Why Would a Scientist Believe the Virgin Birth? (RJS)

Why Would a Scientist Believe the Virgin Birth? (RJS) January 27, 2012

Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures, both the Old Testament and the New Testament. 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.

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, the questions are quite different. Scripture relates some pretty incredible events and stories – from Exodus with the story of parting of the Red Sea to the Gospels with the virgin birth and the resurrection – to name just a few. Why should intelligent educated person in secular, modern or postmodern, enlightened, Western society take these seriously on any level? Dr. John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible can provide some useful insights here – whether one agrees with him across the board or disagrees with some of his conclusions. In the book he isn’t dogmatic or defensive about about scripture, rather he is explaining why he, as a scientist, scholar, and Christian, takes scripture seriously.  Both faith and reason play a role in his approach to scripture.

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

How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?

Chapters five and six of Testing Scripture look at Israel’s Bible and at the Gospels. Israel’s Bible consists of many forms of literature. Dr. Polkinghorne mentions myth telling deep truth in the form of symbolic story, history, law, wisdom writings, apocalypse, and more. Most of the text was edited and shaped in post-exilic Israel. But this does not mean that it was fabricated with no roots or history. In fact Dr. Polkinghorne finds it difficult to believe that most of the material is not rooted in sources that date far earlier. He sees this in Genesis 14 with Melchizedek of Salem (not a text that would be constructed in a post-exilic history) and in the book of Judges to give just two examples. The origins of these passages must lie in very ancient texts. Within the historical conventions of the time Israel’s Bible records the history of God’s revelation of himself through his particular relationship with his chosen nation.

Even the Exodus, dismissed by many scholars as impossible, Dr. Polkinghorne sees as rooted in history. The text has been elaborated and shaped for theological and national impact for sure. In particular Dr. Polkinghorne feels that numbers have been exaggerated as is  common in ancient texts. But this reshaping does not undercut the historical roots of the incident or the importance of this event as God’s revelation of his divine nature through his relationship with his people.

The Gospels likewise record a reliable history. 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.  Dr. Polkinghorne works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. One of the most interesting, though, 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)

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.  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. How and can an intelligent, educated, experienced person 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)

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?

Why do you believe in the virgin birth? Or if you don’t, why not?

What arguments are persuasive on this, or any other “difficult to believe” event?

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

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  • phil_style

    In my opinion, once you accept a position that miracles are possible (i.e. that there is a supernatural that can interact with the natural) it is less intellectually difficult to believe in miracles like the virgin conception/ resurrection than it is some of the OT “miracles” and stories.

    The reason I think this is because the new testament miracles leave no physical mark on the universe that one would expect to be observable now. We cannot “verify” whether they happened or not, because there impacts are only sociological and cultural now. However, many of the OT miracles should have left marks. There should be archaeology and, or geological evidences where there are not – whilst the absence of evidence in many cases does not prove the absence of an event, it surely is a strong indicator that the event might not have occurred, especially when an event is described as being of sufficient geographic/ physical scale to leave lasting marks.

  • Diane

    There is at least one contemporary Greek reference to “pregnant virgins.” “Virgin” was clearly not always a technical term. It was a way of describing young teenage girls from “good” homes rather than hymen-intact females. However, I find myself little interested in whether Mary was technically a virgin. What concerns me deeply is the historic conflation of Mary’s virginity with her purity. I find deeply alienating the implication, entwined in traditional Church theology, that women who have had sexual intercourse are impure. It’s offensive, needs to change, and we need to say that. It holds the rest of womenkind to an impossible standard, as none of the rest of us can be both mothers and virgins. Also, and much more importantly, it deflects from the true source of Mary’s purity: She is pure because of her goodness, not her virginity. Her goodness–her wholeness, her holiness– includes her concern for the poor and the lowly, her emotional strength, her faithfulness in following God’s leadings and her incredible trust in God’s counterintuitive plan.

  • scotmcknight

    Diane, I’m not quite sure what you mean by “pregnant virgins” but I suspect, and correct me if I’m wrong, is that Isa 7:14 has “almah” which means young woman, virgin or not, married or not, but some were married. The Greek translation used parthenos which does mean virigin. Matthew picked up the same term; Luke describes a miraculous conception. Maybe I’m missing your point.

