Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement (Dallimore)

Dallimore, Arnold.  Forerunner of the Charismatic Movement: The Life of Edward Irving.  Chicago: Moody Press, 1983.

Edward Irving’s more noticeable errors–e.g., speaking in tongues, lack of discernment–distract from the root problem.  Irving’s problem was not simply that he sought to revive the apostolic gifts.  Rather, he sought to meet Christ outside of where Christ promised to be found. Although Arnold Dallimore is a critic of Irving, he is quite fair.  The book is well-written.

Irving’s early life includes the curious incident where he stopped attending the local Church of Scotland and visited a Seceder church, and he did so on principled grounds.  What is strange is that it does not appear that Irving was actually converted.  Moreover, unless I missed something, Irving, despite his problems with the Church of Scotland, stayed in the Church of Scotland.

Irving’s initial problem, one perhaps common to many talented young men, was his initial rise to fame. He got too famous too quickly. While it did go to his head, he quickly lost much (but not all) influence.  The high and mighty of London were initially attracted to him as an orator.  Once he started preaching about the end times, they went elsewhere. It seems he embraced something like premillennialism, though his system was by no means coherent. By itself this is not all that remarkable.  What it did was point Irving to the idea that before the return of Christ, the apostolic gifts must once again manifest themselves.

Something else happened before that, however.  Irving was accused of preaching “the sinful nature of Christ’s humanity.”  Whatever else he might have meant by it, he was out of his depth as a thinker. Dallimore does a decent job outlining the position (95ff), although not all of the tenets are heretical:

  1. When Christ came to earth, he took postlapsarian nature, not prelapsarian.
  2. Christ was subject to the same sinful tendencies as we are.
  3. Christ’s battle was a real one.
  4. Christ was victorious by the power of the Holy Spirit, not because of his divine nature.
  5. This same Holy Spirit is equally available to all of us.
  6. Christ presented to the Father a perfect human nature.

The above terminology is mine, not Irving’s.  Irving was quite inept at explaining his position.  Several of these points are indeed problematic.  Irving could have appealed to numerous Eastern fathers and at least blunted the charge of heresy.  It is doubtful he knew of them, however. Let us work through these points.

1’ The reason he said postlapsarian is obvious. Does Jesus assume all of my human nature?  Gregory of Nazianzus in his second letter to Cledonius said he did. Prelapsarian humanity did not need to be redeemed.  The problem, however, in simply saying that Christ took postlapsarian humanity is that our fallen human nature has sinful tendencies that go far beyond that of mere temptation.  In other words, concupiscence is sin.

2’ Tendencies is a stronger word than temptation.  Had he said temptations, I doubt any would have been concerned.

3’ This seems true enough.

4’ This is mostly true. We are not Lutherans.  We believe Jesus was gifted with the graces of the Holy Spirit above his companions. The synoptics often mention that Jesus did his miracles by the power of the Holy Spirit. There is more to the story, however. 

4* It would have behooved Irving to very clearly state that the Holy Spirit immediately sanctified Jesus’s human nature in the womb of the Virgin Mary. That would have allowed him to say Jesus took a real humanity while avoiding concupiscence.

5’ If Jesus was gifted with the graces of the Holy Spirit beyond his companions, then we cannot simply say, pace Irving, that we can do the same things by the power of the Holy Spirit.  On the other hand, Jesus is not stingy with the Holy Spirit.

6’ By itself that is a true proposition.

In any case, it is not surprising that Irving was eventually deposed for this teaching.  I do not think that slowed him down, as his “charismatic” ministry was just beginning. That Irving was wrong on the charismatic gifts should go without saying.  Let us take the position of a charismatic, however, and see if Irving’s practice holds up.  It does not.  Paul’s admonitions to the churches are clear: all things should be done decently and in good order.  That means one or two prophesy (presumably at most!). If any speak in tongues, let them be interpreted. None of that happened. It was chaos.  

In what is perhaps a different angle from today’s charismatics, the Irvingites said the tongues were actual foreign languages, not a “heavenly language.” In any case, the Irvingites were pressed to defend the interpretations, which were never more concrete than “Behold He cometh!”

You can probably guess the rest of the story.  Here is what is remarkable, though: many stalwarts of the Scottish church actually spoke highly of Irving as a person.  See Robert Murray M’Cheyne’s touching words. 

In light of today’s experience, Irving comes across as quite normal. We are used to seeing Pentecostal churches.  His prophecy talks pale in comparison to Left Behind.  In terms of talent, Irving seems to be quite similar to Mark Driscoll, except that Irving did not have the abuse scandals and by all accounts was a quite gentle person.  

While by no means a scholarly account, the book covers most of the relevant material and was no doubt a welcome addition to material on Irving.


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