The Virgin Birth of Christ

The word of God, in setting forth the doctrine of the incarnation, emphasizes the fact that the humanity of Christ was produced in the womb of the Virgin Mary by the supernatural activity of the Holy Spirit.

Thus, Jesus was born without a human father. Not only so, "but no coitus of any kind, natural or supernatural, took place. The virgin birth was a special miracle wrought by the Third Person of the Trinity, whereby the Second Person of the Trinity, the eternal Son of God, took to Himself a genuine and complete human nature, and was born as a man, without surrendering in any way His complete divine nature" (Baker's Dictionary of Theology).

Textual Proofs of Virgin Birth

The scripture proof of this doctrine is full and final.

Genesis 3:15: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel."

This verse records God's curse on the serpent (Satan, Rev. 12:9; 20:2), and most commentators acknowledge it as the protevangelium, the first intimation of the gospel after the fall, though some rationalists have insisted that it speaks of nothing more than man's aversion to snakes! In this first gospel promise, God speaks of one who would crush the serpent's—that is, Satan's—head. He calls that one the "seed of the woman." Thus conservative scholars generally see Gen. 3:15 either as a direct prophecy of Christ the virgin-born redeemer, or as a prophecy that has its full and final meaning in Christ.

Henry Cooke, one of Irish Presbyterianism's most famous sons, wrote, "The principal part of Satan's curse lay in the ruin brought on him by Jesus Christ, the eminent 'seed of the woman,' in his redemption of mankind. Jesus Christ is called the 'seed of the woman,' not only to import the reality of his manhood … but chiefly to signify that he was none of Adam's natural posterity represented in the covenant of works, and that he would be born of a virgin" (The Self-Interpreting Bible Library, 1:218).

The LXX clearly identifies the seed of the woman as a single person. It uses the masculine pronoun autos rather than a neuter, although grammatical agreement with sperma, "seed," would require a neuter. It would appear that the LXX translator chose to be grammatically incorrect in order to emphasize the individual identity of the promised seed.

Some expositors object to seeing the seed of the woman as a reference to Christ, at least in a primary sense. H. C. Leupold argues that since "the seed of the serpent" must mean the children of the evil one—that is, a number or class of wicked people (John 8:44)—"the seed of the woman" must refer to another number or class of people who oppose them. The weakness in this exegesis is that those who are called the seed of the serpent are as much the seed of the woman as those who oppose them. And Leupold himself shows that God speaks of the seed of the woman as he, clearly a reference to an individual.

It could be just as cogently argued that since the seed of the woman is certainly an individual, the seed of the serpent must refer to another, antagonistic, individual. Paul identified one who is preeminently "the man of sin" (2 Thess. 2:3), and John spoke of "the beast," empowered by Satan (Rev. 13:2). There is no insuperable difficulty in seeing the seed of the woman as Christ the virgin-born Saviour, whether we identify the seed of the serpent as sinners who are of their father the devil, or as the antichrist.

Another objection to identifying the seed of the woman as a prophecy of Christ's virgin birth arises from the fact that in Gen. 24:60, Rebekah's family refer to the children they expect her to bear as "thy seed." In a similar construction in Gen. 16:10, the angel of the Lord promises Hagar, "I will multiply thy seed exceedingly." Obviously there is no hint of a virgin birth in such references. J. Barton Payne strongly makes the point that this prohibits us seeing the "seed of the woman" in Gen. 3:15 as a reference to the virgin birth.

In fact, Payne's argument misses the point The question is not whether the word seed, when described as a woman's must always mean a virgin birth. Clearly that is not the case. The real question is what it means in the context of God's curse on the serpent. In the other texts there is no intention to teach anything but that in Hagar and Rebekah seed from a man will produce children. In either case the seed is not really theirs at all, except in the sense that they receive it. But is that the case in Gen. 3:15? Here seed appears practically as a personal identification. The promised deliverer, or redeemer who would crush Satan's head at the cost of personal suffering, bears the title, "the seed of the woman." That denotes something unique about his birth. As the seed of the woman, he is, in Paul's phrase, "made of a woman" (Gal. 4:4). He is not the product of any sexual union between his mother and a man, or the product of the Holy Spirit's implantation of a divine seed in the womb of his mother. The seed from which his humanity arises belongs to his mother. That is the import of this first gospel promise.

Isaiah 7:14: "The Lord himself shall give you a sign; behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel."

