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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 3

Moving further along in history, there has been a growing need for modern theology to recapture the heart of the Incarnation as being an organic ‘consubstantial’, in the fullest possible sense, union of God with mankind in the God-Man, Jesus Christ – a concept which had been so prevalent within the theology of the early church but had been neglected within the mainstream of Irving’s tradition.

The era of post-Reformation scholasticism spurred on the rise of eighteenth-century classical liberal Protestant theology, among which its most influential theologians must include Friedrich Schleiermacher (1768-1834) and Albrecht Ritschl (1822-1889).[50] At the turn of the twentieth-century, Wilhelm Herrmann exposed a growing tension in modern western theology, especially found within evangelical Protestantism.[51] On the one hand, there is a great acceptance among Protestants that a foundation of the Christian life relied on a personal communion with the living God through a relationship with Jesus Christ.[52] Yet on the other hand, the danger of Christian piety is that it tends to give little or no place to the relationship of the Christian to the incarnate life of Christ.[53] In response, Herrmann sustained a vehement repudiation of the overly used forensic categories of salvation theory within Protestant Orthodoxy as well as a rejection of the over-emphasizing of a metaphysical two-natures Christology at the expense of more, what he calls, ‘personalistic’ categories when speaking of humanity’s union with God in the Incarnation.[54] The influence of liberal Protestantism should not be underestimated, as it challenged many to reformulate their conception of Christ’s union with humanity in more personal and ethical terms and to at least question their understanding of the notion of ‘substance’ and the theological meaning assigned to it within Christology.[55]

A revitalisation of Trinitarian thought in modern Christian theology,[56] and more specifically renewed attention to the role of the Holy Spirit in the Incarnation, has gone a long way to exonerate Irving’s views.[57] This focus has been the thrust of recent theological enquiry into Irving’s theology. We acknowledge that, while this is an essential component for many in determining the viability of Irving’s views, we have limited our enquiry specifically to the fundamental question of whether the fullness of the Incarnation necessitates the assumption of sinful flesh. Yet full appreciation for Irving’s theology should acknowledge that his particular perspective is found at a time when liberal Protestantism found cause for inception over the very issues that he had sought to engage. Edward Irving’s motivation in emphasizing the notion of Christ’s sinful flesh represented an attempt to return to a theological emphasis upon Christ’s ontological and personal solidarity with humanity within the Reformed tradition in a period of history where the understanding of this, and related, theological issue/s had been hindered by the neglect of such a notion. His perspective reflects certain aspects of Herrmann’s perspective. While his theology displayed a strong adherence to metaphysical categories in speaking of the human ‘nature’ of Christ and its ontological union with the rest of mankind (therefore retaining foundational tenets of belief within the Patristic and early-Reformed periods), he nonetheless guarded against the scholastic reductionist tendency to equate substantial ‘nature’ with actual ‘being’ by also adhering to an emphasis of Christ’s ‘person’ and his personal solidarity with the human race. His perspective, therefore, shows some similarity with liberalism’s critique of the scholastic orthodoxy. Yet rather than being led to completely disregard his theological tradition he sought to overcome the conceptual difficulties at issue by trying to uphold it.[58] Arguably then, Irving is strategically placed in a period of theological transition and may indeed be a valuable example of how the development of major trends within modern western thinking can influence particular theological responses within a particular historical context.

Furthermore, the life and work of Thomas F. Torrance is perhaps the most recognised recent example of how a Reformed theologian can legitimately hold to a view that Christ assumed a fallen humanity in the Incarnation as a fundamental element of a coherent Christology that also informs related areas of systematic doctrinal engagement.[59] The popularity and relevance of his views upon the contemporary theological stage still continues to increase even after his recent death.[60] Ironically, Torrance stands as the more fortunate counterpart to Edward Irving, as he enjoyed an academic theological career spanning 27 years as Professor of Christian Dogmatics at New College, Edinburgh, and even held the esteemed position of Moderator of the Church of Scotland General Assembly 1976-77 (a position of influence within the same church denomination that would no doubt have, in Irving’s day less than 150 years before, condemned him for heresy). Therefore, it would seem that whichever direction theological discussion takes in future regarding this highly controversial debate over Christ’s human nature, it should not be allowed to make the mistakes of past generations of neglecting or belittling the significance of Irving’s contribution to these, and related, Christological issues when trying to discern what the Incarnation means for the twenty-first century.

3.4.    Theologizing Beyond the Philosophical Restrictions within Western Theology

While the contemporary debate over whether Christ took a fallen human nature (i.e. sinful flesh)[61] continues, there are those who have attempted to reassess the parameters of debate in order to navigate through the theological impasse.[62] Kelly Kapic, in support of such an undertaking, has issued a sincere call for the whole theological community to seek some clarity upon which to build further, more productive theological enquiry.[63] A strong reason for this, Kapic claims, is that both sides of debate actually agree on more than they recognise. Trevor Hart mimics such a position by suggesting a way forward via the amalgamation of doctrinal assertions from both sides in order to eradicate controversy.[64]

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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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