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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 3

Edward Irving, circa 1823, by an unknown artist.
Image: Wikimedia Commons

Yet Dallimore’s claims are highly disputable. Graham McFarlane refutes the allegation that Irving’s views were Unitarian: “For it was in [the Hatton Garden] congregation that [Irving] began to defend his doctrine of God against the increasingly Unitarian interpretation of God which late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century Deism spawned.”[27] McFarlane adds that the contemporary influence of Romanticism upon Irving caused him to refute the Unitarian heresy “in a manner that engaged with the issues rather than simply mouthing old formulae.”[28] Likewise, Claude Welch explains, “The work of Kant marked the end of a theological era…beginning a definite movement away from rationalism’s view of religion toward new ways of understanding theology that would be distinct from those of both orthodoxy and rationalism. This tendency was accelerated and carried farther by the new intellectual and spiritual climate of romanticism.”[29] This highlights the strength inherent within theological romanticism in that it rejected any rationalistic formulae, formulated within scholasticism, which had increasingly been regarded as resulting in the hindrance to the spiritual growth of Christian believers.[30] Conceivably, such evidence suggests that Dallimore was wholly mistaken about the result of Romanticism’s influence on Irving, as well as its wider influence on religious thought.

Irving was so characteristically linked to this movement that he occupies centre stage in the historian, David Bebbington’s examination of how Romanticism profoundly influenced many evangelical leaders within the nineteenth century.[31] Regarding Irving’s possible influence from Coleridge; it has been well documented that Coleridge’s intellectual views reflect an affinity with the core ethos of theological romanticism.[32]

The theological significance of Coleridge’s philosophy lies in its appreciation of the essential subjectivity of religious and moral convictions…of God, the freedom of the will, the authority of conscience and the immortality of the soul derive their origin from man’s moral consciousness and any reception of them as objectively true is determined by a practical interest only. Its basis, like that of the rest of our beliefs, is experience.[33]

It is quite possible that these core ideals were passed on to Irving. If so, this would explain why he was so determined to emphasize the practical relevance of the Incarnation for the experience of the believer, and so adamant that this was an aspect in which the doctrinal formulations of his theological tradition had so abysmally failed. It should, therefore, be acknowledged that the influence of Romanticism on Irving’s thought does not automatically condemn him for heresy, as Dallimore suggests.[34]

The opinions presented by Dorries and Dallimore have correctly identified the presence of two separate influences upon Irving’s theology. Yet while each scholar has determined to argue wholly for Irving’s orthodoxy or non-orthodoxy, neither has considered the possibility of the other’s influence upon Irving’s thought. Their approaches, therefore, hinder the achievement of a fuller understanding of his views. Any understanding of Irving’s theology should therefore take into consideration the convergent nature of his standing within the Federal theological tradition as well as his tendency towards the ideals of Romanticism.[35]

3.3.    The ‘Substance’ of Christ’s Union with Humanity in Reformed Theology

We continue our assessment by demonstrating how Irving’s notion of Christ’s sinful flesh adhered to foundational elements of Reformed Christology while simultaneously challenging the federal scholasticism that had grown to obscure it.

In doing so, we look to the figure of John Calvin as a discussion partner. Calvin is not consulted here because we believe him to be the originator of Reformed theology (which is more commonly known as ‘Calvinism’). Indeed, it would be entirely inappropriate to identify Calvin as Federal theology’s sole benefactor, as the Reformed tradition is far more diverse in its origin and development.[36] Rather, Calvin serves as an appropriate companion because his theology helps to bridge the gap of history, enabling us to compare fundamental Christological tenets within early Reformed theology with their subsequent developments in Federal theology.

Calvin’s Christology insists upon an organic or ontological union of God with mankind in the Incarnation, in such a way that it necessitates that Christ assumed full humanity in its fallen state.[37] This was possible because Calvin distinguished between the person of Jesus Christ from the human nature that he assumed.[38] As a result, it was perfectly reasonable to believe that God had assumed a fallen human nature because the intention of his person was to redeem that which he assumed. “Christ is worthy of our faith…because he is God. Only thus does he exhibit God’s power to save. But that power is exhibited to us and available for our faith insofar as he is with us – insofar as he has accommodated himself to our lowly condition and become human.”[39]

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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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