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Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology, Part 3

George S. Hendry comments on the occurrence of a “general fragmentation of Christian tradition”[75] due to the presence of different conceptions of the gospel of the Incarnation: “The estrangement of churches owes much to the partial perspectives, because, when attention is concentrated unduly on one limited aspect of the gospel, that aspect, not being viewed in the context of the whole gospel, is usually distorted and made to bear a disproportionate weight of significance.”[76] While Hendry cites a number of aspects that display such a fragmentation,[77] he claims that this fragmentation is at its deepest within the division between Eastern and Western theological traditions.[78]

The theology of the Eastern Church has always been characterised by a dominant interest in the Incarnation from a perspective that is particularly different to the Western alternative: While the Western church has predominantly been concerned with sin as a matter of the will by which man incurs guilt, leading to a general understanding of the purpose of salvation is primarily to remove the guilt of sin. Whereas the Eastern perspective is concerned to understand how salvation provides restitution for the whole of the human being and not merely the forgiveness of guilt. “It is this concern which underlies the preoccupation of the ancient church with the doctrine of the Incarnation in the traditional sense of the term; the Incarnation, the assumption of our nature by the eternal Word, was to them the means of effecting a transmutation or ‘transubstantiation’ of the corrupted nature of man.”[79]

Peter De Rosa examines the inter-relations between Christ and sin using the doctrines the incarnation and original sin in Western thought.[80] De Rosa argues that it is Christ who should illuminate original sin and that the latter cannot be understood except in relation to him, who came to take upon himself the sin of the world.[81] This argument counters practical unbelief in Christ’s humanity, not in the sense that anyone would deny that Jesus is a man, but rather in the sense that theological formulations regarding sin and humanity unnecessarily result in a general reluctance to accept the full reality of Jesus’ manhood within much of Western theology.[82]

It is fair comment to say that dogmatic theologians have usually been inclined to minimize, as far as possible, the effects upon Christ himself of living and moving in a sinful world. The danger is that by the time they have set down everything they consider to be entailed by Christ’s divinity his humanity may almost dissolve in a blaze of glory.[83]

De Rosa’s contribution stands as a powerful corrective for a theological system that gives priority to the doctrine of original sin, allowing it to dictate subsequent thought concerning the humanity of Christ – Such is the Federal view of original sin in that it leads to the need for a ‘perfect’ humanity of Christ and results in a restricted understanding of the Incarnation.

From a different perspective of Eastern theology, however, we may find cause for greater appreciation of Irving’s views.[84] Due to Eastern Orthodoxy’s emphasis on the Incarnation as playing a major ontological role in the redemption of mankind, i.e. requiring the union of perfect deity with sinful humanity in order to reconstitute and redeem it,[85] its perspective has the conceptual ability to see that Irving builds on a distinction between the levels of nature and person. “The human nature that Christ took at the incarnation was subject, like our own, to the effects of original sin; but on the level of personhood, in his freely-willed acts of personal choice, Christ was utterly and entirely sinless, his whole life being one continual victory over sin.’”[86] Whereas, as we have seen, the main issue of contention for western thinkers remains to be the presumption that Christ’s assumption of a human nature that is affected by sin automatically corrupts his person. It is conceivable, then, that a careful enquiry as to how the Eastern theological tradition may alleviate the conceptual pressures and difficulties inherent within the Western tradition regarding this issue may indeed shed further light and perhaps pave the way for further discussion and appreciation of Irving’s theology in future.[87]

We acknowledge that significant continuing conceptual difficulties are attached to the notions of sinful or fallen, and conversely, sinless or unfallen, regarding the Christological debate. Yet despite the problems inherent within the conceptual understandings of ‘sinful flesh’ within modern Western theology, a strength of Irving’s notion of Christ’s sinful flesh is that his views where a result of searching beyond the doctrinal formulations of his context to shed at least some light on the theological understanding of what it meant for Christ to become man.

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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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