Among the issues raised by the unfortunate and continuing controversy over the Virgin Birth, the implied dismissal of the biblical testimony naturally claims much of our attention. It is right that this should be so. For, while the biblical evidence is small, and attempts have been made to weaken it by emendation, variant readings, and literary dissection, even a theologian of Karl Barth’s stature tells us that “no one can dispute the existence of a biblical testimony to the Virgin Birth” (Church Dogmatics, I, 2, p. 176). Thus, denial of the miracle entails direct and conscious rejection of the authority of Scripture and the apostolic teaching which it embodies. And the seriousness of such rejection is incontestable and incalculable.

Yet while this is true, there are also important theological implications which may be missed even by those who contend for the Virgin Birth on biblical grounds. A main argument used against it is in fact its supposed insignificance and even irrelevance. Many theologians, like Schleiermacher, have thought that they could accept a supernatural work of God without the Virgin Birth. Many others have tended to agree with Brunner that it is an unnecessary and inquisitive biological intrusion. Many would argue that they can confess the true deity and incarnation of Christ without it. Evangelicals often leave the impression that it is a kind of embarrassment which they are prepared to accept because it is in Scripture but which they do not find to be particularly significant or meaningful.

Now if this is indeed the case, it might be asked why the issue has been given such prominence in recent discussion. To be sure, any denial of the biblical record is a serious matter. But why should this particular denial be singled out as compared, for example, with the denial of some of the miracles performed by Jesus? On the other hand, may it not be that, in addition to its implications for the authenticity and authority of Scripture, the Virgin Birth does in fact have a wider theological significance which its opponents are quick to ignore and its proponents too slow to perceive? This, at any rate, has been the way in which dogmatics understood the matter prior to the rise of liberal Protestantism, and it is perhaps the way in which it must always be understood in truly dogmatic thinking.

It may be admitted, of course, that the Virgin Birth is not flatly identical with the Incarnation, just as the empty tomb is not flatly identical with the Resurrection. The one might be affirmed without the other. Yet the connection is so close, and indeed indispensable, that were the Virgin Birth or the empty tomb denied, it is likely that either the Incarnation or Resurrection would be called in question, or they would be affirmed in a form very different from that which they have in Scripture and historic teaching. The Virgin Birth might well be described as an essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only an analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation. Hand in hand with its biblical attestation as a fact, it thus has a theological necessity which not only supplies its vindication but also warns us that its repudiation will almost inevitably be accompanied by a movement away from truly evangelical teaching.

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Thus, from the fact that Jesus is “born of the Virgin Mary,” it may be seen that the work of Incarnation and Reconciliation involves a definite intervening act on the part of God himself. As Luther saw, a new beginning has to be made, a new creation initiated. It is not a beginning out of nothing. The role of Mary shows us that it is the old order which is the object of this creative work. The new man, Jesus Christ, is true man. In the words of Barth, “he is the real son of a real mother” (ibid., p. 185). There is no question of a mere semblance of humanity, nor of a humanity which bears no relation to the original work of God. What God now does, he does in and on the old, natural man. Yet it is strictly and properly the creative work of God himself. There can be no pretense of an achievement or theory of man. By the exclusion of the male it is made quite clear that what is to be done is something which man of himself cannot do, not even though his work is sanctified for the purpose by God. There is a part which has to be played by man as represented by the virgin; but the active initiative is necessarily with God.

The inadequacy of man for this work is linked, of course, with the sinfulness of man. Hence the Virgin Birth carries with it not only the implication of the initiative of grace but also that of the hopeless sin and guilt of man. To be sure, this is not to be identified exclusively with the sexual act, as though this were the essence of sin and the problem of original sin would be solved by its evasion. Mary is no less a sinner than Joseph, and, while the sexual act is affected by sin like all others, the original sin of the race extends to every act as to each individual. No, the point is that though the Son of Mary as such stands in solidarity with sinners, yet his real birth is directly from God, so that unlike all others he is not himself a sinner, but has come to bear their sin in God’s own work of salvation. A man born in the normal way could have been one with sinners, but he could not have been the sinless sin-bearer. The sinless sin-bearer comes into the world in such a way that he is also one with man, yet there is a decisive break with the old humanity as well as continuity with it. He is not sinful man accomplishing in a more worthy representative his own salvation. He is the second man, the Lord from heaven, the Son of Man who is also the Son of God incarnate for us men and for our salvation.

