Lane on the Virgin Birth

Very interesting article that Byron pointed me to available here.

A handful of quotations:

…this paper will be a critical examination of the significance given to the virgin birth in recent dogmatics. This approach is valid anyway as a partner to the exegetical approach but all the more so with a subject like the virgin birth. Undisputed direct reference to the virgin birth is confined to two brief New Testament passages (Matt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1: 34f.). It follows therefore that the relation of this doctrine to other doctrines (the task of dogmatics) is at least as important as the exegesis of these two passages.

It is essential clearly to grasp the distinction between the Incarnation and the virgin birth. The virgin birth concerns the origins of the humanity of Christ. It states that Jesus, as man, had no human father. It does not state that God was his human father. The virgin birth is not like the stories of pagan gods mating with beautiful women. The miracle of the virgin birth is that of birth without a father, not of the mating of God and Mary. The doctrine of the Incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Christ. It states that this man Jesus was in fact God himself, the Logos, the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus was divine not because he had no human father but because he is God become man. He is the Son of God (in the Trinitarian sense) not because of his human parentage (or lack of) but because he is the eternal Son of the Father, ‘begotten from the Father before all ages’. To summarise the distinction, the Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father. It is not hard to see how the two have come to be confused. The one states that God is his Father, the other that Joseph was not. It has been fatally easy to put these two together and to conclude that God was his father instead of Joseph, because Joseph was not.

When it is stated that Jesus did not need a human father because God was his Father the two levels are being confused. Such thinking, if pursued consistently, will lead to a grossly perverted form of either the virgin birth or the Incarnation or both.

The Incarnation would have been supernatural and miraculous even if the incarnate one had had an otherwise normal birth. His preexistence and his divinity would have been supernatural even if his humanity had had a purely natural origin.

The virgin birth teaches that the origin of his humanity was also supernatural.

But many today would not simply state that the virgin birth can coexist with such error. John Robinson, for instance, goes further and argues that the virgin birth must inevitably prejudice the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity and His solidarity with us. This claim can take two forms. First, it could be argued that the very fact of a virgin birth in itself removes Jesus from the arena of humanity. This charge is well answered by R. F. Aldwinkle who argues that ‘it is not the method by which a human being comes to be such which is decisive but the end product itself, namely a human being’. There is no ground for dogmatically asserting that the product of a virgin birth could not be fully human.

[SN: I think this is very weak]

Barth argues that the virgin birth points to the Incarnation in the same way as the empty tomb points to the resurrection. In each case the sign is less than the thing signified but points to it. The relation between them is that between sign and thing signified, not between cause and effect. The virgin birth did not cause the incarnation any more than the empty tomb caused the resurrection. Thus the virgin birth is to be seen not as the cause or the means of the Incarnation but rather as a sign pointing to it. The virgin birth, as a supernatural birth, is a sign of the importance and supernatural character of the One born. It is also a sign to us of God’s initiative in the Incarnation.

[SN: my argument is that the sign now points away from the incarnation]

As the Augustinian approach became orthodoxy it was naturally impossible to conceive of Christ being the product of sexual intercourse. The virgin birth thus became necessary for his sinlessness. Such a view of sex is certainly discredited today, and not only among Protestants.

Karl Barth saw in the virgin birth the expression of a wider truth that is fundamental to his theology. It shows that ‘human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation’. While it does become his nature, this is not because of any attributes that it already possesses but rather because of what it suffers and receives at the hand of God. The virgin birth, therefore, is a further denial of man’s natural capacity for God, a favourite theme with Barth.

[SN: this is the symbolic truth of the VB which I’d accept]

…‘lawless desire’ is unnecessary and [Jesus] did not submit to it but rather pointed forward to the future world where there will be no marriage. This ascetic teaching is based on the doctrine of the virgin birth. Such teaching became common in the following centuries. It is not surprising that this development occurred. The Gospel came to a world where the physical and sensual were despised and where asceticism was exalted. It was natural for such ideas to take root within the Church. It was also natural that the virgin birth should be used to support them. Here we have to acknowledge the truth of Barth’s comment that it might have been better for the Christian doctrine of marriage had there been no virgin birth. This does not mean that the virgin birth is untrue; it simply means that, like most doctrines, it is open to abuse.

