‘The first and most indisputable fact about the birth of Jesus is that it occurred out of wedlock. The one option for which there is no evidence is that Jesus was the lawful son of Joseph and Mary. The only choice open to us is between a virgin birth and an illegitimate birth.’ (J. A. T. Robinson, Twelve More New Testament Studies (SCM, 1984), 3–4.)
Luke announces the heavenly origin of Mary’s firstborn in unmistakable terms. Her child will be called ‘the Son of the Most High’ (Lk 1:32). Although she has not had sexual relations (Lk 1:33), she is assured by the angel that “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.” (Lk 1:34).
In the Old Testament David’s line is frequently said to be ‘for ever’ (2 Sam 7:13,16; Isa 9:7; Psa 89:3f, 28f; 132:1f). But here, in Lk 1:31, we do not have an eternal line of representatives but the Messiah himself who is to reign for ever.
The idea of ‘the power of the Most High’ overshadowing Mary does not convey merely the idea of divine superintendence or assistance. When taken together with the appellation ‘Son of God’ it means nothing less than a divine begetting.
Help from outside
Another kind of objection to the virgin birth is that it creates a distances between Christ and the rest of us. But this is precisely the point: the virgin birth means that help has come to the human race from outside; that something has begun in human history that is not fatally flawed by its association with human history. In the words of A.N.S. Lane:-
‘The role of Christ requires that there should be both continuity and discontinuity between him and us; that he should be one of us (Heb. 2:10–18) and yet also different from us. Jesus is the second Adam—one of the human race, yet inaugurating a new redeemed humanity. The virgin birth points to this combination of continuity and discontinuity.’
In fact, the biblical story of Jesus’ birth is all of a piece of the account of his life and death. As Peter Lewis finely says,
‘He entered this world as no man has ever entered it, he continued in this world as no man has ever continued in it, and he left this world as no man has ever left it.’
To the objection that Jesus could not be fully human if he had only one earthly parent, Millard Erickson replies:-
‘This confuses the essence of humanity with the process which transfers it form one generation to another.’
Humanity is what the Word assumed, or entered into, at his incarnation. Unlike us, he chose to come (Jn 6:38,51; 1 Tim 1:15; Heb 10:7). He is no less fully human because of this, Heb 2:14-18, or less able to sympathise with our human condition, Heb 4:15.
Here, then, is a sign of a new beginning. ‘He is not a development from anything that has gone before. He is a divine intrusion: the last, great, culminating eruption of the power of God into the plight of man.’ (Macleod)
It is objected by some that God would simply not ‘interfere’ with natural laws in this kind of way; he does not further his purposes by means of impossible biology. Such critics prefer to take the whole thing less materially and more ‘spiritually’. But the biblical revelation of God is precisely that of a God who acts in history in order to rescue his people. What God has achieved in Christ belongs to the world of things and not just to the world of ideas. Christ came in bodily form to save humankind in its bodily form. He came, to quote Peter Lewis again,
a baby with dirty nappies, an adolescent with sexual drives, a man weary and in pain, and finally a dying man among dying men, but also a man dying for dying men; and, on the ground of his atoning death, rising in his body; raised in his material existence; raised not as a spiritual memory, but as a concrete fact by a Father who loves him in his whole divine-human existence, and who in him loves us and will raise us in ‘our mortal bodies also’, Rom 8:11).
The doctrine of the virgin birth reminds us that, from the account of creation in Genesis to the account of the new creation in Revelation, God is revealed as having a plan and a purpose for the material world.
Furthermore, the doctrine of the virgin birth protects us against the erroneous idea that Jesus somehow ‘acquired’ divinity during his life. But no: the manner of his birth confirm his divine identity right from the beginning of his earthly life. This is not to suggest that the whole matter of Christ’s divinity can be settled by the unusual biological fact that he had only one human parent. Yet all of this is consistent with the unique creative act of the Holy Spirit in fertilising Mary’s ovum.