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In this connection it is important to consider the importance of the fact that the human part is played by the female rather than the male. In a sense this is self-explanatory, for by nature the female is always present at generation. It is also theologically apt, for, as divines have pointed out from at least the time of Leo, Jesus has neither a mother in heaven nor a father on earth. There is also the further point, however, that it is the male who plays the active, initiatory role in generation, and therefore in a work in which the initiative necessarily lies with God “the whole action of man, the male can have no meaning” (ibid., p. 194). On the other hand, it must be emphasized that, though the female provides the link with humanity, this is not because either by sex or in person she has innate qualities alien to the male, nor because she is free from sin, nor because there is a special female Mary herself immaculately conceived and destined to represent human glorification as the queen of heaven, but because she can fulfill the essentially passive role as the one in and on and through whom God acts in accomplishment of his gracious salvation.

The fact that in the life and work and person of Jesus Christ we are genuinely concerned with God in his saving action is positively emphasized by the second, or more strictly primary, element in the Virgin Birth, namely, the fact that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit.” This does not, of course, give rise to the same offense as the “born of the Virgin Mary,” since it may be conveniently “spiritualized” and linked with a normal human birth in various ways. Yet in conjunction with the “born of the Virgin” it has its own positive witness, first, that in the coming of Jesus we have neither a mythological marvel nor a natural possibility, but a true work of God, and second, that, as Jesus was born from above, so all members of the new humanity must be born again to newness of life in him by the sovereign action of the Spirit. In this respect there is truth in the statement of the older divines that the proper organ of conception in Mary was the ear, by which there came to her the Word of God and therefore faith. In other words, Christians are all born again by grace and faith in analogy to the birth of Jesus Christ himself as conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. To become a Christian is no more a natural possibility than the Word’s becoming flesh. It is the regenerative work of the Spirit in those who receive Christ, that is, who believe in his name.

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It may be contended, of course, that these doctrines implicit in the Virgin Birth may still be held even where the factuality of the birth is rejected. In point of fact, however, it is noticeable that denial of the Virgin Birth almost invariably accompanies, or is accompanied by, a more basic theological defection in which the divine initiative, the inadequacy of man, the reality of original sin, the miraculous nature of regeneration, the primacy of the Word of God, and the importance of the faith which it brings are either abandoned in whole or part or drastically reinterpreted. Even in Roman Catholicism, which obviously retains the Virgin Birth, it is striking that the distortion of evangelical doctrine has almost inevitably produced a corruption of the biblical witness to the Virgin Birth in and by an unfounded, exaggerated, and basically Pelagianizing Mariology. In itself the abandonment of the scriptural testimony may seem to many to be of little account. But quite apart from the serious impugning of the written Word, it is a conditioning and resultant sign of more widespread abandonment of evangelical doctrine. For the Virgin Birth itself carries by implication the sum and substance of the Gospel.

We may close on an irenical note. Christmas has come again with its testimony to the Incarnation and atoning work of Christ without which there is no Gospel, faith, nor Church. All who claim the name of Christian will be turning afresh in public and private to the ancient and well-loved records: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was on this wise …”; “And it came to pass in those days, that there went out a decree from Caesar Augustus.…” All will be pondering afresh the tremendous reality and meaning of the incarnation of the Son of God. May we not make it our business to see that the records and the reality are in fact more intimately and irrevocably related than some ecclesiasts today assume? May we not ask ourselves whether we can really have the one without the other, whether we shall not necessarily lose the one if we deny the other, whether the substance of the Christmas Gospel and the purity of the Christmas faith are not an issue in this whole matter? May we not make it our concern to commit ourselves afresh to the reality and wholeness of the Christmas Gospel as the very carols sung from our own lips attest it, and with this Gospel humbly accept the holy miracle of the birth of Jesus which in the wisdom and power of God is so apt to denote the significance of his saving action as the incarnate Mediator, the first-begotten of the new creation and family of God?

