In regard to the person of Jesus Christ, there is more written about His death and resurrection than there is about His birth. Out of the four Gospel accounts, only Matthew and Luke tell the story of how Jesus the Christ entered into His creation. Nevertheless, both Gospel narratives report how a young Jewish maiden named Mary conceived Jesus supernaturally through God’s Holy Spirit without her having sexual intercourse with a male. This is known as the doctrine of the virgin birth and O’Brien has rightfully stated that “both evangelists – and consequently official church teaching – agree on this divine miracle of Jesus’ birth.” However, there are some who have suggested that certain fundamental beliefs, such as the doctrines of original sin and the virgin birth, should be jettisoned on the basis that they reflect a pre-modern worldview that is outdated in the postmodern era. This paper will prove that human reconciliation back to God the Father necessitates that the incarnation of God the Son occur through divine conception of the Holy Spirit in Mary without the involvement of a male, who would have ultimately tainted the incarnation through the inherited sin of Adam. This will be accomplished by showing first how a particular understanding of original sin is foundational to Christianity and then how the virgin birth demands the particular understanding of original sin as presented in this essay. In the process, the modern proposition to jettison both doctrines will be dismantled.
The Doctrine of Original Sin
One of the key doctrines within the Bible is the doctrine of sin. Richard Taylor has correctly stated that “the doctrines relating to sin form the center around which we build our entire theological system.” Taylor goes on to state that “As Christians, if our conception of sin is faulty, our whole superstructure will be one error built on another, each one more absurd than the last, yet each one necessary if it is to fit in consistently with the whole erroneous scheme.” Simply put, the Biblical doctrine of sin is vital to Christianity because it is the one foundational doctrine that all else is built upon. Therefore, it only makes sense to begin this essay with a proper understanding of what sin is and proceed from there.
Surprisingly, Scripture does not give a specific definition of what sin is rather it demonstrates what sin is through literature that reveals sin through human decision making and human behavior. The sin of Adam and Eve (Gen. 3:6-7) is one of the more vivid demonstrations of sin in Scripture while other narratives reveal that sin can be misunderstood by people (Jn. 9:1-3). Furthermore, sin is diverse and there are many ways that sin can manifest itself. Therefore, an overall definition must be sought after that can properly encapsulate the full meaning of sin.
Grudem provides one of the clearest and straightforward definitions, “Sin is any failure to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature.” In other words, according to Grudem’s definition, any creature who has been given the ability to understand and conform to God’s moral law by way of freewill has the propensity to sin. Therefore, because human beings have the ability to discern the moral law of God and because of freewill, human beings possess the capacity to sin. However, this does not mean that God’s quarrel is with our humanity rather God’s quarrel is with our disposition to set our will against His. Christians must always remember and teach that God’s initiative in recovery and renewal is to rid His creation of sin and not humanity.
Now that a proper definition has been set, the doctrine of original sin can be addressed. Original sin is simply the point in time when sin entered into humanity through the first human beings that God created. The doctrine of original sin is sourced in Genesis chapter three and both Christians and Jews alike have generally agreed on what the text teaches.
The full narrative actually begins in chapter two when God placed Adam (the first man) and Eve (the first woman) in a garden where they lived in complete harmony and peace with each other (Gen. 2:7-25). While in the garden of Eden, a serpent came and tempted Eve, which resulted in her taking and eating from the only tree that God forbade them to eat of (Gen. 2:17). Eve, after eating from the tree, gave some to her husband who was right there with her, and he ate as well (Gen 3:6-7). This was the original sin; however, the consequences of their disobedience were catastrophic for God’s creation and the entire human race since then.
Scripture informs that the consequences of their sin involved pain in child-bearing for all women as well as inequality between the sexes (Gen. 3:16). In addition, a curse was placed upon the earth and man would now labor and toil in order to survive (Gen. 3:18-19). Lastly, Scripture states that ultimately, human beings would experience death, “for you are dust, and to dust you shall return” (Gen. 3:19, ESV).
