"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.