The Christmas season comes each year with the expected flurry of media attention to the biblical accounts of Christ’s conception and birth. The general thrust of the secular media is often incredulity toward the fact that so many people still believe the Bible’s accounts to be true. This year, the Pew Research Center released a report on Christmas Day indicating that almost 75% of the American people affirm belief in the virgin birth of Christ. Meanwhile, the Public Religion Research Institute found markedly lower levels of belief, with just under half affirming the historical accuracy of the biblical accounts. The PRRI research indicated that four in ten Americans believe the virgin birth to be part of a “theological story to affirm faith in Christ.”
In truth, the virgin conception of Jesus, which most respondents know as the “virgin birth,” is no latecomer to controversy and rejection. On April 11, 1823, Thomas Jefferson wrote a letter to John Adams in which he discussed his views concerning Jesus Christ. Jefferson was already known for his denial of miracles and other claims of supernatural intervention in history and nature. In this letter to John Adams, he predicts the collapse of all belief in the virgin birth of Christ:
And the day will come when the mystical generation of Jesus, by the supreme being as his father in the womb of a virgin will be classed with the fable of the generation of Minerva in the brain of Jupiter. But we may hope that the dawn of reason and freedom of thought in these United States will do away with all this artificial scaffolding, and restore to us the primitive and genuine doctrines of this the most venerated reformer of human errors.
Theological liberals deny the virgin birth as revealed truth; Thomas Jefferson saw the gospel accounts as “artificial scaffolding”; and modern Americans increasingly see the virgin birth as part of a “theological story” about Jesus.
Back in the early decades of the twentieth century, when theological liberals such as Harry Emerson Fosdick were denying the virgin birth, Baptist New Testament scholar A. T. Robertson rose to its defense. In a little 1925 book, The Mother of Jesus, Robertson isolated the alternatives: affirm the truth of the virgin conception of Christ, or abandon any claim of incarnation.
Robertson, who was among the most famous scholars of his day, taught at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary from 1888 until 1934. He understood exactly what was at stake. The modernists, as theological liberals liked to be known, accepted a distinction between the “Jesus of history” and the “Christ of faith.” They wanted to present a Jesus worthy of moral emulation, but not a supernatural Christ who was God in human flesh. In between, theological “moderates” attempted a compromise between orthodoxy and heresy, offering a Jesus who was supernatural, but not too supernatural. They were eager to reject the virgin birth but tried to hold to other facts of the incarnation. Robertson saw through both the modernists and the moderates. Neither presented a Jesus who was truly God in human flesh.
As Robertson understood, the virgin conception of Christ is both fundamental and necessary to the New Testament’s presentation of Christ.
He also saw what others try not to admit: if Jesus was not conceived by the Holy Spirit, then he had a human father. Without the virgin birth, there is no explanation for the incarnation. If Jesus had a merely human father, there is no authentic connection to the incarnational theology of Paul and John in the New Testament. All that remains is some attempt to claim that Jesus was a mere human being who had a unique divine mission, or who was uniquely God conscious, or who was somehow adopted by the Father into a form of deity. All of these are heretical Christs, and none of these can save.
The incarnation is itself supernatural in every respect. “If we believe in a real incarnation of Christ, we cannot logically object to the virgin birth on the ground of the supernatural feature in it,” Robertson insisted. Here he was targeting the “moderates,” who wanted a supernatural Jesus, but not too supernatural. They wanted to maintain a claim to the incarnation and the resurrection, but not to miracles and the virgin birth. Robertson saw their problem clearly: they were undercutting the very truths they claimed to defend. If the virgin birth is out, so is any New Testament claim of authentic incarnation.
He referred to the “common Unitarian view” that Joseph was the biological father of Jesus and responded, “If we take Joseph to be the actual father of Jesus, we are compelled to be illogical if we hold to the deity of Jesus, or consider Jesus as merely a man.”
Robertson also defended the accounts found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke, and tied them to incarnational affirmations in the Gospel of John and the writings of Paul. As Robertson asserted, “the whole New Testament presents Jesus Christ as the Son of God, once Incarnate, and now Risen and on the Throne of Glory with the Father.”
If the virgin birth is just part of a “theological story,” then we are not saved, for only the Incarnate God-Man can save. President Jefferson’s Jesus leaves a moral example, but cannot save us from our sins. The Jesus of the modernists was a mere man and the Jesus of the moderates possessed some kind of deity. The Jesus of the New Testament—all of the New Testament—saves to the uttermost.
And as for the virgin birth, A. T. Robertson said it best: “The virgin birth is the only intelligible explanation of the Incarnation ever offered.” And so it is, and ever was, and always will be.
A. T. Robertson, The Mother of Jesus: Her Problems and Her Glory (New York: George H. Doran, 1925).
Letter from Thomas Jefferson to John Adams, April 11, 1823. http://www.beliefnet.com/resourcelib/docs/53/Letter_from_Thomas_Jefferson_to_John_Adams_1.html
“December PRRI/RNS Religion News Survey,” Public Religion Research Institute, Tuesday, December 17, 2013. http://publicreligion.org/research/2013/12/prri-rns-dec-2013-survey/
“Most Americans Believe in Jesus’ Virgin Birth,” Pew Research Center, Wednesday, December 25, 2013. http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2013/12/25/most-americans-believe-in-jesus-virgin-birth/