Is it any more necessary for the virgin birth to have been a historical event than it is, say, for the Good Samaritan to have existed? There are two reasons why it is important for the virgin birth to be historical. The Matthaean narrative is specially inhospitable to a mythical interpretation. Matthew’s aim is apologetic ― to answer the charge of illegitimacy and to point to the fulfilment of prophecy. Neither of these concerns would be satisfied by a mythical, non-historical virgin birth. The appearance of a child before the consummation of marriage cannot be explained by a mythical sign. As Robinson argues, the alternative to the virgin birth is not conception within wedlock ‘for which there is no evidence at all’, but illegitimacy. Secondly, the role of the virgin birth as a sign goes if it did not happen…

If the virgin birth is a fitting sign rather than an absolute necessity does this mean that it is unimportant? It is true that the doctrine of the virgin birth is not as central as the Incarnation, the cross or the resurrection. It appears with these doctrines in the creeds, but it cannot be assumed that all of the doctrines of the creeds are of equal significance. The descent into hell is clearly less significant than the resurrection. That the virgin birth is less central is supported by the paucity of reference to it in the New Testament and by the fact that very little theological use is made of it there. But less central is not to be confused with unimportant. Its inclusion in the creeds clearly implies that it was felt to be important. The Church should proclaim the virgin birth because it happened, because it is scriptural and because it is a pointer to Christ and to his work.

Some closing remarks. The rigorous distinction Lane makes between VB and incarnation is helpful but he seems confused as to whether the VB indicates the humanity or divinity of Christ, and much of the article supports my wider point about the marginality of the doctrine, ie it is a stripping away of all the consequences, so that it loses the capacity to become ‘weight-bearing’. His last paragraph (above) is a non sequitur – I want to ask why did the Fathers believe it to be important, what was it that they believed, and is it possible for us to affirm the same today?

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (12): Summary and conclusion

I want to bring this sequence to a close by spelling out the main planks of my argument. The spark for the series was Neil’s comment that I should resign my orders.

These are the main points that I would want to make:
1. The accounts of the VB are marginal in Scriptural terms.
2. The VB is marginal in doctrinal terms.
3. The nature of what is believed in accepting the VB has changed since the accounts were written, and that applies to both those who retain an acceptance of the Scriptural accounts in a literal sense, and those who reject it.
4. What the doctrine actually achieves in practice today is to undermine more important doctrines like the incarnation, and hence salvation. That is, the doctrine serves to prevent people coming to Christ, and the insistence upon a literal belief in it (in order to be saved) is a contemporary equivalent of tithing mint and dill and cumin.

I would want to emphasise that my rejection of the VB is not because I reject all miracles as impossible (I don’t), nor does it mean that I reject the resurrection (I accept it), nor does it mean I reject Scripture as a whole (I see it as God-breathed).

Several other things have become clearer to me in the course of writing this sequence:
– I really don’t take the birth narratives as literally true! I have avoided looking at the area too closely for quite some time, but I can’t avoid the conclusion;
– I remain persuadable that I’m wrong, but the persuasion needs to deal with my own objections, not generic ones (like Wright’s chapter does);
– my root problem is that I see no way to render an acceptance of the literal truth of the birth accounts compatible with an acceptance of the humanity of Christ (I think this was possible before) – and therefore, if the VB has to be believed in a literal sense, then I don’t belong where I am. Fortunately such a commitment is not required of Anglican clergy (what is required – and what I wholeheartedly affirm – is here);
– the contrast is between what is given more authority: Scripture or doctrine? I see the doctrinal effect (which I see as seriously negative) as carrying more weight than the negative consequences of abandoning a literal interpretation, not least because I don’t see it as either intellectually or theologically coherent to affirm something like inerrancy. However, it’s perfectly possible to judge these things differently without being an inerrantist. Wright, for example, a) gives more importance to the literal account, and b) sees no difficulty in reconciling the account with doctrinal truth. In this he is completely in tune with orthodox tradition, and I am not – which means I’m probably wrong;
– I am more convinced than before of what I originally wrote here: “My problem remains how to reconcile Jesus’ humanity with his special creation; or, put differently, I don’t see why God’s creative activity _has_to_ conflict with the normal processes of reproduction. Incarnation isn’t dependent on it; indeed, I suspect that the story was developed in order to support the doctrine of the incarnation and now works to accomplish the precise opposite. Either way it’s an extremely marginal belief and not essential to faith.”

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (11): Tom Wright

The first thing to say about Tom Wright’s perspective (taken from his book with Borg) is that he agrees with me (and the Pope) that the VB is marginal, beginning his chapter by saying “Jesus’ birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants”, and ending it by saying “If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two chapters of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different”. Quite so.

He goes on to point out that attitudes to the VB function as litmus tests for orthodoxy as a whole, especially attitudes to the Bible and miracles (a point I’ll come back to in my concluding post) and admits that their historicity is suspect, saying “as a historian I cannot use the births stories within an argument about the rest of the gospel narratives.”

His more substantial point, however, on which the remainder of his chapter is based, seems to be a) you’ll only disallow miracles if you’re corrupted by Modernist attitudes [I agree, but this is one of Wright’s principal targets in the essay and my position is unaffected by it], b) this is how God chose to do it, c) who are we to disagree? concluding by saying “Nor will the high moral horse do any better, insisting that God ought not to do things like this, because they send the wrong message about sexuality or because divine parentage gave Jesus an unfair start over the rest of us. Such positions produce a cartoon picture: the mouse draws itself up to its full height, puts its paws on its hips, and gives the elephant a good dressing down.”

