The miracle we celebrate on Christmas is the incarnation, which depends in biblical terms on the virgin birth (or, perhaps more accurately, the virgin conception). We know that things like the cross and the empty tomb are of importance to Christian faith. But seriously, does the virgin birth really matter? Or is it this odd little teaching of the Bible that we could take or leave?
Some will recall that Rob Bell, the very gifted and very controversial ex-pastor of Mars Hill Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan, famously wrote in Velvet Elvis a few years back that the virgin birth is not essential to our faith. It’s not that important, according to Bell:
What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus has a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archaeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births?
I affirm the historic Christian faith, which includes the virgin birth and the Trinity and the inspiration of the Bible and much more. . .
But if the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it? (26-27)
The Christian faith does not “fall apart” if we “rethink one spring.” Praise God, Christianity isn’t one bit changed if we monkey around with it. But we will be. If you relinquish one part of biblical theology, do you spiritually crumble to ash on the spot? No. But you set yourself up for spiritual disaster. This is compounded 100,000 times if you are a pastor and major Christian leader as Bell was. The recent New Yorker profile of Bell made very clear that releasing one’s grip on one pearl of Christian doctrine can quickly lead to the unstringing of the whole chain. This, of course, is not a new way to be Christian, but an old one. The heresies the early church faced two millennia or so ago are alive and well. The liberal Protestants of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries trod this path not a hundred years ago.
This is one of the funniest things about our modern sages giving us a “new spin on an old faith” or things like that: it’s not new at all. If you really want to dig into the disastrous trajectory of modern Protestant liberalism, see Gary Dorrien’s trilogy (Dorrien actually belongs to this tradition, but he’s a rigorous scholar). Or, if you want a shorter take, read Richard Wightman Fox’s illuminating essay in a dense volume edited by Harry Stout and D. G. Hart. Trust me–Fox’s chapter is worth the book.
These matters aside, the Bible is very clear on the truthfulness of the virgin birth. See Matthew 1:22-25, which is the fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14:
All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son. And he called his name Jesus.
This text answers Bell’s original question. Jesus did not have a father named Larry. The Bible is clear: Mary gave birth to Jesus through the miraculous conception of the Holy Spirit. If we buy into this idea of “mythologizing” on this point, then we have little reason to trust other accounts of the gospel writers. Either the text is true or it is not. This is a common parlor trick of those who want the Scripture to say something it does not: they go behind the text to find a cultural reason for the biblical author throwing in an idea that is not divine but is man-made. This idea happens to subvert the plain testimony of the Bible. This is hermeneutics by minority report–actually, not even minority “report”–minority “conjecture.”Trust the text. It is authoritative. Reconstruction, however interesting and in some cases noteworthy (even beneficial), is not. This is not a matter of theological cliff-jumping, of closing one’s eyes to other realities in blind faith in the Bible. This is a matter of survival, of life and death. Either the Bible is true and right or it is not. There are diverse genres in Scripture, of course, and not every statement is to be read on equally literal terms. But the gospels of the New Testament are history, or what one could call theological history (the reporting of the past through unapologetically typological lenses). They are to be read and trusted. Again, if one text is mythic, how do we know that any are truthful? God has given us a better way of interpretation: trust. Informed trust, yes, but ultimately that: trust.
With that all said, there’s something else. Bell’s harmful, erroneous teaching leads to this: we miss an astounding display of God’s sovereignty if we pooh-pooh the virgin birth. The virgin birth, you see, is not incidental to our faith. It shows us that God must initiate the salvation of humanity. We could not undo our sin; God alone could rescue us. The virgin birth is not an odd blip in the history of the person and work of Jesus; it is a thunder-clap from heaven, God initiating his rescue plan. Salvation, the Lord is saying, is his work. He alone can carry it out; he alone will carry it out. We have no part in getting ourselves saved; we cannot undo the curse, not one percent.
So the first issue is scriptural fidelity. The Bible teaches the virgin conception; we must believe it, therefore, and love it. But here’s something else: if we downplay this event, we miss a breathtaking part of God’s work to redeem a sinful people. The virgin birth is the catalyst to everything that follows. It signals that there is something heavenly about this child. He is the God-man. He is fully human (born of Mary) but fully God (conceived by the Holy Spirit). There is no other child like him. He is God’s agent of mercy, sent into the world by the will of the Lord. And there is a profoundly Trinitarian note to the virgin birth as well that is thrown into the trash heap by those who devalue it. The Spirit gives conception to Mary, carrying out the Father’s plan. This is why it is hugely important that “Larry”–Bell’s proverbial first-century Jew–not be the father of Jesus. Larry is not a member of the Trinity (just to make that clear).
So if you rework the virgin birth, you not only lie about Scripture. You lose the way that God is declaring to the cosmos that salvation belongs to him–and you lose the display of Trinitarian fiat seen in a humble stable in Bethlehem. It is not unimportant that all members of the Trinity are involved in Jesus’ birth; it is profoundly important. The members of the Godhead are working in different roles but in concert to effect the salvation of the lost. How glorious this is, and how essential to our faith.
We can hope that Bell and others will see the beauty, the aesthetic and theological power, of the virgin birth. Few areas of our theological history so show that God is working in the world of men to save sinners. This is cause for trust, and hope, and rejoicing. And that is just what we do on Christmas–celebrating a faithful virgin woman cradling the child who will redeem her, and us, and (we pray) those who depart from the solid rock of scriptural truth (Matthew 7:24).