Posts Tagged ‘virgin birth’

Another pastor questions the Virgin Birth for no good reason

December 20, 2018

Pastor Brian McLaren, who, alongside his former “emerging church” colleague Rob Bell, used to identify as an evangelical, said that the “literal factuality” of the Virgin Birth is beside the point—which is really, he says, a statement against “patriarchy.” Or something.

Anyway, in response to this tweet I tweeted the following:

It should read “whomever.” Sorry. When will Twitter let us edit tweets?

I’ve blogged many times about the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. Here’s one representative post.

On Andy Stanley and the Virgin Birth: selling Christianity at the cheapest possible price?

January 4, 2017

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?

“Glory to God in the Highest,” Day 4: How Will This Be?

December 4, 2016

I recently created a 31-day Advent/Christmas devotional booklet for my church called “Glory to God in the Highest.” I will be posting a devotional from it each day between now and the end of the year. Enjoy!

Scripture: Luke 1:34

glory_cover_finalMary, alongside other ancient people, knows the facts of life as well as any modern person: women don’t get pregnant without men—even if she lacked the more detailed scientific information that we now possess.

English Bible scholar Tom Wright puts it like this: “The ancient world didn’t know about X chromosomes and Y chromosomes, but they knew as well as we do that babies were the result of sexual intercourse—and that people who claimed to be pregnant by other means might well be covering up a moral and social offense.”[†]

What would people think if Mary, who was engaged but not yet married, said she was pregnant by the power of the Holy Spirit, that she was still a virgin, and there was no human father?

They would think that she’s lying to save herself from embarrassment or shame. This is, in fact, what Joseph thinks when Mary breaks the news to him in Matthew 1:18-19.

And this is one reason that we can be confident that the virgin birth is true: because Matthew and Luke, who each include Christmas stories in their gospels, know that it’s difficult to believe. They know that, like Joseph himself, readers might imagine that Mary’s story is a cover-up for something embarrassing.

Would Matthew and Luke risk including a potentially embarrassing and hard-to-believe story like the virgin birth if it weren’t based on solid evidence? Of course not. They include the story of the virgin birth because they also happen to believe it’s true.

Do you ever struggle to believe in God’s word? If so, you’re in good company! Pray that, as with Mary and Joseph, God will help you overcome your doubt.

N.T. Wright, Luke for Everyone (Louisville, KY: WJK, 2004), 9-10.

What’s at stake in a pastor’s denying the Virgin Birth?

December 9, 2014
Sorry, Horus, you can't ruin our Christmas celebration.

Sorry, Horus, you can’t ruin our Christmas celebration with phony parallels between your birth and Christ’s birth.

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?”

Read the rest of this entry »

But is it really so difficult to believe in the virgin birth?

December 8, 2011

In my previous post, I made the point that the evangelists Matthew and Luke included the story of the virgin birth for a simple reason: they believed it happened. And they believed it happened knowing what every sensible person living in the first century knew: in order to get pregnant, it takes both a man and a woman. They believed it enough to write it down, knowing that it made Jesus’ birth vulnerable to critics who would say that Mary got knocked up by someone outside of the bounds of marriage—either by Joseph or someone else.

And to this day, many people, including many Christians, have their suspicions.

But why?

O.K., I know the reasons. The doctrine of the virgin birth, we’re told, emerged much later than, for example, the resurrection, which the church proclaimed from its inception. (Indeed, without the resurrection, there would be no church.) In fact, our earliest gospel, Mark, fails to even include a birth story. This is true, but are the people who argue this point suggesting that the virgin birth was invented in the five or ten years between the composition of Mark and the composition of Matthew and Luke?

If so, they fail to appreciate the nature of an oral culture. All of the stories found in the four gospels would have been in circulation, orally, for many years—decades even—before being written down. It’s hard for us to imagine today that back then the spoken word had more authority than the written word. That Matthew and Luke’s Christmas stories are so different suggests that they come from independent traditions, which means that the story of the virgin birth had been around for a long time before the evangelists wrote them down.

The point is that there was hardly enough time for a virgin birth legend to emerge between Mark and the other two Synoptic gospels.

Also, we know for sure that Mary and her son James (Jesus’ brother) were members of that earliest group of believers (see Acts 1). It seems likely that some other siblings of Jesus were in the early church as well. It seems very likely that the story of the virgin birth came directly from the lips of Mary and Jesus’ family. Even if it came from somewhere else, Jesus’ family would have heard the story and could have easily corrected the record and said, “No, that’s not the way it happened.” They didn’t do that, and hence we have the virgin birth story.

Even Mark’s silence on the subject doesn’t mean he was unaware of it. There’s a very unusual reference in Mark 6:3 to Jesus being “Mary’s son,” as if to acknowledge that he wasn’t also Joseph’s biological son. Even if Joseph had died at this point, Jesus would still usually be referred to as “Joseph’s son.”

One common suggestion is that Matthew and Luke include the virgin birth because they’re simply copying pagan legends, in which heroes and demigods are born as a result of a union between gods and humans—and that somehow Jesus would have more credibility as the “Son of God” if they could show that this was true in a biological sort of way. My first response is that Matthew and Luke are Jews writing mostly for an audience of Jews. What possible appeal would these pagan myths have for them or their readers/listeners?

Second, Jesus is not nor was ever considered a demigod—the product of a sexual union between a woman and God. God the Father does not “impregnate” Mary as if God were the biological father. I’ve read someone—was it that bozo Bishop Spong?—who said that God would be a rapist if the virgin birth really happened. Anyone who suggests such a thing is thinking in pagan terms and disregarding the Bible. According to Matthew and Luke, what happened in Mary’s womb was a special act of creation by the Holy Spirit—and with Mary’s consent, of course.

