May 26, 2020

Open Mic: Is The Virgin Birth Necessary?

As Martha of Ireland walks us through the mysteries of the Rosary, we have visited the topic of the virgin birth of Christ. There have been some comments wondering if it is necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian.

I asked a friend what she thought about this. “Yes,” she said, “because otherwise Jesus is just another god.” Then I asked iMonk writer Adam Palmer. “I’d say you do have to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian,” he said. “Otherwise you’re calling the divinity of Jesus into question.”

The virgin birth points to a God who is outside of the natural—thus, supernatural. It points us to a God who doesn’t play by the rules, who is not limited to what we can see or imagine. This is a God who is not like we are, only more moral. No, the God who can create life simply by “coming upon” a young virgin is not like us. He is, as Lisa Dye has said, “other.” God is other. And whereas we cannot figure him out, we can trust him. Perhaps because we can’t figure him out, that is the reason we can trust him.

This is what I think. I think it is absolutely necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a Christian. We cannot assign this story to the “mythological” section simply because it’s impossible by our standards. We must grip onto it for dear life—literally for dear life. For if Jesus was not born in this way, we simply have a good man, a moral man, a mighty teacher. But we don’t have a savior who can rescue us from the grave.

This is what I think. What about you? Do you feel the virgin birth is absolutely necessary in order to be a Christian? Or is this a part of the story that can be explained away in another way, yet still allow one to follow Jesus? What do you do with stories in Scripture that frankly don’t make sense? Can we not just take the sayings of Jesus and work to live those out in our lives? What is up with a God who demands that we believe the ridiculous, the absurd, the impossible?

Time for you to step up to the microphone and voice your thoughts. Let us hear what you do with this story.

Comments

  1. Orthodoxy is a fruit of salvation, not the cause of it. Our beliefs are works. We’re saved by grace through faith. So need we believe in the virgin birth to be saved? Well, did we believe in the virgin birth when we first came to Jesus? Some of us did; some of us knew nothing about it and accepted it after the fact. And some of us—who, no offense, are heretics—can’t swallow it, but still trust Jesus to save us, and hopefully He still will. As hopefully He’ll save those people whose only fruit is orthodoxy.

    I’m not saying the virgin birth idea isn’t important. It was important enough to the early Christians for them to put it in the creeds. The uniqueness of that miracle distinguishes Jesus as more than just an ordinary human, more than just an ordinary birth, certainly not accidental. It distinguishes Jesus’s birth story from that of pagan gods and demigods, whose mothers were certainly not virgins. Could He be God without a virgin birth? Sure; anything is possible for God. But we would debate His divinity a whole lot more, because there would be a lot more question of it.

    • Great comment. This resolves the tension for me of demanding orthodoxy be maintained, but not slipping into “you’re not really saved” accusations.

    • MelissatheRagamuffin says

      I really like this statement as well because while I absolutely accept the tenant of the virgin birth, and consider it a non-negotiable, I know other people who really get stuck on it.

      What always strikes me about The Creeds when I look at them is that conspicuously absent is a lot of the stuff we like to get our panties in a knot and jump up and down yelling some other group isn’t Christian about: how and when God created the world, the Rapture and all the arguments surrounding it, the baptism of the Holy Spirit and blathering in tongues, and even the diety of Jesus is missing from the Apostles Creed. But, the Virgin birth – that’s there. Assuming for one second that the Apostles Creed actually goes back to the Apostles then that means that the Virgin birth was one of the things that the people who actually knew Jesus considered non-negotiable. That really just blows my mind when I think about it.

  2. Jack Heron says

    I, as people who have been following the earlier discussions no doubt noticed, am fairly agnostic as to the virginity of Mary. I find there to be no good reason to believe (although, I would add, I see no good reason to defiantly disbelieve either).

    It’s not because I think it’s impossible. It’s not because I find it somehow more respectable to believe in a God whose miracles are more subtle. And it’s not because I object to the story.

    I find the whole infancy narrative troubling on a textual level. It doesn’t fit, to my mind. There are demonstrable errors about things I have knowledge about. And so I do what my Classics teacher taught me many years ago and take those things about which I have no knowledge with a pinch of salt.

    People have said Christianity loses a significant and important story if you deny the Virgin Birth. But Christianity also loses a significant and important story if you deny that little tale in the Infancy Gospel of Thomas where Jesus creates living sparrows out of clay. We have denied the latter because we found the text problematic (as well we should). Why do we stop there?

    Do we believe Christ was divine because we feel that fact in our souls? Or do we believe it because of the sum total of miracles ascribed to him?

    What does this mean for my faith? In itself, not much. I don’t think God is somehow lessened by lacking a virgin birth. God is utterly other, whether or not He shows us that fact. The Word is true, even if not all stories about Him are true. Martha has pointed out the various heresies that might go along with a non-virgin birth. She is right: they detract from the Christ we believe in if they say he was merely a man with a god implanted in him, or merely a god wearing a human shell. But can’t we simply deny those ideas without having to claim we understand how the Incarnation could come about in the way we believe it did?

    I have no answers about Jesus’ birth. The only thing I’ll be bold enough to claim is that I believe in a God who works miracles such as we cannot imagine. I believe in a God I don’t understand. And because of that, I shall refrain from saying what is or is not necessary to believe in order to have faith in Him.

    • Thing is, between (as you say) the infancy narratives in the Gospel of Thomas and the canonical Gospels, there are significant differences. If it was merely a question of the more divinity the better, then why not lump in the Gospel of Thomas with the others?

      Things like the ‘creating sparrows out of clay” are the same class of accretions that got tacked on to the birth of the Buddha: the dream of his mother where a white elephant struck her on the side, the painless birth in the blossoming grove, the newborn taking seven steps and declaring “I alone am the World-honoured one!”

      Canonical Buddhism (if we can conceive of such a beast) does not accept these tales, but the folk religion of the people venerates the Buddha with such miracles.

      The point of the virgin birth is that we are dealing with a strictly monotheistic people whose god uniquely amongst the other gods did not have a consort and did not father offspring either on other deities or by human women (or even bring forth deities from blood, semen or sweat, as Egyptian creation myths attested). So to say that this particular woman bore a son by Yahweh was really saying something unique in the cultural context.

      Why wasn’t John the Baptist the Messiah? His birth was announced by an angel, it was considered miraculous (because his mother was barren and no longer young), he was prophesied to do great things and he went forth, preached, baptised, and was slain by the civil authority. Same thing as his cousin Jesus, right?

      Except no-one (um, unless we count the Johannites ) considers John the Baptist to be the saviour.

      The whole point of the virgin birth is that this is not some kind of “God puts on a meat suit” by taking over an existing human body and supplanting the human soul and identity – which is what would happen if we take the idea that Mary had a son by Joseph in the ordinary human fashion and then this child was infused with the power of God (like the angels and demons using their vessels in the tv show “Supernatural”), or pretends to be in the flesh (like various Gnostic proposals, such as the one that the human Jesus was the one who died on the cross because the divine spark abandoned the fleshly host and left him in the lurch to suffer and die), or ‘adopts’ a human as the son of God – this is really the Second Person of the Trinity made flesh. Made of our flesh, to share in our heritage of sin and fallenness, so that He really lived, really suffered, really died and in Himself made satisfaction for the sin of Adam, His ancestor in the flesh through Mary.

      But because He was also really God, not a demi-god or avatar, this is not the wrath of a deity demanding the sacrifice of a human victim. He paid His own ransom and ransomed us all along with Him.

      So we don’t have an inspired human, or a false human, or one of the countless avatars of Hindu mythology. The humanity of Christ persists in Heaven, where the wounds of the crucifixion are stil present in His glorified body.

      It does make a real difference if we have a Virgin Birth or not. We can scrap the ‘mythological’ elements and have a neat, rational religion where some kind of Vague Deity Concept smiles down benignantly on us, but I can’t believe in a rational religion.

      My own personal alternatives are (1) Catholicism (2) Tibetan Buddhism (3) Atheism as a strict materialist (though really, it’s Catholic or Nothing, because if I stopped believing in the morning, I couldn’t take on a different denomination or a different faith. It would be the end of all supernatural or preternatural meaning for me).

      • Jack Heron says

        I agree that Infancy Thomas is tacked-on, but is there something distinctively different between taking seven steps and declaring to be world-honoured and going to the synagogue and amazing the teachers with learning? The same arguments applied to the apocryphal nature of Infancy Thomas can also be applied (with, I grant, less confidence) to the canonical infancy narrative.

        You’re right about the problems of Gnostic Messiahs or merely human prophets, but while I see that the Virgin Birth is a nice way to express the nature of Christ, I simply don’t see that it is a requirement. Cannot we declare ‘entirely God and entirely Man’ without having to demand a particular Incarnational mechanism (if I can use such a phrase) by which it must have come about?

        I don’t see that scrapping the Virgin Birth leads to an entirely rational religion. It would be terrible if it did, I agree – I have something of a personal resentment against the Vague Deity Concept. It is only to the materialist that all miracles are the same, because they are all false – to people who believe they happen, each is quite different and it is fully possible to declare that one happened and another did not without disturbing our belief in their reality as a class of event.

  3. While I do believe that the Virgin Birth is essential, I think it would be somewhat difficult from an ecumenical standpoint to state authoritatively whether or not the doctrine is essential to being a Christian. Before we can answer that question, we’re going to have to ask–and answer–some others, such as what the standard of orthodox doctrine is, who or what judges by this standard, and whether a person can deny one or more “orthodox doctrines” and still remain a Christian. For that matter, we would have to define first what a Christian actually is in objective and visibly identifiable terms (i.e., beyond simply saying, “those who are born again”).

    It’s an important issue, but there are other issues that need to be resolved first before you can rule on this question.

    • If we’re going the “Christian means the same thing as Confucian, i.e. follower of an ethical code instituted by a great man”, sure.

      If we mean religion, we can be Muslims (who consider Christ a great prophet but not the son of God since God is one and not a trinity, and is not a pagan god who fathers offspring indiscriminately) or Unitarians or Mormons or half a dozen other denominations.

      Or we can be, you know, Christians as most people understood it, even the mockers who thought these freaks were nuts

      Here is an excerpt from that Johannite site I mentioned:

      “We fully embrace the beauty and mystery of the living Christian tradition: candles and incense, ancient rites such as baptism and the eucharist and robed male and female priests. We also delight in the freedoms to choose how we understand our tradition and to explore other paths that are among the particular gifts of our modern world.”

      Hands up everyone who thinks Christianity consists of “candles, incense, robed male and female priests” or that these are the really important elements?

      Sorry, you’re wrong.

      Baptism and the Eucharist are the important elements, so important that to put them on a par with candles and robes is like comparing a child’s rattle with a nuclear bomb.

      Christianity means believing in Christ. It does not mean doing good to others – it is not a kind of fuzzy-bunny lowest common denominator ‘religion’ as this gentleman, writing in 1926 to reveal the falsity of the Bible hoped to convince us all to shed sectarianism for a higher and purified religion, states:

      “The earnest hope is cherished for this book, that the simple and sincere search here made of the Scriptures for truth’s sake, will serve to make only theology and religious intolerance vain and ridiculous; that it shame contending Christians from an unfounded faith in the untrue, and encourage them and all men into the brotherhood of the only possible true and pure religion — to “Do good, for good is good to do.” Then will indeed be realized the burden of the herald angel’s song: “Peace on earth to men of good will.”

