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.