During the fifties when I first began to take a serious interest in the Christian faith, no doctrine of what was considered an errant Bible was more vigorously attacked and ridiculed than the virgin birth, or, better, the virginal conception, of Jesus. While I was always intuitively convinced that Scripture constituted the word of God, it was not until later, especially when I read J.I. Packer’s “’Fundamentalism’ and the Word of God” and J. Wenham’s “Our Lord’s View of the Old Testament”, that I would have accepted Jesus’ unusual conception simply because Scripture taught it (cf. Machen, who stresses the importance of the authority of the Bible, p.382). Even though logic points unerringly to the truth enshrined in the virginal conception, it is doubtless worth spending time looking at the biblical evidence for it.
First, there can be no doubt at all that Matthew taught it. He makes it plain that Mary was pregnant “before they came together” and as a result of the work of the Holy Spirit (1:18). Matthew then depicts Joseph as implicitly requiring an explanation for his betrothed’s condition and having his fears allayed in a dream. Next Matthew ventures to support his belief in Jesus’ extraordinary origin with an appeal to the Old Testament prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. It is hardly surprising that the meaning of this verse has been vigorously attacked, but not very convincingly. The contention that (a) the OT has simply a young woman in view, and (b) that she was a contemporary of Isaiah’s scarcely undermines the traditional view. The point Isaiah was making was that the child would be ‘a sign’, and to Matthew the Immanuel (‘God with us’) figure apparently suggested an assimilation of Yahweh and Christ. Furthermore, the larger context in Isaiah indicated the presence of the supernatural (cf. 9:2-7). So far as Joseph was concerned, his ready submission to his dream parallels Mary’s own reaction in Luke 1:38. And Matthew then adds for good measure that Joseph did not ‘know’ his wife until she had given birth which suggests that he had been given specific information on the subject.
If Matthew had been on his own, there would be more room for questioning his teaching, but Luke is equally unequivocal in his commitment to Jesus’ virginal conception (1:27,31,34f; 2:5,21). So far as he is concerned, the fact that he was a doctor by profession carries weight even if we allow for the fact that his training and knowledge would fall far short of that of modern specialists. Luke’s insistence on the meticulous nature of his research (1:1-4) also inspires confidence as does the fact that, as a Gentile, he would not be accused as might Matthew of artificially exploiting Isaiah 7:14 to support the virgin birth. On the other hand, if he is in error regarding Jesus’ birth about which he is so specific, our trust in him on other matters is seriously jeopardised.
The miraculous character of the birth of Jesus as well as that of John the Baptist is underscored by Luke’s rather detailed recording of the respective visions of Elizabeth and Mary. The very least that can be said about these is that they make a definite point, and unless this point is taken the narratives become superfluous. (Cf. Machen who says that the reason for the rise of the strange belief of the virgin birth was fact, p.269). Luke further underlines the supernatural nature of the birth of Jesus by recording the words of Gabriel to the effect that with God nothing is impossible (1:37). It is these words which produce an attitude of total submission in Mary, as noted above.
The inference is frequently drawn that since Mark and John make no mention of the miraculous nature of Jesus’ conception (though the point made in John 8:41 is suggestive), the doctrine is false. This is a very weak position to take, and like all arguments from silence it needs to be treated with great caution. No writer can be expected to reproduce every detail every time he writes. In any case, the point at issue may be outside his immediate perspective since other matters dominate his horizon (cf. John 21:24f.). Furthermore, on the assumption that he knows his readership, he is at liberty to take certain matters, which are common knowledge, as read. Having said this, it is important not to ignore John’s emphasis on the identity of Jesus especially at the beginning of his gospel. Having asserted his unity with the Father in chapter 1:1-4 John insists in verse 14 not only on the Word becoming flesh but on his glory as the only Son of the Father. While it must be conceded that this is not tantamount to a confession of the ‘virgin birth’, like verse 18 it is certainly in harmony with one. To put the matter otherwise, if the Word of God really did become flesh, a supernatural conception can hardly be cause for surprise. Furthermore, if God intended to save his people (Isa. 45:21-25) by a man (Jer. 30:9,21; Hos. 3:5; Ezek. 34:23f.; 37:24f.; Heb. 2:10-18), then the notion of the incarnate Word makes good sense.