According to Matt. 1:23, this is a prophecy of a virgin birth that received its fulfilment in the virgin birth of Christ. However, rationalistic scholars deny that Isaiah makes any reference to Christ or His virgin birth here. They hold that Matthew simply accommodated Isaiah's statement to his own purpose. They support their contention with two arguments:

The Meaning of Virgin in Isaiah 7:14. Rationalists' first argument is based on the Hebrew word translated "virgin." It is 'almah, not bethulah, the word they claim to be the technical term for virgin. They argue that 'almah merely denotes a young woman, not necessarily a virgin. Thus, Isaiah's statement is that a young woman would bear a son conceived in a perfectly natural and normal way.

There are strong arguments against this view—arguments which show that 'almah, not bethulah, is the technical term for virgin. The following points will demonstrate that it is, at least, the only word that without any qualification means "virgin."

First, 'almah is never used in Scripture of a young woman who is married or of one who is demonstrably not a virgin.

Second, 'almah never needs any explanatory statement to denote virginity. "Damsel," na'arah, may need to have bethulah alongside to leave no doubt that it is describing a virgin. This is never so of 'almah. In Gen. 24, all three words are used of Rebekah (bethulah, v. 16; 'almah, v. 43; na'arah, v. 16, 57). However bethulah and 'almah are not placed in apposition: unlike na'arah, 'almah does not need bethulah to prove it refers to a virgin, whereas na'arah may. A na'arah may or may not be a virgin (Deut. 22:20, 23), but there is not the slightest suspicion in Scripture that an 'almah is anything other than a virgin.

Third, in Gen. 24:16 bethulah is followed by the explanation, "neither had any man known her." If bethulah is the technical term for virgin, this is tautology. Of course, tautology may be used to emphasize the point of Rebekah's virgin purity, but it is just as possible that since both na'arah and bethulah (both of which appear in the verse) may sometimes be used of one who is married, or no longer a virgin, the explanatory clause is necessary to establish Rebekah's virginity.

Fourth, while commentators routinely claim that a bethulah is always a virgin, Joel 1:8 uses it of a young woman who had lost "the husband of her youth." It may be argued, but not proved, that this refers to an espoused wife who had not begun to cohabit with her husband. The fact remains that bethulah is here a description of a married woman and that fact alone is sufficient reason for not using it in Isa. 7:14. If opponents of the virgin birth have mounted such an attack on the word 'almah, which is never associated with one in the married state, what would they not have said if bethulah had been used? Joel 1:8 would undoubtedly have appeared as a proof text that nothing more than a young married woman was intended!

On the use of 'almah, J. A. Alexander said, "A virgin or unmarried woman is designated here as distinctly as she could be by a single word.… That the word means simply a young woman, whether married or unmarried, a virgin or a mother, is a subterfuge invented by the later Greek translators" (Commentary on Isaiah).

Scope of the Prophecy. Rationalists' second line of argument concerns the scope of the text in its context. They hold that vv. 15 and 16 show that the child spoken of in v. 14 was to be a sign to Ahaz and that he would grow up in a time of privation and affliction in Judah. Before he would "know to refuse the evil, and choose the good," Israel and Syria, Judah's enemies, would be forsaken. The sole meaning of the promise, therefore, is that a young woman in Judah who was then pregnant would soon give birth, and before her son had reached the age of accountability, Judah would have relief from her foes.

However, insuperable difficulties surround this interpretation of the text.

1. A natural birth could not be a sign in the sense of the Hebrew 'oth, which the context leads us to expect. Both Alexander and J. Barton Payne (The Theology of the Older Testament) rightly stress this point. The sign here is a supernatural sign. "This presumption is strengthened by the solemnity with which the Prophet speaks of the predicted birth, not as a usual and natural event, but as something that excites his own astonishment, as he beholds it in prophetic vision" (Alexander).

2. Parallel passages in Isaiah indicate that 7:14 does not speak of a merely natural birth. The terms of Isa. 8:8; 9:6 point to a supernatural birth.

3. The combination of the idea of virginity in 'almah with that of childbearing implies a miraculous birth.

4. "The name Immanuel, although it might be used to signify God's providential presence merely (Ps. 46:8, 11; 89:25; Josh. 1:5; Jer. 1:8; Isa. 43:2), has a latitude and pregnancy of meaning which can scarcely be fortuitous, and which, combined with all the rest, makes the conclusion almost unavoidable, that it was here intended to express a personal as well as a providential presence. If to this we add the early promise of the seed of the woman (Gen. 3:15), rendered more definite by later revelations, and that remarkable expression of Isaiah's contemporary prophet Micah (5:2), until the time that she which travaileth hath brought forth, immediately following the promise of a ruler, to be born in Bethlehem, but whose goings forth have been of old, from everlasting—the balance of probabilities, as furnished by the Old Testament exclusively, preponderates decidedly in favour of the supposition, that Isaiah's words had reference to a miraculous conception and nativity" (Alexander).

