As Christmas day approaches, we’re also confronted with a part of the faith that has caused great difficulty for Catholic and Protestant believers alike: the Virgin Birth. About a quarter of Americans deny the Virgin Birth (along with about a quarter of Anglican clergy in England). What should we say to these doubters? Why should we believe in the Virgin Birth, and why does it matter? Why was Jesus born of a Virgin? And why did the early Christians think this doctrine so important that they included it in both the Apostle’s Creed and Nicene Creed as a core part of what it is to hold the Christian faith?
One of the major problems with how we think of the Virgin Birth is that we often get it wrongly, or at least half-wrong. Here are four ways that we shouldn’t think about the Virgin Birth:
Inaccurate View #1: The Virgin Birth as Medical Oddity
Every now and again, within the “ordinary” course of nature, there are odd events: deformities, mutations, and freak occurrences of all kinds. But that’s not what the Virgin Birth is all about. It’s a miracle, which means that it is supernatural, not natural. If you miss this seemingly-obvious fact, you end up debating whether or not a woman (who has XX chromosomes) can give birth to a male (with XY), or positing insane theories of all kinds.
All of these objections can be summarized as “that can’t naturally happen, it would take a miracle!” Right. That’s the point. Stranger still, the objectors raising these points seem to think that “science” has disproven the Virgin Birth, as if the early Christians thought virgin births just happened sometimes. If we thought that these things just happened, we wouldn’t view them as miraculous.
Inaccurate View #2: The Virgin Birth as Necessary for Christ’s Divinity
The second mistaken view is to claim that it was absolutely necessary for Christ to be Incarnate of a Virgin, due to His Divinity. The idea is that human paternity is mutually exclusive with Divine paternity: that if Christ had a human Father, He couldn’t have had a Divine Father. For example, John Piper has claimed that, “A real incarnation of God in flesh demands a virgin conception. This is foundational, this is critical to our faith. If Jesus had a human mother and a human father, then Jesus is a man and not God.” GotQuestions adds “that having a biological father would have annulled Jesus’ deity. He could not have been the son of Joseph and the Son of God at the same time. “
This argument is wrong, and dangerous. It risks treating Christ as 50% human (from His mother’s side) and 50% divine (from His Father’s). As a result, it treats the Fatherhood of God as if it were on the same level as human fatherhood, so that the two would be in competition. This, of course, is wrong. It’s impossible to “annul” Jesus’ Divinity. If God – who chose for St. Joseph to be treated as a true father of Jesus, by adoption (Matthew 1:21; Luke 2:41, 51) – had chosen that Joseph would participate in the creation of the Flesh of Christ, this wouldn’t replace God’s eternal begetting of the Divine Son any more than Mary’s motherhood replaced the Divine begetting.
Nevertheless, Piper’s argument gets things half-right, or at least highlights something true. The Virgin Birth points to Christ’s Divinity and His sinlessness (more on both of these things shortly). So it was fitting for the sinless God-Man to be Incarnate in this way, but that’s a far cry from saying that God was absolutely required to do things this way.
Inaccurate View #3: The Virgin Birth is Irrelevant, since only the Virginal Conception Matters.
Particularly astute readers might have noticed that the last view doesn’t really hold that the Virgin Birth was necessary for the preservation of Christ’s Divinity. It holds rather that Christ’s conception needed to be Virginal (another reason it’s a bad argument for the Virgin Birth). This view is surprisingly common amongst Evangelical Protestants: the Virgin Conception was absolutely necessary (or Jesus couldn’t be God), but the Virgin Birth wasn’t particularly important. For example, the Institute for Creation Research (who hold to the bizarre view that Christ was specially created in such a way that He isn’t the biological Son of Mary) claim the following:
It is not surprising, therefore, that the Christian doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ has always been such a watershed between true Christians and either non-Christians or pseudoChristians. Without such a miraculous birth, there could have been no true incarnation and therefore no salvation. The man Jesus would have been a sinner by birth and thus in need of a Saviour Himself.
On second thought, however, one realizes that it was not the virgin birth which was significant, except as a testimony of the necessity of the real miracle, the supernatural conception. The birth of Christ was natural and normal in every way, including the full period of human gestation in the womb of Mary. In all points, He was made like His brethren, experiencing every aspect of human life from conception through birth and growth to death. He was true man in every detail, except for sin and its physical effects.
Within the span of a paragraph, the ICR document goes from claiming that the Virgin Birth was necessary for the Incarnation and our salvation to claiming that it wasn’t particularly significant and not “the real miracle.”
