Berkouwer-Mary’s role and the sign

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?

About theoutwardquest

I have many interests, but will blog mostly about what I read in the fields of Bible and religion.
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