Can we believe in the virgin birth?

Matthew wrote that when Joseph learnt that Mary was pregnant, he “made plans to break the engagement privately” (Matt 1.19 GNB). Just think of all the pain and all the heart-ache that underlies that statement. Joseph must have felt sick – it was if he had been kicked in the stomach. How could she have betrayed their love like that? And all this nonsense about an angel appearing to her and saying that she was going to have a baby by the Holy Spirit! It was beyond belief.

“How could you, Mary, have done this to me? How could you have gone to bed with another guy? Mary, who was it? For heaven’s sake, Mary, stop pretending with me – who is the father of your child?” Joseph must have been beyond himself. He wasn’t just disappointed with her, he was probably furious with her. She had ruined his love, his trust, his future, his reputation.

The more I think about it, the more amazing it is that Joseph even contemplated a quiet divorce. He must have been tempted to lash out publicly against this girl who had betrayed him. Yet in the end he stood by her. It must have been tough for him with all the rumours and innuendoes that were flying around. What must had made it all the more difficult was Mary insisting that somehow God had been involved in the process. This was tantamount to blasphemy.

Joseph must have struggled to believe – and if the truth be told, so too do many of us. But can we truly believe in the miracle of the virgin birth?

Much is made of the fact that the story of the virgin birth is only to be found in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke. But as the Roman Catholic scholar Raymond Brown has argued, the silence of the earliest Christian preaching on the virgin birth of Jesus, as found in the Book of Acts, can be explained as simple tact: a crucified Messiah was hard enough for unbelievers to swallow. Furthermore, although neither Mark nor Paul refer to the virgin birth, neither do they mention Jesus’ human father by name. As for John, while he too does not mention the virgin birth, nonetheless Frederick Dale Bruner may well be right in suggesting that when in his Gospel John wrote that Christians “did not become God’s children by natural means, that is, by being born as the children of a human father; God himself was their Father” (John 1.13 GNB), he was in fact saying “They too did not become God’s children by natural means”, and that here John was casting a side glance at Jesus’ virgin birth.

The New Testament witness to the virgin birth can also be supported theologically. Karl Barth argued that the doctrine of the virgin birth points to the fact that in human salvation “the initiative is wholly with God”. The doctrine of the virgin birth, he said, stands “on guard” before the door of the mystery of Jesus’ divinely wrought salvation – only God can work salvation! Jesus is God’s gift to us. Our salvation is entirely of the grace of God.

Yet whatever arguments we may proffer, the truth is that the virgin birth – or rather the virgin conception – does take some believing. Every child has to have a father and a mother. That’s life. But, of course, this child was no ordinary child. He was the Saviour of the world. As John Taylor, a former of Bishop of St Albans, helpfully put it:

I find it easier to accept that when God chose to reveal himself in a human life, he did it as a one-off exercise rather than go through what the bureaucrats call ‘the usual channels’. A Saviour of the world, without a touch of the miraculous at the beginning, the middle, and the end of his life, I would find totally perplexing.

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