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P2 – A Suggested Way To Argue For The Virgin Birth: Philosophically Demonstrating Why The Virgin Birth And Miracles Are Possible.
Matthew 1:21-23 She will bear a Son; and you shall call His name Jesus, for He will save His people from their sins.” 22 Now all this took place to fulfill what was spoken by the Lord through the prophet: 23 “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.”
In our last post we began considering how one may argue for the validity of the virgin birth from the standpoints of Biblical theology and the Biblical languages. Here is the link to the last post for those wanting to review: https://biblicalexegete.wordpress.com/2016/12/09/p1-a-suggested-method-for-demonstrating-the-validity-of-the-virgin-birth/. We concluded that within the Hebrew Old Testament there is a Biblical rationale and background for the virgin birth. Moreover, studies in the original languages confirm the appropriateness of understanding Mary as a virgin at the time of the conception of Jesus’ humanity. Today’s post is going to broaden the focus on this issue by considering standard philosophical objections to the virgin birth raised by skeptics. If miracles are even possible in our world, then miracles such as the virgin birth-conception can be included in what will be the final plank in our overall case for the virgin birth – namely its historicity. Today’s post will deal with the philosophical issues and arguments both against and for the virgin birth. The next post in this series will feature how we can know that the virgin birth is the best explanation of the events surrounding the birth of Jesus of Nazareth.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of philosophical considerations
In this part of arguing for the virgin birth, we consider the issue of miracles and their place in the natural world. As noted already, if it can be shown that miracles are indeed possible in our world, then events like the virgin birth of Jesus of Nazareth are indeed possible and thus must be considered as real features of our world. Philosophers such as 17th century philosopher Baruch Spinoza and 18th century skeptic David Hume are responsible for a majority of the arguments leveled against miracles in general. Both men asserted in their own way that a miracle is a violation of nature. Moreover, even if miracles did occur, normal human experience would never be able to identify the occurrence of a miracle. These two contentions, though having been addressed time and time again over the past two centuries, remain on the lips of those who doubt the validity of Christianity and the Biblical text.
When one realizes that the definition of a miracle offered by Hume and Spinoza is rooted in a view of the universe as composed of only physical matter (i.e naturalism), with no possibility of Divine intervention, the debate over miracles is immediately seen as a worldview issue. Dr. William Lane Craig has offered what is perhaps the simplest definition of a miracle that can anywhere be found: “a miracle is a naturally impossible event”. In other words, an event claimed to be a miracle is incapable of being brought about only by natural laws or processes. Other conditions can be added to this basic definition to address the skeptics’ attempts to show the inability to identify a miracle or validate a miracle claim:
a). significant religious, spiritual or historical contexts
b). infrequency of the event
c). the reactions or statements by eyewitnesses of the alleged miracle.
Whenever we consider the virgin birth in light of the above definition, we find the following:
a). the virgin birth occurred in an era of Israel’s history where the people were spiritually, politically and religiously looking for Messiah
b). this is the only virgin birth recorded in the Biblical record and, despite claims to the contrary, no other pagan or Jewish source in antiquity has its founder experiencing a virgin birth
c). the quotation of Old Testament texts like Isaiah 7:14, the words of Mary and the Gospel records themselves fit the criteria of eyewitness material. Matthew was a direct disciple of Jesus and Luke would had consulted eyewitnesses of Jesus’ nativity.
By taking the simplified definition of a miracle as being “a naturally impossible event”, by definition, would be a miracle! How? No known physical laws (whether Einstein’s general relativity or quantum field theories, the current reigning scientific models for describing our universe) can explain the origin of the universe. The four fundamental forces identified by the physical sciences (strong nuclear force, weak nuclear force, electromagnetic force and gravity) break down and are non-existent within the first few split seconds of the beginning of the universe. Various arguments for God’s existence (i.e theistic arguments), such as the argument from considerations of the cause of the universe, the fine-tuning argument and the best explanation for the universe’s beginning all show that there is a greater probability for there being a supernatural cause to the universe (i.e God) than a natural one. In short, we could offer the following argument for the miraculous in general, and the virgin birth in particular:
1. If God does not possibly exist, then the miraculous (i.e naturally impossible events) are not possible
2. By various theistic arguments, it can be shown that there is not only a possibility, but an overwhelming probability that God does exist
3. The origin of the universe is an example of a naturally impossible event
4. Therefore, miracles are possible in our world
5. Therefore, the virgin birth can be deemed an event that is possible in our world
Closing thoughts for today
Thus far we have shown how one could argue for the virgin birth from considerations in Biblical theology, Biblical languages and philosophical considerations. In the next post we will conclude our series by developing how one can know that the virgin birth occurred as a historical event, as well as final applications.
