Last week I told The Atheist Missionary that my very next post would be on the virgin birth. It wasn’t. Was that baloney? No. Neither was it a lie. It was a statement about a future state of affairs that I believed to be true but which, due to my scattered mind, turned out not to be. So now we’ll make amends by spending a spot of time camping on this doctrine. In this post I’m going to distinguish a couple different virgin birth doctrines as a foundation to discuss in the next posts what the doctrine is, what its importance is, and why Christians hold it.
First off, what is the “virgin birth”? As I noted in a thread last week, this is not the “immaculate conception”. That refers to the sinless conception of Mary (a Catholic dogma). Second, and this shall be my focus here, we need to distinguish two senses of virgin birth. The sense that we are concerned with is in fact the virginal conception of Jesus. With that in mind, to refer to it as the “virgin birth” is actually a metonym. (At least I think it would qualify as such.) We must distinguish this real topic of concern from another doctrine which does, in fact, refer to a virgin birth.
So what is this other doctrine? According to the doctrine of the virgin birth proper Jesus was born by way of a miraculous C-section so that Mary was spared the pains of child-birth and Jesus was spared an arduous journey down the birth canal. Let me quote Catholic theologian Ludwig Ott on this point:
“The dogma merely asserts the fact of the continuance of Mary’s physical virginity without determining more closely how this is to be physiologically explained. In general the Fathers and the Schoolmen [that is Patristic and medieval scholastic theologians] conceived it as non-injury to the hymen, and accordingly taught that Mary gave birth in miraculous fashion without opening of the womb and injury to the hymen, and consequently also without pains.” (Fundamentals of Catholic Dogma, 205, emphasis added).
I consider this doctrine not only vague and speculative but also dangerously docetic in orientation. (That is, it is in danger of undermining the full humanity of Jesus as if Jesus only appeared to be (Greek: dokeo) fully human.) One suspects these theologians were motivated to accept and propagate this doctrine due to a sense that there was something terribly indignified about God being shoved down a birth canal and emerging red and splotchy and covered with after-birth.
Well on this point I think that our Patristic and scholastic theologians simply need to get over this aversion. The incarnation is a stumbling block, and virgin births don’t make it any easier to accept. Tertullian had the right idea when he defended the offense of the birth of Christ to Marcion, an early theologian who rejected it:
“start from birth itself, the object of aversion, and run through your catalog: the filth of the generative seeds within the womb, of the bodily fluid and the blood; the loathsome curdled lump of flesh which has to be fed for nine months off this same muck. Describe the womb—expanding daily, heavy, troubled, uneasy even in sleep, torn between the impulses of fastidious distaste and those of excessive hunger. Then too, inveigh against the modesty of the woman who is giving birth…. Undoubtedly you are also horrified at the infant, which has been brought into the world together with its afterbirth.”
Little Lord Jesus, no crying he makes? Fuggedaboutit. Joseph probably grabbed the baby by the ankles, hoisted him upside down, and gave a firm whack on the back. At that point the one through whom all things were created and in whom all things inhere let out an ear piercing howl. God the Son had arrived.