Is the Virigin Birth Important?

Last week the Huffington Post included an article on their website by Rita Nakashima Brock on “The Importance of Mary’s Virginity.” The timing was certainly critical as we are fully absorbed in the Christmas season. The message of the article is biting as Dr. Brock attempts to discredit the traditional teaching of the virgin birth as found in Matthew 1. However, she does not hope to do so in order to purge the virgin birth from Christianity. In fact, she states to the contrary:

“Actually, it is quite possible as a Christian to believe Jesus had a biological father and believe the story of the virgin conception says something important. It all depends on what you think ‘virgin’ means.”

For Dr. Brock, Mary’s virginity has nothing to do with biology; instead, she writes:

“I think the most significant meaning of Mary’s virginity is Christian resistance to the oppression of the Roman Empire.”

So the question remains, is the virgin birth (in the traditional sense) really all that important? Let me suggest a few passing misinterpretations and obvious oversights from Dr. Brock’s article, then I’ll hit the heart of the matter.

First, Dr. Brock approaches the issue of the virgin birth with an all-encompassing feminist theology. She describes the ancient pater familias where the father ruled over the family (and by extension, in her words, the emperor served as the “ruling father of the empire”), and claims that Mary was not the typical virgin under that type of system. By being different from that system through the apparent lack of a father’s influence, Brock believes:

“We might describe the story of Mary as a powerful rejection of patriarchal family systems and imperial powers that oppress everyone subject to them.”

Her theology is akin to liberationist theology in the concept that Mary is liberating the woman from oppressive patriarchal rule. In doing so, she is essentially deifying Mary as the Messiah/Anointed One/Christ/Deliverer for oppressed individuals. Wrong? Certainly. Heresy? No doubt?

Second, she totally misses the boat on Joseph. Brock states:

“Mary’s husband Joseph obviously serves her, not the other way around.”

However, according to Matthew’s account, Joseph was about to divorce Mary. In essence, he would have exercised his “patriarchal” duty by kicking her to the curb of ancient society—an unwed mother. Yes, Joseph serves her, but not in the way that Dr. Brock perceives. Joseph is not a subject serving a master—he is a righteous man lovingly protecting his betrothed wife from shame and embarrassment.

Third, she totally makes up the argument about Mary’s father not being involved. Brock notes:

“Mary was definitely not a virgin of this type — her father plays no part in her story. She is independent of a father’s rule, and by implication, of the father-in-chief, the emperor.”

Scripture tells nothing of Mary’s father. Silence in Scripture is not a license to make up stories and turn Mary into a 21st century independent feminist Messiah.

Here are a few things Brock got right. Roman emperors did demand to be worshiped as gods. It is debatable when exactly that started. It is reported that Julius Caesar allowed himself to be worshiped and Augustus permitted it only outside Rome. Caligula demanded it. How did this play out in first century Judea? Who knows?!

She also gets right how the Catholic Church elevated Mary to the status of “Mother of God.” This is an unfortunate elevation in the history of the church because Mary herself is worshiped as a god in many Roman Catholic and Orthodox churches. The iconography of the Middle Ages deifying Mary is certainly heretical.

So what is the point of the virgin birth? It is more than just a story that resonates with feminist-liberation theology. The virgin birth is an essential element of Christian theology. It goes back to the doctrine of original sin.[1] If you hold to a natural headship view of original sin, then the sin nature is passed down to each subsequent generation by procreation (and directly related to the father’s role in said procreation). The only way to bypass a sinful nature in man is to bypass the natural procreative process and have conception take place by means of the Holy Spirit. Therefore, if Jesus was merely another child born to Mary, albeit is seemingly conceived with the help of a visitor to a temple prostitute, then Jesus was not free of a sin nature.[2] If Jesus was not free from sin—for all people born with a sin nature sin (Rom 5:12)—then we do not have a perfect Savior who can atone for our sins. He is just a good guy who had some interesting things to say and died way too young.

Dr. Brock got it wrong—dead wrong. The literal virgin birth is absolutely essential to Christianity. Without it, we are most to be pitied (1 Cor 15:19).

[1] For a discussion on the various views of original sin, see Millard J. Erickson, Christian Theology, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988), 648-56.

[2] Patterson describes it this way, “By the same token, the virgin conception of Jesus, the second Adam, is necessitated since if Jesus were born with a sinful nature, then He, too, would have been susceptible to sin. As the second Adam, with no sinful nature, He was able to confront temptation, triumph over the overtures of Satan, and remain a spotless, sinless sacrifice for Adam’s race.” Paige Patterson, “Total Depravity,” in Whosoever Will (edited by David L. Allen and Steve W. Lemke; Nashville: B&H Academic, 2010), 37-38.

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