Was Edward Irving an evangelical?

Introduction

Edward Irving’s theology was rather distinctive and is difficult to classify. His views seem to stretch across several theological positions, at least in some respects. This forces us to ask the question “Was Edward Irving an evangelical?” What is under consideration here is whether Irving was what we today would call an evangelical, not whether his views were consistent with the evangelical party of the Scottish Church in his own time. Was he an evangelical in today’s terms? It is not a question easily answered.

We first need to ask what do we mean by the term evangelical? In recent times David Bebbington has described evangelicalism as having four main features: 1/ belief in the Bible, 2/ belief in the importance of Christ’s death on the cross, 3/ desire for the conversion of individuals and 4/ activism.[1] Whether this is an adequate definition may be argued, but it is commonly used, so it will be a useful measuring tool to use here.

Peter Elliott says, “When Irving is held up against” this “definition of an evangelical, he aligns closely with biblicism, and certainly activism, but he is less conversionist than most evangelicals, and far less crucicentric.”[2] Whether being “less conversionist” and “far less crucicentric”, if that be the case, disqualifies him from being an evangelical is debatable. It is a question of degree. Probably all Christian groups, evangelical or otherwise, believe that the death of Christ is important, though how each understands its benefits varies, and most if not all have a concept of conversion, though in some churches that is not necessary for those baptised into the church as infants, and who later adhere to its practices and teachings. Elliott even goes as far as to argue that the term evangelical (and for that matter Presbyterian) “can only be used lightly of Irving before immediately being qualified.”[3]

Mark Rayburn Patterson thinks similarly to Elliott, at least with regard to the cross. He says, “While the cross never appears to be intentionally marginalized” by Irving and his associates, “one nevertheless gets the impression that it is viewed by [them] as more an accident of history than focal point of God’s saving work.”[4]

Conversion

When Irving’s sermons are examined they are less conversionist than, say, those of George Whitefield and John Wesley, and Billy Graham in more recent times. However, terms such as “conversion”, the “new birth” and “born again” do appear in his Collected Writings often enough to indicate that he taught such ideas, even if he did not emphasise them as much as some other preachers.[5]

A lack of emphasis upon conversion, if that be the case, was probably mainly because of his view on baptism. Margaret Oliphant claimed that Irving’s understanding of baptism was a “hair’s-breadth” from “Baptismal Regeneration”.[6] That is, that it was very close to the view that baptism, properly administered, automatically brought the subject into the kingdom of God. But if Irving was a “hair’s-breadth” from baptismal regeneration, he was well aware that his view was only similar to it, not the same as it. He said, “many will roundly assert that I have preached what is commonly known by baptismal regeneration”. But he denied that his baptismal teaching could be thus described. His view was that the act of baptism did not automatically regenerate all those who were subject to it, but only “the true children of God”.[7] He also taught that baptism is “a holy sacrament for the remission of sins and the receiving of the Holy Ghost”[8] and is “the ordinance in which the Holy Ghost is received by the faithful.”[9]

As baptism in Presbyterian circles is usually infant baptism, conversion of people in such cases, if so it can be called, was the development of the grace already within them.[10] Even in the case of those unbaptised, conversion may still be gradual rather than sudden, or there might be a process prior to conversion, which at times could be quite lengthy.

In one of his sermons on the parable of the sower he argued, “everything in providence is connected with everything in grace, and that from our very childhood we are either preparing ourselves for the reception or rejection of the preached gospel; a doctrine little thought of in these times, when the all-in-all of the Divine work is placed in conversion.” In other words, anyone’s path to their “reception or rejection” of the Gospel was a long one beginning in infancy, presumably whether baptised or not. Yet he was well aware that this idea “may seem to war with the popular theology at present reputed evangelical”.[11] But in his comment “reception or rejection of the preached gospel” he did seem to regard each individual as experiencing a period or a moment when such “reception or rejection” takes place. And here “reception” presumably equals conversion. It should also be noted that Irving regarded some members of his congregation (not all) as his “spiritual sons”,[12] thus converted through his ministry.

In one of his books he also seemed to link the sacraments with conversion. In it he criticised “the Methodism of Wesley and Whitefield”, which led to “the sacraments” being forgotten “in the work of conversion.” Presumably, in his view, the sacraments should lead to conversion. In addition, genuine doctrinal preaching had, he believed, given way “to quick and lively appeals to the present feelings of men, addresses to their interests, presentations to their love of pleasure, food to their appetite for excitement.”[13] What he seems to have been negative about was not conversion, but some preachers’ hasty and over-emotional route to it.

