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  • Writer's pictureKirk Bagby

The Value of the Virgin Birth

The Apostles’ Creed declares that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Albertus Pieters, writing in the early 1900’s, remarks, “This has been from the beginning one of the standard doctrines of the Christian religion, and has been singularly free from contradiction or doubt within the Church, until within the last fifty years.”[1] The Virgin Birth[2] is a valuable concept of Christian theology that is still under assault today. In this paper, I will mention several historic and contemporary examples of the denial or censorship of the Virgin Birth along with some common arguments against the Virgin Birth. Then, I will list patristic sources affirming the Virgin Birth. Lastly, I will explain why the early church affirmed the Virgin Birth, and I will provide rebuttals of these arguments against the Virgin Birth.


1 Denying or Censoring the Virgin Birth

Throughout history, people have denied or downgraded the Virgin Birth. Celsus, a Greek philosopher, overtly denied the Virgin Birth, claiming that Mary illegitimately bore Jesus via a Roman solder named Panthera.[3] Second century Jewish people such as Trypho,[4] along with Theodotion the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus,[5] denied the Virgin Birth by claiming that Isaiah 7:14 refers to a young woman, not a virgin. Trypho specifically claimed that this young woman gave birth to Hezekiah.[6] Furthermore, Irenaeus encountered several different people who denied the Virgin Birth in various ways.[7]


Some contemporary Bible scholars also deny the Virgin Birth including Gerd Lüdemann, Professor of New Testament at the University of Gottingen, Germany,[8] and Andrew T. Lincoln, Portland Professor of New Testament Studies at the University of Gloucestershire, England.[9] Lüdemann cites four “renowned contemporary German systematic theologians” (Wilfried Joest, Wolfgang Pannenberg, Wilfried Härle, and Christoph Türke) to support his claim that “modern Christians completely discount the historicity of the Virgin Birth and understand it in a figurative sense.”[10] Also, Kyle Roberts, Professor of Public Theology at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities, claims that it is impossible to believe in the Virgin Birth and the incarnation of Jesus at the same time.[11]


Besides overt denials of the Virgin Birth, contemporary Christians have subtly censored the Virgin Birth. This can be seen in the rewriting of the second verse of Charles Wesley’s popular hymn “Hark! the Herald Angels Sing.” In 2001, Hillsong Music Publishing changed “offspring of the Virgin’s womb” to “offspring of the Faithful One.”[12] Others have used “offspring of the favored one” such as the BarlowGirl’s medley “Angelic Proclamation.”[13] Reporter Sophie Law notes the negative reaction of churches in England regarding this alteration of Wesley’s hymn: “Senior Church of England clergy have warned that using the altered version of the popular hymn ‘plays down Mary’s virgin birth’ and misleads people about Christianity.”[14]


Bible scholars and theologians have used numerous arguments against the Virgin Birth including (1) the lack of evidence for the Virgin Birth in the New Testament apart from the gospels of Matthew and Luke, (2) historical conflicts between the nativity accounts of Matthew and Luke, (3) rumors of an illegitimate birth of Jesus, (4) ancient pagan accounts of virginal births of heroic figures, and (5) translating almah in Isaiah 7:14 as “young woman” instead of “virgin.”[15]


2 The Early Church on the Virgin Birth

In sharp contrast to these denials and censorships, numerous patristic sources clearly affirmed the Virgin Birth. Ignatius, who was martyred around 107-117, was the first patristic source to mention the Virgin Birth.[16] Next was Aristides in his Apology (ca. 138)[17] and Justin Martyr (ca. 110-166) who wrote much about the Virgin Birth his Dialogue with Trypho.[18] Irenaeus (ca. 130-202) defended the Virgin Birth in his apologetic Against Heresies,[19] and Tertullian (ca. 155-220) affirmed the Virgin Birth many times in his writings.[20] Others who affirmed the Virgin Birth include Origen (ca. 185-253),[21] Athanasius (ca. 298-373),[22] Ambrose (ca. 339-397),[23] Augustine (354-430),[24] and John of Damascus (ca. 676-749).[25]


Why did the early church defend the Virgin Birth so often? In their day, numerous heresies denied the Virgin Birth. Albertus Pieters says that Jesus’s virgin birth has been “intimately connected in the mind of the Church with His deity, in fact inseparable from it.”[26] In the early church, those who denied the Virgin Birth often denied numerous other critical doctrines of Christology.[27] Today, denying the Virgin Birth may not lead to the same heresies that the early church encountered; however, denying the Virgin Birth may lead to false doctrines. Thus, affirming the Virgin Birth safeguards against potentially heretical views.


