Thursday, January 1, 1998

The Scandal of the Virgin Birth

MY FIRST Advent in parish ministry, I learned a lesson about a central mystery of the faith. I preached a sermon suggesting that "whatever one may conclude about the historical fact of the Virgin Birth, the important thing is what it points to: the Incarnation of Jesus Christ." After the sermon, the senior warden came up to me and said he was disturbed by my words: "Without the Virgin Birth," he said, "there would be no Incarnation."

I was taken aback and forced to rethink the easy dismissals I had picked up in seminary. So let me now return to the "historical fact" of the Virgin Birth. After an exhaustive study in The Birth of the Messiah, Raymond Brown leaves the question of historicity "unresolved" but suggests that "it is easier to explain the New Testament evidence by positing an historical basis than by positing a pure theological creation."

Does this scholarly reserve leave us in perpetual doubt? I do not think so. First of all, the prophet Isaiah obliquely and Matthew and Luke directly attest to the Virgin Birth as a miraculous historical event, and no other authors contradict them. Secondly, the Church has consistently taught that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin. (Raymond Brown accepts the Virgin Birth on this authority.) Thus Scripture and tradition agree.

Finally, the theological necessity of the Virgin Birth, in my opinion, overwhelms any absence of historical proof, which is never certain for any event. Karl Barth, the greatest theologian of the 20th century, apparently thought so too when he wrote: "It is rare in life to be able to separate form and content… The miracle of Christmas is the actual form of the mystery of the personal union of God and man."

To ask the question "Could God have become Man some other way?" is as idle as asking whether God could have saved us some other way than through the Cross and grave of death. Since he did do it one way, and that once for all, our task is to move from the Virgin Mary’s first response to the Annunciation, "How can this be?" to her second, "Be it to me according to your Word."

From very early times, the Church chose two moments of history to include in its creeds: "born of the Virgin Mary" and "crucified under Pontius Pilate." There is a necessary connection between these two credal moments. In his famous treatise, Why God Became Man, Anselm of Canterbury argued that just as only God can save us and only Man bear our sins through the Cross, so also only by a Virgin Birth can One who is wholly God and wholly Man enter into the world for our salvation.

Some people claim that the Incarnation is the characteristic doctrine of Anglicanism. Unfortunately, many who claim to be Incarnational Anglicans express apathy, or even antipathy, toward the Virgin Birth. But the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth is like the Resurrection without the Empty Tomb. Without the Virgin Birth, the "incarnate" Christ becomes a Palestinian guru or social worker, not a Savior.

The Virgin Birth is part of the scandal of the Christian Gospel. Bishop Spong, in his book Born of a Woman (note "woman" instead of "virgin"), is offended by the idea of "a God who was in fact a manipulative male person, who would set aside the processes of the world to produce a miracle in order to bring his (sic) divine presence into a human enterprise called life."

Bishop Spong’s view of the Incarnation is, frankly, industrial strength humanism lightly scented with Christianity. It is religion purged of the scandal of particularity, the particularity of a transcendent Father who has sent his Eternal Son, through the Holy Spirit, to become human, a particular man from Nazareth, but also Man, the second Adam. That God-Man became a Servant of all, a Sin-bearer for our sake, so that we might share in the life of the Triune God forever (Philippians 2:5-11; 2 Corinthians 5:17-21).

When I was a young, my parents never took me to church, not even at Christmas. I nevertheless was fascinated with the symbols and lore of Christmas. I would sit in the dark at home and play Robert Shaw recordings of Christmas carols, singing along with Adeste Fideles: "God of God, Light of Light, Lo! He abhors not the Virgin’s womb."

I did not know it at the time, but in these hymns I was encountering full-strength Christianity. God did not abhor the Virgin Birth. Neither should we. And when we joyfully embrace the scandal of the Virgin Birth, our hearts will learn to worship the Christ Child in his full saving Person, as Very God and Very Man. Venite adoremus Dominum.

This meditation appeared in the December 1997 issue of Encompass, the newsletter of the American Anglican Council.

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