    The word “impure” is an explanation, sometimes no doubt devastating if one thinks about it with any kind of sensitivity (is the married woman impure? — hardly what the Bible means), and purity becomes another issue in this context. But celibacy did get connected to the highest order of purity for some in the Church, and that distorts what the Bible means.

  • DanS

    “The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation.” What? Our criteria for accepting Biblical truth is nothing more than metaphysical utility?

    Seems to me this is where the theological rubber hits the naturalistic road. Science, according to Michael Ruse, Judge Overton and others must appeal to natural law and natural law explanations. So an intellectually consistent “scientist” in that definition, must assume the virgin birth had a natural cause. (Simply stating that the particular event is out of the reach of investigation does not solve the problem, because the problem is the philosophical definition itself).

    Therefore, to be consistent, anyone who accepts that definition of science cannot accept a virgin birth and must attempt to explain it in terms of natural law and natural processes.

    And to allow for a “miraculous” event in the case of the virgin birth but insist on no miraculous intervention in certain Old Testament accounts is intellectually inconsistent. It is also grossly unfair to some ID advocates and creationists who are at least consistent and allowing for the possibility of miracles through all of Biblical history.

    And to make matters worse, since the virgin birth is a Creedal doctrine, to not accept it, in spite of its implications for supernatural causation, is to place oneself outside the camp of historic orthodoxy. The virgin birth is essential to the understanding of Christ as fully God and fully man. It is not an option.

    What is needed is a definition of science that truly allows for the interaction of nature and supernature. That is, it seems, the only path to reconciliation of faith and science.

  • Its popular to stretch the myth paradigm into all sorts of ancient literary types but I question its expansiveness uncritically when science at its present stage cannot explain “the unexplainable.” It then becomes a convenient article of convention that makes the bible stories more magical than true as we begin to delineated between fused enacted myths in the guise of co-opted language.

    I expect someday to find a science that can explain biblical miracles but do not necessitate that of science in its present form today. Though advance, it has a long way to go and till then we must be content with God’s handiwork as it has been explained to the ancient mind and not simply audaciously preceive everthing to fall under the umbrella of “myth.” It confuses the literary types with one another and it questions the ancient mindset in its oral – and later, written – histories.

    I respect Dr. Polkinghorne but reknown scientists, no less than reknown philosophers, do not necessary make for good theological re-interpretors of biblical events. And yet, this does not release us, as biblicists, from listening to Christianity’s grand proponents and delving into their mindsets to discover substantive thoughts and insights. My argument does not rest upon the personages but upon the usages of idiom and imaginative re-expressions of our cultural heritage of faith and worship.

    R.E. Slater

  • RJS


    I didn’t set this post up asking why we as Christians accept things like the virgin birth. I think the issues there are a bit different. I set it up intentionally asking how you would explain or motivate it to someone who thinks it is one of those impossible things before breakfast that Christians believe on the basis of unreflective submission to an absolute authority.

    The fact that it is a creedal doctrine carries a great deal of weight with me. But why should it carry any weight with the person in the next office who has almost never set foot in the church and who (without much reflection) feels that religious belief is nothing more than ancient superstition?

  • DRT

    I would not be surprised, when I get to ask Jesus about it, if he tells me people made it up.

  • Ann

    The real question here is “Is God able to perform these miracles?” If there actually is a God who created the world, then why wouldn’t He be able to bend the laws of nature from time to time? Why is that surprising to anyone? Or would it be out of God’s character to interfere in nature?
    The virgin conception doesn’t pose a problem to me…. but I don’t think it’s necessary to the faith to believe it either.

  • Amos Paul

    Have any of you read ‘Miracles’ by C.S. Lewis?


    He, very rightly, asserts that we must *first* clarify what our philosophical view of the world is and *why* before addressing the even possible historicity of miracles. If all of nature is nothing more than an internally objective system of antecedents and consequents that never operates any way but in self-sustainably regular paths–then miracles make no sense.

