Andy Stanley, the pastor of Northpoint Community Church, has stoked the fires of controversy again, as various Christian leaders have been responding to his statement that “Christianity doesn’t hinge on the truth or even the stories around the birth of Jesus. It hinges on the resurrection of Jesus.”1 Albert Mohler, the president of Southern Baptist Theological seminary, reiterated the importance of the virgin birth. Timothy Tennent, president of Asbury Theological Seminary2, said via Twitter:
Andy Stanley needs to go to seminary and understand the importance of the virgin birth & the doctrine of the incarnation.
— Timothy Tennent (@TimTennent) December 25, 2016
So, in the end, how important is the virgin birth of Jesus witnessed to by the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, to Christian faith?
The answers depends on what is considered the most important sources for Christian doctrine and teaching. In my on United Methodist tradition, Albert Outler proposed the idea that John Wesley used four different sources for theology: Scripture, tradition, reason, and experience; I would suggest that these more of less enumerate most the sources that people use for theology, depending on how broadly you define tradition, reason, and experience. How much people value these sources for theology and the way they deem appropriate to use them will determine how important the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is.
For instance, in the Southern Baptist denomination that Andy Stanley
‘s church is a part of comes from (but serves as renegade all too often),3 there is a high emphasis on Scripture to the point that the other potential sources may be largely excluded from having much legitimate place beyond forming opinions. Combined with this high emphasis on the importance of Scripture is a strong emphasis on the inerrancy of all Scripture also. An almost exclusively Scripture-centric theology combined with strong inerrancy means that the Virgin Birth is an essential point of Christian faith, because, at least in theory, if it is in the Bible, it is an essential part of Christian teaching.
While Stanley would disagree with such a vital importance for the Virgin Birth, he is more similar than he is different from his fellow Southern Baptists. Stanley employs Bible-centric teaching and he has affirmed his belief in the inerrancy of the Scripture; Stanley diverges however in that he is incredibly sensitive to the thinking of the average, unchurched and barely churched persons and making the Gospel and the whole Bible understandable to them. As a result, when doing theology, Stanley is engaged with Scripture along with people’s reason and experience and their skepticism regarding certain ideas, such as the Virgin Birth. As a result, his preaching and teaching does not simply ascribe to the “Bible says it, I believe it.” His preaching style is not dogmatic nor a presentation of a set of theological propositional, but persuasive in focusing on a) what is most important in the message and b) where people are most open to hearing what is most important. As a result, not everything in the Bible is of equal importance in terms of evangelism, but some claims of Scripture are more significant and persuasive than others.
One can say that Stanley doesn’t think believing all of Scripture is essential to Christian faith, but that there are certain beliefs that have greater emphasis and importance to the Biblical authors than others. In hearing him preach, Stanley does not make the inerrancy of Scripture an essential for others to believe, but he reduces the essential proclamation of Scripture to a few points of vital importance; the resurrection of Jesus is perhaps the most important of them all. This is not due to him personally rejecting what the Bible teaches on “secondary” ideas, but sensitivity to what the average person thinks. If it is not heavily emphasized in Scripture, Stanley does not place much importance on it for people to come to faith. If it is heavily emphasized in the Bible like the resurrection is in all of the New Testament, then it is important for people to accept to follow Jesus. Andy Stanley’s preaching exists in the tension between Scripture and contemporary reasoning and experience.
The difference between these two perspectives is not about whether Scripture is important, but what of Scripture is important. Is everything the Bible says important or are there some ideas that are more important and essential whereas other ideas are of a more marginal importance and can be de-emphasized when it comes into tension with what people think? In the former, the Virgin Birth is vital dogma. In the latter, the Virgin Birth is a part of the narrative about Jesus but is not what is most crucial.
The earliest documents of the New Testament, Paul’s letters, make absolutely no reference to a virgin birth. While the connection between the Virgin Birth and the incarnation is made in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, in Romans 1:4 the Apostle Paul grounds Jesus divinity as the Son of God on the resurrection. Later in Romans 10:9, the fundamental foundation of salvation is the confession “Jesus is Lord”4 and the belief that Jesus is raised from the death. For the Apostle Paul, the reason one should believe that Jesus is divine/Son of God is because of the resurrection. This is held in common with the Gospel of John, where the disciple Thomas’ confession that Jesus is Lord and God based upon seeing the wounds of Jesus as proof of the resurrection.5 By contrast, Matthew and Luke were compiled later and outside of the early chapters, place little emphasis on the virgin birth. Furthermore, only Luke makes an explicit connection between the miraculous conception and Jesus’ divinity;6 Matthew only obliquely makes the connection via a particular quotation from Septuagint translation of Isaiah 7:14 where virgin birth and the title Immanuel are connected.
