Wednesday, December 27, 2006

Is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth A Fundamental of the Faith?

Michael Westmoreland-White:

I don't believe the Virgin Birth is a "fundamental of the faith." Nonsense. It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth. It is not necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth in order to believe in the Incarnation or Christ's pre-existence. John's Gospel and some hymns in Paul's letters indicate Christ's pre-existence without ever mentioning virgin birth. We get our very WORD "incarnation" from the prologue to John's Gospel without ever a mention of the Virgin Birth. Although some later theologians say the Virgin Birth guarantees Jesus' sinlessness, the New Testament never makes that connection--and doesn't promote a belief in the biological transmission of sin.

[snip

But, as a matter of fact, that is not MY view: I believe the virgin birth to be literal, historical fact. Because I believe the Resurrection is literal, historical, fact, I believe in a God whose relation to the world allows for miracles. So, nothing in my worldview prevents belief in the Virgin Birth. A God that created this cosmos (yes, using evolutionary and other natural processes, but STILL) and can raise the dead would have no trouble with a pathenogenetic conception in a species (Homo sapiens) where that is usually impossible.

Be sure to read the whole post, which is an excellent examination of the doctrinal implications of disbelief in the Virgin Birth [nota bene: I do not necessarily agree with Michael. I simply suggest that you read him.].

I do not think that there would be any causal relationship between professed disbelief in the Virgin Birth and reprobation. But I do think that disbelief in the Virgin Birth would be symptomatic of serious theological error. What possible reason would a Christian have for disbelief in the Virgin Birth? I cannot see any reason to proclaim the Gospel writers liars. If they fabricated the Virgin Birth, did they also fabricate the Sermon on the Mount?

The burden of argument lies on the laps of those Christians who declare that there was no Virgin Birth. On what basis do they declare the Biblical account false?

21 comments:

Anonymous said...

"It is not mentioned anywhere in the New Testament except for Matthew and Luke. [There are hints in Mark and John that the rumor that Jesus was a bastard was widespread.]Paul does not seem to have heard of it and, in the First Century, it was probably possible to be converted, live a Christian life, and die without ever hearing about, never mind believing in, the Virgin Birth."

"I cannot see any reason to proclaim the Gospel writers liars. If they fabricated the Virgin Birth, did they also fabricate the Sermon on the Mount?"

Um, John which is it? Is the virgin birth mentioned in the scriptures or not, because you and Michael seem to disagree about that fact.

Dale Tedder said...

How many times does something have to be mentioned in Scripture for it to be true?

Dan Trabue said...

"What possible reason would a Christian have for disbelief in the Virgin Birth?"

Because it is an irrelevant point to the Gospels?

John said...

Dan, please explain why everything not 'revelant' in the Gospel is necessarily false.

Um, John which is it? Is the virgin birth mentioned in the scriptures or not, because you and Michael seem to disagree about that fact.

Matthew and Luke are plain, so the Virgin Birth must be true. And I don't know what hints of bastard status Michael refers to.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for linking to this for further discussion.

How many times must Scripture mention something for it to be true? Why, none, of course. Many things are true which are not in Scripture at all. And I believe ALL of Scripture to be true--but that doesn't settle the question of historicity. There are many, many literary genres in Scripture: poetry, parable, genealogy, creation myths, apocalyptic symbology, chronicle, proverb and other wisdom literature, and historical narrative. It is not always easy to tell which is which--the Gospels are unique in genre. They are not biographies or objective historical accounts, but Gospels--tellings of the Good News in narrative form. Now, unlike some, I believe that includes a great deal of historical narrative, but it is not clear that everything in the Gospels is such.

