One of the central doctrines that has been on my mind this Christmas season has been the issue of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. According to Millard Erickson, next to His death and resurrection this doctrine has been the most controversial in the history of the church. Modernists reject the doctrine as unimportant or irrelevant while fundamentalists hold to the idea as paramount for their faith. One author has said, “the virgin birth of Jesus Christ is THE Fundamental of all Fundamentals of the entire gospel program.” A doctrine that is so dear to some and that is so easily dismissed by others warrants a discussion and careful consideration.
There are several passages in the Old Testament which prophesy the virgin birth. Isaiah 7:14 says, “Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel.” Is this son a reference to Christ? The answer lies in the rest of this prophecy that continues in the following chapters, stating:
“The people who walk in darkness will see a great light; those who live in a dark land, the light will shine on them. For a child will be born to us, a son will be given to us, and the government will rest on his shoulders; and his name will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Eternal Father, Prince of Peace. There will be no end to the increase of his government or of peace, on the throne of David and over his kingdom, to establish it and uphold it with justice and righteousness from then on and forevermore. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will accomplish this.” (Isaiah 9:2, 6-7 NASB)
A prophecy such as this “could not have had in view a mere man, born in the ordinary way.” This must be a reference to the birth of Christ who in Isaiah 7:14 is prophesied to be born of a virgin.
As clear as these passages are, there are still those who object to interpreting these passages as really referring to a virgin. Those who object to the virgin birth of Christ claim that, in Isaiah 7:14, “the Hebrew word almah means merely a young woman of marriageable age, not necessarily a virgin.” The word almah is used in 6 other passages in the Bible, and in all cases it is used to mean an “unmarried maiden,” or a virgin. Therefore, the use of the word almah must be referring to a virgin birth.
The New Testament also has various references to the virgin birth. The first reference in the New Testament comes in the first chapter Matthew in the form of the genealogy of Christ and the narrative of His birth. The genealogy begins in Matthew 1:2 starting with Abraham and traces the lineage through Matthew 1:16 which says, “and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ.” The verses that follow, Matthew 1:18-25, tell the account of the birth of Christ. Matthew 1:23 implies that this is a fulfillment of Isaiah 7:14 by stating, “Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bear a son, and they shall call his name Immanuel.” Matthew continues to support his point in this verse by explaining that Immanuel means “God with us.”
While I cannot list all New Testament passages which allude or refer to the virgin birth, there is another passage which clearly supports this doctrine. Luke 1:26-28 tells of the prediction of the birth of Christ prior to His conception. These verses tell the account of the conversation between the angel Gabriel and the “virgin” (Luke 1:27) Mary. Gabriel said to Mary, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy offspring shall be called the Son of God.” (Luke 1:35) Thus, we know that Mary conceived a child as a result of being “overshadowed” by the Holy Spirit. Many leading evangelical scholars prefer to use the term “virginal conception” rather than “virgin birth” because what is truly miraculous about the event is the conception of Christ through the Holy Spirit in Mary, completely independent of a human male.
There are many other verses in the New Testament which allude to the “virginal conception” but time will not permit me to write about all of them. Here are some references: Mark 6:3, John 1:13; 6:41-51; 7:41-42; 8:41, Romans 1:3, Galatians 4:4, Philippians 2:7. It is clear that there is plenty of evidence for this doctrine in the Bible and it should not be disputed.
Throughout the history of the church, the doctrine of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ has been under attack by many who call themselves theologians. I would like to examine some of their objections to this doctrine and how evangelicals have responded to them as well of the testimony of some of the early church fathers on this doctrine.
There have been many viewpoints on the doctrine of the virginal conception. There are those feminist theologians who say that Matthew 1:1-25 and the Lukan account of the virgin birth are actually about an illegitimate conception and not a miraculous conception. There is also the objection to the virginal conception to which modernists hold; that is, they reject the doctrine based on their presupposition that excludes the possibility of miracles. Rationalists and modernists attempt to understand this doctrine but do not allow for the supernatural. They have “a new conception of God and the universe which forbids the belief in miracles” and for them “to believe in the virgin birth implies a rejection of scientific truth.”
Another objection, and one of the most frequently raised ones, is that “too many other parallels exist in ancient literature to allow us to take the Christian account seriously.” Supporters of this view hold to the notion that Greek Christians started this idea of the virgin birth as a result of the influence of pagan myths. They argue that these Greek Christians created the virgin birth story because they were influenced by myths such as the birth of Hercules. Hercules was born as a result of a union between Zeus and a human mother, and Greek Christians wanted their hero, Jesus of Nazareth, to have a similar supernatural birth. Although those who wish to deny the virgin birth of Christ use this argument, upon closer examination of the accounts, it is evident that the biblical birth narratives are quite different from pagan myths. As Robert Stein puts it, in pagan myths “the woman had no possible claim to be a virgin, and, if she was a virgin before the encounter [between the woman and god], she certainly was not considered a virgin afterward.” Paganism simply has not claims to virgin births. In addition to their lack of claims to virgin births, pagan supernatural births are all “about fornication between divine and human beings” which is in contrast to the New Testament account of the conception of Jesus Christ.
