Some Thoughts on Intra-Trinitarian Relationships in the Earliest Church Fathers

Back in 2004, I presented a very long (71-page) paper at the Evangelical Theological Society entitled, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church.” This paper was the result of research I conducted related to my PhD studies in patristics. In light of recent discussions among evangelicals regarding the issue of subordination and intra-trinitarian relationships, I thought I would make this paper available. It is an exhaustive (some might say, exhausting) analysis of every instance in which the relationships between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are even mentioned in the orthodox writings between Didache and Irenaeus. The full paper can be found here as a PDF. Because it was written in 2004, it is clearly not up-to-date in its secondary literature, but my hope is that interested readers will find the primary source data (all included in a lengthy appendix) to be helpful.

Below, I include the excerpt from the paper that summarizes my conclusions and implications based on the work of these early fathers. I would ask that readers first review the analysis of the entire paper before interacting with my conclusions.

Excerpt from Michael J. Svigel, “Power in Unity, Diversity in Rank: Subordination and the Trinity in the Fathers of the Early Church,” a Paper Presented at the 56th Annual Meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society, November 18, 2004, San Antonio, Texas.

Conclusions

Based on the preceding analyses, we can make the following conclusions regarding the relationships of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the writings of the earliest fathers.

No Clear Arian Ontological Subordination. There is no clear example of an Arian ontological subordinationism in which the Son is a created being or has an inferior divinity to the Father, though Tatian’s concept of the Logos may come close. When their language was clear, the early fathers’ concept of subordination was functional, not ontological. LaCugna rightly stated that “we should not regard this economic subordinationism as heretical or even as an inferior or incoherent Christian theology of God and Christ.”[1] Rather, just the opposite is true: where there was opportunity given by the context, Christ was called “God,” “eternal,” or the essential mediator of the Father’s will.

No Functional Egalitarianism. There is no discernible tradition whatsoever of what is today described as ontological and functional equality or a “communitarian” or “democratic” model of the Trinity. Nor is there clear evidence of a view which states that the persons of the Godhead could have agreed to take on different roles than what has unfolded in the economy of creation (e.g. that the Father could have become incarnate or the Son could have indwelled believers rather than the Holy Spirit).

Ontological Equality and Functional Subordination. There is an overwhelming tradition of what is today described as ontological equality and functional subordination within the Trinity that emphasizes the monarchia of the Father. While the Son and Spirit are not creatures, the Father is their head, meaning that all activities conform to his will.

Possible Drift toward Ontological Subordinationism. While the later second century fathers began to speculate more on the specific nature of the generation of the Son,[2] we begin to discern language implying an eternal functional subordination while still maintaining essential (ontological) equality. However, with Tatian the language becomes fuzzy, and the stage appears to be set for greater deviation away from ontological equality toward Arian ontological subordinationism.

 

Implications

If, for the sake of argument, we were to regard the fathers of the first and second centuries as our canon of orthodoxy and the proper understanding of Scripture, then our judgments on various views of subordination and the Trinity become rather clear.     

Eternal Functional Equality and Ontological Equality. Modern day advocates of what I call “eternal functional equality” suggest that “there can be no separation between the being and the acts of God, between the one divine nature of the three persons and their functions.”[3] Therefore, orthodox ontological equality is said to demand functional equality as well, and distinctions in rank between the Father, Son, and Spirit are rejected. Instead, the Father, Son, and Spirit are regarded as functioning in a co-equal fellowship, with one mind and will. Though each member of the Triune community performs distinct activities, these activities are not ordered in rank or hierarchy.[4] Instead of the Son and Spirit functioning in submission to the Father, the three persons are said to function in mutual submission to each other. In light of this study, the problem with such a view is that no extant Christian writings of the first and second centuries suggest anything remotely close to such a model, but rather consistently present the Father as the head and the Son and Spirit as functioning in submission to the Father.

