How important is it that Christians believe in the virgin birth? This may seem like a strange question, as most reading this probably wouldn’t dream of doubting the miracle of the virgin conception. It’s clearly taught in Scripture (Matt 1:18, 23; Luke 1:34–35), consistently believed throughout church history, and once we’ve accepted miracles like the resurrection of Jesus or the splitting of the Red Sea, it’s really not all that hard to believe that God could pull off a virgin conception. In fact, our understanding of the physiology of human procreation—especially in light of modern developments in reproductive technology—makes the miracle of a mother having a child without a father seem less, well, miraculous.
Nevertheless, the contemporary minimalist focus on things “absolutely essential for salvation” has pushed the virgin birth to the margins of what are often called “primary doctrines.” Now, it’s not that evangelicals are eager to abandon the virgin birth. Rather, almost all retain the doctrine “as is,” but some are now allowing for less conservative (let’s avoid the label “liberal” for now) Christians to redefine the doctrine and still claim to be heaven-bound believers. The argument goes like this: all that’s necessary for salvation is belief that Jesus is God and man who died for our sins and rose from the dead. According to some, that’s the sum of the tightly-packaged “simple gospel message” in the key New Testament passages (Romans 1:1–4; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). There’s no clear mention of the virgin birth outside the Gospels, and only two of those, Matthew and Luke, bothered to include it. So, some less strict evangelicals, still regarding the doctrine as true, don’t make it an indispensable part of the Gospel message. And if it’s not a necessary part of the Gospel, then it’s not necessary for salvation. At least that’s how the argument tends to unfold with the “minimalist message” approach to the Gospel. For fear of adding too much confusing (or unbelievable?) content, the so-called superfluous elements are stripped away, leaving such secondary items to be handled after initial conversion.
So, three tendencies emerge when dealing with the doctrine of the virgin birth—1) rejecting it (flat out disbelief); 2) redefining it (finding the spiritual meaning of the mythical metaphor); or 3) re-categorizing it (demoting it to a secondary doctrine, true and good, but unnecessary for salvation).
My question to those who reject or redefine the doctrine of the virgin birth is always the same—why? What’s so offensive about the miracle of a virgin conception that would force us to regard it as either a loony legend or a meaningful myth? If a person reads a passage like Matthew 1:18 and says, “That’s ridiculous” or “That can’t possibly mean this,” I wonder what that same person does with the miracle of Christ’s bodily resurrection. (That’s a rhetorical question. I know what they do with it.) I have no patience for this kind of rejection or redefinition of the virgin conception. Those positions have no place within the Christian tradition. Never have, never will.
But is the miracle of the virgin conception of Jesus necessary for orthodox theology? Is it best to re-categorize it from “dogma” to “doctrine”? From “central” to “peripheral”? From “primary” to “secondary”? Often evangelical theologians and pastors argue for retaining the centrality of the virgin conception for a soteriological reason related to the work of Christ—His atoning death on the cross. The argument is that if Jesus had been the natural child of Joseph and Mary, then He would have inherited the stain of Adam’s sin. Jesus would have then been born a sinner who was Himself in need of redemption and therefore unable to pay the price for other sinners. Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? But it assumes that sin and guilt are passed down only through the father’s seed, a doctrine not clearly taught in Scripture.
Another reason often cited for keeping the virgin conception primary is a bibliological reason. The argument goes like this: the Bible clearly teaches the virgin birth of Christ. In fact, it even prophesies the virgin birth in Isaiah 7. So, to deny the virgin birth is to deny the truthfulness of the Bible. And to deny the truthfulness of the Bible leads to potential doubt about everything it teaches. Such doubt undermines what the Bible says about sin, Christ, and salvation. So, every clear doctrine—and especially the virgin birth—becomes a primary issue for the Christian faith. Okay, I get it. But is an unbeliever really expected to believe everything in the Bible before he or she is regenerated by the Spirit? Would we need to convince a person that Peter literally found a coin in a fish’s mouth before we regarded that person’s confession of faith to be genuine? Would we check our new convert’s salvation pulse if she thought the story of Jonah might be a parable? Probably not. Most of us would likely say that a proper understanding of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture comes early in the process of discipleship, not as a pre-requisite for conversion.
Yet there’s more important reason for retaining the centrality of the virgin conception—a christological reason. For me the necessity of the virgin birth relates primarily to the person of Christ—one of the fundamental pillars of the Gospel message itself. You see, the miracle of the virgin conception is not so much a miracle of a woman becoming pregnant without the contribution of a man. There are scientists alive today who could pull that off! The real miracle of the virgin conception is the incarnation of God the Son. The fact is, without the virgin conception, there could be no incarnation. There could be a Jesus of Nazareth possessed by a divine being, but not the God-man, two complete natures in one unique Person. Rather, He would be a complete human person who was adopted by the divine Person, an “indwelled” human being, no different from the way the Holy Spirit indwells a believer in Christ. In short, rejecting the doctrine of the virgin conception results in an adoptionist—not incarnational—christology.
When God the Son took on humanity, He did not adopt a human person. Yes, He took on full humanity—with body and soul, with human mind, human emotion, and human will. But to accomplish true incarnation (rather than adoption), there could be no personhood in the womb apart from incarnation. When the person, Jesus of Nazareth, began to grow in the womb, He had to already be divine and human, two natures in one person. Had Mary become pregnant the natural way, the divine Son would have descended upon a human being who was already a person. This would have resulted in two natures and two persons, the opposite of incarnational Christology. What would have been the result? A radically different Jesus than the One who died and rose again. Paul warns against those who preach “another Jesus” other than the One He preached (2 Corinthians 11:4). A different Jesus quite clearly constitutes a “different gospel, which is really not another” (Galatians 1:6–7).
So, Christians should not only take a stand against rejecting or redefining the doctrine of the virgin conception of Christ. We should resist the trend to re-categorize it as non-essential, or we’ll lose the essential truth of the Gospel—the Person of Jesus Christ, who alone, as fully God and fully man in one Person, is able to accomplish the work of redemption for us.