The Virginal Conception

My sermons of late have been quite brief. In this peak preaching season, you are lucky to have escaped so lightly, but I have been encouraged in this direction from some sources, including domestic ones, to be permanently brief.

‘Brief’ is a word which has certainly suffered at the hands of preachers over the years.

An optimist used to be defined as a man who reached for his hat when the preacher said, ‘and finally…’

One preacher used to guard against such optimism by saying, ‘Finally, but not in conclusion.’

In another setting entirely, a pessimist was defined as someone who wore braces but also put on a belt in case they failed. An optimist was defined as someone who wore neither.

Michael Green wrote, ‘Sermonettes make Christianettes,’ but then The Lord’s Prayer contains only about 50 words and The Sermon on the Mount can be read in three minutes.

So we learn from Aristotle again, who said the truth was usually found between two extremes: brevity and long-windedness.

So to the so-called ‘Virgin Birth.’

Early last century, a rural pastor sent one of his leaders to town to purchase a sign-board. It was to be placed out the front of the church with a clear message. Unfortunately, the layman lost the piece of paper on which the sign’s message and dimensions were written.

He telegraphed the pastor: Note lost. Send sign information back.

The postal clerk nearly fell off his seat when he received the reply: Unto us a child is born. Eight feet long and three feet wide.

Last week that splendid English magazine The Spectator had a Christmas edition which focused on that exact topic. It asked a wide range of people: Do you believe in the Virgin Birth?

There were an interesting number of answers. Ironically, the group which most consistently expressed disbelief at the Virgin Birth were members of the clergy. The teaching was widely accepted by lay-people, particularly by scientists.

Another study last week came from The Barna Group, a research organisation in the US. It said that three out of four adults said that they believe Jesus Christ was born to the Virgin Mary.

Another irony was that there were people who believed in the Virgin Birth, who did not believe in God. 15% of atheists accepted it as an accurate historic event.

Even a strikingly large share of those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues (60%) adopted the Biblical view of Christ’s birth.

I am not sure of the status of this doctrine in our Synod, but I observed that it recently refused to endorse the teaching of the Basis of Union about the uniqueness of Christ, so it’s not looking good on that front.

So let’s go a little deeper.

First, the term Virgin Birth, is strictly speaking, alien for us Protestants. It comes from a 19th Century Catholic dogma which asserts that Jesus was born miraculously so that Mary’s anatomy remained virginal and she lived in virginity forever.

We Protestants have a problem with this because it is not Biblical.

This highlights the fact that the issue of authority is still the major post-Reformation divide between the Protestant and Roman Catholic faith.

Matthew’s Gospel makes it clear (1:25) that normal relationships between Mary and Joseph would take place after marriage. And Matthew 12 shows that Jesus had familial brothers, most noticeably the author of the New Testament book, James.

So as far as we know there was nothing different or special about Jesus birth. The issue is his conception.

Though there was a Sunday School teacher who taught about the shepherds of Luke 2. She asked her class, ‘Who first knew that Jesus had been born?’

An astute little girl thought for a moment and answered, quite accurately, ‘Mary.’

The second point today unfolded at a recent meeting farewelling retiring ministers and welcoming new theological students. Amongst the latter was a young woman who said she had recently read the Uniting Church’s Basis of Union, to see if she believed it.

Can you imagine the picture of ‘the great cloud of witnesses[1],’ with heavenly bated breath, waiting to see if this student would give her approval to the Incarnation, the Atonement and the Resurrection?

It was a major turning point in church history, and to our great relief she gave her endorsement.

We are recipients of 2000 years of Christian faith. It has come down to us in Scripture, creeds, statements and documents, all pivotal to the Christian faith.

This volume of truth is not subject to the whims of theological students, the private intellectual indulgences of the clergy or the vapid speculations of anyone in the household of faith, from Synods to Assemblies.

The legitimate question in the Christian community is not ‘Do I accept the Incarnation of Christ?’, but ‘What does this revelation from Scripture teach?’

Third, people cite world religions. They say there are myths everywhere about miraculous births to great people. Yet these myths are invariably about divinities having overt sexual relations with women.