In Galatians 4:4 Paul tells us that Jesus was ‘born of woman’ but it is doubtful whether this in itself has any significance. The same phrase is used by Job, for instance, but all he apparently means by it is ‘genuinely human’, that is, ‘flesh and blood’ (Job 15:14; 25:4). The plain fact is that Paul nowhere alludes directly to Jesus’ birth of a virgin.*
It is here, however, that some writers speculate about the possibility of parthenogenesis, the asexual reproduction of an embryo without male fertilisation. It is difficult to see the point of this conjecture unless the intention is to deny the supernatural. In any case, to speculate along these lines is in effect to undermine the authority of Scripture and to set us adrift on a sea of subjectivism. As we shall see further below, while it may be true that parthenogenesis does occur as a natural phenomenon in certain types of lizards and other creatures, for example, it cannot be true of Jesus. In his case the Y chromosome was necessary for his genuine manhood. If I understood correctly the segment ‘Why Sex’ in a recent American TV production ‘Evolution’, he would otherwise have been a clone, and hence a girl!
Before taking a second look at Paul’s teaching, it is worthwhile asking why the virgin birth appears in Scripture at all, especially since many deny its necessity (see e.g. Green, pp.63f.**). Is it enough to suggest that it merely points to and undergirds the incarnation? Historically this has certainly not been the case. Both Roman Catholics and Protestants have traditionally argued that it obviates the entail of original sin (see e.g. Litton, pp.190ff.; Machen, p.395). Catholics, however, have found it necessary to take this a step further and ‘sanctify’ Mary’s own birth and attribute to it the rather grandiose title of ‘the Immaculate Conception’. The problem with this is not simply that even Mary, the mother of Elizabeth’s Lord (Luke 1:43), refers to God as her Saviour but that it logically requires infinite regress. When the perpetual virginity of Mary is also advocated, it is difficult not to believe that the bounds of probability have been crossed (cf. Mark 3:32f.). For all that, Augustine went so far as to inveigh against all who are born of ‘carnal lust’ as if it, in itself, were sinful (see Needham, pp.46,122,127,142, etc.).
There can be little doubt that historically the primary reason given for the ‘virgin birth’ has been original sin. If it is true that sin can be transmitted (or imputed) from parent to child, then had Jesus’ birth been normal, he would have been born sinful. It must be doubted, however, in view of Scripture’s teaching in general, whether the dogma in question is admissible. The plain fact is that it is riddled with problems on the one hand and in patent contradiction of a great deal of biblical teaching on the other. Apart from noting that sons cannot be punished for the sins of their parents (Dt.24:16; 2 K. 14:6; Job 21:19-21; Jer. 31:29f.; Ezek.18, etc.) and that, assuming the falsity of the immaculate conception, Mary would have passed on her sin to Jesus if they can, we are forced to conclude that original sin is as much a delusion as original righteousness. The two dogmas stand or fall together and neither can be justified on biblical grounds. So, since I have written a great deal on this subject elsewhere, I take the liberty of dismissing it as a credible reason for the virgin birth to which it is nowhere related in the Bible. In doing this, however, I find myself saddled with the burden of finding the true explanation. In the event, it poses no great problem. Once it is recognised that Augustine, whose influence on the Western church was enormous, has been the source of so much misunderstanding, it is not difficult to see the answer.
In his dispute with Pelagius, Augustine was unquestionably correct to assert the indispensability of divine grace as opposed to human works in salvation. Regrettably, however, as Article IX of the C of E indicates, he failed to appreciate the essential correctness of Pelagius’ insistence on imitation. This was excusable to a point since (a) he operated with a poor Latin translation of Romans 5:12ff., and (b) apparently assumed that imitation necessitated personal knowledge of Adam’s existence (Needham, p.50). Clearly ‘repetition’ would have been a better word for Pelagius to use and, given that the Bible has a very great deal to say about the repetition of sins (e.g. Acts 7:51), it would have been much more appropriate. Despite this Augustine, not to mention his followers down to our own day, while admitting the notion of ‘corporate personality’, ought to have had a greater appreciation of the difference between community and individual and/or solidarity and separation in biblical history. It is this that brings us to the crux of the matter. As a human being Jesus was at once the same but different from the rest of us. As a genuine son of Adam (Luke 3:38) he was, according to the author of Hebrews, in every respect tempted as we are, yet without sinning (4:15). In the words of Peter, he committed no sin (1 Pet. 2:22) and hence never became the slave of sin (John 8:34). This surely indicates, first, that he was not subject to original sin, which can only suggest that it never existed, and, secondly, that he kept the law apart from which there is no sin (Rom. 4:15; 7:8, etc.). But it does something more. It points to the real reason for the virgin birth.