5. The NT use of the text is not a mere accommodation of Isaiah's language to a use the prophet had not intended. Matthew 1:23 is a strict quotation that gives the full native force of Isaiah's words.

How was the Virgin Birth a Sign to Ahaz? Orthodox scholars have suggested various ways in which a promise of the virgin birth of Christ could have been a sign to Ahaz. Calvin and others have supposed that the Isaiah passage speaks of two distinct births and two distinct children, usually identified as Isaiah's son Shearjashub and Christ. According to this view, v. 14 teaches that Christ would be born of a virgin, while vv. 15, 16 refer to Shearjashub and promise that before he became old enough to distinguish good from evil Judah would be delivered. This approach appears to be a very contrived and artificial exegesis. As Alexander remarked, "Nothing but extreme exegetical necessity could justify the reference of verses 15, 16 to any person not referred to in v. 14."

Others, such as Albert Barnes in his Notes, see a double sense in the prophecy, one referring to a natural birth in Isaiah's day and the other to the supernatural virgin birth of Christ. Proponents believe they have scriptural warrant for their view because the context in Isaiah speaks of a deliverance during the early years of a child born in the reign of Ahaz, while Matthew assures us that Isaiah's ultimate meaning was that Christ, the real deliverer of His people, would be born of a virgin. The problem with this view is that it makes the same words describe both a perfectly natural birth and a supernatural birth. This double sense is improbable and, without clear scriptural authority, unjustifiable.

Others refer Isaiah's prophecy entirely to Christ's birth. Matthew's quotation favours this approach. It recognizes only one child in the prophecy, the Messiah. Critics of this view pose two questions: how could something so remote in time as the birth of Christ be a sign to Ahaz, and how can v. 16, which predicts the fall of the kings of Syria and Israel during the infancy of the promised child, refer to one born 700 years later?

The first of these questions poses no great difficulty. In Scripture, events that are yet in the more or less remote future are set forth as signs. Exodus 3:12 makes the promise that Israel would worship God at Sinai, a sign to Moses of their deliverance from Egypt. Isa. 37:30 makes the future tillage of the ground a sign to Hezekiah of Sennacherib's imminent removal from Judah. At the second coming of Christ "the sign of the Son of man" appears in the heavens (Matt. 24:30), and this coming has always been a spur to holiness to saints (1 John 3:2, 3) and a warning to sinners (Acts 17:31). Similarly, the promised birth of Christ, of the line of David, could well have served as a sign to Ahaz that his two foes would not succeed in destroying his kingdom.

The second question—how v. 16 relates to the birth of Christ—is much more difficult. Vitringa (1669–1722) suggested that Isaiah was speaking hypothetically: if Messiah were to be born now, before He could grow to an age when He could discern good from evil, Judah's enemies would fall. Hengstenberg took a similar line, only he understood Isaiah to be speaking in ideal terms: all the blessings of God's people were bestowed through Christ and so the prophet ascribed this deliverance to His birth, which he saw in prophetic vision, as if it were already happening. These are ingenious suggestions, but there is nothing at all to indicate that Isaiah was speaking either hypothetically or ideally.

Other solutions rest on the fact that when Ahaz refused to ask for a sign, the Lord gave one not only to him, but to the whole house of David. There is a significant change from the singular thee to the plural you. The Lord directs Ahaz, "Ask thee a sign" (v. 11). When he refused, the Lord addressed His promise to the house of David: "The Lord Himself will give you [plural] a sign." Thus, He gave a sign that would both speak to Ahaz and be capable of fulfilment only by the virgin birth of Christ. It was so worded that Ahaz could receive it and adjust his life in the light of it. In fact, its fulfilment lay far in the future under circumstances Ahaz could not have foreseen.

Liberals object that the deliverance of Judah from the kings of Israel and Syria was to take place during the infancy of the child Isaiah described. Thus, the promise could not have been intended as a prophecy of Christ, for He was not born for some 700 years. Conservatives usually respond that the text prophesies that Judah's deliverance would occur "before the child shall know to refuse the evil, and choose the good." Though Ahaz was not to know it, the predicted event was centuries away. The kings of Israel and Syria had certainly perished before that.

