Do you believe in the virgin birth? People in my denomination do not have to, although it has been a litmus test for employment of clergy in some congregations.
When I am directly asked the question, I say yes. However, it is an odd question. First of all, what is a virgin birth? The gospels of Matthew and Luke report a virginal conception. The birth of Jesus seems to have been normal enough. The phrase “virgin birth” probably comes from the creeds that say “born of the virgin Mary.” So it is a statement about Mary, not about Jesus. At the time Jesus was born, his mother was a virgin. Luke’s story stresses the power of God as the Holy Spirit who “overshadows” Mary (Luke 1:35). Matthew tells the story of Joseph, who was confused and embarrassed by the mystery of Mary’s pregnancy. He goes ahead with the marriage because the miraculous nature of the pregnancy is revealed to him.
People tend to put the virgin birth along side the resurrection as a supernatural event to be accepted by faith. But there is a difference. A surprisingly strong case exists for the resurrection on just historical grounds. There was a body that went missing. There were eye-witness reports of appearances. There was the effect the resurrection had on the lives of the witnesses. As one of Paul’s speeches in Acts says it did not happen in a corner (Acts 26:26).
But the virgin birth did happen in a corner. This is a private fact that only Mary and her close family could have known. So if you believe in the virgin birth, you do not do so because of historical evidence.
One of my seminary professors argued against the virgin birth on the grounds that it undercut the full humanity of Jesus. Therefore, he felt, it went against orthodox theology. If Jesus is truly fully human and identifies with us in our humanity, then he must have been conceived in the normal way. When you think about it, the normal way is a miracle too. When I was writing about creation last week, I mentioned Psalm 139 where it says that God knits us together in our mother’s womb. Why was that not good enough for Jesus?
So you could believe in the Incarnation without believing in the virgin birth. Nevertheless, the gospels testify to it and the church fathers incorporated it into the basic creeds. The churches have definitely seen the virgin birth as a sign pointing to the Incarnation.
There is an obstacle to believing that Mary was a virgin at the time of Jesus birth that I think stems from messed up teaching by some churches. This the idea that in order for Jesus to be sinless, the human element had to be taken out of his lineage. Notice that this would only be the male side of his lineage. In other words, original sin was passed on through the male side, so for Jesus to be sinless he could only have a human female lineage. That is ridiculous. Radical feminists might agree that the male side is evil. The virgin birth avoided testosterone poisoning and toxic masculinity!! But it is still ridiculous and not biblical at all. It would require us to think that normal human families are the transmitters of sin in the world. Only a supernatural elimination of human fatherhood could produce purity.
So if I had to connect the virgin birth to the sinlessness of Jesus, I would have to reject the doctrine.
However, there is nothing about that in the testimony of the Luke or Matthew. Those two gospel writers agree on very little in their stories of Jesus’ nativity. But they do agree on the virginity of Mary and the miraculous nature of Jesus’ conception. Their stories are very simple and do not seem to depend on pagan stories of the divine conception of heroes.
In Luke the story stresses the simple faith of Mary. “Let it be”(Luke 1:38), she says–as the Beatles lyrics note of Mother Mary speaking words of wisdom. Matthew stresses the faith of Joseph who accepts the strange circumstances as part of God’s promise of salvation and then leads his little family on a reverse exodus into Egypt. The gospels see accepting this miracle and mystery as a part of human faith.
Luke also stresses the power of God for whom nothing is impossible (Luke 1:37).
So, not because there is much historical evidence, but because I do accept the Christmas events as part of the divine promise of salvation and because I do believe that nothing is impossible for God, I can say “yes, I do believe in the mystery of the virgin birth.”