Torrance’s Incarnation 3.1: The Biblical Witnesses to the Virgin Birth

The cover of Torrance's Incarnation

The virgin birth is one of the chief places where the historic claims of the church collide with our enlightenment worldview. Torrance tackles this issue by first considering the biblical witnesses to the virgin birth (3.1), and then by drawing his conclusions (3.2).

Torrance follows the “scientific method” he explained earlier—he allows the mystery to declare itself according to its own nature. “It is a miracle” (87).

a) The Synoptic Gospels

The two gospels which tell us of Jesus’ human origin (Matthew and Luke) speak of the virgin birth. They speak this way unashamedly, despite offering human genealogies. It is curious that Luke, who places such a strong emphasis on the virgin birth in his gospel, doesn’t reference it in the birth of the church (Acts). Death and resurrection predominate the early church’s preaching.

Mark doesn’t mention the virgin birth explicitly, but a comparison of a synoptic passage reveals his belief in the doctrine. When Jesus spoke in his hometown, the people were astonished and said:

  • “Is not this the carpenter, the son of Mary?” (Mark 6:3 ESV)
  • “Is not this the carpenter’s son? Is not his mother called Mary?” (Matthew 13:55 ESV)
  • “Is not this Joseph’s son?” (Luke 4:22 ESV)

Matthew and Luke were free to imply or mention Joseph because they had already explained Jesus’ divine parentage. Since Mark did not narrate Jesus’ divine birth, he simply referred to Jesus as Mary’s son to avoid confusion.

b) John – the Gospel and the Johannine Writings

John’s gospel contains a specific reference to the virgin birth, should a variant reading be accepted: “To all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (John 1:12-3 ESV, emphasis mine).

As recorded in the ESV, “who were born” is plural, referring to the believers. The major manuscripts all give the plural reading except the Verona Old Latin. However, Turtullian, who is twice as old as our main codices, remarks that the Valentinians corrupted the text to make it plural because of their antipathy to the virgin birth.

If “who” is singular, it’s clear evidence of John’s belief in the virgin birth. If it’s plural, the evidence is not so clear, but still implied.

c) St Paul

Consider two Greek terms:

  • ginesthai – think “genesis”
  • gennan – think “generated,” the normal word for human birth

Paul develops a theology of Christ as the second Adam, sent from God. In Galatians 4, Paul uses gennan three times to speak of human generation, but only uses ginesthai to refer to Jesus’ genesis.

Like John, Paul’s writings are consonant with the virgin birth made explicit in Matthew and Luke.

Some Reflections

I find it strange that Torrance goes to such lengths to try to prove John’s belief in the virgin birth from John 1:13. His minority reading is unpersuasive and has not been accepted by today’s major translators. This isn’t to say that I think John disbelieved the virgin birth—it just wasn’t a matter of explicit reflection for him.

The man or woman who has come to see the face of God in the face of Christ [knows] that they can never master or dominate the mystery of Christ in their hearts, but can only acknowledge it gladly with wonder and thankfulness, and seek to understand the mystery of Christ out of itself, that is, seek to let it declare itself to them, seek to let themselves be told by the mystery what it is. (87)

Here’s where Torrance’s “scientific method” of understanding the subject according to its own categories pays off. The virgin birth cannot be understood from the outside—one must allow Jesus to reveal it as mystery and miracle.

← 2.2b: Outline of the Doctrine of the Person of Christ
3.2: The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth →

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