      Or the attitude, gently mocked by G.K. Chesterton in his essay “The Usual Article”:

      “I will repeat somewhat hurriedly what the lady in question cried; for the reader knows it already by heart. The message of Christ was perfectly “simple”: that the cure of everything is Love; but since He was killed (I do not quite know why) for making this remark, great temples have been put up to Him and horrid people called priests have given the world nothing but “stones, amulets, formulas, shibboleths.” They also “quarrel eternally among
      themselves as to the placing of a button or the bending of a knee.” All this gives no comfort to the unhappy Christian, who apparently wishes to be comforted only by being told that he has a duty to his neighbour.”

      The point is (as he puts it later in the essay):

      “As to Transubstantiation, it is less easy to talk currently about that; but I would gently suggest that, to most ordinary outsiders with any common sense, there would be a considerable practical difference between Jehovah pervading the universe and Jesus Christ coming into the room.”

      Do we have a God who pervades the universe in an impersonal fashion, or do we have a God who, in the words of the Angelus, “And the Word became flesh, and dwelt amongst us”?

  4. One shouldn’t say that it is absolutely necessary to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian, because that would mean that their definition of what a Christian is would exclude people like me. I consider myself a Christian—what gives someone the right to say otherwise?

    What does the virgin birth have anything to do with Christ’s teachings or even his death/resurrection? It’s only found in two gospels, and was the result of a Greek mistranslation of an ancient Hebrew prophecy. I’m not a fan of basing so-called orthodoxy on such a minor piece of the huge saga that is the story of Jesus. I believe that the virgin birth narrative can have great implications for how we live our faith, but we shouldn’t hang our hats on such things.

    • As to that, Joshua, what gives anyone the right to say Joe is a doctor but Tom is not? A lawyer? A member of the Republican or Democrat or Tory or Labour party? The editor of “The New York Times”? President of the United States? President of the local Tiddlywinks Club?

      We get this with the “Roman Catholic WomenPriests Movement” where they’re priests if they say they’re priests and they’re Catholics if they say they’re Catholics, and never mind what the Vatican says.

      By that measure, I could get fifteen people together (come on, all you out there reading this blog!) and have them declare me Queen of South-East Ireland, but would that be recognised by the U.N.?

      Oh, wait: why does the U.N. get to recognise who is and who isn’t a country?

      There really are people out there – like Ann Holmes Redding – who see no difficulty in being both a Christian and a Muslim (for instance). She was an Episcopalian priest who converted to Islam in 2006, continued to preach in her church as well as attending services at the Islamic centre, declared that she was both Muslim and Christian, and was finally defrocked in 2009 because even the Episcopal Church couldn’t quite see its way to considering that you could hold with equal belief and sincerity “Jesus Christ is the Son of God” and “Christ, the son of Mary, was only a messenger; it is not befitting to the majesty of God that He should beget a son”. Not unless you have such a watered-down notion of Christianity that you accept the Muslim view as de facto the correct one.

      • So you’re saying that a belief or practice is legitimate only if embraced by the institutional hierarchy?

        Seems like Jesus, the leader of what began as an obscure Jewish cult with 12 followers, might take issue with that line of thinking.

        • The term Christian is used for people with particular beliefs. These beliefs are outlined in creedal statements dating from antiquity. To be a Christian is by definition to adhere to the creeds, which clearly state that Jesus was virgin born.

          This is not the same as saying that those who disbelieve the virgin birth are going to hell—simply that they are not free to call themselves Christian who deny its fundamental doctrines.

          • Those creedal beliefs didn’t come about for three hundred years after the death of Christ, and even then they were hotly contested. For instance, the meaning of the triune nature of God was still being debated almost five hundred years after the resurrection. To say that to be a Christian is to follow the creeds (Nicene, Apostolic, etc.) is to point to a particular time (long after Jesus) and say, “There! Right there! THAT is a Christian.” When in reality, Christians were getting along just fine without creeds as early followers of the Way.

          • Hi, Joshua.

            The definition of what makes someone a Christian includes certain doctrines. Mormons and JWs have tried changing the definition, as well, over the years, but they are clearly not Christians. Christians subscribe to the creeds and have historically done so for a long time: certainly much longer than any debates about whether Jesus was virgin-born. Christians are Nicene as much as ante-Nicene (indeed, they are Nicene because the issues were being worked out before the creed was written). The deity and divinity of Christ are stipulated by the creed and would be undone by non-virgin birth: both doctrines have early witness in ante-Nicene fathers (e.g., Irenaeus).

            It is necessary to believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian. This is what the term “Christian” implies. This is not the same thing as saying that you must believe in the virgin birth to go to heaven.

          • So…you’re saying I’m not Christian? I’m not sure if you can make that decision for me.

            I’m just not so willing to claim that Jesus’s divinity hangs on the virgin birth. John doesn’t even mention a virgin birth, but John’s Jesus is VERY divine.

          • I made no such decision for you. You made that decision. Christians believe certain things: that is why they are Christian.

            It is clear, of course, from the New Testament, that this is the case. The virgin birth is also accepted by Ignatius (to the Smyrnaeans, ch. 1 in the shorter version), Justin Martyr (First Apology, ch. 22, in which he explicitly compares the virgin birth of Christ to Perseus; ch. 31–3 lay out the strongest of his cases, and there are many, many others), Irenaeus (Against Heresies, Book 1, chapter 7), and of course other pre-Nicene fathers. The virgin birth has never been in question in Christianity.

            That you don’t believe in the virgin birth means that you’re really not a Christian. I truly mean no offense by this, but it seems a bit problematic to say that you’re a Christian when you disagree with fundamental doctrines. Doesn’t mean you’re going to hell, but you are appropriating a name that is not quite accurate.

          • Well, it saddens me that you feel that you can set the definition of what it means to be a Christian.

            Your position also operates on the assumption that just because the Church Fathers believed something, then it’s true. In reality, the Church Fathers said and believed all kinds of scary things that no thinking theologian would take even remotely seriously today.

            The virgin birth narrative is just that: a narrative. It was added to the the gospels of Matthew and Luke (which weren’t written for at least 60 years after Jesus’s death) to emphasize the supernatural beginnings of Christ. If it is so important, why does the first written gospel, Mark, mention nowhere in the entire story that Jesus was born of a virgin?

          • Joshua,

            I’m sorry if it makes you sad, but this isn’t my definition: this is an historic definition. The virgin birth is attested in multiple accounts with significant historical backing. The church fathers believed the virgin birth because that is what they were told by eyewitnesses. The gospel accounts record the same. The creedal statements sum up the beliefs of Christians: every Christian, whether protestant, Orthodox, or Catholic (in all their many varieties) subscribe to the creeds.

            Mark’s gospel is an argument from silence. You may as well argue that since it doesn’t contain a birth narrative that Jesus was never born. Logically fallacious and hardly suggestive, since other gospel writers and a host of other witnesses concur with the virgin birth.

            Your argument about the church fathers beliefs is a non sequitur: we are not talking about the rest of their beliefs, but about the virgin birth. There is a universal assent in the early church that Jesus was born of a virgin. For some of the history on the subject, it’s possible that Machen’s The Virgin Birth of Christ would helpful; I have not read it, but there is some summary content I found on Google Books.

            While you are, of course, free to disagree, it seems rather foolish to argue that you are at liberty to decide what Christian means, any more than someone who is African can say he is caucasian. The issue is one of definition, and there are a host of other people who made the definition for you already. Saying “I am a Christian” and “I do not believe in the virgin birth” is like saying that something is false and true at the same time.

          • Mem, that is still according to your definition.

            Can you provide me the multiple historical accounts (I mean, besides Matthew and Luke)?

            You say that I use non-sequiturs and arguments-from-silence, but your entire argument is based on two presuppositions: 1) that because the Church Fathers believed it, that made it so, and 2) because it is in the Bible, it must be true.

            As per creeds: What about Quakers? What about the Charismatic Pentecostal tradition? What about Baptists (who specifically state that they do not need creeds to affirm what they believe)? Your assessment is a blanket statement, since YOUR definition of what it means to be a Christian is “someone who follows the creeds.”

            YOUR (and it is indeed your) definition of a Christian is a narrow one; the true definition is “one who is a believer in the teachings of Jesus.” The virgin birth has very little to do with the teachings of Jesus.

            As per Mark’s gospel: Sure, it may be an argument from silence, but you would think that such a tremendous event would find its way into the Markan account. Or John’s account, for that matter.

            I would call into question your assumption about “universal assent.” Almost nothing is universally accepted, especially among Christians. However, I will need to do a little more research before I can speak to that.

          • Hi, Joshua.

            Do you think that Matthew and Luke are not trustworthy historical sources? Can you name any other sources outside of the gospels for Jesus’ life at all? It seems to me if you want to talk about the historical Jesus without the gospels of Matthew and Luke, you’re simultaneously undercutting Mark—and your argument there is already a fallacious one.

            One one hand, you say that Mark is earliest of the witnesses (true) and contains no reference to the virgin birth (also true). On the other hand, you seem to think that Matthew and Luke (both of which reference the virgin birth) should be discounted because they are later and therefore are historically less reliable? But Matthew appears indebted to Mark for his content.

            Not to mention that Mark’s gospel contains literally no content about Jesus’ early life whatsoever. That he does not talk about the virgin birth has no bearing whatsoever on whether the event actually happened. Your argument here has no foundation. Matthew and Luke (an independent witness) both assent to the virgin birth. I may argue with equal (or better) validity that the stories of Jesus’ birth were of such common knowledge to the readers of Mark’s gospel that he simply didn’t need to write them in.

            The fact of the matter is that we have two well-attested, independent, and early traditions regarding the virgin birth of Christ. It is commonly referenced in early fathers of the church (further indicating that the belief was common) and declared official church doctrine in the Nicene creed. Ignatius (d. during Trajan’s reign, ca. AD 98–115) writes of it to the Smyrnaens (quoting the tradition of Matthew, it seems) and so does Justin Martyr (ca 140–150) in his first apology (chs. 22, 31–33, et c.) and dialogue with Trypho (chs 23, 43,45,48, et c.). Irenaeus (ca. 175–185) mentions it also (Against Heresies I.10, I.26).

            The last of those citations is worth noting, as Irenaeus specifically declaims against Cerinthus, writing that he “represented Jesus as having not been born of a virgin, but as being the son of Joseph and Mary according to the ordinary course of human generation, while he nevertheless was more righteous, prudent, and wise than other men.” So by 180 AD, the early church was already combating heresies regarding the birth of Jesus.

            The virgin birth has been the historic and unanimous declaration of the Christian church from the beginning. Those who denied it were excluded. If that bothers you, I’m sorry—but it is undeniably true. Those who deny the virgin birth are at variance with historic Christianity and are perforce not actually Christian.

    • What does the virgin birth have to do with Jesus’ teachings or his death and resurrection? Nothing, if Jesus was simply a good man who taught us to be good people. And without the virgin birth, how can Jesus be anyone but just a good man? How can he be God in flesh?