I think Wright is confused here, and the confusion runs through the whole chapter. The weight of his point depends upon the truth of b); in other words, is the elephant God, or is the elephant a fallible human being? It is the attitude to Scripture which is the fundamental plank of Wright’s case, ie these narratives must be understood to be literally true, which drives him to the conclusions he reaches in this chapter. However, it’s possible to show that, even on these terms, Wright is inconsistent (see below).

After a quick appraisal of the theological emphases in each account, which Wright ascribes in traditional terms to the differences between Joseph and Mary’s recollections, Wright gets to what, for me, is the heart of the matter. He writes “It will not do to say that we know the laws of nature and that Joseph, Mary, the early church and the evangelists did not”. This misses the point, however (my point, at least). It is not that these people didn’t understand the link between sexuality and procreation (which seems to be the burden of Wright’s point), it is that they understood the ‘humanity’ to come through being ‘born of woman’, not, in material terms, in equal parts from both father and mother.

Wright goes on to outline his substantial position, in three stages:
1. Acceptance of incarnation and resurrection opens up the possibility of something like the Virgin Birth. I agree with this point in principle.
2. “There is no pre-Christian Jewish tradition suggesting that the Messiah would be born of a virgin. No one used Isaiah 7.14 this way before Matthew did… Why, for the sake of an exalted metaphor, would they take this risk – unless they at least believed them to be literally true?” I think this is an interesting and a strong point, but one which isn’t conclusive; that is, it depends upon other factors being more or less probable relative to the unlikelihood of Luke and Matthew inventing the stories.
3. The previously existing models for a VB are all pagan in nature, and it is unlikely that a Jewish mentality would have told the story of a VB for Jesus unless it was true. Wright argues “This theory asks us to believe in intellectual parthenogenesis: the birth of an idea without visible parentage.” I’m not convinced by this, although I can see the logic of Wright’s argument. Two thoughts occur to me. One is that the influence from the Hellenic world had already had a few centuries to shape Jewish thought, and so the Jewish world-view was not so virginally pure as Wright needs to suppose (consider what language the stories are written in, after all). The second is that, despite a very well written and witty defence of his historical credentials, Wright by no means has the unanimous support of his peers on this point. It is a matter of weighting the probabilities and it seems to me that on this point Wright is letting his desire to retain a conservative account of Scripture condition his historical judgement.

Which seems a harsh point, and one I am not qualified to render, but for one thing – the argument that Wright makes with regard to apocalyptic language, which is a point I fully agree with and one which seems to have a very large role in his overall historical reconstruction of Christ’s life and mission. Wright says (in the first of his major books) “Within the mainline Jewish writings of this period, covering a wide range of styles, genres, political persuasions and theological perspectives, there is virtually no evidence that Jews were expecting the end of the space-time universe. There is abundant evidence that they knew a good metaphor when they saw one, and used cosmic imagery to bring out the full theological significance of cataclysmic socio-political events. There is almost nothing to suggest that they followed the Stoics into the belief that the world itself would come to an end; and there is almost everything to suggest that they did not.” In other words the writers of the time were perfectly able to use language creatively to make a theological point. Why then are Luke and Matthew not able to do something similar when writing their birth narratives? Where I think Wright is confused is that he seems to be applying different criteria in these two areas, and the reason for applying different criteria appears to be his desire to preserve a traditional understanding of the VB. Yet he hasn’t made that case; it may well be possible to do so, but, at least to my understanding, he hasn’t achieved it here.

One more post…

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (10): Marcus Borg

This is a quick summary of Borg’s points to do with historical plausibility in the book he wrote with Tom Wright. To begin he writes “I do not think the virginal conception is historical… they are not history remembered but rather metaphorical narratives using ancient religious imagery to express central truths about Jesus’ significance”.

Borg has three main grounds for doubting the historicity of the narratives:
1. The narratives are late, only being mentioned in two places. It’s clearly possible to write a gospel without it, so either the other authors “didn’t know about it or didn’t consider it important enough to include. Or the tradition didn’t develop until quite late and the reason most New Testament authors do not mention it is because the stories did not yet exist”.
2. Reinforcing the first point are 5 principal distinctions between Luke and Matthew:
– significantly different genealogies (Matthew emphasises Jewish Kingship and traces the lineage from Abraham through Solomon; Luke emphasises outreach to the gentiles and traces the genealogy from Adam through the prophet Nathan);
– different homes for Mary and Joseph (Nazareth in Luke, with trip to Bethlehem; Bethlehem alone in Matthew);
– different birth visitors (wise men in Matthew, shepherds and angels in Luke);
– Herod’s plot (in Matthew, with accompanying flight to Egypt, but absent from Luke);
– use of the Hebrew Bible (Matthew uses prediction-fulfilment formulae five times; Luke echoes the language without treating it as the fulfilment of a prophecy).
In Borg’s words “these are enough to make the point that we have two very different stories”.
3. “The stories look like they have been composed to be overtures to each gospel”. In other words they exemplify the themes which each evangelist wishes to emphasise, ‘King of the Jews’ for Matthew, mystical prophet reaching to the world for Luke. “In short, the stories look like the literary creation of each author.”

