What About the Virgin Birth? (RJS)

Not quite a year ago I wrote about the relationship of science and virgin birth in the context of John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible. Recently I’ve been reading Robert Asher’s new book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist and here the topic comes up again, but Asher has a different take on the question. As a result the topic is worth a reprise, considering the arguments put forth both by Polkinghorne and by Asher.

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures. Many of our disagreements, especially the most heated discussions of science and faith arise because we respect and wrestle with scripture as inspired by God. As Paul tells Timothy, the scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. They are not to be taken lightly. On the other hand there are some pretty incredible events and stories contained within the pages of scripture and the virgin birth is one of these. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, questions about the virgin birth and other incredible events within the pages of scripture become a real barrier.

Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:

This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.

Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.”  Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.

“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.

The very idea of a miraculous conception, that a virgin conceived and bore a son, hits a nerve in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne describes why he accepts the virgin birth. In contrast Asher does not see acceptance of the virgin birth as traditionally understood to be either reasonable or necessary. The differences in the approaches they take and the conclusions they reach will help to flesh out some of the key questions.

How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture?

How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?

In chapter six of Testing Scripture John Polkinghorne looks at the gospels. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world.  The Gospels record a reliable history. This is the key starting point, but there is more to it than just this.

What about miracles, including virgin birth? Robert Asher is not an atheist; he does not rule out the existence of the supernatural or spiritual. He is, as he describes himself, a religious paleontologist. He is not evangelical, and like many he explicitly disavows the designation.  Like Polkinghorne he sees the gospels as basically trustworthy with much of it (especially Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel) written “well within the range of an oral tradition based on eyewitness accounts.” (p. 24 Evolution and Belief) Asher’s reasoning about the virgin birth is rooted in his understanding of cause and effect in science.

However, does this enable me to believe in an actual human being born of a virgin? No it does not – at least not in a biological sense, which is how most people understand this question and how, therefore, I should answer it. Female humans do not give birth unless they have been inseminated. As he was a human being, I infer based on what I know of biology that Christ would have developed in His mother’s womb, from zygote to morula to embryo to fetus. … (p. 24 Evolution and Belief)

Everything that I understand about human biology indicates that He, too, had a biological father. There is no doubt, however, that this father was perceived as  divine by his followers. As a human being, of course Christ had a biological father; it is not rational to believe otherwise. Personally, however, I really do believe that father and son were inspired individuals, worthy of the impressive documentation with which their legacy has been recorded. …  Simply stated, Christianity is my faith. It is not an unshakable faith, nor do I believe literally in many parts of the Bible. Indeed, much of the text of this chapter disqualifies me as a theist Christian by most evangelical standards. Nevertheless, Christianity seems to me a legitimate account of the agency behind life, and while the causes of life’s diversity are fascinating, they are not of immediate relevance to this faith.  (p. 25 Evolution and Belief)

Does God intervene? This paragraph from Asher is rooted in a discussion of miracles, because the virgin birth, or more accurately virginal conception, if true in a biological sense, is a miracle. It is an intervention by God into the natural order.  I was passed a question just recently asking about Jesus and his DNA. What DNA would he have carried? Mary’s we presume – but would his DNA have also traced to Joseph? Was it something else entirely? Asher doesn’t bring this question up specifically, but he does focus in on the question of intervention. Rather than quote a large segment I will choose a few particularly pertinent sections:

Let me phrase this differently. Do I believe in miracles? If by “miracle” you mean a spontaneous failure of a natural law due to the contrary influence of some supernatural agency, then no. … However, this is not at all the same thing as denying the existence of a divinity, including the Christian sort.  … The “do you believe in miracles?” question assumes an opposition between “nature” and “god” that is wholly our own fabrication, as if the two compete with one another for our attention. This question presumes a philosophy that the two things are independent, even antagonistic – but I don’t think they are. Rather one is an expression of the other. God cannot “intrude” into the normal operation of nature because, the way I see it, nature is a part of God; it represents God’s thought, or laws, in action. He cannot intrude upon himself. (p. 25-26 Evolution and Belief)

Asher’s view of the virgin birth is shaped by his understanding of biology, of cause and effect, and by his view of God. There are scientific, philosophical, and theological reasons to question the traditional view of the virgin birth.

Dr. Polkinghorne sees things a bit differently. He works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. The one we wish to focus on here, the birth narratives and the virgin birth, is the one he leaves for last.

I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi. … Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68 Testing Scripture)

As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.

The Virgin Birth. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. How and can an intelligent, educated, experienced person, an eminent scientist, believe in a virgin birth? Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:

Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69 Testing Scripture)

Interaction not Intervention. One of the most important criterion for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.

