The significance of the Virgin Birth

For Christians the purpose of Christmas is to celebrate a miracle. The miracle in question is that, in the words of the Apostles Creed, Jesus Christ was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.’ In this final blog post for 2019 I shall consider the significance of the fact that Jesus came into the world by means of this particular miracle.

The fulfilment of God’s word through Isaiah

The first thing to note is that this miracle tells us that what God says will happen comes to pass. As Matthew tells us: ‘All this took place to fulfil what the Lord had spoken by the prophet: ‘Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (which means, God with us).’ (Matthew 1: 22-23).

Over seven hundred years before Jesus was born, God declared through the prophet Isaiah that the eventual consequence of the unbelief of King Ahaz of Judah would be the collapse of the kingdom of Judah and the end of the Davidic dynasty. However, he also declared that that would not be the end of the story because beyond this disaster something new would take place: ‘a virgin shall conceive and bear a son and his name shall be called Emmanuel’ (Isaiah 7:14).

What the miracle of the virgin birth tells us is that things worked out exactly as God said they would. By the time Jesus was born the kingdom of Judah was no more and the Davidic dynasty had come to an end, and in that situation the Virgin Mary gave birth to a son whose ‘name’ (i.e. whose identity) was ‘God with us’ (‘us’ being the whole human race). [1]

Jesus’ divinity and humanity

The second thing to note is that this miracle points us to the truth that Jesus Christ is both divine and human. Jesus name is ‘God with us’ because he is God. He is ‘mighty God’ (Isaiah 9:6). He is the divine Word that from all eternity was with God and was God (John 1:1). He is ‘God over all, blessed for ever’ (Romans 9:5). However, his name is also ‘God with us’ because through the miracle of the virgin birth ‘the Word became flesh’ (John 1:14) by taking our human nature upon him.

Jesus divine nature is bestowed on him by God the Father from all eternity. In the words of the Nicene Creed, he is ‘begotten of his Father before all worlds.’ His human nature, however, is something that he possesses because of his birth in time from the Virgin Mary. To quote the Athanasian Creed:

‘…the right Faith is that we believe and confess: that our Lord Jesus Christ, the Son of God, is God and Man:

God, of the substance of the Father, begotten before the worlds: and Man, of the substance of his Mother, born in the world.’

The grace of God in Jesus’ birth and our rebirth

The third point to note is that the particular form of this miracle points us to the truth that both the birth of Jesus and our own subsequent births as children of God are utterly dependent on the gracious activity of God himself.

As Charles Cranfield explains, the fact that Jesus was ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’ means:

‘…that God himself made a new beginning in the history of his creation by coming in person and becoming part of that history. He himself originated this particular human life, that of Jesus, by a new act of creation. Therefore Jesus Christ is not a saviour emerging from the continuity of our human history, but God in person intervening in history from outside history.’ [2]

Furthermore, the fact that:

‘…  Jesus’ mother was a virgin attests that God’s redemption is ‘by grace alone.’ Here our humanity, represented by Mary, does nothing more than accept, than submit to, being simply the object of God’s grace. That is the real significance of the address ‘favoured one’ to Mary in Luke 1:28. The male, characteristically the dominant and aggressive element of humanity, is excluded from this action and set aside, and in Mary our humanity’s part is simply to be made the receptacle of God’s gift, the object of God’s mercy: ‘Here am I, the servant of the Lord, let it be with me according to your word’ (Luke 1:38).’[3]

When John describes how we become children of God through faith in Jesus he uses language which deliberately recall Jesus’ miraculous birth in order to emphasise that our new birth is likewise a result of divine rather than human activity.  As with Mary, so with us, the role of human beings is simply to believe in and accept the gift of new life that God gives to us. ‘But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God; who were born not of blood, nor of the will of the flesh, nor of the will of man, but of God’ (John 1:12-13).

What all this means for us

For us as Christians today, the way that Jesus’ birth fulfilled the word of God spoken through Isaiah reminds us that we can always trust God to do what he says he will do. This means that we can rely on his promises given to us in Scripture that through Jesus he has rescued us from sin and death and will enable us in due time to live with him for ever in his eternal kingdom.

