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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 1

Irving was expelled from the ministry of the Church of Scotland on 18th March 1833 but independently continued pastoral ministry in an un-ordained capacity with some eight hundred loyal congregants from Regent Square who had followed him to start a new church.[36] This formed the foundation of what became known as the Catholic Apostolic Church.[37] However, he became fatally ill shortly afterwards on a mission trip to Scotland and died of ‘consumption’[38] in Glasgow, Scotland, on the 7th December 1834.

The memory of Irving has lasted on through the generations, as there are various monuments to his name.[39] Apparently, his life and ministry was tenderly remembered despite the degree of controversy that surrounded it. Still we suggest that it was these very controversial doctrinal issues that significantly affected the direction and nature of his brief 15 years in ministry. As a result of the socio-theological stigma surrounding Edward Irving, the likelihood that personal attitudes of believers might hinder any genuine interest in his Christological ideas, for fear of being labelled heretics themselves, is a real concern. We, therefore, briefly pause to consider how debate over Irving’s theological views has continued long after his death.


1.2 Reviewing a Development in Theological Perspectives

In the following survey, we review significant literature dedicated to examining Irving’s views regarding Christ’s human nature. It is not within our scope to review all literary works that mention Irving. Rather, our intention is to consider how the range of theological attitudes towards Irving’s views has developed within contemporary scholarship. Thus we hope to demonstrate Irving’s emergence as something of a figurehead within this debate.

Karl Barth, widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, is perhaps Irving’s most renowned proponent.

At the turn of the nineteenth century, conclusions about Irving’s unorthodoxy prevailed. Alexander Bruce, who argues that Irving’s heretical views humiliate the gospel message of Jesus Christ,[40] exemplifies an attitude typical of this time period. It was not until the theological era of Neo-Orthodoxy, when new doctrinal understandings concerning the nature of sin were formulated, that Irving began to be viewed in a different light. Significantly, Karl Barth, widely regarded as one of the twentieth century’s greatest theologians, is perhaps Irving’s most renowned proponent. Barth’s theological affirmation echoes that of Irving: “There must be no weakening or obscuring of the saving truth that the nature which God assumed in Christ is identical with our nature as we see it in the light of the Fall. If it were otherwise, how could Christ be really like us?”[41] In fact, many other prominent theologians from within the Barthian tradition have since endorsed the view of Christ’s fallen, or sinful, humanity.[42]

In moving beyond the purely anthropological question of whether Christ had sinful or sinless flesh, other attempts have enquired further into the role that the doctrine of the Holy Spirit had upon Irving’s theology. Gordon Strachan examines the inter-relationship between Irving’s views on Christ’s human nature and the gifts of the Holy Spirit.[43] While acknowledging the merit of the Barthian tradition’s agreement with Irving, he points out that Barth in no way adopts Irving’s Pneumatology; which he argues is integral to Irving’s Christological assertions.[44] Furthermore, Strachan responds to much of the negative opinion concerning Irving, as he argues that Irving’s Christological statements and writings invoked controversy due to “the intrusion of interpretative categories which have been alien and inappropriate to the subject-matter”.[45] As a result, Irving’s doctrinal assertions were understood out-with the context in which they were written. Strachan, therefore, dedicates substantial space to reviewing large portions of Irving’s writings in their own context in the hope of inspiring future examination of Irving’s views to be more appreciative of his theology.[46] More recently, Graham McFarlane, who has been hailed as one of the most capable apologists in favour of Irving’s cause,[47] has advanced Strachan’s work by examining how Irving’s Christology and Pneumatology are intricately linked.[48] Additionally, Colin Gunton commends Irving’s theology for being ‘broad and systematic.’[49] Such recent developments in favour of Irving’s views have attempted to show an integration and coherence within his theology.

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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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