The Virgin Birth: does it matter?
Via Graham, here’s an article in the (UK) Spectator that asked a variety of public figures whether or not they believe in the Virgin Birth. The answers range from the thoughtful, to the flippant, to the downright idiotic (someone named Colin Wilson declaims that “you’ll have some difficulty finding any educated person who believes in it, or any other Christian dogma”). I find the idea of treating the Virgin Birth as a discrete item proposed for our belief rather strange. For starters, if you can swallow the camel of the Resurrection, why strain at the gnat of the Virgin Birth? But more importantly, the Virgin Birth only really has significance in the context of the entire Christian story.
I think Rowan Williams is right when he says that the “recognition of the uniqueness and newness of Jesus is a recognition of the absolute freedom of God to break the chains of cause and effect that lock us into our sins and failures; the virginal conception is an outward sign of this divine freedom to make new beginnings.” That is to say, the Virgin Birth has a certain “fittingness.” On the other hand, I don’t think that the Virgin Birth is on a par with the Resurrection as an essential item of Christian belief: I think that Christians believe in the Virgin Birth because they believe in Christ’s divinity, not vice versa. And the Resurrection acts as a warrant for belief in Christ’s divinity in a way that the Virgin Birth generally doesn’t, not least because the latter wasn’t a public event in the usual sense.
In his response, Keith Ward says that the “point of the Biblical account is to see Jesus as the start of a new creation, fulfilling the hopes of the ‘virgin Israel’.” And this doesn’t stand or fall with the literal truth of the Virgin Birth. That said, though, it is virtually the unanimous view of the tradition (I’m not aware of any significant dissenting tradition in the early church), and only a dogmatic refusal to concede the possibility of miracles can rule it out entirely. But the reasons for believing in the Virgin Birth aren’t, in my view, independent of the reasons for affirming the unique identity of Jesus.