Project Canterbury

The Priests’ Convention

Philadelphia, April 29-30, 1924

From The American Church Monthly, June, 1924, Vol. XV, No. 4.

Edited by Selden Peabody Delany, D.D.

Transcribed by Wayne Kempton
Archivist and Historiographer of the Diocese of New York, 2012

The Virgin Birth of Our Lord

THERE has been much talk lately about the Mother of our Lord. Was she Virgin as well as Mother, or was she merely Mother? Was her child indeed conceived by the Holy Ghost, or was His father Joseph of Nazareth? These are only a few of the questions asked, but, closely considered, all of them end in this query concerning the birth at Bethlehem.

The discussion has affected different men, within the Church and without, in different ways. Some have found in it pleasure; some pain. In certain quarters the dispute has been pronounced fortunate; in others, deplorable. Elsewhere a third view prevails. The whole argument, we are told, is unnecessary and irrelevant. It really makes no difference which way it happened. Whether or not Christ was born of a Virgin is no very vital matter, and not at all essential in the faith of a Christian.

The situation is not without precedent in the history of the Church. Few situations are. In this, as in other things, much that is proclaimed as new turns out to be very old indeed. Throughout the ages there have been disputes about the Mother of our Lord. Among them let me recall one, familiar, doubtless, to most of us, but always memorable and peculiarly significant at this time—the Nestorian controversy in the fifth century. Was Mary the Mother of God, or was she not? There were those who insisted that the title was hers; there were those who denied it to her; and there were others who found the dispute wearisome. Theotokos, or Christotokos, or neither the one nor the other? What difference did it make? Why vex the Church with such nice distinctions, a barren logomachy, making for division and not for unity? But the Church, with all her tolerance and patience, with that long-suffering which throughout the ages has marked her as indeed the Body of Christ, at last decided that it did make a difference. At Ephesus the issue was made clear. The question was not merely one of title or prerogative. It concerned not only the mother, but the child. Who was the babe born at Bethlehem? The Nestorians could not call Him God. On Him, later in life, the Word descended, and in [265/266] Him dwelt. But God lying in a manger, God become a helpless infant, God born of a woman, this they would not admit, and therefore refused to call that woman Mother of God. And against them the Church asserted that she was verily so, because her child was Very God—not a man deified, but God Incarnate, no other Person but the Eternal Son of God, in Whom God and man are indissolubly united.

I trust that you will pardon this brief excursus into history and dogmatic theology. I should not presume to instruct you in those fields of knowledge, even if I were speaking for more than thirty minutes. My only purpose is to understand the present situation in the Church with regard to the question of the Virgin Birth. And shall I be considered quite hopelessly reactionary if I opine that in this as in other things the present may best be understood in the light of the past? Much that is being said in these days is strangely reminiscent. We are told that questions regarding our Lord's birth have nothing to do with faith in Him. Our committee evidently thought differently when they included the topic of the Virgin Birth under the heading of the Incarnation, and I agree with them most heartily. Doubt or indifference as to the Virgin Birth is a symptom of uncertainty as to the Incarnation. Who can deny this, remembering not merely the controversy of 1500 years ago concerning the title and fact, Mother of God, but that of the past winter, much more radical, concerning the titles and facts, Virgin and Mother? Is there among those who doubt the Virgin Birth one who does not doubt some part of the truth concerning our Lord, as set forth by the Church? And is there among those who accept that truth one who doubts the Virgin Birth? These questions are not rhetorical, but efforts to make the issue clear. We are told that the child born of Mary, with or without a human father, was divine. He was the Incarnation of God. No one, we are assured, denies that. But are we not all divine? The implication is inevitable. And as those who insinuate it go on to speak or write further of our Lord, of His birth and life and death, one finds in almost every case the old error of a progressive adoption. At some time in His life, at the beginning of His ministry, or at the end, in His baptism or in His passion, or, more likely, [266/267] during his life and ministry, gradually, by growth and development, He was adopted as Son, He became God. And again the query, "Are there not such possibilities in all of us?" To which the answer is, "There are not." This is not to deny the potentialities of our human nature. We believe in them as intensely as does any humanitarian. Our conviction that it is only through the Incarnation that they can be realized is what makes it the more necessary to defend that supreme truth in all its parts. We believe, in the bold phrase of S. Athanasius, that "He was made man that we might be made God," that is, imperishable sharers in His grace. But we look upon the Incarnation, and upon Him, as unique and essentially different from any other event and person in human history. And we know that He became Incarnate, not slowly and vaguely, throughout a lifetime, but in a moment, when an angel came in unto a Virgin named Mary, and said, "Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee; blessed art thou among women," and Mary said, "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word."