    If we, however, recognize the supernatural as being a system above, beyond, and containing the system of nature–then it makes perfect sense that that the supernatural may interact with nature in various ways which are objectively *true*, but not trace-able and re-creatable for us due to the fact that we are inherently operating from within the natural system and not the supernatural.

    While this may sound absurd to a Western scientific mind–the question is–why? Why is it so absurd? Is it because they think nature is necessarily a self-operating and sustaining regular thing? Is there any *reason* we can give for nature being this way?

    Moreover, Lewis asserts the ‘Argument from Reason’ against naturalism. That if all of nature is nothing but a regular system of events–then our thoughts are nothing more than the consequent of that system. And if so, then we have no *reason* to presume whether we know naturalism to be true or not. For if we say, “I believe in naturalism,” we say that, “I believe my thoughts are the product of a self-caused, regular system that necessarily produces this thought in me whether or not it is actually true or not.” It is, inherently, a non-assertion.

    So what *are* our reasons for accepting naturalism? Do we accept the self-necessity of all our individual beliefs being caused by a naturalistic system and happily operate from within that self-determined frameowrk? Or do we think we have some ability to found our reason upon other grounds? Why? How?

    And even if one accepts the naturalistic necessity, you can still assert the self-consistency and justification for rationality within a theistic context. That such a worldview makes it ‘reasonable’ for us to accept or reject various views of reality–such as that there may be a supernatural holding together and sustaining the natural. That experiencing the natural, then, might actually give us reason to recognize a force containing and within it if we but look and consider the possibility. That there may be stars above the sky of our naturalistic understanding of that give us the light by which we see and understand the whole of the reality.

  • Tom

    If one believes that God exists, why is it so hard to accept the possibility of lesser supernatural events? And if we have a hard time accepting lesser supernatural events where does that put us in regards to our belief in salvation?

  • Amos Paul

    I really need to give a better edit before posting. Blah.

    –“I believe my thoughts are the product of a self-caused, regular system that necessarily produces this thought in me whether or not it is actually true.”

    –there may be stars above the sky of our naturalistic understanding that give us the light by which we see and understand the whole of the reality.

  • T

    The way I’ve talked to secular folks about such things, once we’ve gotten to the place where we are actual friends discussing such things, is to tell them some of my own stories in which God clearly acted supernaturally. Then I follow it with something, like what’s been discussed above, that for me, being convinced there is an active “God” at work, very little is outside the realm of possible.

  • Luke Allison

    I’ve always felt it’s much easier to assert that God was doing something unique with Jesus and that we won’t necessarily see those same types of unique actions ever again. Lewis’ “Miracles” also asserts (after Athanasius) that Jesus’ miracles (and His miraculous conception) were “small-scale” versions of what God has always been doing on the “large-scale”. Since Jesus “only does what He sees His Father doing”, His demonstrations of miraculous power were more involved with showing the in-breaking of His Father’s kingdom , and proving His power over all things. In other words, all the miracles sing the song: “Jesus is Lord!”

    I’m not sure I completely buy Lewis’ explanation, but it’s worth reading.

  • RJS

    I still think many here are either missing, or don’t find important, the thing that strikes me as most significant in Dr. Polkinghorne’s discussion. Sure, if there is a God he can do anything. If we admit that the supernatural is possible, why worry about some specific miracle. Yes it is part of the creedal doctrine.

    But I don’t find assertion based on authority or a mere admission that God can do anything to be particularly satisfying or persuasive arguments.

    The tipping point, for me anyway, is the coherence of the incident, in this case the virginal conception, with God’s enacted mission in the world. Does anyone else find this important or useful?

    And on another point. I find it much easier to stand up for and defend my beliefs when they are part of a coherent whole rather than isolated bits and pieces. Am I unusual here?

  • Robert A

    Miracles are, perhaps b design, opportunities for us to realize our insignificance in the midst of God’s sovereignty.

    What we call impossible because of our limited ability to understand God makes possible by the limitless ability of His power. Is God under obligation to explain everything to us?

