Tuesday, December 24, 2013

Why a Virginal Conception? A response to Doug Wilson (Part 2)

Christians who regularly recite the Apostles' Creed—a salutary exercise—are so familiar with its twin confessions that "Jesus Christ, (God's) only Son, our Lord" was "conceived by the Holy Spirit" (conceptus est de Spiritu Sancto) and "born of the virgin Mary" (natus ex Maria virgine), that they are often surprised at how small a role the precise mode of his birth actually plays in the New Testament's larger Christological portrait. Indeed, the virgin birth of Jesus—or, better, his virginal conception—often has played a greater role in Christian polemics and internal boundary marking (i.e., to mark off so-called "Bible believing Christians" from more "liberal" ones) than it does even in the narratives of the two Evangelists who wrote about it. This has resulted, not entirely surprisingly to anyone raised in very conservative American Protestantism, in a situation in which affirmation of the historicity of the virginal conception has all too often taken precedence over reflection on its theological significance.

Confusion reigns in two areas in particular. The first, which I discussed in my previous post, concerns the common misunderstanding that Matthew, by stating that Jesus' virginal conception "fulfilled" Isaiah 7:14, thereby believed that the prophecy was a direct prediction of that miraculous conception. This is not surprising, given that commonplace Western perceptions of what prophecy and its "fulfillment" entail. However, careful analysis of Isaiah 7-8 demonstrates quite clearly that the prophecy, in its original setting, directly related to a birth in the 8th century BCE, most likely that of Isaiah's own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz. As a result the Evangelist has often been accused of misunderstanding the prophecy and, consequently, of fabricating a miraculous conception, based on similar pagan stories, in the service of a grand, "proof-from-prophecy" scheme he weaves throughout his lengthy narrative. "Not so fast," I argued. On the contrary, an examination of Matthew's use of the Old Testament suggests quite strongly that, rather than being a fabricator or a rube, the Evangelist operated with a hermeneutic more subtle and profound than both his detractors and simplistic pious defenders imagine. In short, Matthew, perceiving the organic connection between the Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 and the explicit "messianic" prophecies of Isaiah 9 and 11, saw in the birth of the Maher-shalal-hash-baz to the "young woman" a typological anticipation of the literal virginal conception of Jesus, whom he and the early Christians believed was the Davidic "shoot" promised by Isaiah.

The second confusion relates to the reason Jesus had to have been born of a virgin. This is not entirely surprising, given the paucity of New Testament references to Jesus' conception and the reticence of Matthew and Luke to provide any definitive answer to the question. Nonetheless, many a theologian has rushed in to fill the void, as it were, with confident proclamations as to the virginal conception's rationale and even necessity. One such traditional suggestion has recently been reaffirmed by Doug Wilson. According to this suggestion, Jesus had to have been conceived without the benefit of a human father for soteriological reasons, viz., to preserve him from sin so as to enable him to be the perfect sacrifice needed to save his people (or the world) from their sins. In Wilson's words:
The Bible says that we are objects of wrath by nature (Eph. 2:3). So if Jesus had been born into the human race in accord with the normal, natural process, he would have been an object of wrath also. So God needed to perform a supernatural act, but perform it with a true man-child. He did this through what we call the virgin birth.
The Bible is clear that Jesus had a genuine human lineage, all the way back to Abraham (Matt. 1:1–16), who was himself descended from Adam. But the Bible is equally clear that Jesus never sinned (2 Cor. 5:21). The fact that Jesus was sinless was obviously related to who his Father was (Luke 1:35), but also because of who his Father wasn’t (Luke 3:23). The other sons of Joseph were sinners in need of forgiveness just like the rest of us. For example, James the Lord’s brother tells us to confess our sins to one another (James 5:16), and then he goes on to tell us that Elijah had “a nature like ours,” including himself in this (James 5:17). And earlier in the Gospels, we even told what one of those sins was, the sin of unbelief (John 7:3–5). Joseph was father of one who became a great and godly man, a pillar in the church, but Joseph was not the father of a sinless man. If Jesus had been born to Joseph and Mary in the ordinary way, he could have been a great apostle—like his half-brother was—but he could not have been our Savior.
Wilson continues by getting to the heart of the matter: it is all about original sin:
While we shouldn’t start speculating about the half-life of original sin, one acceptable answer from all of this is that sin is reckoned or imputed through the male line. This is the position I hold and I believe it’s fitting because Adam was the one who introduced sin into the world in the first place (Rom. 5:12).
While this suggestion has a venerable pedigree and may have a certain initial plausibility within various theological systems, I am convinced it is just about entirely wrong. For one, it runs aground against the jagged rocks of genetics. Not only did Jesus have to have DNA, including the all-important Y chromosome, from a source other than Mary—he certainly wasn't a clone; presumably the DNA profile would have been the result of God's direct creative activity (more on this presently)—the human nature of his mother was also just as sinful as that of her forebears and later offspring. Hence in any case Jesus, born of a woman, would have had to be protected from the taint of the corruption endemic to human nature. Even granting, for the sake of argument, that Romans 5:12-19 teaches the direct imputation of "original" guilt to the post-Adamic human race, the notion that corruption and guilt are thereby passed down, as Wilson asserts, "through the male line," is a non sequitur, unless one follows St. Augustine's "seminal" view of imputation, which he based on the Vulgate's unfortunate rendering of Romans 5:12d (eph' hōi pantes hēmarton, "because all [have] sinned") by in quo omnes peccaverunt, "in whom (i.e., unum hominem, i.e., Adam [Rom 5:12a]) all sinned."

