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On the Virgin Birth

nativityThere is a Religion News Service article by Kimberly Winston which is circulating around the Internet with the provocative title Can you question the Virgin Birth and still be a Christian?” I put it in my Twitter feed so that I could comment on it later, if I had some time.

Responding to it gives me a chance to say a little more along the lines of what I was saying (or implying) in my comments on Luke 1:26-38.

(1.) This article’s title assumes something that is not true: that Christians cannot question received teachings. The writer (or the editor) is making the assumption that questioning is incompatible with Christianity. In fact, Christians have been questioning and exploring and refining their beliefs since the very beginning of the Christian movement. Christians (Protestants especially) are encouraged to check out what they hear from their spiritual leaders against the original sources of the faith in Scripture. And though there are a few lonely voices saying Christians should not read the scriptures — most are strongly encouraged to do so. There are contemporary translations, Bible study helps, Bible reading plans, etc. to help them to do so. The apostle Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:21 “prove all things; hold fast that which is good.” (ASV.)

questioningFaith does not remove or undermine critical thinking — in many cases, it awakens it. Christians are concerned about whether their beliefs line up with Scripture, the earliest traditions of the church, and with the real world. You can’t find out whether they do or not if you never question them.

This notion reinforces the idea that churches are places where questions cannot be asked. Yes, there are some churches like that — but many are not. And, it is a fact that young people raised in the church (in particular) will never be able to make the faith their own if they are raised in an environment where they cannot ask questions or take up contrary views. A community that is afraid of questions is a community that lives in fear.

(2.) This article proceeds from a who-is-in and who-is-out perspective. This just reinforces the very worst tendencies of the church. Christian faithfulness to the Scriptures, and to the earliest teachers, and to the historic creeds is a positive value. But, this doesn’t justify the continued annoying witch-hunt mind-set of so much of evangelical Christianity (not saying liberals don’t do this too, they just don’t make the news). The church has too many self-appointed heresy hunters already without RNS throwing more wood on the fire.

Kimberly Winston throws Christians a bone to watch them fight over it

Kimberly Winston throws Christians a bone to watch them fight over it

I believe the most repellant thing about the Christian church in America today it is the way it savages itself through heresy hunting — and also through judgmentalism. These are noxious features of American Christianity. They do not encourage and support the free exchange of ideas or the growth and maturing of our ideas. Among the “works of the flesh” listed by the apostle Paul in Galatians 5:19-21 are “anger, quarrels, dissensions, factions….”

So, basically, Kimberly Winston has thrown Christians a bone to watch them fight over it. I don’t appreciate that kind of thing.

(3.) The Gospel story can be told without mentioning the Virgin Birth. How do I know this? Because the Gospel of Mark does it. The Gospel of John does it. The concept of the Virgin Birth does not appear in the various New Testament letters that instruct the churches in the meaning and significance of their faith in Jesus. We know the Gospel can be told without this detail, because it was told that way in the earliest days of the church. It seems like Galatians 4:4 would have been a great place for the apostle Paul to have mentioned the Virgin Birth if he thought it was all that significant, but instead he says simply: “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law….”

Gary Burge

Gary Burge

So, I don’t get how Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College can say (in the article): ““To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity…. It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.” Really?

Yes, the Gospel of Matthew and the Gospel of Luke mention the virgin birth. Yes, they seem to be drawing from independent sources. Yes, the Gospel of Luke makes a special point of it saying “therefore the child to be born will be holy; he will be called Son of God.” Yes, the Apostle’s Creed and the Nicene Creed affirm the Virgin Birth. Yes, those who are open to the possibility of the miraculous will find no philosophical reason to object to the idea. Yes, there may even be more reasons to trust the truthfulness of the story. But, this does not make it “the very center of Christian thought” or “the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.” It is not.

And, I can’t help but think: Dr. Burge’s faith is a fragile thing indeed.

