Wednesday, December 23, 2009

The Importance of the Virgin Birth

Christmas can have a wonderful effect of bringing people together. You can probably bring to mind the Coca Cola Christmas song "I'd like to buy the world a Coke and keep it company...". Maybe you've heard of the 'Christmas Truce' of 1914. British and German soldiers in WW1 laid down their guns, decorated their trenches, sang Christmas carols together, met in 'no man's land' to exchange gifts and even played a few games of soccer together.

But Christmas has also had the opposite effect at times, driving a wedge between people. Not quite ten years after the 'Christmas Truce', Harry Fosdick preached a now famous/infamous sermon from his pulpit in NYC. The title of the 1922 sermon was 'Shall the Fundamentalists Win'. In it, Fosdick challenged five 'tenets' of the 'fundamentalists': the atonement, the inerrancy of Scripture, the bodily resurrection of Jesus, the miracles of Jesus and the Virgin Birth. The overall tone of the sermon could be described as 'indifferentism' - a downplaying of the importance of doctrine. Regarding the Virgin Birth, Fosdick said, "[Accepting the Virgin Birth as historical fact] is one point of view, and many are the gracious and beautiful souls who hold it. But side by side with them in the evangelical churches is a group of equally loyal and reverent people who would say that the virgin birth is not to be accepted as an historic fact. . ." He says, basically, the same thing about the resurrection, the miracles of Jesus, and the atonement. It's fine to believe they happened, but you don't have have to - it's not essential.

The General Assembly of the PCUSA met and instructed the NY presbytery to administer a doctrinal examination of Fosdick. If he failed, the presbytery was to censure him or cut ties with him if he wouldn't repent of his doctrinal errors. Several months later, in 1924, pastors, professors and other PCUSA officials sympathetic to Fosdick met in Auburn, NY, just outside Syracuse. They issued the Auburn Affirmation, in which they said, in summary, "Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory explanations of these facts and doctrines. But we are united in believing that these are not the only theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship."

This more liberal view lead to contention and strife for several years in the PCUSA. At the GA of 1927 the Assembly approved a motion, which in effect granted freedom toe the Presbytery of New York to reject the virgin birth of Christ as an essential tenet of the church, and to vindicate the signers of the Auburn Affirmation. This action is one of many that led to the eventual withdraw conservatives like J. Gresham Machen and the founding of Westminster Theological Seminary as a conservative alternative to Princeton. You could argue, and many have, that the spirit of indifferentism is a sure path to theological liberalism, and the PCUSA is certainly evidence for that.

Unfortunately, the spirit of indifferentism is alive and well, even thriving today. For example, on the same issue of the Virgin Birth, one contemporary emerging church pastor has written:“What if tomorrow someone digs up definitive proof that Jesus had a real, earthly, biological father named Larry, and archeologists find Larry’s tomb and do DNA samples and prove beyond a shadow of a doubt that the virgin birth was really just a bit of mythologizing the Gospel writers threw in to appeal to the followers of the Mithra and Dionysian religious cults that were hugely popular at the time of Jesus, whose gods had virgin births? But what if, as you study the origin of the word ‘virgin’ you discover that the word ‘virgin’ in the gospel of Matthew actually comes from the book of Isaiah, and then you find out that in the Hebrew language at that time, the word ‘virgin’ could mean several things. And what if you discover that in the first century being ‘born of a virgin’ also referred to a child whose mother became pregnant the first time she had intercourse? What if that spring were seriously questioned? Could a person keep on jumping? Could a person still love God? Could you still be a Christian? Is the way of Jesus still the best possible way to live? Or does the whole thing fall apart?…If the whole faith falls apart when we reexamine and rethink one spring, then it wasn’t that strong in the first place, was it?”

That was a long historical introduction (have I told you I love Church History, especially American Church History) to the question, "Does the Virgin Birth matter? Do we loose something important if we loose the virgin birth? Who was right, the conservatives or the liberals?" My answer, predictably, is "YES, we it is important if we loose the virgin birth. YES it matters!" I'll offer three theological implications and four practical implications tied to the virgin birth.

