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.