Beata Virgo

1268px-Henry_Ossawa_Tanner_American_active_France_-_The_Annunciation_-_Google_Art_Project1

Virgin birth. Orthodox belief. Still held to by conservative Protestants, but abandoned as mythology by many. Even among those who hold to it as a matter of tradition, it’s an artifact of that tradition that may not animate and sustain a living faith. I’ve been recently mulling over this with some friends and thought I would express here my own sense of the importance and necessity of the Virgin Birth.

Two preliminary comments. I don’t view the virgin birth as a means of avoiding original sin. I could be convinced otherwise I suppose, but I don’t think there’s any original sin to avoid. So I don’t go there to explain the need or necessity of the virgin birth. Secondly, Dwayne and I have elsewhere argued the importance of virgin birth to Jesus’ self-understanding and sense of mission. That’s very important, but I’m not addressing that here. But do not underestimate the formative power of Jesus knowing that in an absolutely unprecedented and mysterious manner, his birth and existence are not the result of natural procreative acts. Very literally, his human existence is explainable only as willed by God uniquely and specially. The power of such a belief to shape Jesus’ self-understanding (and his parents’ understanding of who Jesus is) is incalculable, but I’ll not explore it here. Instead I want to try to explain why we think the virgin birth is metaphysically necessary to divine Incarnation. I don’t mean explaining metaphysically ‘how’ the Incarnation occurred. Fat chance. All I want to show is that a natural birth through normal human procreation is in fact incompatible with divine Incarnation.

Why do I suppose the necessity of virgin birth to divine Incarnation? I do so because it’s the only way I see to make sense of a one-subject/two-natures (Chalcedonian) understanding of the God-Man. If we suppose natural procreation (Joseph impregnates Mary), we then have to concede the existence of Jesus’ human nature independent of divine activity or intention, and this is precisely what we want to deny, namely, that the ‘human nature’ of Jesus has any existence independent of the Logos. Conciliar Christology maintains that the human nature of Jesus has existence only insofar as it subsists in the person of the Logos. Jesus’ human nature was thus “enhypostatic,” that is, made concrete only in the Logos. But if we suppose natural procreation, we cannot say Jesus’ human nature exists only by virtue of this unique divine action. On the contrary, if Mary conceives after the natural order of things, Jesus’ birth and life follow as a matter of natural law and the Incarnation is a ‘conjunction’ of two naturally independent realities. But we say the concrete human nature, the human life of Jesus from beginning to end (conception, gestation, birth, life) exists only as it subsists in the Son. It has no explanation for its existence outside God’s personal, intentional willing.  It’s ontologically constituted, made possible at all, in and through the Logos. But if Mary conceives naturally, we have a full and created account of Jesus’ human nature and existence as not uniquely enhypostatized in the Son.

The virgin birth – not mythology.

Rorschach redemption

87241fc01b5a5f0a8aef2974cc9bb8feMy good friend Dwayne shared some of his spiritual journey with me. In describing how he used to view God in conversation with the Bible to how he now views God, he compared his reading of Scripture to Rorschach’s inkblot test. The metaphor struck me so deeply, I wanted to share it.

Rorschach was a Swiss psychologist who developed the inkblot test used to study a person’s psychological health and emotional functionality. It’s not an objective test (like a multiple test question). It’s a projective test. It asks a subject to respond to ambiguous stimuli (those weird inkblot images). The mind fills in the gaps and resolves the ambiguity on its own and thus reveals itself in its responses. What you see reflects as much your own state of mind as it does what’s on the card. I don’t know how much they use the test nowadays. I took it years ago. Got the job, so I guess I passed.

As Dwayne describes it:

When I first started doing theology as a profession in 1998, I was pretty much a double predestination Calvinist. I believed that God as Creator had the complete right to eternally predestine some to eternal heaven or eternal hell. I thought of it as simple property rights. If God made us for himself and he wants to play with us like toy soldiers, so be it. Who are we to tell the Creator of all what to do? If he wants some of us to be the winning side and others to be the losing side, so be it. It made total sense to me from the Scriptures.

But as I look back, more than anything I see that I looked at the Scriptures like a Rorschach Blot. I saw my own theological and emotional despair more than what the Scriptures actually say. Back then, I pretty much hated myself, and hated everyone else, why paradoxically being codependent as hell. What I’ve learned in my personal journey is that many times we see the Bible as we are, not as it is.

I like the analogy – a lot. I wouldn’t say the Bible is pure ambiguity (not even Rorschach’s inkblots are that). It is sufficiently specific (specific people, era, culture, etc.). Nonetheless, it is a mirror that reveals the reader. We are the text being read. It’s a thought shared by at least some biblical authors themselves. James 1.23-25:

Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says is like someone who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself, goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like. But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it—not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it—they will be blessed in what they do.

I believe it was Barth who said something along the lines of ‘The Bible is not where we come to ask God our questions and have him provide the answers, but where God asks the questions and we must answer’. Scripture is where we come to be read by God, parsed by the Spirit, exegeted by the Logos. This is why though theology may be more than autobiography, it’s never less than autobiography. It’s also why, though “I” must read for myself, I must never read “alone.” We read the Scriptures together to call each other into being. This challenges me to examine my own reading. How does my reading of Scripture reveal my own sense of self, my fears, my angst and despair, my desires, etc.? Similarly, what do the readings of others say about them?

Not to books are we called,
Not to parchment, quill, and ink;
But to your flesh, voice, and blood,
Else deeper do we sink.
I read to be read by you,
That your Spirit me may parse;
Not for an errorless text,
Christlike persons are far more sparse.