Wednesday, December 14, 2016

Informed consent and the Virgin Birth

On Facebook, I got into a debate with John Mark Reynolds on the Virgin Birth. Reynolds is Eastern Orthodox, and I take it he's a freewill theist. 

God is not a rapist and came with consent.

Do Biblical prophets consent to be prophets? Did Moses consent to that? Or Jeremiah? Or Ezekiel? Or St. Paul. They had pretty grueling lives. Let's drop the demagogical "rapist" label, shall we?

"Demagogical" is the old ethical. No. The prophets did indeed consent to be prophets. As did Saint Paul . . .

Let me suggest: to conceive a child without full consent (knowing what one is getting into) is rape. It is bad.

Really? Did Jeremiah know what he was getting into? "You deceived me, Lord, and I was deceived; you overpowered me and prevailed. I am ridiculed all day long; everyone mocks me" (Jer 20:7). Is that your notion of informed consent?

Moses is a paradigm of the reluctant prophet. So is Jonah. It's a real stretch for you to claim that consented to be prophets.

You think parents know what they are getting into? Did the parents of Ted Bundy or Jeffrey Dahmer know what they were getting into?

What about the parents of a boy who becomes a hopeless drug addict and commits suicide? 

There's a continuum. At one extreme there's having no idea what you're getting into. At the other extreme is exhaustive foreknowledge or counterfactual knowledge. Only God has that. In-between those two extremes are many gradations of knowing and not knowing. 

Hasn't John Mark Reynolds made decisions which, with the benefit of hindsight, he would not have made? Events often turn out differently than we expected, going in.

What about a man who marries a women who later develops a degenerative illness like MS or Huntington's disease. He didn't know what he was getting into. In some cases, if he had the benefit of foresight, some men would have married a different woman.

Given JMR's strictures, does he think a man in that situation has grounds to divorce his wife since he lacked informed consent when he said "I do"? 

If not, then where does that leave his original argument?

i) If you're mistaken, you called God a rapist. Don't you think you ought to be more circumspect? You're prepared to call God a rapist based on your a priori stipulation that to conceive a child without "full consent," which you define as "knowing what one is getting into," is "rape". I'm curious about people who are so utterly confident in their intuitions that they have no hesitation about making potentially defamatory statements about God. How is that distinguishable from hubris or impudence? 

ii) But let's play along with your stipulation. Since Jesus only had one biological parent, in principle, God could have made Joseph the biological parent rather than Mary. Suppose he miraculously created a temporary womb in Joseph and made Joseph the surrogate "mother" or incubator of Jesus. If he did so without securing Joseph's "full consent," would he be guilty of "raping" Joseph?

iii) Actually, there's nothing about consent in the account of the Annunciation. Gabriel simply gives Mary advance notice of what's going to happen. He doesn't come to Mary with a proposal from God and ask for her to vote it up or down. It's not a request, but a prediction. It gives her an opportunity to prepare for what awaits her. 

iv) Suppose, for argument's sake, that Mary had no warning. Suppose she simply become pregnant by direct divine agency. She'd be unaware of the process by which she became pregnant. The agency of the God in effecting that result would be indetectable. How is that equivalent to rape? 

Lots of things happen to us without our consent to, including bad things. Take cancer or degenerative illnesses. Is that equivalent to divine rape?

"I do think you need informed consent to have sex and make a baby."

Since the virginal conception didn't involve sex–which is what makes it virginal–your comparison is already disanalogous.

"I do think a lack of consent is rape"

That's so simplistic. Although it's true that rape is nonconsensual, that's hardly a sufficient criterion. As we know, rape involves a man physically forcing himself on an unwilling woman. That, in turn, generates psychological trauma.

Suppose Gabriel hadn't given Mary advance notice. Even though she didn't consent, none of the other elements would be present. It trades on the odious connotations of rape without most of the elements we normally associate with rape.

"We marry for better or worse or in sickness or in health to having considered the weight of our decision."

But that's an abstraction. How is massive ignorance of the future compatible with informed consent? You have two principles that tug in opposing directions: risky commitment and informed consent. 