I don’t want to say much about Borg as I basically agree with him. I’ll say more about Wright’s chapter in the next post.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (9): a response to some comments

Tim commented on a previous post referring to an argument from CS Lewis, paraphrased as ‘This “unfair advantage” view has always seemed to me like a drowning man refusing to be rescued by the man with the lifebelt around him because, he says, “It’s not fair – the lifebelt gives you an unfair advantage”.’ I have a suspicion that, for once, CS Lewis isn’t entirely orthodox.

As I understand it, it’s essential to Christianity that Jesus not have a biological distinction from the rest of humanity. In part that is because of the ‘what he has not assumed he has not healed’ point about salvation, but it is also because we are expected to follow in his footsteps. What is the point of being taught to do something that it is not possible to do? And wouldn’t it be cruel to have such an expectation laid upon us?

Thing is, Jesus is the pioneer and perfecter of our faith (Heb 12.2) and the first-born of many brethren (Rom 8.29) and we are expected to do greater things than Christ (John 14.12). What prevents us from doing such things is our sin; if we receive grace through faith then that obstacle is overcome and we are liberated to do ‘all the good works that thou hast prepared for us to walk in’. In other words there is no biological or innate physical obstacle preventing us from becoming like Christ; the obstacle is our sin, and that is the principal distinction between Christ and the rest of us, that he was like us in every way except that he was without sin (Heb 2.17, 4.15). So at best the lifebelt image refers to our faith, not to our actions; at worst it is dependent on a faulty understanding of discipleship.

Tim and Paul also castigated me for not spending more time on exegesis. I think this is a mistake. There is a big issue here, and some smaller issues. I’m going to intercut Tim and Paul’s words with some of mine (in italics) as we go through, before digging out what I think is the main difference. Tim first:

The question is not whether it is possible for God to do or not to do something, but whether in fact he has chosen to do or not to do the thing in question. I agree with this.

What you need to do, Sam, as I keep on saying, is to do some exegesis for us of the passages in Matthew and Luke which describe the virginal conception of Jesus, showing us why they do not in fact mean what the church has always assumed they meant. I’m not sure it’s possible to do this; more crucially I’m not sure it’s important to do so. There are two questions: a) do Matthew and Luke describe a virginal conception, b) what did Matthew and Luke understand by that? On a) I’m not sure that anyone would argue that they are not describing a virginal conception (I certainly wouldn’t), but on b) we get stuck into questions of biblical criticism, in other words, can we take Matthew and Luke to be describing something that we would call ‘a matter of fact’ or are they being theologically creative (which to my mind doesn’t rule out divine inspiration) and describing something consistent with their overall understanding of the incarnation? If the latter is true – and, despite going against Tom Wright for once, that is what I believe – then the question that I want to explore is ‘does their story still achieve what they wanted it to achieve?’ – because the whole point of my argument is that as a culture changes a story can end up meaning something rather different to what it originally meant.

And I’m sorry, but all this stuff about it being a late doctrine that is only found in a couple of places does not qualify as biblical exegesis. Agreed; the point is that it is comparatively minor.

After all, one could argue that St. John’s doctrine of Jesus as the Word is also a late doctrine only found in – well, one place I would add Colossians to this – but orthodox Christianity has made that the centre of its theology of the incarnation. And rightly so – for it makes explicit what is elsewhere implicit; it’s a necessary doctrine, it’s not at all marginal.

The Eucharist is rarely mentioned in the New Testament, but we have made it the centre of our worship. Er… every gospel plus Paul? I’m not sure how you get ‘rarely’ from that, most especially given the dramatic focus upon it – plus vast reams of supporting evidence from other scriptures and archaeological investigations. But this is a side-issue.


I, too, would value you doing some exegetical work about Luke and Matthew’s writing. Whilst interesting, and true enough, to conjecture about the place of body-dysphoria in the neo-Platonic muddle in much of Christianity, it is, as Tim says, NOT THE POINT of relevance to the orthodoxy or otherwise of the doctrine.
I’m not sure I agree with this. Orthodoxy for me isn’t simply a matter of matching up with what the early church believed; it’s a belief that the early church correctly articulated a truth which was independent of them. To be orthodox, then, is to be in tune with that higher truth (= the living Christ). My argument is that, because of a change in the wider culture, what had previously functioned as orthodoxy (ie a transparency to the higher truth) has now become toxic (opaque to the higher truth). In other words, the church can agree on something and still be wrong (which is a remarkably Protestant principle for me to be advocating, especially with you two!)

