Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Some Final Thoughts on the Virgin Birth

In an earlier post we saw why Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit is important. For one thing, it affirms Jesus' divinity. Jesus' birth by the Virgin Mary, by contrast, affirms his humanity.

Because Jesus was and is fully human we have a Saviour who can empathise with our weaknesses. Hebrews 4:15 says, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin." Because of Jesus we can never say that God does not understand our situation. As C. S. Lewis notes in his book, Miracles, Jesus has come all the way down....
In the Christian story God descends to reascend. He comes down; down from the heights of absolute being into time and space, down into humanity; down further still, if embryologists are right, to recapitulate in the womb ancient and pre-human phases of life; down to the very roots and seabed of the Nature He has created. But He goes down to come up again and bring the whole ruined world up with Him. One has the picture of a strong man stooping lower and lower to get himself underneath some great complicated burden. He must stoop in order to lift, he must almost disappear under the load before he incredibly straightens his back and marches off with the whole mass swaying on his shoulders. Or one may think of a diver, first reducing himself to nakedness, then glancing in mid-air, then gone with a splash, vanished, rushing down through green and warm water into black and cold water, down through increasing pressure into the death-like region of ooze and slime and old decay; then up again, back to colour and light, his lungs almost bursting, till suddenly he breaks surface again, holding in his hand the dripping, precious thing that he went down to recover. He and it are both coloured now that they have come up into the light: down below, where it lay colourless in the dark, he lost his colour too.
This part of The Apostles' Creed witnesses against another ancient heresy called Docetism. This English word comes from the Greek word "dokeo" which means "to appear". The Docetists taught that Jesus merely "appeared" in the form of a human being but he did not actually become human. According to the Docetists, it would not be fitting for God to actually take on human flesh. As J. I. Packer has pointed out, the Early Church Fathers appealed to the Virgin Birth as proof of Jesus' true humanity, as a witness against Docetism. Jesus' divinity was more accepted during a certain period in the Early Church and so the Church Fathers did not feel a need to prove Jesus' divinity as much as his humanity. Today, the shoe is on the other foot.

The story is told of a mother who lost her son; he was killed in action in Germany during the Second World War. One day, while shopping, this woman saw another woman who had also lost a son in the war. When the two women met, they embraced without speaking. However, in their silence each was eloquently communicating comfort to the other. They were each saying in their hearts, "I know how you feel, for I too have gone through the deep waters of sorrow."

Because God took on human flesh in Jesus of Nazareth and was born of a virgin, he knows what we are going through as human beings, and he has compassion and empathy for us in all our joys and our sufferings.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Isaiah and the Virgin Birth

The context of this verse is that when Ahaz was King of Judah, King Rezin of Aram and Pekah, son of Remaliah, King of Israel marched up to fight against Jerusalem. These men were trying unsuccessfully to persuade Ahaz to join a coalition against Assyria which had strong designs on lands to the west. (See the NIV Study Bible.) The Lord sent Isaiah to Ahaz to keep Ahaz from forming a counter-alliance with Assyria. Isaiah brought Ahaz a message from the Lord telling Ahaz not to worry and to stand firm in his faith. Furthermore, the Lord told Ahaz to ask for a sign so that he could be assured that the prophecy would come true. Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, but the Lord gave him a sign anyway. And the sign was this, "The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.... But before the boy knows enough to reject the wrong and choose the right, the land of the two kings you dread will be laid waste. (Isaiah 7:14-16)

Many scholars have pointed out that the word often translated as "virgin" in this verse can also be translated simply as "young woman". So apparently what the Lord was telling Ahaz was that a child would be born to a young woman and once this child grew old enough to tell right from wrong (in other words, when he was 13 and thus at the age where he would be held accountable to know God's Law) the two kingdoms which Ahaz feared would be laid waste.

