Can you question the Virgin Birth and still be a Christian?

GRM_Inv._J-3174By KIMBERLY WINSTON
c. 2014 Religion News Service

(RNS) It’s a tough sell: A young, unmarried teenager gets pregnant, but the father isn’t a man but God himself. And the girl is a virgin — and (some believe) remains one even after she delivers a strapping baby boy.

That’s the story of the Virgin Birth, one of the central tenets of faith for the world’s 2 billion Christians. The story is embraced by every branch of Christianity, from Eastern Orthodoxy to Mormonism, Catholic and Protestant.

And yet, many theologians, pastors and other Christians say the Virgin Birth gets short shrift at Christmastime. Finding the idea hard to swallow, many believers would rather focus on the cute little baby in the manger instead of the unusual way he got there.

Yet for other Christians, the Virgin Birth is a deal-breaker. You can equivocate about other biblical miracles, such as whether Mary’s son was really able to turn water into wine, but the Virgin Birth must be accepted as gospel.

Without it, they say, much of Christianity falls apart.

“To remove the miraculous from Christmas is to remove this central story of Christianity,” said Gary Burge, a professor of New Testament at Wheaton College. “It would dismantle the very center of Christian thought and take away the keystone of the arch of Christian theology.”

Why is the Virgin Birth the lynchpin of Christianity? Was it miracle or metaphor? And can you call yourself a Christian if you can’t accept the idea?

For Burge, an evangelical and author of “Theology Questions Everyone Asks,” the Virgin Birth is essential. His thinking goes like this: If Jesus was not virgin-born, then he was not the son of God; if he was not the son of God, then he was just another crucified man and not the sacrifice that would redeem the sins of the world.

“In Jesus, we don’t have a prophet who simply speaks as a human being about God. We have a son of God who presents the father to us,” he said. “It is a huge difference, absolutely huge. Put in jeopardy the Virgin Birth … and Christianity simply becomes a human gesture instead of a divine revelation.”

Burge’s thinking has a lot of followers. A recent Pew Research Center poll found that nearly three in four Americans think the Virgin Birth is historically accurate. Among evangelicals, the figure is even higher: 96 percent.

But the Virgin Birth is found in only two of the four Gospels. In Matthew, an angel tells Joseph: “Do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit.” In Luke, an angel tells Mary: “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy — the Son of God.”

Mary’s famous response  – “How can this be? – has been echoed by skeptics and believers ever since.  Some translations have Mary citing her virginity or her status as a single woman or, more cryptically, “I know not a man.”

Some scholars see the absence of the Virgin Birth in the other two Gospels — John and Mark — as evidence that the story originated after Jesus’ death. It was a way to make Jesus special, to prove he was who he said he was to a skeptical world.

But Ben Witherington, a professor of New Testament at Asbury Theological Seminary, finds proof of the Virgin Birth in its supernatural aspects. Why, he said, would anyone wanting to create a new religion craft such a far-fetched story?

“Matthew and Luke feel compelled to tell us the story because they are utterly convinced that is how it happened,” he said. “Nobody would believe them unless there was clear, compelling evidence it actually happened. If you just wanted nice metaphors that would not raise anyone’s hackles, this is not the story you would come up with.”

Other scholars point to the writings of the Apostle Paul. Paul’s life overlapped with Jesus (even though they never met), yet he also never mentions the Virgin Birth. He says Jesus was “born of a woman” and his birth was “under the law.” Some scholars say Paul doesn’t specify a Virgin Birth because there wasn’t one; others say his words imply Jesus did not have an earthly father.

However the story originated, by 381 A.D., the belief in it was formalized in the Nicene Creed, a profession of faith used by all branches of Christianity except Mormonism. Although different versions vary in the exact wording, the creed says that Jesus “came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

But some contemporary Christians see it as a metaphor, not a miracle. For John Shelby Spong, a retired Episcopal bishop and author of “Born of a Woman,” the story becomes more powerful when stripped of its supernatural elements.

