The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

Posted on Saturday, December 24, 2011 at 11:39AM  

The Virgin Birth: Why is it important?

The reality of the Virgin Birth has been affirmed by the church at least since the writing of the gospels of Matthew and Luke.  It is affirmed in the Church’s earliest creedal affirmation: The Old Roman Symbol  (or the Roman Baptismal Creed) dating from no later than the second century during which time it is cited by both Tertullian and Irenaeus.[1]

The fact of the virgin birth is key in understanding the importance afforded Mary in both the Catholic and Orthodox communions. The Catholic Church has taught the immaculate conception of Mary (that she was born without original sin) to further theologically guard the sinlessness of Jesus, i.e. that he was born into unfallen Adamic humanity.  While Protestants have eschewed the Immaculate Conception, they too have asserted Jesus inherited unfallen humanity from his mother.

In general[2]  only pagan critics of Christianity and rationalists have throughout the centuries denied that Jesus was born of Mary without a human father.  Discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries have fallen largely in the realm of apologetic defenses of its reality.[3]

For example, Charles Briggs (who in 1893 had been convicted by the Northern Presbyterian Church of denying inerrancy) saw the virgin birth as a touchstone doctrine the denial of which put one on the proverbial “slippery slope” of theological apostasy.

It is not merely the virgin birth that is in ques­tion, in the interest of the more complete hu­manity of our Lord, it is also the doctrine of original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus; it is also his bodily resurrec­tion and ascension. . . .  It is moreover the whole nature of the atonement and Christian salvation with the doc­trine of sacrifice and propitiation.  All these doc­trines are trembling in the balance in those very minds which doubt or deny the virgin birth.  Those who give up the virgin birth will be compelled by logical and irresistible im­pulse eventually to give up all of these[4]

 

Indeed Briggs desired  to have A. C. McGiffert, his former student and later President of Union Seminary New York, fired from his post at Union for denying the Virgin Birth.[5]

During the 1930s, J. Gresham Machen published his magisterial The Virgin Birth of Christ,  a volume that has never been equaled in comprehensiveness and scholarship on the topic. It too was apologetic in nature.

During the era of the Fundamentalist-Modernist controversy the Virgin Birth attained a quasi-official touchstone perspective as being one of the five fundamentals of the faith.  The rationale was that the virgin birth was a quick and easy test to see if someone believed in miracles.

Surprisingly, despite its professed importance as being foundational to the Christian faith, relatively little profound theological reflection has taken place around the virgin birth.  In fact, prominent evangelical theologian Millard Erickson, (who does accept the truth of the virgin birth) denies its necessity as does Wayne Grudem (who also accepts the doctrine) to name just two. Erickson says

But, we must ask, is not the virgin birth important in some more specific way? Some have argued that the doctrine is indispensable to the incarnation. Without the virgin birth there would have been no union of God and man.38 [6]If Jesus had been simply the product of a normal sexual union of man and woman, he would have been only a human being, not a God-man. But is this really true? Could he not have been God and a man if he had had two human parents, or none? Just as Adam was created directly by God, so Jesus could also have been a direct special creation. And accordingly, it should have been possible for Jesus to have two human parents and to have been fully the God-man nonetheless. To insist that having a human male parent would have excluded the possibility of deity smacks of Apollinarianism, according to which the divine Logos took the place of one of the normal components of human nature (the soul). But Jesus was fully human, including everything that both a male and a female parent would ordinarily contribute. In addition, there was the element of deity. What God did was to supply, by a special creation, both the human component ordinarily contributed by the male (and thus we have the virgin birth) and, in addition, a divine factor (and thus we have the incarnation). The virgin birth requires only that a normal human being was brought into existence without a human male parent. This could have occurred without an incarnation, and there could have been an incarnation without a virgin birth. Some have called the latter concept “instant adoptionism,” since presumably the human involved would have existed on his own apart from the addition of the divine nature. The point here, however is that, with the incarnation occurring at the moment of conception or birth, there would never have been a moment when Jesus was not both fully human and fully divine. In other words, his being both divine and human did not depend on the virgin birth[7]

Clearly, the virgin birth is not a central part of the apostolic proclamation, but I find the lack of theological reflection on the virgin birth to be remarkable. In checking several conservative systematic theologies, I found one, Louis Berkhof’s Systematic Theology, which for half a century was the standard, didn’t even mention the virgin birth!

