Today I finish up talking about G. C. Berkouwer’s reflection on the Christmas event in his book, The Work of Christ.
There is a real problem with the way popular and theological understandings of the virgin birth have developed. The root of the problem goes to the influence of St. Augustine. Berkouwer quotes Augustine as saying that Jesus was “generated and conceived without any lust or carnal desire and therefore without original sin.” (the quote is for Augustine’s Enchiridion).
Berkouwer points out that even John Calvin denied that this was true. He quotes from Calvin’s Institutes, “We do not hold Christ to be free from all taint merely because he was born of a woman unconnected with a man, but because he was sanctified by the Spirit. . .” This is how Calvin interpreted Luke 1:35 where the angel tells Mary that she will conceive because of the Holy Spirit and power of God. Therefore, the passage concludes that the child will be holy.
So, according to Berkouwer, there is a fine distinction in Reformed theology between the lack of a human father, which is a negative thing that scripture does not emphasize, and the positive idea that Jesus was sanctified or made holy from conception by the presence of God’s spirit. Berkouwer stresses that Jesus was sanctified– a more positive way to speak than to talk about his sinlessness. He shows that the New Testament more often uses this positive trait of holiness or sanctification.
People resist saying that Jesus was sanctified because that word has come to mean changing from sinful to holy. Theology has spoken of the sinlessness of Jesus to make sure people understand that Jesus was always holy. But that is the point of connecting his holiness with his birth. Scripture does not speak of his sanctification as over against original sin. Sanctification means that Jesus was set apart at birth for his work (Berkouwer’s book is about the work of Christ). So in John 10:36 Jesus is the one God sanctified or set apart and “sent into the world.” This puts Jesus sanctification at the point of his being sent into the world—in other words, in the Christmas story.
Berkouwer’s defense of the virgin birth consists of debunking the misinterpretations of the virgin birth that have caused many to reject it. One major misinterpretation has had to do with the devaluing of marriage that emerged in the monastic movements and in the celibacy of the priesthood.
Now, to be fair, I have to say that this attitude toward marriage comes more from Paul’s advice against marriage in 1 Corinthians 7 and a misinterpretation of Jesus’ saying about looking at a woman with lust. It looks to me like the glorification of Mary’s virginity only arose as derivative from an asceticism and devaluation of marriage which came about during the stress of persecution and martyrdom. There was a general devaluation of ordinary life. The idea of emulating the virginity of Mary fit with this.
But it is true that somewhere along the way the church developed a bad attitude about human sexuality and the idea of the virgin birth as the elimination of sex from the conception of Jesus became a thing.
Berkouwer wrote in the 1960s before much of the Roman Catholic reevaluation of their position. So I am going to pass over what now seems an overly harsh critique of their former position. He was aware of Protestant mishandling and unfounded speculation about the virgin birth as well. He says,
It will be up to the Church to show the way back to the scriptural witness, so that the incarnation may once more be adored not as a breathtaking “cosmological” event, but as Christ taking the way of poverty and forsakenness. Christ was not an ideal person who groped for the upward way, but the incarnated Word, who, as God’s Messiah, was not subjected to God’s curse in order that he might take this curse upon himself (p.133).
This quote points the way forward. Berkouwer’s next chapter is about Christ’s suffering. Maybe I will deal with that and the following chapters as we approach Easter.
But I have gone through his theological reflection on the virgin birth here to show that some of the reasons people have for rejecting the virgin birth are based on the poor explanations of the doctrine Christians have given rather than on the primary doctrine. People who have problems with the virgin birth because they reject the supernatural or miraculous nature of the event, will still have problems. But at least Berkouwer shows a way to cut through some of the fog around the Christmas event and see what New Testament actually says.