As we are in the season of Advent, approaching Christmas, it is around this time of year that you may hear many sermons, discussions, arguments, and polemics surrounding the Gospel story of the Virgin Birth of Jesus, or, to be more specific, the Matthean and Lukan Gospel story. A couple of years ago around this time, Andy Stanley was a focal point of controversy because he said that one’s faith is in the resurrection of Jesus and not the virgin birth; he wasn’t denying the historical fact of the virgin birth but was questioning the significance that is attached to the idea.
Here is the dominant narrative about the virgin birth in traditional/evangelical circles: the virgin birth is proof that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God. However, many people resist this narrative, viewing the idea of a virgin birth with deep skepticism; instead, they understand the virgin birth as symbolic or mythological that has no value as a matter of historical fact. For instance, Brian McLaren has stated the “virgin birth” as a symbol against patriarchy. This is a recapitulation of a dominant post-modern narrative of resistance against centers of power as havens of injustice.
What if both narratives are wrong? What if the virgin birth is taken as a historical fact by the Gospels but it’s significance is not that Jesus is the Incarnate Son of God? My suggest is that while the post-modern revisionist accounts are right to criticize the standard Christmas narrative of most of us orthodox Christians, they do so in such a way that they grossly misunderstand the historical context of the Gospels and thus engage in a blatant act of cultural appropriation for present day purposes.
To be clear, this is not said with any desire for any sort of theological revisionism of Christian faith. I am an orthodox Christian, who believes both that Jesus is God Incarnate and that Jesus is the Son of God. My desire, however, is to tear down oversimplified narratives so that we may have eyes to see things afresh and anew
The origination of this oversimplification is rooted in our Trinitarian liturgies, where we refer to the second person of the Holy Trinity as the Son. To call Jesus the Son (of God) is taken to be synonymous with calling Jesus God Incarnate; the phrases “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are taken as exact or near exact synonyms, expressing the same thing. However, these phrases are not the same in their origination, as the language of Sonship originates from the Old Testament royal language about the king, such as in Psalm 2. Meanwhile, the language of incarnation hails from John 1, where “the Word became flesh/σάρξ,” where the Latin for σάρξ is
Put simply, for the Jewish historical narrative, the Son of God is
By contrast, the idea of Incarnation is grounded in the Jewish understanding of God’s Wisdom. God’s Wisdom was with God in creating the world and participating in the creative act as in Proverbs 8:22-31. While Israel’s wisdom was connected to Israel’s kingship, just as the Son of God way, these two concepts are not exactly synonymous in John 1. John extends the familial language to believers in 1.12-13, although rather than using υἱός (“son”) which he uses for Jesus (such as in John 3.16) he uses τέκνα (“children”). The Gospel of John recognizes that there is something special about Jesus as μονογενὴς (“only-begotten”). But nothing further is said about the special status that Jesus has in comparison to the children of God. It is more likely that μονογενὴς is to be understood against the background of Proverbs 8.22-25, where God’s Wisdom was given a status that is separate from creation.1
Thus, the language of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” are not exactly synonymous. While both expressing ideas that are related to Israel’s Davidic kingship, they
What has occurred is that “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” have the same reference to the person of Jesus, but not the same sense. Gotlobb Frege talk about words having two components of meaning, sense and reference. While there are many critiques to give against Frege’s breakdown and thus it isn’t important here to understand the specifics of Frege’s views of language. What is important is that the word meanings have at least two sources: 1) semantic memory from repeated and conventional usage that gives us the customary sense and 2) (potentially new) semantic information derived from those persons or things our words are used to reference. In the orthodox Christian tradition, the meaning of “Son of God” and “God Incarnate” has become increasingly defined by what we believe and know about Jesus rather than the historical origination of these phrases. So, when we hear “Son of God” we also think “God Incarnate” to the point that we have blended the two phrases/ideas into “the Incarnate Son of God.”