This brings us back to Paul. I mentioned above that Paul makes no direct reference to the virgin birth. The question is, however, did he believe it? The mere fact that Luke was his companion on some of his missionary journeys would strongly suggest that they were agreed on the matter. We can go further. For those with the eyes to see, Paul gives us indirect evidence for the virginal conception, which is surely incontrovertible, for it is he who portrays Jesus as the second Adam (1 Cor. 15:21f.; 45-49, cf. Rom.5:14). If it is asked how Jesus could be a second Adam there can be only two possible answers. First, in light of the first Adam’s failure, he would have had to expunge history, wipe the slate clean, start again de novo and re-enact without sin the life of Adam as the progenitor of the race or, secondly, to recapitulate it as his son. Since, as we have noted above, he was indeed Adam’s son (Luke 3:38) who entered history in full flight, the latter is clearly our answer. But if this is so, certain facts become undeniable. The most obvious one is that the Augustinian dogma of original sin, which has hidden recapitulation from sight and virtually banished it from the vocabulary of theology (most dictionaries contain no reference to it!), is false. This is further borne out by Gregory Nazianzen’s dictum that what is not assumed is not healed (cf. Heb. 2). In other words, to atone for original sin Jesus would have had to assume it as a baby. And while this would have made him like his brothers, it would have disqualified him from acting as Saviour from the start (Heb. 2:11,14f.). On the other hand, if the virgin birth made him free of sin, he would have been different from the rest of humanity by nature. So clearly the virgin birth refers to something other than original sin.
Observant readers of Scripture will have noticed that just as Adam began life in innocence (he knew neither good nor evil since he had no knowledge of law apart from which neither sin nor righteousness are possible), so do all children (Dt.1:39; Isa. 7:15f.). But we can go further. Just as Adam was taught the law by his heavenly Parent (Gen. 2:17), so all children, especially Jewish children, are taught by theirs (Dt. 4:9; 6:4ff.; Ps. 78:5-8). (It is perhaps helpful here to remember that Adam refers to both the individual and the race.) And it follows from this as surely as night follows day that just as Eve first, then Adam broke the law, so do all their children (1 Kings 8:46; Ps.130:3; Eccl. 7:29; Ezek. 28:15; Rom. 3:23), not simply because they are made in their image (Gen.5:1-3) and naturally follow their pattern of behaviour but because they are conditioned by their bad example and have to contend with the added impact of their sin (cf. Ex. 20:5f.; 34:6f., Num. 14:18; Rom. 5:12ff., etc.). Yet while community solidarity is a truism in Scripture, so is the possibility of individual separation (e.g. Gen. 12:1; Ps. 78:8; Ezek. 20:18; Zech. 1:4, cf. Lev. 20:24-26). This being the case, the way was clear for Jesus, the stronger than the strong man, to triumph where all others suffered defeat. It should be noted, however, that if original sin was true, Jesus as a son of Adam would have been necessarily caught in the net and disqualified from the outset.
My conclusion then is that Paul must have held to the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus. Since the first Adam was the son of God (Luke 3:38, cf. Gen.5:1) who stemmed from the earth, so Jesus also was the Son of God who, though the man from heaven (cf. John 3:31; 6:62, etc.), as incarnate stemmed from the earth via Adam and Eve, Abraham and David (cf. Ps. 139:13-16), whose root and shoot he was (Rev. 22:16), through his mother (cf. Mt.1:1; Rom. 1:3; 9:5). Thus Jesus became the second Adam and in this way, since he epitomised the race (cf. Eph. 1:10), he was able to recapitulate the entire history of man and atone for the sins of the whole world (1 John 2:2, cf. Heb. 9:15; Rev.13:8). What the virgin birth points to is neither sin nor the evil of sex or “carnal concupiscence” nor even, primarily, to deity (pace Gromacki, who subtitles his book ‘Doctrine of Deity’). Rather is underscores the fundamental humanity of the man of heaven (1 Cor. 15:47-49), as the word ‘Adam’, which we remind ourselves yet again means inclusively both mankind and the individual, itself implies.