      What does it have to do with his death and resurrection? Nothing, if he is just a man born the way all men have been born. All men die. Some even experience resurrection. (Two bestselling books of late have told the stories of a man who was dead for 90 minutes but came back to life, and of a four-year-old boy who died and came back to life. It happens.) And if there was no miraculous virgin birth, then Jesus’ death and resurrection really mean nothing other than a good man and good teacher died too young.

      But if Jesus really was born of a virgin, then we can see his death as God dying for our sins—the most audacious act in the history of all universes. And we can see his resurrection as Life Himself triumphing over death itself. That is why this is so important.

      • Well, I would like to think that my faith in Jesus is a bit stronger than that.

        Luke and Matthew’s description of Jesus being born of a virgin (again, the only texts to make this claim) only do so because of a mistranslation into Greek of a Hebrew prophecy from Isaiah. The word “young girl” in Hebrew suddenly became “virgin” with the Koine Greek translation of the Septuagint, and consequently for some reason became a central piece of doctrinal orthodoxy.

        If the only thing that sets Christ apart is the virginity of his mother, somebody is obviously not paying close enough attention to scripture. There are plenty of other occurrences in the gospels which confirm Jesus’s identity without Christ being born of a virgin—the virgin birth is simply a plot motivator, an element of the Jesus saga that sets up the story, and is never heard from again.

        Say what you like, but I am a Christian and don’t believe in the virgin birth. It is very much possible.

        • Glenn A Bolas says

          I would challenge the ‘because’ in your second sentence there. There IS a mistranslation in the Isaiah passage and it does change the meaning. But it is one thing to acknowledge that and quite another to assert that Matthew and Luke made up an elaborate story out of whole cloth based on a felt need to have Jesus fulfil a mistranslated prophecy.

          I find it much more likely that Matthew and Luke, both of whom were perfectly capable of asking Mary what happened, did so. We know that Matthew at least was acquainted with her and, having seen the things that he had seen, who wouldn’t be a bit curious about Jesus’ birth and early years? And what else are you going to do while hanging about in an upper room waiting for Pentecost? Why cook up an elaborate story when it would be far simpler just to ask someone who was there?

          Then if Mary’s story seems to fit with a text in the Greek version of Scripture, so much the better. Seems almost providential. Throw that in too.

          I’m perfectly willing to acknowledge that the word should have been ‘young woman’ and that ‘virgin’ was a mistake. But the idea that that one text is the whole reason behind Matthew’s and Luke’s claims regarding the Virgin Birth, and their whole Infancy Narratives, ignores basic human motivations. I find it, for that reason, incredible.

          • Jack Heron says

            Only if you assume Matthew and Luke were capable of asking Mary. The identification of the Gospel authors with the apostles is tenuous. Luke, for a start, mucks up his Judaean geography repeatedly – which is pretty odd if he spent a large proportion of his life wandering around the area.

            (In fairness, I should also point out what the more text-oriented scholars often forget: that not being written by the Apostle Luke does not disqualify Luke’s Gospel from having been based on an apostolic tradition deriving from the Apostle Luke)

          • Glenn A Bolas says

            Well, Luke was Greek, or at least a Diaspora Jew (and from Antioch if memory serves) so if any of the Evangelists was going to muck up Judaean geography, it would be him. If it were Matthew or John making such egregious errors, well…… Anyway, take away from Luke the authorship of his Gospel and the Acts and he becomes such a minor and inconsequential figure it hardly seems to recommend either book to attribute them to him. If you’re going to attribute a book to someone, you choose someone whose name will look good on the cover (like, say, Thomas). Though I should add that it wouldn’t destroy my faith if it were conclusively shown that the Evangelists didn’t personally write the Gospels attributed to them. I can already see historical reasons how that could be; for example, Eusebius tells us that Matthew wrote his Gospel in Aramaic, which puts us already one step removed from the original work (and there’s plenty that could have been done to the text in the transition). But at this point I find the straightforward explanation the most reasonable.

            Having said all of that, I do take your original point. 🙂

          • Likewise, it seems that if they were right about the virgin birth and were capable of asking Mary, Matthew and Luke wouldn’t have gotten other stuff wrong, or at least wouldn’t have written down conflicting accounts of the genealogy of Jesus, or for that matter, numerous other things that Matthew and Luke actually disagree on (like the Sermon on the Mount/Plain). Also, both birth narratives (in providing us with the information that Mary and Joseph knew prior to Jesus’s birth of his divinity) conflict with Mark’s account of Mary and Jesus’s brothers trying to carry the Christ off as a crazy person. One would think if they knew who he was from the start that they would have the faith to know that the things Jesus was saying were true. In fact, there’s a lot wrong with the birth narratives; but this would probably best be pointed out in a blog post rather than a discussion thread.

            As far as Matthew and Luke “making up an elaborate story,” well, I prefer the term “tweaked.” Although it should be pointed out that a first-century Jew had a much different concept of reliable sources than we do now. Where our culture trains us to see things in such terms as “falsifying documents” (a result of the Enlightenment), the writers in Jesus’s day simply viewed this process as “adding truth” to the story. We shouldn’t superimpose our own values and assumptions about facts and truth onto the values of those who wrote scriptures—a whole world of thought has changed since then.

          • BTW “young woman” equalled “virgin” in the common understanding of both Greek and Hebrew/Aramaic and even for the Latin-speaking Romans. Also, if Mary wasn’t a virgin why would they have bothered to include God’s message to Joseph in the dream?

          • Not *necessarily* true, Anne. The word mainly implied “young woman,” but could also imply “a young woman who conceives after having sex for the first time.”

            The most bizarre thing about how people tack so much importance onto this issue is that it really was a non-issue until decades after Jesus’s death. Early Christians tended to focus more on the events of Easter, which is why the earliest gospel, Mark, makes no real attempt at nailing down a pseudo-historical birth narrative.

            And God’s message to Joseph was another part of the same story. It’s difficult to argue the truth/historicity of a text by using the same text to validate it.

          • Regardless of what the word means in Isaiah, the context in the gospels is that a woman became pregnant without having sex.

            “How shall this be” Mary asks the angel in Luke 1:34, “seeing I know not a man?” (American Standard Version) This is a pretty literal translation from the Greek, unlike the “dynamic equivalent” of the NIV which says, “since I am a virgin?”

            The word “virgin” creates a problem to our understanding because people keep bringing up Isaiah and the argument about its meaning, but “virgin” isn’t in the Luke account.

          • Jack Heron says

            You’re correct, Ted, but the gospels specifically refer to the prophecy in Isaiah being fulfilled. This is pretty odd if there isn’t a prophecy. It leads to several possibilities (there may be more that I haven’t thought of):

            1. Jesus really was born of a virgin. Who cares if it wasn’t specifically prophesied?
            2. Jesus wasn’t born of a virgin but people thought that he should have been (because of the mistranslated prophecy) and so, lacking any evidence to say that he wasn’t, assumed that he was.
            3. The mistranslation of the prophecy is the work of the Holy Spirit – it’s actually the original Hebrew text that is incorrect and the Septuagint’s mangling that’s the word of God. Jesus, therefore, was born of a virgin.

            (1) is quite a solid one as regards worrying about the text, but it does rather make the gospels look like they’re not as well-researched as we might hope.This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, but it does demand we put some more work in.

            (2) is what I’d lean to, but as many people have pointed out, the Virgin Birth has a central place in Christian theology and some would say (see above and below) that taking this option in some way detracts from the union of God and Man.

            (3) is an interesting one, but leaves me with a feeling of standing on a very shaky foundation. The Holy Spirit doesn’t initial the changes he’s made all that clearly, so can we really decide that one mistranslation is the work of the Spirit while another is a corruption?

          • Jack, I think in Isaiah’s meaning a “young woman” was assumed to be a virgin, but it doesn’t say whether she married first before she conceived. Would she still then be considered a young woman? Dunno. I haven’t studied Hebrew.

            But it’s the Luke account that I’m talking about. Regardless of vocabulary or grammar, the context does the work: “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?”

            In Luke’s chapter 1 intro he refers to his sources as being eyewitnesses. I’ll stick with the ASV, probably the most true to the Greek:

            1 Forasmuch as many have taken in hand to draw up a narrative concerning those matters which have been fulfilled among us,

            2 even as they delivered them unto us, who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word,

            3 it seemed good to me also, having traced the course of all things accurately from the first, to write unto thee in order, most excellent Theophilus;

            4 that thou mightest know the certainty concerning the things wherein thou wast instructed.

            In the third verse, Luke “traced the course of all things accurately from the first” or, as the NIV says, “carefully investigated everything from the beginning.” I like to think that Luke interviewed people years later–Mary especially, and she not only told Luke these things, but sang to him the Magnificat, which he transcribed.

            I go through with this in other parts of the bible too. People get hung up on the exact translation and miss the context. For example, did Jesus really call himself messiah with the phrase “son of man”?—they ask. Then they go on about a missing definite article, or yada-yada. But in the context of Jesus’ discussion, he not only used the term (which originally meant simply “man” although a poetic form of it) but said that he (the son of man in question, whether correct definite article or not) would return in a manner something like the son of man in Daniel 7:13-14, whom all understood to be the messiah:

            Mark 14, ESV
            61But he remained silent and made no answer. Again the high priest asked him, “Are you the Christ, the Son of the Blessed?” 62And Jesus said, “I am, and you will see the Son of Man seated at the right hand of Power, and coming with the clouds of heaven.” 63And the high priest tore his garments and said, “What further witnesses do we need? 64You have heard his blasphemy. What is your decision?” And they all condemned him as deserving death.

            So, never mind the technical meaning of the term in Daniel 7:13, or the noun in Isaiah 7:14, even though the offspring would be immanuel, God-with-us, and never mind that it flows into 9:6, a description of that offspring as messiah (wonderful counselor, mighty God, everlasting father, prince of peace). What’s the context in Luke, which is where the establishment of Jesus-as-conceived-by-a-virgin comes from?

            And then there’s that argument over the word logos in John 1: “In the beginning was the word (logos) and the word was with God and the word was God.” Some people try to waffle on this, saying, “Well, you know, we don’t really know the meaning of the word “logos”—it could mean “logic” or something other…”

            Again, yada-yada…

            But what’s the CONTEXT??? We could substitue logos with anything else, even gibberish, and it would still be “with God” and “was God”. The fact that the word logos is used is pure poetry. Elegant as the Holy Spirit could be.

            Sorry. I know you’re not one of those people I’m ranting about.

          • Aidan Clevinger says

            Two things:

            1. As per the “mistranslatoin” of the Hebrew: I’m fairly certain that the Spirit who inspired Isaiah 7:14 is the same Spirit who inspired the Gospel texts. I understand your objection, but I also think that He’s qualified to interpret His own words.

            2. You might not be directly threatening the divinity of Jesus by denying the virgin birth, but you are threatening His sinlessness. If Christ was born in the same way as every other (fallen) human being, why would He be sinless? From this, the argument against Jesus’ divinity can practically make itself.

          • Jack Heron says

            Point 1 is well made. He is indeed qualified far better than either of us: but then He hasn’t left us a summary of His works vis-a-vis textual inspiration. In the absence of an official clarification from the Spirit, I shall do the best I can and everyone else will do the best they can.

