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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 1

Chapter two will then provide an exposition of the ‘crux’ of Irving’s theology. The original controversy itself, including various theological issues in question, will be examined. Rather than arguing in favour of one side or another, we will seek to uncover the dominant theological issues concerning the ‘sinlessness’ of Christ, which held sway over the controversy’s outcome. Attention will then be directed to exposing the foundational issue that has all-too-often escaped many who have taken part in the debate. It will be argued that the crux of Irving’s notion of Christ’s sinful flesh primarily relates to the fullness of the Incarnation, in that his humanity is fully consubstantial with ours, rather than being a statement about Christ’s sinlessness. The significance of this interpretation will then be unpacked by revisiting questions of the relationship between doctrinal issues of Incarnational Christology and Atonement theory in light of Irving’s understanding.

In Chapter three we will then offer a final assessment as to the viability of Irving’s views in the context of his place within the development of his theological tradition as well as being based on recent developments in theology. The considerations offered herein will reflect a postmodern interpretation of heterodoxy and highlight conceptual difficulties that are inherent within the framework of Irving’s theological tradition. Nevertheless, Irving’s views will be evaluated based on the perspectives both of his place within his own historical context as well as on the possibility of their continuing application in contemporary theology.


Chapter 1

The Controversy That Was Edward Irving

The overall aim of this chapter is to introduce the Christological controversy for which Edward Irving has been known. We begin by briefly introducing Irving’s personal life and ministry while highlighting the various aspects that have been viewed as controversial. Contemporary literature that has specifically been dedicated to understanding Irving’s Christological views will then be reviewed in order to highlight his continuing significance within theology. A brief examination of the original controversy will then follow as we consider the theological issues pertinent to its historical outcome.


1.1 The Controversial Irving

It is appropriate to introduce the personality of Edward Irving in a brief summary of his life and ministry. Our intention is not simply to discuss the biographical detail of Irving’s life,[9] but rather to draw attention to the contentious nature of Irving’s brief ministry. T.C. Gordon makes note of the many aspects of Edward Irving’s ministry that was known for its controversial nature. Yet, Gordon simultaneously ear marks Irving as a significant figure within Scottish ecclesiastical history.[10] Therefore, awareness of Irving’s personal context is necessary to prepare for proper consideration of his theological significance.

Edward Irving was born in Annan, Scotland, on the 4th of August 1792. Being intellectually gifted, he enrolled in the University of Edinburgh at the age of thirteen and graduated with a Master of Arts degree four years later. Irving’s desire to become a minister with the Church of Scotland led him to study for a Divinity degree[11] at the University of Edinburgh whilst supporting himself financially by teaching at a school in Haddington. Within six years he had completed his Divinity degree and gained a licence allowing him to preach in the Church of Scotland. In 1819, he accepted an invitation by Dr Thomas Chalmers to serve as assistant minister at St. John’s Parish Church, Glasgow. By July 1822, Irving, aged thirty, had accepted a charge to pastor the Caledonian Chapel in Hatton Garden, London. His ministry grew in popularity[12] and by 1824 the church had built and occupied new premises in Regent Square[13] to accommodate the exponential growth of its congregation. It was during this time that Irving became known for his interest in a number of contentious theological issues.

Irving exhibited an intense interest in Eschatological issues and had interacted with J.N. Darby and other leaders of the Brethren movement as they shared views regarding the Second Advent of Christ.[14] Despite this reception of his Eschatological views, Irving is perhaps more famously known for his Pneumatology, which sparked a separate controversy that certainly runs concurrent to the Christological one. Irving believed that there was in progress a resurgence of the manifestations of the gifts of the Spirit,[15] especially that of prophecy and ‘tongues’, which was to precede Christ’s Second Coming. His belief in the operation of spiritual gifts would no doubt have conflicted with the predominant theological milieu of Cessationism. Benjamin Warfield, a well-known proponent of Cessationism in modern times, dedicates some sympathetic attention towards Irving but describes what he calls the ‘Irvingite Gifts’ as fanatical.[16] Even in more recent times there are those who, while being open to the operation of spiritual gifts for today, have expressed their weariness of Irving for his standing in this doctrinal area.[17]

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Category: In Depth, Summer 2018

About the Author: Trevor W. Martindale has been involved in supporting church-planting ministries in South Africa, where he grew up, and in England and in Scotland, where he now lives. Currently, he is a graduate student at the University of Aberdeen.

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