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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 3

Kelly Kapic, Professor of Theological Studies at Covenant College

Yet while adopting Hart’s suggestion of simplifying doctrinal decisions may aid in alleviating controversy, this may be too simplistic a solution in the long term as it disregards the underlying proclamation beyond the theological formulae invoked. Ivor Davidson argues that many systematic theologies falter because contemporary theologians fail to see ‘what is at issue’ when speaking about the human Jesus. He helpfully invokes Karl Barth’s warning regarding this matter: “There are more modern ways that are perhaps more accessible and easier to tread, but they cannot serve us as we need because, to put it mildly, they rest upon a much less profound and serious knowledge of the matter.”[65] Finding the significance of Irving’s theology rests not so much on the particular formulae in use, but rather on venturing beyond the mere conceptual categories in order to understand the underlying proclamation.

Kapic suspects that the divergent positions are a result of problems that arise from preconceptions and continuing misunderstandings. Concerning Irving, he comments:

While historians may agree that Irving’s adversaries misunderstood his position, they did so for a reason. The Presbyterian tradition was one steeped in the language and categories of the Reformation, and so they had tremendous difficulty making the conceptual leap required by Irving’s fluid language and ideas. He was able to speak of Christ as ‘fallen’ with ‘sinful flesh’ and yet also maintain that he was ‘without sin’. Much to his dismay his opposition could not so easily separate the two, especially in the midst of inflated rhetoric and church politics.[66]

Kapic argues that genuine dialogue must go beyond the simple affirmation, or denial, of whether Christ assumed a ‘fallen’ or ‘unfallen’ human nature. The reason being that although both sides hold much in common, disagreement arises over the interpretation of theological terms that lack clarity and, therefore, theological substance.[67] Irving himself expressed misgivings about using the term “sinful” in relation to Christ’s flesh, as the danger was the inference that he was proclaiming Christ as a sinner, yet it was the only terminology available for him to work with.[68] This demonstrates how theology in any context is limited to the constraints of the language used. While Kapic correctly identifies many topical issues that result in divergent understandings within the debate, what he neglects to mention is the fact that the doctrinal formulations needing review are heavily shaped by philosophical influences.[69] Discussions of such influences, including the restrictions thereof, are all too often completely absent from the assessment of Irving’s views. It only stands to reason then that theologians must consider the conceptual difficulties contained within the philosophical theology of Western Christianity if they are to proceed in more productive enquiry in future.

One aspect of enquiry should, no doubt, revisit evident conceptual difficulties when ascribing philosophical and theological meaning to the notions of ‘flesh’ and ‘nature’ and what place they have in Christology. According to McGrath, the Enlightenment raised three major Christological problems. Firstly, the ‘two-natures’ doctrine of the ancient church was questioned as absurd and illogical. Secondly, it became increasingly difficult to maintain the uniqueness of Jesus Christ without recourse to the supernatural. Lastly, as the historical reliability of the gospel records were more and more questioned, there was an increasing skepticism concerning knowledge of the historical Jesus.[70] Certainly, one of the main difficulties with Irving’s theology is that it is susceptible to contemporary criticisms concerning ‘two-natures Christology.[71] While this perspective alone represents a wide and complex debate in itself,[72] what is apparent throughout the whole history of theological discussion over the divine and human natures in Christ is the fact that controversy arises whenever one is emphasized more than the other, especially when such an emphasis claims to rectify a perceived over-emphasis towards one or the other.[73] Such a contention has been evident ever since the separate patristic schools of Antioch and Alexandria tended to begin Christological discussion from different perspectives.[74]

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Category: In Depth, Winter 2019

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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