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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 2

The discussion turns toward the nature and extent of the doctrine of imputation. Irving found scriptural basis for believing that Christ was imputed with ‘sin in his members’, which was the cause of his having to struggle against temptation from within. Irving stresses that this struggle in no way resulted in Christ being captive to it. Yet Cole’s disagreement rested on the foundation that if the ‘law of sin’ resided within Christ’s body, he would have automatically been held captive by it, which would result in him being a sinner in need of salvation. Cole expresses how awful this proposition would be, as his understanding of imputation was limited to the ‘blessed Saviour’ being under the weight of the sins of others being transferred upon him at the cross. Yet for Irving, this fuller understanding of imputation was necessary for Christ to experience temptation in the same way as his fellow man, albeit without ever succumbing to it.

Finally, the confrontation ends with the question of whether Christ’s human body was ‘like that of all mankind.’ We again refer to Cole’s encounter with Irving:

And after making other remarks upon the awfulness of the doctrine, and asking you once or twice if such was your deliberate and considerate belief, which you answered in the affirmative, I put this final question to you, – ‘Do you then, Sir, really believe, that the body of the Son of God was a mortal, corrupt and corruptible body, like that of all mankind? The same body as yours and mine?’ You answered ‘Yes! Just so: certainly: that is what I believe.’[13]

Here it is plainly seen that the issues of sinfulness, mortality and corruptibility within the confrontation between Cole and Irving culminate over the question of whether Christ was fully consubstantial with fallen mankind. Irving’s assertion that Jesus was so closely associated with the fallen condition of mankind proved to be the root of the issue that caused concern among his contemporaries. It is regarding this concept that we will now refine the focus of enquiry to explore its significance in Irving’s views of the Incarnation and the Atonement.


2.2.    ‘Consubstance’ as an Incarnational Necessity

This issue of the commonality of Christ’s flesh with the rest of humanity is the focal issue around which the debate over Irving’s notion of Christ’s ‘sinful flesh’ revolves ­– its relation to the understanding of the ‘fullness of the Incarnation’. It is this very issue that we will now examine, as we seek to get to the very heart of Irving’s teaching.

When the Church of Scotland had decided over Irving’s orthodoxy, the assumption that the debate had been settled once and for all can be seen Robert Meek’s claim that the views of the establishment had indeed been vindicated.[14] Yet with a degree of empathetic honesty, for which he is to be commended, Meek expresses his confusion over why, and indeed how Irving and his followers asserted that Christ’s flesh must be described as ‘sinful’ while simultaneously claiming him to be holy, sinless and without sin:

… why do they persist in retaining terms, in speaking of the humanity of the Saviour, … which give currency to heresy? Why do they hold up the Saviour as our great pattern, not as absolutely holy and clearly void of sin, both in flesh and the spirit, but as grappling with, and overcoming all sin and temptation in his flesh, and to which that flesh, they contend, was liable and inclined in common with our own? Why do they accuse their brethren with the denial of the true humanity of Christ, because they oppose Mr. Irving’s heresy at this point? How comes it to pass that there should be that singularity in their statements on this subject, which disturbs the faith of those who love the Saviour? …[15]

It seems there were still questions being asked by Irving’s opponents over why Christ’s assumption had to have been ‘sinful’ flesh. Why was it essential for Christ to have been incarnate in ‘sinful flesh’ in order for him to be fully consubstantial with humanity? For Irving, the importance of Patristic creedal language was clear: “…consubstantiability of flesh with us is as much an article of the right faith concerning Christ, as is the article of his being altogether without sin.”[16] For Irving held the very essence of the Incarnation to be that Christ took upon himself the burden of our fallen nature, bore it during his life, and carried it to his death. He saw no other option but to presuppose that the human nature assumed by Christ was in the fallen condition. “That Christ took our fallen nature is most manifest, because there is no other in existence to take.”[17]

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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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