            Why would He not be sinless? I’m well aware people have long believed Original Sin passes via conception and birth but even orthodox theology declares Mary to have be born without it – the Immaculate Conception. If God can arrange for a woman to be born without Original Sin, can’t He just skip forward a generation and arrange for Jesus to be born without it? And that’s not even getting into the issue of whether or not we can even comprehend the interplay of sin and the soul.

            I said it elsewhere in this tangle of comments, but I think we overreach ourselves sometimes in claiming we understand the more subtle parts of the Incarnation. I doubt we do – and therefore I’m suspicious of allowing our theology to make claims about the ways God can and cannot move. I’m quite happy to simply declare Christ to be fully God, fully Man and sinless without trying to construct a reason and Incarnational mechanism for that.

  5. For the adherents of most of the major denominations, yes, it is necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth. Churches that follow the Nicene Creed state that “by the power of the Holy Spirit, (Jesus) was incarnate of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

    For Christians who aren’t part of any church, still, faith doesn’t usually grow in a vacuum. Christians from the Apostle Paul to Martin Luther to C. S. Lewis all accepted the Virgin Birth, which I think should give us pause when questioning things that the great champions of God stood by.

    But God saves who He will, regardless of our weird quirks (I’m sure that there are things I’m wrong about, and plenty of them). To be considered a part of the orthodox (small “o”) Christian faith, one must believe in a Jesus who is both God and Man; yet some people have been followers of Christ without even knowing his name.

  6. Excellent question, something I haven’t thought about for a long time.

    I think like the early Fathers that it’s an important part of our foundational theology or dogmatic beliefs, so I would agree with your assessment CM. If he came to us in any other way, it would lessen the incarnation, and once you start down that path the whole thing comes apart. If as Paul states, that Christ is the second Adam, then how could it be any other way?. Adam it could be said, came to the world in a similar fashion, i.e. at the direct intervention of God, sinless.

    Where I struggle, even a Catholic, are the other parts surrounding the incarnation, such as the immaculate conception. I’m not saying I disagree, but it’s more of a theological argument based on necessity when you look at the incarnation and Christ as the second Adam. I also find it curious that none of the Gospels or Epistles make mention of it, while including the incarnation. That doesn’t mean it didn’t happen. It can be found in various places in the writings of the Church Fathers, but it has always seemed odd that it never made it into the actual text of the new testament.

    I’ll go to confession now 🙂

    -Paul-

    • I’ve wrapped up my noodle in questions. The idea of the virgin birth however is not one of them. I guess it would fall in the same catagory as resurrection. Can a man be phyiscally resurrected today? Nope? How many people do you know who have been resurrected? None. But if you are going to be a Christian than I guess resurrection would be one of those issues that are not for discussion. Unlike the rapture 😯 and YEC 😯

      But I havn’t thought about the virgin birth. Actually I will say this….why do so many Christians get wrapped up in sexuality? Who cares if Mary was a virgin or not? Especially after her birth? For me I can’t figure out why the dogmatic obsession over sexcuality and who did what, when, where and how. (Eagle rolls eyes)

  7. Fully a product of man..and of God.

    That is the way it is with God’s Word.

    We can look at Jesus this way…but so many Christians refuse to look at Holy Scripture the same way.

    But I digress.

    • …and I concur. I love it when people sling the phrase “If it’s new, it’s not true,” and then turn around and endorse inerrancy.

  8. It’s clearly not necessary to believe in the virgin birth in order to be a christian.

    I don’t have it worked out, but the idea is this:

    1.) we have sinned.
    2.) we need grace
    3.) God delivers grace.

    The rest isn’t immaterial by any stretch of the imagination, but the rest isn’t germane. I don’t need people to believe in a 7 day creation, or that every nuanced and cultural interpretation is true.

    We need to focus on our own sin, and the breech that that caused.

    • I’d add another point to your list.

      4. The church denies grace and likes to beat the crap out of people. Its preferable to take out a shot gun and shoot the wounded.

    • Buks van Ellewee says

      The focus I believe is on God and His Son the Lord Jesus Christ. Our sin is significant BECAUSE it is rebellion against an infinitely holy and just God. We need His grace IN ORDER TO come back into fellowship and a right standing with God. God delivers grace BECAUSE His Son stood in our place and received the punishment we deserve. That would only be possible if He were FULLY man (in order to be a substitute for us) and FULLY God (able to live a sinless life and be the sacrificial Lamb without blemish).

      We do not belive in the virgin birth in order to be saved, but once we are saved – our eyes are opened and we do believe and accept the virgin birth, the ressurection and all that is revealed to us in Holy Scripture.

      • Headless Unicorn Guy says

        Too many UPPERCASE words, Buks. Your comment’s starting to look like a cheap tract.

    • Chris, are you familiar with Scot McKnight’s work at all? I think he would adjust what you’re saying somewhat- the “soterian” Gospel, as you’re pointing to, is but an episode in the Great Story. The narrative of God’s salvation isn’t so much personal to us as it’s “by God, for God” and therefore is best approached (he would say, and I think I would agree) by beginning with God and ending with God- Christ being the manifest “God in the flesh” reality that is given to humans. And yes, having a vision of our own sin is a part of that story. But if it’s indeed true that Christ was born of a virgin, then that’s essential to God’s salvation. The “grace” as you say, that is delivered. So the nature of Christ ranks right up there on story elements that God needs for us to see. In order for the grace to be properly “known.” As Martha has explained above, a “less divine” Christ, or at least a Christ who’s divinity is less sure, is not really capable of dispensing any grace…and therefore not capable of setting anyone free.

      I’m not arguing that it’s impossible to disbelieve the virgin birth and be a Christian (I agree with KW Leslie’s very first comment in the thread- orthodoxy is a fruit of salvation, not the cause of it) but I would maintain that the Virgin Birth is critical to a divine/human Christ as we’ve inherited from those closer to the Event than ourselves. And therefore, it’s critical to a proper view of grace.

  9. [Jeff, you’re not going to get away with this. That’s not a microphone Scotty is talking into…]

    About the Virgin Birth, I think it’s (tentatively) not 100% necessary, at least in the early stages of belief, to believe in it (does that sound firm enough?).

    It’s probably on the level of error, bordering on heresy not to believe, and something like C.S. Lewis’s “It is enough for now” motif (I started re-reading That Hideous Strength and I know it’s in there somewhere).

    It’s hard to expect a new believer to swallow the whole religion hook, bait, sinker and all from day one, and I think God is patient. So not believing in something that goes against all reason might be allowed.

    However, a believer ought to progress. Without the Resurrection there is no true belief, and that too is considered impossible. So belief in a Virgin Birth shouldn’t be too much to expect of the mature Christian.

    But go easy on the newcomer.

    • Good eye, Ted. But who among us has not picked up the mouse and tried to talk into it?

      • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

        Scotty: “Computer? Hello, computer?”

        Scientist: “Just use the keyboard.”

        Scotty: “A keyboard? Isn’t that quaint.”

  10. It’s hard to answer this without throwing a few other questions:

    Was Jesus born as God; did he have full Godly powers as an infant, as a child?

    Was Jesus aware of his divinity right away? Did he gradually become aware? Did he become aware in a moment of divine enlightenment? Could he be a human child and God? I’m thinking of the terrible twos…

    I go to a Baptist church, and they will tell you that he was fully God and aware even as an infant. I think he became aware later; the Baptists would probably tell me that I’m not really a Christian.

    • Glenn A Bolas says

      Good questions. This is where working out what it means to believe in a Person Who was fully God and fully man gets tricky. How did that work out practically? I half suspect your Baptists there are diminishing the fully man part a bit (and possibly unwittingly skirting the fringes of Monophysitism). Who of any of us is aware of who we are (or of much of anything else, for that matter) as an infant?

    • You should listen to NT Wright- he talks pretty extensively about that very subject. There’s a podcast of him out there called “Jesus and God” and it deals with Jesus’ own self-awareness, and whether or not he understood himself to be “divine” the same way we toss the phrase around. To the uninitiated, it can sound like he’s denying the divinity of Jesus, but really it’s just a brilliant way of inspecting our own assumptions and seeing what happens if we tweak them a bit.

  11. The earliest Christian writings we have are the letters of Paul, as we all know. Paul never mentions the Virgin Birth. It certainly wasn’t an important or even a minor element of his messages to the churches. Was Paul, then, not a Christian? Or did he have “a kind of fuzzy-bunny lowest common denominator ‘religion’”?

    I don’t want to quarrel with anyone who believe in the Virgin Birth, or the Immacualte Conception, or any other religious concept. But I don’t think anyone gets to define what other people *must* believe in order to be Christians. (Of course, the Catholic Church and many other churches would disagree.)

    • If you believe that Christ alone can atone for your sins, who do you believe this Christ is? If he was born of man in the way others are born, then we simply have a very good man and very good teacher. How can such as this redeem us from the grave our sins have put us in?

      Others were raised from the dead. We have examples in both the Old and New Testaments, so apparently “normal” men and women can experience resurrection. None of these were considered the Messiah. But we have none others who were conceived without normal relations between a man and a woman. Jesus is the Christ because he was begotten by God, not by man. There have been others who taught great truths, did great miracles, who were even dead and came back to life. We follow none of these. Only Jesus was born of a virgin—very God of very God.

      If we don’t believe this actually happened, then how can we say Jesus is God Himself?

      • Jack Heron says

        But if you make virgin birth the test for Messiah-ship, I think you cheapen the nature of the Messiah. Jesus isn’t the Messiah by virtue of having been born of a virgin. He is Messiah by virtue of being Messiah. And he can be the Messiah in any way he sees fit.

  12. I’m not sure what’s the stumbling block… is it the miraculous nature of the story? It’s hard for me to fathom that a Christian can accept the resurrection of Jesus, but find virgin birth too farfetched.
    Having said that, I believe that we are all at different stages of our journey, and it is possible to be a Christian while knowing only part of the story. For example, in Acts 8:14-16, there were Christians who did not yet believe in the Holy Spirit.

    • Resurrection and virgin birth, that’s acceptable if you believe in any kind of supernatural whatsoever. The perpetual virginity of Mary, however, now that takes faith. Unless, of course, she was darned ugly…

    • Indeed. Since I accept the Incarnation and Resurrection, I tend to view the Virgin Birth as sort of par-for-the-course, as it were. If God became man, that alone suggests something special about how he come to take on human form, and a virgin birth seems completely reasonable in the larger Incarnational context.

      The usual alternative to the virgin birth is the obvious one. However, there’s another possibility even more miraculous: Jesus was never born at all but was created as a fully formed infant and simply adopted by a human mother. It’s worth pondering why this wasn’t the way it happened. Jesus didn’t simply become _a human_; he became part of _our human family_.

      I haven’t ever found convincing the argument that the Virgin Birth was necessary to prevent Jesus from inhereting Adama’s sin, as if the problem (with us men anyway) resides on the Y-Chromosome somehow. Such a muddled view suggests, oddly enough, that Jesus wasn’t really fully human after all, just close enough.

