The Goldilocks Zoneby Michael J. Ovey
Length: Approximately 10 hours. To read (300 pages)
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Theology affects everything. From the way we live out our self-understanding to the way we interact with others, what we think of God drives it all whether we acknowledge it or not. Ovey exemplifies this by applying his theological convictions to varying currents and trends in both Christian thought and wider society.
Who should read this?
As an example of biblically-driven and gospel-centred theology worked out practically this collection is essential reading for theological students and pastors (for whom most pieces were originally written) but should also be picked up and digested by any Christian wanting a model of how to engage theologically with cultural and Christian themes.
The ‘How’ and ‘Why’
Mike Ovey was the much-loved principal of Oak Hill theological college in London until his death in January 2017. He was a brilliant theologian and a wonderfully passionate teacher of future gospel ministers. He never wrote as extensively as his depth of thinking and analytical mind suggested he could have done, instead devoting time and energy to the students under his care (who, as one tribute to Mike after his death put it, “were his books”).
Where he did write, however, he addressed the many and frequent challenges to faithful gospel proclamation in the 21st century, displaying a deep love for the Lord and humble reverence for his Word coupled with a legally-trained mind and astonishing breadth of reading. This collection brings together various pieces of writing that Mike did produce, as both a tribute and more importantly an opportunity for many more to benefit from his thoughtful theological approach.
The Goldilocks Zone therefore functions like a greatest hits album with each ‘track’ varying in length, depth and focus. Included are 15 short columns from the online journal Themelios, 7 longer Cambridge Papers, 2 essays on the gospel and atonement, and 3 transcripts of lectures given at the GAFCON conferences in 2008 and 2013. Such variety does not mean that the album fails to hang together as a whole though. Rather, a number of key themes repeatedly surface, tying the ‘tracks’ together.
Theologically, Mike delighted in the Creator-creature distinction, Jesus’ genuine Sonship of the Father revealed by Christ himself, and the centrality of his substitutionary work of atonement on the cross. Personally, Mike rejoiced in being a creature of that Creator, dependent on his revelation for any true knowledge of him (or true knowledge of anything else for that matter) and redeemed by that atoning substitutionary work. His theological approach is therefore marked by wonder and humility before God and his Word, prompting careful exegesis and reasoning from Scripture, as well as a desire to point others towards him coupled with a determination to refute any thinking and teaching that would draw people away from him. These themes are evident all the way through the Goldilocks Zone and drive the arguments forward.
This is a difficult book to review because of the sheer variety of writing on offer in the one volume, but we must start somewhere, so let’s begin with the title! ‘The Goldilocks Zone’ may seem confusing at first, but is actually drawn from the first ‘title-track.’ In various ways, this sets the stage for what follows as Mike asserts the need for a theological ‘Goldilocks zone’ between twin idols which undo the Creator-creature distinction by putting humanity into the position of God. On the one hand, ‘global’ theologies tend towards arrogant claims to exhaustive knowledge and dismiss disagreement as though it were disagreement with God himself.
On the other hand, there are ‘local’ approaches to theology (Mike suggests black, Pentecostal, Liberation and Charismatic theologies as examples, but does not exclude local approaches which lack ‘official’ labels such as ‘white Western middle class’ theology). However, these cannot provide a solution to the problems posed by ‘global’ theologies because a focus on particular contexts tends towards excluding all others, resulting in paradoxically arrogant assertions of ignorance beyond specialist areas (‘I do not know, and therefore I assert that no one else can possibly be sure either’).
Instead Mike argues that we need a ‘goldilocks zone’ theology that is ‘just right’ – held in tension between these pitfalls by reliance on that central theme, the Creator-creature distinction. Since God’s knowledge is exhaustive, ours is always only derivative. Our limitations should drive us to be humble, remembering that we do not have access to God’s complete knowledge. Yet, this is a confident humility, fuelled by the knowledge that because God does communicate to us the things we can know from him are true.
Humble confidence and confident humility. The tone is set for the rest of the book as Mike charts his course between arrogant assertions to exhaustive knowledge, raising humanity into God’s place, and arrogant assertions of ignorance, bringing God down and denying his sovereign authority as a knower. One of the disarming features of Mike’s writing is his ability to so often address approaches which appears so very reasonable in our eyes and uncover a root of human pride dressed up in respectable humility.
For example, in ‘Sorrow at another’s good’ (ch 3) Mike uncovers the envy that can lie at the root of the respectable seeming drive towards equality. A self-focussed insistence that ‘I am just as entitled to the good another person receives as they are’ belies envy of that other. Mike does not leave it there however, taking the challenging next step of pointing out our envy of God’s position and desire to assert supremacy over him. Again, Mike urges us to humility before our Creator. Similarly, in ‘Courtier Politicians and Courtier Preachers’ (ch 10), Mike uncovers a potential danger in democratic society where an ‘echo chamber’ can develop. Since leaders are repeatedly congratulated, and perpetuated in office for echoing majority thinking, Mike notes that they may therefore become unable or unwilling to challenge that majority, even where its desires or views are problematic.