Not long ago a missionary whom we all know and love came back to this country, and, while he was here, attended a meeting of fellow-priests. Their prayers included the Hail Mary. When they were ended, he said that nothing had reassured him more as to the state of the Church at home. He had heard that faith in the Incarnation was being undermined. He had no fears where that prayer was being said. What did he mean? Not merely that he happened to fancy that particular devotion. The remark was simply clear thinking in regard to the angelic salutation and the prayer which the Church has added to it. The words are more than a request for her intercessions, although we may well wish for them and ask for them. They are more than paying honour to her, although we rejoice to love and reverence her, remembering Bishop Pearson's words, "We cannot bear too reverend a regard unto the Mother of our Lord, so long as we give her not that worship which is due unto the Lord Himself." The Hail Mary is a memorial of the Incarnation, of the moment when the Word was made flesh, taking our humanity into eternal union with His Godhead. It is the expression of our faith in that unique event, the coming of God into the world.

[268] It is because we believe it to be unique that we believe in the Virgin Birth. There could be no clearer statement of this than the paragraph in the Pastoral Letter issued by the House of Bishops last November: "It is not the fact of the Virgin Birth that makes us believe in our Lord as God; but our belief in Him as God makes reasonable and natural our acceptance of the fact of the Virgin Birth as declared in the Scriptures and as confessed in the Creed from the earliest times." For a Catholic the doctrine of the Virgin Birth is exactly that: reasonable and natural. If I am told that a Jewish baby was born 2000 years ago without a human father, the statement may well seem both unreasonable and unnatural. I shall certainly be skeptical and probably scornful. It makes no difference how gifted the child was, and the man. He may have been the greatest of geniuses, philosopher, artist, poet, inspired of God, divine, even, in power and achievement. I still find it impossible to believe that he was born in a manner different from other children. If the biographies of him say so, they must be mistaken. Some one has blundered, in some way, at some time. The Gospels must be wrong. I shall rule out their testimony, on a priori grounds. Nor will the Creed fare any better. It too erred, in declaring that he was "conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary," words which to any rational being can have but one meaning, and that certainly not that he had a human father, whether Joseph of Nazareth or another. I shall not be much surprised in detecting this error in the Creed, for it is of a piece with all the rest of its statements. It is not only this sentence which goes by the board, but the whole paragraph of which it forms a part—the sentence which immediately precedes this one in the Apostles' Creed, asserting a belief "in Jesus Christ His only Son our Lord," and the expansion of that sentence in the Nicene Creed which dwells with formidable terms and wearisome prolixity on the same fact, proclaiming Him the "one Lord," the "only-begotten Son of God; Begotten of His Father before all worlds, God of God, Light of Light, Very God of Very God, Begotten, not made; Being of one substance with the Father; By whom all things were made." After these extravagances the claim of a Virgin Birth is a mere trifle. They are all alike, and all equally preposterous.

[269] But if I can honestly say those tremendous words, "I believe," if by an act of faith, in which not only my reason but every faculty and power in me has its part, if with all my heart and soul and mind I do believe in God the Father and in Jesus Christ as God, the Eternal Son Incarnate, the Word made flesh, then I find it not only possible but easy to believe in the Virgin Birth. The lesser mystery is swallowed up in the greater. It is not for me to dogmatize and say that the coming of God into the world, His taking our human nature upon Him, His birth as a babe at Bethlehem, must have been so, that His entrance into human life could not have been in physical aspect like that of any merely human child, that the new creation in Him was necessarily unique in external method, that the divine life could not come through a human father but must have come straight from the Holy Ghost, the Lord, and Giver of Life. But when I find it so recorded in the Scriptures and Creed, it seems to me sweetly reasonable, as the Church's recognition of a fact concerning her Lord, which, from its intimacy and sacredness, could have been known at first only to the few, only to the Blessed Virgin herself in the beginning, and then only to S. Luke and others, to whom she doubtless told it. Once the premise is granted, once there is faith in our Lord as God, the rest follows naturally and inevitably. As before, it is all of a piece, and here it is all equally stupendous and divine.

It is not a matter of details, but of two diametrically opposed views of the universe and of God. That is becoming increasingly clear. The doubt in men's minds is not chiefly of a virgin's giving birth to a child in Palestine 2000 years ago. Nor ultimately is it whether that child was essentially different from other children and in any real sense God, although, as I have tried to show, that is the deeper doubt, of the Incarnation, underlying that of the Virgin Birth. But it goes deeper still. It touches the nature, power, and freedom of God. Is an Incarnation possible for Him? It is not only the historicity but the possibility of the Gospel story that men question. In a universe governed by immutable law, we are told quite frankly, there is no place for any such event as the Incarnation. God may be outside His creation, or, more likely, inside it—for pantheism is more fashionable in these days than deism—but in any case [269/270] He did not, and could not, come into it suddenly, all at once, in a moment of time. To which the Church has always answered, and must continue to answer, "He did." Now, as in apostolic times, the claim is unto the Jews a stumbling-block and unto the Greeks foolishness, but that is no reason why we should fear to make it and cease to preach Christ crucified. And, preaching Him crucified, we must also preach Him risen from the dead and born of a Virgin. The man who died on the cross was God as well as man, the Son offering Himself to the Father. The death was at once natural and supernatural, as was the resurrection that followed it and the life and birth that preceded it. It is all equally miraculous. And those who question one part are never content until they have questioned others, one by one, until the whole is under suspicion. The animus is not against any one doctrine, but against all that is miraculous and divine in the Gospels, and ultimately against the Person of our Lord.