  • Amos Paul


    How was my discussion about one’s philosophical outlook irrelevant to accepting particulars?

    I didn’t argue based on authority. I merely argued the reasonability and non-reasonability of particulars based upon core assumptions–which are far more important to sort when approaching non-believers because, well, what’s the Virgin birth matter to them if the supernatural makes no sense from the get go?

    However, let’s say the supernatual makes sense–I’m with Lewis again as Luke Allison quoted above about Christ (and all) miracles doing ‘on the small’ what God already does ‘on the large’. But, *even more than that*, I think that any legitimate miracle founded upon the supernatural (which sustains reality) will and ought to speak deeply about the character of God within reality.

    Miracles are not mere arbitrary ‘breaking’ or ‘bending’ of the rules within a coherent theistic worldview. They are meaningful events that will speak directly and deeply God and his relationship to the world because, if it’s a miracle, we know it proceeds from God (who is reality’s foundation). I think that’s the first criteria when talking about miracles–what does it say about God and our world? If it appears to say nothing, I find it suspicious. Moreover, there’s obviously the *empirical* question. But can we ever sort that out?

    I would say that the stories of Gospel miracles point us straightly towards Jesus. As Christians, we experience and profess relationship with Him. Because of that trustworthy relationship we can (to an extent) trust the stories–and say that the miracles, including the Virgin birth, have helped us (in general) know Christ better ourselves. That, I think then, is the background for the church affirmations of the four Gospels, the Virgin birth, etc. etc.

    But that whole story is, I admit, only vaguely useful to a non-believer. It’s after-the-fact of approaching Jesus as an entity Himself, core assumptions about reality, and so forth.

  • Anderson

    I have no problem believing in the virgin birth, but I don’t know that I could explain why it was necessary or important. I think the Incarnation is as essential as anything to Christian faith, but I don’t understand why the Holy Spirit needed to provide the sperm (but not the egg) to make it happen

    I also wonder why Mark, John, and (especially) Paul make no mention of the virgin birth. If it wasn’t important enough for them to mention, why did it become so important later on?

  • DanO

    AmosPaul @16, FWIW I think understanding one’s worldview is essential. Somewhere along the line we have to address whether or not the supernatural can and does occur. We need to then decide what type of supernatural we believe exists, and so on.

    It seems if our starting point has tremendous impact on where we end up. From a pastoral standpoint it is valuable to help others at least try to examine what they believe and why. Maybe some fall back on established authorities more than others. The faith vs. reason debate goes on.

  • P.

    RJS @14 – If I understand you correctly, then I agree. The importance of the virginal birth, at least to me, is that God came down to earth and became one us. Well, both human and divine. He experienced most everything we experience and even sacrificed himself for us (that’s another thing to explain to non-believers). So, God is able to relate to us. Well, at least that’s how I see things from my spot here in the back pew.

  • dopderbeck

    I’m not sure I follow Polk’s reasoning here.

    The primary reason to insist on the “literal” nature of the virgin birth is theological. The virgin birth was important to early Christological debates through which the nature of the incarnate Christ as fully human and fully divine was clarified. In particular, Christ is not merely a created being (Arianism) — he is the preexistent Son incarnate. The virgin birth is also important particularly in Catholic theology in that Christ could be fully human and yet without inherited original sin. Even without that latter point, however, it remains central to Chalcedonian (i.e. historically orthodox) Christology.

  • dopderbeck

    A further thought: I understand the intellectual disaster “presuppositional” apologetic thinking has wrought on the ability to integrate Christian faith and the natural sciences. “It all depends on your starting point” is the cornerstone of young earth creationism — if you start from the presupposition that the Bible is scientifically inerrant and literal, you end up (probably) with a young earth and so-on.

    Nevertheless, there is the germ of a correct instinct here: Christian thought is “faith seeking understanding.” Faith in the God revealed in Jesus Christ comes first, and all else follows from that — including how we think about things like scientific laws and divine action / miracles.

    The fundamental problem with faith-science “warfare” postures such as YECism isn’t the priority of faith, it’s the adoption of bad theology that really belies faith — a theology that prioritizes science and rationalism and essentially demeans the incarnation.

