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The Pastor's Corner: Matters of Creed: Born of a Virgin
Matters of Creed – The Virgin Birth
The Apostle’s Creed moves rapidly through the events of Christmas, Holy Week, Good Friday, and Easter. These events are core to our faith.
“Jesus Christ, his only son, Our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, dead and buried.”
In my hometown in Western Pennsylvania, I grew up placing nativity figurines, appearing in Christmas pageants and annually viewing the beloved A Charlie Brown Christmas. I am certain I had Jesus’ birth narrative memorized. I suppose I was naïve to assume all Christians believed in the birth of Jesus by a virgin woman. In the 20th century, the rise of historical-critical biblical scholarship caused many leading Christian scholars to place doubt on classic doctrines like Jesus’ bodily resurrection and virgin birth.
Not all Christians accept the doctrine of the virgin birth. For some, believing in the virgin birth is optional, others say it is not important. Some Christian theologians consider the story a mere myth similar to other hero birth narratives. Some believe early Christians invented the story to give Jesus credibility and attribute divinity. Some believe Jesus was a human fathered by a man, perhaps Joseph. Some believe Jesus was a God who came to earth and only pretended to be human (Docetism). Some believe Jesus was fully human but was adopted by God at his baptism (adoptionism).
In my second semester of seminary, I gathered in the break room over coffee and snacks with other theological students following an Introduction to Theological Studies class. The conversation spilled out from the classroom and we began to debate the circumstances of Christ’s birth. I quickly discovered I was in the minority in upholding the virgin birth. Some clergy colleagues do not believe this doctrine and choose to omit it when reciting the Apostle’s Creed.
United Methodist Communications and Research NOW collaborated on an online survey of United Methodists to identify differing theological perspectives. The results were released in 2019 and indicate a church that exhibits theological disagreement. (More information about this survey can be found at https://www.umnews.org/en/news/what-do-united-methodists-really-believe.)
Of the many questions asked, one was a belief in the virgin birth. Out of respondents, 94% of United Methodist conservatives, 82% of UMC moderates, and 68% of UMC progressives reported belief in the virgin birth. It is not my intent to criticize another UMC’s theology, but I do want to highlight why I believe the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is essential.
Fulfillment of Prophecy
As early as Genesis 3, the Bible promises the offspring of a human woman will defeat evil. “I will put enmity between you (the Serpent) and the woman, and between your offspring and hers;
he will strike your head, and you will strike his heel (Genesis 3:15).” Isaiah prophesied that the Messiah would be born of a woman, “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign: The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son and will call him Immanuel (Isaiah 7:14).” See Matthew 1: 22-23.
Fully Divine and Fully Human
The way Jesus was conceived confirms what the gospels proclaim. Jesus was both God and man at the same time, fully divine and fully human. If Jesus was not conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary who was his father? He would have a human father and be fully human or he would be a god and not human at all. The virgin birth perfectly illustrates how Jesus is both God and man. He is God incarnate; the word made flesh.
The doctrine of the virgin birth is at the heart of our salvation. If Christ is not both divine and human, our redemption would not be possible. We believe we are saved only through Jesus Christ. If Jesus is just another human being, he is like the rest of us, sinful and in need of redemption. Every normal human birth produces another sinner, separated from a holy God. We need a Savior who is utterly sinless and fully human to be the perfect atonement for our trespasses. The virgin birth lies at the heart of the person of Jesus Christ and his salvific work.
The doctrine of the virgin birth is one of the most beautiful indications of God’s amazing love for humanity. God could have become human without Mary’s help, but it seems particularly fitting that God would choose to be born of a human womb and enter the world a helpless infant to experience all it means to be human.
I recently had the opportunity to hold our newborn grandson in my arms, marvel at the perfection of his tiny body, listen to his heartbeat, and see him take a breath. Imagine a God who would become a tiny baby to save humanity. That is beyond extraordinary. The Nicene Creed beautifully summarizes,
For us and for our salvation he came down from heaven; he became incarnate by the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary and was made human.
It is important that the Church not lose the doctrine of virgin birth, nor reduce its theological importance. I give thanks that my salvation proceeds from the beautiful miracle of a powerful God who became a newborn babe for the redemption of the world.
I Believe – Exploring the Apostle’s Creed, Alister McGrath.
Christianity Today – The Virgin Birth: What’s the Problem Exactly, 2017.
United Methodist News Service – What Do United Methodists Really Believe, Sam Hodges, 2019.
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