The Unhappiest Feature

It is not only, however, in the circles of unbelief that the Virgin birth is discredited; in the church itself the habit is spreading of casting doubt upon the fact, or at least of regarding it as no essential part of Christian faith. This is the unhappiest feature in this unhappy controversy. Till recently no one dreamed of denying that, in the sincere profession of Christianity, this article, which has stood from the beginning in the forefront of all the great creeds of Christendom, was included. Now it is different. The truth and value of the article of the Virgin birth are challenged. The article, it is affirmed, did not belong to the earliest Christian tradition, and the evidence for it is not strong. Therefore, let it drop.

A Superficial View

It is, in truth, a very superficial way of speaking or thinking of the Virgin birth to say that nothing depends on this belief for our estimate of Christ. Who that reflects on the subject carefully can fail to see that if Christ was virgin born — if He was truly “conceived,” as the creed says, “by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary” — there must of necessity enter a supernatural element into His Person; while, if Christ was sinless, much more, if He was the very Word of God incarnate, there must have been a miracle — the most stupendous miracle in the universe — in His origin? If Christ was, as John and Paul affirm and His church has ever believed, the Son of God made flesh, the second Adam, the new redeeming Head of the race, a miracle was to be expected in His earthly origin; without a miracle such a Person could never have been. Why then cavil at the narratives which declare the fact of such a miracle? Who does not see that the Gospel history would have been incomplete without them? Inspiration here only gives to faith what faith on its own grounds imperatively demands for its perfect satisfaction.

The Testimony Tested

There is no doubt, therefore, about the testimony to the Virgin birth, and the question which now arises is — What is the value of these parts of the Gospels as evidence? Are they genuine parts of the Gospels? Or are they late and untrustworthy additions? From what sources may they be presumed to be derived? It is on the truth of the narratives that our belief in the Virgin birth depends. Can they be trusted? Or are they mere fables, inventions, legends, to which no credit can be attached?

The answer to several of these questions can be given in very brief form. The narratives of the nativity in Matthew and Luke are undoubtedly genuine parts of their respective Gospels. They have been there since ever the Gospels themselves had an existence. The proof of this is convincing. The chapters in question are found in every manuscript and version of the Gospels known to exist. There are hundreds of manuscripts, some of them very old, belonging to different parts of the world, and many versions in different languages (Latin, Syriac, Egyptian, etc.), but these narratives of the Virgin birth are found in all. We know, indeed, that a section of the early Jewish Christians — the Ebionites, as they are commonly called — possessed a Gospel based on Matthew from which the chapters on the nativity were absent. But this was not the real Gospel of Matthew: it was at best a mutilated and corrupted form of it. The genuine Gospel, as the manuscripts attest, always had these chapters.

Next, as to the Gospels themselves, they were not of late and non-apostolic origin; but were written by apostolic men, and were from the first accepted and circulated in the church as trustworthy embodiments of sound apostolic tradition. Luke’s Gospel was from Luke’s own pen — its genuineness has recently received a powerful vindication from Prof. Harnack, of Berlin — and Matthew’s Gospel, while some dubiety still rests on its original language (Aramaic or Greek), passed without challenge in the early church as the genuine Gospel of the Apostle Matthew. Criticism has more recently raised the question whether it is only the “groundwork” of the discourses (the “Logia”) that comes directly from Matthew. However this may be settled, it is certain that the Gospel in its Greek form always passed as Matthew’s. It must, therefore, if not written by him, have had his immediate authority. The narratives come to us, accordingly, with high apostolic sanction.

The Early Church a Witness

The history of the early church is occasionally appealed to in witness that the doctrine of the Virgin birth was not primitive. No assertion could be more futile. The early church, so far as we can trace it back, in all its branches, held this doctrine. No Christian sect is known that denied it, save the Jewish Ebionites formerly alluded to. The general body of the Jewish Christians — the Nazarenes as they are called — accepted it. Even the greater Gnostic sects in their own way admitted it. Those Gnostics who denied it were repelled with all the force of the church’s greatest teachers. The Apostle John is related to have vehemently opposed Cerinthus, the earliest teacher with whom this denial is connected.