Monday, November 04, 2013

Parsing the virgin birth

18 Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 19 And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly. 20 But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. 21 She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” 22 All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:23 “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,    and they shall call his name Immanuel”(which means, God with us). (Mt 1:18-23)
26 In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, 27 to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin's name was Mary. 28 And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” 29 But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. 30 And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. 31 And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. 32 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, 33 and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”34 And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”35 And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born[e] will be called holy—the Son of God. 36 And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. 37 For nothing will be impossible with God.” (Lk 1:25-37)
I'm going to respond to some "scientific" objections to the virgin birth. I'm piggybacking on Jason Engwer's series:

To some extent I'm responding to the Andrew Lincoln's new book Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology. However, my comments are more general. I've only read some sections of his book. I'm not attributing any particular argument to him. I'm more concerned with assessing certain types objections, rather than nailing down who said what.

In this post I'll be using the "virgin birth" as a synonym for the virginal conception of Christ. The latter is a more accurate descriptor for the concept I'm defending. However, it's simpler to use the traditional designation. 

i) I believe Lincoln used to be a theological conservative, back when he taught at Gordon-Conwell. However, he became an egalitarian. When he wrote his commentary on Ephesians, he rejected Pauline authorship. I think it's been hypothesized that he rejected Pauline authorship to weaken the authority of Ephesians, given its complementarian statement on male/female role relations in chap. 5.

His later commentary on John is theologically insightful, but sits lightly on questions of historicity. That's a problem since theology cut adrift from history is inspirational fiction. 

In addition, he wrote a favorable blurb for Robin Parry's The Evangelical Universalist. Now his attack on the virgin birth.

Seems like he's been moving steadily to the left, all to justify his egalitarian views. 

Here's one of the blurbs for his new book:

Edward Adams-- King's College London"A thorough and far-reaching investigation of the topic of Jesus' conception. Andrew Lincoln, one of the finest New Testament exegetes of our time...

That's overstated. Lincoln is a fine NT exegete, but the same could be said for dozens of his contemporary NT scholars. 

Years ago he wrote a commentary on Ephesians which was, at the time of publication, the best available commentary on Ephesians. There wasn't much competition at the time–basically F. F. Bruce, and Mitton, as well as Robinson's old classic.

But his commentary on Ephesians has since been overtaken by Hoehner, Arnold, O'Brien, and Thielman. It's no longer the leader of the pack.  

His more recent commentary on John is good on theology, but even in the respect it's not in the same league as the magnum opus by Ridderbos, much less the magnum opus by Michaels. (In fairness, they have more space to play with than he was allotted.) 

And, of course, there are better commentaries on the historical aspects of John, viz. Keener, Blomberg. 

He also wrote a fine monograph on the theology of Hebrews. 

He's very capable, but he doesn't stand head-and-shoulders above his peers. 

ii) One of his problems is that he's one-sided. The NT writers emphasize two truths about the humanity of Jesus rather than one.

One the one hand they stress his solidarity with humanity. He's one of us. 

On the other hand, they also set him apart from us. Christ is both like us and unlike us. He has much in common with his, but in some respects he's sui generis. 

Lincoln suppresses the distinctives. But that's a reductionistic Christology. And that's apart from the deity of Christ, or the hypostatic union. Christ is a complex person. 

iii) Believing the virgin birth because Scripture teaches the virgin birth is sufficient warrant. It doesn't require a defense over and above exegeting the classic prooftexts. 

iv) However, Christian philosophers, theologians, and apologists sometimes attempt to explain the virgin birth or offer a scientific model of sorts. Unlike the doctrine itself, a scientific model of the virgin birth is susceptible to rational scrutiny. That has to be internally consistent, as well as consistent with scientific possibilities. Mind you, that's not confined to what's naturally possible. Rather, this is akin to genetic engineering. Artificially manipulating natural possibilities. 

iv) Biblical miracles are not all of a kind. Some employ natural mechanisms. Take the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, which was a natural disaster. What makes that miraculous is not the means, but the way that event reflects the divine coordination of natural means. 

In principle, miracles of that kind are more open to human inspection, in terms of how it might have happened. We can postulate natural mechanisms. 

But other miracles, like the metamorphosis of rods into snakes and vice versa, humans surviving in a furnace, or the multiplication of food, are "contrary" to the ordinary course of nature. These don't involve an obvious "mechanism." They don't involve a linear extension of natural processes. They are discontinuous with natural processes.

