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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 1

Even his critics noted the genius, talents, and eloquence of Edward Irving.

Perhaps those who are partial towards Cessationist beliefs would summarily dismiss the validity of Irving’s Christological views without proper attention. Such an attitude is evident in the biography of James Haldane, one of Irving’s unwavering opponents during the Christological controversy. Haldane first met Irving at a dinner party before his Christological assertions became a matter of public concern. He later noted his first impression of Irving: “I liked his conversation on the whole, although he feels himself too much like an oracle.[18] Haldane’s biographer then immediately comments: “The name of Edward Irving will remain to all a monument of the folly of a proud reliance upon self, and of the danger of popular applause. His genius, his talents, his eloquence, and his eccentricities, were a snare to him, and but for the grace of God, must assuredly have proved his ruin.”[19] This line of critical commentary appears in a section where the biographer promises to respond to the controversy over Christ’s ‘sinful flesh’, within which any evaluation of this issue is poignantly absent.[20] Therefore, it would be unwise to allow tangential issues of controversy surrounding Irving’s ministry to distract attention from the task of considering his Christological views, as is the case in Haldane’s biography.

So then, discussion will now turn to the Christological controversy in question. Oliphant, Irving’s first biographer, points out that the focus of his ministry on the importance of the Incarnation was evident as early as 1825.[21] The topic of the Incarnation was the first major concentrated series of teaching that Irving delivered to his church after his ministry had reached its height of popularity in London.[22] It is undoubtedly evident that these teachings regarding the Lord’s human nature were greatly accepted by his congregation, as it was requested that they be published.[23] In response to which, Irving, referring to the Doctrine of the Incarnation as the “great head of the Christian faith”, states that the purpose of these sermons was to pastorally instruct and encourage his church.[24]

While this publication was in progress, an infamous confrontation occurred with Henry Cole, a retired Anglican minister, which led to a charge of heresy against Irving. Having been disturbed to hear his use of the term ‘sinful flesh’ in regard to Christ’s assumed human nature,[25] Cole attended the evening service of Irving’s church on 28th October 1827 for a first-hand experience of what Irving was preaching.[26] In reaction to hearing Christ’s human nature being referred to as a “sinful substance”, Cole forced an impromptu interview with Irving after the service. He soon after published a tract accusing Irving of heresy due, as he saw it, to Irving’s denial of the sinlessness of Christ.[27] Irving believed that Cole’s publication would face criticism due to his reputation for contentious divisiveness among fellow Christians. However, the opposite had taken place and a great controversy erupted.[28]

[M]anifestations of the Holy Spirit by way of prophetic utterances occurred within his congregation. Irving accepted the validity of these ‘manifestations’ and allowed them to occur freely during the church’s main meeting.

The magnitude of the charge of heresy against him grew, despite a number of Irving’s attempts to qualify his Christological position.[29] Additionally, some who had publically sided with Irving, namely Hugh Baillie MacLean and A.J. Scott, did so at the expense of their own ministerial careers.[30] Irving gradually became alienated from his denomination and resigned from the London Presbytery in October 1830,[31] from which he was subsequently condemned for his Christological beliefs.[32] Though Irving was legally able to continue serving in his ministerial charge with expressed support from the eldership of his own church.[33] However, events approached a climax in 1831-2 when manifestations of the Holy Spirit by way of prophetic utterances occurred within his congregation. Irving accepted the validity of these ‘manifestations’ and allowed them to occur freely during the church’s main meeting. The eldership reported this to the London Presbytery in March 1832 in a move to oust him from his ministerial position on the basis that he was not in control of the worship services.[34] This was in no way due to his Christological teachings. Yet the Church of Scotland General Assembly of 1831 condemned Irving’s views and in 1832 recommended that he be deposed from his ministerial status. A subsequent trial in Annan, Scotland, found him guilty of “following divisive courses, subversive of the discipline of the order to which he [belonged], and contrary to the principles of Christian fellowship and charity.”[35]

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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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