The Virginal Conception is nothing like them. It would be a strange way to introduce a new faith grounded in history with a fabricated myth, and therefore introduce someone who is the truth, with a lie.

The narratives all breathe authenticity and if in error could have been overturned by a very influential person in the church community: Mary.

And a myth about a certain event does not invalidate the fact that such an event may occur.

Fourth, a crucial issue is one of perspective.

Namely, are you a believer or an atheist? Once you are a Christian and acknowledge Jesus Christ as Lord, then you are incontrovertibly, inevitably, unavoidably committed to the concept of miracle. God will do what He chooses, with whom He chooses, when He chooses, anywhere in His creation.

No part of His universe has complete autonomy or it would be outside what is called His sovereignty. So miracles to us are just Him going about His work in His creation, all for our benefit. So the Virginal Conception is a dependent doctrine. When you believe in the divinity of Christ, His miraculous origins are quite consistent with His divinity.

Fifth, the criticism is made that the doctrine is not widely taught in the New Testament, but the frequency of the appearance of teaching is no reflection of its importance. Little is taught about baptism, the atonement is hardly mentioned in the Gospels, and the Holy Spirit is never referred to in a number of Scriptures.

Infrequent references are often based upon an assumption that people know and understand what is not stated. The Virginal Conception was known and understood in the early Christian community.

After AD 100 it was accepted by such luminaries as Ignatius, Aristides, Justin, Irenaeus and more. It was only as Enlightenment authors like the 18th Century librarian Lessing decided to strip the miraculous from Scripture, that doctrine began to be questioned.

Sixth, the Virginal Conception is theologically necessary.

Many of you will recall the tear-laden joy of holding a new-born child in your arms. It was a long and difficult day for many of us fathers.

I haven’t asked lately if my wife has forgiven me yet for leaving her four hours into giving birth because it was 12pm and Hungry Jacks was across the road from Ashford.

I took the view that like in aircraft take-off instructions, if oxygen marks come down in an emergency, you put your own mask on and then help others in need.

God the Father wanted to express His joy too as he said, ‘This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.’ He could do this because the continuity between God the Son of the Trinity, was seen in Jesus of Nazareth.

The heresy of Adoptionism, promoted by the sects and heretics was ruled out.

Seventh, the Virginal Conception was not necessary to establish the sinlessness of Christ.

Here we part again from Roman Catholicism which claims Jesus was sinless because Mary was as well, through her immaculate conception. But Christ died for Mary as well as the rest of us. Scripture effectively teaches that the Holy Spirit ensure Christ was unaffected by Mary’s sinfulness because the angel said, ‘And the child to be born will be holy.[2]

Alternatively, as theologian Karl Barth argues, Christ took on fallen nature, but never succumbed to it.

Last and finally, the Virginal Conception challenges us to learn from the faith and trust of Mary and Joseph.

Would you be prepared to suffer humiliation for Jesus sake like Mary?

Would you risk persecution and stoning like she did in co-operating with the Lord’s good purposes?

Be clear, that if you say the name of Christ today you may well make life more difficult for yourself.

The only group against which bigotry and blasphemy are legally allowed today is Christianity. A multitude of groups and movements have aggregated to themselves the coveted description of victim so that even to express an opinion about them can be legally taken as promoting hatred.

But not Christianity. If you have the courage to name the name of Jesus Christ, you may well suffer like Mary and Joseph, so be prepared to count the cost.

Some children captured in a light-hearted way something of this costliness in one of their nativity plays.

Joseph: I need a room for my wife.

Inn-Keeper: I don’t have any rooms.

Joseph: But my wife is pregnant.

Inn-Keeper: Well that’s not my fault.

Joseph: Well it’s not mine either.

Joseph is always focused on what is best for Mary, as husbands and wives and all of us can do for each other.

The Virginal Conception is a central and pivotal doctrine of the faith, anticipated by Isaiah, announced by Gospel writers, veiled but present in Paul and given to us in all the creeds.

The whole Gospel of grace is found in the lengths to which the Lord would go to for you and the trusting co-operation of Mary.

By George Robert Iles.

[1] Hebrews 12

[2] Luke 1:35