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 ...

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