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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 2

While Irving unashamedly acknowledged his belief that Christ’s flesh was mortal and corruptible, closer inspection of Irving’s writings shows that he also defended the sinless perfection of Christ’s humanity: “There was united in Jesus Christ, the Godhead, in the person of the son, and in the manhood, in its fallen state; that they subsisted together in one person, in such a wise as that He was wholly without sin, holy and blameless in the sight of God.”[5] The assertion that Christ took our fallen flesh and “bore it pure, holy, and spotless, without one particle of uncleanness or defilement”[6] demonstrates a paradox within Irving’s thought with the association of sin to the person of Christ. This was a possibility that Cole also refused to entertain: “…the misguided holders and disseminators of the mortality doctrine, will persist in maintaining that the Body of Jesus Christ was a mortal body, yet, by an unaccountable perversion of the nature of things, they profess, at the same time, to hold that it was sinless and undefiled; which is a flat self-contradiction and a palpable absurdity…”[7]

In 1829, James Haldane concurred with Cole by criticising Irving for believing that Christ was naturally mortal: “…he [Irving] holds that Christ was naturally mortal, and consequently his death was not voluntary. It was not an ‘atonement’ for others, but a debt that he owed. Where there is sin there must be mortality, for the wages of sin is death. But such was not the death of Christ…”[8] Herein lies the bedrock of belief for Irving’s opponents that must be protected: If Christ be naturally mortal, his flesh would therefore be corrupt and fallen and he would himself require salvation. This mingling of the concepts of sinfulness and sinlessness, which fundamentally seem diametrically opposed to one another, led Irving’s critics to maintain that he had indeed abandoned belief in the sinlessness of Christ.

Irving’s assertion that Christ assumed sinful flesh, yet remained sinless, was not theologically erroneous in his view. Christ’s struggle against temptation was an important issue that occupied much of his writings.[9] Neither side of the debate would fail to acknowledge that Christ was tempted by the prospect of sin. However, the issue in contest is whether he strived against an inner conflict within himself due to this bodily state. Haldane argued that temptation arising from an internal source within Christ meant that he would have consequently been unholy.[10] He therefore rejected Irving’s suggestion that Christ was subject to temptations arising from an inner propensity to sin that was inherent within his own humanity. The presupposition again follows the same line of thought; “the being who possesses a corrupt nature is a sinful being.”[11] This inner propensity to sin could, therefore, in no way be ascribed to Jesus.

We continue as the argument intensifies:

…‘Or else (added you) what make you of all those passages in the Psalms, “Mine iniquities have taken hold upon me that I am not able to look up: They are more in number than the hairs of my head, etc., etc.”’ – I answered with astonishment, ‘ But surely, Sir, by all those passages are represented the agonies of the blessed Saviour under the number and weight of all his people’s sins imputed to and transferred upon him.’ – ‘No, No! (you replied) I admit imputation to its fullest extent, but that does not go far enough for me. Paul says, “He hath made him to be sin for us, who knew no sin.” Imputation was not the faith of the primitive saints, but introduced by councils which were held after the times of the Apostles.’ – I observed, ‘But, if, as you have already allowed, Christ did no sin, how can those passages in the Psalms refer to any sin, as being his own sins?’ You replied, ‘I will tell you what it is, and what I mean. Christ could always say with Paul, “Yet not I, but sin that dwelleth in me.”’ – ‘What! Do you mean, then, (I replied) that Jesus Christ has that “law of sin in his members” of which Paul speaks, when he says, “I find another law in my members warring against the law of my mind, and bringing me into captivity to the law of sin in my members?”’ ‘Not into captivity (you replied); but Christ experienced everything the same as Paul did, except the “captivity.”’ – ‘This, Sir, (I observed) is, to me, a most awful doctrine indeed.’[12]

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Category: Fall 2018, In Depth

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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