It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense. Separate from this they will never make sense.

What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense?

Is there an important distinction between intervention and interaction?

Why do you believe in the virginal conception? Or if you don’t, why not?

If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.

If interested you can subscribe to a full text feed of my posts at Musings on Science and Theology.

  • Steve

    I think Asher hits a problem when he says this: “God cannot ‘intrude’ into the normal operation of nature because, the way I see it, nature is a part of God; it represents God’s thought, or laws, in action. He cannot intrude upon himself.”

    The difference between the Jewish revelation and other religions in the word in ancient times was the idea of Creation: God totally transcends the natural order and created it out of nothing. The idea that nature is part of God is exactly the sort of idea that Genesis 1-2 rules out. God was perfectly complete without the material universe. It isn’t a “part”
    of Him because God doesn’t have “parts.” So I think Asher comes dangerously close to Pantheism.

    The biggest example of “Intervention” is, in fact, in the creation itself – when God created nature from nothing. To say that God is limited to “interacting” with nature is not an idea Christians or Jews should adopt.

  • http://scilla.org.uk/ Chris Jefferies

    Perhaps the most important thing in discussing issues such as the virgin birth is that we do one another the kindness of allowing each one to understand things in their own way. We are made in the image of our Creator. Grace is one of his attributes and it should also be one of ours.

    Frankly, I neither believe in nor reject the virgin birth. I treat it as a mystery. As a biologist it doesn’t make a great deal of sense to me, but I’m content to leave it as unexplained. That is not the same as saying that it definitely happened and is a miracle, nor is it the same as saying that it definitely didn’t happen. In a way it’s a sort of fence-sitting position, but it is the place where I’m happy to leave it. The world of science if full of mysteries like this, sometimes they are explained by later generations, sometimes they are not*.

    Is this an unreasonable position? At least it has the merit of allowing Polkinghorne and Asher to hold different positions without disagreeing with either of them!

    To all who read this comment; grace, peace, and abundant blessing in the coming year,

    Chris

    *If an example is needed, Kepler understood that planets move in ellipses but had no idea why. It was unexplained. Newton provided the explanation by understanding the laws of gravity. But Newton would have been at a loss to see why Mercury’s orbit precesses in the precise way we now know it does. This was not made clear until Einstein came along. The virgin birth is different, I don’t anticipate an explanation, though that possibility can never be entirely ruled out.

  • http://communityofjesus.wordpress.com/ Ted M. Gossard

    The virgin birth, I would think for the confessing Christian has to be true in some sense. Not that one has to hold to it to be a Christian. I am thinking of the creedal line, and also simply of the witness of scripture.

    Myth for a lot of readers would mean untrue. I take it that Polkinghorne is not at all seeing myth in that way, but only perhaps in a way, perhaps even inspired, surely inspired on some level, to explain the birth of Jesus. That it was outside the norm.

    Mary did not know a man, did not come together with Joseph in that way until later, so if that was literally the case, she certainly knew it was a virgin birth, and Luke’s telling of the story (consider also that Luke wrote Acts) surely was complicit with that.

    What advantage is there in Polkinghorne using the term myth with reference to the virgin birth? When he most certainly would not, I would take it, concerning Jesus’ resurrection.

  • RJS

    Ted,

    I am not at home, so I don’t have Polkinghorne’s book at hand. He may view resurrection as “enacted myth” as well, but probably not. But you are right, he doesn’t mean myth as “untrue” here and his use of the expression “enacted myth” is intended to convey this. It didn’t just happen. Rather is happened as a key piece of the story line for a purpose.

  • Steve Sherwood

    Would it be accurate to say that when Polkinghorne speaks of “enacting myths” he is saying something similar to Tolkien and Lewis’ discussion of mythopoeic truth and the Gospel as an event that had the benefit of being both true in a mythical sense as well as historically?

    I agree with Steve #1 that Asher’s reason for saying God cannot intervene fails to convince. Again, Lewis is/has been helpful to me. To my understanding, he argues that our difficulty with “miracles” is often a struggle with time. We have grown accustomed to God’s ‘slow moving’ miracles, that my heart continues to beat second after second, year after year or that my body heals itself when I incur a flesh wound and I don’t bleed out each time. So much so, that we cease to view these things as miraculous in any way and deem them ‘natural.’ To the skeptic and believer alike, we confine the miraculous to only that which seems sudden and unexpected. Lewis thought that was a mistake and that recovering an appreciation for the slow miracles happening everywhere around us might also open us to the possibility of the sudden or seemingly interventionist miracle. (Apologies for summarizing my understanding of Lewis much less eloquently than he explains himself).

