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Notes on the Virgin Birth

A look at different perspectives on the meaning of the virgin birth of Christ. Taken from "The New Dictionary of Theology"
 

Virgin Birth

In accordance with popular usage, the term 'virgin birth' will be used in this article to refer to the virginal conception of Jesus, the belief that he was conceived by the Virgin Mary without sexual intercourse. There is also, in the Catholic tradition, a later belief that Mary's virginity was physically preserved during the actual birth process- i.e. that the hymen was not broken. This belief is found in Leo's Tome , which was officially accepted by the Council of Chalcedon. Today it is questioned by at least some Roman Catholic scholars, such as Karl Rahner.

The virgin birth is taught clearly in only two NT passages: Mt 1:18-25 and Lk 1:26-38 . Others are sometimes cited (such as Mk 6:3; Jn 1:13 -on which see below; Ga 4:4 ) but there is no certain reference to the virgin birth in any of these latter passages. The paucity of references in the NT is sometimes given as an argument against the historicity of the doctrine. But it should be noted that the virgin birth is almost the only point in common between the two infancy narratives, a clear indication that it is based on an earlier, common tradition. It should also be noted that, in view of the gospel record, the alternative to the virgin birth is not a normal birth within wedlock (for which there is no evidence) but an illegitimate birth (which seems to be the charge in Jn 8:41 and which is countered in Mt 1:18-25 ).

The virgin birth is common to all mainstream orthodox Christian confessions. In the early church it was questioned only by ebionites (who denied Jesus' deity) and by docetists (who denied his true humanity). It was included in the early creeds and is affirmed today in the Apostles' and Nicene Creeds. With the rise of liberal theology it has increasingly come to be questioned. This is largely because the normative status of Scripture is denied, and sometimes also because the possibility of the miraculous is denied. Because of its inclusion in the creeds and because of confusion between the virgin birth and the incarnation, the doctrine of the virgin birth has often become a central point of controversy. It has thereby been given a prominence out of proportion to its place in the NT or its theological significance.

The NT teaches that Mary remained a virgin 'until she gave birth to a son' ( Mt 1:25 ). But in the following century the belief emerged that she remained perpetually a virgin, that her marriage with Joseph was never consummated. This view was opposed by some-notably Tertullian and some of the 4th-century opponents of asceticism. But the dominant majority view in the early church was that Mary remained a perpetual virgin and that Jesus' 'brothers' were either Joseph's children from a previous marriage or Jesus' cousins (Jerome). This doctrine was not at first opposed by the Reformers. Calvin reserved judgment on the question and the strongly Protestant Geneva Bible (1560) repeatedly defends the doctrine. But more significant than the numerical support for this belief is the lack of early evidence for it and the dogmatic motivation behind it, namely an unbiblical belief that sexual intercourse is defiling.

In the popular mind the virgin birth is often confused with the incarnation. This confusion has been encouraged by some of the literature on the subject. The doctrine of the incarnation states that the eternal Son, the second person of the Trinity, became man. The doctrine of the virgin birth states that this man Jesus did not have a human father. It does not state that God was his father. The virgin birth is not to be confused with pagan myths about gods mating with beautiful women. The virgin birth means that Jesus' conception was miraculous, that he had no human father. This is not to be confused with the belief that he was the eternal Son of God become man.

Granted that the virgin birth and the incarnation are distinct, do they logically entail one another? No. The virgin birth does not of itself prove the deity of Christ. Arians (who deny Christ's deity), adoptionists (who deny the incarnation) and Muslims have all traditionally believed in the virgin birth. The virgin birth is a supernatural conception which shows Jesus to be someone very special. It does not prove his deity. Conversely, while it can be argued that the incarnation required a supernatural birth, this does not necessarily mean a virgin birth. Scripture tells that Jesus was as a matter of fact conceived by a virgin. It never tells us that this was the only possible way for him to have been conceived.

What then is the relationship between the virgin birth and the incarnation? The virgin birth is not meant to be a biological explanation of the incarnation. It has sometimes been expounded in such terms, and it is at least partly for that reason that Brunner and Pannenberg both rejected the doctrine. The virgin birth is better seen, as by Barth, as a sign pointing to the incarnation. It is fitting and congruous with the incarnation, to which it bears witness; Jesus' miraculous birth points to the fact that he was a unique person.

The virgin birth is criticized by J. A. T. Robinson, among others, because it makes Jesus different from us, not truly human. (It is ironical that those who have the most to say about functional Christology often take diametrically opposed positions when it comes to Jesus' humanity .) In response, R. F. Aldwinkle has fairly stated that 'it is not the method by which a human being comes to be such which is decisive but the end product itself, namely a human being'. But there is a deeper issue here. The role of Christ requires that there should be both continuity and discontinuity between him and us; that he should be one of us ( Heb 2:10-18 ) and yet also different from us. Jesus is the second Adam-one of the human race, yet inaugurating a new redeemed humanity. The virgin birth points to this combination of continuity and discontinuity.

Traditionally it has often been held that the virgin birth is necessary for the sinlessness of Jesus Christ. This idea was introduced by some of the early fathers (especially Augustine) because of their beliefs about original sin. Augustine held that lust is involved in all intercourse in fallen humanity. If this is so, then the virgin birth clearly protects Christ from being the product of sinful activity. But such a theory has no biblical basis. A modern variant of this argument is found in the claim that original sin is transmitted through the male line. This theory serves to explain how the virgin birth exempts Jesus from original sin, but there is no biblical basis for it.

Karl Barth discerned in the virgin birth a denial of humanity's natural capacity for God, a favourite Barthian theme. According to this view, the significance of the virgin birth is the absence not of the sex act or of human lust, but of active human participation. Humanity is involved, but only as a 'non-willing, non-achieving, non-creative, non-sovereign, merely ready, merely receptive, virgin human being' ( CD I.2, p. 191). Men rather than women are the active agents in the history of the world, and therefore the male must be set aside in the conception of Christ. This view is open to various objections. In addition to its sexist overtones, it appears to teach the total depravity of all males! But Barth is not without justice in applying the doctrine of the virgin birth to the realm of grace.

There is a variant reading of Jn 1:13 which affirms that Christ was 'born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband's will, but born of God'. This is all but universally agreed not to be the original reading, but the verse is not without relevance. It is highly likely that John knew the tradition of the virgin birth and it is possible that he was deliberately drawing a parallel between the virgin birth and regeneration. In conversion, as in the virgin birth, the initiative and the sovereignty lie with God.

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