More on the virgin conception

Thu, 23/02/2012 - 18:54

There’s been a lengthy discussion of my post on the virgin conception by the Holy Spirit on the Theologica forum. I wrote some fairly random comments in response, but there are a lot of hoops to jump through in order to reply, and I’m still waiting to be approved. In the meantime, I’ll post the response here. Maybe someone will notice and put up a link. It may or may not make sense without reading the original discussion on Theologica.

It’s been very interesting to follow this discussion. I appreciate the candour and bluntness of some of the views expressed—and Scott’s stalwart attempts to defend my position. For my own benefit, if for no other reason, I would like to make a few comments in response.

The posts here on the Holy Spirit are limited in their scope, partly because this is only a blog not a full-blown commentary, partly because I want to try to guard against reading extraneous ideas into the texts. Also because this is a blog these posts, by virtue of their genre, are somewhat tendentious and provocative, though I try to back up what I say as far as possible.

I am not disputing the miraculous nature of the virgin birth. I am questioning the meaning that we typically attribute to it. It looks to me from the limited evidence that we have that Matthew and Luke understood the miracle to be a sign not that Jesus was God-man but that he was the messiah who would save Israel at a time of crisis.

For the same reason, this is not about whether classical theological formulations are correct. It is a question of what Matthew and Luke were saying. It is a matter of trying to understand what questions they were setting out to answer. They were not answering questions posed centuries later in a very different cultural and intellectual context.

I don’t regard this as a postmodern reading especially. That seems to me an odd accusation. I regard it as a matter simply of taking two “contexts” seriously—the political-historical context and the Old Testament scriptures by which the political-historical situation was interpreted by first century Jews, including Jesus and Paul. I don’t think that this approach should be in any way controversial, but it is only part of a process. It does not answer all the questions that we need to ask.

I don’t regard my “narrative-historical” approach as destructive for evangelicalism. On the contrary, I think it takes scripture much more seriously than much of our thinking and teaching does, and I think it can ultimately shown to be profoundly formative for the life and practice of a biblical people. That seems to me to be a reasonable argument to put forward.

I don’t believe that I am alone in reading the passages in this way. Indeed, I rely quite heavily on mainstream “critical” scholarship.

The point is well made that I am as much “conditioned” in my approach as anyone else. But that is not a reason for not attempting to read the New Testament with a modicum of historical self-discipline. We do it in other areas, why not in reading the New Testament? My work is a contribution to an important debate that is going on in the post-Christendom, post-modern church. I’m not claiming any special authority, and I certainly do not think that I am single-handedly coming up with a new theology. I am simply trying to point out what is actually there in the texts.

I don’t understand why my opening statements were a matter of “misdirection”. There is a modern evangelical paradigm, we do have a general pneumatology, we do make assumptions in the way we read texts…. I fail to see what is so controversial about that.

It’s possible that I’ve set up a straw man. But I have heard the argument about the virgin birth being the necessary means of incarnation on a number of occasions. It came up in a doctrine course that I help with recently at church.

I don’t think that we can derive from Isaiah 7:14 that “God with us” is a prophecy of Jesus’ divinity. After all, Isaiah thought that the birth of a child in his own context was a sign that God was with his people as “Immanuel” to save them from judgment. So I think there is a very good case for thinking that Matthew understood the virgin birth to be a sign that God was with his people to save them from their sins at this time of eschatological crisis.

Actually, I don’t understand why some of the contributors are so determined to think that I am denying the virgin birth. It sounds to me as though they would rather be attacking a critique that they do understand rather than one that they don’t.


Really tough to wade through all those comments and not scream at my monitor.

Its’s a strange phenomena really, this inability to engage these texts in context. What’s at stake dear evangelicals ? Really, what is the problem ?

Mr Perriman,

You must be aware by now that there has been a lot of questioning going on after people have been introduced to your blog/writings via Scott’s post on Theologica.

You have left some of us very confused as to what you are acutally believing about an issue that is one of the main doctrines of orthodox Christianity. And that is the issue of Jesus deity.

Would you please clarify this issue for us? Do you believe that Jesus pre-existed the incarnation as eternal God? Was He God while he walked on this earth as a man–God and man in one person? And is He God in Heaven now–eternally God along with the Father and Holy Spirit? Or do you believe He is somehow less then that?

These are issues of momentous importance to many of us and we really want to know where you are coming from in all of this.

Thanks so much for your clarification.

I’m sorry that I haven’t been able to follow up on the conversation at Theologica. I’m at the Christian Associates leadership summit at the moment and have not had the time or mental energy, frankly, to focus on the issues raised. Your question is very pertinent, however, and I will try at some point to address it.

