Torrance’s Incarnation 3.2: The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth

The cover of Torrance's IncarnationWhile Israel is the start of God’s union with humanity, it comes to completion in Jesus. Jesus is at once a new race—new creation—in perfect union with God, and a person in continuity with our fallen humanity.

a) Preliminary observations

A doctrine of the virgin birth will never explain how God became man—it can only describe “what happened within humanity when the Son of God became man” (94-5). If we ask biological questions concerning how it could happen, we’ll get inadequate biological answers. The virgin birth is a sign that God created new humanity within our fallenness.

The sign of the virgin birth cannot be separated from the other “sovereign creative [act] of God’s grace in and upon and out of our fallen humanity” (96)—the resurrection. Both these divine signs point to the mystery of the hypostatic union. Seen as a whole, the resurrection authenticates the virgin birth.

b) The positive teaching of the virgin birth

The virgin birth shows us how God works within our fallen humanity to save us. We can say a number of things about this divine act:

  1. Jesus was born of a woman. This defies Docetism (that Jesus only appeared to be human) and Ebionism (that the Son of God united himself with an existing human).
  2. The virgin birth is a movement from God to humanity. Mary could do nothing to produce the event on her own. Thus, the virgin birth reminds us of the impossibility for humans to approach God in themselves.
  3. The virgin birth shows God working within old creation to create anew. This is God’s method—new creation is not ex nihilo.
  4. The virgin birth brings an end to the sinful supposed self-sufficiency of humanity.
  5. The virgin birth is a model of grace and faith. By grace God condescended to our state—like Mary, we respond in humble acceptance. This undermines any human contribution to salvation (cf. Pelagianism, semi-Pelagianism, or synergism).
  6. It’s impossible to provide an “independent demonstration of the virgin birth” (102). Along with the resurrection, it’s a unique act of God that must be interpreted in its own light.
  7. The virgin birth is necessary for “true faith in Christ” (104). It is as indispensable as the resurrection. Any time it has been demythologized or challenged, the core of faith departs with the doctrine.

Some Reflections

In and through [Jesus], therefore, humanity which has been dehumanised through sin, finds its true being and true human nature in union with God. Jesus Christ … opens up a new way from the old humanity into the new. (94)

I love this. Sin dehumanizes us. The virgin birth is nothing less than the recreation of authentic humanness in the midst of our fallenness. The offer of salvation is more than an invitation to a new existential status—it’s a call to the restoration of our full humanness. This reminds me of George MacDonald’s sermon on the white stone of Revelation. We are developing, yet still awaiting our true names.

The new life began at Bethlehem and reached its unveiling in the resurrection. … To deny the virgin birth involves a denial of the resurrection, and vice versa.” (97)

I’m of two minds here. First, Torrance’s ties between Incarnation and Resurrection are profound. They bookend the life and ministry of Jesus.

On the other hand, house-of-cards theology can be dangerous—especially to people exploring their faith for the first time. If every element of theology becomes contingent on every other element, it places the skeptic in the position of having to throw the faith away entirely if one element is question.

This creation then was not a creatio ex nihilo, but a creatio ex virgine, presupposing the first creation and beginning the new creation.” (100)

In my tradition it has become popular to emphasize the discontinuity between old creation and new creation, especially eschatologically speaking. Peter’s warning about the Day of the Lord when “the heavens will pass away with a roar, and the heavenly bodies will be burned up and dissolved” (2 Peter 3:10 ESV) come to mind.

Torrance reminds me that God births new creation in the midst of old creation. Perhaps the metaphor of a woman in labour (Romans 8:22) would be a better metaphor to emphasize. Imagine the profound ecological ramifications of such a shift in emphasis!

← 3.1: The Biblical Witnesses to the Virgin Birth
4.1: The One and the Many – the Mediator →

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