Faith, purity and the virgin birth

the-nativity-le-nainI really don’t know what goes through the mind of people who argue that they know much better than the gospel writers what Christianity is all about. Do they think the evangelists were stupid, ignorant, or just a little bit slow on the uptake—or perhaps all three? And how did Christian tradition make such egregious errors until this enlightened modern mind came along to set us all straight?

Such were my thoughts when reading Giles Fraser’s latest piece, pointing out how the virgin birth doesn’t really fit with Christian belief.

The idea that Jesus was born of “pure virgin” could well have been a reaction to insults [that Jesus was illegitimate]. That Mary’s womb was “spotless” was perhaps a cover story designed by Jesus’s supporters to explain a more God-like nature for his arrival.

And Fraser goes further to suggest that the idea of Virgin Birth is particularly inappropriate for a religion which rejects the distinction between purity and impurity.

For what separates Christianity from other religious traditions is that – the birth narratives aside – Christianity deliberately refuses the familiar distinction between the pure and the impure. Jesus was born in a cowshed; from lepers to prostitutes, he deliberately courted the ritually unclean; and he spent most of his ministry tearing down barriers between pure and impure – not least, those of the Temple – that separated the “ungodly” from God himself.

In Christianity, purity is abolished.

I suspect that that would have been news to both Jesus, who instructed people to go and make offering to the priest to demonstrate their purity after healing (Mark 1.44), and his Jewish disciples who continue to attend Temple worship, presumably including its cleansing rituals, even after Jesus’ death and resurrection and the sending of the Spirit (Acts 2.46). It would have been news to Paul, who expected a decisive change in the lifestyles of believers (‘such were some of you…’ 1 Cor 6.11) not least because we ourselves are temples of the Holy Spirit. It would be news to the Jewish Peter, who appeared to think that the Levitical command to ‘be holy, as I am holy’ (Lev 20.26) now applies to all Jesus’ followers, whether Jew or Gentile (1 Peter 1.16).

It should also be news to any Anglican, who weekly prays (as part of the Communion service) the Collect for Purity, in which we ask God to ‘cleanse the thoughts of our hearts by the inspiration of your Holy Spirit’. In fact, it ought to be a surprise to any of us who read the whole Bible, since it draws such a strong distinction between the rather oppressive Old Testament concern with purity and holiness and a much more enlightened and (frankly) not very Jewish Jesus who thankfully does away with all that. This is not only historically implausible, but it is in danger of putting an anti-semitic perspective at the heart of our theology.

In debates on social media, someone suggested that what Fraser intended to say was that Christianity abolished the need for purity as a pre-requisite for encounter with God. If so, then I suppose this should be a warning to us of the dangers of shooting our theology from the hip in such a way as to catch headlines. But even then we need to reckon with Jesus’ own preaching; the first response to the good news of the kingdom appears to be that we should ‘repent’.

The irony of all this is that Fraser’s position doesn’t make much sense of the New Testament texts either. The one point where I think Fraser is right in suggesting that some Christian traditions have made too much of Mary’s virginity. But it is striking that, by contrast, the gospels don’t make that much of it themselves—a distinction Fraser fails to make as he lumps the NT accounts in with the subsequent tradition. The emphasis in Luke’s account is not Mary’s purity so much as her lack of qualification; this appears to be a surprising choice. And the work of the Spirit in bringing new birth is interpreted symbolically as a foreshadowing of the birth of the new community of faith at Pentecost (compare the language of Luke 1.35 and Acts 1.8). Matthew needs to make a rather forced connection between the Virgin Birth and the ‘prophetic’ text of Is 7.14—and the best explanation of this is that he had some actual facts to make sense of. Contrary to Fraser’s lazy assumption, there is in fact quite a developed scholarly debate on whether the language of Isaiah is fairly translated by Matthew in his Greek text, and it is striking that Matthew makes very little of the miraculous nature of the birth itself. Elsewhere in the NT, it is often noted that Paul does not list this in his set of basic beliefs (1 Cor 15), though he does talk of Jesus as ‘born of a woman’ (Gal 4.4).