The above narrative reveals that the original sin of all humanity was willful disobedience toward God. The same narrative simultaneously reveals the precise moment that sin entered in through humanity as well. From that point forward, all of humanity has been affected. This is made clear in the fact that it does not take long when observing human behavior before one realizes that there is something clearly wrong with human beings in general. The Fall account in Genesis provides the answer(s) to the broken human condition. Olson, sums all of this up with the Christian consensus that “humans are born ‘damaged goods’ in the sense of inheriting a spiritual corruption [from Adam] that pervades every aspect of their being and leads inevitably to personal acts of disobedience to God (that is, they are all sinners even before they commit sins).” This is the doctrine of original sin and inherited depravity and it is a fundamental belief within Christianity; however, this doctrine in particular has become the target of modern liberal theology.
Original Sin – Under Fire
After God created man, He made the proclamation that everything was very good (Gen. 1:31). In regard to God’s creation of human beings, at this particular point they were without sin. This may seem like a basic observation; however, Spangenberg, of the University of South Africa and other notable modern theologians, such as winner of the Andrew Murray Prize for the best theological work in 2003 – Ben du Toit, have proposed that the doctrine of original sin, as presented above, is a human construct. Spangenberg argues that “Genesis 2:4b-3:24 is not a narrative about original sin and death as punishment; nor is David bewailing his ‘fallen nature’ in Psalm 51:7, or Paul arguing a case in Romans 5:12-21 that Jesus could act as Savior because He was born without original sin. Spangenberg is mistaken on many points, which will be revealed in the following response.
From the very beginning, Spangenberg’s argument neglects key elements and as a result it has led to his misunderstanding of other portions of Scripture. For instance, He states that nothing in the Genesis narrative suggests that human beings were created immortal and that Augustine and other theologians have mislead their audiences. However, Scripture explicitly tells us that God placed two trees in the garden: the tree of life, which more than implies immortality, and the tree of knowledge of good and evil (Gen. 2:9), which they were forbidden to eat from (Gen. 2:17).
Perhaps there is some truth to Spangenberg’s claim. In his defense, it is conceivable that God did not create human beings to be immortal; however, the narrative suggests otherwise, that is, God intended to sustain them in the “state of very good” through the tree of life. Consequently, separation from this particular tree would be fatal, which did, in fact, happen (Gen. 3:22-24). However, God’s original agenda was not to exile Adam and Eve away from the tree that would sustain life in the Garden (Gen. 3:15-17). Rather, it was due to the human capacity of free-will that led to their mortality. Therefore, no matter how it is argued, the implication of the tree forcefully implies immortality. This motif reappears in Revelation 22:2 and it carries the same exact implication of immortality as in the Genesis account. If it does not, then the entire promise of eternal life is false.
Additionally, the modern proposition that original sin is a human construct is pure Trinitarian blasphemy. The Scriptures are blissfully clear on the belief that human beings, in their original state, were without sin. Scripture also makes clear the exact moment that sin was introduced (Gen. 3:6-7). However, Spangenberg has claimed that “the serpent is not the devil, or the villain of the story, as the authors of some of the biblical books would have us believe. In fact, he helps the human beings attain divine knowledge.” With this proposition, Spangenberg has haphazardly removed the entry point of sin through Adam and Eve and attributed the origin of sin to God Himself.
To clarify, and to momentarily entertain Spangenberg’s proposition, if the original unaffected human nature contained both good and evil, and if God is credited for creating the first human beings then it stands to reason that God created evil. Even more fatal, Scripture states that God made man in His image (Gen. 1:27), and if man were originally created with the duality of good and evil, as Spangenberg implies, then what does that tell us about God? Is God, then a mixture of good and evil? Certainly not. Lastly, if this is true then God is a liar because he declared that everything was very good when it was not, which would mean that He cannot be trusted at all. Therefore, it can be said that the moment original sin is denied is the precise moment that a person attributes the creation of sin to God, which is blasphemy at the highest level. The only other option for the professing Christian, and to avoid heterodoxy, is to assent to a high-view of the Scriptures and accept the doctrine of original sin as it presents itself in the Genesis Fall account.
The Fatal Disposition of Humanity
Up to this point, it has been shown that a correct understanding of the doctrine of original sin teaches that sin entered into humanity through the first human beings and that every human being after is sinful (inherited depravity). Ultimately, this means that nobody is free of sin and therefore, revisiting Grudem’s definition – everyone has failed to conform to the moral law of God in act, attitude, or nature. Paul stated it best, “for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God” (Rom. 3:23). This poses a problem because if all human beings are sinful, then how is it possible for any person to be saved? The initiative, of course, would have to come from God Himself.