The statement of the doctrine at the heart of the Nicene Creed places its importance way ahead of the concerns of either Aquinas or Augustine – both of whom, by the way, could be easily and consistently read as body-haters, in spite of holding to the ‘old orthodoxy’ you assert. Yes – but being placed in the creed is a different form of authority than being placed in Scripture.

What Luke and Matthew meant, what kind of thing they were writing, and writing about, is at the heart of this – not Thomist or Augustinian theology and philosophy. Again, I’m not sure I agree with you, because my argument is about what the church has understood the doctrine to mean (and I was taking Aquinas as a representative of church tradition – which he remains for the majority of Christians). But I’ll come back to this.

Tim again:

Sam, you can’t have it both ways. A couple of exchanges ago you said that you didn’t think it was possible to figure out exactly what Matthew and Luke meant by their belief in the virginal conception. Now you say that it’s no longer possible to believe the same thing they believed. How can it be no longer possible if you don’t know what they believed? The difference between certainty and probability. I don’t think it’s possible to be certain of what was in Luke’s and Matthew’s minds, but I think we can have some indications. One of which is the point about Luke being a gentile doctor, which I mentioned in the comments, and which had never occurred to me before. That means he would almost certainly have had the Aristotelean understanding of the processes of conception.

But if we’re going to go the creedal route (and I’m not backing off for a moment on my request for you to do some biblical exegesis to back up your viewpoint) then look – the creators of Chalcedonian Christology obviously believed in both the full humanity of Jesus and the Virgin Birth. Yes.

So the little problem you are raising – about how Jesus could be fully human if he wasn’t formed in a fully human way – had obviously occurred to them too, no? It was at the centre of all the creedal discussions.

Surely you don’t think that the entire Christian world has been waiting with bated breath for twenty centuries for scholars of the last generation to notice this difficulty? No, I think the problem (as I have articulated it) is a consequence of the revolution in our understanding of conception, and was literally inconceivable(!) prior to that. The concerns I am raising simply don’t exist if you accept Aristotle’s understanding. What has happened in the West is that the doctrine of the virgin birth – and of incarnation – has been rejected as ‘superstition’, as a result of the more general scientific revolution, and I don’t think there have been many people (though I’m hopeful I’m not the first) who have argued from this perspective. I’m wanting to disentangle incarnation from virgin birth, in order to jettison the latter (a literal belief in the latter) as something which was once helpful but is now damaging. It’s a bit like the booster stage of the space shuttle launch – if you hang on to it for too long it gets in the way.

Personally I don’t think you can ever get away from the paradox. We say that Jesus was fully human, a man like us, but we know full well that in many ways he was not a man like us. First, we’ve never experienced sinless humanity before. How does that play itself out when it comes to involvement in social sins? Jesus paid taxes, therefore he was embedded in the matrix of social sin that taxation represents, eg paying the salaries of the Roman legionnaires occupying Jerusalem. I’m not sure that inhibits his divinity (though that might be worth discussing).

How does it relate to childhood temper tantrums? Quite frankly, a lot of the problems I go through on a daily basis are a result of my own sinfulness – and in this, Jesus is not a man like me and cannot sympathise with my weakness. And his consciousness of the Father’s presence, his awareness of himself as the Son of God, his miracles etc. etc. – all serve to distance his experience from my experience. Ah. I’m totally with you on sin being what separates us from Jesus – but sin alone. On things like the Father’s presence, the ability to perform ‘miracles’ and so on – I see no barrier to us doing what he did. (This is what I feel called to explore through the charismatic stuff by the way)

Shared our humanity to the full – yes indeed, but let’s not pretend that his humanity was not impacted in any way by his divinity. The problem you raise seems to me to be just one instance of the tensions we face in holding to the paradox of both our Lord’s humanity and also his divinity. Hmm. I think you’re placing his humanity and divinity on the same playing field, as if they are contesting the same space. I don’t understand it like that.

On another subject, Luke may have been a Gentile writing for a Gentile audience, but in some ways he is as Jewish as Matthew – especially, funnily enough, in his birth and infancy narratives with their conscious placing of Jesus in the stream of OT salvation history. But surely, as Tom Wright points out, Luke and Matthew must have known the risk they were taking in telling the story of a virginal conception in the context of the Greek and Roman myths that their Gentile audiences (and Jewish too, no doubt) would have been aware of. Why would they take that risk, if they didn’t think the truth of the historical record was at stake? Well, it might be to do with slander about Jesus’ paternity; but as you say – they are consciously telling the story with a theological aim, which is one of the reasons why the historicity of the two stories is suspect.