For now, I will say this. I can happily affirm orthodox Christian beliefs in this regard; I locate myself within mainstream evangelicalism. However, I do not think that New Testament teaching and the later orthodox formulations slot together in anything like a straightforward manner. I think that we commonly misread the New Testament because we want to make it support orthodoxy. And I want to raise the possibility that current orthodoxy could be better stated in the light of a clearer understanding of how “beliefs” emerge in the narrative-historical context of the New Testament.

I imagine, however, that this will still be a rather unsatisfactory response to your question—I’m not fully satisfied with it myself. I don’t want to be evasive. But I do want to create sufficient space for us to read the New Testament on its own terms, because I think we ought to be able to trust that it can speak to us as a historical document, without the over-zealous assistance of theology.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks so much for your answer. You are right though, it does still leave me with a lot of questions. I have just read/skimmed through the long thread here on this blog questioning if Jesus thought of Himself as God:

You made several statements in that thread in reply to commentor’s that left me really wondering where you are coming from in all of this. At one point you commented to someone to the effect that you weren’t sure you would go all the way with him and come to the conclusion that Jesus wasn’t divine. Now granted that was a year and a half or so ago I believe, but that certainly didn’t sound like a man that was settled in the belief that Jesus is indeed God. Has that changed since then?

And in June of 2010 on that same thread you stated that, “In 2:34 Peter announces to all Israel that ‘God has made him both Lord and Christ, this Jesus whom you crucified’. That makes no sense if ‘Lord’ denotes ‘God’. You would not want to say that God has made Jesus ‘God’, surely? ‘Lord’ in this context – a context very similar to Romans 1:1-4 – must mean something other than ‘God’. In Philippians 2, of course, ‘lordship’ is something that is given to Jesus because he followed the path of obedience. It effectively presupposes that he was not God in his life of servanthood on behalf of Israel.” So here you say that Paul presupposes that Jesus was not God before His exaltation. How can you say that you believe Jesus is God when you seem to be saying that Paul didn’t believe He was? Or do you believe He is God now but was not when He walked this earth?

And then at the very end of that thread, just last month, you answered a man that asked you to clarify your belief about who Jesus is. You gave an answer that seemed to be saying you think the whole Trinitarian formula needs some reworking if we are going to keep Trinitarian language.

And yet somewhere along the way in that same thread you state this: “Now clearly, the extraordinary exaltation of the Son of Man to the right hand of God and to a place of worship raised significant questions which the early church eventually came to answer through the language of trinity, etc. And arguably they were right to do so. But if we are still to claim that the Jesus presented to us in the Gospels was God, we have to find some other basis for that than the argument that he himself claimed that status.”

“In a nutshell, I think I would say that I approach God, I worship God, I pray to God, I relate to God, I serve God, as part of his people, in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit (that may need finessing a bit), and that this appeal to Father, Son and Spirit is always an appeal to the narrative of judgment and deliverance encapsulated in the story of Jesus, which was the story of the early suffering church, through whose faithfulness and obedience the family of Abraham was rescued from destruction and transformed into a global corporate witness to the God who makes all things new.” How that fits with all of the rest of the comments you have made in that thread, I am not sure.

So no, I guess I really don’t find your answer too satisfactory. You say you happily affirm orthodox Christian beliefs in this area and consider yourself firmly within evangelicalsim. That is great. But I just don’t see how these other statements of yours fits into that whole scheme of things at all.

I’m sorry this has gotten so long when I know you are busy. But these are things that have really left me questioning and confused and I didn’t think I could adequately state my concerns without bringing them up.

Thanks so much for your time.

Best I can understand it, Andrew, your answer is that you voice affirmation of the tenets of Christian orthodoxy (which would include the divinity of Christ, the doctrine of the Trinity), while believing many of these to be wrong and in need of correction.

I think we can all find agreement that this is an “unsatisfactory response,” as you put it. Part of the problem is that the question to which you responded was specific in terms of orthodox doctrine:

“Do you believe that Jesus pre-existed the incarnation as eternal God? Was He God while he walked on this earth as a man–God and man in one person? And is He God in Heaven now–eternally God along with the Father and Holy Spirit?”

On the other hand your answer was most certainly not clear, nor specific, nor straightforward. The distinct impression after reading your posts and comments is that you don’t believe these propositions about Christ. Of course, impressions can be incorrect.

What would be the chances of a straight answer here?

