Doing some research for the Learning Church process on the creed (the talks are going reasonably well but the material is seriously dense) and I came across this passage from Joseph Ratzinger, quoted in Nicholas Lash’s ‘Believing Three Ways in One God’: “…the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage.” Lash goes on to spell this out: “Confessing Jesus to be Son of God most certainly does not entail denying that he was any other father’s son.”
There are certain things I believe about Jesus. I believe John 1.1 (on which I’m preaching tomorrow) – that Jesus is the Word made flesh. I adore the passage in Colossians, that Jesus is the image of the invisible God, he is ‘before all things and in him all things hold together’. I believe that Jesus was – as Son of David – inheritor of all the Old Testament prophecies, that he became King of Israel and that those prophecies come true in him – ie they are fulfilled in him.
Which is a roundabout way of saying I have a very ‘high’ Christology. I’m not a liberal – according to Sven’s test I’m 100% Chalcedon compliant(!) – and I certainly don’t think that Jesus was “just” a good man, tho’ he was indeed that, of course.
Put differently, I do think that Jesus embodies the purpose of creation – he shows it forth in human form – and that this Divine purpose is personal and human, thus fitted to become incarnate in the shape of a particular man. I think this purpose was hidden before the foundation of the world, and that it was revealed in Jesus at a moment that could be described as evolutionarily appropriate.
Thing is, I just can’t reconcile any of the above with the Virgin Birth.
Another quote, from Ignatius’ letter to the Ephesians, quoted in Frances Young’s ‘The Making of the Creeds’: “For our God Jesus Christ was conceived by Mary according to God’s plan, of the seed of David and of the Holy Spirit.”
This ‘seed of David’ stuff is pretty explicit in the Old Testament. It comes from the original promise to Abraham, and it is pretty directly male – the mother doesn’t get much of a say or interest in the process. So how does a birth in which the ‘seed of David’ isn’t involved fulfil the promise?
In one sense, tho’, that’s still trivial. The fundamental point is ‘what he has not assumed he has not healed’ – ie, the VB undermines Jesus’ humanity. It seems more and more to be a simple category mistake – in just the way that Lash outlines. Being the Only-Begotten Son of the Father is not something that takes up the same sort of ontological space as being the first-begotten son of Joseph the Carpenter from Nazareth.
Part of me thinks that this is right – it’s probably the way in which I will eventually go – but I’m too much of a conservative to feel happy with it. Stepping outside the framework of the creed – hmm, not sure I like that. (Next week’s learning church is going to be all about how far we can use the creed today – and in particular whether we should sign up to the whole package. I tend to think that we should).
Two final points.
First, belief is not volitional. This is the mistake that the fundies make, assuming that refusing to share their beliefs is a matter of bad will, rather than the incapacity of a rational mind to wrap itself into contortions. You can’t force yourself to believe something which you cannot accept to be true. That’s dishonesty, and I think Simone Weil had that right (paraphrase from memory) – if you leave truth in order to pursue Christ, you end up leaving Christ as well. If you believe firmly – as I do – that Jesus IS the truth, then you are set free to pursue truth wherever it leads.
Second, it’s fairly clear to me that a belief in the Virgin Birth in today’s society is a different beast to belief in the Virgin Birth in the society of the early church. I don’t know sufficient details to make a conclusive argument, but I’m pretty sure that in the early church the VB was an argument used to assert the humanity of Jesus. It made more sense then – there was no notion of DNA or equal contributions from two human parents. Today, it seems to have the opposite effect to what is doctrinally correct. And at the end of the day it is precisely that doctrine that I would wish to affirm.
In other words, where Ratzinger wrote: “…the doctrine of Jesus’ divinity would not be affected if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage”, I would say: the doctrine of Jesus’ humanity is only confirmed if Jesus had been the product of a normal human marriage.
So there we go.