      • Martin Romero says

        Now that you mention the idea that the virgin birth might have been necessary to prevent Jesus from inheriting Adam’s sin, there is at least one group, as far as I know, which says that Jesus took on man’s nature on its fallen condition through Mary, yet he didn’t participate in its sin… The main problem I see with this view is that it present a sinful nature which might be considered as, basically, a genetically inherited problem instead of a spiritual problem. And there actually are people discussing it within those terms. However, that might be a “logical” conclusion if you consider that this particular group does not believe in people having a spirit, so in the end their theology becomes very “materialistic”.

      • This is more or less how God creates Adam. However, it is possible to be a Christian (or a Jew) and not take this story literally.

  13. Hi all,

    From a traditional perspective, yes it is considered an essential tenet of faith. I do not think it is the “sine qua non” for being a Christian. Ratzinger mentioned that Jesus could still be divine had he come from parents the natural way and virgin birth by default would not necessarily make one divine in itself. But theologically speaking it is a significant aspect of faith.

    For me, the question is more who Christ is for you in relation to your sin and need of a savior – the rest is just details.

    • Yuri, if the question is “who is Christ for me,” then the world centers around me, not around Jesus. And that is not the way things are. Life is not about you or me. It is all for the glory of God, not for the glory of Jeff or Yuri.

  14. I humbly think that someone is a Christian when their heart says “Jesus is my master” and they begin seeking him with their life.

    That said, I think the Virgin Birth is a foundational element to the Christian faith because it is a story that points to Truth: Jesus is fully human, Jesus is fully God.

    When we get all hung up in the literalness of Jesus’ birth, I think we start to miss the forest for the trees, so to speak.

    Peace, Brian

  15. Many of the non-canonical Gospels have Jesus doing crazy magic (I wouldn’t call them miracles) as a baby.

    And in the Koran, when someone suggests that God is his father, the infant Jesus sits up in his crib and says “May Allah forbid it that he would have a son!”

    The Creed speaks of the Virgin Birth. The Creed originally was used as a public expression of faith at baptism. And it is good enough for me.

    • Scott, that quote from the Koran is accurate enough, but there was no infant Jesus in the crib speaking it. It comes from the Surah entitled “Mary”, 19:35. An awful lot has been added to what Muslims “believe” and it drives me crazy that people keep forwarding it to my inbox.

      But you’re right about the non-canonical infancy gospels. If they had had e-mail back then, that crap would have been forwarded too.

  16. Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

    I beg the iMonistary’s pardon if this is a little over dogmatic, but I figure that anything in the Apostles’ Creed is a necessary belief in order to properly call oneself a Christian. It’s the baseline, lowest-common-denominator for Christian orthodoxy. Has been for many, many centuries.

    Perhaps you can be saved if you don’t believe some of that (though the writer(s) of the Athenasian Creed would say that you can’t). I figure that’s between you and God, and I can never know another person’s salvation “status.” But at best, denying any of the stuff in the Apostles’ Creed (including the virgin birth) makes you a heretic. But, don’t worry, no one’s gonna go medieval on you; we love our heretics 🙂

    • I tend to agree with you. It is a foundational truth of the faith and if I am too dimwitted to explain it’s necessity I only hope I’m not more dimwitted in tearing that page out of scripture.

    • Issac-

      I have but one small quarrel. I would say that anything in the Nicene Creed is baseline, lowest-common-denominator for Christian orthodoxy. This being because it was adopted as the Creed for the whole Church; heck, even those who descend from the earliest schisms (Chalcedonian vs. non-Chalcedonian) accept the Nicene.

      As venerable as the Apostle’s Creed is, it isn’t the Creed meant for universal usage; it developed from Baptismal professions of faith used by the Church of Rome.

      Okay, back to your regular programming, folks 😀

      • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

        I’d concede that point 🙂

        In my mind the Apostles’ Creed and the Nicene Creed are pretty much a package deal when it comes to beliefs. I forget sometimes that the East just never really used the Apostles’ much 🙂

        • You just prefer the Apostle’s Creed because it doesn’t have big words like “consubstantial”. 😉

          • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

            lHey, man, I’m an Anglican, we keep it simple and Elizabethan “Being of one substance with the Father” 😉

          • That’s not being rolled out until advent….

  17. I’m coming late to the party here but I just have to weigh in.

    Mary said “How can this be, for I have not known a man?” Was she lying to the angel? Was the story about the angel false as well? How can we call her “blessed” if the conception of the Son of God was just a lie?

    If she DID lie then who was the father? Not Joseph, for he sought to have her put away privately to spare the family shame. If HE was the father why wouldn’t he have admitted his impatience and moved up the marriage? Why would Joseph have to be told in a dream that this was the working of God if he already knew he was the father?

    Yes, there may be a form of significance to Christ being a bastard, if you want to look at the passage that says that there was nothing in him to be desired (Isaiah) but it seems to me that the path of least resistance is to believe Mary AND Joseph and accept the virgin birth.

    After all, if we are required by faith to hold to the resurrection of the dead then what is the difficulty in accepting a virgin birth?And if we cannot hold to the resurrection how then can we call ourselves Christian. Paul says that Jesus was the first born among many brethren leading us into life, leaving resurrection a foregone tenant of Christian faith.

    So, conception without sex…NAH! Can’t believe THAT! But reviving and restoring a clearly dead and deformed Jesus into a glorified body…YEAH, sure, why NOT?

    What’s the problem people???

    • Cedric Klein says

      Really, the one problem I see is defiance against the Scriptures & the historic Church- Orthodox, Catholic & Reformational… someone who wants to maintain some realm of independence, so they find the one clause that is close to essential but that no one Scripture says IS essential for saving faith, and plant their flag of defiance there. If I were a pastor, I might tolerate a parishioner who stays there… for a while, but damned if they’re going to be trusted with church administrative or teaching responsibilities. If a person claims to be a believing Christian & remains defiant in that area, I see little reason to think that won’t spread to other areas.

      Btw, I can see quite easily how Jesus could be fully God & fully human, born without Adamic sin, and have had Joseph* or any mortal man as His natural father, but the Scriptures that speak of the issue say clearly that His Mother conceived as a virgin. So there it is. The Scriptures do not so speak of Mary’s immaculate conception or perpetual virginity & indeed their seem to be Scriptures which teach against it (and I don’t care if Luther, Calvin & Wesley did hold to the PV).

      *There is an odd little theory that I’ve seen floating around on the Internet that while God miraculously conceived Jesus in Mary’s womb without her knowing a man, He did not create Miracle DNA to do it but rather did a miraculous artificial insemination using Joseph’s seed. So Mary was indeed a virgin who conceived by a miracle of God, Jesus was indeed by His spiritual nature the Son of God & God the Son, and Joseph was indeed the DNA-father of Jesus. I’m inclined to disbelieve this but I can’t see it as being anti-Biblical while a denial of the Virgin BIrth is.

      • “Jesus was indeed by His spiritual nature the Son of God & God the Son”

        Aha! Whenever you see the magic word “spiritual” invoked to explain away an inconvenient or embarrassing rock in the road, you know you’re looking at someone desperately reaching.

        And though it may be floating around in the Internet Age, this is yet another restatement of one of the old Christological heresies, about the nature of Christ as God. This could be a version of Adoptionism or another one, but if we take the time to go into its roots, it’ll be nothing new.

        That’s what I keep hammering on about: we’re not smarter, better, new and improved versions of our forefathers. They already considered all the arguments we come up with. They had these discussions and fights and winnowed out the doctrines to be left with the grain. It isn’t a simple matter of pre-scientific religion going “It’s a miracle!” and thinking nothing more of it, until we come along fifteen centuries later and finally get around to saying “Hang on a minute – how does that work, exactly?”

        • Thank you, Martha. I get really tired of people assuming the ancients were just stupid and backward and superstitious, while we moderns are much more enlightened and understanding.

          • We do have to realize that most of the fathers were schooled in rhetoric and the classical studies – far smarter than men would be for many of ages after. And many came to christianity after looking at a myraid of belief systems and philosophies and finding them wanting. So I agree with you and Martha, we look at something two thousand years later and believe we know better than those closer to the time of occurence. Not only that, we all have our individual ideas because we’ve done our internet research, it just feels this way because of what society knows today, some of us have become experts in kione greek in just a few short months, and we are all snap anthropologists/archeologists.

            Sorry to be so negative – it just tends to fit into the whole individualistic-my thoughts and intelligence trumps what has come before thinking….

    • You overlook another possibility–that the story did not really occur as told, but is an example of folklore or mythology. (“Of course the cherry tree story is true. Would George Washington lie about it?”)

  18. I’m a Christian, but I can’t help but wonder sometimes if the Virgin Birth isn’t just a prescientific attempt to express the experienced truth of Jesus’s nature.

    I mean, what do we really imagine happened, exactly? Did Mary ovulate and the Holy Spirit materialized a sperm to fertilize the egg? And whose DNA did the Spirit use? It had to be human DNA, or the child wouldn’t be viable. In which case, what makes it any different from any other human birth? Maybe it was Adam’s DNA! That would be cool, but I don’t see how it solves anything.

    Or did the Holy Spirit materialize a complete zygote? Again, where did the DNA come from? In that case, why did Mary need to be a virgin at all, since she wasn’t contributing any genetic material? Or did the Spirit tweak one of Mary’s eggs to make it develop into a clone with the necessary bits flipped to change the gender? That happens in nature, so it’s not particularly miraculous.

    The Virgin Birth makes perfect sense in a worldview where the mother is simply the fertile ground that grows the seed entirely contributed by a man, but viewed from the perspective of how human reproduction actually works, it’s not such a useful model. If you set the biological questions aside, Jesus’ divinity has to come in from somewhere else, and you quickly start feeling like a pre-natal Adoptionist.

    Here’s a question: if Jesus had incarnated first in our lifetime, and we wanted to somehow make the case that he was both human and divine, how would we do that, knowing what we know about where babies come from? Would the idea of having him born to a virgin even occur to anyone?

    • Again, if you believe in the resurrection then how hard is it to believe in the Immaculate Conception? Both improbable to impossible yet one is more believable than the other?

      • Jack Heron says

        I don’t think it’s a question of Virgin Birth being hard to believe. It’s not hard, as you point out, next to the Resurrection. But just because God could have done it, it doesn’t mean that he did. It would not be hard for me to believe that Jesus could fly – but that doesn’t mean I believe that he did so (at least, not that is recorded!).

        • So Jack, if you are going to throw out the scriptures that talk of Mary conceiving Jesus as a virgin in Matthew and Luke, what other scriptures are you throwing out? Are there others that are too much for you to believe? Soon you will have reduced God to someone we can quantify. Soon you will have a list of acceptable proverbs and sayings, and we will have the Buddha Jesus. He will not be “other,” he will be the same as we, only better.

          • Jack Heron says

            What are you saying, Jeff? That all scripture must be true, or else none of it is? That God must either perform all miracles ascribed to him or else he is merely some vague Deist presence? That if we doubt that one particular miracle took place, we are hard-hearted materialists?

            As I have repeatedly said, I’m not here to disavow miracles, or a God who is both human and divine, or a God who is more than some vague cosmic presence. I’m here to look at things as through a glass, darkly.

            • Jack, I’m saying that we need to receive the virgin birth of Jesus just as we receive the rest of his story–by faith. If we are only going to believe what we can understand and explain in the natural, then we don’t need faith. And the only way we can please God is by coming to him in faith.