Midrash? Well I remember NT Wright’s criticism of John Shelby Spong at this point – I believe it was in the book ‘Who Was Jesus?’ (it’s at the office and I’m at home!) – in which he asked how much midrash Spong had actually read or read about. I remember Wright answering just the point you are advancing, quoting from a Jewish scholar who claimed that the nativity stories are nothing like traditional midrash. But I can’t claim to have studied this, so must leave it to you real scholars! I’m in the same boat – although I will look up Wright in that book and in his book co-authored with Borg. I’ll put the two links here that I mentioned in the comments, Doug here (also here which outlines theology I really like, and here), and also this post with more detail on the inconsistencies in the two accounts.

What is becoming clear to me, however, is that behind these disagreements lies the disagreement about the status of Scripture as such. In other words, as Paul argued, “What Luke and Matthew meant, what kind of thing they were writing, and writing about, is at the heart of this – not Thomist or Augustinian theology and philosophy.” This assumes at least two things, it seems to me, neither of which I actually agree with. Firstly, it puts Scripture as the highest authority, through which tradition and reason have to travel in order to reach Christ (I think that is the historic Anglican position by the way, so I think Tim’s recent disagreement with me on it is justified). Second, however, is the disjunction that is implied between ‘theology and philosophy’ and ‘Scripture’ which I don’t think is supportable (and this is why I think that in the end the two of you are both Protestants and I’m not! 😉 )

For what is at stake in disagreeing over this? There is agreement over things like incarnation, resurrection, Trinity, salvation etc – all those things which I see as the major doctrines. What seems to be at stake is whether Scripture is not giving us the literal truth in this story. I want to argue that this story is to be understood symbolically in the context of contemporary beliefs – and for the underlying point to be affirmed. You two seem to be arguing that ‘what Scripture says’ is the be-all and end-all. As it happens I really liked Tim’s point that “if they believed that the virginal conception had actually happened (and I would contend that they did – along with C.S. Lewis, N.T. Wright, and the vast majority of the Christian tradition), then you have to start with the historicity of the event and ask what consequences it has for your theology and philosophy, rather than starting with your theology and philosophy, saying ‘This doesn’t make sense’, and then modifying the record to fit your conclusion.” I do think that’s a really strong point, it’s just not strong enough for me in this case. Which is a different way of saying: I give weight to the doctrinal consistency and benefit flowing from particular beliefs; it matters what we believe and, in the end, I just don’t see this as being true, in a weight-bearing and life-giving sense. And because I don’t place Scripture above the other elements, I’m happy to say either a) Scripture is mistaken, or b) these passages are not to be interpreted in a literal fashion.

Which – rather depressingly – makes me a raving liberal. Ho hum.

(Then again, virtually nobody takes everything in the bible to be literally true. See here with a H/T to Michael for pointing me in his direction).

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (8): Orthodoxy, belief, obedience

I have a very high view of the importance of orthodox belief; I don’t see orthodoxy as something which is solely about a correct description of the world – on the contrary orthodoxy is weight bearing belief which gives life. That is, to be orthodox, to have orthodox belief, is to both see the world correctly AND (more importantly) to be enabled to live well within the world. In just the same way that a belief in the powers of human flight is likely to bring injury, so too is an unorthodox belief system liable to bring spiritual injury. Orthodox belief is not an academic matter for me; it is a matter of eternal salvation.

Moreover, I see the literal sense of the VB as orthodoxy – that is, I do see it as the historic inheritance of the faith once delivered to the saints. Generally speaking, I don’t see orthodoxy as something open to a ‘pick’n’mix’ approach, I do see it as something which is a seamlessly woven garment, which, once we start unpicking it, the whole thing starts to unravel. Yet that is precisely my difficulty with the VB. It is because I accept orthodox teachings about the incarnation and salvation that I can’t understand the VB. In other words, my dissatisfaction does not rest upon a more general embeddedness in a secular world-view, it is instead rooted in a commitment to the orthodox faith, as something both true and life-giving.

This is why this doctrine is a ‘thorn in my flesh’. All my instincts and experience tell me that it is essential to be orthodox, yet I can’t understand how to fit the VB into orthodoxy. Which highlights another aspect of the problem – belief is not voluntary. I can’t will myself to believe something that my overall reason cannot accept. As I said in an earlier post, if the VB is stripped of consequences, if it becomes non-weight bearing and simply a matter of curious fact, then the tensions that I experience become much less. Yet I see no way in which to maintain that as true.

