) and in chapter 16 he considers the equal but asymmetrical relationship of Father and Son in relation to male and female roles in church and family.

“Beyond Scrutiny? Minorities, Majorities and Postmodern Tyranny” (p148-158) sketches a history of how the concept of tyranny has been understood going back to Plato. Today we find tyranny in both “moral equivocism” and “majority tyranny”. This is so because of the absolute control tyranny imposes. Postmodern pluralism allows for no dissent, but it also steps outside of the boundaries set by our true overlord. How Mike handles the question of majority tyranny in a democratic context is again pertinent to contemporary debates about Brexit, the EU, the US President’s mandate and the nature of debate and discussion on the internet.

In “Victim Chic? The Rhetoric of Victimhood” (p159-169) Ovey draws on Karpman’s Drama Triangle (victim, persecutor, rescuer.)[3] He looks first of all at examples of how nation states including Austria (post Second World War), Serbia and Croatia have sought to identify as victims in order to avoid scrutiny. Again, this is highly relevant to contemporary politics.[4]

Victimhood ‘totalises’  because the individual or group are viewed purely in terms of their role in the drama. This becomes a means to self-justification. The victim and the “white knight” rescuer are seen as righteous. Ovey warns us pastorally about the danger of getting sucked into the drama triangle and taking on roles.

Part 3 Gospel and Salvation

As Chris Green observes,

“Mike Ovey did not enjoy controversy and he did not court it. His reactions were never knee-jerk, nor did written words flow swiftly.  But the controversy about penal substitution touched him deeply, because he saw denying it as an assault on God’s holiness, justice and love, and that it penetrated to the heart of the doctrine of the Trinity. Hence his thorough clarity on the subject.”[5]

This section provides a taster for his engagement with this crucial debate.[6] In “Can We Speak of ‘The’ Gospel in a Postmodern World? Pluralism, Polytheism and the Gospel of the One True God” (p173-202) Mike analyses Isaiah Berlin’s thought on incommensurable values. Berlin argued that we live in a world where we hold to different, competing and incommensurable values. Ovey shows that this   pushes against God’s sovereignty over his creation and his simplicity because his attributes are set in competition with each other. He then takes us to the cross where God’s values of justice and mercy are not in competition nor incommensurable. Rather, the cross is the place where God’s justice and mercy meet.

“Appropriating Aulen? Employing Christus Victor Models of the Atonement” (p203-234) welcomes Aulen’s emphasis on victory, but identifies serious shortcomings in his Trinitarian and Christological theology, meaning that Christus Victor as a single model for the atonement (as opposed to one complimentary and subordinate perspective on Penal Substitution) is deficient. The chapter proves a robust defence of penal substitution as the means to see Christ’s victory over sin correctly.

Part 4 Global Anglican Future’s Conference (GAFCON) lectures

The three addresses from GAFCON are an appropriate place to conclude this collection as they pull together the themes of knowledge, idolatry and gospel that we have seen developing through the book.

The first two addresses from 2008 talk about the “How” and the “What” of theological education. In “The Gospel ‘How’ of Theological Education” (p237-248), Mike reminds us that theological training is about formation as well as information:

“A theological educator who wishes to see ministers formed as Paul was must therefore be concerned not only with gospel knowledge, but also with gospel living.”[7]

He goes on to describe the “hidden curriculum” where what is caught matters as well as what is overtly taught. This principle was clearly seen in Mike’s life and work as evidenced in the many warm and personal tributes online not just to his academic brilliance but to his warmth, kindness and generous love.[8] Key here is the theme of theology as not something to possess because we don’t study an “it” but a “thou”. Theology is about a person and us coming to know the living God through his word. The “what” of theological education is the Biblical portrayal of God the Father known through the Son. (The Gospel ‘What’ of Theological Education,261-277).

Through the book, we have been climbing towards the summit which is the powerful address Mike gave at GAFCON 2013 in Nairobi. There he offered a sharp contrast between Western culture (and compromised Christianity) and the true power of the Gospel. Drawing on Bonhoeffer’s critique of cheap grace, he identifies how our Western culture offers a cheap grace which denies God’s power to save because it fails to recognise the need for repentance (The Grace of God or the World of the West? P261-277).

Looking for more?

If you sat in a Mike Ovey lecture or seminar, those were the words you dreaded. Mike would pose a question and you would make a stumbling effort to answer – or more often than that, the self-assured glib cliché of the first-year student. Mike would look at you, smile and beckon, “Looking for more…”.

I want to suggest two ways in which you will not be “looking for more” at the end of this book and two ways that you will (to avoid any tension, all four are positive!)

Firstly, you will not be looking for more because Chris Green has done a brilliant job of pulling together a number of essays and crafted them together in a form that helps to showcase Mike’s brilliance as a theological communicator. The essays are well supported by the biographical introductions as well as the after-words from Peter Jensen and Dan Strange.

Secondly, as you seek to engage with the specific subject matter considered in each chapter, you will not be left looking for more as Mike carefully unpacks each subject, refutes error and provides a positive presentation of Biblical truth.

You will be looking for more, because when you reach the end, you will be saying again, “I wish Mike had written more.” The good news is that he did.  If you haven’t read “Pierced For Our Transgressions” or “Your Will Be Done,” then this volume will be an appetiser for those works.  There are other essays available online as well as Mike’s detailed lecture notes and one hopes that at some point it will be possible to see some of these put into print as well.

Finally, you will be looking for more because Mike’s great desire which shines through this book is not that we should be drawn to a particular theological educator, no matter how gifted. Rather, Mike’s concern was to point us to His Lord and Saviour, to know him more and more, and one is left at the end of The Goldilocks Zone with a greater hunger for God’s Word, to know Him and his grace more and more.

[1]Chris Green (ed), The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 34.

[2] Chris Green (ed), The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 61. See also GK Beale, We Become What We Worship: A Biblical Theology of Idolatry (Downers Grove: Inter Varsity Press; Nottingham: Apollos, 2008), 64.

[3] Chris Green (ed), The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 160.

[4] We might want to consider the extent to which the 2016 referendum relied on portraying the UK as a victim of the EU. or Donald Trump’s presentation of America generally and specific groups in the US as the left behind victims. Similarly, we might trace the rise of radical Islamist terrorism from the presentation of Palestine and the Arabic world as victims.

[5]Chris Green (ed), The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 171.

[6] For a lengthier treatment, see S. Jeffrey, M. Ovey & A. Sach, Pierced for our Transgressions: Rediscovering the Glory of Penal Substitution (Nottingham Inter Varsity Press, 2007). See especially chapter 3.

[7] Chris Green (ed), The Collected Writings of Michael J Ovey, 238.

[8] See e.g.