Chapter VIII--The Virgin Birth
The theory that we have advanced above is entirely congruous with the Gospel story of the birth of the Incarnate.
I. For the Gospel sets forth how the divine Logos came forth from within the universal relations proper to Him in His essential nature; and by the creative power of the Spirit found prepared for Him, in the exact moment of His coming, a human nature in the womb of the Maid Mary.
Thus, in one and the same act, God became man and manhood was constituted in a Person who is God.
Mary is exhibited to us as the final link in the chain of human development in response to grace, on a level that is essentially different from the divine.
She is the richest fruit of grace, purchased for her and for the race by Him who was yet to pay the price on Calvary.
She is the highest, articulate expression of that human desire for God, and for life on the divine level, which down the ages the Spirit had both inspired and intensified.
Again, she is the choicest example of human obedience, offering to God at His coming to seek our wills, a will ready to His service and a heart prepared for His love.
As the Incarnate stands forth as the revelation of all that God can offer to us His children, and of all that manhood, indwelt personally by God, can bring to God; so Mary is shewn to us as the best that God could accomplish before the Eternal Word had personally come to our aid. And as He came to shew God to us and to lift us up into God, Mary was in His grace raised up to shew before God manhood's possibilities and needs; and in the shewing she became worthy to be His Mother in whom God and man should be made one.
II. St. John is our witness to His true divinity who came forth from God; while St. Matthew and St. Luke assure us that He was no human person who was born of Mary, since the Word took to Himself not a person but manhood's soul and body.
The Church has consistently testified her belief that the immediate agent in the birth of Her Lord is none less than the Spirit of God Himself. To Mary the Virgin she loves to ascribe a degree of holiness that, in her judgement, rendered the Mother proof, in her conception of Jesus, against any the least feeling inconsistent with her high calling and service; while to her mind, as in her historical records, St. Joseph has no place nearer to Jesus than that of His foster-father.
Again, early writers perceived that since in every known case of normal human birth a human person issued forth from the mother's womb, the tradition of the Virgin birth was necessary to a due confession of the Christ's divinity. Had His birth been normal, had Joseph claimed Him as his own true son, the Christ would have been, at the best, man adopted by and into the Logos of God.
St. Paul, also, requires this tradition for the validity of his Christology.
For to him Christ is the Second Adam, the founder of a new humanity: whose manhood is the very fountain of heavenly life and power to the whole race.
The manhood of Jesus is the source of new life because it is the manhood of God. Were it the manhood of a man whom God had adopted into a peculiar relation with Himself, it could never have provided to us that entirely new, and in its origin divine, life which He came to communicate to us.
III. The objections raised to the Virgin birth of Jesus are only nominally historical.
They are in fact due partly to prejudice against the miraculous, partly to an unduly exaggerated estimate of manhood's powers and claims, and partly to unbelief in the permanent manhood of our Lord in glory.
(a) It is not denied that were the miraculous everywhere conceded, the evidence for the Virgin birth would be sufficient. But critics who have already ruled out the miraculous on a priori grounds, think that they have reason, as they have need, to reject the narratives of miracles.
Thus they assert that Christ was naturally born to Joseph and Mary, and that His disciples were led, by His undoubted merits, to ascribe to Him a certain divinity. Therefore, say they, two evangelists invented the story of the Virgin birth as an explanation of His wonderful character; while St. John preferred the Logos doctrine of his first chapter, as being less material than that of a Virgin birth. Having thus set St. John against St. Luke and St. Matthew, they proceed to tell us that St. Paul remained ignorant not only of these various explanations, but even of the need to explain!
It is of course true that if these passages are omitted from the Gospels, the narratives that remain are patient of any view of our Lord's birth that is in some real sense supernatural. The point is that no historian, as such, can justly omit these passages: for his desire to do so springs not from historical science but from his personal bias against the miraculous.
(b) Again, some modern critics entirely dislike the view that Christ is so different from us as to impart to us what we have not in our own possession. They prefer to think of Him as with ourselves the object of the activity of the Holy Spirit. To them He is the crown of creation by normal development aided by the Spirit's power from outside. He is on manhood's plane, as we are; nor does His incarnation mark any new start, on a higher level, for the race He is said to have redeemed.
Therefore the Virgin birth is not only unnecessary to, but really incompatible with their belief. To their position it is required that the Christ be personally man, man born of Joseph and Mary, and adopted by the Spirit at His baptism. His divinity is grounded on moral identity of wills, not in oneness of essence.
But the Catholic view is that as the Virgin Mother is the last step in the development of the race on the merely human plane, Her Son is the first step of a new development on a higher plane; and that in the manhood that He took of her is the only link between the old and new. In person He belongs to the newly revealed plane, in human nature to the old, familiar plane. Had then St. Joseph right to claim Him as his son, He would have had no place upon the new, the higher plane, nor the power that lifts us up, with Himself, to live upon it.