Luke 1:32-35 He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; 33 and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”34 Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” 35 The angel answered and said to her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God. (NASB)
Why argue for Jesus’ virgin birth?
Today’s post will aim to begin offering a suggested method of arguing for the virgin birth/conception of Jesus. So why is it so important to argue for the virgin birth? The virgin birth stands as a central theological truth to rightly interpreting the life, ministry, death and resurrection of Jesus. The early 20th century theologian J. Gresham Machan argues forcefully for the virgin birth’s place with respect to the overall life and mission of Jesus (1):
“But if the virgin birth represents the beginning of a new era in the course of the universe, a true entrance of the creative power of God, in sharp distinction from the order of nature, then, we think, when it is taken in connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in the connection with the entire phenomenon of Jesus’ life and particularly in connection with the evidence of His resurrection, it is no longer a meaningless freak, but becomes an organic part of a mighty redeeming work of God, the reality of which is supported by a weight of evidence adequate even to overcome the initial presumption against it.”
Machen’s 1930 book is a landmark text that presents a proper defense and explanation of the virgin birth. His point is well taken in situating the priority the virgin birth plays in one’s overall understanding of all Jesus came to achieve in His first coming. With the significance of the virgin birth established, we will now briefly offer a four-fold strategy for arguing for it. Sketching out such an apologetic will intersect with four primary disciplines: biblical theology, Biblical languages, philosophy and history. Today’s post will feature the first two of these disciplines which will provide the first two planks in offering a way to argue for the virgin birth.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology
This first plank in the overall strategy for arguing for the virgin birth attempts to communicate the meaning of it in light of major Biblical themes. Biblical theology is that particular area of theology that attempts to understand the overall major themes that unfold throughout the entirety of the Biblical text. So what key Biblical doctrines might be included to understand the significance of the virginal conception of Jesus in His humanity?
To begin, the doctrine of sin presented in the Old and New Testaments indicates that the moral and spiritual curse pronounced upon Adam and Eve is reckoned along the male side of the human bloodline (see Genesis 5 and 1 Peter 1:17-18 for example). As God’s plan of salvation unfolds throughout the Old Testament, the need of a Redeemer who would be both God and man becomes faintly outlined. In brief, the deity of this predicted redeemer would need to be fully Divine, since salvation is of the Lord (see Isaiah 43:10-11; Jonah 2:9).
Old Testament texts such as Genesis 3:15 and Isaiah 7:14 reveal a second important truth: that the humanity of the Redeemer would be a genuine humanity brought about by the “seed of a woman” and by way of “the virgin conceiving a son”. The humanity of the Redeemer needed to be truly human and yet without sin. Only a virgin-born human being could be guaranteed of not having their humanity tainted with sin derived from a paternal human bloodline. Other Old Testament texts such as Micah 5:1-3 dovetail both truths of the predicted Redeemer’s deity and humanity as fitting the profile of the Person needed to accomplish salvation.
Thoughts such as the ones above drive forward the birth narratives of Matthew and Luke. Luke’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Luke 3:23-38) contains 77 names as reckoned per Mary’s side of His humanity. Matthew’s genealogy of Jesus’ humanity (Matthew 1:1-17) portrays how Jesus is legally the son of David per Joseph lineage. Joseph plays no biological role in Jesus’ humanity, which is the point of Luke’s record. Both genealogies together operate along the major Biblical themes mentioned above. Keeping such truths in mind will enable one to keep focused as they argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of Biblical theology.
Arguing for the virgin birth from the standpoint of the Biblical languages
When we consider the two key verses that assert Jesus’ virgin-birth: Luke 1:34 and Matthew 1:23, part of making the case for Jesus’ virgin birth involves considering the Greek words behind the English translation “virgin”. Matthew 1:23 states in the NASB: “Behold, the virgin shall be with child and shall bear a Son, and they shall call His name Immanuel,” which translated means, “God with us.” The word translated “the virgin” is the Greek word ἡ παρθένος (par-then-os). Despite the protests of critics, this Greek word’s meaning of “virgin” is consistently defined as the proper translation of both Matthew 1:23 and its Old Testament quotation of the Greek version (i.e Septuagint) of Isaiah 7:14 in the major scholarly Greek dictionaries (lexicons).(2)
The second major verse that asserts the virgin birth is Mary’s statement in Luke 1:34. Mary’s statement asserts this doctrine by way of her describing what she is not, as rendered by the NKJV: “Then Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I do not know a man?” The NASB renders this same verse by having the grammatically equivalent statement rendered positively as: “Mary said to the angel, “How can this be, since I am a virgin?” Mary’s assertion of “not knowing a man” bears out the lack of her experience of having physical intimacy with any man, which is a very specific way of making explicit her virginity. Both Matthew and Luke’s inclusion of the fact of the virgin birth is soundly supported by studies in the Biblical languages.
