Friday, 22 June 2012

On the virgin birth: or, why it's better to say the creed than to criticise it


I got an email from someone the other day about a post I wrote (seven years ago!) where I cast aspersions on the "historical" value of the New Testament's virgin birth narratives. 

I sent a reply email, and since I felt ashamed when I read that old post, I thought I'd reproduce my reply here:

Barth's famous discussion of the virgin birth is in Church Dogmatics I/2, the section on 'The Miracle of Christmas'. Barth always insists that acts of divine revelation are 'not historical'. But he doesn't mean they never happened. All he means is that revelation is a unique event, an act of God. It's not part of the normal historical sequence, it doesn't belong to a chain of cause-and-effect, and so there's no use trying to verify or disprove it on historical grounds. 

So in the case of the virgin birth, Barth argues that it's not subject to the methods of historiography. Its truth isn't for historians to decide. But he certainly believes that it really happened, that it happened in time and space, within the real material human world. It involved Mary's body, her real flesh and blood. In this section of Church DogmaticsBarth's brilliant critique of Brunner rests on the assumption that the virgin birth really happened. His point is just that it happens as revelation, as an act of God. 

And so we can start to get our heads around the truth of the virgin birth only by confessing it. It's not an explanation or a conclusion that you could arrive at from other premises, historical or philosophical or whatever. It's a truth grasped in the humility of faith.

Anyway, I guess I misrepresented Barth in that post: don't hold it against me, it was so long ago! And I definitely misrepresented the Christian faith if I gave the impression that something can have theological meaning without actually happening! As though the creed were a conjuring trick, a magical formula rather than a confession about reality, about how things really are in this world. 

For what it's worth, nowadays I would never speak that way about the virgin birth. Who do I take myself for? Am I really so much smarter than St Matthew and St Luke? Am I qualified to correct the church's creed, the sum of the gospel, just because I've read two or three books on the topic? Would my own personalised ready-made faith – in which everything is arranged just as I like it, and everything difficult or offensive is removed – really be an improvement on the faith of the church? Wouldn't I be like the proud young carpenter who, on his first day on the job, scorns the silly traditions of other carpenters and gets to work building his own three-legged table – only to discover that the rest of the world knew what they were doing when they made them with four legs?

I guess all I'm trying to say is that I used to be a lot more cynical and sophisticated than I am today. As one of the saints has said, "I was so much older then, I'm younger than that now." Nowadays, to be honest, I'm just very grateful to be a Christian at all. Three-legged tables are fine, as far as they go. But you can rely implicitly on the ones with four legs; that's the kind you want when you're sitting down in the comfort of your own home, day after day, a table just like the one your grandfather used, and just like the one your great-grandchildren will use too, long after you've left the world and gone to that big dinner table in the sky.

It's a good thing to be a Christian – I'm sorry to be so banal, but that's what really strikes me. It's a good thing to believe something that you didn't invent for yourself. It's a good thing to have a certain framework, a story that tells you what kind of place the world really is, so that there are some basic questions that are already settled, that you don't have to go on wringing your hands and wondering about. It's a privilege, a real privilege, to be able to join your voice to the church's confession: "... and in Jesus Christ his only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary, suffered under Pontius Pilate" – and all the rest. 

If you ask me, a faith like that is as good as Christmas: as reliable as the calendar, but full of surprises too.

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