Incarnational Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. Advocates of a temporary or voluntary subordination of the Son to the Father limit the submission of the Son to the time of his earthly ministry or commencing with the incarnation. Thus, the Son’s role of submission to God is a result of his taking on full human nature and living in obedience to the law. However, in light of the early fathers, limiting the functional subordination of the Son to the incarnation would be too narrow. In the first and second century writers, the Son and Spirit consistently submit to the Father’s will, even prior to the Son’s incarnation and Spirit’s sending into the world. Also, such a view of incarnational subordination does not explain why the Holy Spirit is presented by the fathers as functioning in submission to the will of the Father without having become incarnate.

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality. If we were to employ first and second century Christian teaching as a standard, the advocates of an eternal functional subordination of the Son to the Father would have little clear evidence to support their view. The descriptions of the relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit in the early fathers refer to activities of the Godhead in relation to the created order. Apart from actual activities in creation, the nature of the relationships is vague. This does not preclude the existence of an ordered relationship based on fatherhood, sonship, and spiration, but the actual evidence is minimal and unclear. In this sense, complaints against the language of “eternal functional subordination” seem to be valid, and evangelicals should probably cease using such terms.[5]

Economic Functional Subordination and Ontological Equality.[6] The view of the earliest post-apostolic fathers is best described as one in which Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are co-eternal and co-equal with regard to deity and power, but in extra-Trinitarian actions the Father is the head, the Son is the mediator, and the Spirit is the pervasive active presence of God. While we cannot logically project this economic functional subordination into an eternal state apart from creation, this taxis would be consistent with the interpersonal relationships implied by the names “Father,” “Son,” and “Spirit.”

Eternal Functional Subordination and Ontological Subordination. The fathers’ consistent subordination of the Son to the Father in their will and works has sometimes been mistaken for an ontological subordination relegating either the Son or the Spirit to the realm of finite creation rather than eternal deity. For example, in his polemic against Trinitarianism in favor of Unitarianism, Stannus, citing Polycarp’s prayer on the pyre as evidence of non-trinitarianism in the second century, writes, “The ante-Nicene fathers invariably spoke of Christ as subordinate to the Father.”[7] Although he is correct in this assertion, his conclusion that this necessarily implies an inequality of divinity is an unfounded exaggeration. His error is similar to that of modern assertions that subordination in function necessarily means inequality of eternal nature. Where the early fathers are not silent, they illustrate that one can hold simultaneously to both functional subordination and ontological equality of being. Therefore, attempts by groups such as Jehovah’s Witnesses who seek sympathetic theology in the early fathers are misguided.[8]

 

Two Final Questions

Does Economic Functional Subordination Prescribe a Particular Social Order? The ordering of ecclesiastical leadership suggested in 1 Clement and stated explicitly and repeatedly in the Letters of Ignatius was not tied to an eternal role in the Godhead, but to the sending of the Son in the economy of salvation. This ordering is independent of questions regarding the eternal relationships between Father, Son, and Spirit. In the context of contemporary egalitarian and complementarian debates—whether in the home, government, society, or church—the debate concerning eternal functional subordination is irrelevant as far as the early fathers are concerned. There appears to have been enough justification for ecclesiastical ordering in the simple fact that the Son was sent into the world. However, we must recognize that the fathers do not extend this divine ordering beyond that of ecclesiastical structures. Although 1 Clement addressed the issue of God’s establishment of human government on earth to which all men are to submit, he linked such authority to his divine decree, not to a Trinitarian model (1 Clem. 61:1). However, one could suggest that the ways in which God orders society in general should be consistent with his work. In short, functional subordination in the Trinity need not be eternal to serve as a basis for social structures, but this type of application of Trinitarian theology outside church order is not found in the early fathers.

