Not quite a year ago I wrote about the relationship of science and virgin birth in the context of John Polkinghorne’s book Testing Scripture: A Scientist Explores the Bible. Recently I’ve been reading Robert Asher’s new book Evolution and Belief: Confessions of a Religious Paleontologist and here the topic comes up again, but Asher has a different take on the question. As a result the topic is worth a reprise, considering the arguments put forth both by Polkinghorne and by Asher.
Most Christians have a deep appreciation for the scriptures. Many of our disagreements, especially the most heated discussions of science and faith arise because we respect and wrestle with scripture as inspired by God. As Paul tells Timothy, the scriptures are able to make us wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus. They are not to be taken lightly. On the other hand there are some pretty incredible events and stories contained within the pages of scripture and the virgin birth is one of these. For those who were not raised in the church however, or who have for any one of a number of reasons become distrustful of the reliability of the scriptures, questions about the virgin birth and other incredible events within the pages of scripture become a real barrier.
Matthew 1:18 relates the claim:
This is how the birth of Jesus the Messiah came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit.
Joseph responds to Mary’s pregnancy by planning to divorce her and an angel in a dream reiterates the claim “what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.” Luke 1:34-35 records Mary’s response when told she would conceive and give birth to a son, the Messiah.
“How will this be,” Mary asked the angel, “since I am a virgin?” The angel answered, “The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God.
The very idea of a miraculous conception, that a virgin conceived and bore a son, hits a nerve in our secular Western society – both modern and postmodern. In Testing Scripture Polkinghorne describes why he accepts the virgin birth. In contrast Asher does not see acceptance of the virgin birth as traditionally understood to be either reasonable or necessary. The differences in the approaches they take and the conclusions they reach will help to flesh out some of the key questions.
How would you address doubts from a nonbeliever about the incredible events in scripture?
How do you reconcile a belief in these events yourself?
In chapter six of Testing Scripture John Polkinghorne looks at the gospels. Within the historical conventions of their time they tell the gospel; the story of the birth, life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as the good news of God’s work in the world. The Gospels record a reliable history. This is the key starting point, but there is more to it than just this.
What about miracles, including virgin birth? Robert Asher is not an atheist; he does not rule out the existence of the supernatural or spiritual. He is, as he describes himself, a religious paleontologist. He is not evangelical, and like many he explicitly disavows the designation. Like Polkinghorne he sees the gospels as basically trustworthy with much of it (especially Paul’s letters and Mark’s gospel) written “well within the range of an oral tradition based on eyewitness accounts.” (p. 24 Evolution and Belief) Asher’s reasoning about the virgin birth is rooted in his understanding of cause and effect in science.
However, does this enable me to believe in an actual human being born of a virgin? No it does not – at least not in a biological sense, which is how most people understand this question and how, therefore, I should answer it. Female humans do not give birth unless they have been inseminated. As he was a human being, I infer based on what I know of biology that Christ would have developed in His mother’s womb, from zygote to morula to embryo to fetus. … (p. 24 Evolution and Belief)
Everything that I understand about human biology indicates that He, too, had a biological father. There is no doubt, however, that this father was perceived as divine by his followers. As a human being, of course Christ had a biological father; it is not rational to believe otherwise. Personally, however, I really do believe that father and son were inspired individuals, worthy of the impressive documentation with which their legacy has been recorded. … Simply stated, Christianity is my faith. It is not an unshakable faith, nor do I believe literally in many parts of the Bible. Indeed, much of the text of this chapter disqualifies me as a theist Christian by most evangelical standards. Nevertheless, Christianity seems to me a legitimate account of the agency behind life, and while the causes of life’s diversity are fascinating, they are not of immediate relevance to this faith. (p. 25 Evolution and Belief)
Does God intervene? This paragraph from Asher is rooted in a discussion of miracles, because the virgin birth, or more accurately virginal conception, if true in a biological sense, is a miracle. It is an intervention by God into the natural order. I was passed a question just recently asking about Jesus and his DNA. What DNA would he have carried? Mary’s we presume – but would his DNA have also traced to Joseph? Was it something else entirely? Asher doesn’t bring this question up specifically, but he does focus in on the question of intervention. Rather than quote a large segment I will choose a few particularly pertinent sections:
Let me phrase this differently. Do I believe in miracles? If by “miracle” you mean a spontaneous failure of a natural law due to the contrary influence of some supernatural agency, then no. … However, this is not at all the same thing as denying the existence of a divinity, including the Christian sort. … The “do you believe in miracles?” question assumes an opposition between “nature” and “god” that is wholly our own fabrication, as if the two compete with one another for our attention. This question presumes a philosophy that the two things are independent, even antagonistic – but I don’t think they are. Rather one is an expression of the other. God cannot “intrude” into the normal operation of nature because, the way I see it, nature is a part of God; it represents God’s thought, or laws, in action. He cannot intrude upon himself. (p. 25-26 Evolution and Belief)
Asher’s view of the virgin birth is shaped by his understanding of biology, of cause and effect, and by his view of God. There are scientific, philosophical, and theological reasons to question the traditional view of the virgin birth.