“Mary had to produce without losing her virginity and that’s an interesting trick,” said the famously liberal Spong. “I think that denigrates our humanity. Biology is kind of wonderful — a man and woman are in love and they create a child that represents both of them, and I think that is a powerful symbol and wonderful one.”

Yet rethinking Mary to that extent goes too far for Christian Smith, a Notre Dame sociologist of religion.

“If God is not capable of a miracle like the Virgin Birth, then what kind of God is that?” he said. “If you abandon the doctrine of Jesus being fully God and fully human,  then he becomes just a  great teacher. But then what is the point of the death on the cross if it doesn’t tie back to God incarnate, God with us?”

Gay Byron, a Presbyterian minister and a New Testament professor at Howard University, said one reason some Christians question the Virgin Birth is the church has done a generally poor job of explaining it.

“There are many ‘Mary’s’ out there who find themselves in unexpected situations and often marginalized from support and encouragement to make it through to a song of praise,” she said. “So this story matters today just as much as it mattered over 2,000 years ago. So we who believe continue to share the story and open up new possibilities for connecting to the realities in our world today.”

Religion News Service

RNS is owned by Religion News LLC, a non-profit, limited liability corporation based at the University of Missouri School of Journalism. Its mission is to provide in-depth, non-sectarian coverage of religion, spirituality and ideas.

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69 Comments on "Can you question the Virgin Birth and still be a Christian?"

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The United Methodist Reporter wants to encourage lively conversation about The United Methodist Church and our articles in the belief that Christian conversation (what Wesley would call conferencing) is a means of grace. While we support passionate debate, we cannot allow language that demeans or demonizes others, and we reserve the right to delete any comment we believe to be harmful or inappropriate. We encourage all to remember that we are all broken and in need of Christ's grace, and that we all see through the glass darkly until that time we when reach full perfection in love. May your speech here be tempered with love, and reflection of the fruits of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. After all, "There is no law against things like this." (Galatians 5:22-23)
 
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George Nixon Shuler
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TD: Kimberly Winston is a freelance religion reporter based in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her work has appeared in The Chicago Tribune, The Dallas Morning News, USA Today, The Washington Post, The San Jose Mercury News and Newsweek. Since 2011, she has covered atheism and other forms of freethought for Religion News Service. In 2014, she received a Wilbur Award for best online news story from the Religion Communicators Council and in 2005 she was the recipient of the American Academy of Religion’s award for best in-depth religion reporting. She is the author of three books, including Bead One,… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Why is that?

Kevin
Guest

Awww, he called me Buttercup. Dare I voice it? I think I am feeling a connection.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

My friend, be safe. Wrath toward those not enamored of a conquering Christ is not the Methodist SOP.

Kevin
Guest

Just when I thought this thread was at its end George takes his comments to a new level.

Wes Andrews
Guest

The conversations are important. We should be open to hearing all views. But we should avoid the troll(s). All he’s going to do is call people who disagree with him terrorists.

Wes Andrews
Guest

The few of us in this discussion are probably tired of it. But I really would not mind getting back to the original question. I am curious. At what point does a person take away from the Biblical revelation/definition of Jesus, that one’s perception of Jesus ceases to be the real Jesus?

Kevin
Guest
The next question might be “Do you have to believe in the physical resurrection of Jesus to call yourself a Christian?” Or pick your favorite “Do you have to believe” topic. My response might be “Why do you not believe?” I do not know why people want to take Jesus as Lord and Savior and turn Him into simply the wandering teacher but they do. If we are Christians then we have to accept things that defy all scientific explanation. Try and prove the existence of Heaven or Hell with a scientific experiment. Let me know how that works out.
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Under present science, we cannot document existence of an afterlife. However, we can certainly show Bishop Ussher’s timeline of this plane being created in 4004 BCE as at best wishful thinking on his part.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Keven, you are exactly right.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Friend, I will stipulate all who disagree with me are not trolls. However, those who take umbrage at contrary opinions most assuredly are. As for terrorists: we have right now, in the United States, organized terrorist networks stalking and threatening healthcare providers. They have a public relations arm consisting primarily of Operation Oppress you and similar entities which aid and abet those committed to terrorism. Harranguers on clinic sidewalks catcalling to patients with racist, sexist, and heterosexist namecalling are also suppliers of intelligence in this dark art. A person morally opposed to abortion can operate independently of these, but when… Read more »
Mark
Guest

George, I’ll give you your own set of opinions, even if stated hatefully. The problem is that you have your own set of facts.

