Volume 44 - Issue 3
Remembering a Principal’s Principlesby Dan Strange
Next month will be three years since Mike Ovey, the then Principal of Oak Hill College London, went to be with Jesus Christ. His loss is still felt keenly by his family, friends, colleagues and many within our evangelical world who benefited so greatly from his erudition, vision for theological education, and quite simply his person. Given I had the privilege of taking over this very Themelios column from Mike, writing it is always a three-times-a-year bitter sweet reminder and spur.
In the last few years it’s been wonderful to see the publication of Chris Green, ed., The Goldilocks Zone: Collected Writings of Michael J. Ovey (London: Inter-Varsity Press, 2018), and then this July’s posthumous publication The Feasts of Repentance: From Luke-Acts to Systematic and Pastoral Theology (London: Apollos: 2019).1 This interdisciplinary study was material Mike had originally given at Moore College in 2008 and nearly completed into book form at the time of his sudden death. Having retrieved the material, Mark Thompson, Principal of Moore College and one of Mike’s closest friends, lovingly made the final editorial touches to the manuscript, which Don Carson agreed to publish in the NSBT series. A little book on Mike’s beloved Hiliary of Poitiers will, I hope, appear in the near future, and at some point I would love to see his incredible lectures get a wider audience.
Although Mike’s Themelios column was called ‘Off the Record’, I want to devote this editorial to put on the record a little piece I asked Mike to write a few years ago and which speaks to a crucial area for those of us involved in theological education. Within academic institutions who have some kind of evangelical basis, many of us will know about, or will have experienced the constructive and complimentary harmony and blossoming that can arise from the marriage of academic work and confessional commitments. However, many will also know or will have experienced the destructive dissonance when these two are in acrimonious conflict with each other. To use a British expression, things can go ‘pear shaped’ pretty quickly especially when one factors in the increasing and cloying culture of juridification in which we live and move and have our being. Individuals, institutions and communities are all affected when things go awry with consequences that can be far-reaching and long-lasting. Of course, given there is nothing new under the sun, the relationship between academic freedom and confessional responsibility has been a perennial issue for theological education as old as Jerusalem and Athens, I suppose.
Given this context and having experienced both the joys and woes in this area, Mike, as Principal, drafted some principles for inclusion in the faculty handbook I was revising at the time. This draft was discussed amongst the faculty, edited, and finally agreed upon. While by no means a magic bullet or panacea, they remain in our handbook even though Mike is no longer with us. For me, they offer helpful guidance and provide fertile soil out of which the highest and healthiest Christian academic work can grow. They also might serve as a preventative measure for the blight that (as history seems to show us) plagues theological colleges from time to time.
The relevant section reads as follows:
In all that we do as a Faculty, whether teaching, caring for our students, representing the College, or engaging in writing and research, it is important for us to remember the following principles:
1. Christian academics are Christians first whose ministry and service of the Lord Jesus Christ takes place in an academic and teaching context. Our work as academics therefore needs to be set in that overall context of Christian life.
2. Like all Christians, academic staff are servants of the Lord Jesus Christ and are therefore bound to listen to and obey the Spirit-inspired Scriptures of Old and New Testament, all of which testify uniquely, infallibly and inerrantly to him.
3. Like all Christians, academic staff recognise that the Scriptures are a blessing for all of God’s people and that an increasing humble apprehension of those Scriptures brings greater maturity and Christ-likeness to Christians both individually and collectively.
4. As servants, academic staff are bound to seek to understand the Scriptures as deeply as they may, not for the sake of self-service and not with bare cognition as an individual end in itself, but primarily so that others may be taught, nourished and blessed through deeper apprehensions of the Scriptures which feed both proper wonder at God and mature service of him.
5. The context in which academic staff serve in this way is as employees of the College, which is governed by the College’s confessional statement. This provides boundaries within which academic staff serve.2
6. This quest for deeper apprehensions of the Scriptures, though, inevitably leads to proposing new insights. This is right, proper and desirable in its right place.
7. It is right in that such a quest can sharpen our understanding of the wonder of the Gospel, can liberate from purely human understandings (whether articulated in a church tradition or as a current fashion) and can help us re-state the gospel more aptly and faithfully in the changing missionary circumstances in which God puts us. To this extent, academic staff have a responsibility to seek deeper apprehensions of the Scriptures in their research, including the need to remain abreast of current scholarship, and to share those deeper apprehensions with students and colleagues through teaching and discussion and more widely through publication.
8. This quest must, though, be set in a servant context, especially in situations where inequality of knowledge creates real issues about the use of power.
9. As servants, academic staff must strive not to inculcate or model a love of the novel for its own sake because of the spiritual dangers this creates for other Christians.
10. As servants, where academic staff publish material which proposes tentative conclusions which represent something new (but within the framework of belief under which the College was established), they must carefully indicate that this is the case.
11. As servants, where academic staff propose ideas in lectures or seminars which represent something new, they must at some point inform students that this is the case.
12. This servant ministry must be exercised with the recognition that there may be, in the public mind, a tacit representation of the College in whatever he or she says or writes, whether as a teacher, as a scholar, or as an individual. He or she should therefore at all times be accurate, and exercise appropriate restraint.
Given the readership and raison d’etre of Themelios, my purpose in restating these principles here, given my particular UK context with my own institution’s particular confessional position, is that it might act as a prompt and discussion starter for your own cultural contexts and your theological education institutions with your own confessional bases, which of course may be ‘broader’ or ‘narrower’, and/or more maximal or more minimal. Whatever the context I hope in reading them and reflecting upon them prayerfully, we will grasp the Christ-like servant-hearted nature of our calling as theological educators, a servant-heartedness I will always associate with Mike Ovey.
 Editor’s note: A review of The Feasts of Repentance may be found in this issue of Themelios, pp. 605–7.
 So for example, The Trust under which Oak Hill sits is bound by its charitable terms to uphold ‘the Protestant and evangelical faith’, defined as follows: ‘The Protestant and Evangelical Faith holds to be of first importance the fundamental truths of Christianity revealed in Scripture, including those confirmed by the church’s historic catholic creeds, and the Thirty Nine Articles of Religion of the Church of England, and those set out in the three statements following, all in their clear and plain meaning without reservation’. Those statements are the Crosslinks Statement of Faith, The Evangelical Alliance (UK) Basis of Faith (older version), and the Universities and Colleges Christian Fellowship Doctrinal Basis. ‘Articles of Association of the Kingham Hill Trust’, 26 June 1999, Section 9.2.
Daniel Strange is college director and tutor in culture, religion and public theology at Oak Hill College, London and contributing editor of Themelios.
Other Articles in this Issue
The diverse essays in Stanley Rosenberg’s edited volume Finding Ourselves After Darwin: Conversations on the Image of God, Original Sin, and the Problem of Evil (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2018) offer a Christian analysis of the human person in light of evolutionary thinking...