In 1823 he said that he regarded his role as a preacher was to “feed and edify” his flock “in holiness” and “to convert” the other members of his audience.[14] In one of his sermons “On Prayer” he encouraged his listeners to take steps that might lead to “the conversion of our friends and family”. He continued, conversion is “that most important of all events in the life of man”.[15] Thus he regarded conversion as not only necessary, but also that the process to it can be assisted by others, even the laity.

Some of his contemporaries thought that he was more evangelistic in his later ministry than he was when he first arrived in London. This might be confirmed by the fact that after his arrival in London, Irving went to hear an eminent preacher. Sitting next to him was a Congregational minister whom he did not know. After the service the Congregationalist and Irving spoke to each other about “the excellence of the sermon, and the gospel which it contained.” This, the Congregationalist added, was very different from the new minister at the Caledonian Chapel (Irving’s church) who “did not preach the gospel”. Irving responded “Does he not? Then he shall do it hereafter.”[16] The Congregationalist had obviously not heard Irving preach, for if he had, he would have instantly recognised him and not made such a criticism to his face. Therefore, others must have told him about the perceived gap in Irving’s preaching.

Yet a number of his sermons on John the Baptist preached in 1823, so possibly after the just mentioned encounter, are distinctly evangelistic. Some of these addresses follow the time-honoured pattern of focusing on his listeners’ sin and guilt and then pointing to the answer in Christ. In the first he very clearly urged his listeners to repent, for “repentance, with a view to the remission of sins through the blood of Christ” is “the beginning of a spiritual life”. In the seventh he challenged his hearers to “repent of your past rebellion … and accept His overtures of forgiveness”. The call to repentance is also found in other sermons in this series.[17]

In addition, in the last few years of his ministry Irving sent preachers out into the fields to preach, which he did not do before. In 1831 he said that he was aware of more conversions in his church in the immediately preceding period than in the earlier years of his time in London. In addition, near the end of his ministry he spoke of “many souls hav[ing] been converted by the voice of the Spirit” at his church.[18] And later still he claimed that in “six months … by the preaching of the Word and the witness of the Spirit, there were added two hundred members to the Church; not a few of whom were converted from the depths of immorality and vice, to become holy and God-fearing men.” Indeed, he claimed that throughout his ministry in London “at least upwards of a thousand, have been converted”.[19] This indicates that he believed that “many” of his people had come to faith in Christ at a particular time or during a specific period under his ministry. Though whether these conversions were considered gradual or sudden is unknown.

The Cross

With regard to the claim about Irving’s lack of emphasis on the cross, in his comments on the Scots Confession (1560), see his Notes on the Standards of the Church of Scotland, his references to Christ’s death are restricted to his discussion on the clause about the Lord’s Supper, and in this he was primarily concerned about the efficacy of the sacrament, rather than Christ’s death as such. He said nothing directly about the Confession’s clause on “Christ’s Death”, though he only referred specifically to a handful of its clauses. His comments there are, no doubt, governed by the issues he was dealing with in his general ministry at that time, such as the controversy about the nature of Christ’s humanity and millennialism.[20]

Yet, in the same document, he applauded the confession from Geneva for “being strong and explicit upon the orthodox doctrine now controverted in our church; namely, that Christ’s death was ‘a sacrifice to purge the sins of all the world;’” and that this proceedeth out ‘of God’s free mercy without compulsion.’”[21] The debatable point was, presumably, the phrase “all the world”, but he was still saying that Christ’s death was to deal with human sin.

There are numerous other references to Christ’s cross, His death and the atonement, but they are not as prominent as one might expect and are often just mentioned in passing.[22] In a lecture on John the Baptist he spoke of Christ bearing our sins in his death and “the transgressions of men [being] laid on the head of Christ” and He taking “them away into the land of God’s forgetfulness.” In one sermon he said that Christ showed “the sinfulness of the flesh and the holiness of God” by His death and in that act became “the mediator of a new testament”. In addition, in another sermon he referred to “the inestimable benefit of Christ’s death”, which is displayed in the Lord’s Supper.[23] In a letter to his wife he also called Christ, “our propitiation”, in the context of “souls” being saved by God’s grace.[24]

It is worth noting that towards the end of Irving’s life the charge was made that he and his associates regarded other matters as more important than the cross, specifically millennialism. These criticisms were often made in the context of Paul’s words to the Corinthians: “For I determined not to know anything among you, save Jesus Christ, and him crucified” (1 Cor. 2:2). An article defending Irving’s position appeared in an 1830 edition of The Morning Watch. The name of the writer is not given, but it could have been Irving himself. Certainly it was someone well-versed in Irving’s thinking. This article claimed that the writer knew of “not less than twenty or thirty letters, chiefly addressed by Evangelical clergymen to Ladies, warning them against … the views of the Millenarians.” Reading between the lines of what the article says, while the critics do seem to have been worried a little about a perceived lack of stress upon the cross, they were more concerned about Irving’s strong emphasis on the End Times. They appear to have been arguing that Irving and his associates should forget the Millennium and concentrate more on proclaiming Christ’s death.