3 Defense of the Virgin Birth

To properly affirm the Virgin Birth, the church must address arguments given against the Virgin Birth. In countering argument #1 listed above, Richard H. Grützmacher declares that nothing in the rest of the New Testament contradicts the Virgin Birth.[28] Furthermore, if one believes that a narrative which only appears twice in the New Testament is subject to doubt, then one must also doubt the Sermon on the Mount and the Lord’s Prayer.[29]


Regarding argument #2, Grützmacher does not see the differences between Matthew and Luke as being unreconcilable. Rather, he uses these differences to declare that neither Matthew nor Luke could have used each other as a source or used the same source in writing their nativity accounts.[30] He declares that it is “inexplicable how two men, acting independently, should be guilty of the same deception, or encourage the same freak.”[31]


Regarding argument #3, one must consider which scenario is more rational: (1) did rumors of the illegitimate birth of Jesus create the story of the Virgin Birth or (2) did the story of the Virgin Birth create rumors of the illegitimate birth of Jesus? If one accepts the Word of God as being authoritative, then one need not doubt that the second scenario is more reasonable.


Regarding argument #4, Justin Martyr at first seems to liken the Virgin Birth to heathen stories,[32] but he later shows a clear distinction between the Christian account of the Virgin Birth and heathen accounts of virginal births.[33] Allan Hoben says that Justin freed the Virgin Birth “from the grossness of similar heathen stories, and has preserved in his own more explicit language much of the chaste quality of the gospel narratives themselves.”[34] Albertus Pieters describes these ancient tales as “smutty stories of gods who took the form of men, or, sometimes, worse still of beasts or serpents, and in this form had intercourse with human women, causing them to have children. . . . They are not virgin birth stories at all, for the supernatural element invariably consists in the alleged incarnation of the god, after which there is nothing but a natural process.”[35] Pieters labels the story of the supernatural birth of Gautama, the founder of Buddhism, as being the account most similar to Jesus’s birth; however, even this story is not truly a “virgin birth” account because “the mother of Gautama was a married woman, always spoken of and referred to as such, in all Buddhist documents.”[36] Buddhism, thus, refers to an alleged “supernatural birth” by a married woman rather than a purely virginal conception and birth.[37]


Regarding argument #5, Justin Martyr refutes the claim that Isaiah 7:14 refers to a young woman who gave birth to Hezekiah.[38] Isaiah 7:14 declares “the Lord Himself will give you a sign” (NKJV, 1982). Justin says that this would not be a sign if a young woman gave birth by natural means.[39] Irenaeus agrees saying, “For what great thing or what sign should have been in this, that a young woman conceiving by a man should bring forth,—a thing which happens to all women that produce offspring?”[40] Also, Irenaeus was aware that Jewish people of his day (e.g., Theodotion the Ephesian and Aquila of Pontus) translated Isaiah 7:14 as saying a “young woman” rather than a virgin, but he points out that the Jews translated Isaiah 7:14 into the Greek Septuagint, which translates almah as parthenos, which unambiguously means “virgin.” The Septuagint translation was written many years before Jesus’s birth. Thus, these Jewish translators could not have been influenced by early Christian interpretations of Isaiah 7:14.[41]


4 Conclusion

I conclude with what I believe is the best and most practical argument favoring the Virgin Birth. This argument comes from Justin Martyr who begins by acknowledging that some believers genuinely affirmed that Jesus is the Christ even though they denied His virginal birth. Justin says that he cannot agree with this proposition because “we were enjoined by Christ Himself to put no faith in human doctrines, but in those proclaimed by the blessed prophets and taught by Himself.”[42] Even if Christians affirm all the orthodox doctrines of Christology but deny the Virgin Birth, I cannot agree. If the miracle of the Virgin Birth is doubted by Christians, then what other miracles of the Bible will be doubted as well? If we cannot trust Matthew’s and Luke’s nativity accounts, can we trust their accounts of other historical events? The affirmation of the Virgin Birth comes from faith in the veracity and reliability of the historical accounts in the Bible (cf. Matt 1:18-25; Luke 1:30-38), and this faith is support by reason and evidence. The denial of the Virgin Birth comes from ideas invented by fallible people. Thus, affirming the Virgin Birth is valuable in affirming the reliability and authority of God’s Word.[43][44]



