Thursday, 22 December 2005

Born of a virgin?

As Schleiermacher had already perceived, the idea of the virgin birth “must be considered from a twofold point of view: first, with reference to the available New Testament testimonies on the subject; next, with reference to its dogmatic value” (The Christian Faith, p. 403). And Schleiermacher also noted that “anyone who cannot accept [the New Testament birth narratives] as literally and historically true is still quite free to hold to the doctrine” (p. 406).

So any consideration of the virgin birth must face two main questions: is the virgin birth historical, and does it have any theological meaning? Here’s how a list of modern theologians and scholars have answered those two questions:

Historical?Theological meaning?
F. SchleiermacherNoNo
E. BrunnerNo(emphatic) No
K. BarthNo(emphatic) Yes
H. KüngNoYes
E. SchillebeeckxNo(tentative) Yes
W. PannenbergNoNo
J. MacquarrieNoYes
R. W. Jenson(tentative) YesYes
Raymond BrownYesYes
Gerd LüdemannNoNo
N. T. WrightYesYes

So, to sum it up, we have two-and-a-half votes in favour of the historicity of the virgin birth, and six-and-a-half votes in favour of the doctrine’s theological value. In spite of this diversity of opinion, most modern scholars share one thing in common: virtually no one anymore thinks that the miraculous birth narratives in Matthew and Luke should be interpreted as biological explanations of the origins of Jesus. To do so would be to impose foreign scientific categories on to the ancient texts, and it would only obscure the theological intention of the ancient writers.

18 Comments:

Jim said...

Yes, and Yes. The first because I presume that just because something doesn't happen every day, doesn't mean it can never happen. As well, for the same reasons that Barth says yes. And clearly, though I hate to disagree with Brunner, Yes to the second as well. The whole Bible is theology and hence those things, including this one, have theological value and importance.

I realize that most people thing me quite liberal- but on the contrary, I am probably the most conservative soul ever born. In terms of adherence to the spirit of Scripture that is- though not all the historical goop attached to it.

Justin Jenkins said...

“... most modern scholars share one thing in common: virtually no one anymore thinks that the miraculous birth narratives ...”

I’m not trying to be overly critical myself, but given your conclusions ... picking a list of more critical candidates is bound to get more critical results!

Based on your own list, around 25% “believe” the biological narratives (hardly no one), and your list while full of qualified individuals is very much lacking in the very category of scholar/theologian you conclude to be so scarce.

Further, if you factor in scholars over time (I know that wasn't your goal) you’re bound to get very different numbers (unless of course only modern scholars/theologians can be accurate).

There are, in fact, many a scholar and theologian (even modern ones) who would check “yes” in both categories.

Cheers.

Ben Myers said...

Hi Justin -- good point. But I didn't mean to confuse the categories "historical" and "biological". Instead, my point was that, even among those scholars who think that there is a historical core to the birth narratives, most would not interpret the "virgin birth" itself in biological terms.

In other words, I was suggesting that those who say "Yes" and those who say "No" to the first question generally still agree that the virgin birth should not be interpreted biologically.

kim fabricius said...

For all those "book lerners" who might be interested, I did a piece for Richard Hall over at theconnexion.net/wp/for November 30th on "Revisiting Tradition - Test Case: the Virgin Birth".

Cheers!

Keith said...

Ben, do you happen to know off the top of your head where in the CD Barth denies the historical nature of the virgin birth? Just curious, because I'd like to read it.

T.B. Vick said...

Jim states:

"Yes, and Yes. The first because I presume that just because something doesn't happen every day, doesn't mean it can never happen. As well, for the same reasons that Barth says yes. And clearly, though I hate to disagree with Brunner, Yes to the second as well. The whole Bible is theology and hence those things, including this one, have theological value and importance."

I am going echo the remarks of Jim, I would declare "yes" and "yes" for the same reasons, and few others which time does not allow me to remark here. Merry Christmas everyone!

Weekend Fisher said...

When you say "should not be interpreted biologically", could you clear up something? By that, do you mean "Mary wasn't really a virgin" or do you mean "Mary was a virgin but we don't know the 'how' of the miracle"? There's some ambiguity there.

I'm also skeptical that someone can make a legitimate claim for theological significance while claiming that it isn't actually true ...

Celucien joseph said...

I am not surprised at Ludermann's answer concerning the historicity and theological meaning of the Virgin birth.

keep up the good work!