More fundamentally, such an interpretation manifests sloppy method, albeit one that all too many systematicians have used from time immemorial. Simply put, to derive this theological rationale, the interpreter must go far afield and understand Matthew and Luke in light of Paul, without asking whether or not Matthew and Luke provide their own explanations of the miracle's meaning and rationale. Yes, Matthew connects Jesus' virginal conception in some way with his mission to "save his people from their sins" (Matt 1:21), which Jesus himself will later connect with the "giving of his life" as a ransom for "many" (20:28) and the "shedding of his 'blood of the covenant'" for the forgiveness of sins (26:28). Yet nowhere does Matthew ascribe Jesus' suitability for his salvific role to the pristine perfection of his human nature (even though for him, like the rest of the New Testament authors, Jesus' sinlessness was, we can assume, a bedrock conviction).

A better place to look is suggested by a careful reading of Matthew's skillfully constructed infancy narrative, namely, to eschatology and Christology. Indeed, Matthew's concern in chapter 1 is to identify Jesus precisely in terms of his significance in bringing about the fulfillment of God's covenant promises to his people. This is made abundantly clear in the opening superscription (Matt 1:1)—"A record of the genealogy of Jesus Christ, the Son of David, the Son of Abraham"—which simultaneously refers to Jesus' genealogy (1:1-17) and serves as a title of sorts for his Gospel as a whole. Jesus, in other words, is identified as Israel's promised Messiah, the heir of the Davidic promise who would rescue the nation from exile and inaugurate the expected everlasting kingdom, and—even more fundamentally—as the "seed" of Abraham in whom the promise of blessing for the whole world is fulfilled.

The momentous nature of what Matthew is about to write is masked by the translation I offered above. The first two words of his Gospel are biblos geneseōs, reflecting the name given at the time to the first book of the Torah and providing a deliberate allusion to the same formula (Hebrew sēpher tôledôt) used  in Genesis 5:1 LXX (cf. Gen 2:4a; 6:9). By this simple maneuver Matthew relates the story of Jesus to follow with the primeval history narrated in Genesis. The theological implication of this linguistic move is likewise obvious: the Gospel he is writing is the narrative of the New Genesis, the eschatological counterpart to the primeval creation accounts. The birth of Jesus, in this scheme, is to be viewed as the dawn of the anticipated new creation, which would come about ultimately through  his life and (especially) his death and resurrection, the very subject matter Matthew would write about in his narrative.

