Virgin birth

The Annunciation by Henry Ossawa Tanner 1896

The same few friends I spoke of in a previous post (and I) have been trying to make sense of the virgin birth. You know, light-hearted stuff. Some see no special need for the virgin birth and feel no great loss were Christians to give it up completely. They view it as one of several myths the earliest believers created, I’m told, to promote their religious agenda. I’m aware, of course, that denying the virgin birth of Christ is standard for older liberal forms of Protestantism, but I’m surprised to see it denied by younger Evangelicals. I’m less and less surprised by what I run into among Evangelicals. Call me old fashion (or Orthodox, unless you’re Orthodox!), but I think this is a fatal move, theologically and existentially, when thought through in terms of the early Church’s understanding of salvation as participation in God via Incarnation (the union in Christ, of the divine and human natures). I realize the very question points to a mystery that infinitely exceeds our understanding, but it’s helpful to try to point in the right direction and to state why the virgin birth is (or is not) important. For the record, I approach this from the ancient, conciliar single-subject/two-natures Christology.

It’s helpful to imagine how Jesus, a fully human being subject to our development stages of ego formation within a family unit, might manage to come to embrace an utterly unique identity for himself relative to God – that of the ‘Son’ – an identity that informs his later mature convictions about the divine origins of this identity, his own pre-existence, his unity/equality with God, etc. For example, what must the earliest influences upon Jesus’ emerging sense of identity and mission have been for him to construct an identity within (or so connected to) the divine identity, or, at least, an identity convertible with prerogatives and experiences appropriate only to God? Only a dramatic narrative of origins could account for such a development. It certainly can’t be anything on par with the whole scope of divine activity in the world preceding Jesus (i.e., a vision, a dream, an angelic visit). Those acts, being common, aren’t sufficient to ground so unique an identity as Jesus adopts for himself. I imagine Mary and Joseph telling Jesus of the miracle of his birth and can appreciate the power of such a narrative: God, more literally than any other human could claim, was his Father, i.e., directly responsible for his conception.

At the same time, the eternal Son has to occupy this history, this journey – from conception to the grave, and not just share it with some other human individual born of natural generation. It’s harder to plum the metaphysical question on this second point, but I think it points to the divine side of the equation (if I can put it crudely) which is that free and creative act of conception, or origin. Gregory of Nazianzus’ line comes to mind: “Whatever has not been assumed has not been healed.” It’s not just that Jesus has to have a way to world-construct that makes his identity truly convertible with the divine identity (the virgin birth accomplishes that), it’s also that God truthfully relates to every aspect of this human journey personally as his own, making Jesus’ existence a genuine assumption of human nature by God. I think the virgin birth is where both sides of the equation open up to each other. Without it you don’t get an individual who can world-construct as God (or within the divine identity), nor do you get God who can relate to this human journey as his own.

Furthermore, it’s not enough for Jesus to be convinced. Mary and Joseph have to be convinced, for the young Jesus is not insulated against their influence. His sense of identity and mission isn’t downloaded into his consciousness in spite of the cultural influences that shape his development. Like every other human being, his sense of identity and mission emerge within a matrix of family relations. The formation of this identity in Jesus is, in large part, the work of his parents. They also require a narrative to pass on to Jesus regarding his origins, a narrative that unambiguously takes Jesus’ origins out of their hands and places it into God’s. With the miracle of a virgin birth, Joseph and Mary could not claim to have brought Jesus in to the world. The kind of relationship, or sense of ownership, that any parent might assume is simply not an option for Joseph and Mary. There could be no doubt in their minds that God was Jesus’ father, responsible for his very conception. That forms a powerful narrative for Joseph and Mary and Jesus inherits it.

Maria-1But if Joseph and Mary conceive in the normal course of procreation, there is no personal act by which God conceives himself within Mary, nothing about Jesus’ coming to be that embodies God’s unique act of owning this conception as his own – and thus no incarnation of God. Incarnation (as a truly hypostatic/personal union of the divine and human) is a fully interpersonal act of divine-human reciprocity from its first moment, including the act of conception. But if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s choice, then his conception is not the unique product of a divine-human reciprocity. I submit that both God and humanity must each have relevant say-so. God must personally offer himself in his own conception and birth; he must say ‘yes’. But this is absent if Joseph and Mary produce Jesus “naturally.”

Protestants don’t know what to do with Mary at this point, but this is where her faith comes in. If Abraham is the Father of our faith in the manner in which his risky act of faith opened up a pathway for God to act in the world, Mary is the Mother of our faith given her equally risky faith that opened up a pathway for God’s ‘yes’ to manifest itself concretely in the world. Mary’s ‘yes’ is where and how God’s ‘yes’ to Incarnation becomes materially realized in the world, and thus the fully interpersonal nature of incarnate divine-human reciprocity is established as the foundation of Jesus’ existence from conception onward. Mary (not Jesus) is the human ‘yes’ in response to God’s invitation at this point. She is a real part of the drama of divine incarnation. Jesus will step into this personally in due time, but only because her ‘yes’ to God makes it possible.

