Sunday, 23 December 2018

Is a virgin birth inconceivable?

A Sermon preached at Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church
23 December 2018

Luke 1.26-35 
Matthew 1.18-25 

There is a wonderful scene in the Monty Python film The Life of Brian,
            where Brian’s mother has been trying to convince the crowd
                        that has gathered outside their house
            that Brian is not, in fact, the son of God.

She utters the immortal lines,
            which you can say along with me if you like,
            ‘He’s not the Messiah, he’s a very naughty boy’.

And then something interesting happens,
            one of the men in the crowd says to her,
‘Excuse me, are you a virgin?’
            Brian’s mother replies, in a scandalised voice,
            ‘I BEG YOUR PARDON???!!!’.

The man goes on, ‘Well, if it’s not a personal question, are you a virgin?’
            Brian’s mother answers,
            ‘“If it’s not a personal question?” How much more personal can you get???’
                        and tells him, and the crowd, in no uncertain terms to go away.

As the window on the house bangs shut,
            the crowd start to mutter, ‘Bet she is’.
And so the story of Brian’s virgin birth begins.

It’s a genuinely funny scene from a brilliant film,
            and it raises some questions for us to consider this morning.

Firstly, it raises the question of the origin
            of the virgin birth stories that are told about Jesus,
and as we conclude our anti-lectionary series, at least for now,
            in which we have been tackling from the pulpit
            some issues not normally preached on in church,
we’ll be spending some time today
            thinking about the virgin birth stories in the gospels.

But secondly, the Python film raises the question of gender.

You see, Brian’s mother is played by Terry Jones,
            doing a humorous squeaky girl’s voice.
And as I come to speak on this topic
            I am very aware that there are big problems
                        with men speaking about, and for, women,
            particularly on issues as sensitive as sex and childbirth.

For example, is it OK for me to discuss, publicly,
            questions about the virginity of a teenage girl?
Even if that girl is Mary the mother of Jesus?

Well, I stand in a long line of men who have done precisely that
            over the last two thousand years,
starting with the two men who wrote the two gospels
            in which the virgin birth traditions are found.

And it is uncomfortable, to say the least,
            to reflect that many of the issues we will be considering
            are issues that have emerged from the minds of men.

So as we turn to these passages,
            we will need to recognise that part of the problem before us
                        is a long tradition of male-dominated readings
                        of Mary’s life, sex life, and sexuality.

And so, to the topic of today’s sermon:
            ‘Is a virgin birth inconceivable?’

In the interest of showing my working,
            I’d like to say how helpful I’ve found a couple of books in preparing this week.

Firstly, Kyle Roberts ‘A Complicated Pregnancy:
            Whether Mary was a Virgin and Why it Matters’,
and secondly Andrew Lincoln, ‘Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus’.
            I commend both of these if you’d like to do some further reading.

Those of you who were here for my sermon on ‘Do miracles happen?’
            won’t be surprised to know that I bring an interest in science and logic
            to the question of the miraculous conception of Jesus.

And here’s the thing: at a scientific level,
            humans don’t have virginal conceptions.
Some animals do - some insects, amphibians, and weirdly, sharks -
            have the ability for a mother to become spontaneously pregnant,
            with the offspring being comprised entirely of DNA from the mother.
But this has never been observed in humans.

But let’s suppose that Jesus was, miraculously,
            the first and only human example of this happening,
he would have been comprised entirely of DNA from Mary,
            which would have meant that he had to have been female,
            because the male Y chromosome is not carried in women.

That is, unless Mary was a hermaphrodite,
            which while not impossible, is extremely unlikely,
particularly as there are no recorded cases
            of a human hermaphrodite having both types of functioning gonadal tissue.

So, in short, I don’t think there’s a ‘natural’ explanation
            for the story of Jesus’ virgin birth.
Either this is a miracle that violates the laws of nature, a
            s David Hume the eighteenth century philosopher defined ‘miracle’;
or it didn’t actually happen.

So, was Jesus born of a virgin?
            Let’s consider the biblical evidence.

The story of the virginity of Mary is found only in two books in the Bible:
            the gospels of Matthew and Luke.
There is no mention of it in Mark or John,
            and Paul seems entirely unaware of it in his writings.

In fact, in the Pauline letters,
            which are some of the earliest documents we have in the New Testament,
Paul makes four references to the parentage of Jesus,
            and in each case seems to assume
            that Jesus was born by natural processes.

So in Galatians 3.16, he speaks of Jesus as the ‘seed’ of Abraham,
            which infers descent through the male line.