That this is Matthew's intention is made clear in Matthew 1:18, which the NIV translates, "This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about ..." Such a translation obscures Matthew's deliberate connection of his narrative of Jesus' virginal conception (1:18-25) with the superscription (1:1) discussed above. For he does not write tou … Iēsou Christou hē gennēsis ("the birth of Jesus Christ"), but rather tou … Iēsou Christou hē genesis ("the origin of Jesus Christ") [note: the obscurity of the latter reading, reflected in the oldest and best MSS, led it to be altered to the former reading in the mass of later Byzantine minuscules]. Later Matthew has the angel tell Joseph that the child conceived in Mary was "from" (ek) the Holy Spirit. The preposition is one that entails source or origin. The point is that the Spirit does not, as in pagan stories, take the place of a human father. As Raymond E. Brown noted, "the manner of begetting is explicitly creative rather than sexual" (The Birth of the Messiah [2nd ed.; New York: Doubleday, 1993] 124). The new creation had indeed dawned with the creation of new human life in the uterus of the virgin Mary.

New creation, of course, meant the fulfillment of God's saving purposes, which the angel explicitly told Joseph along with the instruction to name the child "Jesus," which, by popular etymology, meant "YHWH is salvation" (1:21). As mentioned above, the saving activity of Jesus is ultimately focused on his redemptive, atoning death on the cross. Earlier, however, he anticipates this both by his healing (cf. 9:2) and his controversial and deliberately confrontative claims to forgive sins (cf. 9:1-8). Forgiveness of sin is, as Jesus' interlocutors in the Markan parallel to this episode complain, the prerogative of God alone (Mark 2:7). Davies and Allison (The Gospel according to St. Matthew [ICC], 1:210) note that in some Second Temple literature the final victory over sin was linked to either an angelic or human leader (T. Levi 18.9; 11QMelch. 2.6-8; 1 Enoch 10.20-22; Tg. Isa on 53:4, 6-7). The point is taken, but one wonders if Matthew himself would have considered such a possibility.

Indeed, one must demur if for no other reason than the use Matthew himself makes of the quotation of Isaiah 7:14. Jesus' birth, as we have seen, "fulfilled" the promise of the birth of a child who would be called "Immanuel," that is, "God with us." Matthew's interpretation of "Immanuel" is taken verbatim from Isaiah 8:8 (LXX) (meth’ hēmōn ho theos). In itself, this title could, like it did in Isaiah 7-8, mean little more than that Jesus is the agent in whom God's active presence with his people is manifest. And at this early stage of the narrative this is all he could have expected his readers to pick up on. But, as one would expect, there is sufficient ambiguity in the expression to allow for a developing Christological perspective to accumulate. Such a presumption is fairly thrust upon the attentive reader at the very close of the Gospel where the resurrected Jesus promises his disciples before his ascension: "And behold, I am with you always until the end of the age" (Matt 28:20). This serves as a transparent inclusio with 1:23. Note the wording:

Matthew 1:23—meth’ hēmōn ho theos
Matthew 28:20—egō meth’ hymōn eimi
Note the clear interplay between "I" and "God" in these two passages. As John Nolland says, this "may allow us to find allusion to the divine name in the [egō eimi] of the latter" (The Gospel of Matthew [NIGTC; Grand Rapids and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 2005] 102). If so, then the implication is obvious: Jesus is the embodiment of God's presence with his people to save them from their sins (cf. Matt 8:23-27; 18:15-20; 28:18-20).

This, I suggest, is the real significance of Jesus' virginal conception. Matthew does not, as does Luke (1:35), articulate an explicit "Son of God" Christology at this point. But the implication seems clear nonetheless (so argued Rudolf Pesch, “Der Gottessohn im matthӓischen Evangelienprolog (Mt 1-2): Beobachtungen zu den Zitationsformeln der Reflexionszitate,” Biblica 48 [1967] 395-420). The virginal conception was the means chosen by God to bring about the incarnation of his Son. More profoundly, as Karl Barth suggested, it was a sign pointing to the mysterious unity of divinity and humanity in the person of Jesus of Nazareth (cf. Church Dogmatics, IV/1, 207).

