Moltmann Monday: On the virgin birth

Merry almost Christmas, Moltmanniacs! In the spirit of the season, today’s selection comes from The Way of Jesus Christ in a section where Moltmann discusses the virgin birth. Because here is the thing: that particular ship has gone fairly off the rails, to the point that we no longer know how to talk about it, and if we do, we cannot but help feeling a little bit weird about it. But the virgin birth is not some archaic doctrine someone made up that is anti-science and anti-humanity. Actually all doctrine, for better or worse, is a way of informing how we think about something. I happen to think this one is worth a second look, before you go all eye-roll-y on it. So what does this say about Jesus? Here’s Moltmann:

First of all, these nativity stories are trying to say that God is bound up with Jesus of Nazareth not fortuitously but essentially. From the very beginning, God is ‘the father of Jesus Christ.” His fatherhood does not merely extend to Christ’s consciousness and his ministry. It embraces his whole person and his very existence. Consequently, the messiah Jesus is essentially God’s Son. He does not become so at some point in history, from a particular moment in his life. He is from the very beginning the messianic Son, and his beginning is to be found in his birth from the Holy Spirit. Not only his consciousness but his physical being too bears the imprint of his divine sonship. This distinguishes the incarnation from or out of the Spirit from the indwelling of the Spirit in human beings. Incarnation has no presuppositions. Inhabitation presupposes human existence. If incarnation is identified with inhabitation, christology is dissolved into anthropology.

OK I have to stop there, because this is just so beautiful and so very important. Some people have this vague idea that Jesus became God in the same way we envision a ghost inhabiting a human body, like it floated in there unannounced and unbidden, like it can be taken out of that human body as immediately as it traveled in. No. The people who thought this in the earliest chapters of the church were rightly called heretics. They were Gnostics, who denied the uncomfortable idea that God would become material at all, much less human material. But that is precisely what the nativity story tells us: God comes to be born among us as a human child. Not IN a human child. AS a human child. There is no separation. There is not God-ghost floating in an otherwise human body. God and humanity are essentially bound up. Essentially. They cannot be divided. There are not two separate parts, only one new reality: Emmanuel, God-with-us. So, as Moltmann says, incarnation has no presuppositions. This is the scandalous beauty of the nativity story. It is what we will celebrate in a few days’ time. Of course we don’t understand it. Of course we can’t chart it or map it. We are meant to ponder it. What does it mean for us that God has become human? Ok, back to Moltmann:

For the theologians of the patristic church, Christ’s virgin birth was a sign, not so much of his divinity, as of his true humanity. It was Gnostic theologians who, for the sake of Christ’s divinity, allowed him only to ‘appear’ in the body, without really being there: the eternal Logos merely clothed himself in human form, in order to spiritualize human beings. Against this, the orthodox theologians of the ancient church stressed the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God by way of the virgin birth from Mary…

If we wished to bring out this intention of the nativity story today, we should have to stress the non-virginal character of Christ’s birth, so as to ‘draw Christ as deep as possible into the flesh’ as Luther said. He was a human being like us, and the addition ‘without sin’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews (4:15) does not refer to sexual reproduction. We find this unbiblical identification for the first time in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. In this context a different aspect should be stressed today: if the Son of God became wholly and entirely human, and if he assumed full humanity, then this does not merely take in human personhood; it includes human nature as well. It does not embrace adult humanity alone; it comprehends humanity diachronically, in all its phases of development…According to today’s understanding of things, talk about Christ’s ‘virgin birth’ through Mary dangerously narrows down his humanity, if the virgin birth is taken to mean that a supernatural-human process takes the place of a human-natural one.

So, Moltmann’s point is not that we should cast away the notion of the virgin birth. It is part of the story, and as part of the story, it tells us something we need to know. But we have perhaps misunderstood what that “something” is. That “something” is not the idea that the material world is bad. It is not that sexuality is bad. I’m going to say that one again: IT IS NOT THAT SEXUALITY IS BAD. It is not that God can only become human by circumventing nature. The virgin birth says that God is faithful to bring life to any situation, including those we deem impossible. When we consider that this Messiah will bring life to death itself, it seems only fitting for his story to begin by bringing life to a quiet and empty womb. The Eastern church depicts the manger in a cave and not a stable, a reflection of the reality of the terrain and also the quiet womb of an earth waiting for its savior. The cave and the womb hint at the glory of Easter’s empty tomb.

All of this is to say, we lose so much when we denigrate the story of the virgin birth to something strictly literal. It is, before anything else, a description of God-with-us. God is bound up with humanity, essentially. Jesus became wholly and entirely human, including taking on human nature itself. Jesus is not an exception to humanity: he is consummate humanity. And he is not only consummate humanity. He also represents the fullness of life with God, as one human who is essentially bound up with God the Creator. When this relationship happens, the Realm of God appears. It becomes manifest, right among us. ¬†As Moltmann says elsewhere, “Jesus is the kingdom of God in person.”

And this happens in the messy midst of time, in all the realities of a woman’s pregnant body, in all the joys and difficulties of human childbirth. It happens in Mary’s womb, and then in a stable, and in the world itself. God becomes human. It is both miracle and deep human reality.


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