              The story of Mary conceiving a child when she had not “known a man” is not one our natural minds want to accept, but that is just what drives us to faith and thus drives us to God.

          • Maybe there’s another way to read them that does not require us to lock our brains in a box.

          • When we don’t pay attention to all the history that came after the New Testament was written we are doomed to repeat the same mistakes. As Jeff mentions, alot of this ground was hashed out over centuries. Now I guess you could go back reopen each and everything and your interpretation could be different from mine which may be different from Jeff’s and so on and so on…. Its a great way to utterly detroy the faith – wait… I thought the bible had all the answers, you mean some of it can be open to wide interpretation? …. Again, one reason why I support a Magesterium…..

        • Jack, That’s what the Fathers in the first 5 centuries dealt with. Your argument is disturbingly Arian and echoes elements of Gnosticism, Nestorianism and even Catharism.
          Athanasius argued that the Virgin Birth was essential to the person and mission of Christ. I’ve heard your argument before re a mistranslation of OT texts, but never from Jewish authorities, only modernists.
          We have to read Scripture in the context of the writers, their understandings and times. That is a classical as well as exigetical principle. Have a look at some of the Fathers.

      • Remember, Oscar, that the Immaculate Conception refers to Mary’s conception, not Jesus’.

        • Yes, of course, and that conception WAS Jesus body. Both the conception AND the resurrection were miracles attributed to God. If He can do one then He can do the other.

          • Oscar-

            What do you mean “that conception WAS Jesus body”? The Immaculate Conception refers to the Catholic dogma which states that Mary, by an act of God in view of the work and merits His Son was to accomplish, was preserved from the moment of her conception from Original Sin.

          • I’m not sure if I made myself clear? The term “immaculate conception” refers to Mary having been conceived in Anna’s womb without sin. It has nothing to do with Jesus. Jesus’ conception and birth are commonly call the Virgin Birth. Maybe that’s what you were saying, and I misunderstood.

          • Oscar, when Roman Catholic theology speaks of the Immaculate Conception, it speaks of what in pious tradition is represented by this and this and this in art; the Meeting at the Golden Gate of Ss. Joachim and Anne, parents of the Virgin Mary.

            The excesses of folk devotion liked to say that this is the moment when Mary was conceived in her mother’s womb; when her father and mother embraced after Joachim’s return from doing penance in the desert (the story is given in the Gospel of James, which is apocryphal, that is, non-canonical).

            The Church never taught that Mary was conceived virginally by her mother or in any other way than the usual way most of us were begotten by our parents; what it does teach is that from the moment of her conception, her soul was preserved from the stain of Original Sin (in other words, like our first parents were created before they fell).

            This is why Mary identified herself to Bernadette Soubirous in the apparitions at Lourdes with the words (in the local dialect): “Que soy era Immaculada Councepciou.”

            “I am the Immaculate Conception”. Not “I conceived my son immaculately”, which is the common misunderstanding where the Immaculate Conception and the Virgin Birth are muddled, but “I am she who IS the Immaculate Conception, I am the one who was conceived without stain of sin on my soul”.

            To quote from a site on the Lourdes apparitions, after Bernadette told the local priest what the lady in her visions had said:

            “Fr. Peyramale said that a woman cannot have a name like that. “You are mistaken. Do you know what that means?” The priest was shaken, and unable to talk to Bernadette. He quickly sent her away, and she left without the privilege of understanding the meaning of the title. She was only told later that afternoon that the Blessed Mother carried that title.

            “She could never have invented this … ” wrote Fr. Peyramale to the bishop that evening.

            The Church declared that Mary was the “Immaculate Conception” only four years earlier in 1854. The title would certainly have been unknown to Bernadette since it was not broadly discussed in the liturgy, and Bernadette still could not read or write. She was only then learning her catechism to prepare for first Holy Communion, a task undertaken typically by children six or seven years her junior. It was her poor health and her family’s poverty that had hindered her education.”

          • That’s OK Oscar – many Catholics make that same mistake….

          • why the added doctrinal details of the claimed Immaculate Conception? i find it problematic to Jesus’ humanity. He was sinless because of His Paternity, period. it was His divine Paternity that ‘overshadowed’ His humanity…

            but, if He was the only unique human with both divine Paternity & a sinless mother, then He has been elevated too far out of the human saga. He is now too ‘pristine’ to identify with suffering humanity…

            His human nature had to have been subject to all the brokenness of humanity & the physical effects of sin. He needed to suffer all the usual childhood illnesses, skin his knees during playtime, be subject to hunger, pain, disease, fatigue, etc. this nature He inherited from His mother. the overly developed doctrine of Mary’s state of sin really a misperception of the angels declaration: The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on 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.” yeah, the Son of God, not the son of a sinless women. the original sin concept became so convoluted in its detailed logic it makes for the hoops one has to jump thru to connect the dots…

            being ‘conceived’ in sin a western contrivance. doesn’t the Eastern Orthodox view all humanity born into a world of sin without the power to overcome or resist sin’s allure? more of a disease idea than a predetermined condition of original sin. and the fact that Jesus did not have a human father removes the Adamic influence from the incarnation altogether. Mary had to be the sin stained aspect of Jesus’ humanity or He is just too far removed from the very essence of experiencing the impact of sin on the very people He came to save from their sins…

            at least that is how i understand the way His ‘full’ humanity, without exception, was fused with His ‘full’ divinity at the moment of the Holy Spirit’s power overshadowing Mary (no need to do so if she were already sinless)…

    • “Or did the Spirit tweak one of Mary’s eggs to make it develop into a clone with the necessary bits flipped to change the gender? That happens in nature, so it’s not particularly miraculous.”

      Sure, happens three out of every five human births. Nothing to see here, folks. Oh, I love how this argument goes: heads I win, tails you lose. First, the Virgin Birth is ridiculous because women can’t get pregnant by themselves. Then, when parthenogenesis in a wider range of animals is discovered, the Virgin Birth isn’t a miracle because it’s perfectly natural.

      What the Virgin Birth means is that “the Word became flesh and dwelled amongst us”. He took flesh – real, human flesh – of Mary, His mother. He wasn’t a spirit or a possessing influence that displaced the human soul of an embryo conceived by Mary and Joseph (or some other notional father) – an act that would have been unjust, just as a side note, since it would involve the destruction of the human child’s personality and would have stolen the life rightly possessed by and owing to him. He wasn’t an avatar that put off the body when done with it.

      He is true God and true Man.

      • What the Virgin Birth means is that “the Word became flesh and dwelled amongst us”.

        John 1:14. I love it. Preach it, sister.

        • I think this pretty much sums it up. This is why we have to believe the Virgin Birth. Jesus is not merely man, he is God. How can someone be God unless he is begotten by God? Man begets man, God begets God.

          I think the main reason why people have a hard time believing in the Virgin Birth is because they don’t see the necessity of it. We all know why Jesus had to be resurrected, but less know as to why Jesus had to be born of a virgin. People just need to be educated as to why this doctrine is necessary.

  19. Others have pointed to the Nicene Creed’s statement concerning Christ becoming incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary as proof of the necessity of this doctrine. I think they are right.

    Is it necessary to believe to become a Christian? No. But can someone continue to be a Christian and deny the doctrine. To that I would say, no.

    There are types of Mary in the OT that point to this mystery. The ark of the covenant is a type of Mary. It was the container of God, and no man could touch it. She is the East Gate in Ezekiel where the prince comes forth but no man may enter. She is the uncut mountain of Daniel.

    To deny cuts away at the incarnation. This was the union of God and man. Also from a practical standpoint, Mary’s conception becomes a paradigm of our own interaction with God. She says “Yes” to God, and bears Christ in her body through the action of God. God comes to us, and we respond with a yes and bear Christ spiritually within our body.

    • Which also makes Mary the very first Christian!

      It seems to me from my education and reading that the infancy narratives WERE considered irrelevent when the Apostles all expected the Second Coming to be “within this generation”. Only as the first wave started to die off did the whole idea of recording bits about His life on earth even make sense…suddlenly there were all these Christ-Followers who never even MET the Lord.

      Some information in the infancy narratives could ONLY have come from Mary herself, and I see no reason for her to lie. However, if the story got better with the telling, it doesn’t shake my faith at all. Christ’s Life, Death, and Resurrection are the core of my faith in Him and His Father. But as others have said, how hard is it to see that the Father could re-animate a dead body, but not be able to form a human Himself (whether as an adult, like Adam, or as a zygote/blastocyst/embryo who grew to be a Man, with whatever DNA the Father chose to use!)

      JMHO.

      • She is the Great Example.

        Church Tradition suggests that Luke interviewed Mary for the content of his gospel, and while at it he painted the first icon of her on her kitchen table.

  20. Glenn A Bolas says

    I’m not sure that the discussion so far is entirely apropos, interesting though it is. Jack Heron, who initiated the topic originally, has said that he accepts the Incarnation and accepts the possibility of the miraculous, so those are moot points. His question, if I’ve understood it correctly, is whether there is a logical necessity leading from the Virgin Birth to the Incarnation such that, if the Virgin Birth is disbelieved or doubted, the Incarnation itself is compromised. Does being fully God and fully man require a Virgin Birth?

    I believe in the Virgin Birth myself, largely on the strength of authority and tradition (which includes Scripture, by the way- I find those fundamentalist Bible vs. tradition false dichotomies terribly wearisome), as I explained in the original post, and it looks like I’m not alone in that. The only other argument I’ve seen so far on this question is one from fittingness (if that’s a word)- that it was appropriate and proper for the Incarnate Son to be born in a supernatural way. I’d be interested to hear anyone make an argument that the Incarnation requires a Virgin Birth by theological necessity, but I haven’t heard one yet and can’t think of any right now myself.

    • Glenn, How about this: Jesus is the New Covenant that fulfills the Old making Mary, His mother, the Ark of the New Covenant as she carried the New Covenant in her own body. That’s what John said in several places.
      Again, that is close to Nestorianism.

  21. I just want to note that Islam also believes in the virgin birth of Jesus and in some form of the immaculate conception. I don’t know how central a belief it is though.

    • Cedric Klein says

      Well, Jesus’ VB is definitely taught in the Quran. I’m not sure about Mary’s IC though.

      • The Qur’an affirms Mary’s virginity, but denies that Jesus was the Son of God (let alone God), on the not unreasonable grounds that as a spirit, God does not sire offspring. The birth of the Prophet Issa was miraculous, because there was no father. (I don’t believe the Immaculate Conception is mentioned at all–we are talking about only a few verses, and anyway, didn’t that doctrine arise much later?)

    • Here I am being picky again: The Immaculate Conception refers to the Catholic belief that Mary was conceived without original sin. It doesn’t refer to Jesus’ conception and birth.

      • Yes I know Islam teaches that Mary and Jesus alone amongst humans were not touched by Satan. I’m not sure exactly what this means theolOgically for them: which is why I said some sort of.

  22. Cedric Klein says

    OK, here it is- wish I had thought of it earlier…

    Is belief in the VIrgin Mary necessary to be a saved Christian? Perhaps/perhaps not. Do you want your salvation to rest on a ‘perhaps’?