    But IMHO all Christians who are serious about thinking Christianly should hold Chalcedonian Christology (the shape of it at least, if not the actual letter), as well as a Nicene perspective on the Trinity, as the basic well from which all else flows. The Trinity, the Incarnation, and the Resurrection comprise the historic center of our faith. We are perfectly justified in holding to the “literal” nature of the virgin birth simply because it is basic to the doctrines of the Trinity and the Incarnation.

  • I’m not sure it makes as much sense to include the virgin birth as part of an incarnational whole or as part of a subversive mythic whole.

    The earliest New Testament texts – Paul’s letters and Mark – don’t include the virgin birth. Meanwhile, Jerusalem has just been destroyed, the temple burned and Christians scattered throughout an empire whose founder, Romulus, was said to be born of a virgin and in which one of the principal religions, Mithraism, was also founded on the premise of virgin birth.

    Given all the swipes at Roman rulers Matthew and Luke include in the naming and announcement of Jesus, it makes just as much sense to me that we’re looking at a subtle act of subversion more than a story intended to be taken as literally true.

    But those conservative roots run deeply, and I’m not ready to give up that doctrine yet. Nevertheless, if I were talking about the miraculous and supernatural with secular or atheist friends, I wouldn’t spend a lot of time on the virgin birth; it’s not essential to believing in the resurrection of Christ or the miraculous workings of God, including and especially in my own life.

  • BradK

    @3 Diane,

    I can understand an objection to the conflation of virginity with purity. God made sex and it was and is a good thing. But is the idea that “women who have had sexual intercourse are impure” really traditional Church theology? I am not Roman Catholic, so maybe this is just a RCC thing, but I’ve never encountered in any Protestant church a view that women who have sex are impure. The view that women (and men) who have sex outside of marriage are impure or sinning is common, of course.

  • Wyatt

    Paul (22),

    Amazing logic if I follow it. The gospel accounts of the Virgin Birth (Mt and Lk) are subversive because there are previous similar stories/ myths in regards to Romulus and Mithraism. Is this non-sequitur?

    Just because the Romulus story maybe myth does not make it necessary that Mt and Lk are also myth. And you’re trying to tell us Mt and Lk invent a story to take pokes at the Romans?

    You must be kidding. Please tell us you are.

  • RJS,

    Maybe it does come down to worldview here and you, like Polkinghorne and other scientists, use your framework for evaluating truth claims in science similarly in all areas (like theology). Polkinghorne’s philosophy of science, taken from Lakatos, is that there is a research program with auxiliary hypotheses. The resurrection and Jesus’ life would be the program and the virgin birth an auxiliary hypothesis. Understanding this, to me, helps me to understand why he presents the faith as he does. But if this is not one’s framework, then he/she will not see the benefit in doing so. Just my thoughts.

    I, personally, think this framework is crucial and is why I am so excited to be reading Murphy’s Theology in the Age of Scientific Reasoning in which she uses this framework for theology as well. Most certainly not for everyone, but for scientists…

    I put the link here if you’re interested. http://scienceandtheology.wordpress.com/2012/01/26/theology-in-the-age-of-scientific-reasoning/

  • AT

    I love NT Wright on this….

    I would chat around the topics NT Wright discusses with a serious seeker….if it was just a quick chat over breakfast I’d probably just take the focus back to the resurrection and the substantial evidence (and significance of the resurrection in Christian faith).

  • TJJ

    Personally I would not get much into defending or much discussing the virgin birth with an unbeliever who does not believe it. To me it is not that essential (Mark did not find it essential to the Jesus story, or perhaps did not know of the “virgin birth” tradition but found his Gospel message sufficiently complete in any case, and John does not find it so essential, despite the magisterial first chapter on Jesus deity and pre-existence) to explicitely refer to it either, I realize there are a couple passages that may may have implicit reference to it).

    I would just acknowledge why I could understand why they would not find it credible, and move on from there to more central issues of the Gospel if opportunity allowed for such.

    However, I am not saying the virgin birth does not have theological importance and significance.

