Heresies and How to Avoid Them: Why it matters what Christians believe contains a number of excellent sermons by some of England’s top Patristic and Medieval scholars. The book is a powerful reminder that the relationship between heresy and orthodoxy is always a relationship of gratitude (or at least should be). As Stanley Hauerwas writes in his preface, “the Church seldom knows what it believes until someone gets it wrong. Indeed, often it is not even clear at the beginning what has been got wrong. So those who get it wrong are blessed just to the extent that they help us discover what it is we must faithfully say, to be adequate witnesses to God” (x). The fact the book is a compilation of sermons rather than essays discussing heresies is also telling. The book will not doubt evoke constant resonances of Rowan Williams’s little quip that “Orthodoxy is made;” that there is “no absolute locus  standi above the struggle; there is, ideally, a continuing conversation that must be exploratory and innovative even when it is also polemical” (Arius, 24-5).

A.N. Williams’s sermon discusses Nestorianism. She offers a tantalizing gloss on the Christological controversies of the fourth century. I’m wondering what to do with this:

Our salvation is worked precisely not by a work: it is not in the first instance what Christ does that saves us, but who he is: what he does is simply the logical working out of his identity as fully divine and fully human. That is perhaps why there are no heresies condemning any of the various theories of Christ’s work or what he did; the Christological heresies are all concerned with Christ’s person, with the question of who, exactly, he is. At the heart of the Christian belief lies this affirmation, that it is sheer joining of divinity and humanity in a single person, Jesus Christ, which renovates the nature sickened by the Fall, yet this wondrous union not only heals our nature, but makes it better than it ever was before. The incarnation does not take us back to what we were in the garden of Eden. We were originally made, as Psalm 8 tells us, just a little lower than the angels, but through the incarnation, human nature receives blessings far beyond what is given to the angels. Through our union with Christ in baptism we are granted, each of us, the consequences of the union of divinity and humanity in Christ and are granted a relation to the blessed Trinity we could never otherwise have had: a relation of union (38-9).

The obvious question is: what of the cross?

Still, we are left to contend with Williams’s main point. It seems that the church catholic has always debated the significance and meaning of the atonement (moral, vicarious, substitutionary, etc.), yet none resulted in the calling of a council to define Christology.

It’s clear that Williams is pulling more from Orthodoxy than she is from the Reformation tradition of crux sola nostra theologia. But in doing so she stresses salvation as “a relation of union,” thereby bypassing the notion of salvation as divine fiat or “legal fiction.” I find this exciting because Williams’s position here squares nicely with the latest Pauline scholarship, such as Douglas Campbell’s recent work. Campbell and others call into question the undue emphasis the West has placed on Justification language at the expense of participatory or relational language. Is this the beginnings of a rapprochement with Eastern understandings of the atonement?

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