I also tend to react to the type of argumentation that Erickson and Grudem put forth as being specious and pointless at best, since the issue is not what God might have done, it is what He has revealed that he has done,  and dangerous at worst since it involves ripping the doctrine out of its larger Christological context.

Biblical Evidence

T. F. Torrance, the premier English speaking theologian of the late 20th century, in his posthumously published Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ[8] stands as one who breaks the pattern.  Torrance argues that while the virgin birth is indeed only mentioned by Matthew and Luke, if we take the time to look more closely we find the virgin birth, lurking beneath the surface in Mark, John and Paul.

For example, while Luke speaks of Jesus as the son of Joseph, Mark in relating the same event refrains from this identification, and instead identifies Jesus in a very non-Jewish way: as the “son of Mary”[9] Luke has already established the virgin birth whereas Mark has not mentioned it.  It appears that Mark is deliberately avoiding any reference to Joseph. Likewise Mark (along with Matthew and Luke) quotes Jesus as saying of the Messiah, “David himself calls him Lord; so how can he be his son?” “How can Jesus be Lord and son of David—that is, how can a divine Christ be born of human stock?”[10]

Moving on to John, 1:13 which has historically been translated: “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (KJV, ESV, NASB, ASV, etc.) but has more recently been translated “children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God”( NIV, NET, etc.).   According to normal Greek usage the recent translation is more accurate, because the term used by John is andros, i.e. male or husband as opposed to anthropos, i.e man(kind), humanity. But this raises the question: What in the world does this mean? As the text is translated it seems to make no sense.

There is also a textual problem in the verse: should the “who” be singular or plural. Without going into too much detail, the early church fathers all cited this “who” as being singular.  In fact, Tertullian, the late 2ndearly 3rd century theologian and apologist tells us that the gnostic teacher Valentinius corrupted the text at this point changing the singular to a plural.[11]  Such a change was theologically motivated to get away from the idea of the virgin birth! If indeed the text is to be read as a singular rather than a plural, then it makes much more sense. The  “who” refers to The Word /Jesus, “who was born . . . by God.”  T. F. Torrance says, “If the text is to be read in the singular, then we have in the fourth Gospel quite explicit direct reference to the virgin birth of Jesus.”[12]

Turning our attention to Paul, we again find the virgin birth behind his language in Romans 5 with his Adam-Christ parallel.   In discussing the origin of both Adam and Jesus, Paul uses the term γίνομαι (to become, or come into existence).  He does not use the normal Greek terminology for human birth: γεννάω.  Like Adam, Jesus comes into existence: he is not generated.  But while the first Adam came into existence from earth, the second Adam’s existence is from heaven, “sent of God, he came into existence of woman, but from heaven.”[13]

In Galatians 4 we see the same sharp distinction.  Three times in this chapter Paul uses the term γεννάω speaking of human birth. [14] But when he speaks of Jesus’s earthly origin he eschews the uses of γεννάω and opts again for γίνομαι.[15] This would appear to be a conscious effort on the part of the Apostle to clearly distinguish the method of Jesus’ origin/birth from that of all other humans born since Adam’s  “coming into existence.”  While Bloesch suggests that Paul does not know of the virgin birth, it seems far more likely that in the closely reasoned passages of Romans 5 and Galatians 4 that explicit mention of what seems assumed by the very wording Paul adopts would add topic that is on the surface extraneous to his argument.

 

The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth[16]

Preliminaries

·         The Virgin Birth is not a theory of explanation

We do not think of the virgin birth properly if we understand it to be a theory explaining the incarnation. It is rather an historical fact indicating what happened. We recognize that the source of the virgin birth is an act of creative divine grace that took place within our human existence. We must draw the distinction between apprehending the reality of the work of God in the birth of Christ and comprehending it.

The virgin birth has two sides to it, one side visible and the other invisible: Jesus was born of the Virgin Mary and conceived by the Holy Spirit. This presents us with two questions: What? and How? It is at this point we see clearly that there is no natural understanding of the how that corresponds to the what. The how: the work of the Holy Spirit is an in-breaking of God into our human nature.

In a very real sense the virgin birth is related to God’s creative activity of Genesis. By means of his creative act the creator himself has stepped into his creation and is re-creating fallen humanity.

