Listen To Article
I love the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. I believe it. But I don’t think it’s about Our Lord’s divinity, at least not in the Gospel of Luke. I think it’s more about his humanity.
When we speak of the Virgin Birth, we are speaking, by implication, of the virginal conception of the Lord Jesus in the womb of the Blessed Mary. (Note: the Roman dogma of the Immaculate Conception is about the birth of Mary, not Jesus.) The virginal conception is more the point than his virgin birth. It was the virginal conception that was the miracle of the Holy Spirit, of which the virgin birth was, well, the outcome.
Although many modern Protestants have doubted the doctrine, it is confessed in both Ecumenical Creeds as an essential of the faith. The Nicene Creed states it thus: “Et incarnatus est de Spiritu Sancto ex Maria Virgine et homo factus est.” (And he was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary and became a man.) Because it’s in the Nicene Creed, and therefore in the Mass, the doctrine has been set to music. I cannot separate my love for the doctrine from my love for the soprano aria in Mozart’s truncated Mass in C, the “Et incarnatus est.” I could listen to this aria all day. It’s a coloratura lyrical ecstasy (and the remarkable opposite of the more familiar aria of the Queen of the Night in The Magic Flute). Here is Natalie Dessay singing the “Et incarnatus est” in rehearsal with Louis Langrée.
The Virgin Birth is frequently understood as a proof of Our Lord’s divinity. But the New Testament itself does not make it so. Not one of the Epistles appeals to the Virgin Birth for anything. St. Paul appeals to the resurrection and to the attestation of the Spirit for Our Lord’s divinity. So does St. Peter in his preaching in The Acts. In John’s Gospel it is the resurrection that compels Thomas to recognize Jesus as Lord and God. Indeed, there is no indication in any of the Gospels that the Virgin Mary herself interpreted his divinity from her unique conception of him, nor did the Angel Gabriel’s announcement require her to draw that conclusion. So while it is not wrong to regard the Virgin Birth as appropriate to Our Lord’s divinity, I think we have to admit that neither his Virgin Birth nor his divinity necessarily entail each other.
I suppose this has made it easier for Protestants to doubt it. And this doubt has had side-effects. It became a scholarly rationale for deciding upon Mark as the earliest gospel, as it lacks any birth narrative. Rationalism, with its dislike for “miracle,” was able to claim that the Virgin Birth must have been a later accretion to the primitive gospel, as was also the bodily resurrection, which too is cut short in Mark.
The whole “priority of Mark” hypothesis, despite its lacking any external or textual evidence, has become scholarly orthodoxy, and it requires the silly goose chase for Q. Imagine instead that St. Mark did not include that material because he knew his readers already had Matthew! To assume the priority of Matthew, and that St. Mark’s readers had it, not only resolves most of the synoptic problem but also opens wonderful vistas in St. Mark’s account. But I digress.
Even if the Virgin Birth is not “necessary” for Our Lord’s divinity, it is necessary enough “for our salvation” to make it into the Creeds. The Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession both teach it as proper to the full extent of the Incarnation “for us and our salvation”—that God should die on our behalf.
But St. Luke does something more with it. He makes it about the new humanity. The Lord Jesus is the firstborn of the new humanity, a people who breathe the new life of the Holy Spirit. The Virgin Birth is an eschatological event for St. Luke.
The Gospel of Matthew makes the Virgin Birth a fulfillment, characteristically, of Old Testament prophetic promises. In Matthew, God has finally come among God’s people to save them. If Matthew looks backward, Luke looks forward — that this child is not only the savior of his people but also the firstborn of a new humanity. (Notice how Luke’s genealogy differs from Matthew’s, going back to Adam, “the son of God.”) The “new humanity” is a theme of St. Luke’s Gospel and his Acts, in both of which the episodes depict the character of persons belonging to the people of the Resurrection.
