After more than two months of research into the viability of the virgin birth, I felt like there was a pretty good – though certainly not overwhelming or ironclad – case to be made for the virgin birth being the “winner” of two competing traditions about the physical origins of Jesus, with the more likely one, an illegitimate birth, being consigned to mere hints in the biblical text and the accusations of Christianity’s opponents.
Nevertheless, it’s not a terribly strong case, and if the virgin birth is theologically necessary for Christian belief, then I would feel comfortable supporting it. What last week’s Google search to find such theological justification showed me is that the popular reasons for supporting the virgin birth are pretty lousy.
They essentially amount to this: The virgin birth is necessary to believe in the divinity of Jesus.
If that’s truly the case, then that’s a very strong argument. But a peek behind the curtain finds an untenable series of connections: Jesus is God, therefore he must be sinless. All humans are born with a sin nature, therefore Jesus could not have been conceived by two human parents, or else he too would have a sin nature. Therefore, the virgin birth preserves the holiness, and therefore the divinity, of Christ.
Notice the problem there? The virgin birth can only be tied directly to the divinity of Christ through the doctrine of original sin – the notion that each human being is born with a sin nature. But the doctrine of original sin is not one of the essential doctrines of Christianity, at least not according to the same sources who argue the virgin birth is.
And the more we learn about the origins of the universe and humanity, the harder it is to believe in original sin. The Bible in fact doesn’t ever use the phrase, and using it to substantiate the doctrine is sketchy at best; the church itself for the first 1,000 years didn’t believe in original sin the way we do today. Whereas modern Christianity relies on the sin nature to support penal substitutionary atonement – which can be caricatured as “Jesus died to save us from God” – the earlier understanding is that Jesus died to give us victory (Christus Victor) over our enslavement to sin and death, the source of which is kind of irrelevant.
So the popular defense of the virgin birth insists that it is essential to the divinity of Christ. But the only way the virgin birth and Christ’s divinity can be connected is through an entirely nonessential doctrine. Which means the construct collapses.
(We won’t even get into the logical problem of how the sin nature is apparently only passed down through fathers and not mothers, as if Mary’s DNA was somehow perfect while Joseph’s would have been infected with sin. This logical problem is how the Catholic Church arrived at Mary’s own immaculate conception, sinless nature and perpetual virginity [because sex is bad, of course], but that just adds another generation before we get to the question of how someone with even just one parent’s DNA somehow manages to avoid the nature of sin that is supposed to exist in every single person since the Fall.)
In fact, the problem works in the opposite direction: Tying the virgin birth to the questionable notion of original sin not only weakens the defense for the former, it provides an argument against it. If original sin is falling out of favor thanks to the realization that Adam and Eve were not intended to be literal, historical human beings – and therefore Genesis 2:4b-3 was not intended to be a story about how humanity fell from perfection – then doesn’t it make more sense that Jesus, born of two human parents, could have broken free from the proclivity for sin that had thus far ensnared every human being to date? Wouldn’t that actually be just as miraculous, and just as much prove of his divinity, as the virgin birth?
So, it’s back to the drawing board. I am determined to give the virgin birth a good theological defense, if one can be made. But that means reading actual scholars because, surprising enough, the Internet ain’t cutting it. We’ll see where that takes us next week.