With December 25 fast approaching, the secular media are sure to turn their interest once again to the virgin birth. Every Christmas, weekly news magazines and various editorialists engage in a collective gasp that so many Americans could believe such an unscientific, supernatural doctrine. For some, the belief that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin is nothing less than evidence of intellectual dimness. One writer for the New York Times put the lament plainly: “The faith in the Virgin Birth reflects the way American Christianity is becoming less intellectual and more mystical over time.”
Does belief in the virgin birth make Christians “less intellectual?” Are we saddled with an untenable doctrine? Can a true Christian deny the virgin birth, or is the doctrine an essential component of the Gospel revealed to us in Scripture?
The doctrine of the virgin birth was among the first to be questioned and then rejected after the rise of historical criticism and the undermining of biblical authority that inevitably followed. Critics claimed that since the doctrine is taught in “only” two of the four Gospels, it must be optional. The apostle Paul, they argued, did not mention it in his sermons in Acts, so he must not have believed it. Besides, the critics argued, the doctrine is just so supernatural. Modern heretics like retired Episcopal bishop John Shelby Spong argue the doctrine was just evidence of the early church’s over-claiming of Christ’s deity. It is, Spong tells us, the “entrance myth” to go with the resurrection, the “exit myth.” If only Spong were a myth.
Now, even some revisionist evangelicals claim that belief in the virgin birth is unnecessary. The meaning of the miracle is enduring, they argue, but the historical truth of the doctrine is not important.
Must one believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian? It is conceivable that someone might come to Christ and trust Christ as Savior without yet learning the Bible teaches that Jesus was born of a virgin. A new believer is not yet aware of the full structure of Christian truth. The real question is this: Can a Christian, once aware of the Bible’s teaching, reject the virgin birth? The answer must be no.
Matthew tells us that before Mary and Joseph “came together,” Mary “was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit” (Matt. 1:18). This, Matthew explains, fulfilled what Isaiah promised: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name ‘Immanuel,’ which translated means ‘God with Us’” (Matt. 1:23, Isaiah 9:6-7).
Luke provides even greater detail, revealing Mary was visited by an angel who explained that she, though a virgin, would bear the divine child: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy child shall be called the Son of God” (Luke 1:35).
Even if the virgin birth was taught by only one biblical passage, that would be sufficient to obligate all Christians to the belief. We have no right to weigh the truthfulness of biblical teachings by their repetition in Scripture. We cannot claim to believe the Bible is the Word of God and then turn around and cast suspicion on its teaching.
Millard Erickson states this well: “If we do not hold to the virgin birth despite the fact that the Bible asserts it, then we have compromised the authority of the Bible and there is in principle no reason why we should hold to its other teachings. Thus, rejecting the virgin birth has implications reaching far beyond the doctrine itself.”
Implications, indeed. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, who was His father? There is no answer that will leave the Gospel intact. The virgin birth explains how Christ could be both God and man, how He was without sin, and that the entire work of salvation is God’s gracious act. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, He had a human father. If Jesus was not born of a virgin, the Bible teaches a lie.
Carl F. H. Henry, the dean of evangelical theologians, argues that the virgin birth is the “essential, historical indication of the Incarnation, bearing not only an analogy to the divine and human natures of the Incarnate, but also bringing out the nature, purpose, and bearing of this work of God to salvation.” Well said, and well believed.
The secularist editors of the nation’s news magazines and newspapers may find belief in the virgin birth to be evidence of intellectual backwardness among American Christians. But this is the faith of the church, established in God’s perfect Word, and cherished by the true church throughout the ages. Those who deny the virgin birth affirm other doctrines only by force of whim, for they have already surrendered the authority of Scripture. They have undermined Christ’s nature and nullified the incarnation.
Christians must face the fact that a denial of the virgin birth is a denial of Jesus as the Christ. The Savior who died for our sins was none other than the baby who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of a virgin. The virgin birth does not stand alone as a biblical doctrine, it is an irreducible part of the biblical revelation about the person and work of Jesus Christ. With it, the Gospel stands or falls.
This much we know: All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ, the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A Christian will not deny the virgin birth.
This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.