Yet there are tell-tale signs that Jesus’ birth was unusual—including the text in John that Fraser cites. In John 8.41 those Jews opposed to Jesus comment ‘We were not born of fornication; we have one Father: God.’ The idea that they could have made use of this as an insult to Jesus—to which John gives no theological weight whatever—is good evidence for the reliability of the Virgin Birth tradition. In fact, Luke demonstrates awareness that this actually makes his account slightly awkward; his tracing of Jesus’ lineage back through Joseph depends on the supposition that Joseph was in fact Jesus’ father, which is only supposition (Luke 3.23). When exploring whether something in the NT might be historical or not, one thing that scholars look for is ‘multiple attestation’, asking whether we have independent accounts of an event, rather than accounts where one gospel writer has copied from another. Matthew’s account of the birth of Jesus is told from a male perspective; the men do all the talking and are the key players on whom the plot turns. But Luke writes from a female perspective; we move from the palaces to the private rooms, and it is the women who are key. It is not surprising, then, that Matthew’s language about the supernatural nature of Mary’s conception (‘that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Spirit’ Matt 1.20) has no connection with Luke’s language (‘The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you’ Luke 1.35). But this in turn suggests that there are two independent traditions confirming the same thing. If you add the hints in John and Paul mentioned above, then you have the highest level of attention to historicity.

We might forgive Fraser’s casual error in suggesting that Jesus ‘was born in a cowshed’, which again makes theology out of mistaken tradition, without distinguishing this from the actual gospel accounts. It is harder to forgive the historical error that the notion of the virgin birth was ‘a reaction to’ insults from people like Celsus. As Dwight Longenecker points out, the Protoevangelium of James was most likely written at least 30 years before Celsus’s attack on Christian belief, and it already has the notion of the virgin birth (along with a number of traditions about Mary that found their way into Catholic dogma) firmly embedded in it.

Fraser is on equally dodgy ground in his assertion that ‘Jesus didn’t much care for the whole nuclear family thing.’ Putting the anachronism aside of expecting Jesus to say anything at all about the ‘nuclear family’, it is worth reflecting a little more on the question of faith and family loyalty. Although Jesus makes kingdom loyalties more fundamental than family ties, that was a relative and not absolute contrast. He still gives his mother to John at the cross; and Paul is able to state baldly that ‘If anyone doesn’t take care of his own relatives, especially his immediate family, he has denied the Christian faith and is worse than an unbeliever’ (1 Tim 5.8). As Rodney Stark has pointed out, it was the distinctive commitment to family relations which was a key part of the growth of Christianity in the early centuries—as a sharp contrast to pagan culture around it. Once again, the early Christian movement took values deeply rooted in its Jewish heritage into the wider world, which Fraser brushes aside with casual ignorance.

The foolishness of the kind of liberal re-writing of theology which Fraser offers us here was well captured by Richard Niebuhr: ‘A God without wrath brought men without sin into a Kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a Cross.’ It is not only foolish, it is also supremely intellectually arrogant. I wonder if Fraser really thinks that the church would have grown faster and more effective had they followed his advise—as that is what he claims:

Early Christians answered the likes of Celsus in the wrong way. When they charged Jesus with being illegitimate, they should simply have replied: “So what if he was?”


In fact, what separates Christianity from other religions is not the abolition of purity, but accessibility to purity made available not by our own effort or religious activity, but by the costly gift of God’s grace.

The wonder of Christmas is precisely that a holy God comes to us in Jesus in our unholiness, and, in an astonishing exchange, that he not only invites us into holiness, but enables that to happen by the continuing gift of his presence by the Spirit. The same Spirit that came upon Mary, overshadowing her with power from on high, can this Christmas overshadow us, till the holy Christ is born in us anew (Gal 4.16), enabling us to live transformed lives that are acceptable to our holy God (Romans 12.2).