When confronted with the issue of the virgin birth we as Westerners who think in scientific categories immediately ask questions that are biological in nature seeking a scientific explanation.  I have in my younger years engaged many times in these kinds of discussions/debates:

 

  • Procreation requires both a male and a female.”
  • “Scientists can manipulate an egg to start the process of development.”
  • “That may be true, but then the egg always develops into a female because there is no Y-chromosome.”
    • “But the Holy Spirit must have somehow supplied the X-chromosome.”
    • And so goes the conversation. Another variant on these types of debates is as follows:
    • “Jesus had no human father. He was born through a special work of the Holy Spirit and God is his father.”
    • “So Jesus is both God and man? Doesn’t that mean that he is some kind of a demigod like the children of the gods in Greek mythology?– That he is half man and half God?”
    • “Christianity has always insisted, on the basis of what the Bible says that he was fully God and fully man.”
    • “100% God and 100% man and we have just one man?  That is really bad math!”

    Again, so goes the conversation. The problem is that in focusing on the mechanism of the virgin birth and trying to understand how the Holy Spirit accomplished it, we lose sight of the theological reality because biological questions yield only biological answers or in this case non-answers.

    In the case of the virgin birth this is a unique event in which God chose to act and take on our humanity, our creatureliness and although he was not a creature he voluntarily bound himself for eternity to our created fleshly state.

    It is a new creative act, but unlike the original creation this creation does not take place out of nothing (ex nihilo) but from within our human existence.

    • ·         Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the mystery of Christ

    The Virgin Birth cannot be understood alone and apart from the mystery of the union of deity and humanity in the one person of Jesus Christ. It is a sign that God is doing something . . .  something that is mysterious, something that can be apprehended but not comprehended. It is a sign of the union of deity and humanity and of God’s radical identification with the crown of his creation.

    • ·         The Virgin Birth is not to be separated from the resurrection

    The Virgin Birth must be seen in conjunction with the Resurrection as concrete signs bracketing these 33 years of history in which God himself has acted in incomprehensible  solidarity with us, sharing with us on this earth a common humanity  while  at the same time sharing it  in such a way that by his sharing in our humanity we are liberated from the bondage, decay,  corruption and  sin, and as a result freed us to life from the bondage of that common humanity and now participate in the new humanity of Jesus Christ, the last Adam.

    As Thomas Torrance has said:

    •  

      The birth of Jesus tells us that God acts in Jesus Christ in such a way that his birth does not fall under the power of man, under the arbitrary forces in human history, or under the causal determinisms of this world, but that in his birth God the son freely and sovereignly enters into them from without. The resurrection tells us that the life and person of Jesus are not held under the tyrant forces of this world, that though he was born of a woman and made under the law, Jesus Christ was not dominated and mastered by our fallen flesh in its judgment, but is triumphant over all, in achieving his redeeming purpose of reconciling our humanity to fellowship with God.[17]

      The virgin birth acts as a pointer to the mystery of God’s self-revelation within the life of fallen humanity, and that this revelation veils itself in our humanity.

      The resurrection of Christ points to the fact that God unveils himself, reveals himself within human life.

      Positive teaching

      • ·         The reality of Jesus’ humanity

      As 21st century Western Christians we often think of the virgin birth as a sign of Jesus deity. From the perspective of the biblical writers in the early church it signified something very different – his true humanity. Even within the lifetime of the apostles we find professing Christians denying the humanity of Jesus. This is one of the key reasons for the writing of John’s first epistle: members of the church were denying that Christ had “come in the flesh.” As the church moved out of its early Jewish worldview and confronted the Greco Roman world steeped in dualism particularly a dualism that saw the spiritual in stark opposition to the physical and who scoffed at the idea that God become man, the virgin birth was truly offensive to the point that it had to be rejected. The apostle calls this rejection “the spirit of antichrist.”

      Jesus did not appear on the scene full-grown and out of nowhere. Even a cursory reading of the Gospels makes clear that he was a Jew, from Nazareth, one whose parentage and relatives were well-known. The explicit accounts of the virgin birth given by both Matthew and Luke make it clear that he is the son of Mary. His birth is unique, but he is human.