Are the Early Fathers “Orthodox” or “Heretical”?[9] Based on an exhaustive analysis of the primary evidence summarized in this paper, the fathers’ teaching can be summed up in Athenagoras’s statement, “power in unity, diversity in rank.” For a moment, allow me a brief fit of rhetoric. Those who want to define historical orthodoxy as discerning no functional distinction in rank between Father, Son, and Holy Spirit are forced into one of three solutions with regard to the first and second century fathers. They must either a) anathematize the early fathers as heretics; b) twist their writings to conform to an egalitarian standard; or c) simply ignore them. It appears that most have chosen the final option. I reject this move. Instead, I believe we ought to embrace the early fathers as a solid, though developing, orthodox link in the chain of Trinitarian tradition handed down from the apostles in Scripture, subsequently taught by catechesis and liturgy, and guided in its growth and development by the teaching ministry of the Holy Spirit. If this is the case, orthodoxy must not only grudgingly accept the concept of ontological equality and functional subordination as merely an acceptable option, but perhaps it should cheerfully embrace it as most accurately reflecting the faith “once for all delivered to the saints” (Jude 3) and handed down to “faithful men” who were “able to teach others also” (2 Tim 2:2).

Visual Summary of Evidence

TrinSum.

[1] LaCugna, God for Us, 26.

[2] This may have been the impetus for Irenaeus to assert that the generation of the Son is unknowable (A.H. 2.28.6).

[3] Giles, The Trinity and Subordinationism, 93.

[4] Ibid., 92–96.

[5] In my current thinking on this matter, the second century fathers’ adamant insistence on the utter distinction of Creator and creature, with the latter a creation ex nihilo, makes the notion of eternal functional subordination a problematic description. Subordination or submission to the will of the Father implies some sort of activity or function. Without a creation in which and toward which such actions are aimed, can we really speak about “subordination?” Unless we argue for a subordination of essential nature, we cannot speak of subordination in a timeless, eternal state. My view, of course, assumes a notion of creation ex nihilo. However, if one advances a doctrine of God and time that includes God’s “own time” or some pre-creational activity, then the term “eternal functional subordination” could be a legitimate category. On historical and contemporary issues of God, time, and creation, see William Lane Craig, God, Time, and Eternity—The Coherence of Theism II: Eternity (Dordrecht: Kluwer Academic, 2001).

[6] My use of the term “economic” here refers to any divine activity in the economy of creation. That is, in all extra-Trinitarian works of Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. It does not apply to whatever inconceivable and unknowable relationship the Father, Son, and Spirit had in their existence apart from creation.

[7] Stannus, Doctrine of the Trinity, 28.

[8] Cf. for example, Greg Stafford, Jehovah’s Witnesses Defended: An Answer to Scholars and Critics, 2d ed. (Huntington Beach, CA: Elihu, 2000), 215.

[9] This assumes, of course, that we can meaningfully use these terms in their normal sense with reference to the early fathers who precede the ecumenical councils of the fourth and fifth centuries. While historians shy away from them, evangelicals may use these terms because of their belief in a transcendent standard of doctrinal truth against which teachings of every age can be measured.

The (Kitschy) Cross and the (Creepy) Crypt

The heart of the gospel of Jesus Christ is His death and resurrection (1 Cor 15:3–4). This good news about Jesus wasn’t a mythological medley of spiritual metaphors. It wasn’t a story invented to puff the public appeal of a carpenter-turned-Rabbi. These were not “cleverly devised tales” (2 Pet 1:16) meant to deceive the masses into an unfounded faith. Early Christians made it clear that the gospel is based on historical events that occurred with real people in real places. Christ suffered “under Pontius Pilate,” a real historical figure. He was buried in a real tomb owned by a prominent Jerusalemite, Joseph of Arimathea (Matt 27:57–60). And He rose again on the third day—seen, heard, and even touched by numerous eye witnesses (1 Cor 15:5–8).

When people visit Israel today, they are bombarded by all sorts of claims regarding the location of certain biblical events—from the place where an angel visited Mary to the place where Christ was born . . . from the hillside where Jesus preached to the cliff where the herd of possessed pigs plunged into the Sea of Galilee. Sometimes pilgrims are left wondering which of these claims are based on historical fact or simply conjecture. But when it comes to the place of the death, burial, and resurrection of Christ, things get really messy. In fact, two competing locations for the death and resurrection present themselves as the true place of Golgotha and the tomb—the ancient Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the more recent Garden Tomb. And the difference between these two locations is quite literally darkness and light.