You duck the point that we often make decisions we later regret because we had to act on the information which we had at the time, which turned out to be inadequate to make an informed decision. That's a commonplace of human experience. 

"This is why modern vows are so risky…As for having a child, when I have a child I choose the risk."

What makes it risky is ignorance of the consequences. Informed consent and risk pull in opposing directions. Risky because we don't know the future. You need to come down on one side or the other of your conflicting principles. 

"Second, God isn't the proximate cause of evils like cancer."

That's getting a bit offtrack, but since you bring it up, although God is not the proximate cause of natural evils like cancer, he's the remote cause. Or, to put it differently, his prior action is a necessary condition. How that distinction is supposed to help your overall position is unclear. 

"Third, a prophet has a choice. None of your examples contradict that."

I don't see where your getting that from examples like Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, and St. Paul. Rather, you appear to have an a priori commitment to choice, which you impose on these examples. They *must* have had a choice.

Unclear what you mean by choice in that context. Even if you put a gun to a man's head, there's a sense in which he still has a choice. He can choose to be shot in the head. But he's acting under duress. 

"Fourth, men do get raped, so "yes" the situation you describe would be rape of Joseph."

Equivocal. That's typically in the case of, say, men sodomized in prison. But that's hardly comparable to the situation I described. 

"If you insist on not seeing consent in 'the let it be done into me…' Because of foreknowledge, I would of suggest John Martin Fischer."

i) I didn't bring up the issue of freedom and foreknowledge. However, John Martin Fischer rejects libertarian freedom, so citing him is counterproductive to your position. He takes the position that freedom and foreknowledge are consistent in a compatibilist (or "semicompatibilist") sense of freedom, not the libertarian sense. 

ii) More to the point, there's a distinction between willing and unwilling submission. Mary willingly submits to God's resolve to make her the mother of the messiah. That doesn't imply that she had a veto. Scripture contains many examples of unwilling submission to God's inexorable resolve.

You can't get what you need out of Mary's "be it done until me according to your will," if by that you mean the Incarnation was contingent on her consent. 

"I don't think God deceived Jeremiah and you don't either. What we cry out to God in sorrow... Can be immoderate."

Sure, the way Jeremiah expresses himself is emotional and rhetorical. But as one commentator notes:

"Almighty God enlisting an innocent young man (probably just a teenager!) in a lifelong, hapless task, not telling him upfront that he would never be able to marry or have children, nor telling him that he would, in fact, be beaten and imprisoned and publicly humiliated (didn't God promise that he would be rescued from his enemies?), not fully explaining to him the living hell he would experience," M. Brown, REBC 7:288.

That just doesn't fit into your preconceived grid about the necessity of informed consent. Your not starting with the data. 

"Finally, to assume any Gospel account is 'all there is' is belied by the Gospels themselves. The stories are summaries. The Gospels don't have Jesus ever laughing, but I am confident he did."

I haven't assumed that any Gospel account is all there is. But if it's not in the Gospels, and it's not in some reliable extrabiblical source, then you have no evidence for your claim. 

"And by the way, if a man signs up to be a prophet and then is shocked…"

Which misses the point. Moses, Jonah, Jeremiah, and St. Paul didn't enlist. Rather, God conscripted them. They were draftees, not volunteers. 

"She also knew the prophets, what they experienced, and said. She knew."

We have a pretty good idea of what she knew from the Magnificat, and it's quite triumphal. There's no Suffering Servant in the Magnificat.

Just to be know: who was the first person in Church history to adopt your own preferred view of Mary? That date would be helpful.

If you're asking me, that would Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. 1C.

That is the question, isn't it. The BVM spent 30 years pondering out Lord's birth and unlike most followed him to the Cross. I bet...she knew.

You bet she knew what? That she had advance knowledge regarding the Passion of Christ, or did you have something else in mind?

The Passion... The sword piercing her heart.

How does a generic metaphor like that amount to specific knowledge of the future?

