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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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
Kevin

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
Kevin

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

George Nixon Shuler
Guest

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

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

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
Wes Andrews

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
Kevin

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.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

Keven, you are exactly right.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

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.

Wes Andrews
Guest
Wes Andrews

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.

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.

Gary Bebop
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Gary Bebop

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
Wes Andrews

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.

Kevin
Guest
Kevin

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

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

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
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Mark

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
Mark

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!

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