    Is it necessary to be a Biblically & Ecclesially-faithful Christian? You bet it is.

  23. Must one believe the Virgin Birth? I certainly think it is possible to a Christian and disbelieve the Virgin Birth, or any number of doctrines. Doctrine is important, but one can certain be Christian and hope for salvation without getting it right. At least we had better hope that a perfect doctrinal system is not necessary: with the impressive range in Christian theology, the requirement that one must have ones t’s crossed and i’s dotted would be vexing. I am sure that my theology contains serious flaws; it would be dumb luck if it were otherwise. And of course even the best theology can hope only to brush the full truth of reality…God is not a series of propositions after all.

    Should one believe the Virgin Birth? Well, this strikes me as the more germaine question. I am sympathetic with those who point out that there are some good reasons to question it. I find the fact that the story appears to mirror contemporary fables in the Roman World to be tad unsettling. That said, I also place a lot of stock in Christian tradition and especially the early creeds, and it is clear that early church leaders thought the doctrine was important. (On a romantic/mystical level, I am also attracted to Mary’s story and admit that I want it to be true.) I am therefore profoundly uncomfortable with dismissing the doctrine as unimportant. While I am not without my doubts, I am unwilling to go against the creeds and so choose to affirm it. And I also do get nervous when influential Christian leaders disavow it. It is one thing to be a skeptical layperson and another to knowingly contravene the Nicene Creed from a position of authority and trust.

    On a romantic/mystical level, I am also attracted to Mary’s story and admit that I want it to be true.

    • Every church, denomination, and individual adherent has to sift through the mass of tradition to determine what to embrace and what to reject or bracket as outmoded. At the same time, power-holders often try to tie the hands of those who come after them, for example by declaring certain beliefs to be absolutely essential. (The creeds do this, the current pope says that no future pope can change the policy about the ordination of women, and fundamentalists have their lists of fundamentals which they want people to sign.) I see this as trying to dam the river.

      The Virgin Birth doctrine is a bit like the concept of Lucifer. Both represent tedentious readings of Old Testament verses that, from any objective viewpoint, had nothing to do with the doctrine that came out of them. They require us to be just a little bit dishonest–not only about the specific verses, but about the entire process of textual transmission, not to mention the many supernatural and fabulous elements of the Bible. Maybe an honest Christianity would be unviable, to the extent that the religion has come to be based on belief.

      • Well, I do sympathize with your point here. I do think there are some doctrines and a lot of disciplinary questions that are indeed open to revision. And I agree that an appeal to orthodoxy can easily be used to squelch discussion or to force something less than honesty. I also do not know for certain that any particular doctrine is true. And I do not think there is a flawless way to demonstrate that the early church fathers, who themselves emerged victorious out of early controversies, were not in fact the ones who were wrong. Maybe the people who knew the truth went to their graves with it. But we do have the tradition that survived, and the earliest creeds it forged were deeply concerned with defining the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection, themes that figure very prominently in the New Testament as well. So I am willing to use these as my tools for understanding Christianity and defining orthodoxy, danger-filled as that is. And while the Virgin Birth does not strike me to be as critical as the incarnation and resurrection, the same creeds that define the doctrines of the incarnation and resurrection do assert it. So, I am stuck with uncertainty, but I tend to veer toward affirming doctrines that are related to topics the early church thought were especially important.

        • I don’t see why one should be so uncertain. The Virgin Birth affirms Jesus’s divinity. Man begets only man, but only God can beget God. To say that Jesus was born of two mortals undercuts his divine nature.

          The Virgin Birth and Jesus’s divinity are deeply connected. The whole Gospel of John is about this. The Virgin Birth is implicit throughout it.

          • I do agree with these points. As you put it, “The Virgin Birth and Jesus’s divinity are deeply connected.” And I believe that according to the early creeds Christ’s divinity and resurrection are the bedrocks of the Christian faith. Thus, this is a doctrine I affirm.

            I sympathize with skeptics in the sense that I think it historically plausible that the creeds and scriptures are wrong and that the history and meanings remembered are incorrect. I don’t feel intellectually certain that I know what really happened. Thus I can understand having doubts about the these issues. However, I choose to affirm Christian orthodoxy as defined by the Nicene creed, because I think these define the claims Christianity has historically made and that I find compelling. There are certain lines I won’t cross.

            That is to say, if you ask what I fear could be true, you get one answer. If you ask what I affirm and hope, you get a different answer.

  24. Can you be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth? For the reasons you mentioned Jeff, I think this is essentially the same as asking: can you be a Christian without believing in the divinity of Jesus? The former informs the latter.

    For me: being a Christian means believing Jesus is God.

  25. I’m always hesitant to say, “It’s necessary to believe X to be a Christian.” As many have already pointed out above, being captured by the grace of God is something that can happen regardless of what opinions we hold.

    The better question is, is the virgin birth a necessary foundation of Christian theology – that is, can you reach an orthodox understanding of the work of Christ without it? To me, the virgin birth is a part of seeing Jesus as a “second Adam,” the beginning of a new sort of humanity (Rom 5), now fashioned in such a way that we can participate in the nature of God (2 Pet 1). So in my mind, yes, the virgin birth is necessary.

  26. To say “You’re not a real Christian, because you disbelieve something I regard as essential to my religion” is the spiritual equivalent of the middle finger. You don’t own the name of the religion, and neither does your church (or the ten biggest denominations put together).

    • Isaac (the poster occasionally still known as Obed) says

      But don’t words mean something? Or are you reserving the right to define the term “Christian” however you think it ought to be defined? This isn’t an issue of someone or someone’s denomination trying to co-opt the religion. This is an issue of what Christians have historically always believed. So, maybe you can be someone who follows Christ in whatever way you understand while denying things like the virgin birth, but can you really be accurately called a Christian?

      • Whenever I hear that Christianity has “always” or “historically” believed this or that, I think that we wouldn’t be having this discussion if it were really true. Does Mormon history count? (But perhaps they came too late.) How about the Ebionites, or the Mennonites, or the Swedenborgians? Not to mention individuals within “mainstream” denominations who kept their head down…

        Christianity has already experienced a certain amount of evolution, and will no doubt continue to evolve. Why not in this direction?

    • Okay, Blake, I’m putting it up to you.

      Do you think there is any doctrine or teaching or belief held historically that is non-negotiable, that must be the bare minimum to be a Christian, or is everything up for grabs?

      Can I be a Hindu and a Christian, if I accept that Jesus was an avatar akin to Krishna?

      Can I emulate Ann Redding Holmes and see no contradiction in claiming to be a Christian and a Muslim simultaneously?

      Can I be a Christian atheist, if I (for example) accept the Golden Rule as a valid ethical teaching to follow in my life?

      Is there anything that demarcates one on this side of being a Christian and that side of not a Christian? Can I say to Richard Dawkins “You’re a Christian, you know, since you follow Western ethical standards in your personal life”?

      I admit, I have a heated opinion on this because I am sick to the back teeth of the appropriaton of the term “Celtic” to the point of meaninglessness, especially (though not exclusively) within New Age/Wicca/Neo-Pagan circles where you get lots of twittering about Imbolc from people who have never in their life tied a brat Bhríde to the door handle on the eve of Lá Fhéile Bhríde, unlike my mother’s father who had great devotion to St. Bridget and often visited her holy well, yet are content to call themselves witches or pagans in the Celtic tradition when they’ve learned it all out of books.

      Well, as a real Celt and descendant of those Christianised pagans, as someone who’s circled real holy wells, drunk water from them, and knows what a sceach is when I see one, I get to say who is and who isn’t genuine.

      • Ya got your Irish up there Martha, and you seem to voice my feelings on this issue very well….

        • Yeah, normally I don’t mind the New Age crowd because, God love ’em, most of them are well-intentioned. It’s just the “Celtic” lot that make up the “Wheel of the Year” out of whole cloth, mixing Irish/Scots and Welsh with gay abandon and throwing in a bit of Anglo-Saxon to balance it out (Eostara, Lithe/Litha and Yule??? They couldn’t even be consistent!) that annoys me.

          See the steam coming out of my ears, see it? 🙂

      • I thought they were a basketball team…

        The search for an “essence” of Christianity, or any other religion, is probably doomed to failure–there will always be exceptions, and the variety is just as important as any agreement that some groups may arrive at. As a practical matter, I propose applying the term “Christian” to all those who wish to be called that, and only afterwards surveying their beliefs to see what generalizations may be permissible.

        Now you are perfectly within your rights to disagree with as many of them as you like, keep them out of your church, etc. Think of the Old Catholic Church, or the various rival claimants to the papacy. Instead of saying “They are not Catholic,” I think we need to distinguish between various kinds of Catholicism, some of which are admittedly very small-scale.

        To answer your question more directly, consider what Wikipedia ought to list as Rev. Holmes Redding’s religion. Surely we should say that she is both Muslim and Episcopalian (but that her identity has aroused a backlash within both communities). Unless of course we are using these terms as honorifics, and then we have to watch out for the “no true Scotsman” fallacy.

        • I agree Blake.
          And black is white if you don’t believe there is such a thing as opposites.

          Just remember if you got on the bus this morning it is the same as not getting on the bus this morning. What is important is that you assert it.

          • Okay, I’ll play: You know, when we say “the bus,” there is actually more than one bus. The meaning of “opposites” is far from clear-cut, and colors appear differently under different light (and to different eyes).

            When we are talking about concepts and ideologies, then what we assert becomes a whole lot more important than in fields like chemistry.

  27. Brother Bartimaeus says

    I too find myself virgin birth agnostic, and as a non-creedal Christian don’t have to worry about questioning my Christian-ness for violating the Nicene Creed.  As an anabaptist, I simply accept the truth that something amazing happened and leave it there, as there are far more things I need to worry about. I also worry that we spend so much time, thought, and anxiety over the virgin birth, that it becomes a red herring.  I find far more life in the understanding that Isaiah’s prophecy was fulled, not because Mary was a virgin, but because God has now come among us (Emmanuel).

    Peace,

    David

  28. Consider this a “patient rant:”

    A concern I have: when we ask questions like “is belief in the virgin birth necessary to be a Christian,” we’re doing a couple things that we probably shouldn’t do. One is, we’re making faith, orthodoxy, and fruitfulness primarily an individual thing that is assumed to be necessary to an individual’s “position” or what have you. But I don’t believe the issue is individuals, primarily. The question should be “is the Church capable of maintaining its identity, and of properly knowing Christ and making him known as His Body, without such-and-such an understanding?” To which the answer is “no.”

    Now, with respect to the individual, of course God is working within each one of us, and he wants us to come to a full knowledge of the Truth so we in our gifts will build up the body as a whole. And if the individual is failing to grow into fullness of the knowledge of Christ, than the Body is crippled. But to put questions this way seems to invite us to make orthodoxy (and fruit of all kinds) a test for personal salvation, whereas really we should be generalizing a bit more, asking questions about the Church’s faith and practice, not the individual’s, and thus avoiding the temptation to create litmus tests for salvation, and seeking instead to bear fruit as an organic tribe of the Jesus-obsessed. When the wider church is teaching and knowing Christ as it should, then the individual who hears will have no excuse.

