Book Review: The Goldilocks Zone

Standard disclaimer – this book is published by IVP, part of SPCK, for whom I work. I was a keen advocate for the book internally, and am delighted to see it in print.

The Goldilocks Zone Mike Ovey

This is an interesting book to review – not least given the author’s untimely death – as it contains a range of essays, lectures and articles drawn from diverse parts of a theologian’s career. Mike Ovey should need no introduction to most readers of this blog – the former Principal of Oak Hill Theological College, Mike was a much-loved evangelical theologian who wrote few books but impacted thousands through his writing, teaching, preaching, speaking, pastoring and leadership. This influence is echoed in this book – both title and content: Mike aimed for theology that was ‘just right’, in ‘The Goldilocks Zone’ between ‘local’ (or particular) and ‘global’ forms of theology. Ovey’s articulation of this vital point is found in his first essay in this book, ‘The Goldilocks Zone’, which reads as a warm, winsome and wise invitation to the rest of his writing.

As well as a treasure trove of pieces by Ovey, gathered into one place, this book also features some interesting ‘extras’ by some of his friends. Two tributes – ‘Mike Ovey as a theologian’ by Mark D. Thompson and ‘Sermon at the thanksgiving service for Mike Ovey’ by Peter F. Jensen – give a sense of the man and his mission, and bracket the book beautifully. The two more personal peices are immensely helpful, too. Chris Green offers a poignant ‘photo album’ of Ovey’s life, which reminds the reader that the words in this book are the work of a person, not just a mind. Dan Strange’s afterword ‘Mike Ovey – the best possible gift’ is a stirring call, both to the Oak Hill Community and all those wanting to engage with and honour Ovey’s legacy, to strive for the good that can come from solid theological formation. These four pieces come together to give a picture of a man who many knew personally, but more will now know through his writing, even as many more will experience his wisdom in the formation of the students he trained.

The words that Ovey wrote are divided into four sections. The first two collect various essays and articles that Ovey wrote for Themelios, the online theological journal published by The Gospel Coalition, and longer pieces written for the Jubilee Center Cambridge Papers. Of the Themelios articles, the standout is the eponymous title essay, setting the scene for the book and showing readers how Ovey thinks and writes. Another highlight for my own reflection was Projection atheism: why reductionist accounts of humanity can lead to reductionist accounts of God. The Themelios articles are relatively short – nice little canapes for theological nourishment. The Cambridge Papers represent a longer form of writing – around 10 pages compared to 5. Of these, the key themes of Trinitarian thought that Ovey cared deeply about begin to emerge. There are a range of topics in this section – and to continue the meal analogy, this is more of a sharing platter of satisfying starters. From my perspective, one of the most interesting essays was Victim chic? The rhetoric of victimhood, where Ovey brings the language of victimhood into conversation with biblical theology and concepts of justice and righteousness, offering a nuanced reflection on how the church can engage in justice and public conversation.

Moving on to the main course, we find two essays on Gospel and atonement – one with an apologetic slant, the other considering alternative models of the atonement. In Can we speak of ‘the’ gospel in a postmodern world? Pluralism, polytheism and the gospel of the one, true God, Ovey considers Isaiah Berlin, Machiavelli and much more in his pursuit of coherent and meaningful ways of talking about the proclamation of the Gospel today. This is a technical essay, which makes for quite demanding reading, but is well worth chewing over. The second essay here, Appropriating Aulen? Employing Christus Victor models of the atonement, is a typically nuanced piece of writing. Noting that a blanket condemnation or acceptance of one theory of the atonement is unhelpful, Ovey retrieves the Christus Victor model for evangelicals as a key angle on understanding the atonement. His conclusions come by way of a carefully argued and neatly written piece, taking in the Doctrines of Trinity and Incarnation as well as the Atonement! His closing words are irenic and clear: “How do I evaluate Aulen? I gratefully affirm aspects of his positive case with the extensions and qualification proposed, and deny his negative case. This means stating with care just what is meant by an endorsement of Aulen“.

The final section of the book by Ovey comprises three talks that are of great importance but require some explanation. These are Ovey’s GAFCON addresses. GAFCON – or, the Global Anglican Future Conference, is a gathering of orthodox Anglicans from all over the world, who are concerned for the Gospel, particularly in relation to the strains on the Anglican Communion given recent moves in the American, Canadian and British branches of the denomination. Ovey spoke passionately in 2008 (twice) and 2013, and by all accounts these addresses were prophetic and engaging. As the Church of England (the most visible expression of Anglicanism in the British Isles, and the ‘mother church’ of the Anglican Communion) teeters on the brink of schism, the third address in particular makes for vital reading. The Grace of God or the world of the Westis a powerful, sobering and challenging call to return to the Gospels as delivered to the saints. Tracing the historical and theological developments of a watered-down, cheap-grace ‘gospel’, Ovey challenged his hearers to consider the vital importance of preaching and living the costly Gospel of Grace. If, like me, you read the whole of this book, then it is clear in this final piece that Ovey wore his learning and study and spirituality very close, linking heart and mind – this is not some ‘fundamentalist’ rant but a superbly reasoned, deeply thoughtful invitation to be the church of Jesus.

To close this review, then, I would say two things. First of all, for anyone interested in evangelical theology in general and Anglican theology in particular, this book is an essential buy. Whether you knew Mike or not, this book collects together many nuggets into one place, and should have a space on your shelf alongside Ovey’s other work. But this book is not just for Anglicans, or those who would identify as evangelical. Mike writes with real depth and breadth – and I would hope that friends across the various ecclesial divides would read and consider what this training college principal has to say. Secondly, this book is a masterclass in how to write theology. Beginning with short pieces, moving through to technical articles, and closing with theologically-infused preaching, this book is one I will keep to hand in my study when considering whether the reading and writing I do in my own time has any merit – and how, if it is to matter, it must ultimately be connected to the concerns of the Church and the mission of God.

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