‘Christ’s Sinful Flesh’: Edward Irving’s christological theology within the context of his life and times
Lee, Byung Sun
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Edward Irving (1792-1834) exercised a profound effect on developments in nineteenthcentury theology within the English-speaking world. He is especially known for his thought regarding the return of the gifts of the Holy Spirit and his pre-millennialism, including his belief in the imminent physical return of Jesus Christ. Indeed, Irving is generally remembered as a central figure in the movement of early nineteenth century premillennialism and as a fore-runner of the modern Pentecostal movement. Most scholarly interpretations of Irving have focused on particular aspects of his thought, such as the manifestation of the Holy Spirit, his millenarianism, or his understanding of Christology. This thesis provides a new interpretation of Irving’s contributions, examining the interrelationship of his theological ideas and exploring the development of them within the context of his life, including his childhood and youth within the Covenanting country of southwest Scotland, his education within the University of Edinburgh and his early teaching career, his assistantship to Thomas Chalmers in the celebrated St John’s experiment in urban ministry in Glasgow, his move to London in 1822 and his meteoric rise to fame as a preacher there, his personal trauma, including his unhappy affair with the future Jane Welsh Carlyle, the deaths of his children and the tragic accident at Kirkcaldy, his connections with Romantic intellectual and religious circles in the capital, and his growing involvement with the prophetic movement. Under the influence of the Romantic Movement, Irving’s religious sensibility had matured. This thesis argues that Irving’s theological views, including his views on the gifts of the Spirit and his millennialism, formed a coherent system, which focused on his doctrine of Christ, and more particularly on his belief that Christ had taken on a fully human nature, including the propensity to sin. Only by sharing fully in the human condition with its ‘sinful flesh’ concerning all temptations, Irving believed, could Christ become the true reconciler of God and humanity and a true exemplar of godly living for humankind. When we view Irving’s theology from the perspective of his idea of Christ’s genuine humanity, we can comprehend it more clearly; Irving’s understanding of the spiritual gifts and his apocalyptic visions of Christ’s return in glory had clear connections with his Christology. Irving’s distinctive ideas on Christ’s human nature and his eloquent descriptions of Christ’s ‘sinful flesh’ resulted in severe criticisms from the later 1820s, and finally led to his being deposed from the ministry of the established Church of Scotland in 1833. His belief that we encounter God through Christ’s sinful flesh reflected Irving’s Romantic emphases, including the striving to transcend human limits. The Romantic sensibilities of the age and Irving’s belief that the Church was locked in impotence and spiritual lethargy led him to expect a divine interruption, and to long for an ideal world through an eschatology that would bring glorification to the Church. Irving’s view of the person of Christ must be understood within this broader theological framework and historical context, in which he maintained that common believers could achieve union with Christ through both their sharing of Christ’s genuine humanity and the work of the Holy Spirit.