A former student, strongly conservative in his theological views, was undergoing examination before a presbytery. He was asked, “Do you believe that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is an essential doctrine?” He replied that he did not. Further questioning revealed his essential orthodoxy, but his incautious reply to that carelessly framed question very nearly led to a refusal to ordain him. The negative thesis of this paper is that such carelessness is all too typical of the handling of this doctrine both by those who accept it and those who question or reject it.
The student under examination should have requested further definition of the question. “Essential? For what?” Essential for salvation in the sense that one who believes all the doctrines of the creed and is personally committed to Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour but has some doubts about the validity or importance of this one doctrine cannot hope for heaven? Surely no one would maintain that. The student was really saying that he did not accept the doctrine as essential in that sense, yet he failed to say so explicitly. The presbytery, on the other hand, misunderstood him but did not define it either. Obscure thinking about this doctrine seems to be so widespread that one might almost describe it as typical. But a sweeping generalization such as this requires at least some illustration.
SOME INSECURE DEFENSES
In the New Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia, Beckwith begins his excellent presentation of this doctrine by pointing out that the Virgin Birth was the unchallenged conviction of the Church until the eighteenth century, and that the first to attack it then were such “free thinkers” as Voltaire and Thomas Paine. Historically his statement seems to be unimpeachable, but one asks whether it justifies any inferences as to the validity of the doctrine; and, if it does, how firmly may they be drawn? Surely the fact that so many Christian people, great and small, learned and ordinary, wise and simple, found this doctrine to fit into their understanding of the Christian faith would suggest that it ought not to be rejected lightly. On the other hand, one cannot forget that beliefs even more universally adhered to have at one time been abandoned.
Again, the fact that disbelief in this doctrine came late has been used by some as an argument in favor of the Virgin Birth and by others as an argument against it. One group seems convinced that antiquity proves validity, while the other would hold that the newer is the truer. The fact seems to be that chronological considerations are quite irrelevant to questions of validity. And the contention that this must be a valid doctrine because those who first attacked it were such “unsavory” people has no logical standing. To argue thus is to commit the well-known fallacy of argumentum ad hominem—surely even the devil may sometimes tell the truth. In any case, if it be granted that the estimate of those free thinkers was irresponsible and despicable, we have to remember that many a subsequent thinker, who cannot so readily be condemned, has agreed with their criticism of this doctrine.
Another way in which the Virgin Birth doctrine has been loosely attacked and defended has been in pointing to certain birth claims in nonbiblical sources. For instance, it is pointed out that in the past there was a widespread tendency to account for outstanding people like Alexander the Great in terms of supernatural paternity. The case of Jesus of Nazareth is said to be another example; and some have even suggested that such a claim was deliberately made on his behalf so that early Christianity might have miracles to match those of its rivals. Thus the implied argument is that no sensible person today would accept the supernatural paternity of Alexander, and no such person would believe this of our Lord. Whatever one might say for that conclusion, the argument itself is rather worthless.
In the first place, the cases of Alexander and of Jesus are not parallel. No one in a rigidly monotheistic setting ever suggested that an eternally-existing divine person became incarnate in Alexander the Great; yet that is exactly the claim made with regard to Jesus. In the second place, this argument can be simply turned around and still have the same force. One might contend that as Alexander was not born of supernatural paternity, neither was Jesus; and another could argue that since Jesus did have supernatural paternity, then Alexander did also.
For the present we are rejecting both arguments as arguments. We are convinced that in point of fact Jesus had supernatural paternity and Alexander did not; but one cannot argue from the one case to the other because the parallel is not valid. It may be that the tendency to claim supernatural paternity for great heroes, great benefactors of humanity, does carry slight implication in support of the actual supernatural paternity of Jesus. It is a Christian belief, supported by Scripture, that God has not left himself without a witness among any people. The suggestion is that in harmony with this universal witness thoughtful people have known that the real benefaction needed by fallen humanity could come only through one who enjoyed supernatural paternity, and that those who made such a claim for people like Alexander wrongly identified that benefactor. Had they been able to identify him with Jesus they would have been correct.
