I find this strange. Kenton Sparks (God’s Word in Human Words) is happy to accept the possibility that not all the miracle stories in the Bible actually happened. He also thinks it quite likely that some of the miraculous events related are only partly historical. Since there is no historical evidence for an event as dramatic as the biblical exodus, perhaps we should conclude that it happened, but not quite on the spectacular scale that the Bible suggests. Perhaps “Jesus performed only some of the miracles attributed to him in the Bible, while others are fictional traditions spawned by his genuine miracles” (321).
So far, so reasonable. But then Sparks asks us to step over the hermeneutical line between history and theology. For the historicity of some miraculous events, he thinks, is “nonnegotiable for a fully coherent Christian, being defined as such by creedal orthodoxy and also by Scripture itself” (he has in mind 1 Corinthians 15 and the Nicene Creed).
At this point, the problem arises—as Sparks points out—that sometimes essential miraculous events “not only lack historical evidence but seem to have some evidence against them” (320). The virgin conception, he suggests, is a case in point. Paul appears to have been unaware of any unusual circumstances surrounding Jesus’ conception. The belief is absent from two of the Gospels, including the earliest one, Mark, and the one from which we most readily derive a doctrine of Jesus’ incarnation, John. Not to mention the fact—actually Sparks does not mention it—that the motif of a hero of mixed divine-human parentage was so widespread in the ancient world that it is difficult to escape the suspicion that Matthew and Luke were somehow persuaded to inflate Jesus’ credentials as Son of God.
“Under these circumstances,” Sparks concludes, “it is easy to imagine that the virgin birth of Jesus was, like the immaculate conception of Mary, a later theological deduction of the early church rather than part of the primitive Christian testimony.” In other words, modern historical enquiry gives us good reason to doubt the historicity of the miracle. But, Sparks asks, why should we “consider these matters only in terms of modern historiography”?
The theological reflection of the church on the persons of Jesus and Mary also counts as evidence in our historical equations. Whether this reflection was soon or long after those holy births is beside the point, since the cogency of a theological deduction hardly depends on historical proximity to the contemplated event…. We believe in miracles, like the virgin birth, not because they are supported by so much historical-critical evidence, but because they are theologically reasonable and necessary.
As I say, I find this very strange, or at least confusing. Sparks appears to be saying that the “theological deduction” somehow permits us to suspend the process of historical-critical investigation that elsewhere he is is determined to uphold in the face of well-intentioned but misguided evangelical fideism. I don’t get it.
But I also don’t get why the virgin birth is a matter of such theological necessity. Paul does not include it in the deposit of truth that he transmitted to the Corinthians (1 Cor. 15:1-11). I doubt that it will be mentioned in the lead codices. The Apostles’ Creed makes Jesus’ birth of the virgin Mary no more theologically necessary than the fact that he was crucified under Pontius Pilate. The Nicene Creed, on the other hand, has the theologically freighted statement that Jesus was “incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the virgin Mary”. So presumably in Sparks’ mind it is the doctrine of the incarnation that is at stake: the virgin conception is the supernatural means by which the divine and human were fused in the unique person of the God-man Jesus. That is a matter of considerable theological importance, so we are theologically bound to believe in the virgin conception whether we find it historically plausible or not.
My real difficulty with this line of argument, however, is not that I think historical criticism should trump “theological deduction”. It is that for Matthew and Luke this is simply not the point of the miracle. The remarkable circumstances of Jesus’ conception by the Spirit of God are not taken as evidence that God has assumed human flesh, which would be a doubtful inference even from John’s Prologue. They are understood rather as a sign that Jesus was destined to be Israel’s messianic king—the one who would defeat their enemies and save them from their sins. The wise men from the East were also a sign that Jesus was destined to be Israel’s messianic king, who would transform the standing of the people of God in the eyes of the nations, but the historicity (and exceptional astronomical circumstances) of their journey is not made a matter of theological necessity. The thought is also there in the account of Jesus’ miraculous conception that YHWH is present in the midst of his people as Immanuel to judge and to deliver, but this still all adds up to something much less than the full-blown, post-biblical, metaphysically construed doctrine of the incarnation.
So Sparks’ argument that we must take serious account of the “theological traditions of the church” (322) when making judgments on the historicity of an event such as the virgin birth seems to me flawed on two grounds. First, the men who generated the “theological traditions of the church” only had the texts to go on, and if there appear to be good historical-critical grounds for doubting the historicity of the miracle, then theological tradition has nothing it can add to the judgment other than wishful thinking. I repeat: it’s not that I personally doubt the historicity of the virgin birth; it’s that Sparks seems to think that he can have his cake and eat it. Secondly, it is not at all apparent that we should attribute to the virgin birth the sort of nonnegotiable theological significance that Sparks—and indeed a good part of theological tradition—thinks it merits.