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The Goldilocks Zone and Faith in a Time of Crisis

17 August 2018

Peter Forster on Evangelical theologians, their understanding of the atonement, and their critiques of Western society


MIKE OVEY, Principal of Oak Hill College, died suddenly and prematurely last year. His colleagues have gathered together a range of his shorter pieces, with an introductory survey by Mark Thompson.

The “Goldilocks” tag refers to Ovey’s commitment to an Evangelical via media, which avoids unbalanced emphases. He acknowledged that some Evangelical theology had been too rationalist, too certain of its own rightness.

Ovey drew a parallel here with modern politics, which typically is confident to the point of arrogance. Modern democracy is plagued by the danger of various forms of democratically sanctioned dictatorship, and Evangelicalism has been insufficiently aware of corresponding dangers.

His original research was into Trinitarian theology, and he considers the rather controversial suggestion, which has a strong following in American Evangelicalism, that the relationship between Father and Son in the Trinity provides a general pattern for male-female relationships. Wisely, he leaves the question open: there may be an analogy, but analogies embrace dissimilarity as well as similarity.

Inevitably, there is discussion of atonement theory, and a defence of penal substitution as the main model, in the face of modern trends to place the Christus Victor motif at the centre. His approach here is close to that of John Stott: divine self-satisfaction by divine self-substitution.

This avoids setting the Father and Son in opposition, but doesn’t avoid the besetting danger in substitionary views of the atonement of viewing it as the reconciliation of God to the world rather than the more biblical reconciliation of the world to God.

Ovey is at his most interesting in his comments on Western culture, which attempts to exclude any objective reference to God. Paradoxically, at the same time, modern culture is polytheistic, in its adherence to various ideological idols. Polytheism and atheism are close cousins, because polytheism excludes a single, sovereign God. In a rather rich way, he relates his argument to figures as diverse as St Athanasius and G. K. Chesterton.

For Ovey, modern culture cuts human beings off from their ultimate source of life, in God. Post-modernism, as anticipated in Isaiah Berlin’s incommensurable pluralism, denies a real communication between us and God. Ultimately, the worldliness of modern culture becomes graceless, and human identity becomes essentially epiphenomenal.

Vaughan Roberts, Rector of St Ebbe’s, Oxford, is the main author of Faith in a Time of Crisis. The setting is current controversies in the Anglican Communion. There are chapters on truth, sex, love, and unity. Peter Jensen, former Archbishop of Sydney, adds a combative chapter on true faith, which might have made Ovey wince a bit.

Vaughan Roberts’s chapters are written with a combination of intellectual clarity and sensitivity, and an awareness of how they might be received by Christians who, in conscience, have reached different conclusions. The overall target is relativism, which has produced Christians without conviction, who do not uphold the true uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

For Roberts, the modern Church of England is too worldly, too conformed to a culture wherein people seek salvation, and personal satisfaction, in themselves rather than in God. Quite contrary to the Early Church, we have managed to make Christianity sound “comfortable, safe, and middle-class”.

Even if one accepts much of the force of this critique, there is the problem of a certain narrowness in an understanding of salvation as a rescue mission in a fallen world. Creation should be seen as a gift, every bit as much as redemption.

For this reviewer, this is the besetting problem in Evangelical theology, which often renders it unattractive, as Ovey was clearly aware, albeit from within a glass house that limited his desire to throw too many stones.


Dr Peter Forster is the Bishop of Chester.


The Goldilocks Zone: Collected writings of Michael J. Ovey
Chris Green, editor
IVP £14.99
Church Times Bookshop £13.50

Faith in a Time of Crisis
Vaughan Roberts with Peter Jensen
Matthias Media £8.99
Church Times Bookshop £8.10

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