In Galatians 4.4-5 Paul says that Jesus was God’s son,
            born of a woman under the law,
making no mention of her virginity
            even though it would have helped his argument to do so.

In Romans, he speaks of Jesus as the son of God
            descended from David according to the flesh
            and declared to be the son of God with power according to the spirit (Rom 1.3-4),

and 2 Timothy 2.8 again says
            that Jesus is a descendent of David.

I recognise that we must be wary of arguments from silence,
            but Paul’s silence on this issue is surely not insignificant.

In Mark’s gospel, the earliest of the four gospels,
            and written some years after Paul’s death,
there is no infancy narrative at all:
            Jesus just appears in the wilderness as an adult to be baptised by John.

We do, however, get a glimpse of Jesus’ mother and his brothers
            in a couple of places in Mark.

In chapter 3.31-35 Jesus seems to disown them,
            and in 6.3 people take offence at Jesus and belittle him,
saying, ‘is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary
            and brother of James and Joses and Judas and Simon,
            and are not his sisters here with us?’

Matthew, probably the next gospel to be written after Mark,
            introduces a short infancy narrative, which we had read to us earlier,
where the main point seems to be
            that God has broken into the world in a new way
            to bring the long awaited salvation for Israel.

Matthew, typically, ties this back in with the Old Testament,
            by quoting Isaiah 7.14, ‘Look, the young woman is with child
                        and shall bear a son, and shall name him Immanuel.’
            Which Matthew tells us means ‘God with us’.

Interestingly, a bit later in his gospel, in chapter 13.54-56,
            Matthew repeats Mark’s story about people taking offence at Jesus
            and naming his mother, brothers and sisters.

It’s quite likely that Matthew just copied this directly from Mark’s gospel,
            which scholars think he had in front of him
            as he wrote his version of the story of Jesus.

John’s gospel does its own, mystical version of the incarnation,
            telling us that ‘the Word became flesh and lived among us’ (1.14),
and saying that all who believe in Jesus’ name
            can receive the power from God to become children of God.
Again, no mention of a virgin birth.

And so we’re down to just our two passages
            from Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

And actually there is a debate to be had here
            about whether they describe a virgin birth, or a virginal conception.

You might think this is splitting hairs,
            but trust me, a lot of ink has been spilled on this one.

From as early as the second century,
            the doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity has been ‘a thing’.

Origen, the early church father,
            went so far as to suggest that Jesus’ siblings were actually his half-siblings
            because he believed that Mary remained a virgin until her death.

You may not have heard of it before,
            but Mary’s Perpetual Virginity has been the dominant view
                        of the Roman Catholic church, the Eastern Orthodox church,
                        and some protestant traditions including Martin Luther,
                                    Thomas Cranmer, and John Wesley!

The idea here is that Mary not only conceived Jesus miraculously,
            but also gave him birth miraculously,
            thus preserving her virginity.

By this understanding, Jesus did not have a ‘normal’ birth,
            but was miraculously removed from Mary’s womb
                        when the time came for him to be born.
You kind of get the impression that she could have done it with her legs crossed.

This might all seem like a tangent,
            but it actually speaks quite strongly
about traditional Christian attitudes
            towards sex, sexual purity, virginity, and sex outside of marriage.

Even to this day, many Christians are obsessed
            with what goes where, and when, and with whom.
From debates around same sex marriage,
            to singleness and celibacy, to divorce and remarriage,
I sometimes get the impression
            that the church is more concerned about sex
            than it is about ‘justice, mercy and faith’, as Jesus put it (Mt. 23.23).

Within patriarchal Christianity,
            virginity has often been seen as a valuable ‘product’,
                        to be preserved and traded,
            as fathers give their so-called ‘respectable’ daughters to their husbands,
                        along with an appropriate dowry as an assurance of good faith.

And consecrated virginity has become an ideal,
            with celibate priests, monks, nuns and sisters
            being held up as the paragon of the spiritual life.

The dominant view has been that those who have sullied themselves with sex,
            even sex within marriage,
            are not suited for the most holy orders.
The pathway to holiness has historically been virginity,
            and no-one has been more virginal or holy than Mary.

I note that in the church more recently, there has been a shift on this,
            with a married clergy leading to an idealised form of family life,
while those who are child-free, child-less, unmarried, or divorced
            being regarded as in some way secondary.

And all of this comes to us from a Christian tradition
            obsessed with sex as sinful,
to be accommodated within marriage for the procreation of children,
            but definitely not the kind of thing a nice girl like the Blessed Virgin Mary
                        would ever get up to,
            even if she did have to bear a child.

