This editorial originally appeared in the December 7, 1959 issue of Christianity Today.
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.
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, 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.
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.
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?
Copyright © 2007 Christianity Today. Click for reprint information.
Other articles on the Incarnation are in our Christmas and Advent section.
Subscribe to Christianity Today and get access to this article plus 65+ years of archives.
- Home delivery of CT magazine
- Complete access to articles on ChristianityToday.com
- Over 120 years of magazine archives plus full access to all of CT’s online archives
- Learn more
Read These Next
- TrendingTim Keller and Beth Moore, On and Off the StageBoth leaders have huge followings. But how well do we really know them?
- From the MagazineIs It Time to Quit ‘Quiet Time’?Effective biblical engagement must be about more than one’s personal experience with Scripture.
- RelatedThe Life & Times of Jesus of Nazareth: Did You Know?Facts, both fascinating and little-known about Jesus and his times.
- Editor's PickCriminal or Not, Trump’s Case Is a Moral Test for ChristiansThe former president’s potential arrest shows that character does matter.