(4.) Overstating the importance of the Virgin Birth can have negative consequences for the Christian faith: undermining the significance of Jesus faithfulness unto death. This is the point I was trying to make last week. This is why I included that long quotation from the Swiss Bible commentator Godet. If Jesus is understood to be a sort of Spiritual Superman, then the significance of his temptations and obedience is undermined. In this case, he obviously was not “tempted in every way, just as we are” (Hebrews 4:15). The same Creed that affirms the Virgin Birth goes to great pains to affirm both the full humanity and the full deity of Christ. While this is difficult (maybe impossible) to conceive — Jesus’ humanity does not compromise his deity. But, then, by the same token, his deity does not compromise his full humanity either. Jesus’ temptations were real — they were not play-acting. In fact, because of Jesus’ special relationship with the Godhead, his temptations took on a special form — tempting him to turn stones to bread, etc. This suggests that Jesus was even tempted beyond the way we are.

Frédéric Louis Godet (1812-1900)

Frédéric Louis Godet (1812-1900)

I quoted Godet not because I’m sure I fully agree with him, but because, among the commentators I consulted, he was the one who sensed the danger here. Holiness is a matter of choice and moral responsibility. It is not a matter of being removed from human nature. We are to serve God in our humanness — with our humanness. Because of the nature of human drives and the human situation, we will often have to say “no” to some of our impulses,  and will have to surrender our self-centeredness.  God’s Spirit comes to assist us in this quest. But, it is at every moment, a human quest — a quest to be more of the person God created us to be. And in that regard, Godet says this about Jesus’ obedience:

Jesus had to exert every instant His own free will, and to devote Himself continually to the service of good and the fulfillment of the task assigned Him, namely, “the keeping of His Father’s commandment.” His miraculous birth, therefore, in no way prevented this conflict from being real.

Jesus’ obedience unto death tells us that humanity and deity are not ultimately irreconcilable. And, our humanity also can be redeemed. I fear that making the Virgin Birth “the keystone of the arch of Christian theology” may undermine this message in a very serious way. Again, I refer you to N. T. Wright’s thoughts on the Virgin Birth found here: Suspending Scepticism: History and the Virgin Birth. In this article Wright remarks: “The birth narratives have no impact on my reconstruction of Jesus’ public agendas and his mind-set as he went to the cross.”

12-24-11-GJ-birth-of-jesus(5.) Historical-critical objections have arisen about the literary form of the Virgin Birth stories and thus whether they should be taken as “histories” or “legends.” Thus, Emil Brunner, Jürgen Moltmann, Wolfhart Pannenberg and many, many others have raised objections against the idea of the Virgin Birth as an historical event. These arguments are not necessarily advanced in an effort to undermine faith, but to respect literary form, — and sometimes even to affirm the full humanity of Jesus. Pannenberg in particular argued that the idea of the Virgin Birth undermined the idea of incarnation. See, for example: Wolfhart Pannenberg on Rejecting the Virgin Birth and Affirming the Apostle’s Creed and the relevant sections of his book Jesus: God and Man.

While I can understand why conservatives fear these arguments — and there may indeed be good reasons for rejecting them (as Wright suggests in the article to which I linked above) — these arguments, whatever their merit, do not in any way remove “the keystone of the arch of Christian theology” — nor are they, necessarily, attempts to do so.

These arguments must be judged on their own merits — or lack of them — rather than being ruled “out of bounds” — as if to say “we cannot ask those kind of questions here.” I appreciate N. T. Wright, and Ben Witherington, and others who have defended the credibility of the Virgin Birth stories.

But, the doctrine of the incarnation can survive anyway. And, as strange as it may seem, I think there is more to fear from those who over-estimate the importance of the Virgin Birth than from those who under-estimate it.

 

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7 Responses

  1. Jim Birch December 24, 2014 / 12:16 pm

    Five hundred years ago, Christians were not allowed to question the shape of the earth or whether it was the center of the universe. The earth was flat and at the center because the Bible said so. Today those passages are intrepreted a little differently, even by fundamentalists. What other passages will we be reinterpreting in the future?