So far we have observed how to argue for the virgin birth from the stand-point of Biblical theology and studies in the Biblical languages. We could say that these first two planks represent the Biblical data itself. The next two areas from whence one can argue for the virgin birth (philosophical considerations and history) deal more with the defensive side of the overall case. In the next post, we will begin considering how to argue for the virgin birth from the standpoint of philosophical considerations with respect to the possibility of miracles.
More next time….
1. J. Gresham Machen. The Virgin Birth of Christ. Page 217. 1930. Reprinted 1965 by Harper and Row Publishers)
2. Two Greek dictionaries or lexicons are worth noting in connection with the meaning of “par-then-os” in Matthew 1:23. The first is the lexicon edited by Arndt, William, Frederick W. Danker, and Walter Bauer. A Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2000. p. 777. This particular lexicon (called by the abbreviated name “BDAG”) is considered the most up-to-date and reliable Greek lexicon covering the Greek and New Testament and other Greek literature. The portion of BDAG pertinent to this post notes: παρθένος, ου, ἡ (s. prec. entry; Hom.+, gener. of a young woman of marriageable age, w. or without focus on virginity; s. esp. PKöln VI, 245, 12 and ASP 31, ’91 p. 39) and ὁ (s. reff. in b) in our lit. one who has never engaged in sexual intercourse, virgin, chaste person
ⓐ female of marriageable age w. focus on virginity ἡ παρθένος Mt 25:1, 7, 11; 1 Cor 7:25 (FStrobel, NovT 2, ’58, 199–227), 28, 34; Pol 5:3; Hv 4, 2, 1; Hs 9, 1, 2; 9, 2, 3; 5; 9, 3, 2; 4f; 9, 4, 3; 5f; 8 al.; AcPl Ox 6, 16 (cp. Aa I 241, 15); GJs 13:1. After Is 7:14 (הָעַלְמָה הָרָה; on this ASchulz, BZ 23, ’35, 229–41; WBrownlee, The Mng. of Qumran for the Bible, esp. Is, ’64, 274–81) Mt 1:23 (cp. Menand., Sicyonius 372f παρθένος γʼ ἔτι, ἄπειρος ἀνδρός). Of Mary also Lk 1:27ab; GJs 9:1; 10:1; 15:2; 16:1; 19:3; ISm 1:1 and prob.
A second Greek dictionary of near-equal prominence is the Intermediate Dictionary Greek-English Dictionary by George Liddell. In his entry for par-then-os we read for the primary entry: παρθένιος, α, ον, and ος, ον, (παρθένος) like παρθένειος, of a maiden or virgin, maiden, maidenly, Od., Hes., Aesch., etc. Whenever we look at any Greek dictionary, we must consider all the entries and then determine which meaning fits the context of the passage. the remaining entries in Liddell’s lexicon reads: 2. παρθένιος, ὁ, the son of an unmarried girl, Il.:—but, π. ἀνήρ the husband of maidenhood, first husband, Plut.
II. metaph. pure, undefiled, h. Hom.; π. μύρτα, of white myrtle-berries, Ar. As we have already explored the Biblical theology of this word, as well as considered what was read in the other Greek Lexicon “BDAG”, the primary entry in Liddell would be the most appropriate rendering for the word we find in Matthew 1:23.
Luke 9:59-62 And He said to another, “Follow Me.” But he said, “Lord, permit me first to go and bury my father.” 60 But He said to him, “Allow the dead to bury their own dead; but as for you, go and proclaim everywhere the kingdom of God.” 61 Another also said, “I will follow You, Lord; but first permit me to say good-bye to those at home.” 62 But Jesus said to him, “No one, after putting his hand to the plow and looking back, is fit for the kingdom of God.”
