The Virgin Birth of Christ, by J. Gresham Machen ★★★★★
This book was originally written in 1930, and the version I read was a Baker House reprint (with a different cover from above) from 1965. It remains contemporary and relevant. I enjoyed reading this book, as I deeply appreciate the way in which Dr. Machen thinks and analyzes problems. It is scholarliness that is often missing nowadays in Christian circles. Dr. Machen, who dates from 1881 to 1837, spent a number of years in Germany studying in the schools of higher criticism, and thus became familiar with the work of Harnack, the Tübingen School, and other scholars of the liberal theological tradition, much of which he countermands in this volume. He was particularly troubled by the deep spirituality of those liberal scholars. Yet his ultimate conclusion was that they had abandoned the faith of Christianity. Machen fought the liberalism that was tearing apart the mainstream denominations in the US and Europe, appealing for a return to classical Christianity as it has been passed down through the ages. To be expected, the predominance of the references in this book refers to writings in German, with a few French, Latin and English references also included.
This book really is in two parts. The first is a review and analysis of the virgin birth stories as found in the gospels of Matthew and Luke. First, there is a chapter that reviews statements found in the 1st through 3rd century by Christian writers, confirming that the virgin birth stories were not fabricated at a later date in the Christian church. Machen starts with Luke, analyzing first the two hymns in the first chapter of Luke, and showing their consistency with the Jewish culture at the time of Christ. Machen then analyses all of the passages under contention, including the visit of the magi, the two genealogies, areas where it might be contended that there are irreconcilable differences between the Matthew and Luke stories, the impossibility of there being a common source for both birth narratives, and how both narratives are consistent with the secular history of the Palestine region. In so doing, Machen concludes that the virgin birth is truly the only proper reading of the first two chapters of Matthew and Luke. Machen also shows in a vigorous fashion that the virgin birth narratives could NOT have been inserted into the text at a later date.
The second section then addresses the possible origin for the virgin birth narrative if the story is not actually true. Two possibilities exist. The first is Jewish, being formed after the writing of Matthew and Luke in attempt to merge Old Testament prophecies into a New Testament narrative. The exteme unlikeliness of this happening is emphasized. The second possibility is from the secular realm. There are narratives from other religions that suggest a “virgin” birth (eg., the Siddhartha Buddha, or Alexander the Great) or in Greek/Roman mythology, yet a close examination shows that this is nothing of the case with those stories, and very unsimilar to the Scripture virgin birth narratives.
Much of the writing to this point is fairly technical in nature, and not easy to plow through. The final chapter of this book ends with asking why this is such a big deal. Is it really important to believe in the miraculous virgin birth of the Lord Jesus? Machen ends with an unequivocal “yes”.
Machen occasionally mentions an alternative to the miraculous virgin birth that should be mentioned now. There are stories of angels making women pregnant in the literature, and perhaps other means of getting Mary pregnant without sexual intercourse with another male person. This can be found both in ancient literature as well as throughout history since then. The possibility of Mary conceiving via an “alien/angel” interaction has been offered, especially since ancient humanity was quite naive as to the technical possibilities of the present. This is a rather weak argument since ancient civilizations were not as naive as we suppose them to be. The movies “The Gods Must be Crazy I and II” reinforce this notion that “primitive” man would believe almost anything. To suppose that “angels” using advanced technologies incorporated “sinless” DNA into Mary’s ovum has many problems, the greatest being that it reduces “god” (and man!) down to a digital information entity. Surely God (and man) is more than just an information scheme! Surely Mary’s conception did NOT (and could not) require an intermediary in order to serve the Scripture as it is written.
Machen gives much to think about. He was a brilliant mind and capable defender of the faith. This book is a technical volume and not meant to be read by anybody. For those who wish a scholarly defense of the faith, then this book is a must which I highly advise.
The word “Supernatural” in the book title is not found in scripture and for good reason: it comes from a pagan concept of a dualism between nature and supernature.
Second, I do not follow Machen’s objection to Mary having been involved in what we would call a “genetic project”. The apostle Paul points out that there are only two humans who have been exceptions to the usual procreation process, Adam and Jesus. The only explanation I know that fits the facts of the story are that the angels modified Joseph’s genetics (because Matthew lists Joseph’s genetic line and attributes it to Jesus without any theological hanky-panky to otherwise try to explain it away) modified it, and impregnated Mary with it. This explains how Jesus was the descendent of both Mary and Joseph and also how he was the one-of-a-kind (“only begotten”) descendent as the human incarnation of Yahweh. In the account, Mary is aware of an “unusual” experience – the Holy Spirit comes upon her – and this would well account for the action of the angels. This is the only explanation that makes sense and fits all the biblical facts without introducing contorted explanations about attributed inheritance, etc.