"generic"...if I lived through the Annunciation, the birth of the baptist, the shepherds, the Wise men, the Temple incident, knew Isaiah, lived with Jesus...I might suspect his mission wasn't to have a good time.

What was she pondering?

Most of that doesn't fit your criterion of informed consent, since it's after the conception of Jesus. Too late for her to know what she's getting into before the die is cast. 

So you seem to be shifting ground and changing the subject. 

She was pondering Simeon's cryptic comment. Of course, if she knew what he meant, what would there be to ponder?

Actually it does fit my previous argument. She was pondering the mystery of the Suffering Servant. I view it as phenomenally implausible that someone who went through what Mary did (even assuming we have an exhaustive account of what was said to her) and lived with Jesus for 30 years did not much gain more than the initial redemption account (required for the initial yes). Did Jesus teach in the Temple and they found out nothing? Did they talk for decades? Much to ponder beyond the basic outline ...

Essentially nobody in church history had your low view of Mary...until the reformation and later then! Why would anyone think the Mother of God "blessed among women" would be ignorant? Nobody did...see images in catacombs, early 3rd century prayers, and the consensus of almost all gospel readers for centuries.

Steve Hays 
The question isn't whether his mission was to have a good time. That's a straw man. If you can't bring yourself to be serious in how you frame the issue, so be it. What is there in the Annunciation, the birth of the Baptist, the shepherds, the Wise men, and the Temple incident to suggest that Jesus would encounter vicious and malicious opposition? The Annunciation, for one, describes his career in triumphal terms. And there's nothing in the other items to counter that.

As to Isaiah, it's easy for us to see Jesus in Isa 52-53 because we have the benefit of hindsight. As far as Isaiah goes, the passage that might jump out at her is Isa 7, but there's nothing about a suffering messiah in that passage. To the contrary, he's depicted as a triumphant king who subjugates his enemies on the battlefield. 

Moreover, you keep moving the goal post. You're now up to the 30th year of Jesus. That's not foresight. 

My "low view" of Mary is that Mary is human, not a goddess. She's not even prophetic. Rather, Simeon and Anna are prophetic. 

I'm not ashamed to be Protestant. 

Your question is a non sequitur. To be the mother of God incarnate doesn't' make the mother omniscient or even prescient. She doesn't share divine attributes. 

What do 3C prayers have to do with anything? 

"Ignorance" is a matter of degree. Your problem is an all-or-nothing fallacy.

The flight to Egypt suggested that things were not going to be easy. Herod acts as a murderous opponent of Jesus and they are forced into exile. Symeon suggested it.

Beyond that, I think informed consent in a relationship requires knowing what you are getting into... And see no reason to think Mary didn't know and good reason (informed consent) to think she did. Why see the Suffering Servant only after Jesus? Is Mary allowed any insight? 

My view doesn't require Mary knowing everything
..just what she was agreeing to do. I mention 30 years with Jesus, because she is the only person we know of with that much exposure to Jesus.

Mary is no goddess, but the Magnificat is...amazing...and behold all generations have called her she said.

My point is this ... Every text or image we have in the first centuries of the Church has a high view of Mary. Reformers shared this early on...a bizarre minimalism began . Why? Misogyny? Fear of idolatry? Gnostic views? Hard question

We haven't even mentioned John's image of Mary in Revelation

"Misogyny". Yeah, that must be it. And if JMR disapproves of homosexual behavior, then he must hate homosexuals.

"Gnostic views". Actually, it's perpetual virginity that betrays a gnostic disdain for physicality and sexuality. 

The "bizarre minimalism" is basing one's belief on reliable historical evidence rather than pious fiction and legendary embellishment. 

Your appeal begs the question of whether the woman in Rev 12 is reducible to Mary.

Mark Daviau 
The problem, Steve Hays, is that you seem insistent on making us adopt your view that Mary was simply some poor peasant girl…"

You mean like: 

"26 For consider your calling, brothers: not many of you were wise according to worldly standards, not many were powerful, not many were of noble birth. 27 But God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise; God chose what is weak in the world to shame the strong; 28 God chose what is low and despised in the world, even things that are not, to bring to nothing things that are, 29 so that no human beingmight boast in the presence of God" (1 Cor 1:26-29).


