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.