Sunday, December 20, 2015

The Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ

* Notes from a Bible study I did on the virgin birth.

The Virgin Birth of Jesus

1.     Based on just two explicit biblical references: Matthew 1.18-25 and Luke 1.26-38.

a.     Mark 6.3: “son of Mary”

“This is considered by some to be a reference to a tradition that Joseph was not Jesus’s father; their view is fortified by the statement that the townspeople took offense at Jesus.  Generally, when a man in those times was being identified, it was in terms of who his father was.  A man was identified in terms of who his mother was only if his paternity was uncertain or unknown.”[1]

b.     John 8.41: “We were not born of fornication…”

“The use of the emphatic pronoun μες (hemeis) could be construed as an innuendo: ‘It is not we who are illegitimate.’”[2]

c.      Mark does not mention a birth narrative. 

“The tradition that Mark based his Gospel upon information supplied by Peter suggests that Mark may have chosen to include only what the apostle had personally observed.”[3]

d.     John does not mentions a birth narrative.  Starts out his Gospel with a theologically oriented picture rather than purely historical view of Jesus’ birth.

e.     Paul mentions that the Son was “born of a woman” (Galatians 4.4) but does not specifically address the virgin birth

f.      Beware of fallacious reasoning: arguments from silence[4]

2.     Creedal Statements

a.     The Apostle’s Creed (3-4 century)

“I believe in God the Father Almighty; Maker of heaven and earth.
And in Jesus Christ his only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary…”

b.     Nicene Creed

“…who, for us men and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary…”

3.     There is no complex debate as to what Matthew and Luke intend to teach.  They both are teaching that Jesus’ conception was the supernatural result of the Holy Spirit’s power active upon Mary who was a virgin.

4.     Two dangers with the doctrine of the virgin birth

a.     Trivialized as a “Christmas” doctrine

                                               i.     Pulled out with the lights and Christmas tree; then put away again

                                              ii.     Suffers neglect as a holiday ornament

b.     Rejection of the virgin birth of the Messiah

                                               i.     Not simply by those who are skeptical or atheistic

                                              ii.     Redefinition by those who want to retain the name “Christian”

1.     Early part of the 20th century: Fundamentalism vs. Liberalism

a.     Self-confessed liberals rejected a literal virgin birth so as to accommodate itself to “modern” thought forms

b.     Liberalism was a defensive posture suited to deflect the charges of anti-intellectualism

c.      Harry Emerson Fosdick’s sermon in 1922 “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”

“… those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in his birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”[5]

2.     Closer to our time: Robert Funk (the creator of the Jesus Seminar) has written of a need for a “New Reformation”—thesis #8 reads[6]:

“The virgin birth of Jesus is an insult to modern intelligence and should be abandoned.  In addition, it is a pernicious doctrine that denigrates women.”

5.     Three broad areas of biblical teaching that intersect with the doctrine of the virgin birth.  Or, in other words, “why we cannot give up the doctrine!”

a.     The authority of Scripture

                                               i.     The issue here is not interpretation.  The doctrine is not obscure.  Everyone understands the meaning of the words and concepts in Matthew and Luke’s birth narratives

                                              ii.     “It is perfectly clear that the New Testament teaches the virgin birth of Christ; about that there can be no manner of doubt.  There is no serious question as to the interpretation of the Bible at this point.  Everyone admits that the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary.  The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.”[7]

                                            iii.     Rejecting the virgin birth of Jesus is to reject the authority of Scripture at this point.

b.     Naturalism versus Supernaturalism

                                               i.     “It is impossible to use electric light and the wireless and to avail ourselves of modern medical and surgical discoveries, and at the same time to believe in the New Testament world of spirits and miracles.  We may think we can manage it in our own lives, but to expect others to do so is to make the Christian faith unintelligible and unacceptable to the modern world.”[8]

                                              ii.     Such a view assumes naturalism.  But why should we as Christians be naturalists?[9]

                                            iii.     The God of Christian theism is transcendent and sovereign—he created all things and upholds all things.  The angel tells Mary: “For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1.37)

                                            iv.     To affirm naturalism and deny all miraculous claims is simply to worship another god—a false idol.

