Tuesday, December 13, 2005

"I Believe in the Virgin Birth"

"I Believe in ... the Virgin Birth." What a statement of faith! What an incredible miracle! What a strange thing to believe! This little phrase has been the shibboleth of fundamentalists, the scourge of liberals, and the annual fare of doctrinal sermons every Christmas season. Of course, you hear the most about the Virgin Birth on the far left (where it is set aside as a barrier to cosmopolitan believers) and on the far right (where it is defended with gnashing of teeth). But I suspect the cozy middle takes this doctrine for granted. "Of course we believe in the Virgin Birth; we're Christians!"

Well, as one small aspect of our spiritual act of worship this Christmas, let's dare to ask why we believe in the Virgin Birth. Notice, I am not asking whether we should believe it. That's an apologetic question, whereby one takes the objective standpoint outside of faith to prove the basis of the belief (a procedure shared by both the fundamentalist defenders and liberal detractors). That is not the question that interests me here. No, I want us to think about why we believe what we believe.

So, why do we believe in the Virgin Birth?

In the first instance, we might say that we believe in the Virgin Birth because it is in the Bible. That's true. Matthew and Luke both indicate in passing that Mary conceived Jesus without any help from a man. But then again, only Matthew and Luke mention this. It does not become a major theme in the New Testament at any level. It is completely lacking in Paul, and suspiciously absent in John (where it would fit oh so nicely). So one wonders why this one event which appears in only two places has become the standard of orthodoxy. There's a lot of other things mentioned a lot more than two times in the Bible that don't carry the same weight as the Virgin Birth does in the Christian community.

So, in light of this sufficient but minimal Biblical basis, what else might account for our belief? We might quickly appeal to tradition. Yes, the church has traditionally affirmed the Virgin Birth, and has even made it a central tenant of faith. It is part of the faith that has been handed down to us through the ages. But this does not really address the question, because we have not yet answered why the tradition has affirmed this miracle. We are not really learning from the tradition if we merely repeat what it has said. We need to learn to think through the tradition so that it really becomes ours and therefore a living tradition.

So why do we join the tradition in affirming the Virgin Birth? Well, a common answer to this question is because of original sin. The sin of Adam is transmitted sexually to the each member of the human race, and in order to avoid this Spiritual STD, Jesus was born without the taint of sexual procreation. Once you accept this other doctrine, the logical necessity of the Virgin Birth falls right into place. Sinlessness, the prerequisite for Jesus' sacrificial work, is guaranteed by the Virgin Birth. So we believe in the Virgin Birth because we believe original sin and the sinlessness of Jesus.

The problem with this answer, however, is that a robust belief in the Virgin Birth far predates the development of the doctrine of sexually-transmitted original sin. This does not automatically rule out the doctrine of original sin, even in these sexual terms. It merely rules out an appeal to original sin as the basis of belief in the Virgin Birth. There must be something more basic at work propping up this scandalous belief.

So why do we believe in the Virgin Birth? The short answer: because we believe in the incarnation. Christians believe that the God of Israel, who is the Creator of the Universe, became flesh and dwelled among us. This is the deepest miracle of Christmas; in fact, it is the deepest miracle of all! It is easy for Christians to believe in a crazy story about a young girl conceiving without a man because we believe in a God who became human. Once you believe in this miracle of all miracles, the Virgin Birth is easy to affirm. It's just the icing on the cake. More precisely, it is the miraculous sign that points to the miraculous event of the incarnation of God. As a sign, it is intended to point beyond itself to the reality of the incarnation. But precisely as a sign, it has its own significance, for it befits the miraculous nature of the incarnation to be accompanied by an equally miraculous sign attesting it. By showing forth the glory of the incarnation, the Virgin Birth shares its glory. And so the worshipping community affirms the Virgin Birth along with its affirmation of the Incarnation.

So this Christmas, let the sign of the Virgin Birth point to its basis, purpose, and meaning: that God became flesh.

8 comments:

Amanda said...