Here’s an example: In St. Luke’s account of the Empty Tomb, he reports, in contrast to Matthew and Mark, that the witnesses at the tomb were “two men dressed in dazzling white.” (St. Luke used “dazzling” for Our Lord’s clothing at his transfiguration.) Who are these men? We are not told, but St. Luke did not call them angels (although he does have Cleopas report the rumor of angels). Why “men,” not angels? I take them as people of the Resurrection, living already on the other side of death, come back from the future as witnesses to it, for comfort and advice. Don’t think Terminator, think David Mitchell’s novel Cloud Atlas. Have I gone too with Luke? Better too far than not far enough.
St. Luke is the Gospel writer most cognizant of Hellenistic culture. (In The Acts he seems to allude to Homer and Herodotus.) He obviously frames the infant Jesus against Caesar Augustus. In his narratives he describes a vision of humanity in contrast to Roman ideals. It is a new model of humanism, based on the full humanity of Our Lord, and inspired and empowered by the Holy Spirit.
That’s another theme of St. Luke’s, in both his Gospel and The Acts — the coming-into-the-world of the Holy Spirit. The coming of the Spirit is what generates the coming-to-life of the new humanity out of the old humanity. For us it begins at Our Lord’s resurrection and results in our own future resurrection, but for Our Lord his resurrection was the result of what began at his conception by the Holy Spirit. The Spirit hovered over the waters of Mary’s womb, and her body became a Garden of Eden. So the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is not only about Our Lord’s humanity, it is also about the full work of the Holy Spirit. To give up the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is to devalue the doctrine of the Spirit.
The Nicene Creed identifies the Spirit as “the Lord and giver of life.” I take this not only as “spiritual life” but all of life — biological life, plant life, animal life, reptile life, mitochondrial life. It is remarkable how the Creed divvies up creation: the Father created the heavens and the earth, and all things visible and invisible, but the life within that is given by the Spirit who is its Lord. How much did the drafters of the Creed intend by this? Of course in Trinitarian doctrine all three persons are in every discernible work of one of them, yet the Creed gives to the Spirit the responsibility for the life that is on this planet and maybe elsewhere in the universe, not to the Father, nor even the Son — contra John.. So it makes sense that, while God the Son was “begotten” of the Father, the Son of God was “conceived” not by the Father but by the Holy Spirit.
“Of the Virgin Mary.” We may bless the Virgin Mary. I admit that I love the doctrine also for Mary’s part in it, for her “let it be to me according to your word.” How much was her part? How much was she “partner” more than “vessel”? I say lots, and I admit my theological bias. (Once a Turkish imam said to me, “We Muslims love Mary more than you Christians do.” I said, “Not more than me!”) God’s plan hung on her choice. She was not only the Eden but the Eve. If you don’t think St. Luke regards her as a partner, then look again at the words he gives her in her Magnificat.
At Vespers we sing the Magnificat, but at Eucharist we sing the Creed. And Mozart puts that part of the Creed in Mary’s voice, Et incarnatus est . . . et homo factus est, as if her saying it, her thinking it after God, her willing it, her conceiving it, has made it so. Mozart makes her music intellectual, emotional, and physical. The physicality of the incarnation within her is expressed by the oboe, flute, and bassoon. Her song is not erotic, as is the short soprano solo Dulcissime in Orff’s Carmina Burana. But it is embodied, feminine, and powerful. It opens as a prayer, it moves to ecstasy, and it ends in contemplation. Here is Barbara Bonney singing it under the direction of Sir John Eliot Gardiner. She manages to convey both chastity and sexuality, both piety and pleasure.
The Blessed Mary gets the combination. She tells her cousin Elizabeth, “The mighty one has magnified me, and holy is his name.” She understands it and rejoices in it. So don’t take the Virgin Birth away from Mary. And don’t take it away from the Holy Spirit either, who is her partner and her Lord. Receive this wonderful gift to all of us and take pleasure and joy in it.