Speaking of the incarnation of Jesus, Martin Luther said that there were three miracles involved. “The first, that God became man; the second, that a virgin was a mother; and the third, that the heart of man should believe this.”
Many hearts do not believe this. While we evangelical Christians are celebrating the entry of divinity into the world through the miracle of the virgin birth of Christ, the world is filled with those who object to this classic Christian doctrine.
Some regard the virgin birth as a myth, much like unusual birth stories found in cultures as varied as those of the Aztec or the ancient Egyptians. Those who follow this line of thought somehow forget that Jesus’ birth was linked by the New Testament writers to Hebrew prophecy (Isaiah 7:14). Furthermore, their gospels were written for primarily Jewish audiences who would have been repulsed at any inclusion of well-known “myths” in them. Such material would have caused the first readers of the gospels to have rejected them in full and thus defeated the purpose for which they were written.
I think the main reason people today want to dismiss the virgin birth of Jesus is that we live in a time of intense anti-supernaturalism. This philosophy was expressed in the work of Rudolf Bultmann who believed that miracles like the virgin birth “belong to a pre-scientific picture of the world in which supernatural beings invade the natural world and bring about extraordinary events. [William L. Rowe. Philosophy of Religion (Belmont: Wadsworth Publishing Company Inc, 1978), 125].
The anti-supernatural presupposition concerning miracles reveals a major divide between Christian orthodoxy and theological liberalism. Encouraged by the Enlightenment, theological liberalism imbibed not only an open, tolerant spirit of inquiry into religious matters but also a spirit of skepticism and suspicion toward traditional theological beliefs. Whereas orthodox Christianity turned to divine revelation (scripture) for authoritative truth, liberalism believed “in the similarity and unity of all means of attaining truth.”[John Dillenberger and Claude Welch, Protestant Christianity: Interpreted Through its Development (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1954), 211-212]. Science, experience, revelation, and other efforts to find truth were equally valid and authoritative for they all are part of a common quest for knowledge.
As enlightened and tolerant as liberalism appeared at first glance the reality was different. The philosophy that all truth is equally valid, which sounded wonderful in theory, was not applied in practice. In practice liberalism elevated science above scripture and evaluated scripture using the scientific method.Thus reason ruled over revelation, science became the master of scripture, and those events that were not verifiable were considered suspect, if not totally discarded.
The effect of this philosophy on religious belief has been profound. Since science gains knowledge by observation then all we can know about God’s activity is that which can be observed through natural processes. Liberalism limits God to working though nature. His immanence in the world is elevated and his transcendence is disregarded. Divine intervention in the world is excluded because the liberal has altered a critical feature of the nature of God. Millard Erickson says they have “a single story view of God.” Once liberalism redefined God’s nature, divine intervention was rendered not only untenable but also unnecessary. Thus the foundation was laid for the exclusion of all miracles from the realm of truth. By definition they were not necessary due to God’s immanence nor were they possible because the “single story view of God” made intervention impossible. If no second floor exists you can’t stoop down to the first floor and for the liberal God lives only on the first floor.
The philosophy espoused by liberalism extends not only to a denial of the virgin birth but also to other miracles. The liberal New Testament Scholar Gerd Leudemann, who denies both the virgin birth and the resurrection, said “the tomb was full and the manger empty.”[as quoted by Albert Mohler in “Can a Christian deny the virgin birth?” BP News (December 24, 2003), Available from http://bpnews.net.%5D
The same philosophical premise that leads one to deny the virgin birth also leads to a denial of the resurrection for both are extraordinary events that require an invasion of the natural world by a supernatural power.
In the modern culture in which we live and minister, there is a clear bias against all things supernatural. This leads many to assume that miraculous events like the virgin birth are not factual, nor are they even possible.
But I contend that the virgin birth is an important doctrine that is worth defending and proclaiming.
First, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a biblical idea.
The Virgin Birth is not something conceived by the church. It is not something conceived by man. It was revealed in Scripture. It is without question that Matthew 1:18-25 and Luke 1:26-38 both teach that Mary conceived Christ while she was a virgin. Gresham Machen, in The Virgin Birth of Christ, says “there is no serious question about 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.” [J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1985), 382].
Second, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is related to the sinlessness of Jesus.
The relationship between the virgin birth and the sinlessness of Christ has been debated for centuries and conclusions must be reached with great care. One ongoing debate is between those who attribute Christ’s sinlessness to the fact that he didn’t have a human father and those who respond that women are equally tainted by sin as men. This debate creates more questions than it answers. Could all persons be sinless if they didn’t have a human father? And how did God protect Christ from inheriting sin from his human mother? Surely we must move beyond this debate in our search for truth.
The sinlessness of Christ must be understood as the work of the Holy Spirit. When Mary wonders how she will give birth she is told, “The Holy Spirit will come upon 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” (Luke 1:35). The virgin birth entails two miracles instead of one and both relate to the sinlessness of Christ. First, Jesus was born without a human father. This interrupted the transmission of sin from the father. Second, the Holy Spirit’s overshadowing of Mary miraculously prevented the transmission of sin from the mother[Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Publishing House, 1994), 531.].
Millard Erickson may be correct in concluding that God could have prevented the transmission of sin from Joseph to Christ in the same manner he prevented Mary’s sin from affecting Christ, thereby ensuring Christ’s sinlessness apart from the virgin birth. [Millard Erickson. Christian Theology, 756]. But that hypothetical argument does not merit his conclusion that “Jesus’ sinlessness was not dependent upon the virgin conception.”[Millard Erickson. Christian Theology, 756]. Erickson confuses potential outcomes with actual outcomes. Certainly God could have used a myriad of methods to ensure Christ’s sinlessness. But he actually used the virgin birth. Dealing with the facts as we have them, and not with what could have been, we must conclude that the virgin birth was the means God’s used to produce his desired end.
Third, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth speaks to our Salvation.
The virgin birth not only protects the sinlessness of Christ but it portrays the sinfulness of humanity. The virgin birth illustrates that one who was not under the curse of sin had to enter humanity in order to bring redemption. Salvation could be attained only by a supernatural work. The virgin birth highlights man’s inability to provide for his salvation and reveals God gracefully producing in Mary’s life an undeserved blessing. His work in and through a young girl who was no more deserving than other young girls demonstrates the grace of God without which salvation wouldn’t be possible.
Fourth, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth speaks to the humanity and deity of Christ.
It would be a denial of the doctrine of Christ’s pre-existence to state that the deity of Christ was caused by the virgin birth. In the incarnation the eternal Christ enters human history through the means of the virgin birth. The virgin birth doesn’t cause his deity but is the means by which deity and humanity are united. Stanley J. Grenz wrote that “the confession that Jesus was born of a virgin coheres well with the twin christological affirmations that Jesus is fully divine and fully human.”[Stanley J. Grenz, Theology for the Community of God (Nashville:Broadman and Holman, 1994), 422]. Of all the possible means God could have chosen to use to bring about the incarnation it is difficult to conceive of one more effective in communicating the dual nature of Christ than the virgin birth.
I agree with J. Gresham Machen who said, “Let it never be forgotten that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands.” [ Machen. The Virgin Birth, 396].