Was Mary Really a Virgin? Part 12

Peter Enns has spent a lot of time defending the notion that we should view the Bible incarnationally – that is to say, we should recognize that the Bible, like Jesus, is the incarnate word of God, fully divine but also fully human.

Although Enns makes this argument to explain why we should not expect a fully human book to provide answers to modern historical and scientific questions the original authors were not in a position to understand, it’s fascinating to note that Robert Gromacki in his book The Virgin Birth makes the same argument while achieving the completely opposite results.

On Page 147, Gromacki argues:

What man wrote and what God said are one and the same. … God had providentially prepared the writers’ life experiences so that their personalities, including their distinctive methods of written communication, were exactly the way God wanted them to be at the moment of writing. At the critical moment when pen struck paper, God so superintended them by the Holy Spirit that they wrote exactly what God wanted them to write, leaving out nothing and adding nothing. They contributed a human character to the Scriptures, but they were prevented from passing on to the written product any errors. The Bible, therefore, is God’s Word. It is one book with both a divine and a human nature.

So it happened at the critical moment of conception within the womb of Mary. …

The problem is that Gromacki is not actually describing a truly human collection of texts. He’s describing a fully divine book that happens to have human authorship – a book in which God was something of a dictator, in both senses of the word. And this deeply flawed idea of the Bible affects the way he views Jesus.

I’m fascinated by Gromacki’s treatment of Jesus’ sinlessness. I’ve never thought to ask whether Jesus was unable to sin or able not to sin. The answer probably varies from person to person, but the answer says a lot about one’s view of God’s agency in this world. Gromacki argues the former – that Jesus as God was unable to sin – and that fits closely with his view of the Bible, as well. It’s an emphasis on the divine.

But I think this is wrong. How could Jesus be fully human if he could not have sinned? Sin is enmeshed in the very nature of humanity. Whatever the cause, we are enslaved to the powers of sin and death, seemingly from the moment we have the power to choose. Further, what was the point of the temptation if Jesus had no ability to give in to it? Finally, the notion of a Jesus who could not sin makes a mockery of the notion in Hebrews 4 that Jesus was tempted “in every way” like we are. Again, temptation is only as real as our ability to succumb. I don’t like chocolate and have no trouble at all turning it down. I cannot therefore say I am tempted by it. A packet of Starburst, on the other hand, is a serious temptation.

So Gromacki in defending the virgin birth places a lot of weight on the sinlessness of Jesus. In fact, it’s the lynchpin of his and most other defenders’ theological arguments in favor of the virgin birth. Jesus was sinless; therefore, he did not have a sin nature; therefore, the virgin birth must be real because it explains how this managed to happen.

The problem is it doesn’t explain it at all, and Gromacki seems to realize this. He acknowledges, in fact, how “arbitrary” it is for us to believe the virgin birth was the only possible way to achieve a fully divine, fully human, sinless Son of God. Mary still had a sin nature, and even if she didn’t, that just pushes the conundrum back to how her mother managed to avoid passing it on. In fact, Gromacki’s argument for how the sinless nature was passed on – that the Holy Spirit intervened at the moment of conception to essentially block that aspect of Mary’s nature from passing down to Jesus – just as easily applies to a completely natural conception. Finally, this all assumes there is a sin nature to pass down, which is far from decided and was not the assumption of the church for its first 1,000 years nor is it the assumption of the Hebrew Bible (Enns discusses this a bit in The Evolution of Adam).

In other words, there’s little doubt that humanity is afflicted with sin and is enslaved to the power of death, but there is very much doubt about the notion of it being passed down genetically. And so the argument that the virgin birth was necessary to prevent such passage to Jesus collapses.

But that’s not the only argument Gromacki makes. In fact, he makes a much better argument but doesn’t focus on it nearly as much. In fact, I really only found it in one paragraph:

There is no way that natural generation could provide the acceptable channel [for incarnation, God becoming flesh]. It could never be said that the mere son of Joseph and Mary was really “God.” This would be an attempt to deify humanity, to make man into God.

In other words, if Jesus had two human parents, then he could not be fully divine; there would be no Godness in him. One of the natural parents must be God; otherwise, Jesus is simply a man, no more and no less. The virgin birth, therefore, is necessary not because Jesus’ sinlessness requires it but because his divinity does.

It’s a simple argument, and attractive for that reason. Like the other, however, it doesn’t seem to give God very much credit. Is there any doubt that God could infuse a human fetus with full divinity at the very moment of conception, regardless of who the parents are? Gromacki doesn’t seem to doubt that either; the most telling part of the book, for all of its exegetical, logical and incarnational arguments, is when Gromacki fully reveals his cards:

As the eternal God the Son, Jesus Christ was naturally holy and sinless before His incarnation. However, to gain a sinless human nature, the virgin birth had to take place. Walter Martin differed, however: “Some Christians are led astray here because they are led into the fallacy that unless Christ was virgin born He could not have been sinless. Such a view would limit the omnipotence of God, ‘for with God all things are possible.’ The answer, of course, is not that God was limited to the Virgin Birth to actuate the incarnation but that He decreed that the Virgin Birth would be the means of its realization.”

Gromacki essentially says here: God could have done it any number of ways, but he decided the virgin birth was best. Left unspoken but plainly implied is the fact that the only source for such a means is the narratives of Matthew and Luke. Gromacki, despite more than 200 pages of effort, is left with no better argument than: “The Bible said it, I believe it, that settles it.”

Which isn’t to say that’s necessarily a bad argument. The Bible does say Jesus was conceived supernaturally, without a human father. But the whole point of this series is to see if there is any reason for belief beyond the literal text of Matthew and Luke, who throughout their gospels make it clear they do not feel bound by modernist, 20th-century notions of objectivity and historical accuracy. Gromacki tries very hard to make his arguments seem more substantial than they are, but the they are so flimsy, they collapse under the weight of his efforts. In the end, his answer  to my question – is there any reason for belief beyond the literal text – is revealed to be: “No.”

However, there is one final argument Gromacki reluctantly makes. And that is the tradition of the church. Ironically, Gromacki, like any good Protestant, probably considers it his weakest argument (he certainly gives it the least amount of space), but it is perhaps his strongest. Accepting at face value his argument that the church fathers never believed anything differently about Jesus’ conception, this is a strong point in the virgin birth’s favor. The church fathers were not shy about interpretations of scripture that we now find controversial. An allegorical reading of Genesis 1-11 and universal reconciliation, for example, find support among certain church fathers despite being considered downright heretical among conservative Christians today. If the virgin birth was so important to them that they didn’t question it, that’s a powerful argument – more powerful, I’d say, than trusting that we understand the motives and intentions of Matthew and Luke 2,000 years after they told their incomplete, somewhat contradictory stories.

In the end, however, Gromacki is unable to make that argument as well as he should because he’s hamstrung by his own theological assumptions. Because he believes the Bible must fit into his biblicist, literalist framework, he cannot move beyond the words of the text to truly engage other ideas and traditions, some of which bolster his case more than the actual argument he’s making.

It seems Gromacki’s view of Jesus and the Bible, consistent in its heavy emphasis on the nature of God, exhibits a failure to understand their humanity – and therefore a failure to understand God himself. As a result, his defense of the virgin birth is unsatisfactory and leaves us looking elsewhere.

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