Which brings us to the question of obedience. I’m happy to accept that my position on this topic is unorthodox AND that the teaching of the church is true. I see no contradiction between saying that and saying that I personally don’t believe it to be true. In a sense, that latter element then becomes more a description of my spiritual state than a statement of the truth of a doctrine. As I said in my sermon, having previously rejected orthodox views on matters like resurrection and incarnation, and slowly being persuaded of their validity, it would not surprise me if the same thing happened with respect to the VB. Part of the reason for writing this series is to try and elicit new perspectives (Barth??) which might ease the long-jam of my thought on the subject. In the meantime I’m stuck in the position I’ve had for some fifteen years now – I see the VB as marginal in Scripture and of dubious historicity; I see it as doctrinally suspect and liable to lead into significant error.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (7): he took on flesh

What are the implications for saying that the Virgin Birth must be true, even when the content of that belief has changed so much? One of the most malign, it seems to me, is the intensification of the gnostic tendency in Christian thought. That is, in the history of Christianity there is a strong streak of hostility to the body. I do not see this as a necessary feature of Christian belief, in fact I think the opposite is true – that is, the entire logic of the incarnation is that human flesh is capable of bearing divinity, that the image of God can be revealed through human skin. Yet there have always been more or less Platonic elements which have fostered the idea that the flesh gets in the way, that read Paul’s language about the flesh in a biological (rather than symbolic) way and so treat the flesh, and the desires of the flesh, as inherently sinful.

Now the Aquinas form of understanding the Virgin Birth, whilst it has a negative view of human sexuality (as that which passes on the ‘infection’ of original sin) need not have a negative view of human flesh as such. For it is still the human flesh that Jesus took on and sanctified, and as such we who share that human flesh are also able to be sanctified.

This is not possible if Jesus is biologically distinct from us. The whole process of fleshly existence is suspect, for our flesh is not capable of bearing the incarnation – special DNA is required. If the incarnation is not possible through the normal means of human reproduction then that means that God’s purposes are inhibited by normal human sexuality. It means that human sexuality is downgraded; it is inherently less worthy of respect, it is less capable of redemption and transcendence. This has led to untold harm and evil in human life, most especially our Western culture. I can’t help but believe that a faith which told of God being present through and from the normal processes of human sexuality would have a much more healed and healing understanding of sex than ours does – our church and our wider society.

For what is at stake in saying that God cannot incarnate through sexual union? What is being preserved? I can understand someone wanting to uphold the authority of Scripture hanging on to the doctrine, yet if they also see these malign consequences then the doctrine must surely lose its capacity to ‘bear weight’. For as soon as it does start to bear weight, then it seems that these malign consequences follow. Instead of being a faith that celebrates the possibilities of our creatureliness, that exalts in the possibility that God is seen in flesh, we have instead a repressed and repressing gnosticism, that cannot bear that flesh would bear the divine – and this hatred of the body is then reinforced and promulgated: a faith of flagellation rather than a faith of carnival.

And this too has evangelistic consequences.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (6): What has not been assumed…

In the last post I described Aquinas’ understanding of conception (taking him to be a representative of the mainstream Christian tradition). What I want to do in this and the next post is consider what happens to the implications of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth if you change the understanding of conception lying behind it.

Aquinas’ argument leaves Jesus’ humanity intact – he is of the same stuff as us. Yet if we take a different understanding of conception, ie one which involves DNA from two parents being fused to create a new individual, where does that leave Christ’s humanity? One might easily say ‘God created half of Jesus’ DNA’ – but what are the implications of accepting that? One is that Jesus possesses ‘special DNA’, he isn’t part of the common flow of DNA mixing – and therefore he is special and unique. That might not sound surprising, but the particular form of the uniqueness is no longer what it was for someone like Aquinas.

Consider, for Aquinas, the special and unique thing about Christ was the ordering of his human material, in such a way that it was without sin. In other words the distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity was between the one who was sinless and the ones who are embedded in sin. This is a spiritual distinction, a moral distinction, a distinction which – at least in principle – is a consequence of voluntary actions, either of Adam and Eve originally, or of ourselves as we take part in the normal human activities of a sinful world. In other words there is no absolute distinction between Jesus and the rest of humanity – indeed, he shows us what being human really is, what being human was intended to be and, if we accept this, then through grace we might be able to share in what he has accomplished. Hence “to all who received him, to those who believed in his name he gave the right to become children of God – chidren born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or of a husband’s will, but born of God”.

None of this is possible if we understand conception differently. For if Christ is the product of ‘special DNA’ then the distinction between his humanity and ours becomes absolute. No longer is it something over which, even in principle, any human being can have any choice. A barrier has been established between the humanity of Christ and the humanity of the remainder of the human race. No longer is the barrier one to do with sin and choice and responsibility; now the barrier is one of biology and DNA. Jesus is different from us, not primarily because he was sinless (though that remains the case) but because his sinlessness proceeds from his biological distinction – in both sense of that word.

Jesus’ humanity is no longer the same as our humanity – and what that actually means is that Jesus is no longer human. He seems to be human; he acts on earth as if he was human; but it is a charade. Jesus is Superman, with an in-built genetic advantage. As such, he cannot be our saviour. For what he has not assumed, he has not healed. He has not assumed our mortal flesh, consequently our mortal flesh is not redeemed, is not raised up, is not capable of bearing divinity. I’ll say more about that in the next post.