Yes!! The most shocking and miraculous aspect of this story is not that the virgin conceived, but that God became flesh! Believing that the virgin conceived is a piece of cake compared to believing God became flesh.

I become frustrated when I hear people blow off Christmas in light of the glorious theological ramifications of Easter. Christmas is more significant than simply being a necessity for the Easter story. God became flesh!

Thanks for this post.

Amanda

Tim said...

Came here from ThinkChristian.net and was surprised to see my hometown, Doylestown, PA. My father is also a pastor there. Small world, huh? God bless!

David Drury said...

Ahhhhhh.

Reading your theological posts like this is like a great massage... it relaxes tense mustles (and this issue has produced some tension in the Emergent Elite) and helps the arthritic joints to move more properly (because we often don't preach on the incarnation and virgin birth well... and this helps us do so).

We're in John 1 for our Christmas series this year... contemplating that "God become flesh" is perhaps the best gift we can give God in worship this time of year.

And I echo the others in previous posts that your questions were always good... but I often just want to get on your theological massage table and get treated by you -- instead of having to give anyone else a theological back rub in turn.

And you don't even charge 30 bucks per visit.

ap said...

This is more in regard to the Ascension post, but bears some connection.

First, great post. The sign of the virgin birth is always a sign to the greater miracle. Second, I recommend "Ascension and Ecclesia" (Eerdmans) by Doug Farrow. A book I mostly don't understand, but points in some good directions. Interestingly, it shows how poor doctrine of the ascension, mainly from Origen and later fueled by the Arian controversy, led to a focus on the divinity of Jesus and the need for the mediation of Mary and thereby the Church. Third, what about the presence of Jesus in the eucharist?

This all ties together because I'm wondering if there is a parallel between Gabriel's announcement to Mary in Lk 1:35 and Jesus' announcement to the disciples in Acts 1:8. Well, I think there is a parallel, but I'm still working through some of the implications. Thoughts?

Keith.Drury said...

If God truly became human in Jesus at the incarnation.

And, if Jesus lived a sinless life without drawing on his supercharged God-ness to give him a divine edge in defeating temptation.

Does this mean that God-in-Christ shows us the potential of all humanity?

In other words...

Did Jesus show us how good God can be in flesh,

or how good humans can become in the flesh?

D.M. said...

John,
Great post- you have hit what most Christians continually miss in this celebration of Christmas: that God is with us.

Let me take this a step further though. Since we affirm that Christ was God incarnate upon "conception" (however we define that in Christ's case) then we, specifically as Protestants, must take a step back toward Catholicism and state that Mary was Theotokos (God-bearer). Mary is blessed among women, and blessed is the fruit of her womb (with no help by man) Jesus. Let us have the minerals to stop over-correcting from Catholicism and give Mary her due- God certainly did.

Dan S. said...

Thanks for putting the emphasis on the INCARNATION, John. I think your dad is right, too: we as Wesleyans should emphasize the incarnation because it has so much to say about OUR potential as entirely sanctified human beings!

However, when I preached on the Virgin Birth during Advent, I did happen to mention that the Virgin Birth does teach us about the sinlessness of Christ.

Your main argument against original sin-Virgin Birth connection is that the Virgin Birth doctrine PREDATES the original sin doctrine.

So what?

We have both doctrines NOW, why not draw some connections, whether or not they are historical connections? Is it theological unethical or something? I dunno.

I found it wonderful to preach to my congregation about the original sin during Advent, reminding them of their own sin and their own potential in Christ.

You're brilliant, man. I miss you a ton.

What I really want to see from you is your Top Fives for 2005!

Peace!

JohnLDrury said...

dano,
I'm with you on tying in Original Sin, which I believe in and think connects to the Virgin Birth. I also believe Scripture teaches it. I am merely giving precedence to the Incarnation as THE mystery that undergirds the miracle, though these other things come along with it. Thus the blog was more about priorities than choices. So thanks for your clarifying comment!