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.