The Importance of the Virgin Birth of Christ

By | December 13, 2012

Holy Night Carlo Maratta

“But what is the importance of the matter? (The virgin birth of Christ.) That question has loomed large in recent discussion, and some have held that although they accept the virgin birth of Christ themselves they can make common cause in Christian service with those who do not accept it. But this indifferentist position is really almost worse from the Christian point of view than any doctrinaire denial could be. As a matter of fact the virgin birth is of central importance for Christian faith.

In the first place, it is important because of its bearing upon the question of the authority of the Bible. No one denies that the attestation of the virgin birth forms an integral part of the Bible; it is not a question whether the Bible teaches the virgin birth but whether, teaching the virgin birth as it admittedly does, the Bible is true or false. We must therefore face the question frankly. If the Bible has allowed myth to enter at this point into the representation not of something on the periphery but of Christ himself, then Scripture authority is gone, and some different basis must be sought for Christian doctrine and Christian life. Deny the virgin birth of Christ, and you must relinquish the authority of the Bible; accept the virgin birth and you may continue to regard the Bible as the very Word of God.

In the second place, the virgin birth is a test as to the view which a man holds in general, about Christ.  Two opposite views of Jesus of Nazareth are struggling for the ascendancy in the Church today. According to one view He was a teacher who initiated a new type of religious life, who founded Christianity by being the first Christian; according to the other view He was the eternal Son of God who came voluntarily into this world from outside the world and who founded Christianity by redeeming men from the guilt and power of sin. The conflict between these two views is the conflict between naturalism and supernaturalism; and that is a conflict not between two varieties of Christianity, but between two mutually exclusive religions. But how can we tell which view any individual holds? Conceivably one might ask him whether he believes in the deity of Christ. But unfortunately the word “deity” or the word “god” has been degraded so low in Modernist parlance that when the Modernist says that “Jesus is God” he means something even far more remote from Christian belief than the Unitarian meant when he said that “Jesus is not God.” Or it may conceivably be asked whether the individual in question believes in the resurrection. But here again the answer may mean nothing; since the word resurrection is often interpreted (quite absurdly, it is true) to mean simply the continued existence of Jesus or his continued influence, and not to involve the miracle of the emergence of His body from the tomb. But, over against all such ambiguities, when a man says that he believes Jesus to have had no human father, one can tell pretty clearly where he stands.

The impression is indeed often produced that many men who reject the virgin birth maintain in general the New Testament account of our Lord. But that impression is entirely false. There have been, it is true, a few men in the history of the modern Church who have rejected the virgin birth and yet have accepted the supernatural Christ and have believed in his true resurrection from the dead. But these men have been few and far between; and it would probably be impossible to name a single one of any prominence who is living today. Particularly false is the notion that many men who deny the virgin birth yet accept the incarnation; for the men who deny the virgin birth usually mean by “incarnation” almost the exact opposite of what Christians mean by the term. The truth is that the conflict about the virgin birth is only one phase of the great religious conflict of the day. And that conflict is a conflict between the Christian religion and a naturalistic or agnostic Modernism which is anti-Christian to the core.

In the third place, the virgin birth is important in itself – even aside from its importance as being connected with the question of the authority of Scripture and as being a test for the differentiating of naturalism from supernaturalism. The Christian world, in other words, has a clearer and better conception of Christ than it would have had if God had never told us of the virgin birth and had allowed us to think that Jesus was the son, by ordinary generation, of Joseph and Mary. Conceivably indeed we might have been Christians even if God had never told us of the virgin birth. Certainly never to have heard of the virgin birth would have been a much less serious thing than it is to reject it now that we have heard of it. But it is easy to see the errors which might have then arisen, or which would have attained additional momentum, if God had never told us of the virgin birth of our Lord. What the knowledge of the virgin birth does is to fix with inescapable clearness the supernaturalism of the life of Jesus from the very beginning; the virgin birth for example intensifies the impossibility of holding that our Lord only grew up gradually into His divinity, or of holding in gnostic fashion that the Son of God descended upon a man Jesus at the baptism. All such errors are excluded by many things in the New Testament. But they are excluded with special clearness in the precious narrative of the virgin birth. That narrative represents our Lord clearly as no product of sinful humanity but as one who came into the world by a mighty creative act of God. And that representation is at the very center and core of the Christian faith.

No doubt the virgin birth is not the point at which one should begin in trying to convince a man who has not yet come to Christian faith. No doubt one should begin rather with the resurrection, in which the direct testimony is, and must be in the very nature of the case, vastly more abundant. But when a man has once been convinced that Jesus is truly the risen and ascended Lord and when he has once accepted Him as Saviour, then his faith will be unstable and incomplete unless he goes forward to accept the precious testimony of Matthew and Luke as to our Lord’s entrance into the world.

The truth is that the New Testament account of Christ is a wonderfully unitary thing, and an integral part of it is the virgin birth. Believe that Jesus is simply the fairest flower of humanity, and the infancy narrative of the gospels, despite its marvelous beauty, will be to you abhorrent; but accept the dear Lord and Saviour presented to you in the Word of God, and you will believe and confess, with a heart full of gratitude and love and joy, that He was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”

“Historic Christianity: Selections from the writings of J. Gresham Machen” Chapter 6, The Virgin Birth of Christ, pages 58-60