So, the Virging Birth is TRUE theologically, but is it also historical--or just a theological way of affirming that Jesus did not become the Son of God (at the Resurrection or at his baptism--both views were held in the early church outside the NT) but was the Son of God from the beginning? John makes the same claim, and adds pre-existence, without giving a birth narrative.
Now, I hold that the Virgin Birth is BOTH theologically true AND historically/biologically true--but that view is not obvious. That's why I defend it. If it were obvious, I wouldn't need to defend it. (I disagree with the usual, conservative reasons for believing the doctrine: scriptural inerrancy--something I believe to be a false doctrine; the VB as necessary for Jesus' sinlessness; the VB as necessary for Jesus to be Son of God. I think all of those arguments fail. I am giving different arguments for the historicity.)
Now, I do not say that Jesus was a bastard. Nor do Mark and John. I need to look the passages back up, but there are passages in which they seem to be aware that others believe this. Think about it. Even if the VB is historical, if people knew that Mary was pregnant before Joseph and she began to live together, and if they even knew that Joseph considered divorcing her before the angelic dream, then the neighbors HAD to have talked. Tongues would have wagged. Hints of this are found in Mark and John and I'll find the passages.

Everything nonessential to the gospel is NOT necessarily false. Here, I am claiming that this doctrine is not necessary to the gospel, but is true--and also historical.

John said, "Matthew and Luke are plain, so the Virgin Birth must be true." What is NOT plain is whether Matthew and/or Luke intended the story to be taken historically or not. I contend that they did--and that the problems this creates for them mean that they would have no reason to make this up.

I worry that someone even suggests that a Christian who disbelieves the historicity of the VB may be reprobate. I am defending the VB's historicity, but outside very conservative circles, my view is rare.

According to the New Testament, only two doctrines are a sign of who is "in" or "out" of the circle, so to speak. 1 John says that anyone who denies that Christ came in the flesh (i.e., denies the Incarnation) is antichrist. But one can affirm Incarnation without affirming Virgin Birth--as John's Gospel does. In 1 Cor. 15, Paul says that anyone who denies the resurrection has "vain faith." But I affirm the resurrection as central.

I also affirm the VB as historical--but nothing important rides on that fact.

John said...

I find questions about the Virgin Birth entirely baffling. It is as though a Christian may point to the Bible and say, "Everything in there is true, except for the apostle Barnabas. The early Church fabribated Barnabas out of whole cloth. They just made him up."

Why would anyone take such a view? How could anyone reach such a conclusion. Likewise, when the VB is so clearly stated and a very easy matter for God to engage in, why would any person who takes the Bible to be the Word of God doubt it?

Anonymous said...

If you really want to throw a wrench into this belief then you can explore the problems it causes in ecumenical relations.

The official doctrine of the RC church is that Mary was a Virgin her entire life. (A lot of theology hangs on this matter) That Jesus' brothers and sisters were Joseph's children from a previous marriage.

The official doctrine of most other denominations is that Mary was a Virgin when Jesus was born. After that she had more children. (A very reasonable thing for people to do)

So which virgin birth do we want to go with?

Pax,
Stephen (who likes to throw wrenches)

John said...

Let's go with the minimal standard that the Holy Spirit was the biological father of Christ, not Joseph (or anyone else).

Here is a summary of the history of Catholic doctrine on the subject. And here is what the modern Catechism says.

BruceA said...

I don't think it's accurate to say that the Holy Spirit is Jesus' biological father. That would reduce the virgin birth to the level of Greek mythology.

Our God is spirit, not flesh and blood. Whose DNA was joined with Mary's to produce the fertilized egg? There's no reason God couldn't have taken DNA from Joseph for that purpose. I don't think we can know enough to make a biological statement about the virgin birth.

John said...

Whose DNA was joined with Mary's to produce the fertilized egg? There's no reason God couldn't have taken DNA from Joseph for that purpose. I don't think we can know enough to make a biological statement about the virgin birth.

There's no reason he couldn't have used Joseph's DNA to create a person, but the Bible says that he didn't. And if we deny that, then we are saying that the Gospel writers were liars.

I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit posseses sperm cells, but he was the instigator of biological conception.

Dan Trabue said...

"There's no reason he couldn't have used Joseph's DNA to create a person, but the Bible says that he didn't."

