Ronald H. Hanko is pastor of Trinity Protestant Reformed Church, Houston, Texas.
3. The Virgin birth.
The reality and significance of Christ’s humanity are inseparably connected with belief in the virgin birth. The church father, Tertullian, saw that long ago:
Marcion (an early Gnostic heretic, R.H.), in order that he might deny the flesh of Christ, denied also His nativity, or else he denied His flesh in order that he might deny His nativity; because, of course, he was afraid that His nativity and His flesh bore mutual testimony to each other’s reality, since there is no nativity without flesh, and no flesh without nativity (On the Flesh of Christ, I).
This, to be sure, also sheds a new light on the liberal attacks on the church’s faith in the virgin birth that developed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s.
That calling into question of the doctrine of the virgin birth is still reflected in the Revised Standard Version’s translation of Isaiah 7:14. There the Hebrew word bethulah is translated “young woman” instead of “virgin,” greatly weakening Scripture’s testimony to the virgin birth. Now, this in itself is not of any great significance, since most of the more recent versions have followed the translation “virgin.” But those who still make use of the RSV, and of the older Revised or American Standard Versions ought to be aware that they have been influenced by liberal, higher criticism at this and at other points.
That Scripture does teach the virgin birth in Isaiah 7:14 is clear from a little study. In the first place, there is the obvious fact that a birth of a child from a young woman would not be a sign, and Isaiah is giving a sign to wicked King Ahaz in the passage. There is also the fact that the word, bethulah, is almost always used in the Old Testament not just in the sense of “young woman,” but “young unmarried woman” or “virgin.” Finally, the Holy Spirit, quotingIsaiah 7:14, in Matthew 1:23 uses a Greek word, the wordparthenos, which can only mean “virgin.” And the evidence of these passages is supported by the statement of Scripture in Matthew 1:25, that Joseph did not know (i.e. know sexually) his wife until after Jesus was born. Thus, both the Old and New Testaments bear clear witness to the virgin birth.
The doctrine of the virgin birth is important for several reasons. First of all, it is important for us to believe that, although Christ did not have a human father, He was nevertheless born as we are. He did not just find His humanity ready made and already existing, as it were, so that the incarnation would be something on the order of a case of demon-possession. Such a conception of His incarnation would call into question the very reality of His humanity, while the virgin birth is God’s own testimony to us, that His Son becameman and was made like us in all things.
Secondly, and with the emphasis on the word virgin, the virgin birth is a confirmation that Christ, though born a man, and of the flesh of the virgin Mary, was nevertheless born not “of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God.” The miracle of the virgin birth is part of the miracle that is Christ. It is in this connection that Isaiah spoke of the virgin birth as a sign. It is the first and greatest sign that Jesus is indeed the Christ.
Faith in the virgin birth does not, however, require faith in the perpetual virginity of Mary. Such is, as all know, the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church. But there have also been a number of Reformed leaders and theologians who held this, among them the Swiss Reformer, Ulrich Zwingli. Probably he and others taught this to defend the purity and holiness of Christ. Perhaps that is also the rationale behind the Roman Catholic teaching, though there it has degenerated into a form of idolatry.
We should realize that it is not Mary’s virginity, either before or after Christ’s birth, that guarantees His purity, and it is not necessary, therefore, to teach the perpetual virginity of Mary, a doctrine which has, after all, no Biblical foundation whatever. Rather, the guarantee of Christ’s purity and holiness is in the fact that He was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary herself, as a daughter of Adam, was subject to depravity and the pollution of sin, and the only power that could and did preserve Christ free from the taint of that inherited depravity was the overshadowing presence of the Holy Spirit. Christ, according to the words of the angel, would be “that holy thing” because He would be born through the coming of theHoly Ghost (Luke 1:35).
That, in fact, is part of the wonder of the incarnation: that the coming of God in our flesh swallows up and cleanses away the defilement of sin. There is, therefore, in the holy conception and nativity of Christ, the pledge that we too, united to Him by virtue of His humanity, shall be holy—that our sin and corruption shall be cleansed away.
In speaking of Christ’s conception, then, it has been customary among Reformed theologians to speak of a three-fold activity of the Holy Spirit: (1) the formation of. Christ’s human nature, (2) the sanctification of it, and (3) the assumption of it into the Person of the Son of God.
With regard to the first of these things, let it be said that there has been far too much idle speculation as to the manner of this conception of Christ. When even the conception of an ordinary human infant remains a mystery, how shall we explain the conception of Him Who came into the flesh through the secret operations of the Holy Spirit? The only thing that needs to be said is that in the conception of Christ, Mary was indeed the mother of Christ, not a mere surrogate: so that Christ was her flesh and blood, the fruit of her womb. With regard to the sanctification of Christ’s human nature by the Holy Spirit, Calvin says this:
We do not make Christ immune from all defilement, because he was begotten of his mother only without the cooperation of the male, but because he was hallowed by the Spirit, so that the generation might be pure and upright, as it was meant to be before Adam’s fall (Institutes, II, xiii, 4).
Thus, Calvin too suggests that there is in this sanctifying operation of the Holy Spirit the pledge of our own sanctification.
The last point, the assumption of the human nature into union with the divine, belongs to another discussion.
That Christ was conceived by the operation and overshadowing of the Holy Spirit, also reminds us of the important truth that the incarnation is a work of the triune God, of the Father, through the Son, and by the Holy Spirit. The work of the Holy Spirit especially is forgotten in this connection. The importance of that work of the Spirit we have already seen.
Moreover, that the incarnation is a work of God triune, also means that Christ Himself was actively involved in His own conception and nativity; that “eliminating the will of man . . . the Person of the Son of God prepared His own human nature” [H. Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, p. 352). To this Scripture testifies when it speaks of Christ “coming” in the flesh, and “taking upon Himself” the nature of the seed of Abraham (Heb. 2:14-16). This too is significant in that it reminds us of the wonder of the incarnation, and of the fact that though a man, He is also more than a man, the God of heaven and earth.
This also means that Christ is the Son of God in a two-fold sense. Certainly every Christian knows and believes that Christ is the Son of God as the Second Person of the Holy Trinity. But many do not realize that He is also the Son of God as far as His humanity is concerned. In that respect also His Sonship is unique, for even as a man He is not adopted to be God’s child as we are, but conceived and born of God. Nevertheless, insofar as He is man, He is God’s Son in a different sense than He is as the Second Person of the Trinity, for as a man His Sonship has a beginning, and He is the Son of God by conception and birth, not from eternity and by eternal generation.
This does not mean that we can ever really separate the two, for in both natures He is still but one Christ. Nor does Scripture ever distinguish the two senses in which Christ is the Son of God to the extent that in any particular passage which speaks of Him as Son, only one sense can be detected. A good example isPsalm 2:7; “I will declare the decree: the LORD hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.” Now, insofar as the Sonship of Christ is a matter of God’s decree, the reference is obviously to His Sonship in the human nature. As the second Person of the Trinity, in other words, He is not the content of the decree, but the decreeing God. The confirmation of this is found in Acts 13:33 where the passage is used in reference to the resurrection of Christ and, therefore, according to His human nature. Nevertheless, it is impossible to read the passage without also thinking of the eternal Sonship of Christ, so much so, that the passage is most often used as a reference to Christ as the second Person of the Trinity. Nor is this unfounded, for the reference to Him as God’s begotten Son is a reference that in other passages of Scripture testifies of His eternal Sonship (e.g. John 1:14, Heb. 1:5, 6).
What is more, this is not just a matter of speculation, nor id it an unimportant theological point, but contains a great deal of promise and comfort for us. In that Christ, also according to His human nature is God’s Son, there is for us the assurance that we also, who are but creatures, can be and shall be children of God. Both the possibility and the pledge of our sonship lie, then, in the truth that Christ is the Son of God also according to His human nature. The power of it is in His divine, eternal Sonship.
Our faith in the virgin birth and in the conception of Christ by the Holy Spirit are not just incidental matters, therefore, but part of the essentials of the faith. The Heidelberg Catechism is not wrong when it lists these doctrines among the things which are necessary for a Christian to believe (VII, 22, 23). May our belief be well-instructed.