  • AHH

    While I side with Polkinghorne on this, I do think we need to be careful not to put unnecessary stumbling blocks in the way of those who would find this miracle hard to believe.

    Just a few days ago, some fundamentalist-leaning Patheos blogger linked in the sidebar here was was basically saying Rob Bell had given up the store by saying in one of his earlier books that one did not have to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian — but rather than addressing the question this blogger’s argument was basically a combination of slippery-slope arguments and “we have to totally believe the Bible.”

    While I don’t disbelieve the virginal conception, it seems to me that all that is essential for Christian theology is the full humanity and full divinity of Jesus. If that was brought about in some other way besides the miraculous story that begins Matthew and Luke, that shouldn’t be a faith destroyer.

  • RJS

    AHH,

    Strachen’s argument in the post you refer to is first (and foremost) that the Bible is inerrant therefore if we don’t believe this everything is up for question. This is a worthless argument for anyone with serious questions, whether as a struggling believer or as an unbelieving skeptic. In fact I think every argument with foundation on this view of scripture is less than convincing to anyone except the already believer.

    I find Polkinghorne’s argument far more powerful.

  • EricW

    Be thankful you only have to believe in the virgin conception/birth. Roman Catholics have to believe in Mary’s perpetual virginity – pre partum, in partu, and post partum – and while such belief isn’t required in the Orthodox Church, the Theotokos’ ever-virginity is part of the warp and woof of the Church’s prayers.

    19. … And she said to her: Salome, Salome, I have a strange sight to relate to thee: a virgin has brought forth — a thing which her nature admits not of. Then said Salome: As the Lord my God liveth, unless I thrust in my finger, and search the parts, I will not believe that a virgin has brought forth. 20. And the midwife went in, and said to Mary: Show thyself; for no small controversy has arisen about thee. And Salome put in her finger, and cried out, and said: Woe is me for mine iniquity and mine unbelief, because I have tempted the living God; and, behold, my hand is dropping off as if burned with fire. And she bent her knees before the Lord, saying: O God of my fathers, remember that I am the seed of Abraham, and Isaac, and Jacob; do not make a show of me to the sons of Israel, but restore me to the poor; for Thou knowest, O Lord, that in Thy name I have performed my services, and that I have received my reward at Thy hand. And, behold, an angel of the Lord stood by her, saying to her: Salome, Salome, the Lord hath heard thee. Put thy hand to the infant, and carry it, and thou wilt have safety and joy. And Salome went and carried it, saying: I will worship Him, because a great King has been born to Israel. And, behold, Salome was immediately cured, and she went forth out of the cave justified. And behold a voice saying: Salome, Salome, tell not the strange things thou hast seen, until the child has come into Jerusalem.

  • Tim Atwater

    I’ve often used these quotes from William Willimon, Meister Eckhardt and St Francis when preaching on the virgin birth. Not trying to explain it, but probably in line w CS Lewis and others (i hope)
    ***
    And yes I know – the virgin birth of Jesus may still be a stretch for some of us some of the time. William Willimon (former Methodist chaplain at Duke) tells of a student coming to see him, worried that he might be losing his faith, asking, “do I have to believe in the miraculous birth of Jesus…to believe in Jesus?”
    “In one sense, no,” Willimon replied, “Yet in another sense, yes. We ask you to believe in the virginal conception of Jesus…then… Come back next week – and we’ll try to get you to believe the poor are royalty, and the rich are in big trouble, and God, not nations, rules the world – and on and on. We start you out with something small, like the virgin birth, then work you up to… more outrageous assertions.”

    This indeed is the good news of Jesus Christ. We start out with modest leaps of faith – like believing God is able to accomplish new birth even without the normal process of human reproduction. Then we move on to more outrageous assertions – like this one from Meister Eckhart (back in the middle ages of the 13th or 14th century) who said, “What good is it to us if Mary gave birth to the Son of God [long] ago – and we do not also give birth to the Son of God in our time and in our culture?”
    Consider also this word from St Francis of Assisi (in the12th or 13th century) who said, “We are the mothers of Christ when we carry Christ in our heart and body by love and a pure and sincere conscience. And we give birth to Christ through our holy works – which ought to shine on others by our example.”

    The birth of Jesus Christ is also the birth of his church. Now we, the church, the body of Christ, are called to continue giving birth to Jesus. God is asking us, even us – to say the same kind of yes Mary said – and become mothers and fathers of faith in this generation.

    Can we say it one more time together?
    Here am I – the servant of the Lord – Let it be with me – according to your word.