The virginal conception remains a mystery for us as, no doubt, it was for the earliest Christians. Yet profound mystery ought to breed profound awe and worship of the one who humbled himself to take human flesh to rescue his people from a plight they had brought upon themselves. This Christmas season let us all take to heart the immortal words of Charles Wesley:

Christ, by highest Heav’n adored;
Christ the everlasting Lord;
Late in time, behold Him come,
Offspring of a virgin’s womb.
Veiled in flesh the Godhead see;
Hail th’incarnate Deity,
Pleased with us in flesh to dwell,
Jesus our Emmanuel.

Merry Christmas.

Saturday, December 21, 2013

Why a Virginal Conception? A Response to Doug Wilson (Part 1)

The Annunciation of Cortona (1433-34, Fra Angelico;
Museo del Prado, Madrid) (image@en.wikipedia.org)
Fifty years ago the late Andy Williams expressed a common sentiment when he sang, with reference to the Advent/Christmas season, "It's the Most Wonderful Time of the Year." The little child that still lurks within my breast would heartily agree. Nor would the theologian that serves as my semi-public persona quibble overmuch. Jester Hairston may have been exercising a little artistic license when, a mere seven years before, he wrote the charming Christmas song "Mary's Boy Child," with the refrain, sung so memorably by Harry Belafonte, "And man will live forevermore, because of Christmas Day." I know, of course, that good theology would place the emphasis instead on Jesus' death and resurrection. Nevertheless, New Testament scholars have rightly coined a helpful expression, "the Christ event," to denote the entire nexus of events from Jesus' birth to the outpouring of the Christ's Spirit at Pentecost, which together constitute God's decisive saving act in Christ. All the constituent parts, in other words, hang together, and draw their complete significance in light of each other. In particular, Jesus' death could never have had the universal significance attributed to it by the New Testament unless his birth in 5/4 BCE was, as the fourth Evangelist put it, the "incarnation" or enfleshment of the eternal Word of God (John 1:1, 14).

To 21st century Western ears—just like, reading between the lines of such texts as Mark 6:3 and John 8:41, not to mention later anti-Christian arguments recounted in writers such as Origen (Against Celsus 1.28, 32), it was to ancient ones—the most distinctive (and most difficult to swallow) element of the infancy narratives of Matthew 1-2 and Luke 1-2 is their stunning description of the modus operandi of Jesus' conception, viz., that he was conceived in Mary's uterus directly by the power of the Spirit without the required exigency of sexual intercourse having taken place. To be sure, partial parallels in Greco-Roman sources, such as the famous account of the miraculous conception of Alexander the Great (Plutarch, Alex. 2), have led even some evangelical scholars (e.g., A. T. Lincoln in his spanking new Born of a Virgin?) to posit literary and/or theological motives for the Matthean and Lukan accounts, obviating the somewhat uncongenial task of affirming or defending their putative historicity. Nevertheless, more than 80 years ago J. Gresham Machen demonstrated that the theory of pagan derivation was, upon thorough examination, far weaker than is often supposed, a view supported even by such deniers of the virginal conception as W. D. Davies and Dale Allison in their magisterial ICC volumes on Matthew (1:214-17). What is more important, as Allison writes, "Matthew, we can be sure, believed in the virginal conception of Jesus" (1:221). And what little evidence we have for the earliest post-apostolic Christianity reflects the same belief (e.g., Ignatius, Eph. 18.2-19; Smyr. 1.1-2). Ultimately, of course, the virginal conception made its way both into the so-called Apostles' Creed and the definitive Niceno-Constantinoplitan Creed of 381.

Some time ago I wrote a couple of posts dealing with the problem of the virginal conception's historicity. In the first, I pointed to N. T. Wright and Charles E. B. Cranfield as examples of two eminent historians who, while recognizing the obvious fact that such a "miraculous" birth could hardly be "proven" by the strictures of modernist historiography, nevertheless can, in good conscience and by reasoning historically, affirm it to be a warranted belief. In the second, I pointed to a real life Sheldon Cooper, Cambridge theoretical physicist-turned-Anglican vicar, John Polkinghorne, as an example of a decidedly not fundamentalist Christian who, like C. S. Lewis before him, understands the virginal conception historically and literally as an example of an enacted myth. I have nothing new to add at this point, other than to say that I too am able to confess the words of the great creeds ex animo and without reservation.