There is nothing wrong in calling Jesus the “Incarnate Son of God.” IT expresses something deeply true. But, the problem comes when the semantic and linguistic changes impacts a) how we read the Gospel narratives and b) how we logic out the significance of the virgin birth. In Luke 1.35, the angel explains to Mary how she as a virgin can have a child who will take upon the authority of the Davidic kingship, saying: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the
The Virgin Birth explains Mary’s pregnancy and the authority that is bestowed upon this child. By contrast, there is no description of Jesus as having a Divine nature, as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity, as the Word who became flesh. Even if we import Greek mythology as an analogy, it only leads to Jesus being a demi-God. Nothing in Jewish history nor Greek mythology substantiates the connection of the virgin birth with the orthodox confession of Jesus as fully God.
Furthermore, the New Testament does not place much emphasis on Jesus virgin birth. Rather, it is preferred to connect Jesus status as the Son of God to the resurrection of Christ, as in Romans 1.4. The virgin birth is thus not the primary witness of Jesus’ Sonship. Rather, in Gospels of Matthew and Luke, the
Meanwhile, the story of the virgin birth by itself has two significant holes to it if it operates in a vacuum apart from its narrative context. Firstly, the event of the virgin birth doesn’t by itself explain who Jesus is. It is the angel’s description of the power of the Holy Spirit that explains who Jesus is. If it wasn’t for the Holy Spirit, the significance of the virgin birth could be variously explained. There
Secondly, assuming the story of Matthew and Luke are legitimately derived from Mary’s own witness and experience that actually happened, who is to say what Mary heard from the angel is actually true? Could it not be considered a religious hallucination or some other form of abnormal mental event that bears no real truth value?
It is the resurrection that ultimately grounds the confession that Jesus is the Son of God, not the virgin birth. It is the resurrection that confirms what Mary heard. It is the resurrection that is the key piece of evidence to Jesus’ identity, not the virgin birth.
There is, however, a third significance to the virgin birth that Luke does not mention. Matthew 1.18-22 explains the significance of this event from the words of the prophet Isaiah in 7.14 by giving the meaning of Emmanuel: “God with us.” Now, with our orthodox lenses, we might immediately think: “Aha! Incarnation!” But this is not the primary meaning of this phrase; Matthew is providing a statement about God’s faithfulness to His people and His covenant, which is part of the original context of the prophet Isaiah’s proclamation. This is also a theme of Mary’s song of praise in Luke 1.46-55, particularly in
It is only with post-Easter lenses that we can then turn around and say: God is being faithful by being personally present as a human person. In other words, the language of God’s faithfulness takes on a deeper significance that includes but extends beyond the meaning of the words within their original, pragmatic context. But we can only say “God with us” means “God Incarnate” because of the resurrection, not because of the virgin birth.
Rather, if we are to extend the theological significance of the virgin birth beyond Jesus’s identity as the Son of God and as an agent of God’s faithfulness, I would suggest it should emerge from Israel’s understanding of God’s Wisdom in Proverbs 8.22-31, where the virgin birth by the Holy Spirit is the Word’s involvement in the act of creation. The virgin birth of Jesus Christ is an act of creation that establishes Jesus as the second/last Adam (as in 1 Corinthians 15.45-48), preparing the way for creation to go towards its originally intended purposes.
Nevertheless, the event of the virginal conception never by itself entails the idea that Jesus is “God Incarnate” within the Jewish worldview; this logic requires a pagan style of reasoning injected with steroids. It is only after the fact through understanding the whole story of Jesus Christ in light of His death and resurrection that we can look back to the virgin birth and say: “this wasn’t just God’s power at work, this wasn’t just God’s Son and Davidic king, this wasn’t just God being faithful to Israel; this was God in the flesh!” It is due to the epistemic light that the resurrection brings that Incarnation can be said to metaphysically define what happened in the virgin birth; apart from this, the virgin birth understood in the context of Israel’s story never achieves the orthodox Christian confession.
- It bears mentioning here briefly that Proverbs 8 was used by Arius to argue that Jesus was merely a part of God’s creation, although a special creation. The problem with this interpretation is that it presumes that Proverbs 8.22-31 is using language in a technical manner to describe Greek (meta)physical concepts. However, the language is clearly figurative as are the rest of personifications of wisdom in Proverbs. Reading technical descriptions of metaphysical categories into Proverbs 8.22-25 is an act of misunderstanding Israel’s wisdom genre as being like the Greek forms of wisdom/philosophy.