As Christmas approaches, it’s appropriate to contemplate the unique nature of Christ’s virgin birth. Christians historically confess that Christ
“was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary.”
Pastor Brian McLaren meditates on the virgin birth in the “Be Still and Go” podcast of The Riverside Church in New York City, which affirms all persons to full participation in the life of the church, regardless of religion, etc.
In a segment titled “A Post-Patriarchal Christmas,” McLaren took issue with the virgin birth as a “science-defying miracle that proved something about Jesus.” He protested, “This approach never really worked for me. How can you use something you can’t prove—a virgin birth long ago—to prove something else—the unique identity of Jesus?”
There are, of course, different types of proofs: scientific proofs, historical proofs, logical proofs, legal proofs, geometric proofs, etc. McLaren meant that we cannot scientifically prove (reproduce in a lab) the virgin birth because it was a one-time occurrence in the past. Using McLaren’s standard, I could say “people have claimed that George Washington was the first president of the United States, but this approach never really worked for me because you can’t reproduce/prove it.”
To evaluate claims of historical fact, we examine the historical proof. We establish the historicity of Washington’s presidency by pointing to documents and written testimony of eyewitnesses—and we accept that this evidence at least approximates the truth. The documentary evidence for the virgin birth includes the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, which provide the separate perspectives of Mary and Joseph—the two people most likely to know the state of Mary’s virginity. These accounts are superior to other historical documentation because they are the inspired word of God, which is truth (John 17:17).
McLaren alluded to a subsequent proof, a logical one, about the unique identity of Jesus. If Jesus was born of a virgin, then he is the seed of the woman (every other time, the Bible says the seed comes from the man). Thus, Jesus is the one God promised all the way back at The Fall, who would obtain victory over sin and the devil (Genesis 3:15).
Additionally, if Jesus was born of a virgin and conceived by the Holy Spirit, then he is the Incarnate Son of God—both God and man. Because he was God, he was sinless (Habakkuk 1:13). Because he was man, he was a substitute sacrifice for us (Hebrews 2:17). Because he was God, he conquered death and rose again (Romans 1:4). Because he was man, he can “sympathize with our weaknesses” (Hebrews 4:15). Because he was both God and man, he now stands before God the Father as an advocate on our behalf (1 John 2:1).
If that boggles your mind a bit, then join the club. I’m so glad that God’s ways and thoughts are higher than mine (Isaiah 55:9). Praise God for creating such a perfect way of salvation!
McLaren draws a different conclusion. He says the virgin birth’s “greatest value isn’t in proving something, but in meaning something.” Instead of making it possible for man to find peace with God, he interprets the virgin birth to mean that God sides with women against the patriarchy.
McLaren said God got so tired of men “messing things up” that he said, “I’m going to work directly with women for a change. I’m taking a step to overthrow the patriarchy.” To McLaren, God’s plan of salvation was not established “before the ages began,” promised at The Fall, and “manifested through the appearing of our Savior Christ Jesus” (2 Timothy 1:9-10).
Whether you believe the “virgin birth story” or not, McLaren said, its “literal factuality” is “not the point.” His notion nicely mimics tolerance, but it is only true if you already assume the virgin birth is a myth. If the virgin birth did actually happen, then its historical truth is majorly important, for the reasons shared earlier, as Christians have recognized for centuries.
McLaren concluded the virgin birth is “about a profound rejection of violence,” the notion that peace can never come through the old, blood-stained path of patriarchy. If he is right, there is no hope of salvation for anyone, for “without the shedding of blood there is no forgiveness of sins” (Hebrews 9:22). The virgin birth enables the Incarnation, and the whole point is that God himself came down in human form and suffered the violence we deserve (Isaiah 53). If that is uncomfortable and jarring, it should be. Sin is ugly, and nothing tidy and inconsequential can remove its stain. In the words of Irish evangelist Thomas Kelly,
“Ye who think of sin but lightly
nor suppose the evil great
here may view its nature rightly,
here its guilt may estimate.”
People don’t disbelieve the Bible because of a lack of evidence; people choose not to believe the plain evidence because they love their sin more than God (Romans 1:18-20). They deny the historicity of the virgin birth because they want to deny its significance. They want to deny its significance (the possibility of salvation), because they want an excuse to remain in their sin. Perhaps McLaren had a different motive that is less obvious, but at the very least his argument helps enable sinners to rationalize their disobedience and shun the repentance that could give them life.