Theologically, the virgin birth matters because:

1. It speaks to the utter uniqueness of Jesus Christ. Grudem writes, "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" (Systematic Theology, p. 530). The church has historically affirmed that Jesus had no father on earth and no mother in heaven. Sometimes this has been done to unnecessarily safeguard the sinlessness of Jesus, as if sin were transmitted by man through the act of sex (see a great post by Kevin DeYoung on this). He is utterly unique as God incarnate. Thus, this doctrine does not stand alone, but it woven in with other important doctrines of the faith. Al Mohler asserts, correctly, "The virgin birth does not stand alone as a biblical doctrine, it is an irreducible part of the biblical revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls."

2. It is a wonderful test of our worldview. If we can accept a God who intervenes in the world to part a Red Sea, to turn water into wine, to heal the sick, to raise the dead, to die and be raised, why would we reject the miracle of the virgin birth? Or to put it another way, if we reject the virgin birth, why would we accept any of these other miracles? As one theologian put it, "if you can swallow the camel of the Resurrection, why strain at the gnat of the Virgin Birth?" Is it a 'more difficult' miracle (how can we even speak of 'difficult' if we affirm an Almighty God)? Is it of a different nature that would make it out of keeping with God's other miracles? No, I don't think so. Rejecting the Virgin Birth is sign of a drift towards an unbiblical worldview in which miracles are not likely or even possible.

3. It is clearly taught in the Bible. To reject the Virgin Birth is to reject the authority of the Bible. Some have tried to find wiggle room on this, asserting that the Hebrew word for virgin ('almah) used in Isaiah 7 could mean 'maiden' or 'young girl' and could refer to any unmarried woman, not necessarily a virgin. Similar arguments have been made regarding the Greek word parthenos. While these arguments tend to be overstated, they miss the point. Beyond the simple definition of the word, the NT clearly states that Mary was surprised, wondering how this could be (Luke 1:34). Moreover, Matt. 1:18-25 makes it clear that she was with child 'from the Holy Spirit' and that she had not 'known' a man. The only way to get around the virgin birth is to argue that the NT authors intentionally misled their reader and/or misinterpreted the Isaiah passage and felt compelled to create the virgin story to jive with the prediction. Karl Barth concludes, "no one can dispute the existence of a biblical testimony to the Virgin Birth."

Theologically, it is dangerous to reject the Virgin Birth. Its repudiation will almost inevitably be accompanied by a movement away from truly evangelical teaching (in the older sense of the word 'evangelical'). After all, it would necessitate a rejection of the historic ecumenical creeds which assert "I believe in...Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord: Who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary" (Apostles Creed) and "We believe in one Lord, Jesus Christ, the only Son of God...For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven: by the power of the Holy Spirit he became incarnate from the Virgin Mary, and was made man." (Nicene Creed).

Now practically, I think the Virgin Birth is important because:

1. It humbles us. I see this in two ways. First, it shows us how utterly sinful man was. No hope could be found in man for our salvation so God had to intervene in a miraculous, unprecedented way. It's clear that 'Salvation is from God'. Second, it humbles our reason and brings it into submission to the Word of God. Reason is good, but must at all times be submitted to God.

2. It should serve to strengthen our faith as we are reminded, as was Mary, that "nothing will be impossible with God" (Luke 1:37). When we don't see a way, we can be reminded that God can make a way.

3. It should open our eyes to the work of God in the giving of life and making us increasingly thankful. As CS Lewis pointed out, miracles simply 'unmask' the work of God. He is the author of life - all life comes from him. Usually he uses natural means. Usually he uses the instruments of a man and a woman coming together in sexual union. But, even when he does it naturally and through the instrument of sex, he does it. Life comes from God. We should remember and be grateful for the gift and miracle of life.

4. It provides us with a wonderful example in Mary's humble obedience. Trying to distance themselves from the Roman Catholic extra biblical teaching on Mary, Protestants tend to downplay Mary. While we should reject the extra-biblical account of Mary's immaculate conception and perpetual virginity, the biblical accounts are enough to teach us to hold Mary in high regard and learn from her example of 'active passivity' (to steal a Schaeffer phrase). We should all say, daily, "Behold, I am the servant6 of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word." (Luke 1:38).

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