The Church of the Holy Sepulchre is cramped among the buildings of Old Jerusalem, covered by layer after layer of stone structures. Numerous Catholic traditions compete for control of the site, sending droves of worshipers through a maze-like route of Christ’s death, burial, and resurrection. Up narrow stone steps . . . past the supposed crucifixion site smothered in Catholic kitsch . . . down another flight of stairs . . . through a hallway painted with a mural depicting the death, wrapping, and burial of Jesus . . . and finally into an open hall crowded with Christian-like people first rudely shoving their way past others to see the burial site, only to reemerge weeping and wailing for their sins. I was actually told once by a burly Italian priest that I couldn’t go into the chapel because I wasn’t Catholic! To my evangelical eyes, the place is awful when it should be awesome. I always walk out of that cold, cramped, crowded Church with a feeling of despair, not hope.

But when I walk into the place of Gordon’s Calvary and the Garden Tomb, it’s like walking into a Thomas Kinkade painting. Birds chirp, butterflies flutter, trees wave in the cool breeze, visitors walk leisurely along garden paths, praying and singing hymns. A guide points out the craggy cliff which, with some imagination, looks like the features of a skull. He points to the area that used to be a site of public execution—a perfect fit for the crucifixion of Christ. Then he leads us to a tomb . . . a real tomb. Not a church, but an ancient burial site once covered by a rolling stone. There it is, in the garden, not far from the place of crucifixion, standing open . . .and empty. Pilgrims slowly file in and out. No pushing, no shoving, no burning incense, no purchasing candles, no kissing rocks—just meditating on the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus.

Like I said, the contrast is darkness and light. The only thing the Church of the Holy Sepulchre and the Garden Tomb have it common is that they both claim to be the place of the gospel events. Of course, evangelicals who visit the Holy Land almost instantly reject the Catholic location, and almost unquestioningly accept the Garden Tomb. It’s easy to see why. But in all likelihood, the Church of the Holy Sepulchre holds the best claim as the authentic site of Christ’s death and resurrection. On my last trip to Israel, I had the hardest time answering visitors’ questions about this. I really wanted to say, “No, that Catholic Church isn’t the real thing. This beautiful garden is the place.” But I couldn’t. Instead, I had to quietly tell those who asked the simple archaeological and historical facts.

The Bible says Joseph of Arimathea placed Christ’s body “in his own new tomb, which he had hewn out in the rock” (Matt 27:60). However, the grave at the Garden Tomb has all the characteristics of an Old Testament period tomb, not a new tomb. Besides this archaeological fact, the location of the Church of the Holy Sepulchre has very strong historical claim. It is mentioned very early on in Christian history has having been memorialized by the Christians in Jerusalem as the location of the death and resurrection of Jesus. In contrast, Gordon’s Calvary and its nearby tomb have no such pedigree. As difficult as it is for me to admit, the Garden Tomb is just a pretty place.

But as I reflect on the troubling condition of the true location of Christ’s death and resurrection, I’m not surprised. From day one Satan and the opponents of Christianity have been trying to cover up, confuse, and destroy the heart of Christianity. What better way for Satan to obscure the truth than to adorn the place of Christ’s atoning death and saving resurrection with a kitschy cross and a creepy crypt! And as I reflect on the many weeping worshipers at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre who push and shove their way through the gaudy grotto, I feel sadness at what the simple, beautiful, inspiring gospel of Jesus Christ has become for so many. Instead of a source of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control, it has often become a center of impurity, idolatry, enmities, strife, jealousy, anger, disputes, dissensions, and factions. Evangelicals like you and me are not immune to this, either.

Although historically we must accept the likelihood that the place of Christ’s death and resurrection is concealed by a massive Church . . . spiritually we should strive for the purity and beauty symbolized by the Garden Tomb.

[Originally posted June 3, 2008 at www.retrochristianity.com.]