                                              v.     The virgin birth affirms the miracle-working, transcendent power of our Creator.

c.      The doctrine of Christ and his work of redemption

                                               i.     “In the overwhelming majority of cases those who reject the virgin birth reject the whole supernatural view of Christ.”[10]

1.     Incarnation—God becoming man
2.     Substitutionary death on the cross
3.     Bodily resurrection from the dead
4.     Ascension to the right hand of God the Father

                                              ii.     Virgin birth fixes for us the time of the incarnation

1.     “By means of Mary’s virginal conception, God the Son, without ceasing to be what He is—the eternal Son and Word of God—took into union with His divine nature in the one divine person of the Son our human nature (not a human person) and so came to be ‘with us’ as ‘Immanuel.’”[11]

2.     Jesus was not a mere man born in the normal manner who progressed or evolved into a god-like being.

3.     From the moment of conception he was fully God and fully man.

4.     “The significance of this event should not be minimized.  It indicates not merely that Jesus was God’s Son through the Holy Spirit, but that Jesus was a unique person who was the product of both the divine and the human in a manner unlike any others before or since.”[12]

                                            iii.     Virgin birth impacts Jesus’ perfect purity

1.     The New Testament witness is that Jesus is sinless (2 Corinthians 5.21; Hebrews 4.15)

2.     “Later theological reflection was also to see in the virginal conception the explanation of how Jesus could be born with a human nature not tainted with original sin.”[13]

6.     Millard Erickson’s list of issues that show the significance of the virgin birth[14]

a.     A reminder that our salvation is supernatural.

b.     A reminder that God’s salvation is fully a gift of grace.

c.      Evidence of the uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

d.     Evidence of God’s power and sovereignty over nature.

7.     How necessary is the doctrine of Christ’s virginal conception?

a.     “Is belief in the virgin birth ‘necessary’?  It is possible to be saved without believing it; saved people aren’t perfect people.  But to reject the virgin birth is to reject God’s Word, and disobedience is always serious.  Further, disbelief in the virgin birth may lead to compromise in those other areas of doctrine with which it is vitally connected.”[15]

b.     “We noted earlier that the virgin birth is not mentioned in the evangelistic sermons in the book of Acts.  It may well be, then, that it is not one of the primary doctrines (i.e., indispensable to salvation).  It is a subsidiary or supporting doctrine; it helps create or sustain belief in the indispensable doctrines, or reinforces truths found in other doctrines… It is quite possible to be unaware or ignorant of the virgin birth and yet be saved.”[16]

8.     Conclusion

a.     “But perhaps most significantly of all, this concept conveys the fact that Jesus is a miraculous gift to humanity, not initially the product of any normal human activity or process.”[17]

b.     “The eternal Son of God, He through whom the universe was made, did not despise the virgin’s womb!  What a wonder is there!  It is not strange that it has always given offence to the natural man.  But in that wonder we find God’s redeeming love, and in that babe who lay in Mary’s womb we find our Saviour who thus became man to die for our sins and bring us into peace.”[18]

     [1] Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 3rd ed. (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 2013), 681.
     [2] Erickson, Christian Theology, 681.
     [3] Erickson, Christian Theology, 684.
     [4]To make an argument from silence (in Latin argumentum ex silentio) is to express a conclusion that is based on the absence of statements in historical documents, rather than on presence. In the field of classical studies, it often refers to the assertion that an author is ignorant of a subject, based on the lack of references to it in the author's available writings.
Thus in historical analysis with an argument from silence, the absence of a reference to an event or a document is used to cast doubt on the event not mentioned. While most historical approaches rely on what an author's works contain, an argument from silence relies on what the book or document does not contain. This approach thus uses what an author ‘should have said’ rather than what is available in the author's extant writings.  From Wikipedia online:
     [5] Quoted in Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, and Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), 10.
     [6] Funk’s list of 21 theses can be found here: .
     [7] J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 382.
     [8] Rudolf Bultmann, Kerygma and Myth, 5.
     [9] See my blog post “Liberalism and its Naturalizing Tendency.”  Available online:
     [10] Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 391.
     [11] Robert Reymond, Jesus, Divine Messiah: The New Testament Witness (Phillipsburg, New Jersey; Presbyterian and Reformed, 1989), 136.
     [12] Ben Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus” in Dictionary of Jesus and the Gospels edited by Joel B. Green, Scot McKnight, and I. Howard Marshall (Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity Press, 1992), 72.
     [13] Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” 72.  Millard Erickson challenges this linkage between the virginal conception and Jesus’ sinlessness since Mary would have been a contributing factor.  He mentions the Holy Spirit’s sanctifying influence so “that there was no conveyance of depravity or of guilt from Mary to Jesus.”  Erickson then adds: “Now if the Holy Spirit prevented corruption from being passed from Mary to Jesus, could he not have passed it from being passed on by Joseph as well?  We conclude that Jesus’s sinlessness was not dependent on the virginal conception.”  Erickson, Christian Theology, 689.
     [14] Erickson, Christian Theology, 690.
     [15] John M. Frame, “Virgin Birth of Jesus” in Evangelical Dictionary of Theology edited by Walter A. Elwell (Grand Rapids, Mich.: Baker, 1984), 1145.
     [16] Erickson, Christian Theology, 689-690.
     [17] Witherington III, “Birth of Jesus,” 72.
     [18] Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, 394.