The doctrine of the virgin birth of our Lord Jesus Christ is one of those battleground points of theology over which many heated words have been exchanged. In this paper, I want to outline briefly reasons why belief in the virgin birth is necessary based on evidence and theology.
Evidence for the Virgin Birth
Unlike other aspects of Christology, the Bible only explicitly addresses the virgin birth in three passages, Mt 1.18–25, Lk 1.26–38, and Isa 7.14. While some quibble over the meaning of ’almah in Isa 7.14 (“young woman” is within the range of meanings, apparently), there is no ambiguity in the word parthenos, virgin, in Matthew and Luke. Besides the word meaning, the text explicitly says Mary was with child “before they came together” (Mt 1.18), Mary herself asks, “How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?” (Lk 1.34), and it also tells us that Joseph “knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son” (Mt 1.25). The direct evidence of the text is inescapable. The Bible means to communicate that Mary conceived and gave birth to Jesus while still a virgin.
Since we believe the Bible is the word of God himself, we accept this truth at face value. The late Warren Vanhetloo, in a Christmas devotional, mentioned a phrase he attributed to the Pennsylvannia Dutch that applies here: If the Bible said it, “Onct is enough.” That’s true, even if it isn’t “good” English.
But beyond the simple declaration and Christian faith in God’s revelation, consider these points:
- Both Mt 1.18-25 and Lk 1. 26-38 are integral passages in their respective gospels – they bear no marks as later “add-ins,” there is a continuity of style and vocabulary with the rest of each book.
- The two passages are independent of each other (there is a wide divergence in the details of the Christmas story as recorded individually by Matthew and Luke – one writer counted eleven major differences) yet they unite in declaring this one thing: Mary was a virgin from the conception to the birth of Jesus Christ. This shows both are dependent on an independent tradition of the virgin birth – one of them simply isn’t copying the other. In other words, the idea of the virgin birth predates the writing of the gospels.
- There is some variation in dating the gospels, but Luke wrote his gospel no later than ad 60, probably in ad 57-58. (My own belief is that Matthew was the first gospel, and I date it around ad 45-50, but I am in a minority opinion on this point.) At the time Luke wrote his gospel, James the Elder led the church in Jerusalem. James is the son of Joseph and Mary (Mt 13.55), the half-brother of Jesus according to the flesh. Would James, pastor of the church of Jerusalem, allow a story to stand concerning his mother if he knew it to be false? Most likely Mary herself was still living. Would she allow Luke and Matthew to propagate false stories about her?
In addition to these considerations, there are some indirect Scriptural evidences for the idea of the virgin birth. For example, Mk 6.3 (the parallel of Mt 13.55), refers to Jesus this way: “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary…” In that culture, it would be expected to refer to him as “the son of Joseph.” It is unusual to refer to him as “the son of Mary.” There must be a reason for this, something more than the fact that Joseph might have already died at this point. The people of Nazareth know Mary and her history.
The story of Jesus’ background seems to lurk behind the sneers of the Jews when they attack him in Jn 8.41, “We be not born of fornication…” In the Greek, emphasis rests on the “we” — “we” but not “you.” They seem to imply, “we know who you are.”
These references are not conclusive by any means, but they do support the evidence of the primary passages.
It is also clear the doctrine of the virgin birth is an ancient teaching of the church. Ignatius, writing no later than ad 117 says “For our God, Jesus Christ, was, according to the appointment of God, conceived in the womb by Mary, of the seed of David, but by the Holy Ghost.” Of course, that means the church held this view before ad 117, and Ignatius, bishop of Antioch, is no neophyte. He is a sober and respected leader of the early church.
The Apostles Creed, reportedly based on an early Roman baptismal recitation, says, “I believe in God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth, And in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate…”
Also, a Roman antagonist of Christianity, Celsus, writing in about ad 177-180, charged that Jesus was illegitimate (based on Jewish sources). Celsus’ charge shows that the teaching of the virgin birth precedes his charges.