The virgin birth is more like the second kind of miracle. To that extent, it's more opaque. We know the result. We know what didn't happen. But the details of "how" God did it elude us. And below a certain level, there's nothing more to explain. No "how" beyond God's sheer fiat. 

v) One objection to the virgin birth is the contention that the virgin birth was predicated on an obsolete understanding of reproductive genetics. Matthew and Luke thought the mother's contribution was sufficient. But now that we know the father's contribution is an essential component, that's no longer tenable. Or so goes the argument.

One problem with that objection is that, to my knowledge, it's got the relationship exactly backwards. In my reading, the usual claim is that ancient people didn't think the mother made any positive contribution to procreation.  They thought the father made the positive contribution. The new human was contained in the man's seed or semen. A homunculus. Like an acorn.  The mother was basically an incubator. So it's odd to see Lincoln turn that upside down. 

vi) Also, it's obvious that Matthew and Luke didn't think Mary's contribution was sufficient. The agency of the Holy Spirit was a necessary component. 

vii) To assume the virgin birth was based on an obsolete understanding of reproductive genetics denies the inspiration of Matthew and Luke. Christians don't think Bible writers were limited to what they could naturally know, through observation and education. God corrected their misconceptions. God revealed information to them. 

viii) However, let's assume for the sake of argument that Matthew and Luke had inaccurate views of reproductive genetics. Their personal understanding of reproductive genetics is irrelevant to the accuracy of the virgin birth accounts. For Matthew is reporting an event. Luke is reporting an event, as well as reporting a conversation (between Mary and the angel Gabriel). In their reportorial role, they don't have to understand reproductive genetics. They simply transmit revealed truths. They relay historical events. The virgin birth isn't dependent on how they understood the mechanics of the virgin birth. They aren't the source of the concept. 

The only thing they have to understand is that Mary wasn't impregnated by a man. She became pregnant apart from sexual intercourse. The creative agent was the Holy Spirit. An incorporeal agent. A physical effect of an immaterial cause. 

It doesn't require a scientific mastery of reproductive genetics to grasp that. Primitive people know that making a baby normally requires the conjunction of a man and a woman. That's a presupposition of the virgin birth accounts. They stand in studied contrast to that backdrop. 

ix) Someone like Lincoln could attempt to evade this by denying that we should take the objective, third-person narrative at face value. He could say that's literary artifice. 

But if he takes that tack, then that's a different debate. That becomes a debate about the inspiration of Scripture. 

In addition, that's counterproductive. By trying to pit the NT witness to the Incarnation against the NT witness to the virgin birth, he destroys both. If he rejects the inerrancy of Scripture respecting the virgin birth, he might as well reject the inerrancy of Scripture respecting the Incarnation or the humanity of Christ. Attacking the virgin birth in order to defend the Incarnation is suicidal inasmuch as both doctrines depend on the witness of Scripture. If Scripture can't be trusted to attest the virgin birth, it can't be trusted to attest the Incarnation.

x) One way of modeling the virgin birth is to use a modified reproductive paradigm in which the Holy Spirit miraculously fertilized Mary's ovum. But critics attack it on the grounds that, absent a seminal contribution, the "fertilized" ovum would lack the Y chromosome.  

To which we can postulate that the Holy Spirit created ex nihilo sperm to fertilize the ovum. And that supplies the Y chromosome. 

xi) A critic might object that that's sheer speculation. However, scientific objections to the virgin birth are no less speculative. Matthew and Luke don't specify the process, just the result. Mary conceives Jesus in the womb through the unilateral action of the Holy Spirit. That's it. 

In order to mount a scientific objection to the virgin birth, the critic must first postulate a specific process, then object to it. So the critic is in the same boat as the Christian philosopher or theologian. 

The critic begins with normal procreation: sperm meets ovum, sperm fertilizes ovum. The critic then objects that a key component of this transaction is missing in the case of the virgin birth.

But given that conventional procreative framework, a Christian philosopher or theologian is entitled to modify the paradigm. Indeed, since the virgin birth is avowedly miraculous, a Christian philosopher or theologian is compelled to modify the paradigm, for this is not a purely or primarily natural process. Therefore, that's not ad hoc. That's responding to the critic on his own terms. Speculative objections justify speculative rejoinders.  

xii) Perhaps, though, the critic will say it's ad hoc in a different respect. We'd expect God to either be consistently naturalistic or supernaturalistic in his methodology, whereas the virgin birth oscillates between both. Why use a woman at all if you don't use a man?

