Al Mohler wrote these lines the other day (from “Must We Believe in the Virgin Birth?”):
All those who find salvation will be saved by the atoning work of Jesus the Christ — the virgin-born Savior. Anything less than this is just not Christianity, whatever it may call itself. A true Christian will not deny the Virgin Birth.
John Byron took this as his cue to ask reader of his blog, “Must you believe in the virgin birth to be a Christian.” When I checked last it seemed that most people who commented said “no”, but there was caution from some that this doesn’t mean that the doctrine isn’t important, merely that our status as Christians is determined by “…what Jesus did, not what Mary didn’t do” as one person put it. Personally, I agree with those who say that affirming or denying the virgin conception/birth doesn’t make a Christian, but that is because I think it is a work of the Holy Spirit for one to become a Christian, not our current stance on doctrine. So in this sense I disagree with Mohler.
That being said, I don’t think that some people denying the virgin conception or struggling to affirm it demands that it be set aside as an orthodox confession. The virgin conception does protect against heresies like Adoptionism and Nestorianism. Sure, sure, there are passages in Scripture that can be used to support these errors (e.g. the baptism of Christ is important for adoptionistic Christology), but the catholic “Rule of Faith” seems to have filtered out these views over time leaving us with the orthodox Christology that many of us confess today.
I see a partial analogy with the Pledge of Allegiance. It is a national confession that citizens pledge allegiance to the flag of this country and the Republic for which it stands–“one nation, under God, indivisible…” Many individuals may say, “I’m atheist, so how can I affirm our nation stands “under God” and while reciting this “creed” they personally cannot affirm those words. This doesn’t prevent it from being a national creed though. This crude analogy may give some insight into how the virgin conception may be a “Christian confession” even if some or many Christians do not or cannot confess it. As my citizenship is determined by my birth into this country, and not my willingness to affirm every line of the Pledge of Allegiance, so someone’s citizenship in the Kingdom of God is determined by a “new birth” in the Spirit and not their adherence to every aspect of all creeds.
I have said more about this in a previous post titled “It’s not your creed. It’s the creed of the church.”
Personally, I submit myself to the church catholic on matters like the virgin conception even if I struggle to understand or believe it at times. I don’t think my personal beliefs change what the church should teach. Yet the church’s safeguarding of the story as the responsibility of the church is not (in my opinion) one and the same with the saving work of God. So I willingly recite along with the Apostle’s Creed that Jesus was “…conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary” and the Nicene-Constantinopolitan Creed that Jesus was “…was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…”, but I know God saves and God alone, not creeds.
I first thought you were going to focus on the difference between essential and non-essential areas of faith. But I think this distinction between the personal and church confessions is a useful distinction.
Jesus Creed blog has been having a discussion about whether Jonah is historical or literary and I think the problem many are having is that they have no distinction. Most on the literary side believe that their reading of scripture shows it to be a literary story not a historical story. But their objections is mostly not about whether God could have done the miracles in Jonah, but about whether it was important to believe that he did do them.
On the other hand, those that fought for the historical were mostly fighting for their understanding of inerrancy. Jonah is either historical or the bible is not inerrant. Those lines I believe do much more to damage the faith than help it. Maybe a distinction between understanding these issues of personal confessions vs historic orthodox church confessions would be useful for some.
This is an intriguing question. If I understand it, you’re (re)asking if the virgin birth is essential Christian doctrine?
The thief on the Cross said this “But the other rebuked him, saying, “Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds; but this man has done nothing wrong. And he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.” [Luke 23:40-42]
As far as I can tell the only two things the thief recognized was that Jesus unworthy of death being innocent (unlike everyone else) would ‘come into his kingdom’ after death, and that Jesus Christ was Lord (with power to save). You could summarize this as follows:
1. Death could not hold Christ
2. Christ is Lord
Acknowledging that the above two statements are ripe with additional theology, as far as I can tell there is a great case for suggesting these are the only two Christian essentials (since we know that this thief was saved; Jesus said to him “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” [Luke 23:43]. Praise God!
I could have summarized the above two points differently. If so it would have been as follows:
1. The thief looked forward to the resurrection
2. Recognized the authority of Christ
Brian, the point about submission to the church in regard to creeds is sound, and in Mohler’s case, as a hired teacher of a church organization, if he teaches anything against their creed he ought to forfeit his paycheck.
A creed is a formal, outward expression of uniform belief which represents a group’s spirit of unity, and church organizations are within their rights to decide upon and demand an outward creedal uniformity among its members. But if a member of Mohler’s organization cannot in conscience hold all the creedal points that the church requires of its hired teachers, I think he may remain a member as long as he does not express or teach his views against the church nor seek employment from them. This obviously limits his service to his church.
I think Mohler is a jerk (a blasphemer actually) to confuse this requirement of outward unity in matters of church polity, good order, and payroll, with God’s requirement for salvation. It is impossible that such a man has any authority over ‘Christianity’ or any right to say who’s in and who’s out of anything except a teaching position in his own organization.
Problem is that SBC is pretty strongly anti-creedal. And SBC agencies run pretty much on their own. SBC seminaries have become much more creedal, but mostly informal and without official denominational oversight. So it hits the worst of all worlds.
There are people being pushed out of SBC seminaries for teaching things that are well within common SBC beliefs, but they are teaching them in schools that are really outside of denominational standards as well.