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Despite their reservations about “personal diplomacy,” most men of good will are hopeful that President Eisenhower’s international mission will contribute constructively to man’s vexing search for a just peace in our tense world. The “Spirit of Camp David” will carry the President to a strange conglomerate of personalities—including Premier Khrushchev, Pope John XXIII, and heads of many nations shading in sympathy from neutralism to westernism.

The junket has troublesome religious as well as political facets. President Eisenhower is political leader of a predominantly Protestant land. A visit to the Pope, as well as to St. Peter’s, has satisfied the curiosity of more than one roving Protestant who has had no intention of kneeling and kissing a papal ring. Not questioning the President’s liberty to call on the Pope, many Protestants wish he had clarified the motivations of the visit. Was it ventured because the Pope is head of a foreign state, or head of a church, or as a matter of political expedience?

The fact is that the Pope heads a foreign state, although U. S. State Department officials constantly evade this issue when periodic pressures arise to require American representatives of that foreign power (especially cardinals and bishops) to register as such.

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If the President’s visit is projected because the Pope heads a church, would he not profit from further instruction in classic Presbyterian insights? Because of the authority which the papacy arrogated to itself (during the course of history) to impose doctrines unfounded in Scripture as articles of faith, the Westminster Confession (Chapter XXV, Section VI) affirms: “There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ; nor can the Pope of Rome in any sense be the head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin and son of perdition, that exalteth himself in the Church against Christ, and all that is called God.” The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod and many other Lutherans share the same view, expressed in the Smalcald Articles: “The Pope is the very anti-Christ, who exalted himself above, and opposed himself against Christ, because he will not permit Christians to be saved without his power, which, nevertheless, is nothing, and is neither ordained nor commanded by God …” The Common Confession adopted by the American Lutheran Church and The Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod states: “Among the signs of (our Lord’s) approaching return for Judgment, the distinguishing features of the Anti-Christ, as protrayed in the Holy Scriptures, are still clearly discernible in the Roman Papacy, the climax of all human usurpations of Christ’s authority in the Church” (XII, 2). The force of these passages is to identify the institution of the papacy (not the Roman church and its people or the person of the Pope) as the Antichrist.

Holding an office that imposes no religious test, the President may justify his papal conference on the ground of Rome’s support of man’s freedoms in opposition to Communistic tyranny. But Protestants and Other Americans United has urged President Eisenhower to ask Pope John and Generalissimo Franco of Spain why they jointly suppress religious freedom for non-Catholics in Spain. The British government has not hesitated to raise the religious liberty issue with the Spanish Foreign Minister. American Protestants think that Mr. Eisenhower’s concern for basic freedoms should extend to the Roman as well as to the Russian sphere. Not only are Protestants prohibited from building regular churches, but publication and distribution of Protestant literature are forbidden, and Protestant chaplains in the U. S. Armed Forces in Spain are even disallowed contact with Spanish Protestants.

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If the President’s visit to Rome aims to promote a sort of Romanist-Republican good will, the venture may be as costly among Protestants as it is productive among Catholics. Personal diplomacy between a pope and a Catholic president would have intriguing possibilities indeed, and if Mr. Eisenhower’s visit unwittingly reminds us of these it will accomplish some good. A presidential visit to the papal residence seems to call for a papal visit to the White House. Where separation of Church and State is a prized heritage, such a turn could signal a triumph not so much for religious tolerance as for religious indifference.


The Ohio Council of Churches went out of its way to “disown” the fourteenth annual convention of the National Sunday School Association, held recently in Columbus. In a release to its constituency and to press and radio news services, the Council stated: “(This Convention) is not sponsored by, nor does it have any connection with, the National Council of Churches or the Ohio Council of Churches, nor most of the member denominations of the stated Councils.”

