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.


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