Verse of the Day

Sunday, December 23, 2007

Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth? Mohler and Machen

Below are some quotes from J. Gresham Machen’s monumental work, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1930), to complement Al Mohler’s most recent blog entry:

“Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?”, Wednesday, December 05, 2007

All of the following excerpts are from Machen’s final chapter, number XV, “Conclusion and Consequences”:

“The story of the virgin birth is the story of a stupendous miracle, and against any such thing there is an enormous presumption drawn from the long experience of the race.

As it is however, that presumption can be overcome; it can be overcome when the tradition of the virgin birth is removed from its isolation and taken in connection with the whole glorious picture of the One whom in this tradition is said to be virgin-born. What shall we think of Jesus Christ? That is the question of all questions, and it can be answered aright only when the evidence is taken as a whole. It is a fact of history, which no serious historian can deny, that in the first century of our era there walked upon this earth One who was like none other among the children of men. Reduce the sources of information all you will, and still that mysterious figure remains, that figure who is attested in the Epistles of Paul, that figure who walks before us in lifelike, self-evidencing fashion in the Gospels, that figure upon whom the Christian Church was built. Many have been the efforts to explain Him in terms of what is common to mankind, to explain Him as a product of forces elsewhere operative in the world. Those explanations may satisfy the man who treats the evidence, in pedantic fashion, bit by bit; but they will never satisfy the man who can view the whole. View Jesus in the light of God and against the dark background of sin, view Him as the satisfaction of man’s deepest need, as the One who alone can lead into all glory and all truth, and you will come, despite all, to the stupendous conviction that the New Testament is true, that God walked here upon the earth, that the eternal Son, because He loved us, came into this world to die for our sins upon the cross.

When you have arrived at that conviction you will turn with very different eyes to the story of the virgin and her child. Wonders will no longer repel you. Rather will you say: “So and so only did it behoove this One, as distinguished from all others, to be born.”” (pg. 381)

“To our mind, the story of the virgin birth, far from being an obstacle to faith, is an aid to faith; it is an organic part of that majestic picture of Jesus which can be accepted most easily when it is taken as a whole. The story of the virgin birth will hardly, indeed, be accepted when it is taken apart from the rest; but when taken in connection with the rest it adds to, as well as receives from, the convincing quality of the other things about Jesus which the New Testament tells.” (pg. 382)

[Note: At this point Machen enters footnote number 1, where he cites B. B. Warfield’s relevant article, “The Supernatural Birth of Jesus: Is It Essential to Christianity?”, American Journal of Theology X (Jan., 1906), pp. 21-30. This article has been reprinted in Warfield’s Christology and Criticism (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1932), pp. 447-458; in his Biblical Foundations (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1958), pp. 117-128; and in his Biblical And Theological Studies, ed. Samuel G. Craig (Philadelphia: The Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1968), pp. 157-168. Source: A Bibliography of Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield 1851-1921, by John E. Meeter and Roger Nicole (n.p.: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing Co., 1974), pg. 35.]

“From the beginning Christianity was the religion of the broken heart; it is based upon the conviction that there is an awful gulf between man and God which none but God can bridge. The Bible tells how that gulf was bridged; and that means that the Bible is a record of facts. Of what avail, without the redeeming acts of God, are all the lofty ideals of Psalmists and Prophets, all the teaching and example of Jesus? In themselves they can bring us nothing but despair. We Christians are interested not merely in what God commands, but also in what God did; the Christian religion is couched not merely in the imperative mood, but also in a triumphant indicative; our salvation depends squarely upon history; the Bible contains that history, and unless that history is true the authority of the Bible is gone and we who have put our trust in the Bible are without hope.

Certainly, whatever we may think of it, that is the view of Bible authority which the Bible itself takes. The authors of books like the Gospels are not intending merely to give their readers inspiring poetry or an instructive philosophy of religion; they are intending to narrate facts.” (pg. 385)

“The Bible, in other words, does not merely tell us what God is, but it also tells us what God did; it contains not merely permanent truths of religion and ethics, but also a gospel or a piece of good news.

An integral part of that piece of news, to the authors of the First and Third Gospels, was the fact that Jesus Christ was conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the virgin Mary. If that fact is rejected, then the witness of these writers – and hence the witness of the Bible – is in so far not true.

If, therefore, the virgin birth be rejected, let us cease talking about the “authority of the Bible” or the “infallibility of Scripture” or the like. Let us rather say plainly that that authority and that infallibility are gone. We may indeed hold that many things which the Bible says are true, even though this thing that it says are untrue. Many earnest souls – if we may for the moment speak in general terms and without reference to the virgin birth – adopt such a mediating position. They hold that, although the Bible is wrong in many particulars, although it displays no supernatural freedom from the errors that beset other books, yet it contains some things that are true, and upon those things we can ground our hope for time and for eternity. Far better is it to say these men are right, to say that the Bible is not infallible but only partly true, than to say that the Bible is infallible in the sphere of religion and ethics, and that the external happenings that it relates are matters of indifference to our souls. Many earnest Christians hold the former position; but a man who really holds the latter position cannot logically be a Christian at all. Christianity is founded upon the redeeming work of Christ which was accomplished in Palestine nineteen hundred years ago; to be indifferent to the record that sets forth that work is to reject the gospel in which Christ is offered as our Saviour from sin and wrath.

