Book Review: Edward Irving reconsidered

David Malcolm Bennett, Edward Irving reconsidered: the man, his controversies, and the Pentecostal Movement. WIPF and Stock, 2014.

David Bennett’s book is a carefully researched and well written biography of an remarkable Presbyterian minister. Edward Irving was strongly influenced by romantic ideas of heroism, and these ideas took their toll on his life and work. Born a tanner’s son in Annan, Scotland in 1792, Irving longed for a more adventurous form of Christianity than that which he saw in the Church of Scotland. Indeed, that church needed — but resisted — change. Irving’s vision for change, however, was naive and idiosyncratic rather than solidly ground in the Scriptures.

Irving was physically and intellectually impressive. He was large-hearted and generous to friend and foe, but his calling to the Christian ministry was not recognised by all. After he was licensed to preach, Irving waited years before receiving a call from a church. While he waited, he worked as a school teacher, and then as an assistant to the Rev. Thomas Chalmers in Glasgow. Finally, Irving was called by a Presbyterian congregation in London. There, he soon became a celebrity, with Lords, Ladies and national leaders attending his church. This stellar popularity would be short-lived, however, due to the turn his preaching took.

Irving’s unorthodox teachings included the following: that Christ’s return was imminent (the last days have come); that the sinless Lord Jesus had to struggle against his own sinful flesh; and that new manifestations of the Spirit (authoritative prophecy) were to be expected, encouraged and obeyed.

It was Irving’s statements about Christ’s ‘sinful flesh’ and his promotion of Pentecostal manifestations that caused his downfall. The Church of Scotland called him to account, contrasting his public teaching to his ordination vow to assert, maintain and defend the teaching of the Westminster Confession of Faith (WCF). Irving appealed from the Confession to his own understanding of the Scriptures and declared the Church to be out of step with the word of God.

Irving’s defence was actually an admission that he had departed from his ordination vows. He was a free man when he originally subscribed to the WCF. If he had changed his mind (as he obviously had), he was still free either to promote Confessional change through the courts of the church, or he was free to leave that church for other fields of service. What he was not free to do was to abandon the Confession’s teachings and remain a minister of the Church of Scotland.

The Presbytery of Annan expelled him from the ministry, and Irving became an ‘angel’ – a message giver – within the new church that was formed by part of his old congregation. Here, Irving found himself under the command of the so-called ‘gifted ones’ whose prophesies dominated the remodelled worship services. Irving died at the age of 42, worn out by battles, grief and illness.

David Bennett is perhaps more generous in his assessment of Edward Irving than I would be. Certainly there is much to admire in Irving – he was gifted, fearless, and pastorally minded, but he was also naive and stubborn. His longing for a ‘heroic’ form of Christianity led him into disastrous byways. Putting dates to Christ’s return derails gospel proclamation; thinking Christ had sinful flesh (which He allegedly resisted by the power of the Holy Spirit) can promote ideas of Christ-my-example rather than Christ-my-saviour; and seeking revelation outside the Bible necessarily leads to subjectivism and confusion.

Nevertheless, as Robert Murray McCheyne wrote on hearing of Irving’s death, he was ‘a holy man, in spite of all his delusions and errors. He is now with his God and Saviour, whom he wronged so much, yet, I am persuaded, loved so sincerely.’

David Bennett’s book is well worth reading.