The Nicene Creed

Article 3: . . . Who for us men, and for our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man. . . . 

The fundamental thought and concern of this third article is that of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. Jesus “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.” The word “incarnate” literally means “in the flesh.” It is not a biblical term but a theological one. It indicates that the eternal Son of God has come in the flesh. It means that God’s Son has taken upon Himself our flesh and become one of us. 

The incarnation of the Son of God has taken place only through the instrumentality of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary. As the Nicene Creed states it, Jesus Christ “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.” The Apostles’ Creed is perhaps a little more specific at this point. There we read that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” The incarnation therefore is to be explained by the miraculous operation of the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary. That which was conceived in Mary and born from her was not the result of the natural union of man and woman. It was rather the result of the direct operation of the Spirit of God in Mary. In short, it was a wonder of grace. 

The fact of the virgin birth is more and more being disputed today. Writes Geddes MacGreggor in his book, The Nicene Creed, page 57,

The doctrine of the Virgin Birth (that is, the assertion that Mary, the mother of Jesus, conceived Him in her womb without any human male cooperation) seems to those who account themselves “liberal” in their approach to the Christian faith a peculiarly incredible, not to say ludicrous notion and perhaps the most conspicuous obstacle to an acceptance of the traditional Catholic views. Embarrassment about this doctrine, however, is not entirely confined to “liberals”; many thoughtful “conservatives”, Roman Catholic and Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran, feel ill at ease with it.

The view that is more and more accepted today is that Jesus was simply the product of a natural union between Joseph and Mary. His conception and birth were no different from that of any other. Jesus had a human father just as any one else. There was nothing miraculous at all about His birth. 

To take such a position of course requires that certain Bible passages be “explained away.” Thus, for example, there is the well-known passage of Isaiah 7:14that foretells the birth of Jesus: “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and call His name Immanuel.” Then there are the two very well known gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth. First, there is the account of Luke. In Luke 1:26-38 we have the record of the appearance of the Angel to Mary and the announcement that she shall mother the Christ-child. In this account Mary is called a virgin (vs. 27). And it becomes clear from the message of the angel that as a virgin she should bring forth the Christ-child. “The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God” (vs. 35). Next we have the account inMatthew 1. According to this passage the word of the angel has come true and Mary is great with child. Joseph has not been informed either by the angel or by Mary as to God’s wonder work in her. All he can conclude is adultery on the part of Mary. Hence, he determines to put her away privately. But then the Angel appears to Joseph in a dream and reveals all. “Fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost” (vs. 20). In this connection Matthew also cites Isaiah 7:14 and finds in this event the fulfillment of this particular prophecy (cf. vss. 22, 23). 

The response of those that deny the virgin birth is essentially threefold. 

First, it is pointed out that only two of the gospel accounts mention the virgin birth, Matthew and Luke. And these two accounts are obviously to be understood allegorically. By this is meant that the events recorded in these passages did not necessarily take place as they are recorded. These “events,” in other words, are not to be understood literally but figuratively. They serve merely to point us to some deeper truth and meaning. The Bible, we are told, is full of such allegories. 

Secondly, it is pointed out that the virgin birth is not mentioned at all in the rest of the N.T. It is not mentioned in the epistles. Nor do we find it in the book of Acts which records the missionary labors of the early church. In the book of Acts all emphasis is laid on the resurrection of Jesus; but no mention is made of the virgin birth. This only confirms therefore that the accounts in Matthew and Luke concerning the virgin birth are to be understood allegorically. If the early church had understood these accounts as literal history, more emphasis would have been placed on the fact of the virgin birth in the rest of the N.T. 

Finally, it is pointed out that the word translated “virgin” in most English translations of the Bible does not mean virgin at all but simply “young woman” or “maiden.” The Hebrew word betullah and the Greek word parthenos simply refer to an unmarried woman. Furthermore, we are told that in the O.T. times this did not imply virginity at all. In early Hebrew, as in other primitive societies, girls were normally married very early, shortly after puberty, so that the question of virginity did not arise at all. Hence, when Isaiah prophesied concerning the birth of Christ, all he was saying was that a young, unmarried woman would conceive and bear a son and call His name Immanuel. 

In response to this we wish briefly to point out several things. 

First, we must point out that the two gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth are obviously not to be understood allegorically. It is true that there are allegories in the Bible. But all sound rules of interpretation militate against understanding the gospel accounts of Jesus’ birth allegorically. They are so obviously intended to relate historical fact. If these two passages of Scripture are to be understood allegorically, then there is no passage of Scripture that we can assume accurately relates to us simple historical fact. 

Secondly, it is quite obvious that Isaiah 7:14 does not simply foretell that a young, unmarried woman shall conceive and bear a son. This is evident from the fact that this conception and birth were to serve as a sign in Israel. Notice what the prophet said, “Therefore the Lord Himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel.” The point here is that to serve as a sign there must be something unusual about this conception and birth. It must partake of the nature of the miraculous. But certainly this would not be the case if “virgin” is translated “young woman.” There is nothing extraordinary in that a young, unmarried woman should conceive and bring forth a son. This has happened repeatedly throughout history. But there is something unusual if this young woman is a virgin. And this is undoubtedly the idea of Isaiah. A virgin would conceive and bear a son. 

Finally, it is true that the virgin birth as such is not mentioned in the N.T. except in the birth accounts of Matthew and Luke. We must not fail to see however that the fact of the virgin birth, although not expressly mentioned, certainly is implied throughout the N.T. It is implied in the truth of the incarnation which runs as a golden strand throughout the entire N.T. Scriptures. Time and again, in many different passages, we are taught that Jesus Christ is the Son of God come in the flesh. This in turn necessarily implies the virgin birth. How else can you possibly explain the incarnation? In fact, the virgin birth and the incarnation of Jesus are so inseparably connected that where the one is mentioned the other need not even be expressed! The one simply presupposes the other. And this is undoubtedly the reason why in the N.T. the fact of the virgin birth is not mentioned other than in the two gospel accounts of Matthew and Luke. Some things are so obvious they need no more be mentioned. 

This in turn brings us to the central issue. The real issue here is whether Jesus is the eternal Son of God or merely a man. Those who deny the virgin birth do so because they have already denied the true divinity of Jesus Christ and therefore the idea of the incarnation. Once you deny these, then, to use the words of Geddes MacGreggor whom we quoted earlier, the virgin birth is “incredible,” “ludicrous,” an “embarrassment,” and a “conspicuous obstacle. ” It must at all costs be destroyed. For the virgin birth points to only one thing—the incarnation. However, if, in turn, we by faith accept the simple teaching of the Bible concerning the incarnation—that Jesus is the eternal Son of God come in the flesh—then the way is clear also to accept the very clear teaching of the Bible concerning the virgin birth of Christ. 

In the third article of the Nicene Creed the early church confessed her faith in the incarnation and virgin birth of Jesus Christ. She confessed that Jesus “was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.” This confession simply followed from the truth she had confessed in the previous article—that Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, very God of very God. 

This confession of the incarnation and the virgin birth of Christ has also been the confession of the true church of Christ down through the ages. He who will not also make this his confession can not claim to be a part of that church.