The NY Times columnist Nicholas Kristof recently interviewed Serene Jones, President of Union Theological Seminary, in an op-ed entitled “Reverend, You Say the Virgin Birth Is ‘a Bizarre Claim’?” The responses, like the one referenced in his op-ed’s title, can only be described as bizarre to hear coming from someone claiming to be a Christian. But this is what is being held up as Christianity to a watching world in the pages of a major media outlet, so it warrants a response. I encourage you to click the link above to read the whole article for yourself. Then let’s work through some of the more glaring issues and see how this stacks up against actual Christianity.
It’s Christmas: the time set aside each year to celebrate the Incarnation of the Son of God, the Word taking on human flesh, the birth of our Lord and Savior – Jesus, the Christ. But the way He invaded our corrupt world has long been a sticking point for some people. So let’s work through an issue related to that today.
I am, of course, referring to the “Virgin Birth”. You’ll find it recounted in the gospels of Matthew [Mt 1:18-24] and Luke [Lk 1:26-38], and noted as a core belief in the earliest creeds. At Christmas time, you may even reference it in singing carols, like the traditional verses below:
“Christ, by highest heaven adored,
Christ, the everlasting Lord,
late in time behold him come,
offspring of the Virgin’s womb:
veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
hail th’incarnate Deity,
pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus, our Immanuel.”
– “Hark! The Herald Angels Sing” verse 2
“Silent night! Holy night!
All is calm, all is bright
’round yon virgin mother and child!
Holy infant, so tender and mild,
sleep in heavenly peace,
sleep in heavenly peace.”
– “Silent Night! Holy Night!” verse 1
For many, singing such lyrics is more about tradition and nostalgia than singing their beliefs. Yet this has been a fundamental part of Christianity from early on. Why is that? First off, if the Bible really is God’s special revelation to us, inspired by the One who cannot lie [Heb 6:18], then we must take seriously the clear statements in the gospels that Mary was a virgin and Jesus was conceived through the work of the Holy Spirit, not having a human father. That said, one point of clarification is that while it is typically called the “virgin birth”, it is really the unique case of virgin conception that is at issue here. The birth was presumably like any other. But back to the the main issue: a virgin conception isn’t possible, right? Of course it’s not – naturally. A new human life requires 46 chromosomes, and the mother only provides half of those. But that is what makes it a miracle: it is an occurrence in nature that requires supernatural intervention to be accomplished. However, while God has created a very orderly machine-like universe, that does not preclude the machine’s Designer and Creator from bypassing the usual workings to produce a desired result. And from the record we have of such interventions, they are far from arbitrary interference, but rather special signs to a) draw our attention to the message behind the event, and b) prove the legitimacy of the message by the inexplicability of the event apart from divine intervention. The virgin conception was no different. It was a sign that God was at work here to accomplish something big.
But this leads to that larger purpose served by it, and I think it is something that actually makes a virgin conception necessary if Jesus was to be “truly God and truly man”, as the Chalcedonian Creed would say. Jesus could not inherit a sinful nature if he was to be the perfect, sinless sacrifice that would satisfy the wrath of God. Yet ever since Adam and Eve first disobeyed God in the Garden of Eden, humans have suffered from sin, and “there is none righteous, not even one” [Rom 3:10]. How then could God the Son be born as a human, live a perfect life, and offer Himself as an unblemished, atoning, redemptive sacrifice for each of us, if He was born into sin like the rest of us [Ps 51:5, 1Kin 8:46]?
This is where I think a look at two views of ensoulment is profitable. If we recognize the existence of an immaterial “self” that is a key part of who we are, commonly considered as the soul of a person, apart from their material body, then we must ponder how that comes to be. One view is special creation: each human being’s soul is specially created by God and implanted at some point between conception and birth. Another view is called the Traducian view, from the Latin word for a branch of a vine. This view holds that special creation was limited to Adam and Eve as the first humans, and that humans since then have the distinct privilege (and responsibility) of partaking in creation as instrumental causes not just of the physical life of their children, but also of their souls as well. In this way, while mankind was created “in the image of God” [Ge 1:27], a spiritual deadness and propensity to sin are passed down to subsequent generations as part of our very nature after Adam and Eve sinned. What was created good and reflective of God was polluted, marred, corrupted. Much like a genetic defect in our physical bodies, our nonphysical souls have inherited a sin nature from our parents that we are powerless to overcome without the regenerating call to life of the Holy Spirit. What I find particularly interesting about the Traducian idea is that this does explain why the Virgin Conception of Jesus was necessary – Jesus could take on human nature but without that inherited corruption that had been passed down from Adam. Now, whether the Traducian view of ensoulment is the correct one or not, God only knows, but it seems to have significant explanatory power in answering why the virgin conception of Christ was necessary in the first place. Just a little something to chew on this week as thoughts of our Savior take center stage during this season of the year. Blessings, y’all, and … MERRY CHRISTMAS!!