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.


8 thoughts on “The Virgin Birth: does it matter?

  1. From your remarks about the relative epistemic positions of the virgin birth and the resurrection, I take it you are in sympathy with apologists like William Lane Craig who argue from the testimony of Paul and of the gospels to the historic probability of the resurrection, thinking from thence to argue for other Christian claims.

    Yes? No?

  2. I think that Craig et al. are probably too confident about what can be shown sheerly based on historical evidence. They tend to neglect the way background beliefs (e.g. what one thinks about the likelihood of God’s existence) affect the way different people assess historical evidence. That said, the Resurrection seems to me a better attested event than the Virgin Birth by almost any standard.

  3. nothead

    I agree, in my opinion whether or not there was a Virgin Birth does not affect the unique identity of Jesus. It does however raise an interesting question. Was Jesus born a man or born as the son of God? At the risk of sounding like a complete loon (if I don’t already), I think the significance of the Virgin Birth can be traced back to the arguments between Arius and Athanasius. If you look at the two events birth and resurrection independently and still affirm the divinity of Jesus, then the Virgin Birth doesn’t in anyway affect the divinity of Jesus. However, if you look at both as a requirement for the divinity of Jesus, then I think obviously the question of the Virgin Birth becomes much more significant. Please be gentle.

  4. I’m not sure if we should see the Virgin Birth as a prerequisite for Jesus’ divinity. After all, if, as Chalcedon taught, Jesus is both fully God and. fully human, then there wouldn’t seem to be any necessity in positing a supernatural conception/birth. I’m more comfortable saying that the Virgin Birth is a sign of Jesus’ special status than a requirement, but I could easily be wrong.

  5. Lee, I’m glad you’re discussing this. I personally would veer towards a view that says it *probably* happened as literally as recorded.

    However, the primary reason why I think an increasing number of us are agnostic about the issues is precisely that raised in your posts title: does it matter? I can certainly see the symbolic importance of such an idea to the narrative, but what actual difference does it make?

  6. Pingback: Play it again, Sam « A Thinking Reed

  7. Matteo Masiello

    Why is the virgin birth necessarily for the idea of Jesus as the new creation. Doesn’t it just point to a self- hatred that exists in Christianity? That to be human us to be corrupt? If humanity is such then Jesus/god excluding himself from that makes his suffering and death disingenuous. 2000 years to wait for the New Creation is not very responsible on God’s part is it? What’s he waiting for if he knows who will be saved or not. Why is it that we need theological scaffolding to build our faith?

  8. David C. Braynt

    The virgen birth is a must! If jesus was born from a regular mans seed, He would have a sin nature! Jesus would not be the Spotless Lamb of GOD! Jesus could then not take our sins away! We inherit our sin nature from the father or male. Jesus would have inherited Joseph’s Sin Nature, but would not inherit Marys Sin Nature. GOD BLESS!

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