Historically, it doesn’t surprise us that the virgin birth has no evidence to support it; miracles rarely do, and how would one go about supporting such an event historically? It’s not really possible in this case. Biblically, it is perhaps a little more surprising that the case is weaker than it first appears. The two stories told by the gospel writers don’t really match up at all, and they aren’t compatible in some key places. Meanwhile, the earliest Christian writers don’t mention it, and the earliest gospel seems to assume a very natural birth for Jesus.
But it’s not a slam dunk by any stretch. There are enough openings there for anyone who wants to believe in the virgin birth while being intellectually honest to sleep well at night. The question we then must ask is: How theologically necessary is the virgin birth? Does the Christian faith rise or fall on the question of Mary’s virginity? At some point, faith requires belief in the improbable if not impossible. If the virgin birth is where that line gets drawn, that’s fine, but should it be drawn there?
Today, we’ll focus on those who say yes, the virgin birth is a core doctrine of Christianity and essential to the faith.
It’s not the most scholarly way of going about things, but a quick Google search helps get us some perspectives on this.
The Christian Apologetics and Resource Ministry lists five “primary essential” doctrines of Christianity:
- The deity of Christ
- Salvation by grace
- The physical resurrection of Christ
- The Gospel
It seems like that’s actually four, with the Gospel comprising the rest, but never mind. No virgin birth, so I guess we’re on safe ground questioning that one. That’s by no means an agreed-upon list, by the way, as plenty of Christians reject the physical resurrection of Christ while still believing in a living Christ at work in us today, but that’s getting into the weeds.
Moving on, the site adds three “secondary essential” doctrines:
- Jesus as the only way of salvation
- Jesus’ virgin birth
- The Trinity
No penalties are associated with their denial, according to the website. I would add that they all have much weaker cases as being grounded in the literal words of Scripture. For example, Christ’s uniqueness as the way to salvation is supported by just one verse (“I am the way, the truth and the life …”), the Trinity is an altogether extrabiblical doctrine formed from the implications of the text rather than the explicit descriptions of it, and the virgin birth, well, that’s what we’ve been talking about.
According to CARM, “Without the virgin birth, we cannot substantiate the doctrine of the incarnation of Jesus being God in flesh. This would put at risk what Jesus said above in John 8:24, where he said, ‘I said, therefore, to you, that you will die in your sins. For if you do not believe that I am, you will die in your sins.'”
This seems to be the crux of the matter. Jesus’ deity cannot be denied without eviscerating the biblical testimony. Thomas Jefferson may have decided it could be done, but the gospels, particularly John, make it hard to reject Christ’s deity without turning his life into a hollow shell. And Jesus’ deity, the argument goes, requires a miraculous conception in which the “seed” from which Jesus grows is perfectly holy. Otherwise, Jesus would be like any other human, could not be sinless and, therefore, could not be God.
Moving to the Christian Research Institute, we have this article, originally appearing in the Christian Research Journal, which takes a more academic look at the essential doctrines of the Christian faith. Norman Geisler lists 14(!) of them. I think we could combine several of those, and at some point we have to question whether the Christian faith is as simple as we think if we have to believe that many doctrines, but nevertheless Christ’s virgin birth is in there, and here is why:
Certainly the underlying doctrine to which the virgin birth points—the sinlessness of Christ—is essential to salvation, for a sinner cannot be the Savior of other sinners. He would need a Savior himself. A drowning person can’t save another drowning person. Was the virgin birth necessary, however, to Christ’s being sinless? This much seems certain: anyone born the natural way would have been—short of divine intervention—a sinner like the rest of us (Rom.3:23;5:12); and the virgin birth (i.e., supernatural conception)was one way to circumvent this. Whether it was the only way or whether, say, an immaculate conception, whereby Christ would have been conceived in the natural way but without the stain of original sin, would have worked is both moot and irrelevant. The virgin birth was one way to do it, and it was the way God chose to do it. In addition, it was important, if not crucial, to our salvation that God supernaturally signify which of all the persons born of women (Gen.3:15; Gal.4:4)was His Son, the Savior of the world. A natural but sinless conception of Christ would not have been an outward “sign” that drew attention to the Savior’s supernatural and sinless nature from the very beginning. The virgin birth, therefore, was a divinely appointed necessity for our salvation, by the underlying doctrine of Christ’s sinlessness and by the supernatural nature of it.
I’ve bolded the pieces that seem to be most important. Jesus’ miraculous conception was 1. necessary for Christ to be a sinless savior, and 2. a sign “from the very beginning” of the unique nature of this Messiah. Geisler adds:
By Christ’s virgin birth the sinless heavenly Father-Son relationship was preserved and the earthly father-son relationship was interrupted; thus, neither Adam’s sin, nor its consequence, death (Rom.5:12), could be transmitted to Christ. It was as impossible that the sinless Son could be born sinful as it was that the Prince of Life could be held by death (Acts 2:24; 3:15).
So the virgin birth also preserves the biblical doctrine of Christ’s sonship to God.
R.C. Sproul probably says this better than the others I’ve quoted thus far. In his Essential Truths of the Christian Faith, he opens his chapter on the virgin birth like this:
The doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Jesus holds that Jesus’ birth was the result of a miraculous conception whereby the Virgin Mary conceived a baby in her womb by the power of the Holy Spirit, without a humanfather. Christ’s miraculous birth tells us much about his nature. That He was born of woman demonstrates that He was indeed human and became one of us. Christ’s humanity, however, was not precisely the same as our own. We are born with original sin, Christ was not.
The Virgin Birth also relates to the deity of Christ. While it is certainly possible for Deity to enter the world in a manner other than a virgin birth, the miracle of his birth points to Christ’s divinity. The announcement of the angel Gabriel to Mary underscores this point. When he told Mary she would have a son, Mary was perplexed: “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” (Luke 1:34).Gabriel’s answer to Mary is of decisive significance for our understandingof the Virgin Birth: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Highest will overshadow you; therefore, also, that Holy One who is to be born will be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35). Moments later the angel added, “For with God nothing will be impossible” (Luke 1:37).
… The language of the Spirit’s coming upon Maryand “overshadowing” her echoes the descriptive account of the Holy Spirit’s work in the original creation of the world. It reveals that this baby will be a special creation with His father being God Himself.
Those who do not believe in the Virgin Birth usually do not believe that Jesus is the true Son of God. Thus, the Virgin Birth is a watershed doctrine, separating orthodox Christians from those who do not believe inthe Resurrection and Atonement.
To summarize, those arguing for the virgin birth use these two arguments:
- It is necessary for the sinlessness of Christ.
- It is the way God chose to demonstrate Christ’s deity.
Since Sproul and Geisler both acknowledge the second is simply a way God chose to do things, we can’t properly call that necessary or essential for belief. That leaves the single theological tenet upon which the virgin birth hangs, and it is indeed quite an important one: Without the virgin birth, Jesus is born with a sin nature, and is therefore incapable of saving humanity from its sins.