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.

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