Where?

BruceA said...

I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit posseses sperm cells, but he was the instigator of biological conception.

I'm not saying that the Holy Spirit wasn't the instigator of conception; I'm saying that's not a biological statement.

John said...

Where?

Luke 1:30-37
Matthew 1:18

Anonymous said...

Those two passages affirm the virginal conception of Mary. And I think they are historical (and therefore biological) claims--but Bruce's cautions are still appropriate. 1) To claim that God is the biological father of Jesus is to say that God had sex with Mary--and that is like pagan myths. The Scriptures make VERY sure they aren't saying THAT: using terms like "overshadowed," etc. 2)To doubt the historicity of the Virgin Birth--as I have in the past and others do now--is NOT to call the Evangelists liars--not if they were making ONLY theological statements in mythical language. I have argued that they are NOT doing just this--that they are also making historical claims. But that isn't obvious and I could be wrong.
You seem to think that most Christians have never doubted the Virgin Birth. I think anyone old enough to know where babies come from has doubted it (as a literal event) at some point. The majority of theologians since the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science have dismissed it. You don't seem to realize that, although I am using a "liberal" methodology, I am arguing for a traditional position that the vast majority of modern Christians have rejected.
I have been surprised that conservatives like yourself haven't welcomed my efforts instead of being shocked that I even raise the question. Good grief.

Anonymous said...

Hi Michael,

John has been writing about the virgin birth for some time now, so his latest post was not an expression of shock that you would even raise the question. It was just part of an ongoing discussion he's been doing.

I would challenge your statement that the vast majority of Christians in the world have rejected the Virgin Birth.

I do agree with Michael on basically everything he has written about this subject. It is basically the same argument of N.T. Wright which he makes here:

http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=17

Finally, my question for John would be this: given all your insistence on the Virgin Birth, are you also willing (for the sake of consistency) to place as much emphasis on that other U. M. doctrinal standard? (you know the one I'm talking about)

John said...

Michael wrote:

Those two passages affirm the virginal conception of Mary. And I think they are historical (and therefore biological) claims--but Bruce's cautions are still appropriate. 1) To claim that God is the biological father of Jesus is to say that God had sex with Mary--and that is like pagan myths. The Scriptures make VERY sure they aren't saying THAT: using terms like "overshadowed," etc.

The method of the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit remains a mystery, biologically speaking. But these texts clearly indicate that no human being was the biological father.

2)To doubt the historicity of the Virgin Birth--as I have in the past and others do now--is NOT to call the Evangelists liars--not if they were making ONLY theological statements in mythical language. I have argued that they are NOT doing just this--that they are also making historical claims. But that isn't obvious and I could be wrong.

On what basis can it be claimed that these passages are mythological and not historical uses of language?

You seem to think that most Christians have never doubted the Virgin Birth. I think anyone old enough to know where babies come from has doubted it (as a literal event) at some point. The majority of theologians since the Enlightenment and the rise of modern science have dismissed it. You don't seem to realize that, although I am using a "liberal" methodology, I am arguing for a traditional position that the vast majority of modern Christians have rejected.
I have been surprised that conservatives like yourself haven't welcomed my efforts instead of being shocked that I even raise the question. Good grief.


What is 250 years of Enlightenment misalignment in the light of the whole history of the Church? The Church has, historically, always condemned Adoptionism. This modern claim is asserting that the historic Church has always misunderstood not the very person of Jesus Christ; that the Adoptionists were always right all along. So although I am not personally shocked that any Christian would reject the Virgin Birth, it remains historically shocking -- an abnormality and great departure from the classical understanding of Orthodoxy.

John said...

Finally, my question for John would be this: given all your insistence on the Virgin Birth, are you also willing (for the sake of consistency) to place as much emphasis on that other U. M. doctrinal standard? (you know the one I'm talking about)

Heh! Good point, Jonathan. My post on Methodist pacifism was speculative and requiring further research. It is not as firmly established that pacifism is a UMC doctrinal standard as the Virgin Birth. My own ethics professor, who is both a pacifist and UMC, rejected my speculation as false -- unfortunately, without going into any detail why. But as I said, you have a highly credible argument that pacifism is a UMC doctrinal standard that demands further exploration. I just haven't looked into it.