Luke 9:59-62 ειπεν δε προς ετερον ακολουθει μοι ο δε ειπεν κυριε επιτρεψον μοι απελθοντι πρωτον θαψαι τον πατερα μου 60 ειπεν δε αυτω ο ιησους αφες τους νεκρους θαψαι τους εαυτων νεκρους συ δε απελθων διαγγελλε την βασιλειαν του θεου 61 ειπεν δε και ετερος ακολουθησω σοι κυριε πρωτον δε επιτρεψον μοι αποταξασθαι τοις εις τον οικον μου 62 ειπεν δε προς αυτον ο ιησους ουδεις επιβαλων την χειρα αυτου επ αροτρον και βλεπων εις τα οπισω ευθετος εστιν εις την βασιλειαν του θεου
Today’s post features a section from Luke’s Gospel that emphasizes the theme of discipleship or following Jesus. Robert L. Thomas on page 56 of his reference work: “Charts of the Gospels and the Life of Christ”, mentions passages that are unique to Luke. Luke 9:59-60 gives us the context for what follows concerning Jesus’ response to excuses given for not following Him. Although there are several sections in Luke’s Gospel that are unique to him, Luke 9:61-19:28 exhibits the largest of these sections, representing an almost unbroken section of Jesus’ teachings and miracles that are not recorded by Matthew, Mark nor John. Whenever one reads Luke’s version of Jesus’ life, death, resurrection and ascension; one of the major themes is that of discipleship. Thus, it makes a worthwhile study of this unique section of material in Luke’s Gospel.
How Luke uses the imperative mood to heighten our awareness of what is going on in the text
The reader probably noted that I highlighted three words in Luke 9:58-62: επιτρεψον (found twice in verses 59 and 61, rendered by the NASB as “permit”); απελθων (found in verse 60 and rendered by the NASB as “go”) and διαγγελλε (found in verse 60 and rendered in the NASB as “go”). When we refer to the term “mood” in Greek grammar, we are referring to the relationship the verb has to the reality of the situation in the mind of the author. In the Greek verbal system, the various moods express increasing or decreasing levels of direct connection to the reality or involvement of the situation.
The two verbs επιτρεψον = permit me and διαγγελλε = proclaim are what we call “imperative” verbs or “imperative mood” verbs. To speak of an “imperative” verb is described by the reference work: “A Greek Grammar of the New Testament and Other Early Christian Literature”, page 195, as: “by no means confined to commands, but also expresses a wish or concession.”
The imperative verb’s mood portrays the user of the verb as expressing a wish to be connected to the object of their request – namely in following Jesus. Therefore, in Luke’s report about Jesus’ teaching on the excuses given by people for not following in discipleship, the persons in question use the imperative επιτρεψον = “permit” to express their wishes to “take care of their business” before following the Lord. The particular parsing or grammatical breaking down of επιτρεψον = “permit” is that of being an aorist active imperative 2nd person singular, meaning that the request is for an immediate, one time allowance or exception. According to Greek professor and New Testament scholar Robert Plummer, the “aorist” in Greek communicates an event. Thus, in using the aorist, the person in Jesus’ teaching is not saying how long they will need to go settle the affairs of their relatives.
There are no excuses for not following Jesus
In other words, the person is asking Jesus to relax the demand of discipleship this one time. The problem with this request is that it is made prior to the potential disciple making the first step. Jesus’ issue here of course is with how this person is viewing the foundation of their commitment to Him. In case people may think Jesus to be insensitive to this person’s request, certain reputable commentators over the years have suggested that this person was looking to get his cut from the estate of his father prior to his death (much like the prodigal son in Luke 15, for example). In any case, Jesus suspects that the person in question has ulterior motives, motives which have, in-effect, pushed Jesus to the back seat.
If Jesus is already viewed as second or third or whatever in a long list of priorities, then how can the person claim to be a disciple that is putting Jesus as the umbrella priority over everything? The Geneva Study Bible has the following note: “The calling of God ought to be preferred without any question, before all duties that we owe to men.”
With regards to the second man in Jesus’ teaching, his response to him is for the man to διαγγελλε = “proclaim”. The verb here is a present active imperative 2nd person singular, conveying the idea of “communicating the message abroad.”
Whenever we consider the other verbal before this verb, namely απελθων = go, this verb is a participle in the Greek. Participles in regards to their moods refer to the status of the subject performing the action. As verbal adjectives, participles function to describe what is happening relative to the main verb or event in the sentence.