Scripture reveals that God sent His Son in order to redeem humans from their fallen condition (Jn. 3:16). However, God’s Son was unique in a way that He was God incarnate. This is best described in the prologue of the fourth Gospel, “καὶ ὁ λόγος σὰρκξ ἐγενετο” (Jn. 1:14, Nestle-Aland 28th ed.). – And the Word became flesh. The significance of the Word, of course, is recorded in John 1:1, “καὶ θεὸς ἦν ὁ λόγος” And God was the Word. Simply put, this means that God’s Son, Jesus, is not just a man rather He is a God-man, which is traditionally known as the personal union of the divine and human natures, or the hypostatic union. The question must be asked, then, why a God-man and not just God?
Irenaeus, in Adversus Haeresses, defended the Gospel by arguing, “if Jesus Christ was not both truly human and truly divine, salvation is incomplete and impossible.” Centuries later, the medieval monk and theologian Anselm continued the argument in Cur Deus Homo in which he attempted to reasonably explain the necessity of Christ’s death on behalf of humanity. Anselm writes that “just as sin was transmitted to all men from Adam and Eve, only they or someone born from them ought to make satisfaction for the sin of men.” Clearly, this addresses the human side of the God-man but what about the divine side? Anselm further states that “the person who is to make this satisfaction must be both perfect God and perfect man, because none but true God can make it, and none but true man owes it.” Lastly, Anselm writes that “the debt was so great that while man alone owed it, only God could pay it, so that the same person must be both man and God.” Of course, Anselm provides further detail on the topic but in a nutshell, since it was man who sinned, it must be man who makes atonement, and because the sin was so great that only God could pay it, the circumstance necessitated a God-man. With this statement, we are suitably prepared to address the doctrine of the virgin birth.
The Doctrine of the Virgin Birth
As the argument moves into new territory it should be clear by now that the God-man must be without sin. The reason is clear, if the God-man has any amount of sin whatsoever, he is no different than any other person and accordingly, he is deemed inadequate to redeem. In other words, inherited sin is what restricts any human descended from Adam and Eve (all of humanity) to reconcile humanity back to God. Ultimately, this means that God would need to use another means to enter into His creation.
It is possible to try and imagine alternative ways for God to enter into history; however, the particular orthodox view presented in this paper limits all options down to one. Unsurprisingly, Oden does not entertain any such alternatives and has noted that the virgin birth is the only option. He writes that “The formally conceivable ways of being born are reduced to only two: normally, of one male and one female parent; or virginally, of a female parent alone. There is no third for the simple reason that male sexuality cannot give birth alone.” Oden is both scientifically and theologically correct. This paper has already removed Oden’s first suggestion by way of the doctrine of original sin, which only leaves the second option of a virgin birth.
Just as the definition of sin is not specified in Scripture, nor is there a specific definition put forth on the virgin birth, therefore a secondary source will be used. Surprisingly, a solid definition of the virginal conception comes from Oliver D. Crisp, a theologian who claims that the virgin birth is not a requirement for a doctrine of incarnation. Nevertheless, Crisp’s definition is useful here, “The Virginal Conception of Christ refers to the miraculous asexual action of the Holy Spirit in generating the human nature of Christ in the womb of the Virgin Mary, using an ovum from the womb of the Virgin and supplying the missing genetic material (specifically the Y chromosomes) necessary for the production of a human male. Simply put, the young Jewish maiden Mary, conceived Jesus supernaturally through God’s Holy Spirit, thus bypassing, the need for a male seed. It was in this manner that God became flesh.
The crucial point that this paper has stressed several times is that the God-man had to be without sin. It has also been made blissfully clear that all human beings have inherited legal guilt and a corrupt moral nature from their first father, Adam. However, Jesus was conceived supernaturally by the Holy Spirit (Mt. 1:20; Lk. 1:35) and “the fact that Jesus did not have a human father means that the line of descent from Adam is partially interrupted.” This means that Jesus did not descend from Adam in the same way that all other human beings have (through a male seed and a female egg cell) rather the Holy Spirit replaced the male seed and in doing so bypassed the sin of Adam and “Therefore the child will be called holy – the Son of God” (Lk. 1:35).
