Christmas,  Incarnation,  Virgin Birth

Resistance to the Incarnation

‎”I believe in God almighty, and in Christ Jesus, his only Son, our Lord who was born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary” (The Old Roman Creed).

This, for those who believe, is the good news of Christmas, that God descend to en-flesh himself, that he should dwell with us. But the news is also resisted.

The doctrine of the Virgin birth is, for example, an anathema to modern scientism, the belief in the universal applicability of the scientific method and approach, and the view that empirical science constitutes the most authoritative worldview or most valuable part of human learning to the exclusion of other viewpoints. According to this view, we can only trust experience for knowledge. Since miracles are not experienced in any regularity it is highly unlikely that they have ever occurred.

David Hume argued that testimony about miraculous events cannot be trusted: “A miracle is a violation of the laws of nature; and as a firm and unalterable experience has established these laws, the proof against a miracle, from the very nature of the fact, is as entire as any argument from experience can possibly be imagined”

Yet the Virgin birth is as fundamental a belief as the resurrection. One cannot deny the virgin birth without the cost of skepticism about the rest of the testimony found in the NT.

In more recent history, the criticism of the doctrine has been on social/political grounds. Womanist or feminist theologians suggest that Christian belief in the Virgin birth has social problems. One feminist suggests that Mary is a kind of surrogate, like an African slave for her male owner. Mary, according to these theologians, is a mere means to a male ends.

The Incarnate God has always been something human beings, in their sinful nature, resist.

Ahaz resisted the sign of Immanuel due to his pride (Isaiah 7): “I will not ask, nor will I test the Lord!” he says when it is the Lord who has told him to ask for a sign. It is with indignation that the prophet replies: “Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call his name Immanuel.”

The reader of Matthew’s gospel probably would have been resistant to Matthew’s story. Matthew appears to prepare the reader for Mary through adding women to his genealogy. This was most unusual. Especially since the women he lists are associated with scandal. Tamah prostituted herself to Judah (Gen 37-38), Rahab was a Canaanite harlot who lied (Joshua 2, 6), Ruth, although honorable, was a Moabitess, descended from the incestuous relationship between Lot and his daughter and cursed by Yahweh because they hired Balaam to curse Israel as she came out of Egypt (Gen 19:30-37; Deut 23:3-4). Bathsheba, who is not actually named in the Hebrew text, was the woman who slept with David while she was married to Uriah. She lost her first child, but the next child was Solomon.

Matthew prepares his reader for the scandal of verse 18: “Now the birth of Jesus Christ was as follows: when his mother had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child by the Holy Spirit.”

Matthew knows what the reaction might be: “What?! with child, out of wedlock, conceived by the Holy Spirit, God descending in such a dishonorable fashion to a virgin in this way, causing scandal, this cannot be so!” And he knows that, underlying this, is the feeling: “what need have we of this? If the messiah is to come surely he should come to us in a proper way, not stooping so low, and what need have we that Yahweh himself should come? We do not want nor need such a thing.” Can you hear Ahaz in this reaction?

You can also see the fulfillment of the sign given to Judah. It is the fulfilment of the sign of the covenant with David and Abraham. This is also demonstrated in the genealogy  In fact, Matthew, by breaking the protocol of placing the older ancestor first, points first to the Davidic covenant. “The record of the genealogy of Jesus the Messiah, the son of David, the son of Abraham” (Matt 1:1). Matthew uses David’s name five times. The inclusion of Gentile lineage also highlights the promise to Abraham that he would be a blessing to the nations.

Again Matthew imagines the reaction: “Surely the great House of David cannot be made new through this insignificant couple. Surely the promise made to Abraham cannot come through such scandalous circumstances, through women of ill repute, through a mere impressionable, immature woman!”

The resistance of Matthew’s reader is heightened in Jesus’ stooping to be baptized by John. Then he reclaims the proper use of Ahaz’s words when Jesus resists the temptation from Satan. Then, Jesus speaks to the crowd on the mountain and directs his first sentiments towards the pride of his hearers. He tells them that to be blessed (favored, happy, satisfied) they must recognize their poverty of Spirit, their desperate need of Him, their dependence (Matt 5). Then Jesus tells them that if they want to try it alone, the standard that is demanded is so incredibly high as to be completely impossible for man alone without divine help.

Our resistance to God become man is a result of our pride, our desire for autonomy. It is resistance of the kind that resists help from a superior: “God, the master, has told me what to do, now let me just get on with it.” God comes knowing full well that we are unable to fulfill what he has asked, and fulfills the law for us. We resist because we feel we need no help. It is like when you are doing something or other and someone, without asking, arrives to help out and appears to take over. This annoyance is due to our belief that we are perfectly capable of doing whatever it is ourselves.

Of course, the culmination of the gospel is found in Christ’s humiliation, his stooping to the cross, a criminal’s death. This not only shows Christ’s passion, but our pride. Just how bad must it be that Christ, God incarnate, should need to stoop that low?

Assistant Professor of Philosophy and History of Ideas at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and The College at Southeastern.