Soundings

Jesus Christ: Born of the Virgin Mary

Oct 2002    

PART 6 OF THE SERIES OF MEDITATION ON ‘FAITH TO LIVE BY’

Miraculous event fulfilment of Isaianic prophesy that ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel’

WE CONTINUE our reflection on the Creed by examining its statement regarding the virginal conception of Jesus Christ. The Creed declares that Christ was “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”.

Scriptural testimony regarding the virginal conception of Jesus Christ is found in the nativity passages in two of the three synoptic gospels, Matthew and Luke. The Matthean account is found in the first chapter of the Gospel. “Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way. When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together, she was found with child of the Holy Spirit … ” (v. 18). The angelic appearance which followed assured Joseph that Mary has not betrayed their relationship and that her pregnancy is the result of the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit: “… for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit”. (v 20).

Furthermore this miraculous event is here presented as the fulfilment of the Isaianic prophesy that “a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and his name shall be called Emmanuel”. (v 23, Cf Is 7:14). The evangelist stressed that the couple abstained from sexual relations until the birth of Jesus (vv 24-5).

The Lucan account, although somewhat different from that of Matthew, nevertheless makes the same declaration. The angelic announcement, found in verses 1:26ff, is described in greater detail. Here we are given an opportunity to eavesdrop on an intimate conversation between Mary and the angelic messenger about the miracle that was about to take place.

This story is juxtaposed with the story of another miracle, the pregnancy of Mary’s kinswoman, Elisabeth. But although both miracles are from God, they are very different. Only Mary’s pregnancy is given detailed description: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the most High shall overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy, the Son of God …” (1:35).

The different accounts of the virginal conception point to the different emphases of the evangelists. However, it must be stressed that both accounts testify with great veracity and conviction the virginal conception, and both lay the foundation for the doctrine of the Virgin Birth which was later developed by the church, and which the Creed asserts.

Not all theologians, however, appreciate the importance of the doctrine. Even those theologians who uphold and defend the doctrine of the incarnation of the Word have problems with the doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

One such theologian is Emil Brunner. In his much discussed book, “The Mediator”, first published in German in 1927, he roundly declares the indispensability of faith in Jesus Christ, the Mediator. “In Christianity,” he wrote, “faith in the Mediator is not something optional, not something about which, in the last resort, it is possible to hold different opinions, if we are only united on the ‘main point’ … there is no possibility of being a Christian than through faith in that which took place once and for all, revelation and atonement through the Mediator.” (p. 40).

Concerning the facticity of the incarnation, Brunner is once again unswerving: “The central truth of the Christian faith is this: that the eternal Son of God took upon himself our humanity, not that the man Jesus acquired divinity.” (p. 316). Yet in the same book, he could speak of the Virgin Birth as a “biological curiosity”, arguing that the “majestic wonder of the incarnation is not made greater or smaller by the biological theory of the procreation through one sex alone”. (p. 325).

Virgin Birth doctrine declares miracle of the incarnation

Brunner, to be sure, speaks on behalf of many modern theologians. But his objection is based on a fundamental misconception regarding the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. The doctrine has nothing to do with parthenogenesis at all. Rather, it points to the miracle of the incarnation which bespeaks of the truth that Jesus Christ is truly God and truly Man, whose coming into the world to bring the salvation of God is an act of grace, a divine initiative. It is for this reason that Karl Barth, the Swiss-German theologian and Brunner’s contemporary, not only dismisses Brunner’s reasoning as “bad business”, but strenuously urges the church not to neglect the two great miracles which bracketed the life of Jesus Christ, namely, the virginal conception and the resurrection.

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is theologically indispensable for the following reasons. Firstly, it points to the uniqueness of Jesus Christ, the Saviour of humanity. The incarnation can no doubt take place without this special “arrangement” of the virginal conception. But the fact that it actually happened in this way points to and demonstrates the uniqueness of Christ. Furthermore, the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is a firm reminder that the salvation that is offered by God in Christ is supernatural – it is something which cannot be achieved by human beings.

The doctrine also points to the truth that salvation is the gracious gift of God, whose coming to man in love is an act of absolute freedom. Divine freedom is seen precisely in the decision to allow the woman Mary to participate in this great work of salvation, for there is nothing special or deserving about Mary that would “qualify” her for this duty.

The opening words of the “Ave Maria”, which are essentially scriptural, express the gratuitous nature of God’s grace eloquently and profoundly: “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you.” Mary is in no way special, but stands with all of humanity, as an undeserving sinner, who has been chosen to play this role in salvation history.

The Christian church, however, has not always appreciated this. For in 1854, Pope Pius IX declared as dogma that Mary “at the first instant of her conception was preserved immaculate from all stain or original sin, by the singular grace and privilege granted her by Almighty God, through the merit of Christ Jesus, Saviour of mankind”.

The theological reasoning behind this move is that Christ, being sinless, must be born of a sinless human being. Thus, Mary has to be made sui generi, “immaculate”, set apart from the rest of humanity through a special divine act. But the dogma of the immaculacy of the Virgin has led not only to the elevation of her status but also to the declaration by Roman Catholic theology that Mary is the co-mediatress and co-redemptress with Christ. Mary, in the words of the “Catechism of the Catholic Church”, is deemed as a “mother to [believers] in the order of grace” because of her co-operation in the “Saviour’s work of restoring supernatural life to souls”.

The doctrine of the assumption of the Virgin Mary was then propounded. This doctrine maintained that “the Immaculate Virgin Mary, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly joy, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things”. In heaven she does not “lay aside this saving office but by her manifold intercession continues to bring us the gifts of eternal salvation”. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth became the basis of Roman Catholic Mariology.

But the doctrine of the Virgin Birth, properly understood, does not point to Mary at all. It points rather to Christ. It declares the gracious act of God in Christ, the miracle of the incarnation, and uniqueness of the God-Man, the Saviour of humankind. I end with a quotation by the celebrated Yale historian of Christian thought, Jeroslav Pelikan:

“Whatever else may be said about the idea of the virgin birth, it is a declaration about Jesus Christ. It means that even in the circumstances of his humble birth Jesus manifested God’s power and freedom over the created world and its laws. To that power and freedom it points as a sign … Mary and Pontius Pilate are the only two ordinary people mentioned in the Apostles’ Creed. Both are there as signs pointing to Jesus Christ – one to show his lordship even in infancy, the other to show his lordship over death.”

Dr Roland Chia, a lecturer at Trinity Theological College, is also the Director of the Centre for the Development of Christian Ministry at TTC. He is a member of Fairfield Methodist Church.

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