If one were to think deeply on Luke 1:35, they would reason that if the Holy Spirit is Holy because of who He is (the third person of the Trinity – God), then it only makes sense that the child that was conceived by the Holy Spirit would be Holy as well, and therefore, without sin. Rather than inherited sin, then, it seems best to use the phrase inborn Holiness in regard to Jesus. This directly relates to the sin of Adam whereas his sin was passed down through the conception between a male and a female. Likewise, only with Jesus – it was holy conception and therefore, it was holiness and righteousness that was inborn. The term “inborn” rather than “inherit” is theologically important. Jesus did not inherit holiness rather He (ὁ λόγος) has always been holy and the process of the virgin birth supernaturally maintained His inborn nature.
One pressing question is why did Jesus not inherit the sin of Mary in the process, since all are sinful? Rather than visit the Roman Catholic doctrine(s) surrounding Mary, Grudem provides a sound explanation. He writes that “the work of the Holy Spirit in Mary must have prevented not only the transmission of sin from Joseph (for Jesus had no human father) but also, in a miraculous way, the transmission of sin from Mary.” This too also draws on what Luke 1:35 states, “The power of the Most High will overshadow you [Mary]; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God” (ESV).
There are scholarly arguments surrounding how the term virgin is used in the Old Testament and how it is used in Gospels; however, it should be clear that the definition that was presented in this essay, when juxtaposed again the doctrine of original sin and inherited depravity is the only one that is rationale. Never mind, the obvious implication of Mary’s question, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” (Lk. 1:34). Therefore, it is conclusive to state that human reconciliation back to God the Father necessitates that the incarnation of God the Son occur through divine conception of the Holy Spirit in Mary without the involvement of a male, who would have ultimately tainted the incarnation through the inherited sin of Adam.
This paper has logically shown two things. First, the doctrine of original sin is correct and fundamental to the Christian belief and that its renunciation removes the sin of humanity from humanity and places it directly on God, which is blasphemy. Second, because of original sin and inherited depravity, humanity needed a savior that was both fully God and fully man – a God-man. Additionally, this God-man had to be without sin in order to reconcile man back to the “state of good” as depicted in Genesis 1-2. This was accomplished through the virgin birth, which was the only way possible to bypass humanity’s fatal disposition of inherited sin. Ultimately, the virgin birth maintained the Christ’s inborn nature of pure holiness. Therefore, the proposition to jettison the doctrines of original sin and the virgin birth must be deemed fatal to humanity, antithetical to Scripture, and dishonorable to the Great Tradition of Christianity.
Significance for the Modern Church
The acceptance of the doctrines of original sin and the virgin birth as presented in this paper are vital to Christian orthodoxy. Without them, Christianity crumbles into a life-style religion based on ethics alone without any need for the cross. For example, without a proper understanding of sin and how it has affected humanity – there is no need for a savior because if sin is just a human construct then Jesus is absolutely unnecessary for the simple fact that He has nothing to save humanity from. Consequently, the same would be true for the virgin birth – it would be pointless if sin were not an issue. However, sin is not just an issue rather it is “the issue” for which Christianity is based on. Because of sin, God the Father sent His Son to redeem humanity from sin. Therefore, Christians must have a proper understanding of what the Scriptures teach about sin and how God solved the dilemma of sin through the virgin birth, life, death and resurrection of His Son Jesus the Christ. After all, all of these things are what leads a person to make the life-redeeming confession that Jesus is Lord.
The Scriptures are not vague on what it teaches about sin; nor is it ambiguous on its position in regard to the virgin birth. However, liberal skepticism seeks to challenge Christians by casting doubt upon their convictions. Of course, skepticism usually equates to a low-view of the Scriptures and the common goal of the modern liberal agenda seems to be the overall disintegration of those that hold a high-view of the Scriptures. Christians can maintain their high-view by gaining a thorough understanding of the doctrines of classical Christianity, which have been tested, affirmed and passed down through the Great Tradition of the Church. In other words, the doctrines of the church have already been worked out for us. Simply put, the ones before us thought and struggled for the faith we have today. Let us, then, do the same for the next generation of Christians.
