Yesterday, I received a lengthy email from a United Methodist pastor, sent to a group of undisclosed recipients, complaining about what he perceives to be “a serious problem for the future of the United Methodist Church,” which “needs to be addressed”: “Biblicism,” or biblical literalism, one example of which, apparently, is believing that the Virgin Birth actually happened.
He writes: “Living so closely to Southern Baptists and various fundamentalist churches, and having so many folks who approach the Bible from this perspective in our congregations, we have danced around this issue much too long. Fearing conflict with influential lay members, the loss of those members and the revenue they contribute, we let misinformation and cultural bias to cloud the way the Bible is read and heard in the congregations we serve.”
“What do you mean ‘we,’ Kemo Sabe?”
Speaking for myself, I don’t dance. My congregation has no need to fear that I profess to believe in the authority and truthfulness of scripture—indeed, scripture’s infallibility—only to secretly believe otherwise. No, I really do hold to a high view of the authority of scripture. I don’t call myself an inerrantist, not because I believe the Bible necessarily has errors, but because I reject the way modernity defines the term. In other words, while I don’t believe in a literal six-day creation, I also don’t believe that the Bible is “in error” by describing Creation in those terms. I don’t believe that the Bible purports to offer a scientific account of Creation, although I’m impressed by how congruent Genesis 1 is with modern science.
Having said that, inerrantists are not the enemy. I’m friends with them. They are my brothers and sisters.
Nevertheless, here is the mark of the “Biblicist,” according to this pastor:
While not always reading the Bible in a strictly literal way, the Biblicist assumes that what he/she reads in English exactly corresponds to the original language, and that there are no significant cultural elements which should color our understanding of the text.
What translation does the Biblicist read? Because any modern translation includes footnotes indicating alternate readings or discrepancies between ancient manuscripts. Even the definition of “inerrancy” that most people agree on says that the Bible is inerrant only in its original autographs, which no longer exist. Maybe a KJV-only fundamentalist would think that there’s this kind of correspondence (I’m only guessing), but are there really many of those in the United Methodist Church? I’ve never met one.
Keep in mind, he’s already said that this is “a serious problem for the future of the United Methodist Church and it needs to be addressed.” How serious can it be?
Besides, does this hypothetical Biblicist read study Bibles? I do—one that’s favored by Biblicists, in fact—the ESV Study Bible. And in its commentary, it’s very honest about interpretations about which Christians disagree. It often leaves these questions open-ended. It talks a lot about “cultural elements which should color our understanding of the text.”
He continues: “The Biblicist insists that the rest of us must take a literal approach to the nativity narratives, or suffer condemnation and wrath.” And he goes on to say, in so many words, how dumb we must be to believe in that!
I’m not shocked or even surprised that we have pastors who deny this doctrine. If they went to Emory’s Candler School of Theology, they were likely taught by professors who denied it. My systematic theology professor, whom I otherwise love and respect, was one of them. These professors teach that there are two main reasons why we shouldn’t believe in it: The earliest gospel, Mark, doesn’t include the story. And so-called “virgin birth” stories are a common motif in antiquity. It’s likely, they say, that the Evangelists Matthew and Luke were borrowing from these older stories.
As to the first objection, the deniers fail to appreciate how little time elapsed between Mark’s gospel and Matthew and Luke. In the oral culture of the first century, the traditions that make up the four gospels likely existed in oral form long before they were written down. In the intervening five years or so between Mark and Matthew, would these skeptics have us believe that a brand-new tradition sprang up, such that Matthew and Luke could receive it from at least two independent sources, but which didn’t exist when Mark wrote his gospel? How likely is that? Therefore appealing to Mark as the earliest gospel is a red herring.
The “pious legend” theory of the virgin birth, in which Matthew and Luke “borrow” the motif from Egyptian or Greco-Roman stories to show that Jesus was the Son of God, also seems incredibly unlikely. For one thing, to what end would the Evangelists make the story up? Ancient people weren’t stupid: they knew that it required a human father and mother to make a baby. Matthew and Luke couldn’t have imagined that asserting a virginal conception would somehow bolster their credibility, right? Might they instead have risked including this potentially embarrassing story because, despite how it appeared, it also happened to be true? That seems very likely to me.