  • Marshall

    Polkinghome more or less explicitly says that the Virgin ‘Birth’ is true because it fits our theological preconceptions. Whereas conservatives generally argue that liberals believe in eg universalism because it’s what they *want* to believe. Tasty sauce for the gander.

    So Mary got knocked up (somehow) while cloistered in her childhood home, but Joseph, despite his initial inclination and the pharisaical Law, forgave and accepted her. Regardless of the source of Jesus’ Y chromosome, I think there’s a missed chance here to acknowledge an awsome story of inherited sin and paternal grace.

    I don’t have anything against miracles: God can do what he wants, and I see the tracks of divine intervention in my own experience. But I do think many are willing to settle for cheap thrills when there’s a better, deeper, explanation.

  • CGC

    hi Everyone,
    Yes, I believe in the virgin conception. I know some who do not and yet still believe in Jesus resurrection and his divinity. Interventionism has many problems theologically. I like Polkinghorne but I like Eckhart and St. Francis even better!

  • Merv Olsen

    Here’s a good quote …..

    Justin Martyr, an early church writer of the 2nd Century, makes extensive use of the virgin birth in his discussions with Trypho the Jew and in his first Apology.F1 He sees it as essential ammunition in his argument from the fulfilment of prophecy. This is not unlike Matthew’s own understanding of the importance of the virgin birth, seeing it as an essential area in the fulfilment of Old Testament scripture (Isaiah 7:14 with Matthew 1:23), which Christ came to do (Matthew 5:17; 11:13). Thus, given Matthew’s and Justin Martyr’s interpretation of Isaiah 7:14, to deny the virgin birth would be to deny this scripture had been fulfilled or ever had that intended meaning.

    http://www.studylight.org/col/ds/archives.cgi?date=20041230&sn=41&pn=7

  • Amanda B.

    I’d say it is no less rational to say that Jesus was virgin-born than it is to say that he is the Second Person of the Trinity who became flesh. If we can accept the second notion, I see no reason we should balk at the first. The One who was with the Father in the beginning, sharing glory together with Him; whose appearance caused mature prophets to fall as dead; the One before whom the cherubim cried “Holy”; whose presence on the Ark of the Covenant could strike dead anyone who touched it–he took on flesh and dwelt among us. He lived among us, talked to us, in complete obscurity for 30 years, and people did not drop dead around him at every turn. He ministered in great power and authority, yet with such meekness and lowliness that His hearers could still argue with each other about who He really was. Evil people were able to lay hold of him and crucify Him without being destroyed. That, to me, is a miracle that dwarfs the virgin birth in comparison. God took on flesh. Do we really hear what we are saying? Is anything at all truly harder to believe than that?

    Where do we admit the limits of our own knowledge and rationality? Where do we allow for the possibility that God knows how to do something–even without necessarily violating the laws of nature–that is simply beyond anything we have observed or known? Sure, we have never observed a virgin spontaneously become pregnant in any other instance besides Mary. Does that mean it is inarguably and wholly impossible in her case, even with divine intervention? Is it really so unfathomable that there could be one exception to the rule? How would we make ourselves the judge of that?

    I don’t want to be so arrogant as to shut down sincere questions and struggles regarding this issue. I see how it can be a stumbling block, and I understand why people would feel like they had to come to an alternative understanding of what “virgin birth” means. But I do wonder how much we can surrender to the realm of subjectivity before we find ourselves with nothing left of Jesus that we can be confident in.

    Because the virgin birth *is* a credal statement, in more than one creed at that, I am extremely uncomfortable with viewing it as a non-vital issue.

  • http://empiricismvsfaith.blogspot.com Empiricismvsfatih

    Most who accept a virgin birth refuse to discuss the mechanics of such, often proposing rather angrily that such inquiries are unworthy of a discussion in faith. It’s a “stumbling block” for the intellectual to have to suspend disbelief in such ideas in order to engage in a (sur)reality of a virgin giving birth to a God-child. Couple that with other virgin birth mythologies from comparative religion and you’ve got a potent skeptical argument on your hands.

    Should you adopt the Virgin Birth as a fundamental aspect to your Christian faith? Far be it from this atheist to tell you how to live out your beliefs. But, frankly, it seems a bit weird that you would abandon this one idea and not others along the way. It does make your religion a lot more difficult for those educated in the sciences of biology, human physiology, and scientific rationality to take your claims seriously, so convincing others on this basis will be an uphill battle.

    I found it amusing that some commentators here were convinced Jesus had a y-chromosome. I suppose that if God can make a virgin give birth he can create a haploid Jesus that is still male without having the genetic marker, right? Or maybe Jesus had no DNA at all? Or maybe Mary was a reptile (parthenogensis!)?


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