And, with respect to abortion, YOU were the first one to bring up that topic via your glowing review of the pro-abortion group Religious Coalition for Reproductive (Non)Choice (the only choice they are interested in is the one FOR abortion).

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I would like to see what you seem to think “my own set of facts” is. Your failure tp provide same exhibits your tendency to make unsupportable conclusions and expect others to agree a fir tree is blue because you say so. You – and no one else , either – possess no such authority.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

The comment about RCRC “only” being interested in the exercise of a woman’s having an abortion is a bearing of false witness, for which you should be sorely ashamed.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Actually that was Kevin, as the time stamp clearly shows.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

O rly? I merely answered the trolling. Enjoy it, Buttercup.

Kevin
Guest

Denying the virgin birth looks like a form of infanticide to me. Herod could not kill the infant Jesus but now we have the internet and we can kill peoples’ belief in the divinity of Jesus.
We practice infanticide today on a scale that dwarfs Herod’s effort. We call it “woman’s right to choose”. Modern day Baal worship. .Just one man’s opinion. Then again I am knuckle dragging throwback.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Wow, that’s a total non sequitur. “Infanticide” is the killing of a baby which has been born. Abortion is nothing new – from the dawn of history, whether legal or illegal, 1/4 to 1/3 of pregnancies end with abortion, varying only according to economic conditions.

Mark
Guest

Killing a baby that can survive on its own outside the womb can reasonably be termed infanticide. This is the horrific legacy of modern liberalism.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Marks, resist feeding the trolls. Trolls say extreme things just to get a rise. Late-term abortions are the worst form of killing of human babies. This kind of discussion is similar to throwing yard darts over an 8 foot fence. There is no real discussion going on, just a surreal game in which one side attempts to wound the other with the delight of dodging another dart that flies back over the fence.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

The “trolling” in this thread is only by the right-wing activists who chose to morph it into a discussion of abortion. If they do not like contrary opinions, they should have avoided such a non sequitur attempt to whine about one of their pet causes celebre. Understand, when such trolling occurs, it will be countered by the pro-choice majority.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Actually such procedures only occur in rare instances, primarily because the fetii can’t survive but a few moments after birth or the life of the woman is threatened. The medical staffs which perform such procedures are heroes who lay their lives on the line, threatened by homegrown terrorists, Dr. George Tiller was one such hero, cut down in the vestibule of his church where he was serving as an usher, by an American terrorist. He was a good and gracious man who saved countless lives. He was a martyr in the fight against terrorism. these terrorist groups make emotional appeals… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Actually I’ve been to Tiller’s Clinic and its successor, Southwind Women’s clinic, in nearby Wichita and I must say the staff there are among the most loving and dedicated people I’ve ever met. They put their lives on the line every day to protect women from terrorists like those you enable.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

There is no evidence whatsover of those ridiculous assertions except from right-wing sources, and all of those are just a grift, fooling the emotionalistic with assertions devoid of evidence..

Mark
Guest

Wrong. Again. Killing babies which could be viable outside the womb is rather routine in some quarters. And, while Tiller certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered, if you think he is some kind of hero or martyr you are seriously deranged in your thinking or seriously ignorant about what he did.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Yes, Kevin, for a knuckle dragging throwback you are getting it spot on. Kill the substantive and unmanipulatable Biblical identity of Jesus and then anything goes. Scripture is crystal clear about the God breathed revelation of Jesus’ identity. To kill faith in Jesus means anything goes, and that includes all kinds of injustices, including the destruction of unborn children, via the ultimate lie: the manipulation and injustice of convincing women (and yes, men) that abortion could actually be “good” for them.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Logical error of post hoc ergo propter hoc spotted.

