Update: I’ve clearly been doing this series too long when I forget what part I’m on. 😛
Last time out, I mentioned that the conservative defense of the virgin birth had a strong argument its Protestant proponents tend not to emphasize: the history and tradition of the church. Relying too much on the tradition of the church sounds too Catholic for many people, and in more extreme circles there remains the notion that the Catholic Church was a usurper of God’s true church.
Nevertheless, the church is a method by which God chooses to reveal himself, and since there’s no bright line that divides the apostolic church from its more centralized, organized successors, such traditions that have a long history of acceptance by the church – such as the Trinity, for example – should be seen as more reliable than others that do not. Though I don’t think I need to say that it’s a foolproof argument; the church has gotten many things wrong over the millennia and will continue to do so, humans being what they are.
To flesh out the history of the virgin birth doctrine, I turned to Hans Von Campenhausen’s The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church. It’s a short book and an interesting read. It’s about 40 years old, but I believe it’s just been reprinted, so it’s a little easier to find now than perhaps it once was.
Von Campenhausen starts with the Bible, noting as we have the silence of Paul and Mark and the ambiguity of John on the subject, as well as the internal inconsistencies of the two lone biblical witnesses. He branches out from there to note that two of the more widely read contemporary Christian works – the Letter of Barnabas and the Shepherd of Hermas, both of which were considered canonical by some early Christians (in fact, if we were to rank all the early Christian writings by order of precanonical importance, the Shepherd of Hermas might be above 2 Peter and Jude, which were rejected as canonical by some early Christians) – discuss Jesus in great detail but also are silent about the virgin birth.
The first extrabiblical source to confirm the doctrine is Ignatius of Antioch, who “lays great theological stress on the virgin birth, and already regards it as indispensable doctrine that has been handed down, and to which he refers in formal, almost confessional language.” Ignatius was martyred around 100 C.E., which means he wrote at essentially the same time as the last-written books of the New Testament. Von Campenhausen notes that Ignatius is from the same region from which the Gospel of Matthew – and, apparently, “the Lucan sources of the infancy narrative” – are thought to originate.
The next reference also comes from Syria, as Justin Martyr accepts the virgin birth when he writes in the middle 100s, leading Von Campenhausen to state:
It therefore looks as if the legend were born and bred in that district. Unless all indications are deceptive, it was given more general circulation in Matthew’s and Luke’s Gospels. With these Gospels it became more and more widely known, and on account of this biblical testimony the virgin birth was at last accepted and belief in it was made obligatory.
Justin, however, is not dogmatic on the issue. He references Messianic Jews, who believe in Jesus but not his virgin birth, notes his disagreement but seems satisfied that Hellenistic Christians – pagan converts, in other words – agree with him. “It is obvious that even in the camp of the orthodox there is still a good deal of latitude with regard to the doctrine of Christ’s incarnation.” Von Campenhausen acknowledges this latitude disappears quickly toward the end of the second century. Nevertheless, groups of Christians, especially converted Jews, reject the virgin birth as late as the early 200s.
The emphasis when discussing the means of Jesus’ incarnation is rather in pushing against the ideas of Marcion and others that Jesus’ birth was somehow less than fully human. Docetism, the rejection of Jesus’ humanity, took several different forms, and combating these was the primary concern of the earliest church fathers. Likewise, from a doctrinal standpoint, the pre-existence of Jesus was given far more weight than the virginity of Mary at his earthly conception.
The doctrine of the virgin birth was not formulated for the sake of a theological line of thought; it is simply a supposedly ‘apostolic’ piece of biblical tradition that was handed down. It was not defense, but interpretation with which the early church saw itself confronted in relation to this piece of doctrine.
Von Campenhausen then looks back at the purposes of Matthew and Luke in telling the virgin birth story, placing them in two broad categories. Luke’s story is “dogmatic,” in that it stresses the theological significance of the event, while Matthew’s is “apologetic,” using it to prove the messianic attributes of Jesus. All other early interpreters follow one of those two lines, Von Campenhausen argues.