Footnotes

[1] Albertus Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, Fourth Edition. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1946), 191. This book was originally published in 1933. [2] The term Virgin Birth will be used in this paper because it is the traditional term used. Technically speaking, it is not as accurate as the term Virginal Conception of Jesus. This paper assumes that Virgin Birth means Virginal Conception of Jesus. [3] Cf. Origen, Against Celsus 1.32-33 (ANF 4:410). [4] Allan Hoben, The Virgin Birth (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1903), 26. [5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.1 (ANF 1:451). [6] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 26. Cf., Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 67 (ANF 1:231–232) and 71 (ANF 1:234). [7] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.3 (ANF 1:426–427). [8] Gerd Lüdemann, Virgin Birth?: The Real Story of Mary and Her Son Jesus (Harrisburg, PA: Trinity Press International, 1998). [9] Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin?: Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2013). [10] Lüdemann, Virgin Birth?, 1–4. [11] Kyle Roberts, “Virgin Birth or Incarnation? Why You Can’t Have Both,” Unsystematic Theology, 23 December 2017, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2017/12/virgin-birth-incarnation-cant/. See also, Kyle Roberts, A Complicated Pregnancy: Whether Mary Was a Virgin and Why It Matters (Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2017). [12] Peter King, CCLI Song # 3941371, CCLI License # 1576221, © Words: Public Domain, Music: 2001 Hillsong Music Publishing Australia (Admin. by Capitol CMG Publishing), https://songselect.ccli.com/Songs/3941371/hark-the-herald-angels-sing/viewlyrics. [13] BarlowGirl, “Angelic Proclamation,” Home For Christmas, published September 23, 2008. This song can be heard on YouTube here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Br5UbHUigv0. [14] Sophie Law, “New Version of Popular Carol Removes Mention of Mary’s Virgin Birth,” Mail Online, 23 December 2018, https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-6524527/New-version-popular-carol-outrages-bishops-removing-mention-Marys-virgin-birth.html. [15] Cf. Kyle Roberts, “Six Problems With the Virgin Birth: Biblical and Historical Perspective,” Unsystematic Theology, 1 March 2016, https://www.patheos.com/blogs/unsystematictheology/2016/03/six-problems-with-the-virgin-birth-biblical-and-historical-perspective/. [16] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 17. Cf. Ignatius, Epistle to the Ephesians 7 (ANF 1:52), 18-19 (ANF 1:57); Epistle to the Magnesians 11 (ANF 1:64); Epistle to the Trallians 6 (ANF 1:68), 9-10 (ANF 1:70); and Epistle to the Smyrnaeans 1-2 (ANF 1:86–87). [17] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 21–22. [18] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 22–29. Cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 84 (ANF 1:241) and 100 (ANF 1:248–249). [19] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 31–41. Cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.19 (ANF 1:448-449) and 3.21-22 (ANF 1:451-455). [20] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 42. Cf. Tertullian, The Flesh of Christ 17 (ANF 3:536). [21] Origen, Against Celsus 1.34 (ANF 4:410–411). [22] Athanasius, Letter to Epictetus 5 (NPNF 2.4:572). [23] Robin M. Jensen, Baptismal Imagery in Early Christianity: Ritual, Visual, and Theological Dimensions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2012), 145. [24] Augustine, Letters of St. Augustin 137.2.6–8 (NPNF 1.1:475-476) [25] John Damascene, An Exact Exposition of the Orthodox Faith 3.1-3.2 (NPNF 2.9:45–46). [26] Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, 196–97. [27] Cf. Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.11.3 (ANF 1:426–427) and 3.19.1 (ANF 1:448–449). [28] Richard H. Grützmacher, The Virgin Birth (New York: Eaton & Mains, 1907), 41. [29] Grützmacher, The Virgin Birth, 41. [30] Grützmacher, The Virgin Birth, 47. [31] Grützmacher, The Virgin Birth, 50. [32] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 24. [33] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 24–25. [34] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 25–26. [35] Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, 194. [36] Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, 194. [37] Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, 194–95. [38] Hoben, The Virgin Birth, 26. Cf. Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 77-78 (ANF 1:237–238) and 84 (ANF 1:241) [39] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 84 (ANF 1:241). [40] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.6 (ANF 1:453). [41] Irenaeus, Against Heresies 3.21.1 (ANF 1:451). [42] Justin Martyr, Dialogue with Trypho 48 (ANF 1:219). [43] Furthermore, Pieters says that Christians should affirm the Virgin Birth not only because the Bible teaches it but also because it corresponds with Christology better than any other explanation. Cf. Pieters, The Facts and Mysteries of the Christian Faith, 191.

[44] This paper was written for my class class CH501 "Church History One" which I took at Asbury Theological Seminary in the spring of 2022.

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