Secondly, the  fact that Jesus is both divine and human means that we have both an all powerful saviour who is able to perform what God has promised, and a sympathetic saviour who understands our human weakness and fragility from the inside. ‘For we have not a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin. Let us then with confidence draw near to the throne of grace, that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need’ (Hebrews 4:15-16).

Thirdly, the fact that both the birth of Jesus and our rebirth as children of God are gracious gifts that we as humans did nothing to achieve highlights our need for humility. We need to constantly recall that we have been saved by grace and that our calling is simply to be thankful and to express our thankfulness in lives of joyful obedience.

[1] For this interpretation of Isaiah 7:14 see J A Motyer. ‘Content and context in the interpretation of Isaiah 7:14,’ Tyndale Bulletin 21, 1970, pp.118ff.

[2] Charles Cranfield, The Apostles’ Creed (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1993), p.30.

[3] Cranfield, p.30.

The Church of England’s new charter for Relationship, Sex and Health Education.

What is the new charter?

Having recently produced a digital charter, the Church of England has now produced what it calls ‘A charter for faith sensitive and inclusive relationships education, relationships and sex education (RSE) and health education (RSHE).’ [1]

The background to this new charter is the fact that from September 2020, all primary schools will be required to teach both Relationships Education. and Health Education and that all secondary schools will be required to teach Relationships Education and Sex Education. The new charter, which has just been issued by the Church of England’s education office, is intended as a document which ‘schools of all foundations, faiths or otherwise’ will sign up to as a declaration of the principles which will underly their teaching of these subjects.

The charter itself consists of eight commitments and it is preceded by introductory material from the education office which explains the thinking behind it.

Two problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

From an orthodox Christian perspective there are two serious problems with the thinking revealed in the introduction.

The first problem concerns the purpose of education.

The introductory material quotes two biblical passages which it says underpin the Church of England’s approach to education:

‘So God created humankind in his image, in the image of God he created them.(Genesis I:27, NRSV)

I have come in order that you might have life—life in all its fullness.(John 10:10, GNB)’

It then says:

‘Everyone will be treated with dignity as all people are made in the image of God and loved equally by God. All pupils have a right to an education which enables them to flourish and is set in a learning community where differences of lifestyle and opinion (within that which is permissible under UK law) are treated with dignity and respect ; bullying of all kinds is eliminated; and where they are free to be themselves and fulfil their potential without fear’

These words are intended as an application of the two biblical passages to the sphere of education.  These words are fine in themselves, and set out principles for education which all Christians should accept and seek to put into practice. However, the problem is that they don’t address the crucial question of what human flourishing involves.

Down the centuries many answers have been given to the question ‘what does it mean to flourish as a human being?’, but the Christian answer is that people truly flourish when they live in the way that God created them to live. God created his human creatures to live in a certain way as those made in his image and they will only truly flourish, both in this world and in the world to come, if they obediently  live in this way.

That is what the  ‘life in all its fulness’ offered by Jesus means. Because of the power of sin in our lives we cannot naturally live in the way we were created to live, but Jesus offers us the supernatural opportunity to begin to do so.

This being the case, an education that is  intended to enable people to flourish needs to be an education that enables people to learn what it means to live in obedience to the way that God created them to live through faith in Jesus Christ. If we offer children and young people anything less, then we are selling them short. However much they learn about other subjects, they will never truly flourish as human beings unless they have learned about what Paul calls the ‘obedience of faith’ (Romans 1:5) and have begun to put it into practice.

The education office’s material is fundamentally flawed because of its silence on this point. What they are proposing is thus a sub-Christian form of education that will never lead people to the flourishing life God desires for them.

The second problem with the introductory material is that it declares that Church of England schools need to ‘clearly   differentiate between  factual   teaching   (biology, medicine, the law, marriage, different types of families and the composition of society) and moral teaching about relationships and  values.’

From a Christian perspective such differentiation is entirely mistaken. Moral teaching that faithfully reflects how God has created his human creatures to live is just as much factual teaching as teaching about the other subjects mentioned in this quotation. For example, it is factually just as much the case that God has said ‘You shall not commit adultery’ (Exodus 20:4) as it is that sex is biologically oriented towards pregnancy, or that the Equality Act prohibits discrimination against certain categories of people, or that there are now families where the adults are in a same-sex relationship.

