Edward Irving on the Incarnation: Rediscovering the Fathers

As mentioned in the previous post, Edward Irving is one of those cited by Karl Barth has holding to the teaching that Christ assumed our fallen nature. I was first introduced to Irving’s thoughts on this in a lecture by Colin Gunton at Gettysburg Lutheran Seminary back around 1985.

I recently read a very good introduction to Irving’s thought–David W. Dorries, Edward Irving’s Incarnational Christology (Fairfax, VA: Xulon Press, 2002). Dorries teaches at Oral Roberts University; his Ph.D. is in church history from the University of Aberdeen (1987).

Here are a couple of other intriguing leads for seeing what other Catholic and Protestant theologians have affirmed the fallenness of Christ’s humanity:

Edward Irving assumes the truthfulness of the Symbol of Chalcedon:

So, following the saintly fathers, we all with one voice teach the confession of one and the same Son, our Lord Jesus Christ: the same perfect in divinity and perfect in humanity, the same truly God and truly man, of a rational soul and a body; consubstantial with the Father as regards his divinity, and the same consubstantial with us as regards his humanity; like us in all respects except for sin; begotten before the ages from the Father as regards his divinity, and in the last days the same for us and for our salvation from Mary, the virgin God-bearer as regards his humanity; one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, only-begotten, acknowledged in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation; at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being; he is not parted or divided into two persons, but is one and the same only-begotten Son, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets taught from the beginning about him, and as the Lord Jesus Christ himself instructed us, and as the creed of the fathers handed it down to us.

Let’s pick out a couple of elements from this:

  • consubstantial with us as regards his humanity
  • like us in all respects except for sin
  • in two natures which undergo no confusion, no change, no division, no separation
  • at no point was the difference between the natures taken away through the union, but rather the property of both natures is preserved and comes together into a single person and a single subsistent being

The second point affirms the teaching of Hebrews chapters 2 and 4–we don’t start with the differences, but assume that the human nature of Christ is like us in everything “except for sin.” All the essential properties of human nature as we have it are retained by Christ in the incarnation.

Irving also affirmed the teaching of Gregory of Nazianzus, “that which he has not assumed he has not healed.”

Said Irving (Dorries, p. 84):

“He voluntarily brought Himself into peril by taking to Himself our nature; by being incarnate He became the champion of our salvation, by enduring the incarnation and overcoming all the creature’s fallen condition, He accomplished our salvation; …”(C.W., IV, p. 341)

“This is the spirit of His incarnation, one great end and meaning of His manifestation in sinful flesh, to teach humanity how there resideth with the Spirit of God a power to fortify humanity, and make it victorious over all trials and temptations,–a power to reconstruct the fallen ruins of humanity into a temple of holiness, …” (C.W., II, p. 98)

Starting with the Son’s kenosis, or self-emptying, he describes Christ as maturing in all areas, and struggling as we do (Dorries, pp. 90ff)

“I consider Him waxing from youth to manhood, according to the growth of human nature, struggling with its infirmities, tried with its trials, living in the same twilight of divine knowledge, and needing the same aids of a written Word, of prayer, and of communion, which man doth need. And, therefore, when He ascended out of the water, He waited in expectation of grace to be given to Him from on high; and He besought it with the humility of a suppliant.” (C.W. II, p. 101)

“He became flesh, and grew by the natural growth of the body and mind of man; …” (C.W. II, p. 195)

“… that power which He resigned, He, not in appearance but in truth, resigned. So that He was a child, and grew in the grace and faculties of His nature like another child into mature manhood, struggling with the temptations, and spoiling the tempters of each stage of life,…” (C.W. II, p. 194)

“…what anxieties and fears must have pressed Him at its outset, when, from being a private man, He undertook so high a task! Think not I take from His dignity thus to behold Him accessible to those troubles of the spirit. It doth but prove the more the tenderness of his humanity, and encourage that fellow-feeling with Him which is the most genuine mark of His disciples.” (C.W. II, p. 222)

“I believe that in the minds of many the edge of this mighty trial is taken off by a certain vague apprehension that He was helped to bear it by the new power which He had received from heaven: but this is a notion against which we protest, as totally unsupported by Scripture, and defeating one chief end of His coming in the flesh, which was to conquer every form of wickedness and trial that could come against Him from the cradle to the grave, and to set us an example that we might follow His steps. If His humanity bore not His human encounter, but needed the aid of His superior faculties, then how serveth it as an encouragement or an example to us who are mere men, and have no such divinity to bear us up? His humanity sustained Him against all earthly encounters; and whatever His divinity served Him, it served not to lighten the load which lay heavy upon His shoulders.” (C.W. II, p. 220)

“For He had come into humanity’s accursed region; and His flesh

Dorries emphasizes the Trinitarian dimension of his Christology–the Son in his incarnate state was united to the Father through the Spirit. This pneumatological dimension was lacking in contemporary Christology, he felt; it appeared at the annunciation, the baptism, and the resurrection. Irving’s Trinitarian emphasis gave renewed understanding of the role of the Holy Spirit throughout the incarnation, and in the lives of believers (Dorries, pp. 102-105).