Would-be defenders of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth have also appealed to alleged examples of “natural” virgin birth in order to support their argument that Jesus could have been born of a virgin mother. They have claimed as a medically proven fact that virgin births do occasionally occur naturally. The writer has never seen evidence sufficient to convince him of this, but if it proves anything, it proves the very opposite of the conclusion it tries to support. Advocates would prove that Jesus may have been naturally born of a virgin, without any paternity whatever, yet what they really want to prove is his supernatural paternity! Why do they not see the folly of such reasoning? Perhaps they have their minds on something else. Their real concern is to maintain the full deity and competent saviourhood of Jesus, and for this they are sure that his supernatural paternity is essential. We agree. But then they take it for granted that there can be no supernatural paternity without virgin birth—an assumption which still remains to be examined. Furthermore, they blindly go on to argue for the Virgin Birth as a possibility without any paternity whatever. The truth is not served—it is rather betrayed—by such inconsequential reasoning.
A similar judgment must be passed on many who seek to prove the virgin birth of our Lord on the basis of his claim to sinlessness. Their interest also is in the full deity and adequate saviourhood of Jesus, for which sinlessness would seem to be essential. Again we agree, and we believe that each of these doctrines can be well established. The question is, does the sinlessness of Jesus, once granted, commit us to a belief in his virgin birth? Let us sharpen the question. We fully accept his deity, his all-competent saviourhood, his sinlessness, and his birth of a virgin. The question is, if you know of his sinlessness but had never heard of his virgin birth, could you logically deduce the latter doctrine from the former?
This has been attempted. Some have argued that virginity is a morally pure state, while natural motherhood apparently is not, and so a sinless saviour must have been born of a virgin mother. But is virginity morally superior to motherhood in lawful wedlock? We would deny it emphatically. Even if it were, however, a virgin would have to be sinless herself in order to give sinless birth.
It has sometimes been argued that the elimination of a human father, in the case of Jesus, broke the otherwise unbroken chain of original sin and so brought about his sinlessness; but who would seriously maintain that original sin descends only through the human father? If sin did not descend to Jesus, then the reason must have been either that there was no human father and his virgin mother was sinless (which is what the Roman Catholics maintain) or the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit broke the chain. Could there have been such a supernatural agency, and could it have broken that chain, only if Jesus was born of a virgin? That is what would have to be proved by those who contend that the Virgin Birth is a logical inference from the sinlessness of Jesus. But no man knows enough to make such claims. We may believe that that is how it came about, but because we do not know what options were open to the power and wisdom of God we cannot maintain it was the only way it could have happened. The same is true of the argument that were he not virgin born, he was not God incarnate. We believe he was virgin born and that he was and is one theanthropic person; but no man knows enough to argue that he could not have been the latter if he were not also the former.
THE BASIS OF BELIEF
What then is the basis of our belief in the Virgin Birth? It rests mainly on our conviction that the Holy Spirit is the real author of the Scriptures, and that the Virgin Birth is adequately affirmed therein. Secondarily, it rests on the perception that while no man knows enough to contend that this doctrine is tied to the other doctrines of Christology and Soteriology by irrefragable logical connections, there is a beautiful harmony between the various doctrines. We cannot maintain that because Jesus is very God of very God, our sinless Saviour, he could have become incarnate only through a virgin birth. But we do believe that God himself has told us this was the way it happened, and on this basis we are bound to believe it. We can be sure that there was good reason on the part of God why he chose this manner rather than some other; and as we see it at this end, the divinely chosen way fits in beautifully with all the other basic doctrines of revelation.
Again, however, we are confronted by a view widely debated and with a surprising amount of loose thinking on both sides. Immediately involved in this discussion is the doctrine of revelation and the field of biblical criticism. What lies in back of the controversy is the problem of naturalism and supernaturalism. Many of the arguments used in questioning, rejecting, or rendering unimportant the doctrine of the Virgin Birth would appeal only to those who either do not recognize the Holy Spirit as the real and effective author of Scripture or who question the authenticity of the birth stories in Matthew and Luke. This latter problem seems to me to have been dealt with in masterly fashion by Dr. Machen in his book, The Virgin Birth of Christ. Nothing which has since been written seems to weaken his contention that these stories belong to the earliest tradition of the Church and formed part of the original Gospels.
