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.