I trust that I shall not be trespassing on the domain of my successor on this afternoon's program if I point out in passing one example of this consistent and determined effort to eliminate the supernatural from the Gospel and the Creed. The same critics who assail the Virgin Birth, almost to a man, attack the Resurrection. They explain away the two events by the same method. The facts are selected to fit into the same preconceived scheme. Are Mark and John and Paul silent concerning the Virgin Birth? Much is made of their silence. They are true witnesses, reasonable and restrained. Do they write of the Resurrection? Their testimony is ruled out of court, along with Matthew and Luke, or interpreted to mean little or nothing. In both cases the procedure is to strip the story of all that makes it miraculous and divine and true. The hero becomes not God and man, but mere man. We find ourselves face to face with the age-long question, from which there is no escape, "What think ye of Christ, whose son is He?" The son of Joseph, or the Eternal Son of God?

S. Paul said that our Lord was declared or determined to be the Son of God with power, according to the spirit of holiness, by the resurrection from the dead. He was. But there was another declaration, at the beginning of His Incarnate life, by the same power and the same Spirit, by whom He was conceived [270/271] in the womb of Blessed Mary. The Virgin Birth and the Resurrection stand at the beginning and end of His life in this world, marking it as miraculous, defining it as different from all other lives, a life truly, utterly, perfectly human, but just as truly, essentially, and eternally divine. It is for that reason that the Church has made them part of her faith, set forth in the Scriptures and the Creed. It is for that reason that we are speaking and thinking of them to-day, when we are gathered together to bear witness to that faith, to the Church, and to our Lord. And it is for that reason that we shall continue, God willing, in our belief that He who lived and died and rose for us was born of one who was both Virgin and Mother.

What does it mean to us, priests in the Church of God, if Christ was not born of a Virgin? It means, in the first place, that from the beginning the Church has been mistaken in one of the articles of her faith. She erred in stating it as a fact in the Gospels and in the Creed. Throughout the ages she has led men into myth, if not into falsehood. That releases me from the Church. I can have nothing to do with such a body, much less give my life for it. It means, moreover, that the Church is probably mistaken in her teaching concerning our Lord. If she is grotesquely wrong about His birth, what warrant have we for thinking that she is right about all the rest? And if He was the son of human parents, how was He essentially different from other human beings? We may accept His teachings, though we shall do so with a few judicious excisions, for He was something of a fanatic at times. Provided we ignore His chimerical claims, we may admire Him, imitate Him, love Him, but we cannot worship Him. No man, however God-like, can claim from us the worship due only to God. And so, in the end, we find ourselves released from Him, as from the Church. We may take Him, or we may leave Him, and others may do the same.

But if He was indeed conceived by the holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary, that birth marks Him as unique. From the first moment of His life in the world, He is different from all others, because in Him God and man are one. He is the revelation of the Father, in a human life, the only life and the only revelation which we, being human, can understand and imitate [271/272] and share. The humanity which He took in the womb of His Blessed Mother is the medium through which we can be united with God. He is our Mediator and Saviour. In Him we may be one, not only with each other, but with God, as He is one with the Father. It is not merely the Virgin Birth, which is the sign to us of the freedom and power and love of God, but the Virgin Born, who, being Himself God and man, gives us men these gifts of grace and brings us to God. The birth is but the beginning, yet it is like all the rest, both human and divine—the Mother Mary, the Father God, the Child Jesus Christ, true man and true God.

There are two representations of the Mother and Child which are familiar to all of us. We find them both in many of our churches, and I trust we may find them in more, as we continue to give to them more of the beauty of holiness. The one is the scene at Bethlehem, loved of S. Francis and of little children and of such as shall receive the kingdom of heaven. There are a stable and a manger, an ox and an ass, sheep and shepherds, a man guarding a woman, and a woman watching over a child. It is a scene simple and elemental and human through and through. It must be, for it is the birth of one who was perfectly human, a human child born of a human mother. That is one picture, and one part of the mystery. But it is not all. Even at Bethlehem there is the sound of angel voices, and perhaps a glimpse of their glory. In the other picture that glory is revealed, and we see what angels gaze upon—a woman, still human, but glorified, nearest to God of all the saints, perfect in purity and love. There is a crown upon her head, and the moon is under her feet. And in her arms there is a child, still human, like other children, and yet unlike. For one hand is raised in blessing, and in the other He holds the orb of the world and of power. That too is part of the mystery. And the mystery is the Incarnation of the Son of God. And it is because He was God that she of whom He became man was Virgin and Mother.

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