Gary Bebop
Guest

I’ve enjoyed the merry Christmas joshing and the robust witnessing going on here. UMR may (or may not) be clued in to what they’ve unleashed, but it has been great fun. God laughs with us. But the Incarnation should have us on our knees in fear and worship. Take it seriously while you can do so.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Gary, the Biblical revelation of Jesus and his character is optional for progressives. At best, Jesus is just one of many ways any given person can connect with salvation or not. It’s all situational and relative. The real Jesus is pretty much irrelevant. The “idea” of Jesus is more of a romantic/idealistic figure than a real personal Savior who gives clear definition to living within the will of God.

Mark
Guest
Note the response of so many liberals when asked how they determine what is true and what is not: they dodge, weave, deflect….they say they agree with Wesley and believe the Scriptures, and then promptly go about revising, redefining and reimagining according to their own desires. They place themselves in the position of being the final arbiters of morality and Scriptural interpretation. Dinesh D’Souza describes them accurately in his outstanding apologetic work, “What’s So Great About Christianity:” “Secular (or liberal) morality emerged in resistance to traditional morality. In the traditional view morality is “out there,” whereas for many people today… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I’d be embarrassed to quote “Distort D’Newsa” on anything but a manual for so-called “Christian” executives on how to commit adultery with your Secretary and violate election laws.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Wrong. It is you doing the trolling here with your expressions of woman hatred here.

Mark
Guest

You “hate” my sin? You are an expert on my sin now? You know NOTHING of my sin other than my responses to your hate mongering in this forum.

It’s clear you disagree with someone you obviously have a very high opinion of, someone who says he condemns “the illusion of SELF-POSSESSED AUTHORITY by those who claim to know precisely what God wants and will tell you.” (Uh, that person would be you, George)

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Oh, My Friend, I certainly don’t hate you or d’Souza or any of the rest mired in extremist ideologies. I just hate your sin, that’s all.

Mark
Guest

George, George, George, I realize, in your words, I “can’t do nothing but whine,” but please try–I know it’s hard since you are so obviously full of hatred toward anyone who doesn’t agree with you–to stick to the substance of the quote and refrain from your petulant predilection toward throwing stones.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Mark, Mark, Mark…you actually believe that grifter wasn’t doing his secretary? You probably don’t believe Rush Limbaugh’s been married three times either. This is typical of you adherents of far-right ideologies you can’t do nothing but whine when the mask is plucked from the face of the Pharisee, to use Charlotte Bronte’s wonderful phrase, because of the cognitive dissonance it creates in you. D’Souza is a convicted criminal and serial prevaricator unworthy of the adulation of men of good character.

Mark
Guest

Right, George. When you cannot intelligently or respectfully discuss the quote just throw mud at the author (who was never proven to have committed adultery by the way, but that has nothing to do with this topic).

George, stop the hate!

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Wes, so can the latter. Right-wingers do it every day.

Wes Andrews
Guest
“dodge, weave and deflect….” Well stated Mark. The point has been proven again and again in this very discussion. The dodge and weave especially when political issues are disingenuously intermingled in a discussion about the authority of Scripture. It is because of the justice clearly and unambiguously defined in Scripture that I am against the death penalty, and that includes being taking the lives of the unborn, which, by the way progressive easily justify. I am against torture, false imprisonment, and violence perpertrained on people, even including being against violence toward police officers, which progressives seem to tolerate. And this… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

And note the very subtle change in wording in GNS’s response:

The “authority of God” is not the same as the “authority of Scripture” within which God reveals and DEFINES Himself for us to accept or reject.

The former can be defined, redefined, reimagined in any different way to justify the individual’s desired ends. The latter is defined and is clear and minimizes redefinition and manipulation. The latter requires us to conform to the revelation, whereas the former essentially conforms to the individual.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I’ve not seem progressives reject the authority of God; just the illusion of self-possessed authority by those who claim to know precisely what God wants and will tell you.

Gary Bebop
Guest

Wes, that’s just what my brother the “progressive” says to me. “Only in your world is Christianity true.” Well, he wishes it were the case, for his sake.