Another, related objection is that the virgin birth was a well-intentioned but misguided effort by the early church to explain how the Incarnation happened, rather than just accept the mysterious truth of it. This is an argument that says much more about us than the doctrine of the virgin birth. It’s an argument that fits the spirit of our times.

The “how” questions, after all, are never as important as the “why” questions. We post-moderns are much more comfortable living with mystery and paradox than our forebears, so we don’t need to resort to something like a virgin birth to explain it. I’ve even read some creative exegesis that argues that Matthew and Luke didn’t even intend to say that Mary was still a virgin when she conceived.

Whatever.

I agree that the “how” questions aren’t as important as “why” questions. By all means! As a Protestant, after all, I can’t accept the Catholic Church’s dogmatic insistence on weird, extra-biblical, and unnecessary ideas like the Immaculate Conception (that Mary was conceived without original sin), Mary’s sinlessness, or her perpetual virginity, all of which relate to their misguided effort to explain how.

I also understand that the virgin birth isn’t mentioned by Paul, and nowhere in the Book of Acts do any of the apostles proclaim it as part of their gospel. I don’t believe that you have to believe in it in order to be an authentic Christian.

But, but, but… Is it really so hard to believe? As N.T. Wright said (excerpted in my previous post), we’re not asked to believe in the virgin birth in isolation: given everything else we know about God and Jesus, how unlikely is it that Jesus was conceived in this way?

Someone may object that God doesn’t contradict the well-ordered laws of physics like this in order to accomplish God’s purposes. God doesn’t intervene in history in such a blatantly miraculously way. However it was that God accomplished the Incarnation, God must have done so naturally.

I’m sympathetic with the impulse to see things that way. I think life by itself is miraculous, sustained as it is at every moment by the Holy Spirit. In my view, God intervenes in history all the time in ways that are completely consistent with everything we know about science. What a gift that God has given us a predictable universe that conforms to physical laws!

And yet… If we bother to believe in the God of Christianity at all, we already believe in the resurrection, which contradicts everything we know about physics. Even if we somehow reduced the resurrection to a strictly “spiritual” rather than physical event, and believe that Jesus wasn’t bodily raised (terrible theology, by the way), we’ve hardly solved the problem of God.

If we believe in God, we already believe that he intervened in history in the most dramatic way imaginable, by creating time, space, and matter to begin with, making history possible.

Again, believing all that, is it really so much harder to believe in the virgin birth?

The inconvenient fact of the virgin birth

December 6, 2011

I’m aware that some Christians struggle to believe in the virgin birth (more accurately, the virginal conception). Adam Hamilton reflects on this difficulty in The Journey. I reflected on it in last year’s sermon on Mary and on the blog: here and here. I’d like to reiterate a few things I said back then.

Matthew and Luke, who include the Christmas story in their gospels, aren’t including information about the virgin birth because it somehow helps their case for Christianity. No one then or now would read the gospels and think, “I didn’t believe that Jesus was the Son of God before, but now that you tell me he was conceived miraculously by the power of the Holy Spirit, I’m sold!”

While the doctrine of the virgin birth was important enough to be included in the Apostles’ Creed (around the second century), it wasn’t a feature of the earliest proclamation of the gospel (as witnessed in Acts). Plenty of people were coming to faith in Jesus without needing a virgin birth to do so.

They’re also not including the virgin birth because they had to—in order to fulfill the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, cited by Matthew in Christmas story:

Look! A virgin will become pregnant and give birth to a son,
And they will call him, Emmanuel. 

Prior to Matthew, no one regarded this verse as a messianic prophecy that a purported Messiah would need to fulfill. Matthew knows as well as anyone that Isaiah was prophesying, not about a future Messiah who would have to be born of a virgin, but about King Ahaz’s wife, or perhaps his own wife. Her son would be a sign that Judah’s enemies—the northern kingdom of Israel and Syria—would soon be destroyed, and Judah would be spared. At least for a little while.

Matthew is using Isaiah to say that Israel’s ultimate salvation and hope is found in the birth of this new son, who is the Messiah. As with all Old Testament citations in the New Testament, the writer wants us to recall the context of the verse he’s quoting; he’s not proof-texting to find a verse or word that makes his case.

Matthew and Luke knew as well as we do that getting pregnant—apart from a hard-to-believe miracle—requires both a man and a woman. This was, after all, why Joseph originally decided to divorce Mary. He believed that she had been unfaithful—as would any reasonable person. According to N.T. Wright, John 8:41 includes an “echo of a taunt made during Jesus’ lifetime: maybe, the crowds suggest, Jesus’ mother had been misbehaving before her marriage.”1 When Jesus’ opponents say, “Our ancestry isn’t in question,” in other words, they are perhaps implying that Jesus’ ancestry is. Did they know about the virgin birth? If so, they didn’t believe it.

And why should they? People knew the facts of life. The virgin birth was hard to believe, then as now. The most plausible reason that Matthew and Luke risk telling us about it is that they believed it was true.

Wright continues:

But Matthew and Luke don’t ask us to take the story all by itself. They ask us to see it in the light both of the entire history of Isreael—in which God was always present and at work, often in very surprising ways—and, more particularly, of the subsequent story of Jesus himself. Does the rest of the story, and the impact of Jesus on the world and countless individuals with it ever since, make it more or less likely that he was indeed conceived by a special act of the holy spirit? ¶ That is a question everyone must answer for themselves.2

There’s no getting around faith. We can’t prove it, obviously.

But we can argue against the Richard Dawkinses of the world who imagine that the “myth” of the virgin birth was foisted upon primitive and gullible people who would believe anything. There weren’t many of those people living in Palestine in the first century.

1. N.T. Wright, Matthew for Everyone Part One (Louisville: WJK, 2004), 7.

2. Ibid.