Ignatius, writing 40 years after the gospels, is dogmatic – the virgin birth “has its place in the center of his conviction,” meaning he’s giving it a greater importance than any other early Christian writer to date. Consider this summary of Ignatius’ thoughts on the subject:
The primary miracle of redemption depends on the incarnation, on the paradoxical fact that Christ was both the Son of God and … the Son of Man. … The virgin birth in its incredibility is the given ‘sign’ of the paradoxical coming of salvation, surpassing in its significance even the passion, though the latter, too, is heavily stressed.
However, even for Ignatius, the virgin birth is a means to an end. He’s fighting the docetic heresy, and therefore stressing the “carnal” reality of Jesus’ birth. “To Ignatius, the humanity of the “birth” is more important than the birth from the virgin.” To Ignatius, the spiritual miracle of the incarnation must be shown through a physical miracle – the virgin birth.
Justin, meanwhile, is in the apologetic line. He’s seeking to remove the obstacles some might have to believing in the virgin birth, so he focuses on its fulfillment of Old Testament prophecies, especially Isaiah 7:14 – which, as we’ve discussed, does not actually predict a virgin birth. Justin rejects the notion that the passage actually refers to a “young woman,” but of course he didn’t have the Hebrew scriptures that actually use the word for “young woman,” just the Greek translations with the word for “virgin.” Justin also had some creative interpretations of Old Testament passages that he argued foreshadowed the eventual virgin birth of the Messiah.
Justin also appeals to the pagan virgin-birth myths, saying their acceptance of those myths should make acceptance of Jesus’ virgin birth easier. Apparently recognizing the dangerous waters into which he is wading, Justin implicitly rejects the notion that perhaps the Messianic virgin birth is derivative of these pagan myths. Rather, they are distortions of the true virgin birth, according Von Campenhausen’s summary:
The demons, being enemies of God, have long ago obtained through the Old Testament prophets a certain knowledge of Jesus’ future coming, on the strength of what they have themselves spread abroad in the world the lies about the supposed sons of the gods.They hoped that when the real Son of God appeared his value would be assessed accordingly and that no one would believe in him.
Irenaeus, writing around 200 C.E., is the first full-throated defender of the virgin birth, in that he’s attempting to establish an objective theological necessity for the virgin birth. This leads him to develop further the Adam-Jesus parallelism begun with Paul. “The events of primal history have to be repeated in the life of Christ, in order that their old, fatal sequence may be overridden and replaced by one that terminates in salvation.” Therefore, Adam and Jesus were both “called into life by God,” according to Von Campenhausen, and were formed with a “‘virgin’ substance” – what Irenaeus called “the untilled and still virgin earth” and Mary. Likewise, Irenaeus sees Eve as a type of Mary, arguing Eve was a virgin at the time of the fall; therefore, Mary helps reverse the effects of the fall by being a virgin when the Savior is born.
It’s a creative argument, and it appears Irenaeus was influenced by the gnostic Gospel of Phillip in making it. Justin strikes similar notes when he says Mary’s obedient virginity was necessary to counteract Eve’s disobedience in eating the fruit.
If all of this sounds like a bit of a stretch, you’re not alone. It seems that the earliest attempts to stress the theological importance of the virgin birth tend to collapse under their own weight. So we are then forced to ask: How much weight should we place on the church’s early acceptance of the virgin birth when its reasons for doing so are strikingly creative? Much like today’s defenders of the doctrine, it seems the ancient defenders worked backward, developing unbiblical doctrines (Adam and Eve never had sex in the Garden of Eden? Really?) to support the Bible.
The same questions could be asked of them as it should be of us today: At what point is harm done to the Bible when we formulate such artful defenses? Do our efforts to defend it do more damage to our credibility than the passages we feel need defending?