Objections to this doctrine have been raised throughout history based on biblical data as well. Let us consider several of the more weighty arguments that bring into question the virgin birth as presented by James Orr. The first of these is that “Joseph and Mary are sometimes spoken of in the Gospels as the father and mother of Jesus.” It goes without saying that if Joseph was Jesus’ biological father, there was no virgin birth. James Orr points out that these verses that speak of Jesus as the son of Joseph and Mary do nothing more than tell us that those who were speaking of Jesus in those narratives saw him and the son of both Joseph and Mary. Those around Jesus saw him grow up from birth to adulthood in the home of Joseph and Mary, so to friends and neighbors Jesus must have been though of as “Joseph’s son.” Luke, who in his Gospel tells the narrative of the virgin birth, refers to Joseph and Mary as the parents of Jesus three times. Clearly, Luke did not see the references to Joseph and Mary being Jesus’ parents as contradicting the virginal conception.
Another difficulty in dealing with the biblical data discussed by Orr has to do with the genealogies of Jesus in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. Opponents of the virgin birth have argued that the authors of the gospels saw Joseph as the father of Jesus. This seems to be a strong argument since Matthew 1:16 says, “and to Jacob was born Joseph the husband of Mary, by whom was born Jesus, who is called Christ,” and Luke 1:27 says that “to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the descendants of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary.” However, Orr points out two reasons why this argument does not stand. First, Matthew and Luke, “who knew the meaning of plain terms, saw no contradiction between these genealogies and their own narratives of the virgin birth.” Secondly, the evangelists were very careful not to refer to Joseph as the father of Jesus in his genealogies but as the husband of Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The last biblical difficulty pointed out of James Orr which warrants a discussion is the “question of Christ’s Davidic descent.” A recurrent theme throughout the New Testament regarding the genealogy is that Jesus Christ was of the lineage of David. Critics of the virgin birth claim that genealogies support Christ’s Davidic descent through Joseph, his paternal parent. However, Luke 2:4-5 tells us that Mary was also going to register for the census in Bethlehem because and Joseph were both of “the house and family of David.”
There have been, throughout the history of the church, many attacks on the doctrine of the virgin birth. And, as can be seen, the attacks have come from many sides and angles but the church has held its ground. Although this doctrine has been under attack throughout history, it has been held by many as a vital part of their faith since the apostolic fathers. Ignatius (90-150 AD), Bishop of Antioch, wrote in his epistle to the Ephesians the following, strongly in support of the virgin birth:
“Hidden from the prince of this world were the Virginity of Mary and her childbearing, and likewise also the death of our Lord–three mysteries of open proclamation, the which were wrought in the silence of God.”
Also in support of this doctrine, Justin Martyr wrote in his Apology:
“We find it foretold in the Books of the Prophets that Jesus our Christ should come born of a virgin–be crucified and should die and rise again, and go up to heaven and should both be and be called the “Son of God.”
The doctrine of the virgin birth was supported by many more of the Church Fathers and a reading of them “produces conclusive evidence that the early Christians accepted the virgin birth as an established fact.”
The doctrine of the virgin birth, as has been pointed out, has been debated at length over time, but why is that so? What makes this doctrine so vital that many believe they have to defend it? Is this an absolutely crucial doctrine for the Christian faith?
Although many people have discussed the importance of this doctrine, Wayne Grudem presents it in the most effective and concise manner. He presents the doctrinal importance of the virgin birth in three areas.
The first is that the virgin birth “shows that salvation ultimately must come from the Lord.” In Genesis 3:15, God said to the serpent, “And I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your seed and her seed; he shall bruise you on the head, and you shall bruise him on the heel.” In the same way as in Genesis 3:15, God showed through the virgin birth of Christ that salvation could not come through the effort of humans but through supernatural channels.
The second doctrinal point is that “the virgin birth made possible the uniting of full deity and full humanity in one person.” This is idea is supported by John 3:16 and Galatians 4:4 which say that God sent his son. There is no other way we can think of that would better unite “humanity and deity in one person.” This is not to say that God could not have sent his son to earth any other way but it is hard to imagine any other way that he could send his son to earth as fully man and fully God.
Grudem’s third point is that “virgin birth also makes possible Christ’s true humanity without inherited sin.” Millard Erickson disputes this point on the basis that if we too did not have a human father we would also be sinless. This argument, however, is of no value since we would not exist without a human father. We were not conceived supernaturally like Jesus. Erickson also states that “Jesus’ sinlessness was not dependent on the virginal conception.” Howard Hanke supports the opposite view of Erickson by writing, “the virgin birth is the only means through which our savior could have made entry into our world.” If Jesus had been the product of two human parents, he would have inherited original sin, and it would be impossible for him not to sin. As Tschudy points out, Psalm 51:5 says that “I [David] was brought forth in iniquity, and in sin my mother conceived me,” and in the same way Jesus would have been conceived in sin had it not been for the virgin birth. While God could have sent his son into the world in any manner he chose, he did it this way, and he must have done it this way for a reason. We should not put limits on God, but the virgin birth is the only way one can think of someone being totally human and totally God and not tainted with original sin from the time of birth.
Grudem says that “if our beliefs are to be governed by the statements of Scripture, then we will certainly not deny” the virgin birth. In his third debate on the virgin birth with Charles Francis Potter, John Roach Straton gives us four reasons to hold to the virgin birth as an essential doctrine. First, rejecting this doctrine results in the rejection of the Bible and its authority. Second, this doctrine has been declared by all “great branches” of the church. Third, the reliability and the efficiency of the atonement rely on this doctrine. Lastly, a proper understanding of this doctrine helps us to understand the object of our worship.
This miraculous event, the virginal conception, should not be minimized, and we should not overlook this excellent gift from God to humanity. As Hanke put it, “all of the basic Christian doctrines are related to the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ.” Let us therefore continue to stand up for the biblical account of the birth of our savior, and let us not forget the impact that this doctrine can have on our theology.