For Christians this means that society may listen avidly when we echo its own views (for example on social justice) but if we begin to suggest that there may be areas in which God disagrees with society’s actions or approach—that there are areas of truth which God communicates which we would rather not know—then we will be very quickly dismissed. Again, though Mike does not leave the challenge ‘out there’ but aims at our hearts by noting that what is true of society is too often also true of the church. As pastor teaches agreeable truth to congregation they may be repeatedly affirmed, but this can lead to an inability and unwillingness to communicate more disagreeable things which are still nonetheless true.
Mike warns us of the potential for “a beautiful church with beautiful people and nothing so ugly as a God who demands things from us that we do not already wish to give.” Again, humility driven by the Creator-creature distinction is required. This combination of incisive analysis of cultural trends, and a heart for pastors and the church characterises all of the writing in this book.
The later 3 sections of the Goldilocks Zone (Cambridge papers, essays on Gospel and Atonement and lectures given at GAFCON 2008 & 2013) are longer ‘tracks’ which allow Mike’s approach to breathe a little more expansively —the ‘deep-cuts’ of the album requiring a little more digestion. For example, chapter 18 engages the difficulty society has with understanding human identity without an adequate understanding of God in whose image that identity is made.
Mike’s theological ‘specialism’ was Trinitarian theology, and which shines through as he demonstrates that the Triune unity and personal distinctions of Father, Son and Holy Spirit are precisely the answer we need for a society which struggles to marry the values of equality and diversity. Using a similar method of argument, ch 23 focuses on the challenge of pluralism to the claim that God has communicated ‘truth’ at all. Mike demonstrates his breadth of reading by engaging Isaiah Berlin’s thesis of incommensurable values—the idea that human values and goals are not just separate, but constantly at war with one another.
Hence, liberty and equality are seen to be incompatible at a fundamental level. Mike demonstrates the polytheistic result of such thinking, which (drawing on the patristic theology he specialised in) descends to anarchy and atheism. Instead, humble confidence in God’s self-revelation can answer such a challenge. Mike masterfully draws on God’s simplicity as demonstrating that his attributes are never in competition and draws us to the cross and Christ’s substitutionary atoning work as the demonstration of such commensurability–where justice and mercy meet.
I hope that whets your appetite! There really is so much more in this book of value, addressing topics as varied as the how and why of theological education, the idolatries demonstrated by the political capital gained in recent times by drawing on various societal fears, the challenge of postmodern deconstructionism to confidence in God’s ability to communicate truth in his word, and much more. To try and review it all would probably require something approaching a short book in itself—better to get hold of a copy, hit the play button and enjoy each track as it comes!
As one of Mike’s former students, I admit I am pre-disposed to rave about this book! Attempting to be as objective as possible though, I certainly feel that The Goldilocks Zone achieves is aim of introducing the reader to Mike’s theological analysis. Many of the articles are available online, particularly those drawn from Themelios, but having them available as one volume edited so ably by Chris Green allows the reader to garner more insight into the comprehensiveness of Mike’s approach.
If there is a weakness, it is perhaps the technical nature of some of the writing. This is not a book you can pick up half-alert and feel you have got to grips with, but it will repay careful reading and concentration. Having said that, the brevity of the articles and essays mean that each does not take long to read even when read (and re-read) slowly and carefully. Preachers picking up this book will find their preaching enriched by the frequent connections with societal trends and human thought. Apologetics will also be enriched in depth and insight as presuppositions are repeatedly uncovered and their shaky foundations exposed.
Sitting in Mike’s lectures I often wished that many more could learn from this most winsome and incisive of theologians. Although the requirement for this book’s existence is bitter on a personal level, with The Goldilocks Zone in hand I rejoice that now they can. I would urge you to get hold of a copy, dip into it, read and re-read the various tracks on offer, and find your heart warmed and your thinking sharpened as you do.
- [Remaining in the theological ‘goldilocks zone’] “helps or requires me to be humble before truth (for I am a creature, not God), yet confident in truth (for I am a creature to whom God has spoken and whom God has created to be spoken to).”
- “If I do not want to be on the receiving end of a courtier spirit, I must dare to let people tell me truths I do not want to hear. And at that point as a modern Christian teacher, I must confront my own appetite to both be on the receiving end of the courtier spirit (it is nice to be flattered) and to offer it, because courtiers do get rewards. In this life anyway.”
- “Perhaps I should be more ready … when faced with God’s revelation in the Bible [to] point less to a defect in the text (lack of clarity) but more to a defect in my understanding (subjective limits). Perhaps we should be less certain that parts of Scripture are ‘uncertain’.
- “Our repentance is largely reserved for those things which the world finds offensive. The acid test of whether our repentance is really towards God is when God and the world disagree. Is our repentance really turning to God, or acknowledging the world?”