Many words are not found in Scripture that are used in common discussion. The word “miracle” suggests a supernatural event, i.e., an event not explained by laws of nature. If you don’t hold to a division between nature and supernature, then God and creation become synonymous. Is God NOT “super-nature”? Does not God exist outside of space and time, and yet still have the ability to interact in space and time?
Your theory regarding the “virgin” birth of Christ is well thought out, though I would consider it heretical, as JG Machen would also do. It is odd that you reduce humankind AND God down to nothing but digital information. With Christ, it was the “digital” information of a unique genetic code. Is that ALL that God is????? Is God just advanced digital information? If He isn’t, then how does He differ from us. Similarly, are we nothing but ultimately digital information? Is the soul simply an information scheme? If so, that is reductionism at its worst.
“Many words are not found in Scripture that are used in common discussion.”
– and I am objecting to the words that label concepts with an origin in the babylonian mysteries and not in the Yahwist tradition.
“The word “miracle” suggests a supernatural event, i.e., an event not explained by laws of nature.”
It does not in scripture, only in Greek-philosophical theology. In scripture, a “miracle” is an extraordinary event intended as evidence to confirm the message of a prophet of Yahweh. Nothing whatsoever is said in scripture about the Creator having to act in conflict with his own character in how he sustains the creation to bring about some extraordinary event. God does not wave a magic wand but is reliable and predictable in how he upholds the physical world just as he is in keeping his covenant.
” If you don’t hold to a division between nature and supernature, then God and creation become synonymous. Is God NOT “super-nature”?”
No, God is not supernature because that concept came from the Greeks to describe the gods who were above nature. That is, the usual rules governing the physical world which express the character of God in upholding it are arbitrary to the gods, who rearrange the behavior of nature according to their whims. This is not how Yahweh operates nor God the Father. It is better to express biblical concepts in biblical language and thought-forms and not in concepts that are antithetic to it.
“Does not God exist outside of space and time, and yet still have the ability to interact in space and time?”
This is the kind of question that arises in Greek philosophy, not in Hebrew thinking, for anything outside of space and time is outside our ability to conceive of it. Scripture does not tantalize us with unknowables but instructs us within the scope of affairs accessible to human beings.
“Your theory regarding the “virgin” birth of Christ is well thought out, though I would consider it heretical, as JG Machen would also do.”
Why? It is more consistent with the facts of scripture than the assumptions of extrapolated theology.
” It is odd that you reduce humankind AND God down to nothing but digital information.”
I have said nothing about reducing anything or anyone to “digital information”. This must be what you are imagining about something I’ve written.
“With Christ, it was the “digital” information of a unique genetic code. Is that ALL that God is????? Is God just advanced digital information?
No, but what has that got to do with anything I’ve actually written?
“If He isn’t, then how does He differ from us. Similarly, are we nothing but ultimately digital information? Is the soul simply an information scheme? If so, that is reductionism at its worst.”
This commentary goes off on some tangent that I fail to associate with anything I’ve actually said.
“Many words are not found in Scripture that are used in common discussion.” Yes, and little attention is paid to where they came from or what they mean.
“The word “miracle” suggests a supernatural event, i.e., an event not explained by laws of nature.” One of them is the wind that allowed the crossing of the Yam Suph by the Israelites – a miracle with a known physical cause stated in scripture. To not be explained by the existing science does not mean an event violates the integrity of the creation.
“It is odd that you reduce humankind AND God down to nothing but digital information.” I have said nothing about digital information.
“With Christ, it was the “digital” information of a unique genetic code.’ Think about it however you will; something was altered in the making of Jesus. Read what St. Paul says about Adam and Jesus in this context.
If you accept that “Jesus is the human incarnation of Yahweh” then nothing about Jesus’s physical origin contradicts the notion that Joseph’s genetics was altered – and maybe Mary’s was too. Otherwise, we have only another son of J&M like all the other sons of theirs – not much of a basis for an incarnation!