In the week after Christmas, while I was enjoying vacation time with my family and mostly away from this blog, another controversy about something Andy Stanley said (see here for an earlier one) erupted, this time over whether or not the Virgin Birth is “essential” for saving faith.
He doesn’t think it is, and many United Methodist clergy colleagues agree. One of them wrote the following on Facebook:
I’ve had this discussion many times. Mark says nothing of it. John seems to know nothing about it. Paul’s letters seem to know nothing about it. Mark and Paul’s letters all predate Matthew and Luke. Matthew and Luke do not tell the same narrative either. To be clear, I do believe Jesus is God incarnate. How it came to be is not clear other than saying “God did it.” What is essential is that Jesus came. The particulars on how can be debated and not mean a thing to me.
See… Christmas is saved!
Spoken like a fellow victim of liberal mainline Protestant seminary. I sympathize.
But what do these words imply about his view of scripture? He says he believes that Jesus is God incarnate. Is his confidence based on something other than what the Holy Spirit has revealed in scripture? Did the Spirit err when he inspired two of its gospel writers to give accounts of a virginal conception and thus mislead two millennia of faithful Christians? How fallible does my colleague think the Bible is?
Later in the comment thread, someone defended the historicity of the Virgin Birth by appealing to Isaiah 7:14, to which this same pastor replied, “No comment.” At this point, I chimed in:
Is this really a debate (as always) over a doctrine of scripture? Of course Isaiah 7:14 prophesies the virgin birth. The debate over whether Isaiah intended to say “virgin” or “young woman” (given that the underlying word in Hebrew could mean either) was settled the instant the Holy Spirit inspired Matthew to tell us in God’s Word that the Septuagint’s translation was the correct one. Case closed. Read Pope Benedict’s words on the Isaiah passage in his excellent book on Christmas. He’s no slouch in the Bible department. And he’s not exactly a raging fundamentalist.
Whether the virginal conception is essential is beside the point. Did it happen? Yes—unless we jettison any meaningful understanding of the inspiration of scripture.
You say that the two accounts [in Matthew and Luke] don’t agree. But they do agree on a virginal conception and Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Their differences, which have been harmonized, for example, even by Adam Hamilton, imply that Matthew and Luke are working with independent sources. Historians would say that that makes the event itself (which both gospels agree on) more likely rather than less so.
Never mind, also, that Mark and John offer hints that Jesus’ provenance was disputed among his fellow townspeople and the Pharisees. (See NT Wright’s For Everyone commentaries for further discussion.)
By this, I was referring to Mark’s unusual “son of Mary” reference in Mark 6:3 and the words of Jesus’ opponents in John 8:41: “They said to him, ‘We were not born of sexual immorality. We have one Father—even God.'” It’s possible, if not likely, that the Pharisees are referring to rumors surrounding Jesus’ controversial birth.
For all we know, Paul knew nothing about the Virgin Birth when he wrote the letters we have in the New Testament. (But what about Galatians 4:4?) As my colleague says, his letters are early. Mary herself would have been the only source for much of the material in the infancy narratives, and we don’t know when she told the apostles and Luke (who surely used Mary as his source). At best, it’s an argument from silence. Assuming Paul didn’t know about it, once Matthew and Luke wrote their gospels, does my colleague believe that Paul would have disputed the truthfulness of their accounts? Worse, does he think that Paul would have doubted that God could have performed this miracle on scientific grounds?
Regardless, I continue:
Also, people in the first century knew the facts of life as well as we do: women didn’t conceive children without human fathers—which is why Joseph originally decides to divorce Mary: he doesn’t believe her story. Why would he?
My point is, that Matthew (and Luke) include the Virgin Birth anyway suggests that they really believed it happened. This “pious legend” idea is a product of the modern imagination.
As NT Wright points out, prior to Jesus, no one knew that Isaiah 7:14 was a messianic prophecy that needed fulfilling. It wasn’t on anyone’s messianic radar prior to Matthew’s gospel.
Another clergy colleague steps to the defense of Andy Stanley: “He doesn’t say it didn’t happen. He only states that it isn’t essential to believe it in order to be Christian.” To which I ask:
Why is it difficult to believe in the first place? We already believe God created the universe and everything in it. That’s a rather large miracle that we have to accept right off the bat. Not to mention our belief—I assume even among most progressive UMC’ers—that Jesus was bodily resurrected.
The main question is, can God’s Word be trusted? If it can’t be trusted when two of four gospels (each using independent sources, by the way) report a virginal conception, we have larger problems with the credibility of Christianity than the Virgin Birth.
My colleague replies:
Again, I’m not arguing the virgin birth. Stanley, in this sermon, is trying to help seekers (or those struggling with various doctrines) recognize what’s most important and to understand that something like the virgin birth doesn’t make or break your relationship with God nor your ability to be transformed by Christ. He’s talking here about a starting point. Who among you would tell a person that their belief in the resurrection of Jesus Christ and their belief in the incarnation doesn’t matter if he or she still doesn’t believe in the virgin birth?
Good question. But am I wrong to doubt that many such “seekers” exist? If people don’t want to believe that Christianity is true, they can find plenty of reasons to bolster their unbelief. If they keep an open mind, however, I doubt that the doctrine of the Virgin Birth will stand in their way. I respond:
But if someone already believes in the resurrection and the incarnation, I would ask them on what basis they would reject belief in the Virgin Birth. Then I would gently challenge them to reconsider their skepticism, in part by questioning these very harmful assumptions of modernity that underlie it. I wouldn’t teach them that’s it’s “optional” to believe what scripture clearly teaches and the historic Creeds affirm.
I’m sure Stanley’s heart is in the right place, but our goal is to make disciples, not to sell Christianity at the cheapest possible price. What kind of disciples would we be making who reject the authority of God’s Word—the only sure basis on which we know anything about Jesus Christ in the first place?
And I’ll anticipate your objection by saying that personal spiritual experience, however valuable, can teach us nothing about Christ that isn’t also revealed in scripture.
Later, I implicitly relate this controversy to the one that will likely cause a schism in our denomination in 2019. As I said earlier, the authority of scripture—as always—is at stake in the question.
If the Virgin Birth becomes optional, well… there are many more difficult things in the Bible where that doctrine came from. What will this lightly-formed disciple do with the rest of it?