What often gets lost in the discussion, however, is the point of it all. Why did Jesus have to be conceived virginally? What, in other words, is the theological logic behind the event (or the narrative, if one decides to suspend belief)? Recently Doug Wilson put his two cents' worth in with a post succinctly entitled "Why a Virgin Birth?  Wilson prefaces his answer by rather pugnaciously (as is his wont) declaring that in Isaiah 7:14, the text cited by Matthew as being "fulfilled" in Jesus' conception/birth (Matt 1:22-23), "Isaiah prophesied that a time would come when a virgin would conceive and bear a son."

The text, in the NIV, reads as follows: "Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel."  And thus it would appear, on a cursory reading, to indicate just that. But, as always, things aren't as simple as they initially appear. In this case, the problems begin with the Hebrew term translated "virgin." It is ‘almâ, which even evangelical scholars recognize refers to a "young woman of marriageable age" (e.g., John Walton, NIDOTTE, s.v., 3:416-18), not bĕtûlâ, the normal term for "virgin." Thus Old Testament scholars and mainstream English translations (e.g., the NRSV) regularly render the term "young woman" here and search for a referent closer in context and in time to the 8th century prophecy itself. Wilson, however, is not impressed. He sneers at so-called "liberal scholars" who like to point out this lexical point—certainly not a small one, I might add—and condescendingly say to their more conservative brethren, “You conservatives ought to think about this a bit harder, and join the rest of us in the 21st century as soon as you are able.” In answer to such presumed liberal "snobbery," Wilson has one presumed trump card: the Greek LXX translation, which rendered ‘almâ by parthenos, which can only mean "virgin," instead of neanis, "young girl" (later Greek versions, such as those of Aquila, Symmachus, and Theodotion, represent ‘almâ by neanis in apparent reaction to the Christian apologetic use of Isa 7:14). By doing this, so Wilson argues, the LXX reflects the fact that "centuries before there was any Christian agenda around to influence the story, the expectation among the Greek-speaking Jews (at a minimum) was that a virgin would conceive and bear a son."

Wilson may well consider me a liberal, though my membership in the Evangelical Theological Society and graduate degrees from the famously conservative Dallas Seminary would belie such a presumption. Nevertheless, his argument, despite its venerable conservative pedigree (e.g., E. J. Young, The Book of Isaiah [NICOT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1965] 1:288-94), simply fails to hold up to sustained scrutiny. For starters, the supposed Jewish expectation of a virginally conceived Messiah is notable only for its absence in every other strand of Second Temple literature available to us. Moreover, post-Christian Jewish sources are unanimous in their rejection of such an understanding of the prophecy (e.g., Trypho: "The passage is not, 'Behold the virgin will conceive ...' but 'Behold the young girl will conceive ...'" [Justin, Dialogue with Trypho 67.1]). Indeed, even if the LXX translation reflects an implied virginity in the reference to the "young woman" in Isaiah 7:14, it still need not have necessarily entailed a virginal conception, for the virginity could have referred to the girl's assumed state at the time the oracle was spoken.

More significantly, a close reading of Isaiah 7-8 demands a referent of the prophecy closer to home, as it were. In context, Isaiah promises, as a "sign" to King Ahaz of Judah, the birth of a son in whose early years (7:15-16) the two kings dreaded by Ahaz (i.e., those of Israel and Syria) would suffer ruin. Most later Jewish exegesis understood the prophecy as pointing to Hezekiah (e.g., Trypho, in Justin, Dial. 67, 77; Exod. Rab. on 12:29; Num. Rab. on 7:48). More plausibly, however, is the suggestion that it refers to Isaiah's own son, Maher-shalal-hash-baz (cf. Isa 8:3-4: "Then I made love to the prophetess, and she conceived and gave birth to a son. And the Lord said to me, 'Name him Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. For before the boy knows how to say ‘My father’ or ‘My mother,’ the wealth of Damascus and the plunder of Samaria will be carried off by the king of Assyria'."; cf. 8:1-10 as a whole).