For this one, what I would end with is a quotation from “Thirty years of honesty”, a prior version of which I read at University, and this quotation has always resonated with me, as it sums up all that seems to evangelistically unhelpful about this doctrine (my emphasis in the text). A ‘woman’s voice from a vicarage’ wrote to John Robinson saying:

The orthodox teaching has always maddened me; so many other humans have sacrificed themselves for us, endured more sustained and prolonged torture, without the comfort of being ‘the favourite son’… Any of us knows the impossibility of the struggle; what you have helped to remove is my constant annoyance that Christ always had an unfair advantage.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (5): What was actually believed?

Pursuing this theme; I am thinking about doing something extensive – and positive – about the doctrine of the incarnation, partly in response to this post, but for now I think I can do without it. So briefly: the doctrine of the incarnation is that ‘the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth’ etc. The Virgin Birth relates to that doctrine as a ‘how’, not a ‘what’. That is, it is an explanation of how the incarnation was possible, it is not the doctrine of the incarnation as such.

So how did this ‘how’ work? Here is Aquinas on the subject: “in conception the seed of the male is not by way of matter, but by way of agent: and the female alone supplies the matter. Wherefore though the seed of the male was lacking in Christ’s conception, it does not follow that due matter was lacking.” (ST III Q28 Art 1)

In other words, the material of humanity was supplied by Mary; the form of Christ’s humanity was supplied by the Holy Spirit. Consider plasticine – it can be shaped in all sorts of different ways, yet still remaining the same substance. So too, for Christ, he was of the same stuff as the rest of us, it’s just that his stuff was ordered and shaped in a different way, ie without sin, which is passed on as an ‘infection’ through sexual intercourse. Here’s Aquinas again: “Now it was not possible in a nature already corrupt, for flesh to be born from sexual intercourse without incurring the infection of original sin.”

This seems to me to be coherent as a way of explaining the ‘how’ of the incarnation. Humanity reproduces through the planting of sperm (that which gives form and shape) in the ‘field’ of the womb, which field supplies the matter of our human nature. Original sin is passed on through sexual intercourse, and thus, in order to be without sin, a conception is required which bypasses such intercourse. What is needed is to replace the sperm with a different force providing form and shape to the matter of humanity – this is supplied by the Holy Spirit. Thus the doctrine of the Virgin Birth explains and supports the doctrine of the incarnation, that Jesus Christ was fully human (all of his material was the same as our material) whilst still being wholly divine (a sinless image of the Father).

The trouble is, we don’t understand conception in the same way any more. And to believe the same thing in a different context is no longer to believe the same thing. In other words, when weight is placed upon this doctrine the consequences that follow from it are not the same consequences that flowed hitherto. As I see it, a doctrine that once explained and supported the doctrine of the incarnation now accomplishes the precise opposite – which will be the subject of the next two posts.

The marginality of the Virgin Birth (4): Weight-bearing words

I want to draw a distinction between two sorts of belief (I’m sure this isn’t original to me, and I’ve used this distinction many times before).

Some forms of belief are simply knowledge, they are extra pieces of mental furniture inside our heads.
Other forms of belief are directly action-guiding; that is, they involve a response of the whole body and provoke a whole repertoire of behaviours.

I call the second form of belief ‘weight bearing’; they are forms of language that actually ‘do work’ in people’s lives. (When I spoke about understanding the grammar of religious faith it’s this second aspect that I have in mind – so often atheists deal with religious belief as if it was entirely the first sort of belief).

Examples of the first sort of belief are (for me) details of quantum physics. I can read in the newspaper or in books about scientific experiments that are establishing different forms of sub-atomic particles, like the Higgs Boson and so on, but this is simply extra information. It doesn’t have any impact whatsoever upon my life. If tomorrow the scientists turned round and said – actually we’ve got this wrong, the Higgs boson is actually two different things (and both at the same time 😉 – then I’d find it interesting but no more.

An example of the second sort of belief, however, would be: my 1 year old daughter would be hurt if I dropped her on her head. That is action-guiding in a very strong sense, and I actively try to be as careful as possible when holding her. There is no disconnect between mental idea and human behaviour.

Or, a different way to bring out the distinction, consider the difference between ‘Mrs Smith is committing adultery’ and ‘your wife is committing adultery’ (and female readers can reverse the gender). One has an impact upon a life, the other does not.

Now what sort of belief is the Virgin Birth? If it is the first sort of belief then I don’t really have any sort of problem with it – it’s simply an historical curiosity. It’s like pondering the likelihood that Jesus had black or very dark brown hair, dark brown eyes, and was unlikely to have been more than about five and a half feet tall. Those thoughts are more or less true – but nothing hinges on them.

The trouble is that weight has been placed upon this doctrine – it has been made to do work – and that is where my concerns are really focused.