John said...

Jonathan wrote:

Finally, my question for John would be this: given all your insistence on the Virgin Birth, are you also willing (for the sake of consistency) to place as much emphasis on that other U. M. doctrinal standard? (you know the one I'm talking about)

On second thought, this is an apples-and-oranges comparison. There is a difference between adhering to UMC doctrine and adhering to Christian orthodoxy. For example, who may reject infant baptism but be an orthodox Christian, but not compatible with UMC doctrine. It is important that UMC clergy adhere to UMC doctrine, but is not important that non-UMs adhere to UMC doctrine.

Anonymous said...

John, Your second thoughts are true.

You and Michael have been writing about the question of "what is essential for orthodox Christianity"

I subtly switched the question (which Michael was not trying to address) to "what is essential United Methodist doctrine." There for a while, I almost got away with this subtle switch.

They are separate questions, and the former is more important than the latter.

Anonymous said...

As a Baptist (even one raised UMC), I have no business discussing purely Methodist doctrinal standards. I hold to Christian pacifism because I believe Jesus commanded it for all his disciples. It wouldn't matter to me whether or not it was in any confession or doctrinal standard--other than the New Testament.
I beleive is an "essential of the faith." I do NOT believe the Virgin Birth is an essential of the faith (although the Incarnation certainly is), but I believe it ANYWAY.
Jonathan, I had only recently discovered that Bishop Wright made similar arguments to mine on the historicity of the VB. I had come to my conclusions much earlier--while doing a book report on Raymond Brown's The Birth of the Messiah in seminary (1986? '87? About then, anyway) while also translating Luke's Gospel from the Greek as part of my annual reading of the NT from beginning to end. (I read the Hebrew Bible/OT from beginning to end, too, but use a 2 year cycle because it is so much larger and I don't like to rush.)

I was glad to see someone of Wright's stature make similar arguments and conclusions. It also made me wish I had published my argument as an article much earlier--so that people wouldn't think I was just stealing from Wright!

Believer said...

There is another important "incident" described in the old testament referring to the birth of the Son of God. That was the birth of Izac, son of Abraham. A "shadow Image" of the Son of God who was to come. What happened to Abraham and Sarah was supernatural to make the birth possible. It was God's intervention; to restore their bodies biologically (made young again)to reproduce. Sarah's womb was not able to reproduce anymore but when God intervined it was changed.....scientifically and from a medical point of view impossible. The basic problem with the "clever" people today is that they dont belief in the absolute supremacy of the God of the bible anymore. The Son of God existed before the creation of Gen 1. He offered to come to earth to restore what Adam lost. To take back from Lucifer who took over from Adam - this world. The only way to achieve this was to take on the flesh of the "adam", to be tested in the same way the first Adam was tested and failed. What body (human - adamic)could He take up? Only a "clean" body. Genetically clean of any mutation brought about by the sin of Adam. The whole adamic race was poluted by the fall of Adam in the beginning. Therefore the physical "election" of Abraham and Sarah, direct descendants of Adam, a wife for Izac etc., and finally the Israel nation. Preserving that godly seed. The birth of Esau as twin of Jacob illustrates the "defects" that can emerge again when a natural conception takes place. The son of God was born out of the loins of his father David, who lived many, many years before. In the gospels the family tree is given.... the son of Joseph,.........,the son of God. Adam was the son of God (but failed. The second Adam did not!). Again there was intervention from the Allmighty to avoid a possible second Esau whom He hated: Like the supernatural restoration of the womb of Sarah, the DNA from Joseph the carrier of the godly seed was taken and the conception brought about. The moral of it all, belief in the absolute supremacy of the Holy One of Israel.