Early Registration Open for The Table Conference April 19-20, 2013

On April 19–20, 2013, I will have the privilege of serving as one of six presenters when The TableDallas Seminary launches The Table conference series. The theme of the conference will be “Presenting God to Those Who See Christianity Differently.” Three major questions will each be addressed by two experts in the respective fields, one from Dallas Seminary and another guest invited to The Table: “Which Jesus?” with Lee Strobel and Darrel Bock . . . “Which Bible?” with Dan Wallace and Craig Blomberg . . . and “Which Christianity?” with Michael Svigel and Charles Hill.

My topic relates directly to my area of Ph.D. dissertation work: the question of original Christian identity. My presentation will revolve around what it meant to be “Christian” in the minds of the earliest Christian communities. Were they a motley crew of squabbling factions held together only by a common name? Or was there something solid, unchangeable, and identifiable that held them together in a common identity despite a diversity of teachers, texts, and traditions? How does our answer to this question affect how we view the boundaries and limits of Christian identity today?

Registration is now open. Consider attending this conference with your pastoral or leadership staff, elders, or anybody interested in learning how to interact with these vital issues in an informed way. It would also be a great conference for skeptics, doubters, or those young believers with a lot of honest questions about the Christian faith. You can find information on the conference at http://www.dts.edu/conferences/presentinggod/.

The conference will be held at Bent Tree Bible Church in Carrollton, Texas. I hope to see you there!

 

 

Railroading the Resurrection: Why Am I Persuaded… but Not My Uncle?

I believe in the miraculous bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth about thirty-six hours after he genuinely died on a Roman cross. My uncle? Not so much. But why not? Why do I see the constellation of evidences pointing to the resurrection, but he sees just a bunch of random points of flickering lights?

Here’s the problem. Some read the Gospel accounts in the New Testament and see them as facets of a unified whole; others read the same documents and see mutually exclusive accounts that contradict each other. Some think through the various historical arguments for the resurrection and find themselves persuaded that the bodily resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth best explains all of the evidence; others hear the same arguments and conclude that they are simply under-determinative given the high burden of proof. So, what’s the problem? Why is there such an impasse when it comes to the evaluation of the exact same evidence? Why do I approach the evidence and arguments with the eyes of belief, while others approach the same evidence and arguments with the eyes of disbelief?

Well, let me tell you what is not the reason. It’s not that one scholar has more facts than the other. We’re all dealing with the same pieces of information. Nor is it simply that one scholar is smarter than the other. Nor is it that one scholar went to a better school than the other. Or is of a more noble character than the other. Some of these things may very well be true, but they are merely red herrings when it comes to discovering the root cause of why one person concludes that Jesus Christ rose from the dead while another concludes the exact opposite.

So, if it isn’t a simple matter of quantity of facts or quality of thinkers, what is it?

I sometimes hear it said that a person’s interpretation of the facts of history and historical documents affects whether one will accept or reject the resurrection of Jesus. Indeed, this is partly true. If a person rejects out of hand the possibility of supernatural intrusions in historical events, he or she will interpret all historical events as having natural explanations. Even if a person is open to the possibility of supernatural explanations but holds such events according to an exceptionally high burden of proof, his or her historical method will involve ruling out all possible natural explanations before seriously considering the supernatural. Or if a person approaches any historical text with a cautious distrust or suspicion, he or she will tend toward disbelieving the things that appear to most people to be unbelievable or unexpected. So, it’s quite true that how a person interprets history and historical documents will certainly affect whether one will accept the resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth as an historical event.

On the other hand, it’s also true that one’s acceptance (or rejection) of Jesus’s resurrection affects how one interprets history and historical documents. If a person believes the resurrection of Jesus to have taken place, he or she will read the accounts of the resurrection tending to believe them. Also, the inevitable historical effects of the resurrection will be approached with openness—the reality of a true (versus fictitious) version of Jesus’s person and work; the authority of genuine eye-witnesses to Jesus’s resurrection and post-resurrection words and deeds; the establishment of an authentic (versus inauthentic) community of disciples; the appointment of a mission to preach throughout the world; and the sending of the Holy Spirit by the resurrected and ascended Messiah.