What prompts this oblique reference? Surely NCC spokesmen cannot be alarmed about spiritual concerns of the NSSA. When liberal Protestantism had dissolved the vitality of many church schools, NSSA was organized interdenominationally in 1946 for the objective of “revitalizing the American Sunday School” and in 14 years has accomplished some remarkable evangelical results: The Bible has been made central in curriculum and in determining Sunday School principles and methods; evangelism is being restored to its rightful place in the objective of the school; and spiritual power emphasized as an essential dynamic in Christian growth. The NSSA serves 28,000 evangelical churches in 100 denominations with a constituency of some 10,000,000. It has more than 40 related metropolitan and regional Sunday School associations. NSSA conventions draw thousands because of their spiritual uplift and their practical service through workshops, clinics and conferences. This year there were some 5,000 registered delegates in the annual tri-cities convention despite Council disparagement.

The “unpardonable sin” of NSSA, apparently, is that it is not sponsored by the National Council of Churches. By their publicized attitude toward NSSA’s convention, some professed champions of interdenominational ecumenism provide another indication of a higher loyalty than revitalizing the Church’s evangelical dynamisms, even than promoting evangelical cooperation. Some organization men seem more and more to make an idol of a twentieth century movement, identification with which is regarded as the badge of authentic Christianity.

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This approach to the unity of the body of Christ in terms of “organizational salute” reflects some dangerous prejudices. Its implications are evident already on far-flung mission fields. A new phenomenon has arisen in our century: the world-wide Church; while many virgin fields remain, not a single nation exists today without a church. The “sending” agency for missionaries must no longer be identified simply with a remote mission board in New York or London; the established Church’s approval is now regarded as essential with a view to collective leadership. In principle there is much to commend this approach to missions. But when it becomes a device for organizational discrimination and control, rather than for spiritual unification of the scattered churches, it must be disputed. Some ecumenists today mean by “the Church is mission” that the World Council of Churches (or the National Council in the United States) is the only legitimate source and sanction of authentic Protestantism. Whatever does not have its approval, and wear its badge of identification, is therefore viewed, if not as spurious, at least as “off brand.” But discerning Christians will sense that addition of a twentieth century test to evidences for genuine Christianity tampers with first century criteria.

We think the Ohio Council’s sniping at the NSSA convention regrettable, and we would like to encourage an apology in the interest of Christian brotherliness. NSSA has many strides yet to make, but it is restoring to the Sunday Schools of America an evangelistic concern and biblical interest that are commendable. We think ecumenists would help the cause of church unity more by commending spiritual gains than by deploring organizational unaffiliation. Otherwise churchgoers are apt to gain the impression that ecumenical identification means detachment from evangelical priorities. The ecumenical movement need not be that way, but some of its organization men convey the unfortunate impression that it is.

Sonnets for the Space Age


These words of violence are not my own:
In wheeling clouds of light God came to me.
O son of man, He said, behold and see,
Then cry aloud like cymbals striking stone.
This pinch of dust, this narrow chain of bone,
Has made himself the measure of all things,
Has crowned himself as lord and king of kings,
And thinks with fragile fist to shake my throne.
He boasts that he will conquer earth and sky,
But every boast is made with borrowed breath.
I hold the only key to life and death.
O son of man, why will these people die!

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They speak of peace but peace will never be
Until men turn with humble hearts to me.


I trembled at the words and was dismayed:
I knew my own conceit and bent the knee.
Then I heard angels sing His majesty,
Their silver wings the harps on which they played.
With whirlwind voice God spoke: Man’s searching brain
Has split apart the atom’s mighty sphere,
Has harnessed speed till distance holds no fear,
And seeks now to control the moon’s white plain.
There is no answer on a distant star.
The continent of heart is deep and wide,
Who conquers this and learns to vanquish pride
Has made a conquest that is greater far.

I am the Lord Thy God. O sons of men,
Discover first the star of Bethlehem.


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