Part of this traditional squeamishness about mixing sex and religion
            is to do with Augustine’s doctrine of original sin,
the idea that sin passes down the generations through sexual reproduction,
            from Adam to the present day.

The logic runs that if Jesus is to be born sinless,
            then there has to have been a break with the inherited sinfulness of man,
and so if he is born of a virgin, with no earthly father,
            he is spared the inheritance of original sin on his father’s side.

But, for Jesus to be truly free of original sin,
            he also has to be free of it on his mother’s side too,
and so the doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary emerged,
            which is the belief that Mary’s mother
            was also a virgin at the time of Mary’s birth,
having herself experienced a miraculous conception.

Whilst this belief goes back to the church fathers,
            Pope Pius IX decaled it to be an infallible truth
            for the Roman Catholic church in 1854.

You may not have realised it, but if you visit a church
            called something like ‘The Immaculate Conception’,
they’re not actually talking about the conception of Jesus,
            but his mother…

Anyway, we have some decisions to begin to make here.

Does it matter to us if Mary is perpetually virginal,
            or is it OK from our point of view that Jesus was born in the normal way,
                        through the birth canal,
            and that Mary went on to have sex with her husband
                        and give birth to further children.

If we’re OK with that, we’ve already disregarded
            some key aspects of the virgin birth
            as far as historical orthodox Christianity is concerned.

Also, does it matter to us if Mary was herself conceived miraculously,
            with her mother being a virgin when she gave birth to Mary?

Because if we’re OK with that, we’re disagreeing with an infallible statement
            of the Pope on a core doctrine of the virgin birth.

Also, do we accept or reject the idea of original sin?
            Are children born sinful because of Adam,
                        or are sins what we learn to do as we learn to rebel against the God
                        who makes each one of us in our mother’s womb?

If we accept Original sin, we should probably start baptising babies again,
            just in case they die in a state of damnation,
but if we reject it, we are rejecting an essential aspect
            of Augustine’s theology of the virgin birth.

Anyway, moving on…

Medical science has revealed some wonderful things,
            not least amongst them an understanding
            of how human reproduction works at both a practical and a genetic level.

The discovery of DNA, and the notion of X and Y Chromosomes determining gender,
            have revolutionised processes such fertility treatment.

However, at the time of the birth of Jesus, people were not so enlightened.
            They thought that the woman’s body already contained within it
                        all that was necessary for a new life to begin.
            The role of the male in the process was simply to ‘activate’ the pregnancy,
                        to trigger the process.

So, stories such as we find in Matthew and Luke’s gospels,
            which suggest that a woman becomes pregnant by the Holy Spirit,
are simply suggesting that the Spirit of God
            provides the spark to activate the process,
            instead of a man doing it.
It’s still a miracle, but from their point of view,
            it wouldn’t have been seen as a biological contradiction.

Early theologians saw the Virgin birth as the mechanism for full incarnation,
            it was the process by which God became fully human.
They didn’t see it as a biological problem
            which makes Jesus less than human.

It would simply not have occurred to Matthew and Luke
            that the logic of the incarnation of God in the flesh of Jesus
            might be undermined by the idea of a virginal conception.

And here we have a problem.

The incarnation is the belief that God became fully human in Jesus.
            But a modern understanding of human reproduction
                        puts a miraculous conception in conflict
                        with the idea of Jesus being fully human.
            If half his DNA came from God, then is he fully human?
                        And if he’s half-God half-man,
                                    rather than fully-God and fully-man,
                        we are in the difficult territory of some of the heresies
                                    addressed by the early church.

The council of Chalcedon in 451 considered two of these heresies,
            known as Docetism and Adoptionism.
Docetism was the belief that Jesus was fully God,
            but not truly human;
and Adoptionism was the belief that Jesus was fully human,
            but not truly God.

Docetism taught that Jesus as a kind of phantasm, or projection, of God.
            He looked human, but in his true essence he was all God.
            A bit like a kind of souped up version of Princess Leia’s hologram in Star Wars.
                        Indistinguishable from reality, but still not really real.

Adoptionism on the other hand taught that Jesus was fully human,
            and that he was adopted by God at some point in his life,
            either at conception, or birth, or at his baptism.
In this way, Jesus is more like a specially chosen human
            than he is God incarnate in human flesh.

Both of these views had their origins in platonic dualism,
            which was a pre-Christian idea from Greek philosophy,
that everything has two natures -
            a physical nature, the substance,
            and a non-physical nature, the shadow.

The Council of Chalcedon asserted that Jesus was
            both fully God and fully human, both at the same time,
and so rejected the dualism of Docetism and Adoptionism,
            and orthodox Christianity ever since has held to this line.

