Mark 16:17-18 According to Edward Irving

The Five Signs as Five Areas of Dominion

Is there a pattern behind the list of signs that Jesus gives in Mark 16:17-18, where he says, “these signs will follow those who believe…”? The passage lists five signs, seemingly at random, and some are oddly specific. Did Jesus intend for these examples to represent five kinds of signs, or five areas of dominion?

This was Edward Irving’s argument, by which he divided our world into five “parts,” based on Mark 16:17-18:

For in creation there is no more than these five parts: the pure spirit, the embodied soul of man, the body of man, the animal creation, and the inanimate world: of all which sin has taken possession, and over all which Christ has obtained superiority, to reconstitute them in that way which shall forever demonstrate the being and attributes of God.

Edward Irving

Irving made this argument in 1830, in an article titled The Church with Her Endowment of Holiness and Power. (The quotations we are looking at have been edited by David W. Dorries for the book Edward Irving’s Holy Spirit Writings.)

The interpretation is worth a close look. So allow me, first, to reproduce the words of Mark 16:17-18 (in the New King James Version) according to Irving’s categories. In the passage below, Irving’s words are in bold, Jesus’ words are in italics. (I do this so we can see Irving’s argument at a glance; I mean no disrespect to the scriptures or the words of Jesus):

And these signs will follow those who believe:

Pure spirit: In My name they will cast out demons;

The embodied soul of man: they will speak with new tongues;

The animal creation: they will take up serpents;

The inanimate world: and if they drink anything deadly, it will by no means hurt them;

The body of man: they will lay hands on the sick, and they will recover.

Five Stops on the Circle of Power

As for the first sign, casting out demons demonstrates that Jesus is Lord in the spirit world, and that unclean spirits must obey him. Thus Jesus gives the church dominion in this area.

As for the soul of man, there are many ways that Christ can demonstrate his lordship there. Irving sees speaking in tongues as a fitting sign that the soul is submitted to God. The mind still functions but is unable to interpret what the tongue is saying:

For to use my tongue is the prerogative of my soul; no other human person but myself can use it: if, therefore, it be used in such a manner as I cannot—for example, to speak a tongue which I do not understand, and in that tongue to utter reasonable speech—then is it true that another holds the mastery over me. Who that other is, must be determined by the thing which is spoken…whether their words bore testimony of the true flesh and to the real lordship of Christ.

Edward Irving

The third sign is that believers will take up serpents. Here Irving hears echoes of Genesis 3, as well as the restoration promised in Isaiah 11:6-8, where the wolf will lie down next to the lamb, and the child will have nothing to fear from a cobra. This sign then, is more than just mankind’s natural ability to tame wild animals.

Irving also refers to Psalm 8, which promises mankind dominion over the beasts of the field. And lest we think this psalm was just celebrating man’s natural ability to domesticate animals, Hebrews 2 teaches us to look for a more miraculous, Christ-centered fulfillment of this promise. Irving sees, then, the firstfruits of this dominion given to the church through the promise of Mark 16:17-18.

Next on the list is immunity to poison. This sign follows dominion over animals, and for Irving it represents dominion over the rest of nature, which is not alive but is still dangerous. In this scheme, poison is mentioned because it is the clearest example of nature’s evil condition. I think weather is a more universal threat, but I imagine that this category would also include storms, floods, and earthquakes. After all, Jesus never drank poison but he did calm a storm. And if Irving is right in his interpretation, both miracles fall into the same category.

The last category is physical healing. This is the capstone, or as Irving said, it “completes the circle of power.” The following quotation exemplifies Irving’s view of sickness and healing. The gift of healing is a first-fruit, or a foretaste of a much greater power to come: the resurrection of the dead and the redemption of the body at the return of Christ. Irving was passionate to pursue this lost gift, for in his view, the church was incomplete without it:

Sickness is sin apparent in the body, the presentiment of death, the forerunner of corruption. Disease of every kind is mortality begun. Now, as Christ came to destroy death, and will yet redeem the body from the bondage of corruption, if the Church is to have the first-fruits or earnest of this power, it must be by receiving power over diseases, which are the first-fruits and earnest of death; and this being given to her, completes the circle of her power.

Edward Irving

Edward Irving’s Holy Spirit Writings (Edited by David W. Dorries) is available at amazon

Edward Irving as depicted by Richard Dighton in 1823