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.

Testimony of the Gospel

The germs now indicated in prophetic scriptures had apparently borne no fruit in Jewish expectations of the Messiah, when the event took place which to Christian minds made them luminous with predictive import. In Bethlehem of Judea, as Micah had foretold, was born of a virgin mother He whose “goings forth” were “from of old, from everlasting” (Micah 5:2; Matt. 2:6). Matthew, who quotes the first part of the verse, can hardly have been ignorant of the hint of pre-existence it contained. This brings us to the testimony to the miraculous birth of Christ in our first and third Gospels — the only Gospels which record the circumstances of Christ’s birth at all. By general consent the narratives in Matthew (chapters 1, 2) and in Luke (chapters 1, 2) are independent — that is, they are not derived one from the other — yet they both affirm, in detailed story, that Jesus, conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, was born of a pure virgin, Mary of Nazareth, espoused to Joseph, whose wife she afterwards became. The birth took place at Bethlehem, whither Joseph and Mary had gone for enrollment in a census that was being taken. The announcement was made to Mary beforehand by an angel, and the birth was preceded, attended, and followed by remarkable events that are narrated (birth of the Baptist, with annunciations, angelic vision to the shepherds, visit of wise men from the east, etc.). The narratives should be carefully read at length to understand the comments that follow.

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.

Silence of Mark and John

The objection on which most stress is laid (apart from what is called the evidently “mythical” character of the narratives) is the silence on the Virgin birth in the remaining Gospels, and other parts of the New Testament. This, it is held, conclusively proves that the Virgin birth was not known in the earliest Christian circles, and was a legend of later origin. As respects the Gospels — Mark and John — the objection would only apply if it was the design of these Gospels to narrate, as the others do, the circumstances of the nativity. But this was evidently not their design. Both Mark and John knew that Jesus had a human birth — an infancy and early life — and that His mother was called Mary, but of deliberate purpose they tell us nothing about it. Mark begins his Gospel with Christ’s entrance on His public ministry, and says nothing of the period before, especially of how Jesus came to be called “the Son of God” (Mark 1:1). John traces the divine descent of Jesus, and tells us that the “Word became flesh” (John 1:14); but how this miracle of becoming flesh was wrought he does not say. It did not lie within his plan. He knew the church tradition on the subject: he had the Gospels narrating the birth of Jesus from the Virgin in his hands: and he takes the knowledge of their teaching for granted. To speak of contradiction in a case like this is out of the question.

Silence of Paul

How far Paul was acquainted with the facts of Christ’s earthly origin it is not easy to say. To a certain extent these facts would always be regarded as among the privacies of the innermost Christian circles — so long at least as Mary lived — and the details may not have been fully known till the Gospels were published. Paul admittedly did not base his preaching of his Gospel on these private, interior matters, but on the broad, public facts of Christ’s ministry, death, and resurrection. It would be going too far, however, to infer from this that Paul had no knowledge of the miracle of Christ’s birth. Luke was Paul’s companion, and doubtless shared with Paul all the knowledge which he himself had gathered on this and other subjects. One thing certain is, that Paul could not have believed in the divine dignity, the pre-existence, the sinless perfection, and redeeming headship, of Jesus as he did, and not have been convinced that His entrance into humanity was no ordinary event of nature, but implied an unparalleled miracle of some kind. This Son of God, who “emptied” Himself, who was “born of a woman, born under the law,” who “knew no sin” (Phil. 2:7, 8; Gal. 4:4; 2 Cor. 5:21), was not, and could not be, a simple product of nature. God must have wrought creatively in His human origin. The Virgin birth would be to Paul the most reasonable and credible of events. So also to John, who held the same high view of Christ’s dignity and holiness.

Christ’s Sinlessness a Proof

It is sometimes argued that a Virgin birth is no aid to the explanation of Christ’s sinlessness. Mary being herself sinful in nature, it is held the taint of corruption would be conveyed by one parent as really as by two. It is overlooked that the whole fact is not expressed by saying that Jesus was born of a virgin mother. There is the other factor — “conceived by the Holy Ghost.” What happened was a divine, creative miracle wrought in the production of this new humanity which secured, from its earliest germinal beginnings, freedom from the slightest taint of sin. Paternal generation in such an origin is superfluous. The birth of Jesus was not, as in ordinary births, the creation of a new personality. It was a divine Person — already existing — entering on this new mode of existence. Miracle could alone effect such a wonder. Because His human nature had this miraculous origin Christ was the “holy” One from the commencement (Luke 1:35). Sinless He was, as His whole life demonstrated; but when, in all time, did natural generation give birth to a sinless personality?

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.

A Saturated Gospel

Let us observe in an example or two how thoroughly saturated the Gospel narrative is with the assumption of the deity of Christ, so that it crops out in the most unexpected ways and places.

In three passages of Matthew, reporting words of Jesus, He is represented as speaking familiarly and in the most natural manner in the world, of “His angels” (13:41; 16:27; 24:31). In all three He designates Himself as the “Son of man”; and in all three there are additional suggestions of His majesty. “The Son of man shall send forth His angels, and they shall gather out of His kingdom all things that cause stumbling and those that do iniquity, and shall cast them into the furnace of fire.”

Who is this Son of man who has angels, by whose instrumentality the final judgment is executed at His command? “The Son of man shall come in the glory of His Father with His angels; and then shall He reward every man according to his deeds.” Who is this Son of man surrounded by His angels, in whose hands are the issues of life? The Son of man “shall send forth His angels with a great sound of a trumpet, and they shall gather together His elect from the four winds, from one end of heaven to the other.” Who is this Son of man at whose behest His angels winnow men? A scrutiny of the passages will show that it is not a peculiar body of angels which is meant by the Son of man’s angels, but just the angels as a body, who are His to serve Him as He commands. In a word, Jesus Christ is above angels (Mark 13:32) — as is argued at explicit length at the beginning of the Epistle to the Hebrews. “To which of the angels said he at any time, Sit on my right hand, etc.” (Heb. 1:13).

The Unique Position

All the great designations are not so much asserted as assumed by Him for Himself. He does not call Himself a prophet, though He accepts this designation from others: He places Himself above all the prophets, even above John the greatest of the prophets, as Him to whom all the prophets look forward. If He calls Himself Messiah, He fills that term, by doing so, with a deeper significance, dwelling ever on the unique relation of Messiah to God as His representative and His Son. Nor is He satisfied to represent Himself merely as standing in a unique relation to God: He proclaims Himself to be the recipient of the divine fullness, the sharer in all that God has (Matt. 11:28). He speaks freely of Himself indeed as God’s Other, the manifestation of God on earth, whom to have seen was to have seen the Father also, and who does the work of God on earth. He openly claims divine prerogatives — the reading of the heart of man, the forgiveness of sins, the exercise of all authority in heaven and earth. Indeed, all that God has and is He asserts Himself to have and be; omnipotence, omniscience, perfection belong as to the one so to the other. Not only does He perform all divine acts; His self-consciousness coalesces with the divine consciousness. If His followers lagged in recognizing His deity, this was not because He was not God or did not sufficiently manifest His deity. It was because they were foolish and slow of heart to believe what lay patently before their eyes.