The language of the virgin birth proved helpful at this point,
            and has continued to do so until more recent times,
in articulating this understanding
            of the incarnation of God in the person of Jesus.

However, I want to ask the question this morning
            of whether it remains helpful language for us to continue to use?
What do we think is going on when read those two passages from scripture
            that describe the virgin birth?

Let’s try a thought experiment.

What if Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son,
            conceived in the normal way between husband and wife?

What difference does it make?

Certainly, it makes no difference to any of Paul’s writings,
            nor does it make any difference to Mark’s gospel or John’s gospel.
It actually makes no difference to the rest of Luke and Matthew’s gospels
            once we get past the first couple of chapters.
It makes no difference to the Book of Revelation, or to Hebrews,
            or the other non-Pauline epistles.

It starts to make a difference to the early creeds,
            as they sought ways of articulating their understanding
            that Jesus was the son of God.

It makes a difference to the Council of Chalcedon’s negotiation
            of the pull towards Docetism or Adoptionism.

It makes a difference to the doctrine of Original Sin,
            and to the Doctrine of the Perpetual Virginity of Mary,
            and to the Doctrine of the immaculate conception of Mary,
but we’ve already established
            that these don’t matter so much to us Baptists.

And I would just note that we don’t say the creed in our tradition either.

It might start to make a difference to the way we think about sex,
            and sexuality, and singleness, and celibacy, and love and marriage,
            which might not be a bad thing.

It might challenge those who have a literal reading of the Bible,
            and for whom taking any part of the biblical story
            as metaphorical or poetic is a problem.
But again, some of us might think that not such a bad thing.

It might not be so far-fetched to see the traditions about the Virgin birth as stories
            that came into circulation in the decades after Jesus’ earthly life,
partly at least in response to similar stories
            from the Egyptian and Graeco-Roman mythologies,
and partly in response to scandalous speculation about his early years,
            and that these traditions were taken by Matthew and Luke,
            and incorporated into their versions of the life of Jesus.

So, let’s assume for a moment that Jesus was Joseph and Mary’s son,
            conceived in the normal way between husband and wife.

What then is this story of the virgin birth trying to tell us?
            Do we just throw it out, or do we learn to read it differently?
Can we move from a literal to a literary reading
            of these opening chapters from Matthew and Luke’s gospels.

I would suggest that there is great narrative beauty,
            symbolic power, and theological meaning to be found here.

These stories challenge us to think deeply
            about what it means for God to be renewing humanity from within humanity.
They challenge us to see in the person of the baby Jesus
            the action of God in initiating the in-breaking of a new world, a new creation,
with implications not just for individual salvation or personal spiritual renewal,
            but for the transformation of the world politically and economically,
            as those who are oppressed find liberation
                        through the life, death, and resurrection
                        of the child who is God lying in a manger.

The story of a young woman, chosen by God ahead of all male agency,
            to bring to birth the transformation of the world for good,
has the potential to be hugely liberating for women
            in any time and circumstance of oppression or subjugation.

We are invited to hear Mary’s song again,
            with its challenge to the rich and the powerful,
            and its promises of new hope to the poor and the homeless.

We are invited to allow Mary to interpret the significance of her own child to us,
            rather than simply allowing the voices of men
to overlay the miracle of the incarnation
            with speculation about the state of her virginity.

So whilst I would not argue that we should disregard the language of the virgin birth,
            I think we need to know what we mean, and what we don’t mean,
            when we use it in our songs and our liturgies.
It roots us in our historical theological community
            and takes us back to the early centuries of Christian theology.

So, similarly, with the council of Chalcedon
            I would want to continue to assert
            that Jesus is both fully God and fully human.
And I do this because divinity and humanity
            are not the same order of thing,
            competing for space in the body of a baby.
The integrity of humanity is not violated
            when divinity makes its home there.

Rather, this is Jesus, God with us,
            in the midst of life, and death,
            and rejoicing, and suffering.
This is Immanuel. God with us.
            This is the baby in the manger,
                        the baby in Mary,
            the son of God, and the son of Man.

1 comment:

OzGKW said...

Thank you Simon!!

I enjoyed the pun in the title of your sermon. I can't believe that there have not been many comments already!

This is an excellent sermon which gives the 'concept' (pun intended) of the Virgin Conception and Birth a modern literary, not literal meaning which can make sense in the 21st Century.

Particularly striking is the explanation that a virgin conception could not give rise to a male child because there would then be no Y Chromosome.

Progressive Christianity is growing as modern science disproves traditional theology. Many blessings for your future, vitally important ministry.

Geoffrey Williams
Bowral, NSW