Ten important observations about the virgin conception of Jesus Christ:
- The virgin birth was not a demonstrable event. By this I mean it was not the sort of miracle that was subject to empirical investigation and proof (as were, for example, the resurrection and the healing of Acts 3-4). We either believe the virgin birth or not based upon our belief in the reality of the supernatural and the integrity of Scripture.
- The virgin birth was not the beginning of the Son of God. The Son of God was eternally pre-existent (cf. John 1:1; 8:58). The virgin birth is only the beginning of the God-man, Jesus.
- The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the deity of Christ. There was not in the virgin birth a transformation of deity into humanity, as if to suggest that the second person of the Trinity has been transmuted into a man. God the Son did not cease to be God when he became a man.
- The virgin birth does not entail a reduction or denial of the humanity of Christ. William Barclay evidently believed that it did, and therefore rejected it:
"The great difficulty is its impact upon the belief in the incarnation. If the virgin birth is a literal fact, then the conclusion is quite inescapable that Jesus came into the world in a way that is different from that in which every other man comes into the world, and that . . . we can no longer hold to his full manhood and his full humanity. . . . The supreme problem of the doctrine of the virgin birth is that . . . it leaves us with a Jesus who is half-and-between, neither fully divine nor yet fully human" (The British Weekly, Jan/Feb, 1963).
Barclay believed that unless you are born of both man and woman, you are not truly human. But there are three ways of coming into being:1) born of man and woman (us); 2) born of man but not woman (Eve); 3) born of neither man nor woman (Adam). All admit that we, as well as Adam and Eve, are all human. So why not then a fourth way of coming into being: 4) born of woman but not man (Jesus)? Furthermore, contrary to Barclay's view, the NT provides overwhelming evidence both for the reality of the virgin birth and the full humanity of Jesus.
What about the purely biological implications of a virgin conception and birth? The Bible is clear that Jesus did not have a biological father. But if he is to be truly human, he must have a Y chromosome. Where did it come from? There would appear to be only two options: either (1) he got it directly from his biological father (either Joseph or someone else); or (2) God provided it through a miraculous and providential act.
- The virgin birth does not require us to believe in the immaculate conception of Mary (as proclaimed by Pope Pius IX on Dec. 8, 1854). The doctrine of the "immaculate conception" is the idea that Mary herself was conceived without sin. The Roman Catholic Church also teaches that "in consequence of a Special Privilege of Grace from God, Mary was free from every personal sin during her whole life" (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, p. 203; this view was endorsed by Augustine). But there is not one word in the NT that remotely suggests Mary was conceived in a way different from any other human being. Furthermore, Mary herself confessed she was a sinner in need of a savior (Luke 1:47).
- The virgin birth does not require us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Mary (as proclaimed by the Council of Trent in 1545-63; but also embraced by a number of Protestant Reformers, including Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli; and perhaps John Wesley).
According to Matthew 1:25, Joseph “knew her not [i.e., didn’t have sexual relations with her] until she had given birth to a son.” In Luke 2:7 Jesus is described as her "firstborn" son. If she had remained a virgin, would not Luke have described Jesus as her "only" son?
Jesus' younger half-brothers and half-sisters, born later to Joseph and Mary, are mentioned in the NT (Mk. 3:31-35; 6:3; Lk. 8:19-21; Jn. 2:12; 7:1-5,10; Acts 1:14; 1 Cor. 9:5; Gal. 1:19). Epiphanius (4th century) argued that they were Joseph's children by a previous marriage. Joseph was supposedly a widower who brought to his marriage with Mary at least four sons and two daughters (Mk. 6:3). Jerome (4th century) was the first to suggest they were "cousins" (the view traditionally held by the Roman Catholic Church). A problem with both these views is the way Mark 6:3 and Matthew 12:46 closely associate Jesus' "brothers and sisters" to Jesus' "mother" rather than to Joseph.
Even if Mary did not have other children, this does not prove she remained a virgin all her life. This doctrine would also require us to believe in the perpetual virginity of Joseph! Finally, this idea is based on an ascetic, un-biblical view of sex, according to which sexual relations are somehow defiling or demeaning.
- The virgin birth does not elevate Mary to a place of veneration, contrary to these claims of previous Popes:
"God has committed to Mary the treasury of all good things, in order that everyone may know that through her are obtained every hope, every grace, and all salvation. For this is his will, that we obtain everything through Mary" (Pope Pius IX, 1846-78).
"As no man goes to the father but by the son, so no one goes to Christ except through his mother" (Pope Leo XIII, 1953).
"It is the will of God that we should have nothing which is not passed through the hands of Mary" (Pope Pius XII, 1953).
There was a movement within the RCC just a few years ago to have Mary elevated/exalted to co-redemptrix. However, and thankfully, John Paul II did not endorse it and there is no indication that Benedict is so inclined.
- The Virgin Birth alone insured both the full deity and full humanity of Jesus. If God had created Jesus a complete human being in heaven and sent him to earth apart from any human parent, it is difficult to see how he could be truly a man. If God had sent his Son into the world through both a human father and mother, it is difficult to see how he could be truly God.
Rather, "God, in his wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary's womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit" (Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology, p. 530).
Menno Simons, founder and father of the Mennonites, argued that Jesus did not receive his body from Mary. Rather, the Holy Spirit placed within her womb a God-created fetus to which she merely gave birth. He writes: "The Son of God transformed Himself into the elements of a man, into a human germ, which deposited in the womb of the Virgin, prepared by the Holy Spirit (the conception), and appointed to undergo a truly human development, through which He should regain the dignity He had laid aside."
But this would be hard to reconcile with Galatians 4:4 (Jesus was "born of a woman"); Luke 1:42 ("fruit of your womb"); and Romans 1:3 (he was “descended from David according to the flesh"; more literally, “of the seed of David”).
- Was the Virgin Birth necessary to secure the humanity of Jesus from the corrupting taint of inherited sin? Among those who have said “Yes” are Gregory the Great, Ambrose, Augustine, Aquinas, and Luther. The line of descent from Adam to Jesus is partially interrupted in view of the fact that he did not have a human father. But why would he not have inherited corruption of nature from Mary? Luke tells us it is because the Holy Spirit is responsible for Christ's conception that the child in Mary's womb is to be called "holy" (Luke 1:35).
Contrary to popular opinion, there is no biblical evidence to suggest that the sin nature is transmitted exclusively through the father's seed.
- The principal reason for the virgin birth was so the entry of God into human flesh might be by divine initiative. It is not by any human act or decision that salvation comes to us. It was wholly the work of God. Man does nothing. Mary did nothing (other than to submit to what God would do). Joseph did nothing. God did it all. The virgin birth, says Bloesch, “graphically shows that salvation comes ‘from above’ and that the source of our hope and confidence lies in the living God who entered into human history in the historical figure of Jesus Christ. The virgin birth marks off the origin of Christ from the human race just as his end is marked off by the resurrection” (94).