Scripture disagrees. Isaiah 7:14 says “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, a young woman shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanu-el.” The miraculous sign has two aspects: (1) the Virginal Conception and (2) the Virgin Birth. We hear this passage again in Matthew 1:23 (Matthew rightly translates the Hebrew almah as “virgin” here) applied directly to the Virginal Conception and Birth of Christ. There’s a reason that Matthew goes to such lengths to establish that St. Joseph “knew her not until she had borne a son” (Matthew 1:25). He’s not, as many Protestants wrongly assume, saying that Joseph and Mary slept together on Christmas. He’s saying that Mary’s Virginity was preserved throughout the entirety of her pregnancy with the Christ Child, so that Christ’s conception and birth were miraculous and virginal.
The early Church recognized this. The Apostles’ Creed says that Jesus Christ “was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary.” The Nicene Creed likewise says that “by the power of the Holy Spirit he was born of the Virgin Mary, and became man.” With both Scripture and the early Christians investing this much in the Virgin Birth, it’s safe to say that any view that leads you to treat it as an irrelevant afterthought to the real miracle is missing something fundamental.
Inaccurate View #4: The Virgin Birth was a spectacle.
The final way that the Virgin Birth is misunderstood is to think of it as a sort of Divine spectacle. Isaiah 7:14 and Matthew 1:23 refer to the Virgin Birth as part of a Divine “Sign,” and that term can easily be misunderstood as something dramatic and showy, the sort of event that would leave everyone unable to deny Christ’s divine origin. But that’s not the Sign that we’re given. Even St. Joseph has to work through the meaning of Mary’s mysterious pregnancy, with a bit of angelic assistance (Matthew 1:18-25). Those around the Holy Family, in turn, spoke of St. Joseph as Jesus’ father (Luke 4:22). And throughout the Gospels, we see people struggle to understand Who Jesus is, and where He’s from: “Is not this Jesus, the son of Joseph, whose father and mother we know? How does he now say, ‘I have come down from heaven’?” (John 6:42)
So given all of the ways that we can misunderstand the Virgin Birth, how should we understand it?
What the Virgin Birth is All About
There are two reasons that God does things: either because they’re necessary, or because they’re “fitting.” In the case of the Virgin Birth, we’re talking about an instance of God doing the perfect thing, even when the approach He chose wasn’t strictly necessary. St. Thomas Aquinas gives us four reasons why God brought about the Incarnation in this way: (1) because it was fitting that the Son of God not have a biological human father; (2) the Son’s own perfection is glorified by having Him born through the perfect Virgin Mary; (3) because it befitted Christ’s dignity, as He was free from original sin; (4) to show that Divine sonship is a result of the power of God. Here’s how he explains that last point:
Fourthly, on account of the very end of Incarnation of Christ, which was that men might be born again as sons of God, “not of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:13), i.e. of the power of God, of which fact the very conception of Christ was to appear as an exemplar. Whence Augustine says (De Sanct. Virg.): “It behooved that our Head, by a notable miracle, should be born, after the flesh, of a virgin, that He might thereby signify that His members would be born, after the Spirit, of a virgin Church.”
But the other thing to notice about the conception and birth of Christ is Mary’s indispensability. The first clue we get about the Virgin Birth is in Genesis 3:15, in which God says that Satan will be at war with “the Woman” and with “her Seed.” “Seed” (the Hebrew word zera means both “semen” and “offspring”) is almost exclusively measured through the man; that it’s instead measured through “the Woman” is a nod towards Christ’s lack of a biological father. But this first reference to the Virgin Birth already includes a reference to the Virgin. It’s not just that Christ will be born of a woman, but “the Woman.” Mary was already part of the Divine plan of salvation from the first moment of the Fall.
In this case, Mary has three important roles: she’s the sole witness of the miracle of the Incarnation, she’s the locus for the miracle, and she’s a participant in the miracle. She willingly cooperates in the Incarnation in a singular way, and it’s only on her own unimpeachable testimony that we know of her perpetual virginity — which is itself one of the strongest proofs for the Divinity of Christ. When Isaiah and Matthew describe the Virgin Birth as a “Sign,” it’s because it’s understood that Christians will listen to Mary and believe her.
And Mary is also consecrated to God in a singular way. She’s His, wholly and completely. Her virginity is an image of the purity of her soul. She’s the Ark of the New Covenant, the Temple Gate surrounding the New Temple, and the New Eve. And so she remains a Virgin (both in the sense of celibate chastity, and in the sense of having her physical integrity undamaged by the conception and birth of her Son) to signal that purity and holiness (recall that “holy” means “to be set aside for God,” which is a perfect description of Mary’s role in salvation history). If you don’t understand this Marian role, the Virgin Birth doesn’t really make sense. If Mary’s just a random vessel used to bring the God of the Universe down to earth (the terrible view of motherhood that many of Mary’s opponents have articulated), then it wouldn’t matter whether or not she’s a Virgin after she conceives. But it’s because of Mary’s role, and what it tells us about Jesus Christ, that Scripture and the early Christians viewed as important Mary’s continued virginity, even after Christ’s miraculous conception.