Particularly since the discovery of the Dead Sea Scrolls, there has been a marked tendency to date all the Gospels early. The widespread contention that Matthew is unreliable seems to be increasingly subject to suspicion, and in any case it relates to Matthew’s treatment of the law, not to these birth stories. Luke’s competence, however, in recording facts is becoming more and more recognized. That he was a very able historian, whose record of the virgin birth of Jesus was early and carefully sifted from written and oral sources, is shown in that he has never yet been proved mistaken in his judgments of fact. He also was intimately acquainted with the teachings of Paul, and it seems inconceivable that he would have recorded the mode of Jesus’ birth without defending his doing so had he not known that it formed part of the belief of that apostle.
THE GENEALOGICAL PROBLEM
The great difference between the genealogies in Matthew and Luke has, of course, created difficulty. There is an explanation which seems at least plausible, and it is that Joseph was the legal, not the natural, father, and that Matthew, the “legalist,” gives us the legal genealogy while Luke, the historian and doctor, gives us the genealogy through the real mother. To reject that explanation, unless it can be shown to be utterly without chance when the alternative is so forbidding, seems to me to be possible only for those who have “an axe to grind.” The alternative is not one which ordinarily decent critics would lightly accept. Aside from the fact that it involves denying that these authors were moved to record this story by the agency of the Holy Spirit, it also contends that the authors of the first and third Gospels irresponsibly commended the person and work of Christ by claiming for him a birth which could only have raised very serious questions in the minds of Jesus’ followers and relatives (who were in a position to know if the stories were false) and to cause the unsympathetic to misrepresent his parentage (as we know that they actually did). It seems to me that modern writers who accept this alternative would feel very much aggrieved—and justly so—if, without any more evidence than is here available, their own competence were similarly reflected upon. Why then do some lightly accept such a reflection on the competence of the authors of the first and third Gospels? Even modern scholars have some obligation to be gentlemen.
THE UNITY OF SCRIPTURE
What must be said of the doubt thrown on the Matthew and Luke birth stories that the Virgin Birth is not clearly and directly referred to in the Epistles? Even if one ignores the position that the Holy Spirit is the real and effective author of the Scriptures, the argument for the doubt does not carry much weight unless it can be shown that, without such mention, the author could not have accomplished his purpose. For example, had there not been a serious abuse of the Lord’s Supper in the Church at Corinth, there would have been no occasion for reference to it in any of Paul’s Epistles. But to infer from such silence that Paul did not observe that Sacrament, and did not believe that it was instituted by our Lord himself, would be completely erroneous. Can it be shown in the Epistles that there was any occasion which could not have been dealt with, apart from reference to the Virgin Birth, if the writer had believed in it? I think not. It is understandable that such a doctrine would not have been discussed unless it was absolutely necessary.
The case for the Virgin Birth is of course stronger if one believes that the Holy Spirit was the real author of the Scriptures. He saw to it that this doctrine was related twice. How many times does He have to say something before some people will believe it? Furthermore, if the Holy Spirit thought this doctrine important enough to see that it was twice spoken of, what right have certain theologians to assert that they are downright uninterested in it?
The question finally boils down to this. Are we or are we not willing to accept the supernaturalistic claims of the Scriptures? If we are, then the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus will seem to us to be on solid ground. If we are not, then despite anything we may tell ourselves or others—albeit sincerely—we are sitting in judgment of the Scriptures and employing as our basis of judgment a philosophy more naturalistic than that of the Scriptures themselves.
Andrew K. Rule is Professor of Church History and Apologetics at Louisville Presbyterian Seminary. He holds the M.A. degree from University of New Zealand, the B.D. from Princeton Seminary, and Ph.D. from University of Edinburgh.
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