Then again, the virgin birth declares and makes sense of Christ’s entry to the world as the last Adam. All members of the human race inherit the sin and guilt of the first Adam, Rom 5:12f). But Christ is the first member of a new humanity; one in which a fresh start has been made. He is truly the son of Mary (Lk 1:31) and the Son of God (Lk 1:35). But although Christ does not share our guilt, he came as one of us so that he could bear our guilt. Peter Lewis writes:-
Donald Macleod agrees that the virgin birth ‘is a sign of God’s judgement on human nature. The race needs a redeemer, but cannot itself produce one: not by its own decision or desire, not by the processes of education and civilisation, not as a precipitate of its own evolution. The redeemer must come from outside.’
David Intone-Brewer remarks that
‘the fact that Jesus was the brunt of the gossips is a precious insight into his suffering. Isaiah predicted that the Messiah would be despised and rejected, sorrowful and grieving, afflicted with illness, wounds and punishments so severe that people would assume that he was being smitten by God (Isaiah 53:3–5). The question of his parentage was a scandal which he bore with all those who are falsely branded with moral disapproval for something outside their control – those who don’t know their parents, rape victims, and those whose sexuality is damaged by child abuse. The scandal of Jesus’ illegitimacy demonstrates that when God became human, he shared all our suffering and redeemed every aspect of our fallen humanity so that he could represent and redeem everyone.’ The Jesus Scandals, (p. 6).
It seems to some that, particularly in Matthew’s account, the virgin birth answers the charge of illegitimacy (see Mt 1:18-25) and provides and provides an example of fulfilment of Old Testament prophecy (Isa 7:14). But neither of these provide a rationale for the virgin birth. And, in any case, the Isaiah passage is not appealed to by Luke, who nevertheless demonstrates knowledge of the virgin birth.
Writing in Vox Evangelica in 1977, A.N.S. Lane says that the rationale and significance for the virginal conception of Jesus lie somewhere between the extremes of ‘logical necessity’ (the belief that the evidence for the virgin birth is absolutely convincing) and ‘fideism’ (the belief that human reason cannot penetrate such a mystery and we must accept it with blind faith).
Lane thinks that a middle course may be steered between these two extremes.
Macleod (The Person of Christ, p37) alludes to Barth’s comment about the way in which the virgin birth challenges our rationalist assumptions. It stands on guard at the door of the New Testament, informing us that
‘all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. If our faith staggers at the birgin birth what is it going to make of the feeding of the five thousand, the stilling of the tempest, the raising of Lazarus, the transfiguration, the resurrection and, above all, the astonishing self-consciousness of Jesus?’
Although, according to Macleod, it would be difficult to argue that a virgin birth is essential to the incarnation, nevertheless an incarnation that was the result of normal human procreation would lead to several incongruities:-
(a) it would probably imply some kind of adoptionism; whereas the doctrine of the virgin birth insists that there was no moment when the Lord did not exist in both his human nature and his divine nature.
(b) it would suggest that the Lord had a double paternity: a divine and a human father. The NT itself it careful to avoid this impression (Lk 3:23).
(c) the incarnation would then rely on the human will, an inference that Jn 1:13 expressly denies.
We must be careful, however about linking the virgin birth with Christ’s sinlessness. There is no reason to think that the elimination of the male component. Nor is there any reason to think that the use of a procreative process other than sexual intercourse has anything to do with Christ’s sinlessness. Such a misunderstanding is linked to the unbiblical notion that the sexual act is inherently sinful and that virginity is specially virtuous. However, the virgin birth may be linked to Christ’s sinlessness, firstly, by emphasising the role of the Holy Spirit: ‘The humanity of Christ was created by the Holy Spirit, rather than procreated by sexual intercourse, and…as such it partook of the essential character of all that God creates: it was very good.’ The virgin birth is connected to the sinlessness of Christ, secondly, in that it helps us to understand how Christ stands outside the guilt of Adam. Adam’s guilt was not imputed to Christ; and ‘the only factor available that helps us to understand this immunity is the virgin birth.’ Even then, we must not forget that Christ did voluntarily assume this guilt, Heb 2:16. Nevertheless, we can see that sinless humanity is impossible without miraculous intervention.
The virgin birth and the incarnation are often confused in the popular mind. This leads to the crude assumption that God was Jesus’ father instead of Joseph. Mary provided one set of chromosomes, and God the other, thus making the God-man Jesus. But the doctrine of the virgin birth explains why Jesus did not have a human father; it does not state that God was his father. In this way, it is very different from pagan stories which tell of gods mating with women.