If so, then what justification did Matthew have for claiming this prophecy was "fulfilled" in Jesus' virginal conception? Certainly the Evangelist was not simply inventing an "event" to match a presumed scriptural or national expectation of such a conception in ignorance of the original context of the prophecy. Nor did ignorance of the original Hebrew text lead him naively to believe in a one-to-one correspondence between the Isaianic prophecy and its coming about in Jesus (for the text-forms of Matthew's "fulfillment citations" [see below], which often diverge from the LXX under the influence of the Hebrew text, see Bob Gundry's now almost 50 year old Manchester thesis, The Use of the Old Testament in St. Matthew's Gospel with Special Reference to the Messianic Hope [SNT 18; Leiden: Brill, 1967]). Rather, sustained reflection leads one to conclude that he was operating with prophetic categories more subtle and profound than the simple prediction/fulfillment paradigm most modern Westerners assume.

Matthew's citation of Isaiah 7:14 is not sui generis. Indeed, it is but the first of ten (eleven, if one includes the citation of Micah 5:1 [5:2 in English versions] in Matthew 2:5) such quotations in his Gospel which are prefaced by an editorial comment that the cited text was "fulfilled" (plēroō) in Jesus. Taken together, these citations underscore his fundamental conviction that the events of Jesus' life and death are the "fulfillment" of what God had promised in the scriptures. Years ago Doug Moo articulated the force of Matthew's notion of "fulfillment" as follows: "The word is used in the New Testament to indicate the broad redemptive-historical relationship of the new, climactic revelation of God in Christ to the preparatory, incomplete revelation to and through Israel" ("The Problem of Sensus Plenior," in Hermeneutics, Authority, and Canon [ed. D. A. Carson and John D. Woodbridge; Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1986] 191). 

In short, I would argue that Matthew understands Isaiah 7:14 to be a typological anticipation of Jesus. In Biblical Theology, "typology" involves the recognition of correspondences and patterns in God's progressive unfolding of salvation history, with "typological" foreshadowings (events, persons, offices, liturgy, etc.) designed to anticipate God's ultimate saving action in Christ, whose "antitypical" completions of these patterns are marked by heightenings or escalations of the original patterns.

In the present case, typology works as follows: just as the birth of "Immanuel" (Maher-shalal-hash-baz?) was a sign to Ahaz of God's direct intervention ("God with us") to judge the wicked (Isa 7:15ff.!) and deliver his covenant people—which would, in the flow of Isaiah's prophecy, ultimately come in the golden age promised in Isa 9:2-7 and 11:1-16—so the miraculous birth of Jesus signified that God would finally act to bring this "golden age" precisely through Jesus' saving of his people from their sins (Matt 1:22). As the late Raymond E. Brown noted:
... [T]he sign offered by Isaiah was not centered on the manner in which the child would be conceived, but in the providential timing whereby a child who would be a sign of God's presence with his people was to be born precisely when that people's fortunes had reached their nadir (The Birth of the Messiah, 2nd ed. [New York: Doubleday, 1993] 149)
The validity of Matthew's use of Isaiah 7:14 here is tied, as I see it, to two important factors in the text of Isaiah itself. First, in Isaiah 7:13 the sign given to Ahaz is addressed to "the house of David." Second, in Isaiah's prophecy the ultimate hope of Israel is tied to one called a "son" or "child" (Isa 9:2-7; 11:2-16). Thus the "Immanuel" prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is organically connected in Isaiah's prophecy both to the birth of the royal child who would be called "Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace" (Isa 9:6), whose coming would herald the dawn of the long-awaited and darkness-dispelling great light (9:2-3), and to the shoot from the hacked-off stump of Jesse, on whom the Spirit would rest, enabling him to reign in righteousness, justice, and faithfulness (Isa 11:1-9). Matthew, we can be sure, drew these connections, and did so rightly.

But why was Jesus born of a virgin? What theological significance attaches to this seemingly strange event once it is divorced from any necessary role in an apologetic, proof-from-prophecy scheme? It will be the aim of our next post to discuss this problem.