Tomorrow, in the class I’m teaching on the apostle’s creed we are going over the affirmation that Jesus was, “conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary.” The virgin birth, more properly called the virgin conception, sits in the creed as one of major confessions about Jesus. It is also one of the most difficult things for many Christians to believe, as an historical event. Belief in the historical event of the virgin birth has become one of the major identity markers for whether a theologian or Christian is considered “liberal” or “conservative,” especially in American Christianity.
While evangelicals and traditionally minded, orthodox Christians as a whole, generally look at the virgin conception as a non-negotiable of the faith, my suspicion is that not many of us can articulate exactly why it is an important doctrine to affirm. The easy answer, of course, is because two of the gospels tell us it happened, so we should believe it. Fair enough. Yet, that answer really doesn’t explain much about its real significance for our faith and worship in the day to day. Is the virgin conception simply something miraculous that we are asked to just accept as an act of faith, or is it trying to teach us something deeper about the identity of Christ? I think the answer is the latter. The virgin conception functions as a sign to the world 1) that Jesus is truly God and truly human, and 2) that the salvation of the world begins with God’s initiative that invites human participation in his work.
First, let me briefly summarize the historical and theological objections to the virgin conception. This is an extremely detailed and vast subject, so I will condense the objections, and likely skip over some. This is an attempt to give the average layperson a picture of why people have objected to it, before explaining why it is important to maintain this affirmation of Christ’s virginal conception.
Historically, critics have tended to object to the story’s supernatural elements and have pointed out that in the ancient world, stories abounded about a significant figure’s miraculous birth circumstances. The story of Jesus, in this line of thinking, is no different. Secondly, some scholars argue that the stories in Matthew and Luke contain various historical inaccuracies or discrepancies, which suggest that the stories were later developments that the gospel writers developed for theological reasons.
Theologically, some theologians have pointed out that within the Bible itself, there is very little focus on the virgin conception as a doctrine. None of the New Testament letters mention it, the preaching in Acts never mentions it, and only two gospels mention it. Overall, it doesn’t play a big doctrinal role in the same way that other events, such as his resurrection, do. In addition, some theologians have argued that it actually complicates other, more important affirmations about Jesus, such as his true humanity. If Jesus did not have a human father, then he cannot really be said to be truly human and to have fully shared in our human experience. Others have argued that the virgin birth complicates the more important doctrine of Jesus’ preexistence prior to the incarnation. In their reading, the virgin birth narratives strongly suggest that Jesus’ identity as the Son is based in his origin in Mary’s womb, rather than essential to his being one with God throughout all eternity.
Despite these objections, I think the doctrine of the virgin conception is still important to affirm both historically and theologically. It functions primarily as a sign to us of what God is up to in the incarnation in the same way that the bread and wine function as a physical sign of what God has done for us. While God very well could have reconciled the world to himself without having Jesus be born of a virgin, he chose to use that mode of entry to demonstrate the unity of the divine and human natures in one person and to show that God delights in asking human beings to participate with him in his work.
Orthodox Christianity has affirmed Jesus’ preexistence as the Son and that the divine and human natures were united in one person. The virgin conception helps us to illustrate this fact and so it acts as a physical sign of its truth. Now, one can hold to the orthodox position on Jesus’ nature and preexistence without the birth stories. After all, Paul and John teach this in scripture and never explicitly mention the precise nature of Jesus’ birth.
Yet, the early church believed these stories and elevated them in the creed precisely as the way God demonstrated to the world that in the person of Jesus the preexistent divine nature and a human nature met. Without affirming the historical nature of the virgin conception, it seems difficult to avoid coming to some sort of adoptionist Christology. This view, which the early church rejected as heretical, says that Jesus was born as a man and later in his life was “adopted” as God’s Son, either at his baptism or his resurrection. If Jesus was conceived through sexual intercourse, adoptionism seems to be the logical conclusion because the divine nature would have had to enter the existing human embryo, at the earliest, if not later in his life.
The virgin birth stories also illustrate an important insight into God’s ways of working in the world. God utilizes willing and messed up human beings to accomplish his purposes within the world. God, of course, initiates salvation apart from human effort. But, God calls people to participate in his work. This is true in his calling of Abraham, Moses, and the Israelites to be his people. His call to Mary to carry Jesus and the call to Joseph to support a wife pregnant under mysterious circumstances is one more instance of this. This is a sign of the missionary nature of God, in that he uses ordinary people to accomplish his work, though he is the one who initiates it.
The virgin conception of Jesus is an important part of the creed because it acts as a sign that illustrates some of the most profound affirmations about Jesus’ identity and God’s nature as a missionary God. We should not be ashamed to recognize that God uses strange physical signs as a way to teach us. After all, that is exactly what he does with sacraments like communion and baptism. Sure, one could have a Christian faith without them, but we would miss out on the gifts that they bring to us. It is the same way with the virgin conception. It is something we are privileged to believe and affirm because it functions to give us all a deeper glimpse into the nature and workings of God.