But even if the former position is taken, even if we do continue to rest for salvation upon part of the record of facts which the Bible contains, still, if we reject other parts, our belief in the authority of the Bible is gone.” (pg. 386)

“…there are scarcely any limits to the confusion of religious discussion at the present day. The Bible teaches the virgin birth of Christ; a man who accepts the virgin birth may continue to hold to the full truthfulness of the Bible; a man who rejects it cannot possibly do so. That much at least should be perfectly plain.” (pg. 387)

“If a man affirms that Jesus was born without human father, being conceived by the Holy Ghost in the virgin’s womb, it is difficult to see how he can escape the plain meaning of such terms; and thus when he makes that affirmation, he has taken the momentous step of affirming the entrance of the supernatural into the course of this world.…the question of the virgin birth brings us sharply before the question of the supernatural, and…a man who accepts the virgin birth has taken his stand squarely upon supernaturalistic ground.” (pg. 390)

“…the two elements of Christian truth belong logically together; the supernatural Person of our Lord belongs logically with His redemptive work; the virgin birth belongs logically with the Cross. Where one aspect is given up, the other will not logically remain; and where one is accepted, the other will naturally be accepted, too. There may be halfway positions for a time, but they are in unstable equilibrium and will no long be maintained.

Certain it is that men who reject the virgin birth scarcely ever hold to a really Christian view of Christ….In the overwhelming majority of cases those who reject the virgin birth reject the whole supernatural view of Christ….Seldom does any real belief in the incarnation go along with a rejection of the miracle of the virgin birth.” (pg. 391)

“…a man cannot reject the testimony of the New Testament at this point without serious peril to his soul.” (pg. 392)

“…without the story of the virgin birth our knowledge of the Saviour would be impoverished in a very serious way.” (pg. 393)

“Our knowledge of the virgin birth, therefore, is important because it fixes for us the time of the incarnation. And what comfort that gives to our souls! Marcion, the second-century dualist, was very severe upon those who thought that the Son of God was born as a man; he poured out the vials of his scorn upon those who brought Christ into connection with the birth-pangs and the nine months’ time. But we, unlike Marcion and his modern disciples, glory just in the story of those things. The eternal Son of God, He through whom the universe was made, did not despise the virgin’s womb! What a wonder is there! It is not strange that it has always given offence to the natural man. But in that wonder we find God’s redeeming love, and in that babe who lay in Mary’s womb we find our Saviour who thus became man to die for our sins, and bring us into peace with God.” (pg. 394)

“Deny or give up the story of the virgin birth, and inevitably you are led to evade either the high Biblical doctrine of sin or else the full Biblical presentation of the supernatural Person of our Lord.” (pg. 395)

“…if we are to help our fellow-men we must give counsel on the basis of the best knowledge that we in our weakness can obtain. And certainly even with that weakness we can say that perhaps not one man out of a hundred of those who deny the virgin birth today gives any really clear evidence of possessing saving faith. A man is not saved by good works, but by faith; and saving faith is acceptance of Jesus Christ “as he is offered to us in the gospel.” Part of that gospel in which Jesus is offered to our souls is the blessed story of the miracle in the virgin’s womb.

One thing at least is clear: even if the belief in the virgin birth is not necessary to every Christian, it is certainly necessary to Christianity. And it is necessary to the corporate witness of the Church.” (pg. 396)

And with these words Dr. Machen ends his colossal contribution to the apologetic literature in the treasury of the Church:

“The New Testament presentation of Jesus is not an agglomeration, but an organism, and of that organism the virgin birth is an integral part. Remove the part, and the whole becomes harder and not easier to accept; the New Testament account of Jesus is the most convincing when it is taken as a whole. Only one Jesus is presented in the word of God; and that Jesus did not come into the world by ordinary generation, but was conceived in the womb of the virgin by the Holy Ghost.” (pg. 397)

“…Christianity…the religion of the broken heart….couched…in a triumphant indicative…”! (pg. 385) What an affirmation that is!

Machen’s work is unquestionably a difficult read. I dedicated one Christmas break during undergraduate studies at Lancaster Bible College in the late 1970s to digesting this work. It was time well spent. While many probably will not follow this example, perhaps the quotes above will be valued, or better yet, may whet their appetite for more! The Virgin Birth of Christ was nicely reprinted in a hardbound edition by James Clarke Company in 1987. My 1975 reprint of the Harper & Row original in Baker’s “Twin Brooks Series” is a well-worn paperback!

If you have never read Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ may not be the best place to start, however. I would recommend his God Transcendent (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1998), What is Faith (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1996), or The Christian View of Man (Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1965) as better starting points.

John T. "Jack" Jeffery
Pastor, Wayside Gospel Chapel

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