What is contemporary science saying about virgin births and religious miracles? How are people today treating the virgin birth of Christ? What are we to say about the dogma of the immaculate conception of Mary? Does “virgin born” refer primarily to Christ’s deity, or to his sinlessness? At root, what is God’s message to us in the Virgin Birth?
It is time for an update on this doctrine. Fifty years ago the battle of the Virgin Birth wracked the church. It ranked along with the bodily resurrection of Christ, the infallibility of Scripture, and the second coming of Christ as one of five or six fundamentals of the faith under special attack.
In recent years, one scarcely sees either a strong defense of the importance of the Virgin Birth to Christian faith or an outright attack against it as scientific nonsense and a handicap to faith. Why the apologetic shift to other battlegrounds? In part this miracle has become domesticated, making it easier for some people to believe. What with “virgin-born” rabbits and sober scientific explanations that virgin births are really not all that surprising, some even took seriously the claims of a contemporary English woman that her child, too, was virgin born. The qualification that only female offspring could come from a virgin birth seemed a trivial objection. The case against the virgin birth of Christ almost reduced itself to “We don’t like novelty.”
A major shift in world view has accompanied this scientific attitude of sweet reasonableness toward a virgin birth miracle, and has provided its broader context. Somehow, at the end of the twentieth century, it seems far less important to show that acceptable religion must fit into a natural and rational framework. The world had proved to be far more mysterious and unpredictable than we had imagined. Yesterday’s wonder has become today’s commonplace. Miracle no longer seems the same formidable obstacle to faith as previously. Of course, by the same token, many no longer see it as proof of any particular religion, demanding a verdict.
Emil Brunner represents a sort of halfway house between the older rationalistic approach to the Virgin Birth and the more value-oriented, existential approach to theology. In his early work The Mediator, for example, he attacked the Virgin Birth as a “biological interpretation” of the real miracle—the Incarnation. It represents, so he argued, an unwarranted “inquisitiveness” into how God became man. Many years later he sought to tone down the sharpness of his criticism. He was really not so much concerned to show that the Virgin Birth is intellectually unacceptable as to remove it as an unnecessary obstacle to faith. To Brunner, the truth of the Virgin Birth is inconsequential because the divine incarnation does not depend on the biological miracle of a literal parthenogenesis.
Born Of Mary, Born Of A Virgin
In the Bible the Virgin Birth is centrally a sign of “Immanuel”—God with us. The miracle of Christmas informs us that God has entered the human race. The Virgin Birth is a sign that the child born at Bethlehem was not just any ordinary human being. Jesus Christ, in fact, could not be accounted for merely as the child born to human parents by ordinary processes of generation.
The familiar words of the Apostles’ Creed, “born of the Virgin Mary,” refer to quite opposite but mutually complementary truths. “Born of Mary” tells us that beside a manger in the stable of an inn at ancient Bethlehem of Judea a human child was born. In Jesus Christ we have no alien, no Mork from another planet, but one of us—flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone. Like us all, Jesus was formed in the womb of a woman, was brought into the world through the wonder of human birth, was nourished at his mother’s breast, and lived out his childhood in the midst of brothers, sisters, and cousins. Scripture tells us that he grew to manhood in nondescript Nazareth, and came to the fullness of his life’s ministry in the prospering culture of cities surrounding the Sea of Galilee.
In all these matters, Jesus of Nazareth did not differ materially from the rest of us. He and you and I are all one in the genuineness and fulness of our humanity.
But “born of the Virgin” points in the opposite direction. It is the sign that Jesus was different from all the rest of us. Natural processes of humankind could never have brought him into being. The Virgin Birth stands as a label over the Christmas child: “Not made by man!”
And man, here, must be taken generically. It was not just that Jesus had no human father. The birth of Jesus was something that humankind could not produce. As a human mother, Mary was just as helpless as Joseph to bring this child into existence.
Occasionally, the Virgin Birth is explained by its defenders as necessary to account for Christ’s sinlessness. It is as though our human bent to sin were inherited only through the male line. But women, too, are affected by sin and share in the sinful nature of the human race. Such a view of the Virgin Birth turns the matter upside-down. The Virgin Birth may explain the sinlessness of Christ, but only indirectly.
Directly, it is a sign that, though Jesus is fully human and though in his humanity he is, apart from sin, just like us, his humanity does not exhaust the truth about him. And Mary, though a woman of our race, could not account for all that he is, for he is both fully human and more than human.
Does the passage on the Virgin Birth teach that sex relations are necessarily evil, and therefore inappropriate if Mary was to bear a holy child? Thinking this, some believe that the Roman Catholic dogma of Mary’s immaculate conception would explain Christ’s sinlessness since, by this teaching, from birth on she would supposedly have been free from all taint of sin. But such a view of sex relations is alien to the structure of biblical teaching, beginning with the first command given Adam and Eve: “Be fruitful and multiply.”
It is true that all human acts since the Fall are tainted with sin. In this life we never act from absolutely pure motives. Still, sexual life is not inherently more affected by sin than other aspects of our common life. Sexual life is not essentially more evil than eating our daily bread or working in a factory. In his Institutes (II/13/4) Calvin puts all of this in good biblical order: “The generation of man is not unclean and vicious of itself, but is so as an accidental quality arising from the Fall.… We make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit.”
More than this, the Virgin Birth is a sign not of sinlessness but of “Immanuel”—God with us. Through a special miracle of sanctification God could cause sinful parents to produce a sinless human offspring. But neither sinful nor holy human parents could produce an offspring who is God. That is beyond their humanity. And neither could a virgin human mother do this! It does not matter whether she was sinlessly holy from conception on (as most traditional Roman Catholics believed in the past), or a queen among women who yet possessed a sinful nature, did indeed sin, and therefore needed a Savior (as most Protestants believe). The Incarnation, by which the Sovereign God of the universe becomes born into the human race, raises the whole matter to a new dimension.
The words of the Apostles’ Creed, “Conceived by the Holy Ghost,” fill out the story on the positive side. Jesus Christ is not the son of the Holy Spirit as to his humanity. Rather, Jesus Christ, with respect to his humanity, had no father. We have here no mythological mating of a divine being with a human mother to produce a demigod. Jesus Christ was no hybrid, neither fully man, nor fully God; he was not merely half God and half man.
As the biblical context makes clear, no new person came into existence at the conception of the Virgin Mary. Rather, an eternal person, the second person of the Triune God, chose to come down into our human race and be born one of us. An eternal person in his own right, he took something new to himself—humanity, flesh and blood, our human life and nature—because he loved us unto salvation at a cross. Instead of an ordinary human baby, begotten by a man and born of a woman to produce a new person, the Spirit of God introduced into the body of Mary a Divine Person, who through the Virgin Birth added to himself all that is essential to humanity. This is the incarnation of the eternal God—God become also man—the mystery and the miracle of Christmas.
The deity of Jesus Christ, of course, does not rest upon his virgin birth. Christians believe in the deity of Christ for quite different reasons. Could God have become incarnate in some other way? That is not for us to say. Long ago we learned that in matters like these, where Scripture is silent, our highest wisdom is to refrain from making rash assertions.
Yet this is the way he chose to enter our race. And by excluding man from a process of human conception by which a new person is brought into being, we can understand better how, through the Virgin Birth, no mere person was formed. Rather, by the power of the Holy Spirit, the eternal God stooped down to be born of the Virgin Mary, and through her took on our humanity to become both true God and true man—two natures in one person.
KENNETH S. KANTZER
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