Christians often avoid rethinking traditional doctrinal beliefs because of the fear of what they will lose. But the fear of loss prevents them from imagining what they might gain.
When I wrote a book last year on the topic of the virgin birth, A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why it Matters, I intended to write a book setting out a progressive Christian case for affirming the traditional notion of the virgin birth. But in the process, I realized the traditional doctrine just doesn’t hold up to extensive scrutiny – not just historical or scientific (modern critical!) scrutiny, but theological scrutiny, too. The notion of a virginal conception conflicts with the very idea of the incarnation, that God became a real, living, human being in the person of Jesus of Nazareth.
When I accepted that it was better to move beyond the traditional story of the virgin birth, I gained much more than I lost. These “eight things” are adapted from the conclusion of my book:
1. We can accept the humanity of the Bible
Accepting a fully human incarnation allows us to embrace not just the humanity of Jesus, but the humanity of the Bible, too, with its historical conflicts, theological ambiguities, and moral problems. The Bible is a compiled library; it’s a diverse collection of histories, poetry, laws, letters, and legends—each witnessing in its own way to the power and love of God. We can therefore read the two infancy narratives, with all their conflicting details and historical problems, through the lens of a more nuanced view of biblical authority than the doctrine of inerrancy provides…By moving beyond the traditional theology of the virgin birth, we can still affirm the Bible’s uniqueness and power as the Spirit-inspired word of God. But we can also relate to the Bible in a more human—and more meaningful—way.
2. We Can Embrace Science as a Source for Theology
If we take science seriously, it’s difficult to accept a virginal conception as the mechanism for the incarnation. This isn’t because science rules out miracles. I don’t accept that notion, and I doubt you do, either. But we know a lot more about human biology, conception, and procreation than the biblical authors and the early Christian theologians did. Our theological beliefs are always intertwined with our assumptions about how the world works (which is the domain of science). And that’s okay. But it means we should be open to evaluating our inherited theological beliefs as our assumptions change about the world—and about ourselves.
3. We Can Affirm the Goodness of Creation and Sexuality
Some early theologians rejected the idea of a bloodless and painless birth of Jesus (virginity during the birth) because it diminished the incarnation and undermined the value of creation. They rightly insisted the Son of God did not shy away from the realities of the physical, human experience, but allowed himself to be born into that world—as a part of that world. The physical birth of Jesus testifies to God’s love for creation and to God’s affirmation that creation is good. On the same logic, a human conception of Jesus affirms the goodness of humanity as part of God’s creation. The Son of God entered our world completely and unashamedly. He entered our humanity as one of us—not bypassing the evolution of our species, but joining the evolutionary line; sharing our body, our blood, our DNA.
4. God Empathizes with Our Condition and Transforms It
A human conception testifies that God did not stand apart from our world or aloof from our human experience, but entered it fully in Jesus of Nazareth…He experienced life as a true human being: loneliness and friendship, happiness and tragedy, confusion and delight. He knew rejection and friendship, success and regret, joy and sorrow. He understood the love of life and the fear of death. God loves us more than we ever thought possible and identifies with our humanity, because the Son of God was one of us.
But empathy isn’t everything. The incarnation also means God transforms our condition. The Son of God became human so he could heal humanity and all of creation. The Word entered the world and the universe to redeem it from within.
5. A Better Way to Be Human
Only God can finally and fully bring the kingdom. But we dare not relegate the work of justice and of redemption to God alone. Through the incarnation, Jesus empathizes with us and empowers us to live in accordance with God’s will in the world. But he also reveals to us a better way to be human. Jesus teaches us and shows us how to be living illustrations of the kingdom that’s on its way. A human conception means that the Jesus who showed us a better way, and who calls us to that better way, was also like us in every way.
6. A More Human Mary
God affirms the equality of both male and female. An incarnation by natural conception affirms the inherent goodness of both sexes. It discourages us from allocating special responsibility to the male as the distributor of original sin. It precludes us from assigning special virtue or vice to female sexuality. And a human conception of Jesus inspires us to value Mary for more than her sexuality (or virginity) and her procreative capacity.
Rather, we should view Mary through the broader lens the Gospels give us: not only as receptive to God’s will, but also as assertive and active in God’s salvation history.
7. A Better Christianity
When Christians are given permission to question inherited beliefs like the virgin birth, this can open them up to a more ambiguous and complex, but also more mature faith. Acknowledging divisive theological doctrines as nonessential to Christian identity encourages humility about our beliefs—we can hold our beliefs more loosely. Collectively, it creates the potential for wider inclusion. The freedom to critically examine even the most cherished doctrines allows for more porous boundaries, both within our individual understandings of God and within communities of faith. More energy can be expended toward justice and less wasted on doctrinal gatekeeping. Or to use theological language, the emphasis shifts from orthodoxy (right thinking) to orthopraxis (right living). It’s no secret that the doctrine of the virgin birth—like all the “fundamentals” of Christian orthodoxy—has been used as a political tool and an instrument of division, setting clear lines of demarcation of those who are included and those who are excluded.
8. A More Human Gospel
Setting the notion of the virgin birth aside, and moving beyond a literal reading of the infancy narrative, allows us to feel more deeply and more powerfully the implications of God becoming one of us. The traditional theology of the virgin birth developed in an ancient time and place. It evidences a patriarchal view of sexuality and of femininity; it reflects an obviously outdated biology; it mirrors the practice of ancient cultures to valorize important leaders by giving them remarkable and supernatural origins. For me, though, the most poignant problem with the virgin birth regards the gospel itself: the good news that God came in the flesh in Jesus of Nazareth to reconcile the world and humanity.
A virginal conception undermines a deep and consistent theology of the incarnation—the very basis of the gospel. If Jesus was fully human like you and me, his life began like yours and mine, via human conception. At the heart of it all, the point isn’t to modernize the gospel, but to bring it back—to a more human origin.
a more human Gospel and a more human God in the person of Jesus, which is the point of the incarnation in the first place: God becomes a real, living, human being in Jesus of Nazareth, for us and for our salvation.