A number of people continue to wonder aloud how crucial the doctrine of the virgin birth really is. In a related vein, I’ve had a few people (on the blogosphere and elsewhere) ask about the transmission of sin and what role, if any, the virgin birth played in keeping Christ free from sin. This is a good question. Because if we aren’t careful we could end up saying sex is bad or that the sin nature is passed on through the male.
In order to answer this question about the transmission of sin, and to demonstrate that I’m not the only one who considers the virgin birth crucial to the faith, I thought we should listen to what others have said about the matter.
Thus, so skillfully does he [the Apostle Paul] distinguish Christ from the common lot that he is true man but without fault and corruption. But they babble childishly: if Christ is free from all spot, and through the secret working of the Spirit was begotten of the seed of Mary, then woman’s seed is not unclean, but only man’s. For we make Christ free of all stain not just because he was begotten of his mother without copulation with man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit that the generation might be pure and undefiled as would have been true before Adam’s fall (Inst. II.xiv.8).
The Holy Ghost miraculously sanctified that which was conceived and produced in the womb of the Virgin, so that original sin did not attach itself to that which was thus formed; for it did not become the Word, the Son of God, to assume a nature polluted with sin…Objection: But Christ was born of a mother that was a sinner. Therefore he himself had sin. Answer: The Holy Ghost knows best how to distinguish and separate sin from the nature of man; for sin is not from the nature of man [as created], but was added to it from the devil (Commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, 206).
Ursinus goes on to explain why the virgin birth matters. 1) It confirms that the Son of God truly assumed human flesh. 2) It means Christ truly descended from the fathers; he was a true seed of Abrhaam and a son of David. 3) That we may know that the Scriptures are fulfilled. 4) That we may know that Christ was sanctified in the womb and therefore pure and without sin. 5) That we may know there is an analogy between the nativity of Christ and the regeneration of the faithful (206-7).
The exclusion of the man from his conception at the same time had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of his human nature, both before and after his birth, from all pollution of sin. As subject, as “I,” he did not descend from Adam but was the Son of the Father, chosen from eternity to be the head of a new covenant. Not Adam but God was his father. As a person he was not the product of humankind but himself came to humankind from without and entered into its ranks. And since he thus, in God’s righteous judgment, remained exempt from all original sin, he could be conceived by the Holy Spirit and by that Spirit remain free from all pollution of sin. Conception by the Holy Spirit was not the deepest ground and final cause of Jesus’ sinlessness, as many theologians say, but was the only way in which he who already existed as a person and was appointed head of a new covenant could now also in a human way–in the flesh–be and remain who he was: the Christ, the Son of God the most High (Reformed Dogmatics, Volume 3, 294-95).
In summary, the virgin birth is crucially important for several reasons, one of which is that it made possible the uniting of full deity and full humanity in one person. If Jesus had come to earth without being born, it would be hard to see how he was a human like us. But if he had been born to two parents just as we are, it would be hard to see how he could be fully God.
Is it possible that God could have brought Christ into the world in some other way? We don’t’ know. Scripture doesn’t tell us. But Scripture does strongly suggest that Christ was born holy as a result of being conceived by the Holy Spirit (Luke 1:35). This does not mean sex is evil, nor that sin is only transmitted through the father. It means that although Christ was a man like Adam, he was not a descendant of Adam. Rather, he stood in parallel as the promised seed of Abraham and a second Adam. The Adamic line, with its inherited taint, was interrupted in Christ. Christ was not begotten by a man, but by God. He was not conceived through natural human intercourse, but by supernatural intervention. The virgin birth shows that someone from the outside has come in to our world. A new stream is flowing, one that is not involved with the guilt that flows in the original stream.
It is best not to speculate how all this can be. What Scripture tells us clearly is that it is. The Gospels want us to understand that Christ was not conceived in the normal way (Matt. 1:20), and that his miraculous conception does, in part, speak to his unique identity as God with us (Matt. 1:23). If we remove the virginal conception from the equation, the biblical account of Jesus identity and mission does not hold together.
Calvin summarized the importance of the virgin birth in his 1538 Catechism in this way:
He was born of the Virgin Mary that he might be recognized as the true son of Abraham and David, who had been promised in the Law and the Prophets; as true man, like us in all things, save only sin, who having been tried by all our infirmities learned to bear with them. Yet that same one was conceived in the Virgin’s womb by the wonderful and ineffable (to us) power of the Holy Spirit, that he might not be fouled by any physical corruption, but might be born sanctified with the highest purity.
Calvin, and the Reformed tradition after him, not to mention the historic orthodox faith behind him, has not hesitated to make much of the virgin birth. If building on the virgin birth is a theological house of cards, as some contend, then it’s one that has been built up many times.
And while I’m spending time I shouldn’t on blogging, let me make one other point. Christianity is a historical religion. To suggest that Matthew or Luke inserted the virgin birth as a metaphorical example of how God can do amazing things is, frankly, preposterous. Luke, for example, claims to have received his reports from “eyewitnesses” (1:2). He then makes clear that he has “followed all things closely” and has endeavored to write “an orderly account” so that Theophilus “may have certainty concerning the things” he has been taught (1:3-4). This is not the introduction you give if you plan on throwing in a few myths here and there.
Moreover, everything in the first two chapters of Luke screams “history.” Luke is exceedingly careful to note who was ruling where and when. The references to Augustus, Herod, and Quirinius tell us, at the very least, that Luke sure thought the birth of Jesus happened just as he narrates it. It is history he is relating to Theophilus, nothing less.
This same emphasis on history, by the way, shows up in the Creed. Why mention so specifically that Christ “suffered under Pontius Pilate” if the bit about “born of the virgin Mary” is ahistorical make-believe? The Gospels and the early church believed it was important not just that Jesus was born of a virgin, but that it was a virgin birth that really happened in time and history.