Each of these extra-biblical sources show the virgin birth is an ancient doctrine, going back to the very earliest days of the Christian church. It is not something made up by mystics later on, but something held by the key players in church history from the very beginning. The evidence argues clearly for the doctrine, and, as we quipped at the beginning, “Onct is enough.”
The Importance of the Virgin Birth
It is important to accept the doctrine of the virgin birth simply as a matter of faith in the divine inspiration of the Bible. If the Bible is God’s word, and the Bible explicitly says something (i.e. “Jesus is born of a virgin.”) then you must believe the Bible. To deny the virgin birth is to deny the Bible. “Onct is enough.”
The theology of the virgin birth itself also makes the doctrine important. In the past, I have taught along with many others that the virgin birth is necessary for the sinlessness of our Lord Jesus Christ since the male passes on the sin nature. Recent reading in theology makes me step back from this point.
Millard Erickson points out:
“While some support might be found in Paul’s statement that it was the sin of Adam (Rom. 5:12) that made all humans sinners, Paul also indicates that Eve, not Adam, ‘was the [one] who was deceived and became a sinner’ (1 Tim. 2:14). There are no signs of greater sinfulness among men than among women.”
Clearly, God is able to overcome any vestiges of the sin nature in bringing about the birth of that Holy One whose earthly life owes its existence to the work of the Holy Spirit miraculously giving life to a cell in the womb of Mary.
J. I. Packer adds:
“While we cannot affirm that a divine person could not have entered this world any other way than by virgin birth, Jesus’ miraculous birth does in fact point to his deity and also to the reality of the creative power that operates in our new birth (John 1:13). Also, while we cannot affirm that God could not have produced sinless humanity apart from virgin birth, Jesus’ humanity was sinless, and the circumstances of his birth call attention to the miracle that was involved when Mary, a sinner (Luke 1:47), gave birth to one who was not “in Adam” as she was, nor therefore needed a Savior as she did. Rather, Jesus was destined through the maintained sinlessness of his unflawed human nature to become the perfect sacrifice for human sins, and so the Savior of his mother and of the rest of the church with her.”
Surely, however, there is something more to the virgin birth than mere supernaturalism. It is true that the Lord’s earthly life began and ends with miraculous events (the virgin birth, the resurrection, the ascension). It might be true that the virgin birth was not absolutely necessary for the Lord’s sinlessness, or even as a matter of the incarnation itself. But what about our salvation? Could we see the importance of the doctrine in the need for the believer to identify with the New Creation, to replace the Old? Consider these passages:
2 Corinthians 5:17 Therefore if any man be in Christ, he is a new creature: old things are passed away; behold, all things are become new.
When a man believes in Christ, he is baptized into Christ (Rm 6.3), he is a new creation (as here), he is part of a new order. The new order is reflected in passages contrasting Adam and Christ:
1 Corinthians 15:45 And so it is written, The first man Adam was made a living soul; the last Adam was made a quickening spirit.
1 Corinthians 15:20 But now Christ has been raised from the dead, the first fruits of those who are asleep. 21 For since by a man came death, by a man also came the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.
Adam is the Old Creation, into which we are born when we come into this world. God breathed into Adam the breath of life, and Adam became a living soul. So too are we.
With the New Birth, however, we pass from one order to another, from one creation to another. We are a New Creature in Christ.
If the Old Creation came about by the breath of God, breathing life into the clay form of a man he called Adam, is it not true that the New Creation also came about by the breath of God, breathing life first into that cell in Mary’s womb?
Luke 1:35 And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.
As the Holy Spirit breathed life into that cell in Mary’s body, creating a New Life by the Word of God, so too by the New Birth, New Life is created in the dead souls of now believing men, and we are made to cry out in the new birth with the birth cries of faith, “Abba, Father!”
It seems to me that the Virgin Birth isn’t just symbolic in importance, it is essential to the whole New Creation that begins in Jesus to replace the Old.
Praise the Lord for his marvelous grace!
Don Johnson is the pastor of Grace Baptist Church of Victoria, Victoria, BC, Canada.