His humanity was “fallen yet sinless” (Dorries, p. 121):

“For I believe, and will ever affirm, according to the language of all the psalms, that the body of Christ, which was without spot and blemish, had yet inherent in it, and resting upon it, every form of infirmity, and was liable to every description of sin; was led into all temptation; yet was not prevailed against, … All sins, infirmities, and diseases had free access to Him by the way of His humanity: they nestled in it, but could not pollute it; they begirt it on every side, but could not dismay it; they straitened, tortured, and slew it, but could not bring it under the dominion of sin for one instant; and did but slay themselves, in slaying that body into which they had entered to make war upon…” (C.W. V, p. 320)

“that first and greatest act of God the Father, whereby from all eternity He did offer up unto death, in a body of fallen yet sinless manhood, His own co-eternal consubstantial Son.” (C.W. II, p. 310; C.W. V, pp. 23, 331)

Dorries gives similar quotes from successive periods in Irving’s writing and ministry. Rather than follow these in detail, I want to turn to some of the patristic writers that Dorries quotes to show that Irving’s Christology was orthodox. I’ll put Dorries’ page numbers in square brackets, and link to the patristic source where I can find it on-line.

Irenaeus of Lyons (affirming, against the Gnostics, that Christ truly took genuine flesh and blood from Mary):

“So the Word was made flesh, that through that very flesh which sin had ruled and dominated, it should lose its force and be no longer in us.” Demonstration of the Apostolic Preaching, 31. [151]

“If, then, any one allege that in this respect the flesh of the Lord was different from ours, because it indeed did not commit sin, neither was deceit found in His soul, while we, on the other hand, are sinners, he says what is the fact. But if he pretends that the, Lord possessed another substance of flesh, the sayings respecting reconciliation will not agree with that man. For that thing is reconciled which had formerly been in enmity. Now, if the Lord had taken flesh from another substance, He would not, by so doing, have reconciled that one to God which had become inimical through transgression. But now, by means of communion with Himself, the Lord has reconciled man to God the Father, in reconciling us to Himself by the body of His own flesh, and redeeming us by His own blood…” Against Heresies, V.14.3. [151]

“if He was not made what we were, He did no great thing in what He suffered and endured.” Against Heresies, III.22.1 [152]

“For as He became man in order to undergo temptation, so also was He the Word that He might be glorified; the Word remaining quiescent, that He might be capable of being tempted, dishonoured, crucified, and of suffering death, but the human nature being swallowed up in it (the divine), when it conquered, and endured [without yielding], and performed acts of kindness, and rose again, and was received up [into heaven].” Against Heresies, III.19.3 [153]


“…we could not have been redeemed from sin and the curse, unless the flesh and nature, which the Word took upon Him had been truly ours (for we should have had no interest by his assumption of any foreign nature).” Against the Arians, II, 70 [165]

“an impassible and perfect being … really and positively assumed our passive, imperfect, and feeble nature.” Against the Arians, III, 55 [166]

“Our Saviour humbled Himself exceedingly when He tooko upon Him our frail unworthy nature. He assumed the form of a servant in making that flesh, which was enslaved to sin, a part of Himself.” Against the Arians, I, 43 [166]

“the corruption which had set in was not external to the body, but had become attached to it ….” On the Incarnation of the Word, 44 [166]

“And again, had not the Son of God admitted the imperfections of our nature to a place in His person, it had been impossible for our nature to be entirely delivered from them.” Against the Arians, III, 33 [167]

Gregory of Nazianzus:

“But if it was that He might destroy the condemnation by sanctifying like by like, then as He needed flesh for the sake of the flesh which had incurred condemnation, and soul for the sake of our soul, so, too, He needed mind for the sake of mind, which not only fell in Adam, but was the first to be affected, as the doctors say of illnesses. For that which received the command was that which failed to keep the command, and that which failed to keep it was that also which dared to transgress; and that which transgressed was that which stood most in need of salvation; and that which needed salvation was that which also He took upon Him. Therefore, Mind was taken upon Him.” Letter CI [183]

Gregory of Nyssa:

“In what could the recovery of our nature have consisted if, while this earthly creature was diseased and needed this recovery, something else, amongst the heavenly beings, had experienced the Divine sojourning? It is impossible for the sick man to be healed, unless his suffering member receives the healing. If, therefore, while this sick part was on earth, omnipotence had touched it not, but had regarded only its own dignity, this its pre-occupation with matters with which we had nothing in common would have been of no benefit to man.” Great Catechism, 27 [183]

There are more items that could be selected, from both Irving and from the fathers (and later authors), but that suffices to demonstrate the point. For the fathers, and for Irving, it was real human flesh–as we have it–that Christ assumed. It was only by assuming what is sick that he could heal it, and this applies to both our mind and our body.

Food for thought.

3 thoughts on “Edward Irving on the Incarnation: Rediscovering the Fathers

  1. I wonder, Bill, your thoughts on Henry Drummond? It’s in his book THE GREATEST THING IN THE WORLD, where-in he mentions Edward Irving’s laying his hand on a child’s forehead and saying “God loves you”, that I first heard of Edward Irving. Following up, I came across your web page and will certainly read the Dorries book you recommend.

  2. I was going to link to an article about him for those who don’t know his name–and when I looked him up, I was about to ask, “Which Henry Drummond?” The one who wrote The Greatest Thing in the World was Henry Drummond (1851-1897). The other was Henry Drummond (1786-1860)–and he was a close associate of Irving’s. Were they related? Neither article says. I haven’t read the younger Drummond. I know of the older Drummond because of his participation in the British branch of the Advent movement, and because of his sponsorship of the great missionary, Joseph Wolff.

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