Perhaps a better way of understanding Isaiah's meaning is by noting his use of the grammatical form known as futurum instans. The particle hinneh, "behold," is used with a participle—a grammatical device employed in prophecy to denote the imminency of the prophesied event. The force of the words of Isa. 7:14 therefore is, "A virgin is already pregnant and is about to bear a son." Looking on the birth of Immanuel as imminent, Isaiah announces the time of Judah's deliverance: it will take place within the time span of His growing to the age of discernment. In just such a time (two or three years, 734–732 b.c.), Judah was indeed delivered of her two great foes. Thus, the length of time the child would take to reach the age of discernment was the part of the prophecy that directly related to Ahaz, not His actual birth. On the other hand, the virgin-born child was the sign, not to Ahaz, but to the house of Judah.

However orthodox scholars differ on how to relate the prophecy to Ahaz's circumstances, they all see Isaiah's great prophecy as a prediction of the miraculous virgin birth of Christ.

Matthew 1:23: "Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us."

This NT quotation of Isa. 7:14 not only validates the view that Isaiah prophesied the virgin birth of Christ but also establishes the historical fact of it as the basis of the gospel. According to Matthew's record Mary was a parthenos, "virgin," when she gave birth to Jesus. In the case of parthenos, its sole meaning is indisputably "virgin." Before Mary and her espoused husband Joseph came together, she "was found with child of the Holy Ghost" (v. 18). The angel of the Lord assured Joseph, "That which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost" (v. 20). This is the basis of the assertion that this birth fulfils the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14.

Luke 1:27–35: The angelic announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would bear a son left her perplexed for she had not known a man (v. 34). "And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God" (v. 35). That the text here intends to teach a virgin birth is beyond question.

That does not stop rationalistic scholars and a certain class of textual critics from seeking to weaken the force of the testimony of Matthew and Luke. For example, the Revised Standard Version in a footnote to Matt. 1:16a states: "Other ancient authorities read Joseph, to whom was betrothed the Virgin Mary, was the father of Jesus who is called Christ." Moffat's translation adopts this reading, but the truth of the matter is, as even the translators of the New English Bible admit in their footnote, that there is only a single Greek manuscript in which this reading is found. The integrity of the text of Matt. 1, with its attestation of the virgin birth, is unimpeachable.

A more serious attack has been made on the integrity of Luke 1:5–2:52. This passage is crucial. Deniers have maintained that the idea of the virgin birth was derived from pagan sources, but J. Gresham Machen conclusively showed that the passage in question "is strikingly Jewish and Palestinian both in form and content."

The question deniers of the virgin birth must face is: How could such a pagan idea have found its way into "the most strikingly Jewish and Palestinian narrative in the whole New Testament"? The rationalist answer is that though the passage is of Palestinian origin, the attestation to the virgin birth is a later interpolation into Luke's text. Machen disposed of this theory in his work The Virgin Birth of Christ (chapter 6, "The Integrity of the Lucan Narrative") and showed that there is no ground other than rationalistic prejudice, to question the right of Luke 1:34, 35 to its place in the original text of Luke's gospel.

Galatians 4:4: "When the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law."

The force of the verb exapostello is that God commissioned His Son to go out from Him to redeem His people. This is the equivalent of the statements of John 1:1, 14, the Son "was with God," "was God," and "was made flesh." Paul explains how He was made flesh: "He was made of a woman." The verb here is ginomai, and it means "became," or "got to be" (Lenski). Lexicons and theological dictionaries routinely give "be born" as a primary meaning and cite Gal. 4:4 as proof. Most modern English translations (NEB, RSV, NASB, NIV, GNB, Amplified) translate genomenon ek gunaikos "born of a woman." But this is a clear mistranslation. Had that been Paul's statement he would have used gennethenta, not genomenon. The Greek text means that the Son whom God commissioned to go out from Him "became out of a woman" in executing His mission.

Lenski defends the interpretation that takes "made of a woman" as a description of Christ's virgin birth: "The phrase [of a woman] denotes more than the separation from the womb, it includes the entire human nature of the Son as this was derived from his human mother. The word genomenon is exactly the proper word to express this thought, even the tense is very accurate. The Son's going out from God on his mission is seen in his becoming man. He did not cease to be the Son of God when he became man. He did not drop his deity, which is an impossible thought. He remained what he was and added what he had not had, namely a human nature, derived out of a woman, a human mother. He became the God-man."

1 Timothy 3:16: "Without controversy great is the mystery of godliness: God was manifest in the flesh, justified in the Spirit, seen of angels, preached unto the Gentiles, believed on in the world, received up into glory."

