The Virgin Birth

The two synoptic accounts of the birth of Jesus are complementary, yet they are evidently written to serve a different interest. Luke (1-2) stresses the personal intervention of God in the life of Mary, whose intimate feelings are recorded. In Matthew (1-2) the emphasis falls on the fulfillment of OT prophecy, with use made of the proof-text, Isaiah 7:14 (Septuagint). If Matthew follows an “apologetic” or evidential line, Luke's narratives raise questions of a metaphysical character (H. von Campenhausen prefers to call this “dogmatic”). Luke's record focuses on the relationship between the Son of God and Mary's child.

The remaining NT data are at best circumstantial and largely inferential, based on references to Jesus as “Mary's son” (Mark 6:3), as though the event of His birth lay under a cloud of suspicion, and to Paul's descriptions, such as Gal. 4:4: “born of a woman.” Early patristic commentators looked to John 1:13 which was read as a singular: “qui ex deo natus est." It must, however, be acknowledged that the Virgin Birth does not belong to the public kerygma of the NT writers. Its esoteric character is best explained on the assumption that there were “secret traditions” (disciplina arcani) which were not divulged to the pagan public but reserved for believers once they had confessed the faith.

The two tracks of a “dogmatic” and an “apologetic” motif in this teaching are followed in the sub-apostolic age. Ignatius cites the teaching as part of the church's confessional statements; he is obviously intent on refuting docetism* by this assertion of the Lord's full humanity in His taking a human body. On the other side, Justin's apologetic writing against the Jew Trypho includes the Virgin Birth as an item fulfilled by the Messiah. The use of the teaching for theological purposes does not come until Irenaeus who, with his doctrine of recapitulation, needed to show that the last Adam as true man won back all that had been lost by the first Adam in paradise. Also as anti-Gnostic polemic it was needful to stress the taking of a human body against the idea that matter was inherently sinful. Once established in the church's dogmatic system, it was the dogmatic line which was pursued, especially when the mission to Israel petered out. By a strange irony of history, however, the dogma that began as an assertion of Jesus' full humanity was used to buttress an ascetic theology and practice, as the celibate state became highly valued.

J.G. Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (1930); D. Edwards, The Virgin Birth in History and Faith (1943); H. von Campenhausen, The Virgin Birth in the Theology of the Ancient Church (ET 1964).