  • dopderbeck

    Justin (#25) — Nancey Murphy is an interesting thinker. You’d probably also like Thomas Torrance’s work a great deal, as well as Alister McGrath’s “Scientific Theology.” I still think there’s a great deal of value in this way of thinking.

    However — I’ve come to see its significant weaknesses as well.

    The first and most important weakness is that the subject of theology is God, who is entirely “other,” not at all the sort of “being” as created being. There is no “univocity of being” between God and creation, and therefore God Himself cannot be investigated through empirical or “scientific” means. We can speak of God, but only analogically. God is not an object of human study like a plant or a monkey is an object of human study. In contrast, we can speak about created being directly.

    A second disjunction is that Christian theology isn’t really a “research program” in the sense of having things in it that are as yet undiscovered or yet to be invented. Instead, the Apostolic witness is received and handed down (“traditioned”) through the ages. In the event of Christ, Christian theology in its fullness is given (“revealed”) to us. Our task as theologians is not to “discover” or “invent” it, but rather is to try to “describe” it.

    Our descriptions are of course always provisional and inadequate, and the Spirit continues to speak in and to the Church, and in this sense doctrine “develops”. In this kind of development of understanding and description, we might refer to folks like Lakatos and Polanyi and some analogous processes in the natural sciences.

    But, IMHO, we have to be very careful about not flattening the ontological distinction between God and creation, and about the uniqueness and integrity of the Apostolic deposit of faith.

    (You might note that the eschaton is in an important sense still an “undiscovered country.” Indeed that is so — but what we are able to say about it in this age is disclosed, even if not ever fully heard and understood, in the Apostolic deposit of faith).

  • Susan N.

    I am not sure that, at the moment, the virgin birth is essential to my faith in Jesus. I don’t doubt that God could do such a miracle. But on the other hand, if the crucial issue was Jesus’ purity from “original sin,” then couldn’t God accomplish that miraculously as well, without the virginal conception? Can’t God do anything He wants, if we’re talking about miracles? The integrity of Mary and Joseph, as God’s chosen earthly parents for Jesus is more meaningful to me. Also that, while extraordinary in the sense of having great faith and obedience to God, they were ordinary, humble peasants. That’s the big story for me.

    I am trying to recall whether the virgin birth even came up as a stumbling block to faith for my husband. I don’t think that was even on his radar at the time. He had many more questions about God’s existence, and then, what kind of God, especially the Judeo-Christian God of the Bible.

    Ultimately, he was moved to convert and profess his faith in Christ mostly by my witness (which took years — like, 7 or so of knowing me) and my desire for him to come with me in following Christ, and raising our children together, to know and follow Jesus.

    I like what Dopderbeck had to say in #21, and Paul A. in #22. 🙂

  • MWK

    Wyatt (# 22) – actually there are plenty of folks, including some here, who have no issues believing that parts of the bible were made up by men for reasons assumed and/or unknown.

  • Thanks for the comments, dopderbeck. Much to think about.

  • Ava

    During Advent we always read Gen. 3:15, and it is read as part of the Festival of Nine Lessons and Carols. The Virgin birth fulfills this prophecy,since it makes Christ the seed of the woman, but not the man. I see it as perhaps God’s way of specifically bringing woman into the redemption story.

  • R Hampton

    Did God give the prophet Joseph Smith the golden plates containing the Book of Mormon? If you answer “No” because of scientific and/or naturalist objections, then you have conceded that those are reasonable grounds to test the authenticity of the miracles.

    So to expand on RJS’s initial question, “How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture versus the incredible events in the Book of Mormon or the life of Joseph Smith?”

  • Well, I come from a family of, among other things, scientists. Some are Christian. Some are not. I’ve been a number of things, though never what I would describe as “atheistic” and was past thirty before I would say I became Christian. But I don’t know that things like the virginal conception of Jesus were ever stumbling blocks for me.

