The Virgin Birth of Christ

BY THE REV. PROF. JAMES ORR, D. D.,
UNITED FREE CHURCH COLLEGE, GLASGOW, SCOTLAND.

It is well known that the last ten or twenty years have been marked by a determined assault upon the truth of the Virgin birth of Christ. In the year 1892 a great controversy broke out in Germany, owing to the refusal of a pastor named Schrempf to use the Apostles’ Creed in baptism because of disbelief in this and other articles. Schrempf was deposed, and an agitation commenced against the doctrine of the Virgin birth which has grown in volume ever since. Other tendencies, especially the rise of an extremely radical school of historical criticism, added force to the negative movement. The attack is not confined, indeed, to the article of the Virgin birth. It affects the whole supernatural estimate of Christ — His life, His claims, His sinlessness, His miracles, His resurrection from the dead. But the Virgin birth is assailed with special vehemence, because it is supposed that the evidence for this miracle is more easily got rid of than the evidence for public facts, such as the resurrection. The result is that in very many quarters the Virgin birth of Christ is openly treated as a fable. Belief in it is scouted as unworthy of the twentieth century intelligence. The methods of the oldest opponents of Christianity are revived, and it is likened to the Greek and Roman stories, coarse and vile, of heroes who had gods for their fathers. A special point is made of the silence of Paul, and of the other writings of the New Testament, on this alleged wonder.

The Company It Keeps

From the side of criticism, science, mythology, history and comparative religion, assault is thus made on the article long so dear to the hearts of Christians and rightly deemed by them so vital to their faith. For loud as is the voice of denial, one fact must strike every careful observer of the conflict. Among those who reject the Virgin birth of the Lord few will be found — I do not know any — who take in other respects an adequate view of the Person and work of the Saviour. It is surprising how clearly the line of division here reveals itself. My statement publicly made and printed has never been confuted, that those who accept a full doctrine of the incarnation — that is, of a true entrance of the eternal Son of God into our nature for the purposes of man’s salvation — with hardly an exception accept with it the doctrine of the Virgin birth of Christ, while those who repudiate or deny this article of faith either hold a lowered view of Christ’s Person, or, more commonly, reject His supernatural claims altogether. It will not be questioned, at any rate, that the great bulk of the opponents of the Virgin birth — those who are conspicuous by writing against it — are in the latter class.

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.

Unfounded Objections

Against the acceptance of these early, well-attested narratives, what, now, have the objectors to allege? I pass by the attempts to show, by critical elimination (expurging Luke 1:35, and some other clauses), that Luke’s narrative was not a narrative of a Virgin birth at all. This is a vain attempt in face of the testimony of manuscript authorities. Neither need I dwell on the alleged “discrepancies” in the genealogies and narratives. These are not serious, when the independence and different standpoints of the narratives are acknowledged. The genealogies, tracing the descent of Christ from David along different lines, present problems which exercise the minds of scholars, but they do not touch the central fact of the belief of both Evangelists in the birth of Jesus from a virgin. Even in a Syriac manuscript which contains the certainly wrong reading, “Joseph begat Jesus,” the narrative goes on, as usual, to recount the Virgin birth. It is not a contradiction, if Matthew is silent on the earlier residence in Nazareth, which Luke’s object led him fully to describe.

Experience as Proof

The justification which the author we have just quoted gives of his neglecting the scriptural evidence in favor of that borne by Jesus’ impression on the world is also open to criticism. “Jesus Christ,” he tells us, “is one of those essential truths which are too great to be proved, like God, or freedom, or immortality.” Such things rest, it seems, not on proofs but on experience. We need not stop to point out that this experience is itself a proof. We wish rather to point out that some confusion seems to have been fallen into here between our ability to marshal the proof by which we are convinced and our accessibility to its force. It is quite true that “the most essential conclusions of the human mind are much wider and stronger than the arguments by which they are supported;” that the proofs “are always changing but the beliefs persist.” But this is not because the conclusions in question rest on no sound proofs; but because we have not had the skill to adduce, in our argumentative presentations of them, the really fundamental proofs on which they rest.

Testimony in Solution

The very abundance and persuasiveness of the evidence of the deity of Christ greatly increases the difficulty of adequately stating it. This is true even of the scriptural evidence, as precise and definite as much of it is. For it is a true remark of Dr. Dale’s that the particular texts in which it is definitely asserted are far from the whole, or even the most impressive, proofs which the Scriptures supply of our Lord’s deity. He compares these texts to the salt-crystals which appear on the sand of the sea-beach after the tide has receded. “These are not,” he remarks, “the strongest, though they may be the most apparent, proofs that the sea is salt; the salt is present in solution in every bucket of sea-water.” The deity of Christ is in solution in every page of the New Testament. Every word that is spoken of Him, every word which He is reported to have spoken of Himself, is spoken on the assumption that He is God. And that is the reason why the “criticism” which addresses itself to eliminating the testimony of the New Testament to the deity of our Lord has set itself a hopeless task. The New Testament itself would have to be eliminated. Nor can we get behind this testimony. Because the deity of Christ is the presupposition of every word of the New Testament, it is impossible to select words out of the New Testament from which to construct earlier documents in which the deity of Christ shall not be assumed. The assured conviction of the deity of Christ is coeval with Christianity itself. There never was a Christianity, neither in the times of the Apostles nor since, of which this was not a prime tenet.