So what does this prophecy have to do with the Virgin Birth of Jesus? It would seem that many of the prophecies of the Old Testament (from the perspective of the New) had both a near fulfilment and a more distant, future fulfilment. It is possible that the near fulfilment of Isaiah 7:14 had to do with Isaiah's own child. But Matthew saw something different in this verse. That is why we read in Matthew 1:22-23, "And this took place to fulfil what the Lord had said through the prophet: 'The virgin will be with child and will give birth to a son, and they will call him Immanuel'--which means, 'God with us.'" Presumably Isaiah's child was conceived through normal means. But Matthew is at pains to make the point that this was not the case with Jesus. Referring to Joseph, Matthew says, "But he had no union with her until she gave birth to a son." (Matthew 1:25)

Of course, Luke also makes it quite clear that Mary was a virgin. He calls her that twice in Luke 1:27. And Mary refers to herself as a virgin when she asks the angel in Luke 1:34, "How will this be since I am a virgin?"

Tomorrow we will look at why this part of The Apostles' Creed is important.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Born of the Virgin Mary

"Madonna & Child with St. Anne" by Caravaggio

This part of The Apostles' Creed has two distinct but related statements:

  • Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
  • Born of the Virgin Mary
Having considered Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit, we must now look more closely at his birth from the Virgin Mary.

For centuries, if not millennia, Christian theologians have seen the first hint of the Virgin Birth, a prophecy if you will, in Genesis 3:15. This verse has been called the protoevangelion, or first announcement of the gospel. 

In cursing the serpent for his part in the fall, God says to him:

I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head,
and you will strike his heel.

The Hebrew word translated as "offspring" here literally means "seed". This is the only place in the Bible that talks about the seed of the woman. Seed normally refers to male seed and its participation in the act of conception. Thus, Christian theologians have seen this verse as the first reference in the Bible to a person who is going to be born of a woman without the help of a male sperm. The one who is to come and crush the head of the serpent will be born of a woman, not a man and a woman.

This is strange. Yes, no doubt about it. There is mystery here. But it is important to see that this idea of Virgin Birth has its roots in the Hebrew Scriptures.

This connection between the Christmas story and Genesis is often lost in modern liturgies. That's why I love the way that the service of Nine Lessons  Carols at King's College Chapel in Cambridge, England begins on Christmas Eve with a reading from Genesis 3 and the singing of a carol related to this Old Testament story.

Here is a brief video of one of those lovely carols with lyrics below....

Adam lay ybounden,
Bounden in a bond;
Four thousand winter
Thought he not too long.
And all was for an apple,
An apple that he took,
As clerkès finden
Written in their book.
Ne had the apple taken been,
The apple taken been,
Ne had never our lady
Abeen heavenè queen.
Blessèd be the time
That apple taken was,
Therefore we moun singen,
Deo gracias!

Oxford University Press

Tomorrow we will look at another prophetic verse that has to do with the Virgin Birth. 

Sunday, January 25, 2015

The Virgin Birth, Divinity & Humanity

Orthodox icons of Jesus emphasize humanity and divinity in one person. Notice how the face is asymmetrical (like most human faces). But in Jesus' case, he is purposely portrayed this way by the iconographer to emphasize divinity and humanity. Notice how Jesus' left eye is slightly larger than his right eye and his left eyebrow slightly higher than his right. That is because the left side of his face is intended to depict his divinity and the right side his humanity.

A second reason why Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit is important is because it calls attention to Jesus' divinity. The two things are not synonymous. Just because Jesus was born of a virgin that does not necessarily make him divine. And I suppose that Jesus could have been divine without being born of a virgin. But if Matthew and Luke are correct, then this is the manner in which God chose to take on our human flesh. There is a certain appropriateness to the divine Son of God being born in this manner. It seems only right that Jesus was born not by human initiative but by divine initiative.

On the other hand, a third reason why Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit is important is because it calls attention to the fact that Jesus started a new line of humanity. In 1 Corinthians 15:45 Paul wrote, "So it is written, 'The first man Adam became a living being'; the last Adam, a life-giving spirit." Both in 1 Corinthians and in Romans 5, Paul referred to Jesus as a kind of second Adam, the first in a new line of humanity. The Virgin Birth calls attention to this: that something new and completely different is happening in Jesus.

