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Of Virgin Births and Whale’s Bellies

Allan Bevere asks an interesting question today on his blog: Just how important is the doctrine of the virgin birth to you? He titles the post Must One Believe in the Virgin Birth to Be a Christian?

I tend to annoy people on both sides of the spectrum (belief in miracles spectrum, of course) because despite the word “liberal” in the subtitle of this blog I do, in fact, believe in the virgin birth as an event that happened in history, but at the same time, I’m not concerned with whether others believe it or not. Allan cites Albert Mohler, who believes it is necessary to accept the virgin birth in order to be a Christian.

Allan also stomps on one annoying tendency, the way in which some liberals tend to pounce on conservatives as less intellectual because of their beliefs. If one accepts miracles, one is less sophisticated. But I think it is only fair to point out the opposite fault in Mohler’s article, the tendency to regard liberals as less devout because of the things they don’t believe in.

Nicholas Kristof pointed to his grandfather as a “devout” Presbyterian elder who believed that the Virgin Birth is a “pious legend.” Follow his example, Kristof encourages, and join the modern age. But we must face the hard fact that Kristof’s grandfather denied the faith. This is a very strange and perverse definition of “devout.”

This is a conservative’s way of belittling an opponent, just as “intellectually unsophisticated” is the liberal’s approach. I must, however, point out that neither side is above using the other’s ammunition, and that both sides have those who avoid either fault.

In support of my belief in the virgin birth, I will be very brief. I’ve already accepted the bodily resurrection, so the virgin birth hardly seems like an issue to me. At the same time, and more importantly, I accept the incarnation as both true and as the most central doctrine of Christianity, and if I can accept that infinite God can become a human being, the idea that this might be accomplished through a virgin birth again seems pretty trivial.

In support of my belief that the virgin birth is not essential, I will again cite the doctrine of the incarnation. I believe the incarnation is absolutely critical. It’s quite possible, however, to see the virgin birth as a metaphorical statement of that doctrine, or perhaps more precisely an expression of part of the meaning of that doctrine. I don’t even claim to have any details in mind on how the virgin birth might occur. Did God create a new baby in the womb? Did God adjust the DNA? So despite believing in a virgin birth as a historical event, I don’t have a clue as to how it happened. Thus in teaching it, I probably say almost the same things as would someone who believed it was purely metaphor.

And that brings me to whale’s bellies. On The Jesus Creed we have Scot McKnight getting involved in the question of the historicity of the book of Jonah. (I’ll leave you to follow the further links there.) A miracle of preserving someone’s life for three days inside a sea creature of some sort, whether a whale or something else, is again trivial alongside the incarnation and the resurrection. But I don’t believe the book of Jonah is historical. Why? I think there’s very good evidence in the text that we’re reading fiction designed to make some very specific points to an audience in a different time and place than the one in which the story is set. I don’t have a problem with the miracle. Were I convinced that Jonah was history, nothing else in my belief system would have to change. God could manage the whale’s belly thing. I just happen to believe God did not do so. But if you want to accuse me of being intellectually unsophisticated, go ahead. Because I am intellectually unsophisticated enough to believe the miracle is possible.

Then there’s the question of Jesus’ use of the three days motif from Jonah. I will simply comment that I know one can refer to a fictional story in this fashion because I have done it myself. I’ve used a fictional story to illustrate a real event and it has generally worked just fine. Occasionally fine, fact-oriented, 21st century folks get upset with me about it, but I tell them to chill.

I want to respond also to the first comment on McKnight’s article, which is from Joe Carter. Here he wonders how we might distinguish when Jesus is using supernatural power and when he’s using the knowledge of his culture. I’d make two points. 1) If Jesus didn’t use the knowledge of his culture, could he really have been said to have lived as a human? Would not constant supernatural knowledge make him not quite truly human? 2) Is this not the common problem in reading scripture? We distinguish the cultural background from the message all the time in case after case. Surely it is not that difficult in most cases, and in many cases where it is difficult, it is not all that important.


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