@John doesn’t that result in an approach where churches consider ‘creeds’ as authoritative (and thus the creed competes for authority with the bible)? Shouldn’t creeds themselves be trumped by scripture (no matter how fervently we believe creeds to be correct)?
It seems intuitive that if a church requires adherence to a creed along with scripture, that church cannot claim ‘sola scriptura’.
@Andrew, Yes, I was suggesting that creeds are too limited to be ‘authoritative’ in the way Mohler suggests – certainly they are skinny threads compared to the fullness of Scripture.
My point is that all of the mysteries of grace and salvation cannot be encompassed within the external forms in which a church expresses its outward unity of belief. But don’t you think a church has a right to restrict its teachers if the teachers are their hirelings?
I believe a creed is merely a hermeneutic artifact; a thread as you say. If a teacher is bound by the creed, they are prevented from dealing with the fullness of Scripture itself.
In addition, because the development of a creed is an exercise in hermenutics, a creed may not even be scripturally correct (no matter how well intended it is or who was responsible for its articulation), and so to make a creed authoritative is to hold someone’s teachings up to a mere interpretation and not scripture itself. For example, consider the disastrous fallout the Mohler, Geisler, Licona controversy has created (and that seems to have stemmed from the inability to distinguish between the inerrant nature of scripture vs. interpretation).
Furthermore, I have known of brilliant pastors whose conscious compelled them to openly reject components of their church’s creed (on scriptural grounds), yet were permitted to continue on within their denomination despite their creedal reservations because they were clearly scriptural Godly men who coveted biblical truth above all else (it didn’t hurt they articulated their reservations in gracious articulate ways). Likewise I’ve also known pastor who taught well with their denomination’s creedal range yet harboured themselves some rather questionable unorthodox beliefs that could be likely be considered unbiblical.
In saying this, I’m raising an issue of church governance, however. Apart from a creed, I cannot suggest a way to hold a pastor accountable for what they say. I believe a church should have this right.
Should a church restrict what its teachers say, no.
Should it hold them accountable for what they say, yes.
Are these to compatible? Perhaps not, but then again I’m not involved with church governance.
I have a real problem with statements that begin by saying “…a true Christian will not deny…” Theology is certainly important, but if we tie complete orthodox doctrine to salvation, then no one will receive salvation…and even if we tie very important doctrines to it, we cannot tie salvation to it (How many friends of mine who work in construction could properly delineate that the Trinity is three persons with one nature, but Christ was one person with two natures? Most of them couldn’t, without some coaching. Thus, if I ask the question, and they give the wrong statement, have they lost their salvation?).
Anyhow, the statement itself seems to have dangerously blurred the line between Christian doctrine and salvation. One final example: The early Church did not question Origen’s salvation, although much of his doctrine was eventually said to be heretical in the late 4th c. I think we can learn something from them here.
I think that is the heart of my concern. We are often in danger of basing our soteriology on our epistemology rather than the work of Christ. It seems that there are some basic things one must “know” to be secure in the Gospel, such as the Lordship of Christ and his resurrection, but even then it is the work of God that saves, not our knowledge.
Sir, I have some very real problems concerning the nature of the virgin birth of Jesus Christ. My first question related to the diploid state of the chromosomes within the cells of Christ. Since it is likely he was formed from the ova of the young woman with a single set of chromosomes, a second set would be needed to produced an XY male that it was believed him to be.From where did that second set originate – of material origin or just an outright miraculous event ?Secondly the young women in the discussions in the OT is spoken of as a young women in the hebrew. This word has a number of possible translations ,in latin it is I believe related to parthenos. I am not a translator or expert in language derivation but this word in latin has a more precise meaning virgin ,one who has not had intercourse with a male. Also the customs of engagement different distinctly from customs today and as she says ‘i have never known a man implying that sexual activity had not occurred. But in the customs of the day surely the fact that she enters her future husband’s home and that practices differed and she may not have been able to be clear as to the events before marriage and that she was defending her honour by denying that she had relationship with any man. I think a natural defence mechanism. I am not implying that she has performed any kind of misconception for the listeners to her defence, but scholars and theologians in order to defend their understanding of the nature of Jesus both man and god have performing a mischievous and cruel trick of language to mislead everyone since the doctrine was perceived by a misguided and very strange man called Augustine Is it not time for this difficult and illusory semantically biassed language to be sorted out honestly by thinking men Kenneth sale Zoologist and geneticist
Kenneth: Thanks for your thoughts. I know your question was directed to Brian LP, but I would also like to respond with two quick thoughts. First, I hope that no one is trying to justify that a virgin birth can be explained in light of our modern understanding of genetics. I think that the only answer that we can possibly apply, especially in light of the chromosomal problems that you mention (which I will trust you on since you obviously have more training in the natural sciences than I do), is “an outright miraculous event.” This, of course, puts the conversation into the realm of unobservable/unprovable, which I understand could be quite disconcerting, especially for those who work in the natural sciences. However, I don’t think that this nullifies the conversation, especially if we embrace David Hume’s critique of the limitations of observation-based knowledge. Kuhn’s more recent critique focusing on the narrowing function of scientific questions is also helpful here.
Second, I think that you bring up great observations about virginity and culture. The Hebrew word is indeed vague as you have described – it could have meant either sexual virgin or young woman. Also, it is impossible to establish the intention behind Mary’s words. I think that there is enough evidence for people who want to plausibly establish both positions that you describe.
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