      The addition of the words born of the Virgin Mary to the earliest creeds were in direct opposition to the claims of the docetic teachers (prevalent during the late first and second century) who argued that Christ only appeared (dokew) to be human while in reality he was a spiritual being without physical substance. On the other hand the virgin birth also testifies to the fact in uniting himself with humanity the second person of the Trinity did not simply come upon an already existent man — that is God did not simply adopt a human, who then became the “Son of God” but rather vitally united himself with humanity. The virgin birth also gives the lie to any teaching that would make God and man co-equal partners in redemption. God joined himself with true and complete humanity by his own sovereign decision. Of course humanity is involved, that is the contribution of Mary but as has been said humanity “is the predicate not the subject, not Lord of the event.”[18]

      • ·         Disqualification of human capabilities

      The virgin birth is an act of divine grace coming into humanity but in such a way that it denies any possibility of an approach of man to God beginning inside humanity itself.

      The virgin birth signals a move from God to man not man to God. Human powers and abilities are not in play. The fact that Mary was a virgin disqualifies her from active participation in the even the conception of Jesus. The incarnation is not a cooperative effort between God and man. It is in no sense a product of human activity. With this in mind John’s statement in chapter 1 verse 13 of his gospel makes sense. The birth of Jesus the Messiah marks a unique entry of eternity into time.  As such the virgin birth marks off this supernatural event is utterly unique. The virgin birth is a signal of an internal unconditional act of pure grace on the part of God apart from any human activity.

      • ·         A re-creation out of the old creation

      The virgin birth is a creative act of God which is in a real sense parallel to the original creation.  But this creative act has a specific focus. It is not a creation ex nihilo (out of nothing) as was the original creation; it was a creation ex virgine and signifies both a new creation in one sense but a re-creation in another.  It is the fountainhead of a new humanity out of the old humanity and a humanity that now participates in the very life of the triune God.

      Western Christendom has from its early centuries insisted that the human nature of Jesus was unfallen, because only as a person with an unfallen human nature as well as being a person who had actually  never sinned could he have been the perfect sacrifice. Over the past century numerous New Testament scholars and theologians have challenged this assumption on both exegetical and  theological grounds.   Exegetically we find in Luke, in Paul and particularly in Hebrews language that asserts that Jesus’ humanity was like ours in all ways, but that he never sinned.  Theologically if Jesus’ humanity was unfallen, he certainly was qualified to be the perfect sacrifice, but his humanity did not touch our humanity in its fallen condition.  The patristic dictum “that which he did not assume, he did not heal” expresses the ancient faith of the church—that Jesus assumed a humanity like our own and sanctified it from within through his divine union with it.  Luke says that he grew (prokoptw– the Greek term here  speaks of hammering hot iron on an anvil) in favor with God and man. This sanctification of fallen humanity  involved a lifelong struggle of beating back, blow by blow the fallen condition which was twisted and in opposition to God and required a constant reliance upon the Father through the Spirit throughout his life.

      The result of this process was that Jesus became the Last Adam who put to death Adamic humanity reconciling it from within in his death and was raised the progenitor of a recreated humanity. This  recreated humanity participates in this new humanity of Christ.

       

      • ·         The setting aside of human autonomy

      We have mentioned this above but to reiterate.  The virgin birth is a sovereign act of Almighty God which bypasses all human autonomy. Had Joseph been Jesus’ human father, Jesus would have indeed been born of a husband’s will, but Joseph was in fact left  “sitting on the bench,” so to speak. He is not consulted until after the divine work has begun. His only part is to provide human care for Jesus and his mother. He excercises no autonomy, he like Mary adopts the role of a servant in the great drama of the incarnation.

      The necessity of the virgin birth does not put any stigma on marriage, human sexuality and birth. The entry of God incarnate into the human condition sanctifies human nature and joins it to God in his purity.  Mary herself was not immaculately conceived but she too was sanctified through her calling as the mother of our Lord.

      • ·         The Virgin Birth, the pattern for grace, the model of faith

      The virgin birth is a sign (semion) of the gracious act of God, which becomes a pattern for understanding God’s working in grace.  It is God who takes the initiative through the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary announcing to her that she has been elected by God in his grace for this unique task. She receives the word, the announcement and believes. But this belief is not of herself but of the strength given by the Lord—and for that she is blessed (not because of her virginity).[19]

      Mary becomes the pattern for our faith:

      …it is not of our self-will or free will that we are born from above,  ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become the children of God.’ Here there is a ‘become’ dependent on the  ‘become’ of the Word become flesh.’, grounded in it and derivative from it..  What happened once and for all, in utter uniqueness in Jesus Christ happens in every instance if rebirth into Christ. . . . Just as in the birth of Jesus there was no preceding action on our part, or human co-operation, such as the co-operation  between a human father and human mother. Just as there was no prior human activity there, so in our salvation and our knowledge of God . . .[there is] no human presupposition, no Pelagian, semi-Pelagian or synergistic activity.[20]

      • ·         Demonstration of the virgin birth only through the Spirit

      The virgin birth like its twin doctrine, the resurrection, is not demonstrable by the rationalistic canons of historiography. These canons rule out a priori the possibility of the in-breaking of God into the created order to work miracles. The only demonstration possible is through the work of the Holy Spirit (see 1Cor 2:1).

      The virgin birth has archetypal importance for all other acts of grace. While it is true that the reality of the virgin birth is not an explicit part of the apostolic proclamation, it forms a vital place in the substructure upon which the apostolic proclamation and all other Christian doctrines stand.

      • ·         The necessity and importance of the virgin birth

      While even some evangelical theologians seem to relativize the importance of the virgin birth (see above), it is vital to note that denials of the virgin birth (and/or the resurrection)  have historically inevitably been accompanied by heresies that undercut an orthodox understanding of the person of the incarnate Christ. In other words the sign of the virgin birth cannot be separated from the thing signified, a true incarnation of God in human flesh.  Attempts to do so empty the Incarnation of its content and with it the possibility of salvation which is anchored fully in the grace of God.

       


      [1] J. N. D. Kelly, Early Christian Creeds, Longman, 1972, esp. 100-130.

      [2] Several authors of the last two generations who have affirmed the deity of Christ, have nevertheless  rejected the virgin birth as mythological.  These authors are generally those who are deeply committed to critical historical methodology such as Wolfhart Pannenberg.

      [3] Donald Bloesch provides a very helpful survey of  the discussions of the virgin birth over the past two centuries in his Jesus Christ: Savior & Lord, (Downers Grove: IVP, 1997), 80-131.

      [4] C.A. Briggs,  “The Virgin Birth of Our Lord,” American Journal Of Theology 12 (1908) 210.

      [5] M. James  Sawyer, Charles Augustus Briggs and Tensions in Late Nineteenth Century American Theology (Lewiston, NY: Mellen University Press, 1992), 92.

       [6] This was the argument of Tertullian in the early 3rd century, Adversus Marcionem 4.10.

      [7] M. J Erickson,. (). Christian Theology (2nd ed.) (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker Book House, 1998),772.  See also Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Zondervan, 1994), 529-532.

      [8] T.  F. Torrance, Incarnation, The Person and Life of Jesus Christ (Downers Grove: IVP, 2008).

      [9] Mark 6:3, Luke 4:22, Torrance, ibid., 89.

      [10] Ibid.

      [11] Tertullian, “On the Flesh of Christ”, Ch 19, Ante Nicene Fathers 3 (Grand Rapids:Eerdmans),357.

      What, then, is the meaning of this passage, “Born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God?” I shall make more use of this passage after I have confuted those who have tampered with it.  They maintain that it was written thus (in the plural. “Who were born, not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God,” as if designating those who were before mentioned as “believing in His name,” in order to point out the existence of that mysterious seed of the elect and spiritual which they appropriate to themselves. But how can this be, when all who believe in the name of the Lord are, by reason of the common principle of the human race, born of blood, and of the will of the flesh, and of man, as indeed is Valentinus himself? The expression is in the singular number, as referring to the Lord, “He was born of God.”  And very properly, because Christ is the Word of God, and with the Word the Spirit of God, and by the Spirit the Power of God, and whatsoever else appertains to God. As flesh, however, He is not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of man, because it was by the will of God that the Word was made flesh.  To the flesh, indeed, and not to the Word, accrues the denial of the nativity which is natural to us all as men.

      [12] Torrrance, 91.

      [13] Ibid ., 93.

      [14] Galatians 4:23, 24, 29.

      [15] Galatians 4:4.

      [16] This entire section is a summary of Torrance’s theological exposition of the virgin birth.

      [17] Torrance, 97.

      [18] Torrance, Incarnation, 99.

      [19] Torrance, 101.

      [20] Ibid, 102.

    • ·         The Virgin Birth and empty tomb as pointers to the mystery of Christ