Recently, I read Stanley Hauerwas’ memoir Hannah’s Child. In it he talks about growing up Methodist in Texas. One of the things he was aware of was that there were primarily two kinds of Methodists – “Liberals” and “Conservatives.” A key point of theology that divided them was the Virgin Birth of Jesus Christ. Liberals, as you might have guessed, didn’t buy it. Conservatives did. Hauerwas did believe it – still does, it turns out – but the question he asked himself at the time was, “Why is the Virgin Birth so important?” He wasn’t asking, “Is something like this miracle possible?” It was a given that the God of the Bible could do anything He wanted to do. What Hauerwas was asking was, “What theological importance does the event of the Virgin Birth hold in God’s dealings with humanity?”
Often, the answer provided to the “why?” of the Virgin Birth is to address the problem of how could Christ be free of original sin, and therefore be fit to be our redeemer. Herman Bavinck nicely illustrates the point when he writes: “The exclusion of the man from His [Jesus’] conception…had the effect that Christ, as one not included in the covenant of works, remained exempt from original sin and could therefore also be preserved in terms of His human nature, both before and after His birth, from all pollution of sin.” (Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics – vol. III, 294). This obviously assumes that both the guilt and pollution of original sin is passed on from Adam to the rest of us “by natural generation” (cf. WLC 26). And indeed, within the architectonic of classical Reformed theology, this answer “works.” But for all of its usefulness, this answer about the Virgin Birth seems to miss something of the larger sweep of the good news. And here is where T.F. Torrance is nothing short of brilliant in his clarity, profundity, and pastoral sensibilities.
First, the Virgin Birth is a disqualification of human capabilities. Torrance writes, “The virgin birth is the doctrine that the movement of the Son of God to become man is one directional, from God to man: it cannot be reversed.” (99) Quite simply, it bears witness to God’s divine initiative in coming to man. It is an act of pure freedom on God’s part.
Second, the Virgin birth is the setting aside of human autonomy. In the birth of Jesus, God not only acts first, He acts alone so as to exclude any assertion of human will. For Torrance, the significance of Joseph’s non-involvement in the generation of Jesus lies in its value of showing that “man in the person of Joseph is set aside – he has no say in the matter, he exercises no act of self-will or of the flesh in order to bring about this act of God.” (100) It is an act of pure grace on God’s part.
Third, the Virgin Birth is the pattern of grace, and model of faith. God takes the initiative and approaches Mary through the word of His angel – “the word proclaimed to Mary is the word of election or grace: she is chosen and told of God’s choice. She has nothing to do in this matter except what is done in her by the Spirit. What Mary does is simply to receive the word, to believe, which she does not in her own strength, but in the strength given her by the Lord, and she is blessed because of that, not her virginity.” (101) What we see in God’s particular encounter with Mary is paradigmatic of His gracious action in the gospel for us as well. Torrance goes on to write, “As in the annunciation of the word to Mary, Christ the Word Himself became flesh, so in the enunciation of the gospel, we surrender in like manner to Christ the Word now made flesh, and there takes place in us the birth of Christ, or rather, we are in a remarkable way given to share in the grace of his birth and to share in the new creation in him.” (101) Just as there is no human activity in Christ’s birth to Mary, there is no prior human activity in our being brought to Christ either. It is an act of pure gospel on God’s part.
Divine initiative. Grace. Gospel. THAT is what the Virgin Birth is about, and what it teaches us. It not only “sets the stage” for Christ’s gracious acts on our behalf. It IS a gracious act of God on our behalf. It is the good news.