Naughty Christians of the Bible

Albert Mohler (HT Shuck and Jive) posted the following in a recent blog entry: “Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth? The answer to that question must be a decisive No. Those who deny the virgin birth reject the authority of Scripture, deny the supernatural birth of the Savior, undermine the very foundations of the Gospel, and have no way of explaining the deity of Christ.”

This is wrong on so many levels.

First, it assumes that Scripture speaks with a united voice on subjects such as these, so that, as long as one finds a passage or two that teach something, one can safely ignore other voices. When Paul states that Jesus is “descended from David according to the flesh”, he is denying that Jesus was born of a virgin. Being of the royal line “according to the flesh” meant descent on his father’s side in that time. Coupled with his complete silence about a miraculous conception, there is no historically informed conclusion to be drawn other than that Paul either did not know about a doctrine about Jesus’ “virgin birth”, or if he had heard about it, he rejected it (as did many later Jewish Christians, who saw that it created problems for Jesus’ descent from David).

The virgin birth is not connected in the Bible with the deity of Christ. In fact, the only Gospel to offer something that could be accurately called a depiction of Christ as divine offers no birth story and no miraculous conception. It seems that here too we find that a historically sensitive reading of the New Testament leaves us forced to conclude that most of its authors denied (in the sense of failed to affirm) this other tenet of Christianity that Mohler considers central.

John Shuck has called for “Naughty Christians” (i.e. those that don’t live up to Mohler’s standard) to “come out”. I am happy to do so, but I want to be clear that I am joining the ranks of a wide range of such “naughty Christians”: the authors of all four of the Gospels in the New Testament, the apostle Paul, and many others.

The irony is that, historically speaking, the only Christians who live up to Mohler’s standard for what a Christian is are post-Biblical. Which means that Scripture is claimed by him as the ultimate authority, and yet none of its authors were true Christians by his standard.

In the end, the key question “conservative Christians” like Mohler leave unanswered is this: in what sense is the Bible authoritative for them, when so many of its plurality of voices are silenced by them in the process of seeking “what the Bible says” on this or that topic?

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  • Michael Dowd

    James, as usual, I fully agree with you. I discuss my perspective on the Virgin Birth in Appendix B of my book, Thank God for Evolution. I’ll call you early next week. ~ Michael

  • Garwood Anderson

    James, you are quite right that there is no certain evidence in Paul for a virginal conception. But don’t you think your reading of Paul’s theological affirmation in Romans 1:3 is a little flatfootedly literalistic? (Kind of fundamentalist, actually?)Is the 4th Gospel really the only Gospel that thinks of Jesus as divine in some sense? Really? And is that gospel incapable of dramatic irony (8:41)? Your main point stands, but I think you have taken a rather broad brush in hand to make it.

  • James F. McGrath

    Garwood, thanks for your comment. On the one hand, I do think blog entries are prone to a broad brush approach. I tend to take for granted things I’ve said previously lest the post get too long. I’ll try to delve into more detail and offer something more balanced and see if it turns out sounding more balanced.On the other hand, I think the point about the difference between John and the other Gospels stands – although it depends what you mean by “divine in some sense”, I suppose. But at any rate, hopefully you can appreciate the irony that my rather literalistic (kind of fundamentalist?) approach to Romans 1:3 results in a meaning that literalistic fundamentalists are likely to find problematic… :)

  • John Shuck

    Sure, Michael Dowd is a naughty Christian! Hey Michael! Happy New Year to you and Connie! I will reread Appendix B.James have you read Robert Miller’s Born Divine? As I recall, he shows that Matthew’s gospel didn’t mean that to say that Joseph wasn’t the father. “By the Holy Spirit” didn’t mean Mary was a virgin, but that the birth was miraculous like Abraham and Sarah’s parenting of Isaac.I don’t have his book at hand, so I will have to find it and check it again.

  • James Pate

    Ben Witherington wrote a defense of the virgin birth not long ago. Much of it I didn’t find all that convincing. It was kind of like N.T. Wright’s resurrection arguments applied to the virgin birth: the concept had to come from SOMEWHERE, so it came from its occurrence. Personally, I don’t think a concept being original means it had to have happened. But one point he did make that intrigues me is that Matthew tries to reconcile the virgin birth with Jesus’ descent from David. A lot of times, Jewish apologists and atheists act like Matthew is a complete idiot: “he acts like Jesus is descended from David through his father, then he renders the genealogy irrelevant through the virgin birth. What a dolt!” But I don’t think Matthew was a dolt. He was trying to reconcile two concepts with which he agreed, and he did so by making Jesus an adopted descendant of David.

  • Luke

    awesome! like Prop 8 the Music, “We pick and choose!!!!” plus in a first century mindset, a “virgin birth” can be a “honeymoon baby” or a baby on the first try. tah-dah! in that sense, i totally believe in the VB. any other way, no.

  • andrewbourne

    Can I wonder whether the Tradition of the Church may be helpful the Church has always accepted the Virgin Birth the Scriptures emerge from the Church and the Church accepted the Canon of the Gospels which were seen as true. The problem of `parthenos` being young women or virgin has to be seen with the mind of the Church

  • James F. McGrath

    For those who might not get Luke’s allusion, Geza Vermes (in his book Jesus the Jew) discusses how someone who conceived before having her first period might be classified as a “virgin mother” in Rabbinic terminology. He suggests that Luke in fact was making use of a story in which the conception was miraculous but not virginal – a woman thought too old and a woman thought too young are both assisted to conceive.