    I read these discussions and I think part of the problem might be the categories creating the form for the discussion themselves. For instance, I don’t think the categories “natural” and “supernatural” are either helpful or particularly Christian. They seem to me to imply a divide between things that have an independent existence and a God who stands somewhere outside them. I heard something, though I don’t recall where, that described that division as Monty Python’s stomping foot God. (That stuck in my mind because I’m a Monty Python fan.) That sort of division might work for some variation of a more or less involved/engaged Deist god, but it doesn’t feel right when discussing the Christian God.

    The Christian view seems to be a transcendent creator God and his creation, which is filled and sustained and contingent on God (which means on Jesus as Colossians asserts). Yes, the nature of God is such that he will not withdraw his gifts, including the gift of existence. And creation is ordered and can be known and understood. But God is never somehow outside his creation reaching in and changing things.

    Within that perspective of reality, there’s nothing outrageous about God causing conception within a willing woman — a participant in his creative act. And there are many reasons why it’s important. (Rightly or wrongly, I will point out that second century Christian apologists seemed to have believed that the Jewish leaders were moving away from the Jewish Greek translation of the Scriptures — which had been dominant, to a Hebrew version in part to blunt the effectiveness of the Christian witness. And the ‘virgin’ prophecy in Isaiah is one I seem to recall specifically being mentioned.)

    It’s not just the Resurrection that is critical. The whole narrative is critical and the Incarnation is certainly important. These were early debates in the Church. If Jesus was any less than fully God and fully human, then there is little point in Christianity. And, among other things, that means he wasn’t a fully human person who at some point became divinized. No, from his conception he was human, yes, but also God. The babe in Mary’s womb was also God before the ages, the debar or logos of God on which all creation was contingent. Lose that and you lose the power of God entering death, entering Sheol, to rescue us through the resurrection.

    As far as addressing doubts goes, the Christian narrative is unbelievable. It’s always been unbelievable. God becoming a man? Suffering the shame of a cross in an honor/shame culture? (Which we aren’t, so I think we miss part of that impact.) The Resurrection? It’s all unbelievable. That was as true in the ancient world as it is today. It’s not a modern discovery. I don’t think there’s any way to render it culturally and rationally believable.

    But when I actually began to see the story, in no small part through the love of others, I was struck by its beauty. And the more I considered it, the more that story seemed to describe our underlying reality. My perception of reality shifted.

    I think the only thing we can do is tell that story and try to live it.

  • AHH

    Slightly off-topic question, but prompted by dopderbeck and others here who have placed the Virgin Birth as something central to Christology.

    Seems like I have read/heard that people 2000 years ago viewed children as coming from the father, with the mother serving as more of an incubator. Or a seed/soil analogy (a barren womb being soil in which nothing could grow).
    If that was the case, it is hard to see how the VB could be seen in the early church councils as something that would contribute the essential humanity of Jesus, since the seed would have come from the Holy Spirit and Mary’s only contribution would have been the growing environment.

    Am I mistaken in my memory about that cultural assumption? Or was the VB not really a significant part of Nicea, Chalcedon, etc. as they defined Jesus’ humanity? Or did they connect the two in some other way that is not occurring to me?

  • Susan N.

    Nice post, Scott Morizot (#34). The last three paragraphs, in particular, really resonate with me.

  • RJS


    LeRon Shults in his rather hard to read book Christology and Science makes this point – and Denis Lamoureux does as well in this Book Evolutionary Creation. I don’t think this is a reason to dismiss the virgin birth, although I do think it is important to realize that it plays a role in many or the speculations that have been written about it, especially in the early history of the church.

    Your point about the essential humanness of Jesus is an interesting one. I would certainly be interested to know how this all played together.

  • RJS


    I would guess that Polkinghorne’s philosophy of science is similar to mine: Everything holds together and makes sense. That is my fundamental presupposition. We may not understand why or how yet – but then we work on those connection. Nothing is a collection of arbitrary or unrelated facts or events.

    I haven’t read a great deal in the philosophy of science, at least not yet – so anything here is worth discussion and elaboration as I learn.


    I don’t really disagree with what you say – except that the theological importance is part of the narratival importance of the virgin birth. This is how or why the event makes sense as part of the narrative, which is a theological narrative.