That well-known Biblicist Joseph Ratzinger, a.k.a Pope Benedict XVI, discusses this issue in his wonderful little book on Christmas, Jesus of Nazareth: The Infancy Narratives, which I recommend to everyone. He concedes that there are possibly ancient figures of a “virgin and divine child” who belong “in some sense to the archetypal images of human hope, which emerge at times of crisis and expectation, even without there being any concrete figures in view.” (Here he’s mostly referring to a poem by Virgil.) Benedict writes:
Anyone who reads the biblical accounts and compares them to the related traditions mentioned above will immediately notice the profound difference. Not only the comparison with Egyptian models, of which we have spoken, but also the dream of hope that we encountered in Virgil point toward very different worlds.
If these earlier traditions represent a motif, Benedict says, “perhaps one could say that humanity’s silent and confused dream of a new beginning came true in this event—in a reality that only God could create.”
My question to my theologically progressive colleagues is this: Why not believe in the Virgin Birth? What’s so compelling about not believing in it? What’s at stake in your theological stance?
Actually, this pastor purports to answer the theological question. Referring to the Council of Chalcedon of A.D. 451, he writes, “One wonders how truly human Jesus’ Human Nature can be if his conception was effected by a sperm of non-human origin.”
“Non-human sperm”? We’re not told how God effected the virginal conception—whether he used sperm or not. If he used sperm, why couldn’t he have created human sperm? The Bible doesn’t describe—as in paganism—a god having sex with a woman and impregnating her! Jesus is not a demigod!
Not that the question of sperm matters: God has the power to create fully human life with or without it, right? After all, we believe that Adam and Eve were fully human, even though they came into being without the benefit of human sperm or egg.
This pastor continues, “These folks [Biblicists] never seem to ask, ‘Why is this story included in the gospel? What were the original writers trying to convey?'”
It’s not so much that we “never seem to ask,” it’s just that the answer seems so obvious! The story was included in Matthew and Luke because the original writers honestly believed that Jesus was born of a virgin, who, as a member of the earliest church in Jerusalem, offered her eyewitness testimony to the Apostles and others, some of whom also talked to Matthew and Luke, who wrote down what they heard. Therefore the authors were trying to convey the fact that Jesus was born of a virgin.
Surely Matthew and Luke didn’t describe the Virgin Birth in this literal, historical way when they really intended to give us a parable or myth! If so, they’re very poor communicators!
Nevertheless, if you believe that God called the world into existence out of nothing, is it really so much harder to believe in the Virgin Birth—especially if you already believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus? If you don’t believe in the bodily resurrection of Jesus, then I don’t know why you’re a Christian minister, but still… If you believe that God created the universe, then you automatically believe that God interacted with our physical world at least once, right? Is it so much harder to believe that he did it again (and has continued to do so, through both miracles and the continued sustenance of our universe)?
I’m not sure I understand what’s at stake in a Christian pastor’s denying the Virgin Birth, especially since he or she already affirms (one hopes!) Creation and bodily resurrection.
Benedict, once again, has some wise words on this subject. Regarding the miracles of virgin birth and resurrection, he writes:
These two moments are a scandal to the modern spirit. God is “allowed” to act in ideas and thoughts, in the spiritual domain—but not in the material. That is shocking. He does not belong there. But that is precisely the point: God is God and he does not operate merely on the level of ideas. In that sense, what is at stake in both of these moments is God’s very godhead. The question that they raise is: does matter belong to him?
Naturally we may not ascribe to God anything nonsensical or irrational, or anything that contradicts his creation. But here we are not dealing the the irrational or contradictory, but precisely with the positive—with God’s creative power, embracing the whole of being. In that sense these two moments—the virgin birth and the real resurrection from the tomb—are the cornerstones of faith. If God does not also have power over matter, then he simply is not God. But he does have this power, and through the conception and resurrection of Jesus Christ has has ushered in a new creation. So as the Creator he is also our Redeemer. Hence the conception and birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary is a fundamental element of our faith and a radiant sign of hope.
Earlier this year, this same pastor sent us another email, this time disagreeing—surprise, surprise—with our church’s doctrine on human sexuality. This is why I believe that the argument over sexuality is mostly about the authority of scripture. After all, if one can show that the Bible really is this quaint book, riddled with historical and scientific errors, written by primitive people who were wrong about so much, then maybe it’s also wrong on the stuff it says clearly, but with which we disagree?
In other words, while Bible gets some of the big ideas right, let’s not sweat the details.
My question is, Why has the Holy Spirit given us this book that is so prone to error and misunderstanding, such that it’s taken only a handful of very smart people 2,000 years to figure out what it’s really saying?
Why can’t we give the Bible the benefit of the doubt and assume it means what it says?
Finally, I’ll leave you with our friend Horus (why does an Egyptian god speak with a bad German accent?), courtesy of our brothers from the Lutheran Church–Missouri Synod at Lutheran Satire: