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Today I have a point or two about the birth of Jesus as a sign from G.C. Berkouwer’s book, The Work of Christ. Berkouwer was dubious about Barth’s contention that the virgin birth related to the incarnation the way a noetic sign points to an ontological fact. For Berkouwer, the virgin birth had to be a fact as well. But the idea of a sign does exist in Isaiah 7:14 where the sign is that a young woman shall conceive and bear a son. Matthew refers back to this passage in his nativity story (Matthew 1:23). (I am old enough to remember that most of the fundamentalist attack on the Revised Standard Version of the Bible came from the change of “virgin” to “young woman” in that translation. In defense of the RSV, the translator’s motive was not to undermine the doctrine of the virgin birth but to accurately translate Isaiah’s Hebrew. In defense of the KJV, young woman will mean pretty much the same as virgin if you think it as meaning too young for child bearing.) Berkouwer criticizes those who claim that Isaiah refers directly to the virgin Mary. Berkouwer notes that there is an exegetical dispute about whether the sign refers to a miracle or to the faith of the mother. He thinks the faith of the mother to follow instructions and name the child Immanuel is probably the sign. This name was for a child born in Ahaz’s day. Yet Matthew is not wrong in seeing here a fulfillment. Matthew did not mean, according to Berkouwer, that Jesus birth was a “coming true” of a future event foretold by Isaiah. Matthew meant that the name Immanuel and its meaning applies to Jesus as well as to the child of old. It means “God with us”, and that is what Jesus was. So both those who think Matthew misuses Isaiah and those who think the sign refers to a miraculous birth are wrong. Still the miracle of Jesus birth and the faith of Mary (and Joseph) do not stand apart. The two things correlate (correlate is a favorite word of Berkouwer). Human faith and the action of God belong together. So the sign spoken of by Matthew is a sign that points to the coming together of human faith and divine action in the birth of Jesus. As I understand him, Berkouwer is modifying Barth’s notion that the virgin birth is a sign of the incarnation. Berkouwer is saying that the virgin birth is a sign of the human-divine synergy that is included in the incarnation. This relates to an important theme in Berkouwer’s larger work which enables him to depart from the extremes of Calvinism and affirm a human/divine correlation in salvation. It is a little amusing to me that Berkouwer goes out of his way to deny that giving the faith of Mary an important place smacks of Roman Catholic veneration of Mary. If the faith of Mary corresponds to the faith of some unknown mother in Isaiah’s day, then the idea that Mary stands for a long line of Israelite faith seems right. The genealogies connect Mary to Rahab, and Ruth, and Bathsheba. So to lift up Mary as the pinnacle of human faith seems right to me. The best of Roman Catholic (and Eastern Orthodox) devotion to Mary makes this point. She, along with other saints, represents the faith of those we hope will pray for us now and in the hour of our death (from the Rosary liturgy). I wish that Berkouwer had brought up the vision in Revelation 12:1-6. There a “great sign” appears in heaven. A woman gives birth to a male child. The woman in the vision relates somehow to Eve as the serpent from Genesis is there too. However, the woman must represent Israel and specifically, in giving birth to Christ, Mary. So how does the idea of a sign connect up with this passage?
My custom the last few years has been to post my family Christmas letter on the blog. This enables me to link to it on social media. When you have been pastor at several churches you have too many people who know you to mail letters to all of them. So here it is:
Christmas greetings from Dave and Betty Corder. Let’s look at the states of 2014.
Tennessee: In early January we visited Paul’s family. Everyone wants to know about Pearl and Nika. Both have serious childhood diseases. But they have been in remission for a while now. So they are leading relatively normal lives and catching up on their studies. Elias and Eliza are teenagers now. Elias is a blur of motion (at least in all my photos). But he has a serious side. Eliza reads Greek, but she was reading Shakespeare in English. She also has qualified as a soccer referee. Jennifer homeschools the children. Paul is city planner for Lebanon, Tennessee.
Florida: We went on from there to spend the rest of January in Florida. In Crystal River, we took in the Manatee festival. We went snorkeling with the Manatees. In January they come up the rivers and seek the warmth of inland hot springs. One day we drove across the state to Cape Canaveral to watch them launch a satellite.
Missouri: We had not totally escaped the polar vortex. Winter went on and on when we got home.
Betty got to lead the survivor’s walk at the Relay for Life. She had a good, cancer-free year. She participated in some art and craft fairs. She resumed singing in the church choir.
During the summer Dave began to have a pain in his side and other symptoms. It was finally determined that he needed to part company with his gall bladder. The surgery was in October. This was about the time the Kansas City Royals were in the play-offs and World Series. So he pretty much ignored minor things like surgery and recovery to concentrate on baseball. He is slowly getting back to normal.
Montana: In June we flew to Montana for a brief visit. Dave’s mother is trying to adapt after Tal’s death. She is now 93. We got her out in the open air. She even walked across a swaying bridge to an island in the Missouri River. Dave’s brother, Floyd, had to have open heart surgery back in January. He is doing OK but has to be careful. Floyd’s wife, Lois, is still having some chemo therapy, but she is beating back the lymphoma she was found to have about the same time Betty had her problems. We also got to see Dave’s brother, Roger, the farmer.
Kansas: Karl’s family lives on the other side of Kansas City in Olathe, Kansas. We see each other often to celebrate birthdays or attend activities of our grandson, Connor. And Connor has plenty of activities: karate, swimming, soccer, gymnastics and tennis. He is six and started Kindergarten this Fall. Karl, the computer science grad, works for a major bank. He is trying to keep your information secure.
We wish you peace and joy on these Holy Days.
In England a chocolate company is running this ad commemorating something that actually happened 100 years ago this Christmas.
I continue my Christmas season reading of G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ. I am reading the parts about the incarnation and the virgin birth.
Berkouwer has been expounding on Karl Barth’s position on the virgin birth. Barth saw the virgin birth as a sign of God acting to do a new thing. He saw the incarnation as a fact that stood on its own apart from the virgin birth. Nevertheless, he argued against those who saw the virgin birth as unnecessary. It was not just an arbitrary sign. It was a sign that fit with God’s intention to condescend to human form in the incarnation. Hark the Herald Angels Sing says, “Mild he laid his glory by.” That is a description that conforms both to the virgin birth and the incarnation. The two belong together.
The incarnation was a fact. The virgin birth was a sign. Barth illustrated this be drawing an analogy with the empty tomb and the resurrection. The resurrection was a fact. The empty tomb was a sign. It was not just any sign but a sign that specifically pointed to the fact of the bodily resurrection.
Berkouwer objected to this. He appreciated that Barth intended to affirm the virgin birth and bodily resurrection. But others welcomed Barth’s distinction and used it to relativize the biblical testimony. Berkouwer thinks this relativism is implicit in Barth’s distinction between sign and fact.
In other words, Barth opened the door to those who would say that the virgin birth was not a fact, but perhaps a literary device or a metaphor. Scripture does not identify it this way at all. Berkouwer wryly points out that the only mention of a sign in the nativity narratives is Luke 2:11 where the shepherds hear that finding a baby wrapped in strips of cloth will be the sign by which they will recognize the savior. The stories treat the statement that Mary had not had relations with a man as a fact.
The problem for us, of course, is that it is not a verifiable fact. Even the empty tomb has witnesses and plausibility that the virgin birth seems to lack. But Berkouwer is right. Matthew and Luke both treat it as a fact. The stories in those two gospels are very different. But they have in common the testimony that Jesus was born in Bethlehem and that he was born of a virgin.
There are midrash-like elements to both gospel stories. So those who want to see the virgin birth as a literary device have some support. However, the birth in Bethlehem and Mary’s status as a virgin seem to be bedrock around which the midrash-like elements build. Virgin probably meant that Mary not only had not had sex, but that she was a premenstrual adolescent. Thus, Luke has parallel miracles. Elizabeth was too old. Mary was too young. Yet God acted.
God normally does not work through miracles that seem to go against the laws of nature. Most of the so-called miracles connected with the Exodus, for instance, are just amplified natural events. The virgin birth, though, does seem to defy natural law. Yet it is not true that this was more credible in premodern time because people back then were more superstitious.
Joseph, for instance, would have known that Mary’s pregnancy was naturally implausible.
He was not ignorant of the facts of life. If he eventually believed, it was partly because his faith in God overrode his doubt. But it might also have been because he knew that she was too young to be expecting a child at all. Yet she was.
Anyway, my inclination is to believe that the statement that “nothing will be impossible with God.” (Luke 1:37) is the point of the miraculous birth. I connect this with my belief in the resurrection–also contrary to what we know about natural law. But I believe because God is stronger than death. To disbelieve because the way these miracles happen is mysterious to us, would be to fail to recognize the greatness of God.
I am reading G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ. I ended my last post promising to talk more about Berkouwer’s exposition of Karl Barth on the virgin birth.
Karl Barth is hard to understand. I doubt I have ever totally grasped his point of view. Berkouwer has criticized Barth for letting the grace of God in Christ so dominate his thinking that it rendered several points of the Torah meaningless. There is a kind of replacement theology or supersessionism in Barth. Yet Barth wrote about the virgin birth in 1938 when he must have been thinking about events in the German-speaking world. Nazism had triumphed and was militarizing Germany. Everything Hebrew was under threat. The Holocaust was not evident yet to most people and WW II had not started. But you could see these things coming if you were not in denial.
This is probably the context in which we should see his odd-sounding interpretation of the relation of Jesus’ humanity to the virgin birth. He points out, according to Berkouwer’s recapitulation, that the birth of Jesus did not abolish his humanity. He was in the words of Galatians, “born of woman.” This is the case with all humans. Humanity comes from the woman as well as from man. So that Jesus did not have a human father does not undo his humanness.
Rather, according to Barth, part of the sign of the virgin birth was a judgment upon the male. History has largely been written in terms of male power and importance. But Jesus’ nativity comes about in the sphere of women. That is why it was little noted. It is not just the absence of a father but the absence of male power that characterizes the birth of Jesus.
Now I naturally want to react to this. We live in a society where there a lot of cultural back-and-forth about gender. There is male-bashing and there is an indignant response to it. Feminism has hit our society in waves. Relations between the genders have deteriorated. But that was not Barth’s world. I think I can understand that he might have seen a very toxic masculinity in Hitler and the whole ethos of Germany in his day. There was a real historical connection between this and the Roman Empire. At least, Hitler thought his Reich would be a new empire to rival Rome’s.
So the birth of Jesus in Roman times to a humble peasant woman could stand as a judgment upon power and military coercion. The elimination of the male side of Jesus’ line (the genealogies go back to David, who was “a man of war”, but they include a number of prominent women ) is for Barth a part of the sign that points to God doing something new and unprecedented.
To us Barth had a conservative view of gender. He was a kind of complimentarian, but not the kind that emphasized the subjugation of women. In his interpretation of creation and Genesis he emphasized the phrase “male and female he created them.” In a certain sense, the “man” created in the image of God had to include both male and female. Berkouwer does not tell us how Barth reconciled his idea that part of the sign of the virgin birth included a judgment upon the male and his idea that creation requires both for full humanity.
It helps a little that Barth did not see the virgin birth as connected to the sinlessness of Jesus (as though the male part of people conveys sin, while the female is “sugar and spice and everything nice”. Some, in the history of theology argued that the virgin birth eliminated original sin from the birth of Jesus. The 51st Psalm’s confession that “in sin my mother conceived me” was taken to mean that sex was the vehicle for sin to infect the human race. By taking sex out of the conception of Jesus, the virginal conception made it possible for Jesus to be sinless.
This was not at all a part of Barth’s thinking. Just as the incarnation stood on its own without the virgin birth, so the sinlessness of Jesus stood on its own apart from the virgin birth. The virgin birth was not an explanation for either. The idea that the virgin birth was a certain kind of judgement was part of Barth’s understanding of the virgin birth as a sign. It was a sign of God’s judgement. It did not make Jesus divine or sinless. It pointed to something about God. Doctrines like the incarnation and the sinlessness of Jesus spoke of facts about Jesus. The virgin birth was a sign, rather than a fact.
Berkouwer singles out this attempt to separate the fact from the sign as the central point of his critique of Barth. I will talk about that in my next post.
In The Work of Christ G. C. Berkouwer details the discussion between Emil Brunner and Karl Barth about the virgin birth. So we get into some heavy Christmas theology.
Beginning in the 1920s, Brunner called for reform of the creedal understanding that Jesus “was born of the Virgin Mary.” Brunner was not a liberal in the school of Schleiermacher nor was he a follower of Bultman. So his opposition to the virgin birth was not based on the idea that it was a superstitious doctrine enmeshed in a the mythical notion of a “three-decker universe” with earth sandwiched between heaven and hell. The liberals and the Bultmanians claimed that Christianity had to be adapted to scientific-minded modern thought. So the virgin birth had to go.
Brunner’s problem was different. He did not attack the incarnation itself as incompatible with a modern world-view. Rather, he gave faith-based reasons to reject the doctrine. The incarnation, or coming of Christ in the flesh, was a focal and true teaching of Christianity. It was a miracle. But Brunner thought that the virgin-birth idea was a clumsy attempt to provide an explanation for the miracle.
Matthew and Luke, according to Brunner, were at an early stage of christology. The idea that Jesus manifested the eternal Word of God was yet in the future. So they did the best they could to point to the beginnings of the person of Jesus. To answer the question of how Jesus came to be as the Son of God, they gave the answer of the virgin birth. When John’s gospel, however, pushed the origin of the person of Jesus back to “in the beginning”, the dogmatic reason for the virgin birth went away. This explanation was no longer needed. Brunner thought that perhaps the prologue to John was actually written against the virgin birth.
So, for Brunner, the doctrine that Jesus had to be born of a virgin instead of by the normal human process undercut the doctrine of the incarnation and took something away from the full humanity of Jesus.
Karl Barth and Emil Brunner had a lot in common and people included them both in the category of “neo-orthodox” theologians. But Barth disagreed with Brunner about this.
Barth did not see the virgin birth as an explanation for the origin of the person of Jesus. He saw it as a sign. He explained that in the New Testament a sign pointed to the power of God. For instance, in Mark 2 Jesus heals a paralytic and says that he should pick up his stretcher and go home as a sign “that the Son of Man has authority on earth to forgive sins” (Mark 2:11). Barth sees the virgin birth as a similar sign that points to the new and sovereign action of God in Jesus.
In Luke’s gospel the angel tells Mary that the birth miracles involving Mary and Elizabeth will happen because “nothing will be impossible with God (Luke 1:37). This is not an explanation for the origin of Jesus but a testimony to the power of God.
For Barth, the virgin birth is not what the incarnation stands on. The incarnation stands by itself.
The virgin birth points to something else.
Berkouwer largely agrees with Barth, although he offers his own criticisms. But understanding Barth is difficult so I am going to go on with Barth’s interpretation of the dogmatic meaning of the virgin birth in another post.
To summarize this post, Emil Brunner objected to the virgin birth as not in harmony with the incarnation and the full humanity of Christ. Barth did not think the virgin birth had to do with that. The incarnation and the full humanity of Christ stand as true Christian teachings. But the virgin birth is also a true teaching. It points to something separate–but very important in its own right.
I have chosen to read and react to G. C. Berkouwer’s The Work of Christ as a pre-Christmas project.
Readers will grasp, I hope, that Berkouwer presents a unique and challenging perspective.
For one thing, he treats the incarnation as part of the work of Christ. I think most are used to thinking in terms of the divine identity of Christ–is he God or not. But when John says that the Word became flesh, he refers to an action as well as an identity.
This leads to a second challenging perspective. For Berkouwer you cannot separate the coming of Christ in the flesh from his other work. Particularly, the incarnation links to the passion of Christ in that both are part of the humiliation of Christ that leads to his exaltation in the resurrection and ascension.
Now we come to where Berkouwer deals with the Christmas event itself, the incarnational birth of Christ. But again, we may find his starting place surprising. Rather than lift up the prophesies from the Hebrew Bible, or the gospel nativity stories, Berkouwer starts with a concept he draws from the Pauline letters (this includes the Pastorals and Ephesians, all of which Berkouwer just calls writings of Paul).
The concept he begins with is that of the great mystery:
And without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifested in the flesh. . . (1 Timothy 3:16).
And he cites Romans 16:25 where Paul speaks of
my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery that was kept secret for long ages.
The revealing of Christ is a mystery in the sense of something that was hidden or kept secret for ages and then came to light. This correlates with Paul’s only direct mention of the birth of Christ:
But when the time had fully come, God sent forth his son, born of a woman, born under the law. . .(Galatians 4:4).
According to Berkouwer it is this mystery that was present in cloaked form in the prophets and is proclaimed openly in the nativity stories. It was a mystery that had to wait for the appropriate time.
Berkouwer thinks it is a mistake to try to resolve this mystery in an abstract way. Some theologians, for instance, have spoken of the uniting of the divine Logos with the human being, Jesus. Some have spoken of the incomplete human nature of Jesus, part of which got replaced by the Logos. These speculations do an injustice the scriptures which make no attempt to explain the “how” of the incarnation. They simply point to the “great mystery”.
Berkouwer’s point is that the event that was willed by God happened on a historical time line. It happened “when the time had fully come.” It was a mystery in the sense that only God knew what he intended. The carol,It Came Upon a Midnight Clear, has these lines:
For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
But the event itself was cloaked even to the prophets whose words have other meanings until the event itself happens. Then, with the disclosure of the mystery, you can see the prophets imperfectly pointing to it. I think his notion helps with the fact that the New Testament takes the prophecies out of context. It takes them out of the context of their own time and puts them in a new context that conforms to the reality of what God has now revealed. What the nativity of Christ did for Matthew, for instance, was to justify a new look at the Hebrew Bible to see what he could find there that might point to God’s work in Jesus.
This was attractive because the history of Israel seemed to lead to a dead-end so far as the line of David was concerned. And yet there were promises about David’s descendants.
I don’t think Berkouwer uses the concept of mystery in an obscuring way. You could say that the birth of Christ is a mystery that cannot be explored because it is extrahistorical. But Berkouwer’s idea of mystery points precisely to the historical event, or as he calls it the “local event.” In some ways I guess local event is better. Unlike the crucifixion, the birth does not play out on the large stage of history in a capitol city. It involves humble people and a humble place. Yet it relates to time and history. The time had to “fully come”. This had to do with aftermath of the Maccabees revolt, the Roman expansion, and the spread of the Jewish diaspora.