Blessings,

joseph

Paul W said...

Ben,

I'm with Weekend Fisher here. What do you mean by "virtually no one anymore thinks that the miraculous birth narratives in Matthew and Luke should be interpreted as biological explanations of the origins of Jesus?" Do you mean, as she puts it, that "Mary was a virgin but we don't know the 'how' of the miracle?"

Where would you put Moltmann on this list? I woulld say "No, No." How about Helmut Thielicke, Gerhard Ebeling, Karl Rahner?

Michael F. Bird said...

As a historian, I take as my starting point the evidence that Jesus was regarded by his opponents (and in later Jewish polemic) as a Mamzer (i.e. of illegitimate or questionable birth) - which does not prove the virgin birth (or "virgin conception"), but is consistent with it.

Steve said...

Just wondering: what does Jungel think?

Ben Myers said...

A reply to Keith's comment: Barth's main discussion is in CD i/2, 172-202 (but see also 1/1, 485-6, and IV/1, 207). For a more concise account, you could also see Barth's Credo, ch. 7. And for a (critical) discussion of his view of the virgin birth as "sign" in contrast to factual history, you could see G. C. Berkouwer, The Work of Christ, 102ff.

I hope this helps!

kim fabricius said...

Weekend Fisher is "skeptical that someone can make a legitimate claim for theological significance while claiming that it isn't actually true."

Certainly those who deny the biological literalness of the virgin birth are making the claim that it did not happen, but it does not necessarily follow that thereby they are also making the claim that it is not true. They may or may not be. After all, there are plenty of things that are true that did not happen, like the literary world of poetry and fiction - or the parables of Jesus.

It is crucial to understand that metaphors are neither just ornamental - they deliver cognitive goods (something that conservatives often fail to understand); nor are they reducible to a "message" - the metaphor is the message(something liberals often fail to understand).

So those who take the virgin birth as a metaphor (or a midrash)may deny its facticity, but not necessarily its veracity.

Apolonio said...

I thought Brown doubted the historicity of the virgin birth. Or am I think of virginal conception?

I would recommend Fr. Rene Laurentin's "Truth of Christmas". It's a detailed argumentation for the historicity of the virginal conception/birth. Jean Danielou has a small book on the infancy narratives as well.

Theway2k said...

Ok so I am an ignorant literalist who just reads the Bible: If the Bible says Jesus was born of a virgin then he was so born. If He was not then the Incarnation, death, burial and Resurrection are meaningless. That means it is just as correct to be a Buddhist, Mohammedan or atheist. Jesus had to have the nature of a man to redeem man - symbolism or allegory just does not fly.

Anonymous said...

If the Virgin Birth did not happen, what are the implications? Why is belief in this included in the Creeds, which were hammered out to combat heresy? I know of no where the NT actually uses the term "virgin birth" (correct me if I am wrong, but my guess is that the gospel writers believed in it.

Pontificator said...

I'd like to suggest that there really isn't sufficient evidence, one way or another, to make a reliable historical judgment on the virginal conception of Jesus. I suspect that the best one can do positively is to demonstrate the singularity of the apostolic claim, i.e., it is not just another version of a deity impregnating a human woman. Also, as pointed out above, the apostolic claim is consistent with Jewish polemic about Jesus' questionable origins.

On the other hand, the evidence for a natural conception of Jesus is nil.

At this point, I suspect, philosophical views and ecclesial commitments will more often than not determine where the scholar/exegete ends up on the historicity of the virginal conception.

Because I am happy to admit the possibility of supernatural miracles and because I am a Catholic who trusts the Magisterial teaching of the Church, I am happy to affirm the virginal conception of Jesus.

Why not? We lose nothing believing it--indeed,our faith in the Incarnation is strengthened--but I do think we lose something when we deny its historicity.

If it was good enough for Matthew and Luke, it's good enough for me. Or as one of my friends said to me years ago when I was arguing for the legendary character of the virginal conception: "Al, why strain at the gnat of the virgin birth when you've swallowed the camel of the resurrection?" He's absolutely right!

Ben Myers said...

Paul and Steve asked where a number of other theologians would fit on this chart. Here they are:

Moltmann -- "No Yes"
Ebeling -- "No Yes"
Thielicke -- "No Maybe"
Rahner -- I'd say Rahner is a "No Yes", although he's a complex case
Jüngel -- I'm not sure, but I would guess he'd be another "No Yes"

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