Dr. Polkinghorne sees things a bit differently. He works through a number of different episodes and events as he describes his reasons for taking the Gospels seriously. The one we wish to focus on here, the birth narratives and the virgin birth, is the one he leaves for last.
I have left till last what are among the best-known and best-loved narratives in the Gospels: the stories of the birth of Jesus. We find them only in Matthew 1.18-2.12 and Luke 2.1-20. John, after his timeless Prologue, and Mark, without any preliminaries, both start with the encounters between John the Baptist and Jesus at the beginning of the public ministry. We are so used to conflating the two gospel accounts that it is only when we read them carefully and separately that we become aware of how different they are. Luke seems to tell the story very much from the point of view of Mary, and the visitors to the newborn Jesus are the humble shepherds. Matthew seems to see things much more from Joseph’s perspective, and his visitors are the magi. … Luke gives us a very specific dating of the birth in relation to a Roman census, but there are severe scholarly difficulties in reconciling this with Matthew’s (plausible) statement that it took place during the reign of Herod the Great. A principle concern of both narratives is to explain why, if Mary’s home was at Nazareth, Jesus was born in Bethlehem, as Messianic prophecy required. I do not doubt that there is historical truth preserved in the birth stories, but establishing its exact content is not an easy task. (p. 67-68 Testing Scripture)
As with some of the other stories in the gospels and in other parts of scripture there are discrepancies that can be difficult to reconcile and harmonize. There is no strong reason, however, to doubt a historical root, down to and including the birth of Jesus in Bethlehem.
The Virgin Birth. The conception of Jesus is a different issue. How and can an intelligent, educated, experienced person, an eminent scientist, believe in a virgin birth? Dr. Polkinghorne gives his reasoning:
Luke, very explicitly in his story of the Annunciation (1.34-35), and Matthew, more obliquely (1.18), both assert the virginal conception of Jesus. Christian tradition has attached great significance to this, often rather inaccurately calling it the ‘virgin birth’. Yet in the New Testament it seems nowhere as widely significant as the Resurrection. Paul is content to simply lay stress on Jesus’ solidarity with humanity: ‘God sent his Son, born of woman, born under the law’ (Galatians 4.4). 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 Testing Scripture)
Interaction not Intervention. One of the most important criterion for thinking through the incredible claims in scripture is God’s interaction with his creatures rather than his intervention in his creation. The miracles ring true when they enhance our understanding of the interaction of God with his people in divine self-revelation. The virginal conception is part of the Incarnation, “The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us”. The magnificent early Christian hymns quoted by Paul in Col 1.15-20 and Phil 2.6-11 catch the essence of this enacted myth as well.
It makes no sense to try to defend the virginal conception, the resurrection, or any of the other signs or miracles related in the New Testament, separate from the story of the Gospel, the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus as God’s Messiah. In the context of God’s mission within his creation the miracles make sense. Separate from this they will never make sense.
What do you think? Do Dr. Polkinghorne’s reasons for believing in the virgin birth make sense?
Is there an important distinction between intervention and interaction?
Why do you believe in the virginal conception? Or if you don’t, why not?
If you wish to contact me directly you may do so at rjs4mail[at]att.net.