There is not much chance of a straight answer in the near future. But I will try to put together some sort of response to the whole question of Jesus’ relation to the Father. I will say, though, that what I personally believe is not really the point. This all arose over a post about the interpretation of one passage. What are Matthew and Luke trying to communicate when they say that Jesus was born of a virgin? I believe that they are reliable interpreters of the event and that we should trust their understanding. But what do my “beliefs” have to do with that? If there appears to be a contradiction between traditional beliefs and what the passage is actually saying, what are we supposed to do? I believe that as faithful interpreters of scripture we have a responsibility to address the problem honestly and not gloss over it. Where this will lead us, I’m not entirely sure. There are a number of other passages in the NT that suggest pre-existence, but we haven’t got to them yet. In the meantime I do my best to read the NT in the context of a historic community of faith.

Mr Perriman,

It seems to me that in light of what you have just posted in reply to Marv that “agnostic” might be the right term to use regarding the current status of your beliefs in Jeses’ deity.

Is that an accurate accessment at all?

And just to clarify, to many of us what you believe about this matters a great deal since you claim to be main stream evangelical and affirm orthodox Christian beliefs. Those claims carry certain connotations with them and open certain doors to your teachings. So if it appears that you are going down a different track in your beliefs then what has always been accepted as “orthodox”, there is automatically going to be concern.

Michael Patton of the Parchment and Pen blog has listed belief in Christ’s deity and humanity as essential to salvation and belief in the hypostaic union and the Trinity as expressed at Nicea as necessary for historic orthodoxy.…

This is how important this issue is to many of us. And this is why when we see someone appearing to be veering off in another direction while claiming orthodoxy, we become very concerned.

Marv and Cherylu, perhaps an inquisition of sorts would satisfy your need to pigeon hole Andrew. Maybe we could set up some kind of trial whereby Andrew would be required, on pain of death by compartmentilisation and reductionism of his facalties, to fully declare his stance on all things that you deem important (regardless of whether or not the gospel account shares your idea of ‘important’).

I have followed your conversation/witch hunt on Theologica and what staggers me is how consistently you fail to address any one of Andrews key points or reasons that he wrote his orginal post. You are so caught up in your need to defend orthodoxy that you cannot even read the text right in front of you.

The original post is not whether or not Jesus is God, if Jesus pre-existed or anything to do with deity it is about what Mark and Luke were refrencing/recalling/pointing to/directing their listeners to when they sopke of the virgin birth. The one point you need to get is that they most defintely were not refrencing the last 500 years of Western theological development. So if so then what was it?

Marv you have consistently avoided giving an answer to one basic question. If the issue of Jesus being God is of such paramount importance (as it so clearly is to you) then where in the synoptic Gospel accounts is the issue addressed by the people who were there? I dare you to answer!

And if it is not addressed clearly then why? If it is not as important a question to the first century witnesses then why? What was important to them? What were they on about?

Those are the questions that Andrew is grappling with.

Amen to that Brother!



Just a couple of points. You are right, the original post was not about whether Jesus is God. However, things said in that post made some of us wonder what Andrew Perriman’s understanding of that issue is. To many folks he was evidently a new author and one that was being highly recommended to folks in a blog and a forum post. I asked my question after doing considerable reading of his material, particularly on this blog, and becoming more and more convinced that this was not his understanding of the subject. Since this IS a subject that has been considered of vital importance to the church for many hundreds of years now (not just the last 500) I, and obviously others too, have been concerned about his understanding of this issue and where his teachings may be taking people in this area. Therefore we have been trying to clarify that issue.

Cherylu, you make an important point, but I am not going to accept the “agnostic” label. My personal contribution to the current debate between biblical studies and systematic theology is to push for a sound historically formed understanding of the New Testament text. I do not see that we gain anything by wilfully misinterpreting the text simply to save orthodoxy at this particular point—that is, with reference to the virgin birth. I am committed in all respects to the biblical account of what it means to be the people of God under Christ as King and in the power of the re-creating Spirit of God.

My expectation, to be honest, for what it’s worth, is that the narrative-historical reading of the New Testament will bring us to the point where we can restate Trinitarian orthodoxy in biblically appropriate (rather than neo-platonic) catregories. But I’m not there yet.

I would also underline Justin’s point—there is a strange reluctance on the part of defenders of theological orthodoxy to address the exegetical arguments directly.

Hi Andrew,

Thanks again for your answer.

As I mentioned to Justin, for many of us it would seem that you were a new author. But one that came very highly recommended by someone that we have interaction with in one place or another on line.

At this point, speaking for myself anyway and maybe reflecting the view of others, the reason that the exegetical arguments haven’t been directly discussed is that we have been trying to get a sense of what you are already believing yourself through your understanding of those exegetical considerations. I have, as I said before, done quite a lot of reading of your material now, not just this article, and the concerns I have voiced are from the understanding I have gotten from the total of that reading.

