How God became Jesus
The heading of this blog post is taken from the title of a new book defending the doctrine of the incarnation against the arguments of the American writer Bart Ehrman (for details see http://www.zondervan.com/how-god-became-jesus.html). When I saw the title of this book my mind turned to thinking about the virginal conception of Christ since this was the moment that the incarnation took place, the point in space and time when ‘God became Jesus.’
I have quite deliberately written ‘the virginal conception of Christ’ rather than using the more traditional formula ‘the virgin birth of Christ.’ This is because the miracle recorded in the Gospels of Matthew (Matthew 1:18-25) and Luke (Luke 1:26-37 and 2:1-7) has to do with how Jesus was conceived and not with how he was born. As far as we know the birth of Jesus was non-miraculous. As part of God entering fully into the human condition it was just as painful and messy as any other human birth since the fall.
The miracle described in the Gospels is summarised in the words of the Nicene Creed which declares that God the Son ‘was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary.’ The miracle has two aspects. Positively, it says that the incarnation, the coming into existence of Jesus Christ as one person with two natures, one divine and one human, was a miraculous act of God through the Holy Spirit. Negatively, it says that Jesus that Mary was a virgin and that therefore Jesus had no human father.
For a long time now those who have difficulties with the supernatural aspects of Christianity have had problems with the idea that Jesus had a miraculous conception. The reason that a reference to the birth of Jesus from the Virgin Mary was included in the Creeds and in Article II of the Thirty Nine Articles was to make clear that Jesus was truly human since he took human nature from the humanity of his mother. Ironically, however, the virginal conception has since become a stumbling block to those who hold that such a thing would be impossible or would mean that Jesus was not truly human.
In response to these objections we need to note, firstly, that nothing is impossible with God. Whatever he creates is truly created. We can see this if we consider the gospel stories of the conversion of water into wine (John 2:1-11) and the multiplication of loaves and fishes (John 6:1-14). In both cases what came into being came into being miraculously rather than naturally. Nevertheless, we are told that what resulted was wine, bread and fish. What God creates is truly created. This means that if God chooses to create human nature from the Virgin Mary then what He takes is truly human nature even though it came into existence through the miraculous activity of the Holy Spirit rather than as a result of sexual intercourse.
Secondly, as C S Lewis notes in his book Miracles, what we see in the case of the virginal conception is simply a telescoped version of what takes place in all human births. Lewis points out that in all conceptions ‘the human father is simply an instrument,’ he is but the latest of a long line of carriers through which God has passed on life from one generation to the next. However, ‘once, and for a special purpose’ God ‘dispensed with that long line which is His instrument: once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events. Once the great glove of Nature was taken off His hand. His naked hand touched her.’
What we see in the birth of Christ is what is fundamentally true of all births, namely, that they are the result of the creative activity of God bringing new life into being in the body of a woman. It follows that what happened in the case of the birth of Christ cannot call His true humanity into question. If the action of God means that Christ was not truly human then the truth that Lewis highlights means that no other baby is truly human either (a position which no one has yet sought to defend).
Thirdly, we cannot decided in advance what God did or did not do. The New Testament tells us that Jesus was miraculously conceived and that Jesus partook of the ‘same nature’ (Hebrews 2:14) as all other human beings. We therefore have to accept both truths rather than trying to second guess God (never a good idea).
If we accept that God acted in this miraculous fashion we are still left with the question of the significance of the miracles. All biblical miracles have meanings. In the language of John’s Gospel they are ‘signs’ pointing us to some aspect of the relation between God and man. Thus the raising of Lazarus points us to Jesus being ‘the resurrection and the life’ (John 11:25) and the multiplication of the loaves and fishes points us to Jesus being the ‘bread of life’ (John 6:35).
If we ask what the virginal conception signifies, the answer is twofold.
First, the conception of Jesus by the action of the Holy Spirit point us to the truth that it is the work of the Holy Spirit (‘the Lord and giver of life’ to quote the Creed) that makes possible the union of human beings and God that takes place in Christ. To quote the great Swiss theologian Karl Bath:
‘Through the Spirit it becomes really possible for the creature, for man, to be there and to be free for God. Through the Spirit, flesh, human nature, is assumed into unity with the Son of God. Through the Spirit this Man can be God’s Son and at the same time the Second Adam and as such ‘the firstborn among many brethren’ (Rom 8:29), the prototype of all who are set free for His sake and through faith in Him. As in Him human nature is made the bearer of revelation, so in us it is made the recipient of it, not by its own power, but by the power conferred on it by the Spirit, who according to 2 Cor 3:17 is Himself the Lord.’
Secondly, the virginal nature of the conception points us to the fact that it is only the action of God the Holy Spirit and not anything that we can do as human beings that makes union with God possible. If we look at the biblical account of the birth of Christ and consider the place of Mary’s virginity within it what we find is that her virginity has no positive significance of its own. It is, purely and simply, the human not working that as such highlights the working of God. Like the biblical accounts of births from barren mothers such as those of Isaac (Genesis 18:9-15, 21:1-7), Samson (Judges 13:1-20) and Samuel (1 Samuel 1:1-2:11) there is a contrast between human inability and divine ability that mirrors the bigger biblical picture of the way in which God relates to humankind.
Once again this point is picked up by Barth who notes that from the biblical perspective the absence of human sexual activity in connection with the birth of Christ is not because heterosexual sexual activity is considered sinful per se (as some accounts of the virginal conception have sometimes suggested), but because it is a sign of the fact that all human striving and achieving comes under the judgement of God and is set aside in favour of the work of God.
He writes that human virginity too comes under God’s judgement, in the sense that it is not Mary’s virginity but the work of the Spirit that brings about the birth of Christ, but that by grace her virginity becomes a sign of the divine activity:
‘Human virginity, far from being able to construct for itself a point of connexion for divine grace, lies under its judgement. Yet it becomes,not by its nature, not of itself, but by divine grace, the sign of the judgement passed upon man, and to that extent the sign of divine grace. For if it is only the virgo who can be the mother of the Lord, if God’s grace considers her alone and is prepared to use her for His work upon man, that means that as such willing, achieving, creative sovereign man is not considered, and is not to be used for this work. Of course, man is involved, but not as God’s fellow-worker, not in his independence, not with control over what is to happen, but only –and even that because God has presented him with Himself – in his readiness for God. So thoroughly does God judge sin in the flesh by being gracious to man. So much does God insist that He alone is Lord by espousing the cause of man. This is the mystery of grace to which the natus ex virgine points. The sinful life of sex is excluded as the source of the human existence of Jesus Christ, not because of the nature of sexual life nor because of its sinfulness, but because every natural generation is the work of willing, achieving, creative, sovereign man. No event of natural generation will be a sign of the mystery indicated here.’
As Barth says, these two points about the significance of the virginal conception do not mean that human beings have no role to play in their own salvation; that God does everything and that we do nothing. The accounts of Mary and Joseph in the gospels tell us that we do have a role to play, but that our role is to assent to what God is doing in gratitude and obedience, even when what God is doing is totally unexpected, does not at first seem to make any kind of rational sense and exposes us to ridicule or even danger. Like Mary, we have to learn to say even in such circumstances ‘let it be to me according to your word’ (Luke 1:37).