Several years ago Angela Tilby wrote in the London Times: “Of all the articles of the Christian faith, none is more widely disbelieved than the virgin birth”. The idea that God the Son took flesh from a human mother and was born as a man without the aid of a human father strikes many modern Christians as absurd and incredible.
Not too long ago a prominent bishop commented that “we have no right to insist on the literal truth of the story about the virgin birth of Jesus.”
It’s easy enough for traditionalists to assign blame to two or three outspoken theologians. But what the theologians really represent is a surfacing of deeply felt, usually unexpressed, doubts in the hearts of the clergy. Increasingly the so-called poetic nature of the nativity stories is stressed in the media. A strict interpretation of the Bible verse is summarily dismissed.
Perhaps a little historical perspective on this problem will clarify the controversy.
Adolf Harnack was a German liberal scholar. In 1892 he remarked to his students that he did not believe in the virgin birth. In his view Jesus of Nazareth was no more than a very capable teacher. Harnack touched off a heated controversy that has ebbed and flowed ever since.
Then Emil Brunner wrote a book about Jesus Christ in 1927 in which he questioned the virgin birth.
After World War II Rudolf Bultmann began his now famous approach of “demythologizing” the Bible. To him, New Testament myths had to be separated from New Testament fact. Miracles were indeed statements of faith, but not factual stories.
Students training for the priesthood and ministry have read the published works of these theologians as a regular part of their educational routine. Many have absorbed such teachings, however unconsciously. They have become unsure. They do not understand who or what Jesus Christ really was and is. Their disbelief now extends to the virgin birth.
Thinking men and women are now examining the New Testament documents for themselves. They have no option but to test what they hear, as did the Bereans, who searched “the scriptures daily, to prove these things were so” (Acts. 17:11).
Can one honestly believe the virgin birth? Two accounts of Jesus’ birth appear in the gospels, one by Luke and the other by Matthew. We will take a look at Luke’s version.
Luke was a physician who conducted himself like the professional he was. His gospel was written for a prominent Roman official. He chose his sources carefully. He talked to eyewitnesses. He recorded truth. It is unthinkable that Luke would produce a careless assemblage of half-truths. Notice Luke’s prologue:
“Inasmuch as many have undertaken to compile a narrative of the things which have been accomplished among us, just as they were delivered to us by those who from the beginning were eyewitnesses and ministers of the word, it seemed good to me also, having followed all things closely for some time past, to write an orderly account for you, most excellent Theophilus, that you may know the truth concerning the things of what you have been informed” (Luke 1:1-4).
Luke’s sober intention was to convey truth, not myths, or half-truths. This Greek-speaking physician was nobody’s fool. He was a well-educated man.
Here is a thoughtful conclusion of Professor A. Plummer about Luke the physician and gospel writer and the apostle Paul: “It is not improbable that it was at Tarsus, where there was a school of philosophy and literature rivaling those of Alexandria and Athens that they first met. Luke may have studied medicine at Tarsus. Nowhere else in Asia Minor could he obtain so good an education” (St. Luke, pp. 20-21, T. & T. Clark, 1896).
Luke is one of the most versatile and prolific of all the New Testament writers. He uses 800 Greek words not employed elsewhere in the New Testament. He spent valuable time with another prolific writer – the apostle Paul who, like Moses, was not only educated in biblical doctrine, but in this world’s secular and legal knowledge as well.
Only Luke sets the birth and ministry of Christ in the wider context of the Roman Empire. Considerable historical and chronological data are used in his account. He is conscious of the impact of Christ’s teaching in the whole of the civilized world. He realizes the gospel goes far beyond Palestinian borders.
The point is, here is a man uniquely equipped to write an account of the life and teachings of Jesus Christ to one in high office. Luke understands the Graeco-Roman world. He possesses literary gifts and historical awareness. He has professional experiences.
The birth stories of John the Baptist and Jesus Christ are set in the days of Herod (Luke 1:5). The account begins with Zechariah, who is approached in the Temple by the archangel Gabriel while Zechariah is performing his priestly duties. Gabriel predicts the birth of John. Not unnaturally, Zechariah protests his and his wife’s advanced age. Nevertheless Elizabeth conceives (v. 24).
This crucial account follows: “In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David; and the virgin’s name was Mary” (vs. 26-27).
God is the director of this entire scenario. Gabriel was sent by the Creator. The archangel said to the betrothed virgin Mary, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God” (v. 30). What is to happen to Mary as a result of God’s favor? “And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus” (v. 31).
But what was Mary’s reaction to the angelic greeting? Just what you’d expect in a real life situation. Luke records that “she was greatly troubled at the saying, and considered in her mind what sort of greeting this might be” (v. 29). And when Gabriel tells her of the coming birth, her reaction is very human. “How shall this be, since I have no husband?” (v. 34) Mary was betrothed, but not yet living with a husband. She presents the natural difficulties. Then Gabriel proceeds to strengthen her faith. Notice how.
He focuses her attention on Elizabeth’s miraculous experience. “And behold, your kinswoman Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son; and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For with God nothing will be impossible” (vs. 36-37).
Such is the crux of the whole matter. God is a miracle-working God. Miraculous biblical incidents are recorded from Genesis to Revelation. Of course, God did create natural laws. But the Creator is superior to the created and can transcend natural law.
Birth is not normally possible after menopause. It occurred twice in biblical history. The first occurrence involved the patriarch Abraham and his wife Sarah. Again the reaction was typically human. Abraham said: “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years of, bear a child?” (Gen. 17:17), Sarah said: “Shall I indeed bear a child, now that I am old?” (Gen. 18:13).
Notice how God answered these questions. “Is anything too hard for the Lord? At the appointed time, I will return to you, in the spring, and Sarah shall have a son” (v. 14).
Must we reject miracles because they are not the norm in secular human experience? Notice the wisdom of Winston Churchill: “The idea that nothing is true except what we comprehend is silly, and that ideas which our minds cannot reconcile are mutually destructive, sillier still” (My Early Life, p. 126, MacMillan & Co.).
It is foolish to view the virgin birth in isolation. As Angela Tilby wrote in the London Times several years ago: “The virgin birth is not inherently less plausible than the physical resurrection of Jesus.”
The virgin birth is no harder for God than resurrecting Jesus Christ, and certainly no harder than creating the first man from the dust of the ground, or fashioning Eve from Adam’s rib. Which miracle is harder for God?
Let’s put it another way. God created the heavens and the earth “out of things which do not appear”(Heb. 11:3). Visible matter is therefore not eternal in nature. God created Adam out of dust, without any father or mother. God created Eve out of a rib, without any father or mother. Was it then impossible for God to be the Father of Jesus without benefit of a human father? Which is the greater miracle?
But what was the archangel Gabriel telling Mary? Simply this. If God could make it possible for Elizabeth and Zechariah to have a son John in their old age, Mary could bear a child as a virgin. “For with God nothing will be impossible.”