A final question must be answered: Was the virginal conception of Jesus necessary? Machen was in no doubt about this (p.396) but others, as we have seen, are not so sure. Earlier I referred to the possibility of God wiping clean the slate of first Adamic history by starting again. God himself even suggested a similar move to Moses presumably in order to test him (Ex. 32:10; Num. 14:12; Dt. 9:14). This, of course, was impossible, since it would have necessitated the failure of the plan of salvation promised to Abraham, as Moses perceived (Num. 14:13-16). We are forced then to conclude that in becoming the second Adam by recapitulation Jesus not only saved future generations but past ones as well (cf. Rom. 3:25; Heb. 9:15; 1 John 2:2). This is simply to underline the sheer necessity of the virgin birth. To atone for the sins of the race (cf. Heb.11), including those of Adam and Eve from whom he stemmed, Jesus had to be Adam’s archetype or antitype (cf. Rom.5:14), and just as Adam had God as his Father so necessarily did he (cf. Luke 3:23-38). Or, to put the issue more pointedly, if Jesus was not born of a virgin and had a human father, he was not, and could not be, the last or second Adam, the incarnate Son of God and the Saviour of the world.
* According to Bock (p.60 n.13), in an article in the Scottish Journal of Theology 41 (1988), pp. 177-89, C.E.B.Cranfield maintained that the implications of the Virgin Birth are present in Rom. 1:3; Gal. 4:4; Phil. 2:7; Mark 6:3; John 1:13; 6:41-42.
** One of the problems with this position is that if Joseph was the father of Jesus, then he had sexual relations with Mary before they were married, in which case Jesus was born as a consequence of fornication (John 8:41)! The latter reference perhaps had an even more sinister significance.
In the final analysis the Virgin Birth of Jesus, the second Adam, points to the recapitulation of the creation of Adam. The latter was plainly created by God from the earth and so was dust (Gen. 2:7, cf. 1 Cor. 15:47-49). Jesus was created from Mary who, like all the progeny of Adam and Eve, was also dust (Ps. 78:39; 103:14, etc.). What the Virgin Birth underlines is not Jesus’ sinlessness, that is, his avoidance of original sin, but his genuine humanity as the Word made flesh. And it was in the flesh that he uniquely triumphed (Rom. 8:3; Heb. 2:14f.; 1 Pet. 2:22; Rev. 5:5). Gloria Soli Deo.
I originally arrived at my conclusions regarding the virgin birth through reading Luke 3:38. For quite some while I thought my views were unique and hence to be seen as tentative. I eventually discovered, however, that uniqueness is a rare quality (Eccl.1:9). As a lad of 11 or 12 I once heard John Lawson speak in a Methodist Church at the Toll Bar, Great Casterton, near Stamford, England. I remember being told he was a Cambridge scholar and one to be emulated. It was not until I was living in Melbourne many years later that I finally caught up with his book on “The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus”. Only then did I discover that Irenaeus held the recapitulation view regarding the virgin birth almost two thousand years ago (see pp. 150ff. I do not, however, subscribe to some of Irenaeus’ rather fanciful thinking with regard to the Virgin Mary). Since then, of course, Augustine has come on the scene and virtually eclipsed Irenaeus to the serious detriment of the church in certain respects (cf. Denis Minns OP, pp. 135f.).
D.L.Bock, Jesus According to Scripture, Grand Rapids, 2002.
M.Green, The Message of Matthew, Leicester, 2000.
R.G.Gromacki, The Virgin Birth, Grand Rapids, 1974.
J.Lawson, The Biblical Theology of Saint Irenaeus, London, 1948.
J.G.Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ, London, 1958.
D.Minns OP, Irenaeus, London, 1994.
N.R.Needham, The Triumph of Grace, London, 2000.
J.I.Packer, “Fundamentalism” and the Word of God, London, 1958.
J.W.Wenham, Our Lord’s View of the Old Testament, London, 1953.
Note: For more on the VB see C.J.Collins, The God of Miracles, Leicester , 2001, p.100 n.15.