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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 3

Concerning Irving’s historical debate then, proponents and opponents alike have suffered from a tendency to assume an attitude that their conclusions are supported unequivocally throughout the whole of church history. Yet it is imperative for each generation that evaluates Irving’s views to recognise that the limits of their conclusions are no less derived from their own theological perceptions than it was from the original generation who condemned Irving. It is, therefore, prudent to state that the evaluation and conclusions that follow are influenced by a postmodern theological hermeneutic – in the sense that we do not intend to determine whether Irving was a heretic or not, but rather to recognise Irving’s place within the diverse and complex historical development of Incarnational Christology. We present this as an appropriate attitude for determining the viability of Irving’s views; in that while they might have been deemed heterodox from the established church at the time, it does not necessarily follow that he be guilty of heresy.

3.2.    An Assessment in Contextual Theology: Federalist Foundations vs. Romantic Inclinations

The previous chapter illustrated the polemical nature of the debate over Irving’s orthodoxy. However, a simple exploration of the parameters of debate without conducting a detailed investigation of Irving’s perspective would result in the formation of biased conclusions based upon one’s own presuppositions, as has so often been the case in tempestuous theological debate. In order to avoid such pitfalls, this dissertation has not followed the conventional method of arguing for or against. Instead we seek to explore Irving’s place within the historical context of his theological tradition. Arguably, there is no theological viewpoint that can be fully understood without investigating the context within which it was formed.[12] Therefore, it is essential to identify two relevant contextual factors affecting Irving’s theology.

David Dorries has recently examined a significant contextual influence on Irving’s thought, calling attention to his possible attitude towards the Federal theological tradition.[13] Derived from the Latin ‘foedus’, meaning ‘covenant’, Federal theology came to be regarded as the most influential development of Reformed thought in the post-Reformation period.[14] The movement exhibited a highly scholastic approach to theological method,[15] which valued the systematic organisation of theological issues and relied heavily on Aristotelian philosophy, resulting in an increasing emphasis toward metaphysical and speculative theological questions.[16]

Considering the historical issue at hand, David Dorries attributes Irving’s views as being ‘orthodox’ primarily due to his position of stern opposition to his inherited theological tradition. Dorries bases his argument on the contribution of James B. Torrance, who claimed that Federalist confusion between the concepts of ‘covenant’ and ‘contract’ led to the portrayal of God as a contract-God rather than a covenant-God.[17] However, Peter Golding refutes this claim: “To assert, as Torrance does, that the federalists placed law before grace betrays not only a deep-seated theological bias, but a complete failure to understand the mindset of such men.”[18] Despite the fact that Federal theology has been susceptible to sharp criticism for the presence of an unhealthy emphasis on legal terminology due to syncretism within fiduciary culture, especially due to the ‘golden age’ of its seventeenth century developments,[19] we suggest Dorries’ conclusions to be unnecessarily extreme. Even if Dorries’ critique may correctly highlight an underlying theological weakness present within the tradition, his argument falls short of grasping the foundational issue that distinguished Irving’s theological views from his opponents. Instead, the mistaken impression is given that Irving was adamantly opposed to major foundational tenets held within Reformed theology. Yet there is much evidence to suggest that Irving saw his teachings as being wholly within his theological tradition.[20] Graham McFarlane comments: “He is no radical thinker in the sense that he proposes ideas that undermine traditionally accepted formulae. Quite the reverse: Irving may be understood as unfolding what has been in the tradition from its very genesis.”[21] Setting aside the issue of whether he was right or not, McFarlane shows a clearer grasp of where Irving saw himself in his standing with his theological tradition. Therefore, the possibility that Irving entirely opposed his theological heritage remains unsubstantiated. Furthermore, this leads to a conjunctive influence that has to be considered.

Hence we direct attention to the earlier contribution of Arnold Dallimore, who devoted a large portion of his investigation of Edward Irving’s life to his affinity with a movement known as Romanticism – a cultural movement influencing literary, artistic, political, religious and philosophical aspects of culture within the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.[22] Although, while Dallimore describes Irving’s modern dress sense and illustrates how his early interest in the romantic poets may have led to his particularly flamboyant style of preaching, he neglects to present any proper evidence for how this cultural movement directly influenced Irving’s theology.[23] Instead, Dallimore seems content enough to attribute the root of Irving’s unorthodoxy to his affiliation with Samuel Coleridge.[24] His justification for this is simply to allege that the contentious nature of Coleridge’s theology confused Irving’s Christology, leading him away from orthodox belief and into Unitarianism.[25] Upon this shoddy reasoning, he unilaterally concludes that “nothing whatsoever in Coleridge’s actions or writings qualified him to be addressed as an orthodox Christian, and to those who were truly orthodox Irving’s statements seemed utterly ridiculous.”[26]

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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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