Yes, Jesus had a human line of ancestry through Mary going all the way back to Adam (according to Luke's genealogy). However, in another way, Jesus began an entirely new line. Jesus was, to use theological terminology, a new covenant head. Just as Adam by his disobedience brought sin and death and judgment to all, so Jesus through his obedience brought grace to all who believe in him. The Virgin Birth draws our gaze to look upon this truth, that here we have an unusual person, one who was without sin, one who was fully divine and fully human at the same time, and therefore one who could act as a covenant head to earn eternal life for all who believe.

Karl Barth put it this way: "According to Scripture and creed, Jesus Christ is not the second or new Adam because He was born of the Virgin. His being the second or new Adam is indicated--'That ye may know...'--by His being born of the Virgin."

This part of The Apostles' Creed witnesses against an ancient heresy called adoptionism. Adoptionism was briefly popular in the period of the early church. The early church was wrestling with the question of when Jesus became the Son of God. The answer of adoptionism was that Jesus was merely adopted by the Father at the point of his baptism when the Father said, "This is my Son, whom I love." However, Matthew and Luke, by the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, suggest that Jesus was fully God from the point of his conception, not to mention the fact that he was the Son of God from all eternity, even before his incarnation.

Thus, this line in the creed ("who was conceived by the Holy Spirit") is important for at least three reasons. With one stroke it calls attention to Jesus' sinlessness, his divinity, and his role as a new, human, covenant head.

Saturday, January 24, 2015

Is the Virgin Birth important?

Is Jesus' conception by the Holy Spirit an important doctrine? Yes, I believe so, for at least three reasons.

First, it calls our attention to Jesus' sinlessness. Numerous verses in the New Testament attest to the sinlessness of Jesus. Allow me to quote just two of them. In 2 Corinthians 5:21 Paul writes of Jesus, "God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God." And in Hebrews 4:15 we read, "For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathise with our weaknesses, but we have one who has been tempted in every way, just as we are--yet was without sin." According to these verses, and a number of others, Jesus was without sin. And the way in which he was kept from original sin may be traced back to the Virgin Birth.

How was Jesus kept from original sin through the Virgin Birth? Augustine's theory was that original sin is passed down from parents to children through the sexual act itself. Since there was no sex act that led to Jesus' conception therefore he was without original sin. However, Scripture does not spell this out quite as clearly as Augustine might have liked for it to do.

The Catholic Church teaches that Jesus was kept from original sin because his mother Mary was without original sin. The Catholic Church teaches that Mary was immaculately conceived. However, once again, Scripture says nothing of this. More importantly, Scripture suggests that Mary saw herself as in need of a Saviour. In Luke 1:47 she says, " spirit rejoices in God my Saviour..."

Others have put forward that original sin is passed through fathers specifically. Since Jesus did not have an earthly father therefore he was without original sin. Once again, it sounds like a broken silent record, but Scripture says nothing of this.

So what does the Scripture say? It says that Jesus was kept from sin by the work of the Holy Spirit. As the angel said to Mary, it was because of the overshadowing of the Holy Spirit that this child would be called "the holy one" of God. (Luke 1:35)

Let us give thanks for the One who was without sin, yet became sin for us that we might become the righteousness of God.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit

"The Annunciation" by Caravaggio

"...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit..." That's what we confess in The Apostles' Creed, that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit, but where does it come from in Scripture?

The first place is Matthew 1:20 where we read, "But after he [Joseph] had considered this, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, 'Joseph son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit."

The second place is in Luke 1:35 where we read about an angel saying something similar to Mary: "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God."

Some people reject the Virgin Birth arguing that, since the story is told in only these two places in Matthew and Luke, we can very well do without it.