In other words, the question of whether Jesus of Nazareth rose from the dead is not as simple as analyzing historical evidence and coming to logical conclusions, as though we were working with measurements that we simply plug into an objective equation. The talking heads on PBS or the History Channel make is sound just that simple. They make it appear that if a person would set aside their simple-minded naïveté and objectively examine the bare facts, he or she would inevitably conclude that Jesus was just a dead man whose memory became the victim of old fashioned myth-making. However, these same scholars are themselves powered by a complex set of presuppositions (“their own rules of the game”) that lead the evidence like steel rails guiding an engine down the tracks toward its inevitable destination. It makes no difference whether the train has two cars or twenty—ten pieces of evidence or a hundred. The route of the train is limited to the historian’s guiding principles and presuppositions. (Of course, they will argue that these rails are reasonable, demonstrable, and necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.)

Before you think I’m simply stacking the deck against unbelievers, please note well: the same is true for the Christian interpreters. Christian historians are not less intelligent, less educated, or less privy to all the facts. Instead, they engage the facts with a different set of rules. Their worldview includes at least the possibility of miraculous intrusions by a living God. They are generally more willing to give the benefit of the doubt to ancient testimonies, regarding them as “innocent of falsehood until proven guilty” rather than “guilty of fabrication until proven innocent.” Their rails include God’s revelation in and through history and an understanding of history that includes creation, deterioration, redemption, and restoration, within which narrative the resurrection of Jesus plays a central role. So, the believing historian is also guided by rails that carry the same cargo of facts in a different direction. And the believing historian will also say that these rails are necessary guides to keep historical inquiry from derailing and causing disaster.

Of course, there are evidences and arguments for the historicity of the resurrection. And there is room for discussion, debate, persuasion, and conviction regarding the strength or weaknesses of these evidences. My point, however, is that there are unseen forces at work in the process of critical evaluation that play a major role in where the evidence is actually led.

Is the Virgin Birth Doctrine Really All That Necessary?

How important is it that Christians believe in the virgin birth? This may seem like a strange question, as most reading this probably wouldn’t dream of doubting the miracle of the virgin conception. It’s clearly taught in Scripture (Matt 1:18, 23; Luke 1:34–35), consistently believed throughout church history, and once we’ve accepted miracles like the resurrection of Jesus or the splitting of the Red Sea, it’s really not all that hard to believe that God could pull off a virgin conception. In fact, our understanding of the physiology of human procreation—especially in light of modern developments in reproductive technology—makes the miracle of a mother having a child without a father seem less, well, miraculous.

Nevertheless, the contemporary minimalist focus on things “absolutely essential for salvation” has pushed the virgin birth to the margins of what are often called “primary doctrines.” Now, it’s not that evangelicals are eager to abandon the virgin birth. Rather, almost all retain the doctrine “as is,” but some are now allowing for less conservative (let’s avoid the label “liberal” for now) Christians to redefine the doctrine and still claim to be heaven-bound believers. The argument goes like this: all that’s necessary for salvation is belief that Jesus is God and man who died for our sins and rose from the dead. According to some, that’s the sum of the tightly-packaged “simple gospel message” in the key New Testament passages (Romans 1:1–4; 1 Corinthians 15:1–4). There’s no clear mention of the virgin birth outside the Gospels, and only two of those, Matthew and Luke, bothered to include it. So, some less strict evangelicals, still regarding the doctrine as true, don’t make it an indispensable part of the Gospel message. And if it’s not a necessary part of the Gospel, then it’s not necessary for salvation. At least that’s how the argument tends to unfold with the “minimalist message” approach to the Gospel. For fear of adding too much confusing (or unbelievable?) content, the so-called superfluous elements are stripped away, leaving such secondary items to be handled after initial conversion.

So, three tendencies emerge when dealing with the doctrine of the virgin birth—1) rejecting it (flat out disbelief); 2) redefining it (finding the spiritual meaning of the mythical metaphor); or 3) re-categorizing it (demoting it to a secondary doctrine, true and good, but unnecessary for salvation).