However, that's easy to parry:

a) There's biblical precedent. God didn't create Adam and Eve entirely from scratch. In the case of Adam, he made use of preexisting inorganic material–and in the case of Eve, preexisting organic material. 

b) He made sure Jesus had a biological mother to tie into Gen 3:15. 

c) In addition, the virgin birth is an extension and intensification of other miraculous conceptions in Scripture. Same principle. It just takes it a step further, to mark out Jesus as even more special than, say, Isaac or John the Baptist. 

xiii) But suppose we use a different paradigm: a modified clone. Although a clone normally shares the sex of the donor, I believe that could be genetically engineered to adjust the sex of the clone. 

A critic might object that this is artificial. But that misses the point. The virgin birth is a miracle. Miracles are artificial to one degree or another. They involve the divine manipulation of nature. 


  1. a) There's biblical precedent. God didn't create Adam and Eve entirely from scratch. In the case of Adam, he made use of preexisting inorganic material–and in the case of Eve, preexisting organic material.

    Thanks for that precedent, Steve.

    It causes me to consider that God made Adam from dust and His breath
    And graciously formed the second Adam from Eves dust and the breadth of His Spirit.

  2. One problem with that objection is that, to my knowledge, it's got the relationship exactly backwards. In my reading, the usual claim is that ancient people didn't think the mother made any positive contribution to procreation. They thought the father made the positive contribution.

    Interestingly, only in Gen. 3:15 does the OT talk about "the seed of the woman." Everywhere else it talks about the "seed" of men. If Matthew and Luke invented the virginal conception of Christ or borrowed the idea from pagan myths, then it would have been useful for them to have allude to or directly quoted Gen. 3:15. They could have cited/alluded to it after having searched the OT to find something to support it in prophecy. But they didn't. It would also have made sense that they would have also alluded/quoted it if it was the basis on which they invented the virginal conception. But, again they didn't. That's consistent with their not having invented it, but reporting history as they received it. Matthew only quoted Isa. 7:14. Gen. 3:15 talk about the "seed" of Eve or the woman must be prophetic and miraculous in that goes contrary to all cultural and scientific expectation of the day.

    Moreover, seeing the importance of lineage in Jewish culture, it's surprising that they were willing to even record the virginal conception of Christ (especially Matthew which was written partly to convince Jews of Christ's messiahship). It's almost an embarrassing fact since part of the reason why Jews were so zealous to keep genealogical records was to be able to verify the possible legitimacy of Messianic claimants. The New Testament's DOUBLE affirmation of the virginal conception of the Messiah is like shooting themselves in the foot since lineage was primarily recorded through the males (especially regarding the line of the messiah). Reading Matthew's reference to 4 female women in the line of David seems to be a way for Matthew to kind of anticipate Jewish objections since Jew's would naturally claim that Jesus wasn't really virginally conceived but was the product of either fornication or adultery between Mary and some other man or Joseph.

    Notice too that each woman was tainted by sexual sin.
    1. Tamar pretended to be a prostitute in order to conceive a child (ending up in twins) by Judah her father-in-law because Judah wickedly refused to given her his next son Shelah in marriage after both Er and Onan died.
    2. Rahab was a former prostitute.
    3. Ruth was a Moabitess, the race being the product of incest between Lot and his eldest daughter.
    4. "the wife of Uriah" (i.e. Bathsheba) committed adultery with David.

    It's as if Matthew was saying, "You may (wrongly) accuse Jesus to be the product of sexual immorality, but look at the ancestors of your own acknowledge rightful King, David. He had sinful women in his lineage."

    Also, Gal. 4:4 statement that the messiah was "made/born of a woman" seems like an unnecessary statement. Of course the Messiah was to be born of a woman. So, it suggests that Paul had in mind something special about Jesus' birth (i.e. He was virginally conceived).

    Finally, the Gospel of John seems to be saying that some of the Jews were implying that Jesus was a bastard child in John 8:41. Such rumors and accusations would naturally happen if there were claims that Jesus' conception and birth were not normal and according to approved cultural/legal norms.