The big point here is that God’s creation of the world means that there is a moral order that is both objective and universal in just the same way that there is a physical order which is objective and universal. We learn about this moral order, and what it  means to live rightly in the light of it, through the use of our natural reason and through the Bible, which authoritatively confirms and supplements what we learn through our natural reason. To be properly educated children and young people need to be taught that this is the case and what this means for the way they should behave.

Problems with the commitments in the charter itself.

These two problems with the introductory material are then reflected in the eight commitments of the charter itself.

These commit schools to helping children and young people to form ‘healthy relationships’ and to promoting ‘reverence  for  the  gift  of  human  sexuality.’ However, they are silent as to what ‘healthy relationships’ involve (except for the vacuous statement that they should be ‘hopeful and aspirational’) and they are equally silent about what it means to show ‘reverence for the gift of human sexuality.’

The charter further commits schools to giving children and young people the ‘wisdom and skills’ to ‘make their ‘own informed decisions’ but it is silent about what this means in practice.

This vagueness reflects the fact that there is no commitment to advocating any particular approach to morality, The idea seems to be that children and young people should be offered a smorgasbord of different approaches to sex and relationships and then left to make up their own minds. We would not take this approach when teaching them chemistry, or maths, or foreign languages, so why should it be adopted in teaching about sex and relationships?

Education surely needs to be about passing on knowledge to the next generation. As Christians we know that this knowledge includes (a) knowledge about the moral order made known to us by God through our natural reason and through the words of the Bible, and (b) knowledge about how through Jesus we are supernaturally enabled to live according to this moral order.

The charter seems to want to relativize this knowledge so that the truth God has made known to us is reduced to simply one of many ‘tenets and varying interpretations of religious communities on matters of sex and relationships.’  If the charter is put into effect children and young people will not be taught that there is a right way to live, and that through faith in Jesus Christ they can begin to live in this way. They will be taught instead  that there are very many different opinions about the right way to live and that it is up to them to make up their own minds about the matter and up to them to then try to live in the way they decide.

Two misleading arguments in relation to the charter.

It may argued that there is a legal obligation to teach RSHE in the way suggested by the charter and its introductory material because of what is said in Equality Act of 2010. The material from the education office implies this is the case by the way that it links the new charter to the requirements of the Equality Act. The introductory material notes, for example, that ‘All schools and academies are required to act within the requirements of the law, including the Equality Act of 2010’ and the third commitment in the charter declares that the way RSHE is taught will not ‘discriminate against any of the protected characteristics in the Equality Act.’

It is true that that schools are covered by the Equality Act. Part 6 Chapter 1 of the Equality Act lays down in detail how the act applies to schools. However, it also specifically states that ‘Nothing in this Chapter applies to anything done in connection with the content of the curriculum.’ [2]  This means that the Equality Act does not determine what should be in the RSHE curriculum. This argument is thus simply a red herring.

It may also be argued that schools have to teach in the way suggested by the charter  because we live in a pluralistic society in which there are many different religious and philosophical approaches to sex and relationships just as there are on many other matters, and in which there will be children and young people in school who come from a variety of religious and non-religious backgrounds and from a range of different types of families.  However, the plurality in society and in the backgrounds of school pupils does not negate the responsibility for those engaged in Christian education to pass on as clearly as possible the knowledge that has been revealed to us by God.

If Church of England schools are simply going to echo the variety of voices in contemporary society rather than clearly and confidently declaring Christian truth to the next generation, then there is very little point in their existence. Children and young people will not obtain the fulness of life Jesus offers unless someone tells them about it. It is surely the purpose of church schools to do this and that has to include giving clear teaching to children and young people about what it means to live rightly as followers of Jesus  in the areas of sex and relationships.

The charter that the Church of England has produced will not help this to happen. The education office should therefore be asked to withdraw it and produce a properly thought through plan for encouraging an authentically  Christian approach to teaching RSHE instead.

[1] The Church of England, ‘Relationship, Sex and Health Education,’ at

https://www.churchofengland.org/more/education-and-schools/church-schools-and-

academies/relationships-sex-and-health-education

[2] Equality Act 2010, 89 (2) at https://www.legislation.gov.uk/ukpga/2010/15/section/89.