Granted, it has taken your original OP in this post off topic.

I guess time will tell where your studies lead you in regards to the Trinity. But if the remarks you have made in the past continue to be the direction you take, it would not seem too likely that you will come to the same conclusions as the historic church has. I am specifically referring to those remarks that talk about different formulations for understanding then an ontological construct, which I believe you said doesn’t have any basis in the NT. Of course, there is the possiblity that I have misunderstood what you were saying there. But that has been part of the reason I have been seeking clarity from you on this issue.

Actually, Andrew, I have to thank you because that answer does pretty much tell me what I wanted to know. You say “what I personally believe is not really the point.” Actually, to the contrary, what you personally believe is precisely the point of the question Cheryl asked you, as well one I asked you over at Theologica.

I don’t wish to further hassle you, if this can be so construed, in your own space here. It’s just that your material has been recommended over in my space, so to speak, and it falls within my responsiblity to vet sources. I hope you’ll understand that it does make a difference whether a source, particularly one self-identifying as “evangelical,” also happens to be orthodox in regard to the divinity of Christ.

So that being, now, pretty much cleared up, I’ll let you be, though now that you’ve joined I hope you’ll drop by Theologica and join in some discussions.

Sorry to make this even longer! But I think tthat for clarity I need to quote in full the statments I spoke of above where you are saying the concept of the Trinity needs some reworking if we are going to keep that language.

First the question asked by another commentor and then your answer and again I note that this exchange took place just last month.

“So my question is- if Jesus did not indicate that he believed himself to be God, but rather he thought he had been given ‘authority’ by God, and that still clearly does not make him God, so can you give me some background as to your understanding of Jesus, as well as – if you believe him to be the 2nd person of the trinity – how you square that with his non-claims to divinity. Of course I’m no scholar, but I’d be more inclined to not ascribe deity to Jesus if he never claimed it himself – even if his later followers did. Obviously, not that Jesus “cannot” be God- rather, that if Jesus didn’t seem to believe it himself, it seems to be less likely than the alternative.

Your clarification would be appreciated.

Re: Did Jesus act as though he thought he were God?Submitted by Andrew on Tue, 01/10/2012 - 15:47

I’m not sure I have a good answer to this question at the moment, Tom. I am inclined to think that if we are going to keep “Trinitarian” language, we need to shift from ontological or even relational categories to narrative and arguably apocalyptic categories. That probably still won’t account for all the New Testament data, but it would at least centre things much better. I have been thinking of writing a piece on apocalyptic Trinitarianism for a while, so maybe your question will be the necessary stimulus.”

Wow. Heresy hunters are so predictable.

Anyway, for what it’s worth (I’m not really all that theologically astute or able to contribute to the discussion much - too busy trying to learn and understand), thank you, Andrew, for this blog and for your continuing efforts to develop a proper “narrative theology.” I’m fairly new to the whole notion of a narrative theology and find it quite fascinating and useful. I bought your book The Future of the People of God some time ago and love it. On my third read through of it at the moment, trying to make sure I understand all the nuances. I’ve been recommending you to others at my church (very mainstream ELCA). Also bought your Kindle only compilation of your blog posts on hell. Loved it as well. Just thought I’d pipe in with my appreciation of your on-going work. Thanks again!

As for the virgin birth…

I’ve tended to see the notion of a virgin birth in ancient times as a relatively standardised way of talking about the political and/or religious importance of particular people within the stories told about them, specifically origin stories. Jesus was not the first person to be said to have been born of a virgin. It seems to have little to do with biology as we now understand it (though of course the ancient’s understanding is not ours). To be blunt, it has less to do with Mary’s virginity, per se, and everything to do with making sure that Joseph’s seed - or anyone elses - gets no where near Mary’s, uh, “fertile ground.” It seems especially pertinent that neither Mark nor Paul nor any other New Testament author seems to have cared at all whether or not Mary’s virginity was essential to his divinty. So in my mind it does behove us to try to understand better just what Matthew and Luke intended to convey by including the story of the virgin birth within their very different narratives.

Whatever you may think about my take, thanks again for your work. I look forward to following along as you grapple with these important questions.

And try not to let the heresy hunters get you down! Peace!

Dear Tracy

I so much agree with you. How refreshing to hear some common sense about virginity. If people looked up every word “virgin” in both old and NT, then it will be become clear as crystail that it does not relate to the concept of virgin we have today. According to the NT, even males can be virgins. Read: II Kor 11:2

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