Whereas the resurrection is the validation/proof/vindication of Jesus’ status as the Son of God, the virgin birth is the way God became flesh. While explaining why the New Testament places greater emphasis on the former than the latter should be done only cautiously, one might infer that the origins of the belief thatJesus as the Son of God came through the resurrection, whereas later it was needed to explain how God came into the world, to which an appeal to a virgin birth is made. Whereas the resurrection is the central persuasive argument of the early Church; the virgin birth is a matter of theological consistency.
The significance of the Virgin Birth is less a matter of salvation or even understanding the significance of Jesus ministry, death, and resurrection and more a matter of ensuring that the narrative about Jesus it told in a way that is consistent with and reinforces the central aspect of Jesus divinity. While the resurrection is the ultimate reason people should believe according to the New Testament, without the virgin birth explanation for the Incarnation, there becomes potential for erosion of the doctrine of Incarnation. In early church history, the belief arose that Jesus was adopted as the Son of God at His baptism. It is possible that may have arisen very early in the Church so that Matthew and Luke felt it necessary to include information about Jesus’ miraculous birth. The question surrounding this idea is whether they constructed the virgin birth idea post-hoc or they referenced memories and traditions the Church already had but had never felt it important to record initially.7 The inclusion of the Virgin Birth in Matthew and Luke is perhaps an attempt to protect against heresy rather than a persuasive evangelistic proof of Jesus’ identity.
To that end, I can agree with Andy Stanley’s preaching and purpose. He is trying to bring people to faith; he is not trying to present a set of coherent, theological propositions that exclude heresy from the start. While I can not vouch that this is the method for Stanley, fleshing out the theological system is more the work of the whole process of discipleship. Certainly, there is nothing wrong with teaching and preaching on the Virgin Birth around Christmas time; at the same time, it doesn’t have the the same type and level of significance for the Biblical witnesses as resurrection does.
Nevertheless, the Virgin Birth has been deemed as important by Christian tradition, being a part of one of our earliest creeds, the Apostles’ Creed. Tradition has ascribed a vital role the virgin birth, which has played the role of making the connection of it with the Incarnation more explicit and robust. For those who highly emphasize the traditions of orthodoxy, they will be tempted to raise the important of the virgin birth on par with the resurrection given their co-occurence in the creeds without any differentiation. However, theological traditions do not play as vital of a role in the Southern Baptist denomination, and Stanley has expressed frustration with theologians and theological ideas in the past as missing the point. As a result, Stanley’s emphasis on Scripture with differing importance attached to the various parts of Scripture will come into tension with the early creedal traditions that does not express any difference in importance between the points this explicitly affirm.
To summarize, how important the Virgin Birth is to Christian faith in large part comes down to how important people view the different sources of theology. The more equal every part of Scripture is considered, the more important the Virgin Birth will be. The higher role given to church tradition, the more important the Virgin Birth will be. But if one values Scripture to the near exclusion of importance of tradition and one does not see every word of Scripture having the same importance, then Andy Stanley is right on point. To that end, insofar as Andy Stanley is simply saying the Virgin Birth isn’t the most central doctrine of the Christian faith, resurrection is, he resonates with the early apostolic message more. In the end, if you are a Protestant who emphasizes Scripture above other sources of theology, including tradition, and understanding Scripture is about knowing the message about God and Jesus that Biblical writers proclaimed and testified to, then Andy is being consistent.
- https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/acts-of-faith/wp/2016/12/24/megachurch-pastor-ignites-debate-after-suggesting-christianity-doesnt-hinge-on-jesus-birth/?utm_term=.9f594342ea7b [↩]
- I graduated from Asbury [↩]
- Edit: I previously and wrongly attributed Stanley’s church to the SBC. Northpoint is a non-denominational church. [↩]
- The Greek word for Lord, κυριος, is the word used in the Septuagint to translate the name of God, YHWH [↩]
- John 20:24-28 [↩]
- Luke 1:35 [↩]
- I would suggest it was a memory, not a post-hoc construction, although there was not a single, unified collection of narratives surrounding the virgin birth that Matthew and Luke had access to [↩]