Apostles’ Creed: “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the virgin Mary”

Written by our worship leader, Sean Cowden…

This article of the Creed—of the historic Christian faith—is not peripheral to Christian belief, but has been rather a central declaration of the Church throughout the ages. The simple fact that the Apostles’ Creed we are unfolding includes it, together with the other most central facts about who God is, who Christ is, and what He came to do, demonstrates that this is an essential doctrine. The fact also that anti-supernaturalist critics of the Christian religion in the late 19th and early 20th century focused their attacks upon this doctrine together with those of the miraculous incarnation and the glorious resurrection of Jesus Christ show that the Enemy of God hates this doctrine and wishes to obscure and cast doubt upon it—and therefore shows that it is a precious doctrine to be preserved, upheld, and defended.

It is not the purpose of this post, however, to defend the historicity of the virgin birth of Christ. Many able scholars have done so elsewhere. Furthermore, in this series, we have already spoken of a Christian approach to reasons for belief in the supernatural, specifically belief in the Triune God based on His self-revelation to man in both “nature and Scripture” (to gloss the issue in Van Tillian style). And once one has granted the existence of the triune God of the Bible, there can be no substantive argument set up against the idea of the miraculous.
Instead, we will dwell on some of the reasons for and theological significance of the virgin conception and birth (Matt. 1:25) of the Lord Jesus Christ. We’ll mention a couple of the more common rationales put forward as theological justification for the necessity of Christ’s virgin birth, and then speculate a little about a couple of more big-picture, over-arching, biblical-theological themes relating our redemption to the miraculous birth of the Christ-child.
One suggestion that is commonly offered is the necessity of the sinlessness and guiltlessness of Christ as the Last Adam. According to Scripture and to the Westminster standards, all mankind descending from Adam by ordinary generation inherit the guilt of Adam’s first sin as well as a sinful, depraved nature, due to covenantal solidarity with Adam under the covenant of works. So, it is argued, since these “federal” connections are established through male headship, it was necessary for Christ not to have a human father—that is, not to be a descendant of Adam by ordinary generation—in order to avoid original sin in both its forensic as well as its pollutive consequences.
The question that comes up here, though, is whether the pollutive aspects of original sin can be avoided simply by severing the organic connection with any human father. It makes sense for the forensic aspect of original sin, given its fundamentally “synthetic” nature (not considering personal sin, which can put a person in the same position analytically), to be able to be overcome by eliminating the federal connection through male heads in the Messiah’s line. Sever the connection that establishes representation, and you nullify the verdict of guilty and condemned in Adam. However, both males and females, fathers and mothers alike, are morally polluted in their souls due to the corruption brought about by the Fall. So Christ’s human nature would still have a direct, organic connection with human sin through Mary. Therefore it would seem that the virgin birth in and of itself does not solve the problem of incarnation apart from sin (certainly God overcame this in the incarnation somehow even if we don’t know all the details yet).
Another suggestion sometimes offered for the virgin birth of Christ has specifically to do with avoiding the “curse of Jeconiah.” In Jeremiah 22:30, God cursed Jeconiah and said that none of his offspring could ever sit on the throne of David. Joseph, the husband of Mary, was a descendant of Jeconiah and so this would jeopardize the Davidic crown rights of his son, Jesus. But since Joseph was not Jesus’ father by blood, perhaps the cursed stopped with his generation, and the virgin birth allowed Christ to overcome this difficulty. This is certainly a possibility, but perhaps a simpler solution to the issue of the curse on Jeconiah’s descendants is that God reversed this curse long before Christ, in His promise through the prophet Haggai to Zerubbabel that he would be a “signet ring” on God’s hand (cf. the language of “signet ring” being pulled off of God’s hand, applied to Jeconiah in the curse, in Jer. 22:24). Zerubbabel was subsequently blessed of God and prosperous in his role as governor over the returning exiles in Judaea. No more curse of Jeconiah already, it seems.
What if we considered another, more wide-lense, biblical-theological theme, though? What if we considered the recurrent redemptive-historical theme throughout Scripture of the “miraculous,” God-given child, events that highlight the gracious, supernatural power of El Shaddai, and which diminish the role of man in bringing about his own purposes or deliverance? There are dozens of examples, but the quintessential one is the story of Abraham and Sarah, and the promise of a child that would come from his and Sarah’s very own bodies—as good as dead in their old age, by man’s normal reckoning.
The fact that the example of Abraham’s faith in this promise of God is used in the New Testament as the quintessential illustration of justification by faith alone apart from human works or effort (cf. Rom. 4:1-8) teaches us a pattern of divine intervention in salvation. Namely, God is interested in bringing about the redemption of His people, and ultimately the whole world, in such a way that He will get all the glory, because His role is exalted to the place of being the 100% decisive factor, and fallen man’s role is 100% receptive of and responsive to God’s initiation and perfect execution of His eternal decrees in history.
In other words, in a way analogous to Abraham’s role in bringing about the birth of Isaac, but even more sharply distinct in its intentional diminishment of fallen man’s contribution to the divine plan, Jesus Christ was born of no human father, no man’s biological seed. As in many ancient and modern hero myths which we as a fallen race have intuitively recognized as necessary, He has come in one sense from totally outside of us, an utterly “alien” intervener.
And yet through Mary’s body He became truly one of us, identifying with us, representing us as our new Head in cross and resurrection, and even lifting us up with Him to a place of glory where He had been before the incarnation—and in a sense even higher now, as the exalted God-man—enjoying the perfection of intra-Trinitarian love which grounds all of redemption, and indeed all of reality (Jn. 17; Eph. 2:1-10).