While Paul does not here discuss the virgin birth as such, he states the mystery and miracle of the incarnation in terms that are certainly consonant with it and incompatible with any notion that Christ was born by natural generation. (For a discussion of the text of this verse see Textual Criticism of the New Testament.)

Hebrews 10:5: "When he cometh into the world, he saith, Sacrifice and offering thou wouldest not, but a body hast thou prepared me."

Prepared is the verb katartizo, which has the idea "to frame" (Heb. 11:3), "to fit," (Rom. 9:22), or "to perfect," (1 Thess. 3:10; Heb. 13:21). In the NT this preparing a body is unique to the body of Christ. It describes the direct action of God to frame that body in the womb of the virgin Mary. While it is true that every man should praise God that his body is the result of divine skill and work (Psa. 139:15), the special, direct action to which Heb. 10:5 refers, sets the birth of Christ apart from all others. His body was not the result of an ovum fertilized by any man's seed. It was made by God of the substance of Mary alone. That is a virgin birth.

"Made of a Woman"

It is vitally important to remember that Christ's humanity was made of the substance of the Virgin Mary. The Nicene Creed says that He was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. The Westminster Confession of Faith says that He was conceived "by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance." It is essential to maintain this if we are to hold unimpaired the cardinal doctrine of Christ's real humanity. He came of the lineage of Abraham and of the seed of David (Rom. 9:5; 1:3). Since He had no human father, this could be true only if His humanity was made of the substance of Mary.

Some evangelicals have imagined a kind of heavenly humanity for Christ. Some describe the virgin birth in terms that make the Holy Spirit "the father of Christ's humanity." There is nothing of this in Scripture. The Holy Spirit did not supply the place of a man to impregnate Mary. That is a heathen, not a Christian, idea.

In an attempt to protect the truth of the sinlessness of Christ, some teach that Mary contributed nothing to the body and blood of the babe developing in her womb. They view Mary nothing more than a channel God used to bring into the world the human body and soul He had created independently of her substance. These are dangerous views. They contradict the plain statements of Scripture. They effectively deny the true humanity of Christ by making his human nature some new species. Thus they imperil the entire Biblical scheme of salvation in which our Saviour and Substitute is one with us in our humanity, though not in our depravity.

The scriptural doctrine of Christ's humanity being made from the substance of Mary by the supernatural action of the Holy Ghost in no way legitimizes the use of the title Mother of God for Mary, nor does it support the notion of her immaculate conception.

Protestant theologians used to speak of the sanctification of the human nature of Christ in the womb of the virgin. This language appears a little dubious or ambiguous. It carries the unintended suggestion that there was a period, however brief, when Christ's human nature, which never existed for an instant except in union with His divine nature, was less than sinless. That is an utterly unacceptable suggestion, however unintended it may be. Not for an instant was the human nature of Christ anything but impeccably sinless.

Luke 1:35 seems to suggest that the Holy Ghost so acted upon Mary's substance that what was born of her was sinless and absolutely pure. Thus it was her substance that was sanctified, not the humanity of Christ. We do not know the exact nature of the miracle performed on the substance of the Virgin Mary, but it was sufficient to produce the supernatural result, a virgin-born Saviour (Luke 1:35).

Voluntarism

1. In the discussion of the relation of morality to the authority of God, it is the doctrine that a principle derives its moral imperative from the fact that God wills it, not from the fact that it reflects His moral nature. This has serious implications in the doctrine of the atonement.

Samuel Rutherford expressed his voluntarist view that God could have pardoned sin without an atonement had He so willed. This is scholastic trifling because God cannot will contrary to His moral nature, for to will sin is to be as guilty of sin as committing the act willed (Matt. 5:27, 28). The divine will that establishes moral good necessarily expresses God's moral perfection.

2. In soteriology, it is the doctrine of the free will understood in Arminian terms; or the notion that saving faith is "a personal encounter," or a personal trust, without reference to the Biblical content of the faith. In other words, it is a form of subjectivism and irrationalism in which faith is the exercise of the will to reach out to God without the engagement of the understanding to grasp and receive the truths of the gospel set forth in Scripture.

LXX Septuagint

LXX Septuagint

NT New Testament

NT New Testament

NEB New English Bible

RSV Revised Standard Version

NASB New American Standard Bible

NIV New International Version

GNB Good News Bible

NT New Testament

Cairns, A. (2002). In Dictionary of Theological Terms (pp. 508–515). Belfast; Greenville, SC: Ambassador Emerald International.

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