    • Craig L. Adams December 24, 2014 / 8:24 pm

      It appears to me that many people in medieval times — and before — were aware of the curvature of the earth. It is clear from Dante’s Divine Comedy that he thought the world was spherical in shape. And, of course, long before that, the Egyptians made allowance for the curvature of the earth in the building of their pyramids. From Wikipedia: “The concept of a spherical Earth dates back to ancient Greek philosophy from around the 6th century BC, but remained a matter of philosophical speculation until the 3rd century BC, when Hellenistic astronomy established the spherical shape of the earth as a physical given. The paradigm was gradually adopted throughout the Old World during Late Antiquity and the Middle Ages.” The Venerable Bede (c. 672–735) spoke of the world as being round. Thomas Aquinas (1225–1274), the great theologian of the Middle Ages, believed that the earth was a sphere; and he even took for granted his readers also knew the Earth is round. Thomas depended heavily on the teachings of Aristotle — who argued at length that the earth was spherical. Yes, there were people who advocated for a flat earth — basing this view no doubt on the Biblical references to “the four corners of the earth”, but many ancient Christians affirmed that the earth was some sort of sphere — including some of the most influential voices of their day. From Wikipedia see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spherical_Earth and https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Flat_Earth

      Yes, the situation with Copernicus was very unfortunate. But, bear in mind, the cosmology that Copernicus was displacing was the Egyptian view developed by Ptolemy. Ptolemy’s system was very complex, requiring lots of complex calculations. People were shaped by it as a world view, but many educated people had invested a lot of time and effort into it, as well. The Roman Catholic Church only came to oppose Copernicus’ theory 73 years after the publication of his book. By that time, the ideas already had gained a bit of traction.

      Maybe I shouldn’t be so pedantic, but its just not true that “Five hundred years ago, Christians were not allowed to question the shape of the earth or whether it was the center of the universe.” They did, and they did so openly — though admittedly the reaction against the Copernican theory was wrong and foolish and counter-productive.

      The belief in a God who is faithful and not capricious serves as a good basis for scientific endeavor and I think it always has.

      Nevertheless, I agree with you, Jim, that Christianity is an ongoing dialogue with Scripture — the more we learn the deeper our understanding — but the more previous understandings must be revised.

  2. sfirneno December 24, 2014 / 5:18 pm

    I would like to add something about the importance of the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus being very important because the circumstances of His birth were one of the issues the Jewish accusers of Jesus had with His Messianic claims.

    “But as it is, you are seeking to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth, which I heard from God; this Abraham did not do. 41″You are doing the deeds of your father.” They said to Him, “We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God” (John 8:40).

    So, we see the Jewish leaders already were accusing Jesus’s birth as illegitimate. This is pretty huge and they obviously didn’t buy the miraculous birth of Jesus. So, according to what was known of Jesus by His contemporaries, He was either a bastard child, or born of a virgin in a miraculous way. Those are the two options history has left to us to choose between.

    • Craig L. Adams December 24, 2014 / 7:51 pm

      Yes, that is a possible interpretation of the meaning of their words in John 8:40. I have also heard Mark 6:3 cited as supporting evidence in this respect: “‘Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon, and are not his sisters here with us?’ And they took offense at him.” It seems strange — possibly insulting — that he was called “the son of Mary” — another possible indication that there were stories circulating about Jesus not actually being the son of Joseph. I hope I did not come across as being dismissive of supporting evidence or of the historicity of the Virgin Birth. I’m in pretty much the same place Wright is: yes, the Gospels make this claim (though only 2 of them make it explicitly), but let’s not read too much into this. I do not take Pannenberg’s objections lightly either, but I am not willing to go in the direction he does on this issue.

  3. Norman Prather January 13, 2015 / 12:11 pm

    The various discussions offered are interesting however the simplest answer to the question posed: “Can you question the Virgin Birth and still be a Christian?” is Yes.

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