. Will O’Brien, “Against Patriarchy: Reclaiming the Christian Doctrine of the Virgin Birth,” Tikkun Magazine, Duke University Press 30, no. 4 (Fall 2015), 14. Accessed January 18, 2018. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1732957448?accountid=13479
. I. J. J. Spangenberg, “The Doctrines of Original Sin and the Virgin Birth: Divine Revelation or Human Construct.” Verbum et Ecclesia 30, no. 1 (2009): 221. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://verbumetecclesia.org.za/index.php/VE/article/view/71
. Richard S. Taylor, “A Right Conception of Sin: Its Relation to Right Thinking and Right Living.” (Kansas City, MO: Nazarene Publishing House, ©1945), 9. Accessed February 6, 2018. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=561505&site=ehost-live
. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©1994), 490.
. Grudem, 63.
. Roger E. Olson, The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2002) 201.
. Spangenberg, 233.
. Ibid., 226.
. Spangenberg 226.
. Thomas C. Oden, Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology (New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, ©1992), 302.
. Roger E. Olson, The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1999), 74.
. Hugh T. Kerr, ed., Readings in Christian Thought, second ed., ed. Hugh T. Kerr (Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, ©1990), 90.
. Kerr, 90.
. Ibid., 91.
. Oden, 290.
. Oliver D. Crisp, “On the ‘Fittingness’ of the Virgin Birth,” The Heythrop Journal 49, no. 2 (March 2008: 197, accessed January 19, 2018: url in bibliography section.
. Ibid., 199.
. Grudem, 530.
. Grudem, 532.
Crisp, D. Oliver. “On the ‘Fittingness’ of the Virgin Birth.” The Heythrop Journal 49. No. 2 (March 2008): 197-221. accessed January 19, 2018. http://pv5wz3vx2f.search.serialssolutions.com/?ctx_ver=Z39.88-2004&ctx_enc=info%3Aofi%2Fenc%3AUTF-8&rfr_id=info%3Asid%2Fsummon.serialssolutions.com&rft_val_fmt=info%3Aofi%2Ffmt%3Akev%3Amtx%3Ajournal&rft.genre=article&rft.atitle=ON+THE+‘FITTINGNESS’+OF+THE+VIRGIN+BIRTH&rft.jtitle=The+Heythrop+Journal&rft.au=CRISP%2C+OLIVER+D&rft.date=2008-03-01&rft.issn=0018-1196&rft.eissn=1468-2265&rft.volume=49&rft.issue=2&rft.spage=197&rft.epage=221&rft_id=info:doi/10.1111%2Fj.1468-2265.2007.00336.x&rft.externalDBID=n%2Fa&rft.externalDocID=10_1111_j_1468_2265_2007_00336_x¶mdict=en-US
Kerr, Hugh T., ed. Readings in Christian Thought. Second ed. Nashville, TN: Abingdon Press, ©1990.
O’Brien, Will. “Against Patriarchy: Reclaiming the Christian Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.” Tikkun Magazine, Duke University Press 30, no. 4 (Fall 2015): 14-18. Accessed January 18, 2018. http://eres.regent.edu:2048/login?url=https://search.proquest.com/docview/1732957448?accountid=13479
Taylor, Richard S. A Right Conception of Sin: Its Relation to Right Thinking and Right Living. Kansas City, Mo: Nazarene Publishing House. ©1945. Accessed February 6, 2018. http://0-search.ebscohost.com.library.regent.edu/login.aspx?direct=true&db=nlebk&AN=561505&site=ehost-live
Spangenberg, I. J. J. “The Doctrines of Original Sin and the Virgin Birth: Divine Revelation or Human Construct.” Verbum et Ecclesia 30, no. 1 (2009): 221-42. Accessed January 19, 2018. http://verbumetecclesia.org.za/index.php/VE/article/view/71
Grudem, Wayne. Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine. Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, ©2000
Oden, Thomas C. Classic Christianity: A Systematic Theology. New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, ©1992.
Olson, E. Roger. The Mosaic of Christian Belief: Twenty Centuries of Unity & Diversity. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©2002.
Olson, E. Roger. The Story of Christian Theology: Twenty Centuries of Tradition & Reform. Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, ©1999.