The writer of the article cleverly pointed out that in the succeeding chapters of Paul’s First Letter to the Corinthians he said little about the cross but said a great deal about a host of other issues. Therefore, according to the writer, the verse was being used in a way not intended by Paul. He also denied that he and his associates neglected the cross. Rather, they stressed that in addition to the cross Christ’s incarnation, life, resurrection and return also played their parts in “the expiation made for our sins”.[25]

In fact, this lack of emphasis on Christ’s death was probably mainly because Irving placed such a strong emphasis upon Christ’s incarnation and sinless life. But even that was at least partly because he was always having to defend his position on the nature of Christ’s humanity in frequent sermons and articles, which made this emphasis appear stronger than what he probably regarded as ideal.

Yet we need to note how he understood Christ’s incarnation. In one of his sermons, he argued

It is in the active obedience of Christ, in the perfect submission and obedience which he yielded, in the doing without any failure all the will of God, that he became the Author of salvation to all them that believe. The suffering which he came under was, as it were, but the putting of that will to proof…

I consider it, therefore, to be a rather low view of the Redeemer’s work, to contemplate it so much in the sense of acute bodily suffering or to enlarge upon it under the idea of a price or bargain, which is a carnal similitude, suitable and proper to the former carnal dispensation, and which should, as much as possible, be taken away from the more spiritual idea of our sanctification by the full and perfect obedience which Christ rendered unto the will of God; thereby purchasing back, and procuring for us as many as believe in him, their justification and sanctification by the Holy Spirit, which is their conformity to the will of God”.[26]

Irving, and indeed many others from a variety of theological positions, argued that Christ’s sinless life is essential to human salvation, for we must be “redeemed … with the precious blood of Christ, as of a lamb without blemish and without spot” (1 Pet. 1:18-19; see also Ex. 12:5; Lev. 22:17-25). Christ’s death was important, but so was His spotless life.[27] However, Irving appears to go beyond a common evangelical understanding of that.

But it is crucial to note that Irving’s understanding of Christ’s death was inextricably linked with His teaching about the incarnation. He viewed the death of Christ as an essential component of the doctrine of the Lord’s incarnation, not as a teaching distinct from it. For example, though Irving argued that “The Church was purchased by the incarnation”, yet he also stated that the “doctrine of the atonement for sin by the blood of Christ” was “the second great principle of the incarnation, and essential to the manifestation of the grace of God”.[28] In other words, to Irving, Christ’s death and its consequences was a major part of the incarnation, it was not strictly a different teaching.

The Sacraments

There was, however, another evident theological difference between him and many, but not all, evangelical preachers of his day and ours. It was with regard to a different understanding of the sacraments. An aspect of this has already been demonstrated above, with regard to his views on baptism.

When he spoke about the sacraments in the various confessions of faith that had been used by the Scottish Church, he said that he had been “delivered from the infidelity of evangelicalism”. This was in connection with his strident rejection of the idea that the sacraments were mere “naked and bare signs”. Rather, he believed “by Baptism we are engrafted in Christ Jesus” and that in the Lord’s Supper, while he clearly rejected transubstantiation, he argued with the Scots Confession that Christ becomes “nourishment and food to our souls”.[29] In other words, the sacraments were not just signs but they actually achieved something when they were performed; through them Jesus Christ mediated grace and fed the spirits of the participating faithful.

Some might regard this as more in line with high church views, but this principle also goes back to John Calvin and John Knox. In fact, Knox said that in the Lord’s Supper “we receive Jesus Christ spiritually”.[30] Indeed, even The Westminster Confession calls the sacraments “seals” and regards them as efficacious,[31] so they are more than just signs. The Westminster Confession is still the accepted confession in many Presbyterian Churches today, though not all who have adopted it necessarily accept every clause of it.

Richard Hooker, an Anglican, rather than Calvin or Knox, may have been the main influence upon Irving in his understanding of the sacraments. In the case of baptism, the death of Irving’s young children also played a major part in developing his view. He argued that children of believing parents were regenerated in baptism through the faith of those parents.