    Remember Mark? Everything was an issue of whether or not so-and-so was really saved, on the basis of such-and-such and issue. That’s one extreme example of a highly individual-centered, personal-salvation reading of Scripture and the nature of Christ.

    As it is, Jesus’ objective nature is widely ignored (in evangelicalism), except as a checklist of “supposed-to’s” because most are too interested in personal whatnots with God. Personally, I don’t want to reinforce this with questions like these.

    More common than disbelief in the virgin birth, yet in our era perhaps more deadly, is that people are completely uninterested in it, because they have “Jesus as personal fix-it guy” mentality instead of Jesus the Lord of all who is King, God, and the one For Whom All Things Exist.

    Who can really fault someone under these circumstances for not believing, or knowing why there’s a need to believe, in the virgin birth, or anything else for that matter?

    • Amen!

    • Nathan – agreed! We have a communal faith with individuals making up the whole. Jesus talked about the vine and the branches, scripture talks about the theology of the body… we are first a church, not a group of individuals free to reinterpret everything from the past because we are smarter and more civilized. Societies of old were not set up in this way, but we have become our own kings, our own popes, free to interpret and come to our own conclusions, whatever satisfies ourselves, whatever we feel is important in the deposit of faith, and discard what we don’t think is important. To me, if i were to throw out the virgin birth I could also throw out the ascension, since we don’t really talk about that in all the gospels either (implied in Mark but then that may have been added later). And ressurrection, surely that really means a spiritual resurrection since there were stories circulating at the time that his disciples came and stole the body, heck my muslim friends sure think so!

    • You make a good point. Perhaps this sort of discussion isn’t really helpful to changing the nature of Christian discoure for the better. Nevertheless, I think Jeff asks a very important question.

      But like you said, most people don’t care about the Virgin Birth or its implications. But to have the theology that ignores the Virgin Birth is bad theology regardless.

      So maybe instead of seeing it as a checklist, we can see it more as an indicator of what kind of theology you have.

      • Yeah, I can certainly get behind it as a discussion of where people stand in on it in order to honestly work through its implications. And for the most part, that’s what’s happening, because folks at the iMonastery are pretty charitable if someone is honestly struggling with a proposition.

  29. Puzzling. It’s funny that evangelicals are so against having a pope, but they freely exercise power that even the Pope doesn’t have: declaring the Virgin birth irrelevant.

    I understand the difficulties some may have with this doctrine. I believe there is room for doubters, and that doubt is an essential part of faith. But faith is not a check list from which one can choose what you do and do not believe. Faith is not a trip to Burger King: hold the pickles, hold the lettuce, hold the Virgin birth; special orders don’t upset us…have it your way. It smells like seeker sensitivity. If doubt is an essential part of faith, it is impossible and irresponsible to eliminate any element that might result in doubt. If there is nothing with which to struggle, what is the point of faith?

    But how doctrine relates to faith needs to be understood. Faith is not believe in the absurd or inconceivable. Faith is not to which we resort when something can’t be proved by science. Faith does not make the unprovable valid, and there is no way scientifically or historically to prove the Virgin birth. One must consider what is the incarnation without the Viirgin birth; rather than being about God descending to us, it is One man ascending to divinity. Faith therefore is that all of us can do the same. If that is Christianity, count me out. There are plenty of religions that teach that, including Osteen.

    • I am concerned that many Christians here are willing to question the basic concepts of the faith or not consider them important. Is this an evangelical thing or more a post evangelical thing? And is this a tell-tale sign of things that are to come where even basic doctrine is shuffled to the side and Jesus becomes more of a wisdom teacher? I never thought I’d be saying this but I find this mode of thinking even more dangerous than the many interpretations of fundimentalism – dangerous because this could quickly water down the faith to ” as long as I’m a good person” or “sin is a very subjective thing” or even “God just wants us all to be happy”. Very eye opening indeed.

      • Dumb Ox, and Radagast,

        I don’t get the sense that evangelicals, or even most of the people responding here, are calling the virgin birth irrelevant. It’s an interesting “what if” discussion we’re having, but I think most of us are still with the virgin birth as a true story.

        • I may be wrong, but I think the early church fathers were in agreement when it comes to the essential nature of the Virgin birth. That’s why it is in the creeds, while other controversial topics like YEC are not. There’s nothing wrong with what-if discussions, but it may be more constructive to discuss what to tell someone who thinks believing in the Virgin birth is intellectual suicide. Making it optional won’t help anyone:

          • No, you’re right. It is an important part of the faith and always has been. I just don’t get the sense that many evangelicals today think it’s unimportant. We’ve been re-writing the bible in other ways (YEC and dinosaurs-on-the-Ark, as you’ve mentioned) but not in that way.

  30. i have never doubted the Virgin Birth understanding highlighting the single uniqueness of Jesus’ incarnation.

    seems it would be a necessity to His becoming fully human while remaining fully God…

    i don’t think the added doctrinal jit+tottle of Marian theological details are necessary to believe in the Virgin Birth though…

    the Immaculate Conception & the Assumption of Mary do not bolster the claim of Jesus’ sinlessness & His divinity IMHO…

    i also think that God in His very intricate creative methods did not violate His own principles of human physiology. i think He was very deliberate & specific with the manner the Holy Spirit ‘overshadowed’ (is that the correct term?) Mary. in order for Jesus to be ‘fully’ human, He could not have been anything less than having all the genetic compliment of humanity that resulted from the Holy Spirit’s workings without the need for a human father to be involved. now that we have a greater understanding+appreciation of the biology of human reproduction, i find it fascinating to consider the way God did work it all out. Jesus being the Last Adam has some very deep theological implications that seem to me to hinge on this miraculous event. the idea of inherited natures & being sinless & having divine Paternity just like the first Adam makes for some deeper considerations that the Virgin Birth does help clarify…

  31. All this arguing about the virgin birth? Is it a miracle? Is it essential to christianity? Yes. Everything is essential. I can go stand in the dirt around the home I was born in, sift that dirt through my fingers and know that I am that very dirt animated. This is a miracle. I can look into the eyes of my children, my grandchildren and my greatgrandchildren and only wonder at this miracle a thousand-fold. I can stand in this dirt and look into the great vault of the universe and know God cares. He is and He cares. Jesus is His gift, His expression of Love. This all is a miracle, every atom, every breath, every moment – let us find joy in it.

    Peace in Him

  32. I just wonder if we asked God if the virgin birth was necessary His reply might be, “I AM.”

    • I AM necessary? I AM a virgin? Or a more generic display of existential numinosity?

      “Hey God, that’s not the least bit clear or helpful. Would it kill you to stop playing games and have a normal conversation? But noooo, everything has to be about YOU…”

  33. I think the virgin birth is necessary for orthodox (little-o) Christianity. I think it’s possible for someone to be a Christian without believing in the virgin birth, though it’s not consistent.

    The idea that “the ancients came up with it because they didn’t understand science” is silly. They didn’t knoew anatomy and genetics, but they still understood sex and how babies are normally made. As CS Lewis put it, the reason Joseph is angry with Mary in the story is because he DID know where babies come from.

    • Apparently there was some confusion about the respective roles of the mother and father. Was it Aristotle who thought that women are like a field, for which men provide the seed? And that babies resemble their fathers, not their mothers? That would explain why Jesus was not thought to need a divine mother as well as a divine father. And if the understanding had been that extra toes were a sign of divinity, then I believe we’d hear solemn affirmations that Jesus had extra toes.

  34. I have been away for a few days and possibly no one will read this, but on October 13, commenter Yuri wrote, “Ratzinger mentioned that Jesus could still be divine had he come from parents the natural way and virgin birth by default would not necessarily make one divine in itself.”

    I would lke to read more about that, Yuri. Could you point me in some particular direction?

    I haven’t read through all of the comments yet, but, if we want an answer as to how Jesus could be our Savior if he was conceived in the “normal” way…how about this: let’s say Mary and Joseph did not have sexual relations, but they did have some very close contact which resulted in Joseph’s sperm impregnating Mary’s egg. (I know…being Catholic, this seems not very nice at all for me to be writing!) We read in the Gospel of Luke, “How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” and the angel replied, ”The Holy Spirit will come on 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.” Note that the angel does not say specifically that there will be no human father involved, only that the power of the Most High will “overshadow” Mary. So, perhaps some will say that the Holy Spirit was involved with the development and growth of Jesus as a fetus, as a child, as a man, making it possible for Jesus to be fully holy, never sinful, the Son of God. He was fully human in that he had all the DNA from a man and a woman and he was born of a woman, but in his consciousness and in his very Being, he was in God and he was of God and he was God. “God from God, Light from Light.”

    Note, I am not saying this is how it was, but putting it out there as a way for people to think about how Jesus could be fully human and fully God. To be fully human, you need DNA from a man and a woman. Also, we can also propose that God just miraculously took one of Joseph’s sperm to impregnate Mary without Joseph and Mary having anything to do with it at all. Hey, stranger things have happened in the story of how God and humankind have “related.”

    • i think you are adding more ‘grist’ consideration to the mill of discussion regarding Jesus’ divine+human origins…

      i like the “how-did-God-accomplish-it” ruminations. i too believe there was no holy ‘magic’ (or insert convenient mystery here) that simply ignored God’s previous workings in this physical world we exist in. just as He needed to provide for a clearly human genome that made us set apart from the rest of the created order. if you believe in a historical Adam & Eve, then that had to be a singularly unique event. from the inanimate mineral matter of the earth, He fashioned biological compounds that He decided would be the basis for all life.

      He could have simply created the generic material necessary from the Paternal side of Jesus’ Family line from the same material He did when forming Adam. and that is the reason He was sinless. Jesus simply did not sin. He was 100% obedient all the time. there was no limitation or fine print to the sin nature argument. God’s very presence & ability was never limited because of human sin, either Adam’s, or Eve’s, or Mary’s. no need to make the unnecessary argument for Mary’s Immaculate Conception, how silly. it is assumed her ‘sin’ would be the one disqualification for God to actually work thru? any perceived sin too big for God to shoulder? any natural condition too dirty, stained, soiled, evil, beneath His dignity, His honor, His reputation???

      He wouldn’t be caught dead mingling with the totally depraved humans He came to seek & save? too holy to be born in a stable? poor? of ordinary blue collar pedestrians???

      i think this is where the over-emphasis of His mother’s sin state actually begins to rob Jesus of His human credentials & how the uniqueness of His birth actually identifies with every aspect of fallen humanity. how could it have been any other way???

  35. “The Holy Spirit will come on you…”

    I don’t think this means what it sounds like.

  36. Joshua on October 14 wrote, “Also, both birth narratives (in providing us with the information that Mary and Joseph knew prior to Jesus’s birth of his divinity) conflict with Mark’s account of Mary and Jesus’s brothers trying to carry the Christ off as a crazy person. One would think if they knew who he was from the start that they would have the faith to know that the things Jesus was saying were true.”

    In regard to Jesus’ mother being there with his brothers who were concerned that Jesus had gone mad…I decided that perhaps his brothers thought that, but not his mother. She was with the family but that doesn’t mean she agreed with what the brothers thought. Jesus may not have shown any miraculous things while growing up with his brothers, therefore they would not have known that he was anyone “special” whereas his mother would have known.