On the Virgin Birth: Readings from the History of Christian Theology

§1. Introduction and Outline

Over the next couple weeks I will post selections from theologians throughout the history of Christianity on the subject of the virgin birth of Jesus. The goal of this series is not to come to a conclusion regarding the veracity of the stories that we find in Matthew and Luke (though I may offer my own thoughts at the end of our endeavor together). The goal is rather to listen to the diverse range of voices who have spoken about this mystery of the faith. In listening to the myriad views throughout the complex history of the Christian church, I hope we will come to appreciate the rich and living character of the gospel that proclaims boldly: “God was in Christ reconciling the world to himself.”

While we proclaim this gospel—that in Jesus, the triune God entered human history as a truly human being and lived and died ‘for us and for our salvation’—it is not altogether clear how the story of the virgin birth is integral to the overall narrative. What is the significance, if any, of Mary’s virginity? Does it belong in the creedal confession of the church, and if so, why? Does the confession of the virgin birth even make sense to us today? Is it in any way necessary to the story of reconciliation?

These are the questions which I hope the upcoming posts will address, if not always directly, at least indirectly. I will try my best to post them in the order in which they were originally written, so I hope to begin with the early church fathers and work my way up to the present. If you wish to contribute a selection to this series, by all means e-mail me passages from those theologians I may unintentionally ignore. The richer and more diverse range of writers, the more useful this series will be as a resource for us in our thinking about the Incarnation.

I welcome people’s comments along the way. In fact, the comments will make this series interesting, as we critically reflect upon the theological statements by those who came before us. Some things may surprise us, others may even shock us, still others may open our eyes to new horizons that remain unexplored. I look forward to the insights we will gain in our reading together from the works of faithful Christians past and present.

Outline of Readings

What follows is the outline of readings I have planned. I will update this outline as I gather more sources for this series. If there are readings that I am missing, please let me know. If you can email those readings to me, I would greatly appreciate it.
  • Ignatius of Antioch
    • The Epistle to the Ephesians
    • The Epistle to the Magnesians
    • The Epistle to the Trallians
  • Justin Martyr
    • First Apology
    • Dialogue with Trypho
    • Fragments of the Lost Work of Justin on the Resurrection
  • Irenaeus
    • Against Heresies
  • Tertullian
    • Against Marcion
    • On the Flesh of Christ
  • Lactantius
    • The Divine Institutes
  • Pseudo-Clement
    • The Apocryphal First Epistle of the Blessed Clement
  • New Testament Apocrypha
    • The Gospel of the Nativity of Mary
    • The History of Joseph the Carpenter
  • Augustine
  • Chrysostom
  • Athanasius
  • Gregory of Nyssa
  • Jerome
  • Cyril
  • Basil
  • Ambrose
  • Leo
  • Gregory of Nazianzus
  • Thomas Aquinas
    • Summa Theologica
  • Karl Barth
    • Credo
    • Church Dogmatics I/2
  • Paul Tillich
    • Systematic Theology
  • Hans Urs von Balthasar
    • Credo
  • Wolfhart Pannenberg
    • The Apostles’ Creed
  • Hans Frei
    • The Identity of Jesus Christ
  • Jürgen Moltmann
    • The Way of Jesus Christ


Patrick McManus said…
Sounds like a great advent series. I look forward to it.

Shane said…

I'm wondering how you are going to come down on this issue.

ooh goodie. This is an issue that greatly troubles me, principally because I can't get to a non-docetic reading (see here for my struggles). At the moment it's something I accept under obedience, not from any form of understanding.
Rev. Sam,

Thanks for the link to your stimulating post. I especially appreciated the quote from now Pope Benedict XVI. I agree with him and I really like what you wrote. I will flesh out my own views at some future time, probably when this series is complete and we have the advantage of hindsight. I look forward to hearing more from you.
Anonymous said…
You are just bound and determined, aren't you...

Bound and determined for what? Reading carefully and critically through the history of theology? Knowing where we come from and how we got to where we are today? Doing my homework? Yes, yes, yes.

If there's something else you are concerned about, make it known. And unless you have some important reason for remaining anonymous, it's a mark of maturity to state your views openly and honestly and with integrity.
Anonymous said…
Hey now...no need to get snappy.

It just seems like you frequently address the most controversial issues, and other rather regularly decide against a historical "evangelical" understanding of things. Which begs the question: Do you intend to help evangelicals change from the inside out, or bludgeon them from your archimedian point?
Ok, Anonymous, fair enough. I've done my fair share of bludgeoning, but of course I think that is necessary to an extent.

You should be aware that I do not think this blog is going to be the key to helping evangelicals. I would never be so foolish. My role here is simply to get us to think critically about what we believe and come to the best conclusions we can reach for the time being. So I would never go into an evangelical church and ask the pastor why he (probably not a she, unfortunately) is presenting a semi-Pelagian middle Christology. That just wouldn't work. I serve in a small, fairly conservative, (post-)evangelical church, and that's not how I operate. Indeed, I work from the inside out.

That said, what I will not do is flip-flop or be wishy-washy about my positions. If I think universalism is the best soteriological position, then I will say as much (as I have). If I think the way the church and politics have mixed among evangelicals is borderline heresy, then I will say as much (as I have). But that's the way I do things in the blogosphere. In churches things don't work like that.

Now, it seems like you are implying that I am going to bash the "evangelical" doctrine of the Virgin Birth. I have not made any statements of my own yet, so it is somewhat disingenuous of you to imply that this is what I am doing. So I ask for your patience rather than your preemptive criticism.

All that aside, I am not concerned with whether a particular doctrine is the historical "evangelical" position. That simply carries little if any weight for me. What is important is why such and such a doctrine has been the historical position. If we can get at the "why" question, then we will be far better equipped to figure out how we should appropriate the doctrine today. The "why" question is what most evangelicals (at least from my experience) evade whenever possible. So if by asking that question I am challenging the evangelical position, so be it. But I hope asking such questions becomes characteristic of evangelicals, and I would like to be part of the change toward making that a reality. And I hope this blog can be a resource toward that end, even while its primary function is to critically and unrelentingly analyze the doctrines of the faith.
Anonymous said…
You make numerous valid points. However, I question the easy way in which you departmentalize your life into your work "in the blogosphere" and your work "in the church." It is, in my humble opinion, a bit silly to think that this distinction can be maintained indefinately. All it will take for the two spheres to collide is for one of the members of your church to decide to google you. Then, suddenly, you might as well have been preaching universalism from a pulpit, beacuse those over whom you have been granted a kind of churchly authority hear (technically, read) this message of universalism from you (which, we should not, is not simply a question of the traditional "evangelical" interpretation, but of the orthodox Christian understanding in general).

You should know that I do not begrudge you your personal convictions concerning doctrines, etc. And it was a bit hasty of me to suggest that in the end you will reject the Virgin Birth (although, odds are...). I am concerned about the potential dissonance between how you come off on this blog and how you may want to come off in the future.
All right, point well taken. Though you should know that I have no qualms whatsoever about people at church reading my blog. In fact, everyone at the church knows my blog address and many of them read it at least occasionally. But there is a difference in purpose. The purpose of this blog is to inspire discussion and thoughtful dialogue. The purpose of working at a church is to live more faithfully as mature disciples of Christ. Furthermore, this blog is simply a public place to discuss theology, and for me to present my own views. The church does not center around me, but around the God who calls us together in grace as the people of God. So it's not a matter of compartmentalizing my life, but about operating in two very different spheres of life which demand different ways of acting. The context shapes the action.

So no, reading my blog is nothing like a sermon, unless you have a very poor understanding of what a sermon is. I do not write a blog post as if this is the Word of God. But when I preach, I preach as one who bears the prophetic message of God's Word. That is what preaching is (cf. Barth's 'threefold Word of God'). I can be experimental and radical on a blog, but the church is not the place to be experimental and radical on your own. The church is where we gather around the Word of God -- the Word preached and the Word embodied in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper.

Regarding the Virgin Birth, what is important is not whether I accept or reject the doctrine, but (as I already said) why I accept or reject it. I am not of the opinion that years of acceptance equal authority (i.e., I am a Protestant). But neither am I a rebellious liberal who simply likes to throw out doctrines that don't make sense or seem antiquated. If the evangelical position is the best one available, then we should support it regardless of who else supports it (even if it is Pat Robertson).
Jeff said…
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jeff said…
Great series man. I'm curious if the thoughts of someone like Luther, Calvin, Wesley or Edwards might merit consideration. If so I could email you some passages. Keep after it!

I have reached that point yet in my primary source search, but if you would email them, I would appreciate it!
Nathan said…
I'm not sure, scanning the list of more recent authors you've chosen to include, whether you are interested in the more conservative moderns, but J. Gresham Machen wrote an entire book on the subject, called The Virgin Birth of Christ.
Anonymous said…
Just a quick question...why the big leap between Aquinas and Barth? Nothing worth mentioning during those many, many years?