Friday, January 27, 2012

Can a Scientist Affirm Jesus' Virginal Conception? The Case of John Polkinghorne

Earlier this month I posted a short piece dealing with how a historian could affirm the Christian teaching of Jesus' virginal conception. This is a teaching, of course, that plays a role in the (independent) infancy narratives of Matthew and Luke, but whose theological significance is never explored. Nevertheless, the virginal conception plays an integral role in historic Christian orthodoxy, as evidenced not only by its inclusion in the so-called Apostles' Creed, but also in the more developed Niceno-Constantinopolitan Creed of AD 381. Here orthodox Christian belief with regard to the "one Lord Jesus Christ" involves the confession that the very one who from eternity was "of one substance with the Father" was "incarnatus ... de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria virgine, et homo factus est" ("incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made a human being"). The creed thus places the virginal conception in the service of the mysterious theologoumenon of the incarnation ("enfleshment") of the eternal Son of God, which is as it should be.

As I noted then, such an affirmation, in the nature of the case, cannot be verified by the canons of modernist historiography. Nevertheless, I am convinced that Christian faith, for it to remain genuine, must not be characterized by blind credulity. Instead, Christian faith presents itself to the world as warranted belief. In that regard, I would argue that four facts, taken together, render highly unlikely the supposition that the early Christians would have invented the idea of Jesus' virginal conception:
  • The earliest church was convinced that Jesus was the Jewish Messiah.
  • There was no pre-Christian speculation that the Messiah would be virginally conceived.
  • There was an almost universal expectation that the Messiah would be a descendant of David.
  • The church believed that Joseph was a descendant of David.
Of course, if one affirms the historical facticity of Jesus' virginal conception, he or she must do so with a prior commitment to the existence of God—not the Deist God who "intervenes" miraculously every once in a while, but the biblical, sovereign God who is at work in all the activities of "nature," and who not only "spoke" into existence the stuff out of which the universe was made, but who also was able to "create" life in the uterus of Mary without the help of male sperm.

But hasn't science eliminated the need for God? Are not religion and science fundamentally antithetical? So argue many of the resurgent and increasingly pugnacious anti-theists in the academy, such as Jerry Coyne of the University of Chicago and "New Atheist" poster boy Richard Dawkins of Oxford.

I am no fundamentalist for whom a naively literalistic reading of the Bible trumps the consistent conclusions of science derived from a variety of diverse disciplines. For example, so-called "Young Earth Creationism," which posits an earth no more than 10,000 years old, is, in my view, both deeply troubling in its understanding of the hermeneutical interaction of science and faith, and profoundly embarrassing with regard to the "face" of Christianity it publicly presents to the world.

Yet I would suggest that Dawkins et al. commit an intellectual sin that is the mirror image of that which characterizes the most blatant advocates of antiscientism. The point is this: science, insofar as it explains observable, repeatable phenomena and provides explanatory models for how such phenomena came to be, is a necessary source of knowledge about the world in which we live. This is not to say that the current scientific consensus is inerrant or not liable to alteration as new evidence is discovered. Nevertheless, it is irresponsible to relativize scientific conclusions by pointing to the fact that they are mere "theories" in favor of alternative explanations that likewise are theories, such as the notion that the Bible intends to answer questions posed by modern science. At the same time, there are types of knowledge for which the empirical method of the hard sciences is not suited to adjudicate. Science is useful and necessary as an explanatory discipline, but it oversteps its bounds if it pretends to have the authority to provide ultimate meaning for what it discovers. Science and metaphysics are distinct disciplines, and must be kept apart. The current prestige of the former discipline emphatically does not negate the value of the latter.

No one has been more helpful in making this point than Professor Alister McGrath of King's College, London. McGrath was raised in Northern Ireland, and turned to atheism as a youth because of his experience of the religiously-tinged "Troubles" in his native land. Nevertheless, McGrath converted to Christianity while an undergraduate studying chemistry at Oxford. He proceeded to earn both a Ph.D. in molecular biophysics and a D.D. in systematic theology from Oxford, which has served him well in his various publications on science and faith. McGrath has been particularly prolific in his responses to Dawkins, both at the popular (here and here) and scholarly (here) levels, which have culminated in two book-length refutations of his former Oxford colleague (here and here).

Yet, it might be argued, McGrath is an explicitly evangelical theologian, notwithstanding his association with the Anglican church. This is where the curious case of John Polkinghorne becomes relevant. This was brought back to my attention this morning while reading a post by RJS over at Jesus Creed. Polkinghorne was a world-renowned theoretical physicist who served as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Cambridge from 1968-79. His academic work, including his prominent role in the discovery of quarks, led to his being made a Knight Commander of the Order of the British Empire in 1998. Nevertheless, at the height of his academic prominence, he abandoned his career to study for the Anglican priesthood. The very thought of such a prominent academic performing the humble duties of a curate and vicar is an inspiring one.

Polkinghorne, however, is no evangelical, though he is no raging liberal either. Last year he wrote a small book entitled Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible, in which he argues that a scientist can, and should, take the Bible seriously (warning: evangelicals will find much of what he says, particularly about the Old Testament, to be profoundly problematic). In particular, Polkinghorne argues that the New Testament accounts should be take seriously as historical accounts, even those that involve what we today would call "miracles." With regard to the virginal conception he states:
The theological importance of the virginal conception lies in its lending emphasis to the presence of a total divine initiative in the coming of Jesus, even if this truth is much more frequently expressed by the New Testament writers simply in the language of his having been sent. Jesus was not opportunistically co-opted for God’s purpose when he was found to be suitable, but he was part of that purpose from the start. The virginal conception is a powerful myth, and I believe that in the religion of the Incarnation the power of story fuses with the power of a true story, so that the great Christian myths are enacted myths. On this basis, I find myself able to believe in the virgin birth, even if the motivating evidence is less extensive than for the belief in the Resurrection. (p. 68-69)
The suitability of the category of "myth" is beside the point (indeed, this is a term whose suitability is vitiated for a general audience because of popular, though not necessary, connotations associated with it). The point is that a world-class scientist sees no barrier to accepting the historicity of an event with no historical parallels because of the nature of the Gospels as historical documents and the theological import of the teaching itself. This, in other words, is a man who does not subscribe to a popular-level, "supernaturalist" worldview that is wont to see "miracles" under every rock of human experience. Instead, he understands miracles as they ought to be understood, viz., as actions by which God interacts with his people in the outworking of salvation-history, particularly in relation to his activity in the Gospel events of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection.

Of course, this will fail to convince the minds of people who pretend that the only valid knowledge derives from empirical observation. But that is precisely the "myth" (to use the term imprecisely) that believing scientists like McGrath and Polkinghorne have exposed in their writings. It is at this point that we who believe the gospel to be God's power leading to salvation (Rom 1:16) need to take seriously the necessity of proclamation, for it is through the message of Christ (Rom 10:17) that the faith that saves finds its divinely-engendered origin.


  1. I like to distinguish between description and explanation. Science provides descriptions (typically symbolic) for the stuff of the universe and the way it works based upon what we can observe. But it doesn't provide explanations in the larger and deeper senses of the word. For me, supposed conflicts between "science" and "religion" don't make a whole lot of sense.

  2. I'm very impressed by the quality, content, and prolificacy of your prose. This article in particular took my interest, and I wanted to thank you for your thoughts, and complement you on your ability to write in a way that is both interesting and compelling. I have blogged in a similar vein here:

    1. Thanks, Bryan! I will make sure to look at your blog this afternoon.