In Greek, it is common to have a participle following an imperative verb, forming a string of commands or one command made of two elements. In this instance, Jesus is using the aorist active participle singular nominative masculine form in απελθων = go to get this fellow to get up, get started and get going. Combined with the imperative verb already discussed (namely διαγγελλε = “proclaim”), the total idea is this: “get going and keep on proclaiming the kingdom of God.” This is Jesus’ way of urging his listeners to stop making excuses. Discipleship ever involves placing Jesus as the umbrella priority over everything. As the Bible Knowledge Commentary notes on these verses:
“Jesus’ words underscore the fact that His message of the kingdom of God was more important than anything else—even family members. The message and the Messiah cannot wait. Jesus’ message was more important than Elijah’s message and demanded total allegiance. Jesus’ servants should not have divided interests, like a farmer who begins plowing and looks back. Since Jesus was on His way to Jerusalem, the man had to make up his mind right then as to what he was going to do. Interestingly Luke did not record the outcome of any of Jesus’ conversations with the three men.”
So what excuses do you and I give when it comes to following Jesus? Certainly attending to life’s responsibilities must be done. However, for those who claim Jesus Christ as Savior and Lord, the call is to place all priorities under The Priority: Jesus Christ. Whenever we have a proper reference point for our actions, thoughts and words, we will be able to do them with intention and effectiveness. Timing is everything. Following Jesus is a constant, demanding but precious calling for the child of God.
An important resource for sharpening one’s skills in the study of God’s Word: the theological journal
Studying God’s Word is aided in increasing measure as one considers important points as:
1. Understanding the context
2. Theology of the passage
3. Pertinent questions raised by past interpreters
4. Bridging of any cultural practices or figures of speech
5. Proper ways of applying the text to one’s life.
Bible students have consulted various resources over the years in achieving greater competency in their use and application of the scriptures. Today’s post will briefly consider the main tools used in developing proficiency in one’s interpretation of the Biblical text, with the ultimate goal of encouraging readers to consider adding theological journals to their Bible-study repertoire.
Drilling deeper into the Biblical text
When it comes to drilling deeper into extracting the meaning of the Biblical text, the Bible student has several options. No matter what level of study one pursues, prayer is the very first practice one ought to undertake. We can think of prayer as “sticking the bit of the drill” into the soil of our hearts as we prepare to explore the scripture.
Following prayer, we are ready to begin journeying into the text of God’s Word. Certainly there are Bible dictionaries and encyclopedias that give the back grounds and summaries of any questions one may have about cultural practices or meanings of terms in the Biblical text.
A second-level (if we may call it that) of study involves consultation of commentaries or what other reputable interpreters of scripture have had to say in recent times or in centuries past.
The bed-rock or deepest level of study into the Biblical text entails exploration of the underlying Hebrew and Greek words, grammar and expressions of the given English translation. Most Christians may not have had the opportunity to learn the original languages of the Old and New Testaments. Thankfully, the next best tools for accessing the mines of the original language texts behind our English translations comes in the form of concordances (like Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance or The NIV Exhaustive Concordance) and word-study materials (older reference works such as “Vine’s word-studies” or newer works produced by AMG Publishers). For those who have had opportunity to study the original languages, humility and dependence upon the Spirit of God is especially needed. No matter what level one may be at in their exploration of the scripture, prayer before, during and following one’s study bridges the interpretive process to life-application.
It’s is after drilling down through these “three-levels” that the Bible student needs to come back up to the surface and to consider all that they have observed.
The importance of theological journals in sharpening one’s study of the scriptures
In so far as all of the above tools are important to one’s growing competency in the study of the Bible, one set of tools needs to be included: theological journals. A theological journal is like a monthly or quarterly magazine that is pumped-up on steroids. Theological journals give the reader the latest and most-cutting edge discussions on any theological or exegetical subject being considered by scholars and researchers in a given field. Such theological journals as “The Journal of the Evangelical Society” (nicknamed “JETS” and produced by the Evangelical Theological Society) and “Biblica Theca Sacra” (the journal publication of Dallas Theological Seminary) can be subscribed to through the academic groups producing them.
Thankfully, there is another option that enables readers to access past issues of journals like these for as little as $5 / month. If one clicks on the website: http://www.galaxie.com and follows the instructions for subscription, instant access is granted to explore their incredible archives (with the most recent issues being up to November of 2016). For anyone desiring to expand their understanding of God’s Word, getting the opportunity to stretch oneself in reading an article in a reputable theological journal will prove beneficial.