All of this evaporates if Jesus is the product of Joseph and Mary’s natural union. Such a view becomes ‘adoptionistic’. How so? Because God ‘adopts’ as himself (viz., as his own divine incarnate self) what Joseph and Mary determine and produce ‘naturally’. And it follows that were God not to adopt their act, Jesus would still be born. This is a problem, because if divine incarnation embraces and defines the human journey from its beginning (which it must do to avoid slipping into adoptionism), no part of its history (including conception) can occur merely ‘naturally’, that is, as a matter of course given the dispositions of nature’s causal structures, as the fruit of human wills doing what human wills naturally do. But this is what we have with a naturally born Jesus – somebody who was conceived naturally and who would live naturally like anyone apart from any unique act on God’s part making Jesus’ conception and existence possible; and a human life that is conceived apart from the necessity of God’s own free and personal creative act cannot be God in the womb.

I suppose one can see in Jesus a naturally born Jew who became God (‘bottom up’) and so choose to identify him as God-incarnate by theological fiat, but one can’t logically attribute every part of Jesus’ history (namely, his conception) to the necessity of a divine act by which his conception is made possible and becomes actual. So a helpful question to ask might be, How does created nature in this instance manifest the absolute impossibility of Jesus’ conception apart from the personal choice of God to unite with humanity in Mary’s womb? If you don’t have the union of the divine and the human here, in the full reciprocity of divine-human relations, then whatever you have, it’s not God taking the human journey up into himself, personally, in order to heal it.

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One comment on “Virgin birth

  1. Tom says:

    Parthenogenesis has been brought up. I’m not even sure parthenogenesis is a helpful category, because the incarnation of God isn’t a form of “re-production” per se. This isn’t a rare case of a single member of a species reproducing itself asexually. This is the birth of God. It’s off the map. To be blunt – the birth of the infinite God does not lie within scope of nature’s material possibilities, as if God programs into Schrodinger’s equation a magic code that defines the time and place at which nature’s powers combine, on cue, to ‘naturally’ produce God. The birth of God isn’t a ‘natural occurrence’, the flowering of capacities intrinsic to nature and stored with its history until just the right convergence of its powers unlocks the incarnation within it. It’s a ‘personal’ act, and like all personal acts it’s not prisoner to antecedent natural tendencies.

    Incarnation can be intended from the get-go, certainly. But that doesn’t mean it occurs within and as the outcome of nature’s causal powers. Crude example: I intend to engage in the greatest intimacy possible with wife my. That’s WHY I married her and started down this road, but given the nature of the relationship desired, there’s never anything automatic about the intimacy. It’s not entailed in marriage. You still have to choose it. It remains irreducibly a personal/hypostatic act even if everything in the world prior to it existed for its sake.

    The whole project of reducing God’s actions in the world to the constraints of nature’s causal capacities and dispositions never makes it to the end of the runway. It doesn’t work because God isn’t one variable alongside an innumerable number of variables that together ‘add up to’ “nature.” God sustains the created order – sure. And he’s present to and within it. But transcendent intimacy like this doesn’t lock God within nature’s causal structures.

    I’m not saying there’s no “collaboration” to speak of. God does collaborate through otherwise natural mechanisms. Creation ex nihilo is a non-collaborative creative act, yes – but all God’s acts within creation have to take into account something on the created side of the equation because now there ‘is’ an actual creation, i.e., something other than God. For example, divine incarnation could not have come through a cow or a dolphin. There had to be a sufficiently fitted created agency collaborating with God. We’ve spelled out this necessity of created participation: Mary’s “yes,” the free offer of her body, the whole fittedness of Israel’s religious traditions, and on and on. There are a lot of ways the world had to collaborate with God for God to incarnate. But most specifically, and relevantly, is Mary’s free response, her “yes.”

    But God is also doing something not intrinsic to created agencies, not already present in nature’s own capacities and laws. For those who don’t want God essentially effacing created agencies, who want to affirm the full integrity of creation’s contribution (and I count myself among them), let us extent that concern equally to God and so not collapse divine agency into creation. We’re talking about finite creation, on the one hand, and infinite uncreated being on the other. Whatever necessary part God contributes to some ‘act’ in the world, it’s going to light up as TILT in any attempt to account for it in finite, created terms. Because God is not another finite, created agency alongside others, his contribution is also going to be off the map, and we’ll have to live with a certain discomfort.

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