In one sense this may have a bit of truth to it. N. T. Wright (in his book with Marcus Borg, The Meaning of Jesus) says,
Jesus' birth usually gets far more attention than its role in the New Testament warrants. Christmas looms large in our culture, outshining even Easter in the popular mind. Yet without Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 we would know nothing about it. Paul's gospel includes Jesus' Davidic descent, but apart from that could exist without mention of his birth. One can be justified by faith with no knowledge of it. Likewise, John's wonderful theological edifice has no need of it: God's glory is revealed, not in the manger, but on the cross.
However, just because the Virgin Birth is not mentioned anywhere else in the New Testament, that does not mean it did not happen. Wright goes on to say that there are natural, probing questions that the historian wants to ask.
As with most ancient history, of course, we cannot verify independently what is reported in only one source. If that gives grounds for ruling it out, however, most of ancient history goes with it. Let us by all means be suspicious, but let us not be paranoid. Just because I've had a nightmare, that doesn't mean there aren't burglars in the house. The fact that Matthew says something fulfilled scripture doesn't mean it didn't happen.
The specifics of how this miracle was accomplished are not given in Scripture. We are not told exactly how Jesus was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary; we are simply told that it was by the Holy Spirit and no male was involved.

Some reject the Virgin Birth because they believe it is imported into the New Testament from other ancient myths. However, the Virgin Birth of Jesus is not a case of God taking human form and lying with a woman as in the myth of Zeus and Alcmena. There is no hint of this at all. We are simply told that the Holy Spirit "came upon" Mary and the power of the Most High "overshadowed" her. Once again, Wright offers helpful comment:
Of course, legends surround the birth and childhood of many figures who afterward become important. As historians, we have no reason to say that this did not happen in the case of Jesus and some reasons to say that it did. But by comparison with other legends about other figures, Matthew and Luke look after all quite restrained.
So, how the Virgin Birth was accomplished is shrouded in mystery. However, as John Calvin one said, where God chooses to keep things a mystery we may bow in wonder and awe.

Thursday, January 22, 2015

The Virgin Birth

"Virgin & Child" by Simon Vouet

Today we come to examine the second part of the second article of The Apostles' Creed. "I believe in Jesus Christ...who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary..."

Belief in the Virgin Birth of Jesus is denied by many today. It is often denied by at least two different groups of people. The first group of people deny the Virgin Birth because they deny miracles altogether. They are naturalists. They believe that we live in a closed universe. "What you see is what you get." "Nature is all there is." Statements such as these are part of their credo. Thus, as a natural consequence, they do not accept miracles of any kind. If they are interested in the Bible at all then they explain away the miracles of the Bible on naturalistic/materialistic grounds.

However, if you believe that there may be more to the universe than what can be seen, or what can be explained by science, especially if you believe there is a God who created everything that exists, then the possibility of miracles, the possibility of God intervening in his creation, becomes intellectually feasible.

For lack of a better word, we might call the other group of people who reject the Virgin Birth "modernists". These are people, many if not all of them very good people, who are part of the visible church, who may even accept some miracles of the Bible, but they reject the Virgin Birth. These people may point out that the Virgin Birth is taught in only two places in the New Testament and therefore they conclude that it is not a very important doctrine, or at least, not necessary for all Christians to confess. We will address the importance of the Virgin Birth in a later post. For now, let me say this: if you want to read more on this subject, I recommend N. T. Wright and Marcus Borg's book, The Meaning of Jesus. These two New Testament scholars come at this doctrine of the Virgin Birth from two different angles. Borg does not believe it and Wright does. They both explain what they believe and why.

Personally, I love what C. S. Lewis says about this in his book, Miracles,
I can understand the man who denies miracles altogether: but what is one to make of people who will believe other miracles and 'draw the line' at the Virgin Birth? Is it that for all their lip service to the laws of Nature there is only one natural process in which they really believe? Or is it that they think they see in this miracle a slur upon sexual intercourse (though they might just as well see in the feeding of the five thousand an insult to bakers) and that sexual intercourse is the one thing still venerated in this unvenerating age? In reality the Miracle is no less, and no more, surprising than any others.
In upcoming posts we will look at this difficult doctrine in greater depth....