I’m taking a break from a strict logical progression in this series because of the holy day we’re already thinking about this week. I thought it better to discuss the evangelical distinctive that has immediate relevance to Christmas.
Before we explore that topic, let me reiterate the purpose and scope of this series. We continue to receive feedback that this attempt to rehabilitate the term evangelical is foolish, as the term has been irretrievably damaged by our current political ecosystem. This is not, however, an attempt to recover the term as such. My aim is only to explain what we mean by it and the type of Christian and lived Christian faith it has represented and continues to represent in Christian history. And one thing it has certainly meant is a belief in the virginal conception of Jesus Christ in the womb of Mary—what is normally shorted to “the Virgin Birth.”
This was one of the most-discussed doctrines in 20th-century American evangelicalism, especially in its fundamentalist context. Fundamentalism itself was a response to the skepticism engendered by the rise of historical-critical scholarship coming out of Europe. Many leading Christian scholars were doubting not merely six-day creationism but also classic Christian doctrines like Jesus’ bodily resurrection and his virgin birth, that is, the miraculous in general. The response of conservative Christians in America coalesced in a book called The Fundamentals: A Testimony to the Truth, published by the Bible Institute of Los Angeles (today’s Biola University). It was eventually a 12-volume work that not only defended orthodox Protestant beliefs but also critiqued higher criticism, liberal theology, “Romanism,” socialism, Modernism, and other -isms.
The core fundamentals of the faith as outlined by other writers and organizations of that era were numbered in various configurations, but all seemed to include these beliefs:
- The divine inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture,
- The deity of Jesus Christ,
- The miraculous stories in the Bible, including six-day creation,
- The virgin birth of Christ,
- Christ’s substitutionary atonement on the cross,
- Christ’s literal, bodily resurrection, and
- Christ’s bodily return
For the fundamentalists, the Virgin Birth is a consequence of belief in inerrancy, Christ’s deity, and the belief in the miraculous. This is one large reason why it was singled it out for defense. A lot depended on this doctrine.
The main lines of liberal argument against it were:
- It is not mentioned in the rest of the New Testament; Paul, in particular, doesn’t ever discuss it. Likewise, it is rarely mentioned in the first three centuries of the church’s existence.
- Matthew and Luke were using a faulty translation (the Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14, which in the original Hebrew did not predict that a “virgin” would conceive a coming messiah, but only a “young woman” would. Thus they either made up the story or shaped it according to their misunderstanding.
- It imitates pagan and Jewish myths that credit virginal conception to spiritual heroes.
- It’s not possible for a human being to be conceived outside of intercourse between a man and a woman, and that’s the only way God providentially designed humans to be fruitful and multiply.
These were easily countered by fundamentalist authors. They replied:
- It was not discussed by Paul and other New Testament writers, nor by writers in the early church, because it was not controversial. There was no reason to argue for it because no one doubted it. The fact that it emerges in the Nicene Creed without argument or debate suggests this was indeed the case and that it was a core belief for Christians.
- Biblical prophecies work on many levels, some literally, some metaphorically, and some both. We see the New Testament writers using a great freedom in using such prophecies. Besides, Mary was clearly a “young woman,” which Isaiah foresaw under the inspiration of the Spirit; that she was also a virgin is revealed in the Gospel accounts.
- That other religions have similar stories has no bearing on whether this particular story is historically true. It just indicates that the idea of virginal conception didn’t seem preposterous in that age.
- More recent science has shown that parthenogenesis (asexual reproduction) is possible in plants and some animals, if extremely rare (see “Virgin Births Happen all the Time,” by Ted Olsen). The fundamentalist reply of the time would have simply been to say, “Who says God could not or would not do this?”
In fact, the assumptions of 19th-century liberal theologians arose not from indisputable objective starting points but from unprovable assumptions. Most were strict materialists, or close to it, and believed that anything that happened in history had to have a material cause. Fundamentalists countered that the Bible, in fact, has a different starting point: God intervenes in history now and then, and when he does and it defies the laws of nature, it’s called a miracle.
American evangelicalism as we describe it now rose out of a mid-20th-century rejection of fundamentalism, but that rejection had less to do with core beliefs than with a stance toward culture. Fundamentalists attacked it and urged separation, including separation from those who did not separate from it. Evangelicals wanted to engage culture, if for no other reason than to evangelize it.
But evangelicals still affirmed the fundamentals that birthed fundamentalism. Many evangelicals no longer hold to a six-day view of Creation, but neither are they enthused about the materialistic presuppositions of Darwinism. Those who give credence to Darwin insist, however, that evolution has a providential cast—either designed by God to evolve as it has or periodically guided by God to its current state.
Other evangelicals today question the usefulness of the word inerrancy to describe the authority of Scripture, but they are still nonetheless fully committed to the Bible being the final authority in matters of faith and practice.
The other fundamentals have remained more or less unchanged, and one will find them expressed in nearly every statement of faith issued by evangelical organizations and churches. And that includes belief in the Virgin Birth.
I don’t believe, however, that most evangelicals believe it because of the rationalistic defense given by early fundamentalists. While encouraged by such arguments, we recognize that this point and counterpoint can go on and on. Nor do we believe that God could not become human in any other way than by the virgin conception. God could have become incarnate in other ways, to be sure. He’s not bound to some set of higher spiritual or physical laws. But it does seem to us especially fitting that he would be born of a virgin, raised in a family, and that he would live in the warp and woof of the life we know.
We think the argument of silence—that is, that it is not mentioned in the rest of the New Testament or in the early church precisely because it wasn’t controversial—makes a lot of sense. Evangelicals simply assume the reality of the miraculous, in part because many of their own conversions have been nothing less than miracles of grace. We know at an existential level that God interrupts history from time to time. Miracles happen.
So we have a hard time understanding the problem. That is, if one believes that God is mighty enough to create the heavens and the earth and to raise Jesus bodily from the grave, how hard can it be for him to enable a virgin to conceive? We are baffled by Christians who balk at the Virgin Birth and don’t blink at the creation of the universe or the Resurrection. It is, to use the words of Christ, to strain out a gnat while swallowing a camel.
Mariology, though, stops there for most evangelicals. That is, we don’t give Mary much thought after the birth of Christ. While we are rightly dubious about much Roman Catholic devotion and beliefs about Mary, our near absence of Mary in our preaching and teaching leaves us bereft of the wisdom and example she can give. And so Christianity Today periodically includes articles to give Mary her due (like “The Mary We Never Knew” by Scot McKnight and “The Blessed Evangelical Mary” by Timothy George).
Mary is arguably the greatest model of faith in the Bible and certainly the second-most important human being in salvation history. Evangelicals, unlike our Orthodox friends, may not frequently call her the “mother of God,” but it’s pretty clear she’s the mother of our salvation, which comes to us in Jesus Christ, who in turn came to us because, when told by God what his will was for her, Mary said simply and humbly, “Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word” (Luke 1:38, KJV).
In this event, then, there was another miracle, one more gift of grace: Before Jesus was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, Mary—without blinking, without doubt, without a moment’s hesitation—said yes.
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