The doctrine of the incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Jesus Christ. ‘The Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father.’ God is Jesus’ Father (in terms of eternal existence); Joseph was not (in terms of biological process).
It might be thought that the virgin birth, while distinct from the incarnation, nevertheless guarantees the incarnation. But the product of a virgin birth need not be pre-existent, let alone divine. And Arians, Adoptionists and Muslims have been happy to accept the virgin birth, despite their unorthodox views on the incarnation and the person of Christ.
Nor is it clear that the incarnation guarantees the virgin birth. The birth of God incarnate can be regarded as supernatural without the necessity of the specific miracle of the virgin birth.
Pannenberg and others see the virgin birth as an alternative to the pre-existence of Christ for explaining that Jesus was the Son of God from his birth. But there is no reason for seeing these as contradictory alternatives.
Others have used the virgin birth as an argument against docetism. But it is the fact of Jesus’ birth which refutes docetism, not the miraculous element in it. In fact, the doctrine of the virgin birth has been used as an argument against the real humanity of Jesus.
But if we cannot say that the virgin birth is necessary for the incarnation, can we at least say that the two are compatible? The virgin birth then becomes, not a logical necessity or a proof of the incarnation, but a sign pointing towards it. It is not that a normal birth would have been unfitting or degrading. But a miraculous birth does point towards Christ’s divine-human nature. If importance figures such as Isaac and John the Baptist had unusual births that pointed to their significance, it was fitting that Jesus’ birth should be still more unusual.
Seen as a random event, the virgin birth seems implausible. But seen as as part of the total picture of Christ, including his incarnation and resurrection, it is both fitting and credible.
According to a variant reading, John 1:13 refers to Christ’s birth, and would then be a rather definite reference to the virgin birth. But even if the more likely reading is accepted (in which case the verse refers to believers’ re-birth) then John, given his likely knowledge of the Synoptic tradition, is drawing a conscious parallel between the virgin birth and regeneration. Both point to God’s initiative and sovereignty.
From the 4th century onwards, it was often maintained that the virgin birth was necessary to safeguard Christ’s sinlessness. He was born of a pure virgin, untainted by the sin of sexual intercourse, and unaffected by original sin. In its simplest form, the argument states that a natural birth would have produced a natural man, partaking in human sinfulness. But the doctrine of the incarnation alone is adequate to explain Christ’s sinlessness. The absence of a human father does not add any further weight.
Again, we can perhaps see the virgin birth, not as guaranteeing Christ’s sinlessness, but as pointing towards it. In the same way, Jesus’ healing of the paralysed man (Mk 2:1-12) did not cause his ability to forgive sin, but pointed towards it.
Other areas where a rationale for the virgin birth is sought include:
(a) grace (so Barth) – God supplies what human could not possibly supply;
(b) soteriology – Irenaeus taught that Christ, as the second Adam, was born of a virgin just as the first Adam was born of the virgin soil;
(c) Mariology – Irenaeus also likened Mary to a second Eve, but one who was obedient to God; and this paved the way for the full-blow Mariology of the RC church, including Mary as co-redemptrix;
(d) virginity – in Catholic teaching, the virgin birth has often been used to commend the celibate state; but the Gospel accounts do not exalt Mary’s virginity, and only teach that she was celibate prior to her marriage to Joseph;
(e) myth – some (reacting in part to flaws in some of the traditional arguments) regard the virgin birth as representing, at best, a non-historical but pious myth. It represents in mythical form the truth that God acts in history (Boslooper). But it is difficult to see how a non-historical myth could attest to a God who acts in history.
The virgin birth cannot be shown to be a logical necessity. It does not occupy as central a place in our faith as the incarnation itself, say, or the resurrection. But it does have importance as a sign:-
‘It is fitting and congruous with the rest of Christology in its role as a sign. It points to God’s initiative in the birth of Christ and to the importance of the child born. It also points to the new start involved in the Second Adam, the originator of a new humanity.’
A.N.S. Lane, “The Rationale and Significance of the Virgin Birth,” Vox Evangelica 10 (1977): 48-64.
Peter Lewis, The Glory of Christ, 137-143