Wes Andrews
Guest

Gary, the progressives want us to believe that a relationship, any relationship, a family, a a marriage, a community, a church can exist on a foundation of ……. your truth is your truth….. my truth is my truth. In REALITY this translates to “you truth is your truth ONLY IF it fits in with my truth based on what I feel today.” The progressive truth isn’t based on any transcendent and unchanging source, it all shifting sand and smoke and mirrors.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Kind of like how conservatives justify torture, segregation, income inequality, etc.

Kevin
Guest

George
why not give it a rest and enjoy the Christmas holiday with your friends and family?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I like snow. And I love the UMC as it evolves.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

You realize, of course, as Jeff Lebowski aptly pointed out, “That’s just your opinion, Man.”

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

You have no way of knowing that.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

“Inspired” can mean “literally true,” or metaphorical. It’s a matter of opinion.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Hmmm…that suggests a follow up question, “or, should you?” Alas that is probably a topic for another day.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

For what are they supposed to be accountable?

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I don’t disagree. I believe it is accountable in those ways.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Interesting topic. The Council of Nicea was essentially a political convention at which formation of a new state religion was established. At the time, there were various Christianities; some, such as the Gnostics, did not accept the Trinitarian compromise. But they operated under the tutelage of the Warrior-Emperor Constantine who needed them to do what they did. If your dictionary has pictures, they could reasonably post a shot of Constantine under the definition of “sociopath.” After the Council fulfilled its obligation to Constantine, there were bloody pogroms of those who adhered to differing beliefs. We no longer have state churches… Read more »
Mark
Guest
No, sorry, there are not many “Marys” out there. There are plenty of single, pregnant women, some by choice, influenced by a rudderless culture often aided and abetted by wishy-washy mainline Protestants, but comparing Mary to them is a blatantly false equivalence. There was only one Mary. And John Shelby Spong does not believe in the major tenants of Christianity; therefore he should not be consulted when one is interested in understanding and growing in the Christian faith. The Virgin Birth is integral for numerous reasons, some of which were mentioned in this piece. But if the church has purposely… Read more »
George Nixon Shuler
Guest

I find nothing particular “wishy-washy” about honoring all families, even single parent ones. On the contrary, it is a bold witness to do so. I’d put the manhood of those churchmen who do so well above those of some of our fundamentalist brethren who feel entitled to humiliate single parents before their congregations. There’s a big difference between manhood and bullying as some of our right-wing brethren have not learned.

Mark
Guest

George, why not give the anger a rest for a day or two? After all, it is Christmas. I don’t know who these “fundamentalists” are who humiliate people before congregations, but I am sure they exist, at least in your mind.

Merry Christmas!

Wes Andrews
Guest

My point has been made. Thank you.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

Not with anything to support it – just a naked assertion based on nothing at all substantial.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
Oh, my friend, I am not angry – certainly less so than Jesus ever was when he cast out the moneychangers from the Temple and dealt with the Scribes and Pharisees, the present day equivalent of which is seeking to remake the UMC in their own image to advance their own power and control over others through “renewal” or somesuch. It has been frequently documented how right-wing clergy demand single mothers repent of their “sins” before the whole congregation. One place I saw it documented was in the website of the right-wing divine Dennis Rainey – a spinoff of the… Read more »
Wes Andrews
Guest

The only fundamentalists today that are judging people are those from the far right and the progressive left. The far right doesn’t exist in United Methodism. So the only fundamentalists who require people to “agree or be marginalized” are the progressives.

George Nixon Shuler
Guest
I don’t believe available data supports that. For instance, those who would like to see the United Methodist denomination bless same sex marriages as our Episcopal, United Church of Christ, Evangelical Lutheran, and United Presbyterian brethren do, do not consequently demand we stop blessing weddings of breadwinner dads and stay-at-home moms who only use the missionary position with the lights out as well. And that is an interesting concept, “…those who agree to be marginalized…” In every battle over issues, by some measure, one side wins and the other loses. What then, are the losers’ options? Our right-wing loves to… Read more »
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