My question to those who reject or redefine the doctrine of the virgin birth is always the same—why? What’s so offensive about the miracle of a virgin conception that would force us to regard it as either a loony legend or a meaningful myth? If a person reads a passage like Matthew 1:18 and says, “That’s ridiculous” or “That can’t possibly mean this,” I wonder what that same person does with the miracle of Christ’s bodily resurrection. (That’s a rhetorical question. I know what they do with it.) I have no patience for this kind of rejection or redefinition of the virgin conception. Those positions have no place within the Christian tradition. Never have, never will.

But is the miracle of the virgin conception of Jesus necessary for orthodox theology? Is it best to re-categorize it from “dogma” to “doctrine”? From “central” to “peripheral”? From “primary” to “secondary”? Often evangelical theologians and pastors argue for retaining the centrality of the virgin conception for a soteriological reason related to the work of Christ—His atoning death on the cross. The argument is that if Jesus had been the natural child of Joseph and Mary, then He would have inherited the stain of Adam’s sin. Jesus would have then been born a sinner who was Himself in need of redemption and therefore unable to pay the price for other sinners. Sounds reasonable enough, doesn’t it? But it assumes that sin and guilt are passed down only through the father’s seed, a doctrine not clearly taught in Scripture.

Another reason often cited for keeping the virgin conception primary is a bibliological reason. The argument goes like this: the Bible clearly teaches the virgin birth of Christ. In fact, it even prophesies the virgin birth in Isaiah 7. So, to deny the virgin birth is to deny the truthfulness of the Bible. And to deny the truthfulness of the Bible leads to potential doubt about everything it teaches. Such doubt undermines what the Bible says about sin, Christ, and salvation. So, every clear doctrine—and especially the virgin birth—becomes a primary issue for the Christian faith. Okay, I get it. But is an unbeliever really expected to believe everything in the Bible before he or she is regenerated by the Spirit? Would we need to convince a person that Peter literally found a coin in a fish’s mouth before we regarded that person’s confession of faith to be genuine? Would we check our new convert’s salvation pulse if she thought the story of Jonah might be a parable? Probably not. Most of us would likely say that a proper understanding of the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture comes early in the process of discipleship, not as a pre-requisite for conversion.

Yet there’s more important reason for retaining the centrality of the virgin conception—a christological reason. For me the necessity of the virgin birth relates primarily to the person of Christ—one of the fundamental pillars of the Gospel message itself. You see, the miracle of the virgin conception is not so much a miracle of a woman becoming pregnant without the contribution of a man. There are scientists alive today who could pull that off! The real miracle of the virgin conception is the incarnation of God the Son. The fact is, without the virgin conception, there could be no incarnation. There could be a Jesus of Nazareth possessed by a divine being, but not the God-man, two complete natures in one unique Person. Rather, He would be a complete human person who was adopted by the divine Person, an “indwelled” human being, no different from the way the Holy Spirit indwells a believer in Christ. In short, rejecting the doctrine of the virgin conception results in an adoptionist—not incarnational—christology.

When God the Son took on humanity, He did not adopt a human person. Yes, He took on full humanity—with body and soul, with human mind, human emotion, and human will. But to accomplish true incarnation (rather than adoption), there could be no personhood in the womb apart from incarnation. When the person, Jesus of Nazareth, began to grow in the womb, He had to already be divine and human, two natures in one person. Had Mary become pregnant the natural way, the divine Son would have descended upon a human being who was already a person. This would have resulted in two natures and two persons, the opposite of incarnational Christology. What would have been the result? A radically different Jesus than the One who died and rose again. Paul warns against those who preach “another Jesus” other than the One He preached (2 Corinthians 11:4). A different Jesus quite clearly constitutes a “different gospel, which is really not another” (Galatians 1:6–7).

So, Christians should not only take a stand against rejecting or redefining the doctrine of the virgin conception of Christ. We should resist the trend to re-categorize it as non-essential, or we’ll lose the essential truth of the Gospel—the Person of Jesus Christ, who alone, as fully God and fully man in one Person, is able to accomplish the work of redemption for us.

[Originally posted April 20, 2010 at www.retrochristianity.com]