(c) Again, many modern critics believe that the dispensation of the Spirit in which we now live is independent of the manhood of Christ. In their judgement the Spirit does not indwell that manhood as His living Temple and Centre of Activity, nor is grace the power of God-in-manhood ministered to us by the Spirit.
Thus the Virgin birth is quite superfluous, in their system, even if it be true; and must be written down untrue because it is proved superfluous.
Yet the whole Church has for two thousand years lived in daily dependence on sacraments that are said to convey to men the life of Christ's manhood now in heaven; and in her judgement the Virgin birth is an essential truth that can alone explain her experience and justify her practice. Therefore she will never surrender her records of that birth at the bidding of men who are ignorant of the treasures of her life.
Thus it becomes clear that the rejection of the tradition of the Virgin birth is really incompatible with the preservation of the fundamental truths which it has always expressed; and modern writers do but deceive us in proclaiming the contrary.
It will be found in fact that a definite surrender of belief in the Virgin birth is a man's acknowledgment that the Catholic theory of the Ascended manhood and its grace is no longer real to him, that his view of the Christ tends to obscure His distinctness from the Holy Spirit, and that his estimate of the human race tends to deny the essential difference between humanity and divinity.
It is not within the scope of this chapter to discuss these tendencies. It is enough to shew that the suggested solution of the problem we are discussing is in entire harmony with the Catholic doctrine of the Virgin birth of Christ.
IV. But it is useful to discuss their position who, while refusing to accept the Virgin birth, still profess to believe that our Lord's birth was supernatural.
The possibilities of such a supernatural birth are three:
(a) Birth of a Virgin, the Holy Spirit causing the conception directly, without any human intermediary.
(b) Birth of a father and mother, the laws of God being suspended so that a human person was not present in the mother's womb to be the ground of the coexistence of soul and body; a divine person being made present in his place.
(c) Birth of a father and mother, a human person being present according to God's law, and being destroyed to make room for a divine person Who should take his place.
The third possibility may be ruled out at once. For since a human person cannot exist without soul and body we should, if we accepted this view, be required to conceive of a human being created by God without any means of existence, an essence without existence! And can we imagine such a miracle of destruction as would put out of all existence a person whose manhood remains, to be assumed by his destroyer?
A choice between the other two possibilities remains to us.
The first is entirely simple: an example of life-giving power, congruous with all that we know of God's love. No natural power is set aside; no natural process is reversed; merely one step in a normal process is omitted.
While the second is beyond words complex, requiring for its completion not only the same interference of God from without, but a reversal of natural laws and a negation of natural forces. Not one miracle, but two are needed to secure a supernatural birth from Joseph and Mary. For in the first place there is the reversal and negation of the natural processes by which a human person proceeds from normal birth; and secondly, there is the substitution of the divine Person for the human whose presence was miraculously prevented in spite of natural laws to the contrary.
Without doubt, the miracle of the Virgin birth is simpler and easier of belief than the miracle of the normal birth of a divine Person from Joseph and Mary.
And practically all who surrender the first miracle ignore even the possibility of the second, finding refuge in some inarticulate conception of a deified Christ, truly and personally man, while yet divine by adoption into the Spirit, and by the moral identity of his will with the Father's.
V. The argument for the Virgin birth derived from our Lord's sinlessness has not yet been stated. Not that we do not ourselves admit its validity, but because some biologists have seemed to rob it of its force. They tell us that acquired characteristics cannot be handed on, and theologians who believe them have proceeded to infer that the sinless Christ may well have been born of sinful parents.
Our answer is along two lines of thought. In the first place, this new theory of biology is by no means generally accepted; certainly it is not proven. And it is fair to suggest that if no characteristics acquired in one generation are handed on to the next, it is really impossible to maintain the theory of evolution, in the light of which many modern critics have rejected the Christology of the Catholic Church.
The gradual elevation of the race must presumably depend upon some power of acquiring new characteristics and of imparting them to those that come after.
And secondly, we must differentiate between a narrow sinlessness which is the absence of sin, and a wider sinlessness that is the cause of holiness in others. For the Christ is not only perfectly holy; He is in fact our holiness, by whose life and power communicated to us we slowly escape from the power of sin.
Thus even if biology could prove that Jesus was born sinless of human parents, it would still have to confess ignorance of the origin of His power of making us sinless; and certainly it could not claim to connect it with either Joseph or Mary. Nor would it be able to assure us, on the strength of its own experiences, that the Christ developed within His manhood this sanctifying power that has changed the world.
It remains then to ascribe the power of sanctification, which is the sinlessness of Jesus, to one who is a divine person; and to provide for its presence in the Christ by maintaining the tradition of the Virgin birth.
We cannot at all accept the theory that there was no power in the Christ that did not come to Him naturally by birth from Joseph and Mary. To do so is to preach salvation by natural evolution. And once admit the presence in Him of a personal Perfection, which is the cause of our perfection, we are driven to postulate a mode of birth for the Eternal Word that is inconsistent with the cooperation of a human father.