Summary

So was Edward Irving what we would call an evangelical? On the two main disputed clauses, conversion and the cross, he clearly qualifies on the first, and he may well do so on the second. With regard to the sacraments, he is in line with some evangelicals and thus could not be disqualified because of it.

© David Malcolm Bennett (2014)

[1] David W. Bebbington, The Dominance of Evangelicalism (Leicester: IVP, 2005), 19-36. I realise that there are a range of views in the evangelical camp (see for example, Andrew David Naselli and Colin Hansen [eds.], Four Views on the Spectrum of Evangelicalism [Counterpoints, Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2011]), but Bebbington’s formula is simple, widely-known and easy to use for our purposes.

[2] Peter Elliott, Edward Irving: Romantic Theology in Crisis (SCHT, Milton Keynes, Paternoster, 2013), 152, 174-75. See also Arnold Dallimore, The Life of Edward Irving, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 1983), 24-25.

[3] Elliott, Romantic, 207.

[4] Mark Rayburn Patterson, Designing the Last Days (PhD. King’s College, London: 2001), 147.

[5] See for example, Edward Irving, The Collected Writings of Edward Irving, (5 vols. ed. Gavin Carlyle, London: Strahan, 1865),1:47, 103, 118, 151-155, 160, 178, 213, 266, 303, 308, 513; 2:405, 418, 419-20; 3:25, 139.

[6] Mrs Oliphant, The Life of Edward Irving (2 vols. London: Hurst & Blackett, 2nd ed. 1862), 2:63.

[7] Irving, “Baptism”, CW, 2:414-15. See also (?) Horatius Bonar, “Edward Irving”, Quarterly Journal of Prophecy, 14 (1862), 227-28.

[8] Irving, “Baptism”, CW, 2:401.

[9] Irving, “Baptism”, CW, 2:417.

[10] See for example, Irving to Isabella Irving, 2 Aug. 1825, The Diary and Letters of Edward Irving (ed. Barbara Waddington, Eugene: Pickwick, 2012), 219.

[11] Irving, “Sower”, CW, 1:151-52.

[12] Oliphant, Irving, 2:194, quoting Irving.

[13] Edward Irving, The Last Days, (London: Nisbet, 2nd ed.1850), 306.

[14] Irving, “John the Baptist”, CW, 2:163.

[15] Irving, “On Prayer”, CW, 3:90-91.

[16] Quoted in “Edward Irving”, QJP, 14 (1862), 229-30.

[17] Irving, “John”, CW, 2:15, 92; see also 26-28, 38-39.

[18] Irving to J. H. Mann, 7 Feb. 1831, Letters, 279; Oliphant, Irving, 2:245.

[19] Oliphant, Irving, 2:288, quoting from Irving’s defence before the Regent Square trustees and the London presbytery.

[20] Irving, CW, 1:601-609.

[21] Irving, CW, 1:599-600. See also Irving, Human Nature, 100-101.

[22] See for example Irving, CW, 1:423, 503; 2:97, 163, 300, 542, 585, 596.

[23] Irving, CW, 2:109-11, 556, 598-99.

[24] Irving to Isabella Irving, 15 July 1828, quoted in Oliphant, Irving, 2:38.

[25] “On Charges Against the Morning Watch”, The Morning Watch, (1830), 2:179-83.

[26] Edward Irving, Sermons, Lectures and Occasional Discourses (3 vols. London: Seeley, 1828), 1:21-23.

[27] Irving, himself, noted that he had been forced to overemphasise his doctrine of Christ’s human nature because of the controversy surrounding it, “An Interpretation of the Fourteenth Chapter of the Apocalypse”, TMW (Dec. 1832), 6:263-64. Louis Berkhof gives a brief outline of Irving’s understanding of the atonement, which he calls “mystical”; see his The History of Christian Doctrines (Edinburgh: Banner, 1972), 198-99; see also Louis Berkhof, Systematic Theology (London: Banner, 1941), 389-90.

[28] Irving, “Incarnation”, CW, 5:38, 35.

[29] Irving, CW, 1:605-606; The Scots Confession (1560), ch. 21.

[30] John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, (LCC. 2 vols. ed. J.T. McNeill, trans. F.L. Battles, Philadelphia: Westminster, 1960), 2:1359-76 (Bk 4, ch. XVII); John Knox, Selected Writings of John Knox (ed. Kevin Reed, Dallas: Presbyterian Heritage, 1995), 69. For Knox and the Scots Confession on the Lord’s Supper, see Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology from John Knox to John McLeod Campbell (Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996), 34-36, 39-42.

[31] Westminster Confession, ch. 27.

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