  1. Simeon's prophecy in Luke 2:35 involves a negative assessment of Mary, not a positive one. It's about a sword of division and judgment that will adversely affect Mary. See, especially, the use of sword imagery in Ezekiel. Eric Svendsen addresses Luke's passage in Who Is My Mother? (Amityville, New York: Calvary Press, 2001), 142-50. It's probably not a coincidence that the incident of 2:48-50 and its surrounding context follow so soon after the account involving Simeon's prophecy. 2:48-50 opens with a quotation of Mary's inappropriate comments in verse 48, followed by Jesus' rebuke of her in verse 49, and concludes with Luke's comments about her ignorance in verse 50. I can cite one Roman Catholic scholar after another who acknowledges that 2:48-50 is portraying Mary in a negative light. And that passage is likely intended by Luke to be an illustration of how the sword of division and judgment affected Mary.

    Here are three posts documenting that church fathers and Popes referred to Mary as a sinner for hundreds of years: here, here, and here. Regarding Mary's alleged knowledge of what Jesus would do, Tertullian referred to "a want of evidence of His mother's adherence to Him…their [Mary and Jesus' brothers] unbelief is evident…they set small store on that which [Jesus] was doing within [the house in Matthew 12:46-50]…they prefer to interrupt Him, and wish to call Him away from His great work" (On The Flesh Of Christ, 7). He goes on to criticize Mary and Jesus' brothers for "the importunity of those who would call Him away from His work", and he goes on to remark, "When denying one's parents in indignation [as Jesus did in Matthew 12], one does not deny their existence, but censures their faults….in the abjured mother there is a figure of the synagogue, as well as of the Jews in the unbelieving brethren. In their person Israel remained outside, whilst the new disciples who kept close to Christ within, hearing and believing, represented the Church, which He called mother in a preferable sense and a worthier brotherhood, with the repudiation of the carnal relationship" (ibid.) Regarding Luke 2:35:

    "Origen insisted that, like all human beings, she [Mary] needed redemption from her sins; in particular, he interpreted Simeon's prophecy (Luke 2, 35) that a sword would pierce her soul as confirming that she had been invaded with doubts when she saw her Son crucified." (J.N.D. Kelly, Early Christian Doctrines [San Francisco, California: HarperCollins Publishers, 1978], 493)

    (continued below)

  2. (continued from above)

    Basil of Caesarea not only advocates a similar view of the passage, but even denies that there's any obscurity or variety of interpretation:

    "About the words of Simeon to Mary, there is no obscurity or variety of interpretation....By a sword is meant the word which tries and judges our thoughts, which pierces even to the dividing asunder of soul and spirit and of the joints and marrow, and is a discerner of our thoughts. Now every soul in the hour of the Passion was subjected, as it were, to a kind of searching. According to the word of the Lord it is said, 'All ye shall be offended because of me.' Simeon therefore prophesies about Mary herself, that when standing by the cross, and beholding what is being done, and hearing the voices, after the witness of Gabriel, after her secret knowledge of the divine conception, after the great exhibition of miracles, she shall feel about her soul a mighty tempest. The Lord was bound to taste of death for every man--to become a propitiation for the world and to justify all men by His own blood. Even thou thyself, who hast been taught from on high the things concerning the Lord, shalt be reached by some doubt. This is the sword. 'That the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.' He indicates that after the offence at the Cross of Christ a certain swift healing shall come from the Lord to the disciples and to Mary herself, confirming their heart in faith in Him. In the same way we saw Peter, after he had been offended, holding more firmly to his faith in Christ. What was human in him was proved unsound, that the power of the Lord might be shewn." (Letter 260:6, 260:9)

    John Chrysostom repeatedly accuses Mary of a variety of sins, and he doesn't seem to think she was as knowledgeable as John Mark Reynolds claims:

    "For in fact that which she [Mary] had essayed to do [in Matthew 12:46-50], was of superfluous vanity; in that she wanted to show the people that she hath power and authority over her Son, imagining not as yet anything great concerning Him; whence also her unseasonable approach. See at all events both her self-confidence and theirs." (Homilies On Matthew, 44)

    "For where parents cause no impediment or hindrance in things belonging to God, it is our bounden duty to give way to them, and there is great danger in not doing so; but when they require anything unseasonably, and cause hindrance in any spiritual matter, it is unsafe to obey. And therefore He answered thus in this place, and again elsewhere, 'Who is My mother, and who are My brethren?' [Matthew 12:48], because they did not yet think rightly of Him; and she, because she had borne Him, claimed, according to the custom of other mothers, to direct Him in all things, when she ought to have reverenced and worshiped Him. This then was the reason why He answered as He did on that occassion....And so this was a reason why He rebuked her on that occasion, saying, 'Woman, what have I to do with thee?' [John 2:4] instructing her for the future not to do the like; because, though He was careful to honor His mother, yet He cared much for the salvation of her soul" (Homilies On John, 21)

    I cite many other examples like these in my three posts linked above. I suspect that Steve would refrain from accusing Mary of some of the sins men like Tertullian and John Chrysostom accused her of. And I suspect that Steve would use less critical language in some instances. So, these fathers are, in these contexts, probably being more critical of Mary than Steve is. I know they're more critical of Mary than I am. I agree with them that she's a sinner, that passages like Matthew 12:46-50 and Luke 2:35 reflect negatively on her, etc., but I think some of the fathers sometimes were overly critical of her.

    Concerning Revelation 12, see here.

  3. Reynolds' comments about images and prayers to Mary are misleading. The earliest patristic Christians rejected a Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox view of images and rejected prayers to the dead. See here and here.

  4. 1. JMR argues to conceive a child without "full consent" is tantamount to "rape".

    However, can consent be true consent if it's involuntary or forced? If there's undue influence? In Mary's case, wouldn't an angel appearing before her put a lot of stress on her?

    2. Also, shouldn't there be a sufficient time period elapsed in order for the person to make up their mind? Yet, according to JMR, Mary essentially accepted on the spot.

    3. If Mary was around 12-13 years old at the time Gabriel appeared to her, can a 12-13 year old give "informed" consent (in the all or nothing sense JMR and others in the thread mean)?

    4. If Mary was sinless, then (as I've read some Catholics say) she wouldn't have necessarily experienced any pain in giving birth (Gen 3:16a).

    If she didn't experience any pain in giving birth to Jesus, then how would this have worked, physiologically speaking, for pain is at least in part due to contractions as the womb contracts many times to push the baby out (and this usually lasts for hours, especially in a woman's first birth)? As far as I can see, there are two main possibilities:

    a. Mary had no contractions, but Jesus somehow (against female anatomy and physiology) gently slid down her vaginal canal to say "Hello, world!".

    b. Did she somehow have painless contractions? How would this work?

  5. A couple of comments:
    1. Mary and the rest of the family did NOT support Jesus' ministry while living. Reference when his family wanted to suppress His behavior (Mark 3, Luke 8, etc). Any foreknowledge or understanding Mary had was likely based on the common understanding and expectation of the Messiah for 1st century Judaism - i.e. a conquering Messiah that would triumph over Israel's enemies. Jesus' family opposed His actions because it was a cause of shame and was not what anyone expected from the Messiah. So Mary would not have understood the "Suffering Servant" motif.

    2. The use of the word "rape" is completely incongruous. Rape takes the form of sex without consent but it is not a sexual expression. Rape is an expression of power and control, of a way of exerting dominance. Now, you may say that God was exerting dominance over Mary and use that as a basis for terming it rape. However, rapists are typically seen as suffering from either antisocial or inadequacy issues. Can we really, in all honesty, think that God suffers from either?

  6. Is John Mark Reynolds a former Evangelical who wrote the chapter on Young Earth Creationism in the 3 Views book? (and has written lots of other books)

    if so, when did he become Eastern Orthodox?