(A shorter version of this was first published at Premier Christianity on 24th December 2015).

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56 thoughts on “Faith, purity and the virgin birth”

  1. GIven the restrictions of space and the context of the Guardian readership in general and the usual hostility of the CIF contributors to matters of faith I think Giles made a pretty good attempt at writing something both interesting and provocative. It’s not, after all, a place for a sermon. Your ‘debunk’ is about four times as long – maybe Giles would have dealt with these issues more adequately if he’d had a longer article. As to suggestions that Jesus was illegitimate, surely they predate Celsus by a long way? The Jews certainly seemed aware (John 8.41) and, as Raymond Brown pointed out years ago that there was at least something not quite right about the circumstances of Jesus’ birth.

    • Drew, it seems rather odd to excuse the mistakes in Giles’ piece to its brevity. Would it not have been possible to express the bizarre claim about abolishing impurity in a different concise way if Giles had meant that?

      The weird thing is that, having noted John 8.41 (without making reference to it), Giles is apparently suggesting that Matthew and Luke are *later* than this idea, if it was made up to address the illegitimacy question. I’m not clear there is much evidence for that.

      As for the sceptical readership, I am wondering whether Giles’ piece would *endear* faith to the sceptic, or make them think that the whole of Christianity, and religion in general, was basically a fabrication and not worth bothering with.

      Has proposing the rationality of belief to its cultured despisers in the past helped or hindered the cause of faith?

    • To be a little provocative, I would also point out that it’s possible to say something stupid quite concisely; it usually takes more words to point out why it is stupid.

      • Christ came to bring us purity even though we are sinners, not to abolish purity.

        Jesus died on the cross as atonement for our sin thus making us pure before God when we are cloaked by Christ. Many liberals can’t accept that Christ died on the cross for us at all. Perhaps Giles is just another liberal?

      • To be fair, you didn’t engage with any of the substantive points Giles made either. The central paradox which Giles is addressing is how a Holy God reconciles himself with an unholy world. And what a great topic to engage with! Rather than leap into an ill thought out attack on “liberals”, putting up a straw man that they don’t believe in holiness, you could have addressed this. Giles doesn’t say that there is no call to holiness, or that God is not Holy, but that he reconciles himself with that in a radically different way from the prevailing religious culture of the time, which was simply to cut off the unholy (no argument here, I hope). Giles struggles with the elevation of Mary, of which the virgin birth is part, however, as that seems to elevate the ‘sinless’ where Jesus was happy to deal with the sinner and transformed them through his forgiveness.

        Your silly point that ‘liberals’ seem to think they know better than the church through history puts the reformed theologian in a difficult position on Mariology, however! Luther seems to have believed that Mary was sinless throughout her life, although it is possible that he changed this view later in his life. I assume you wouldn’t subscribe to that view, but there is a really interesting topic worthy of debate here and one the Church has been struggling with for centuries. Unfortunately, you’ve not had that debate. It depresses me greatly when you descend into silly digs at ‘liberals’, and the result is that you disengage your highly educated and sophisticated brain when you do so. You are in a position to be a leading light in some of these debates, but this sort of point scoring only hurts your cause.

        And for what it is worth, I have absolutely no issue with the virgin birth and have always believed it as part of the way God reconciled himself with the sinful world, but more importantly it is a signal of Jesus’s divinity. For me this is the key meaning of the virgin birth – another topic you forgot to mention whilst attacking the hopeless liberals.

        • Church Mouse

          ‘Giles struggles with the elevation of Mary, of which the virgin birth is part, as that seems to elevate the ‘sinless’.

          Yet, the gospels don’t present the virgin birth as ensuring that Christ’s nativity was free from the perceived sinfulness of marital sex. The annunciation explanation of Jesus’ conception through a virgin encapsulates how and why Jesus would differ from all other humanity and, as the Son of God, natively unite the fullness of humanity and God.

          It also highlights the native distinction between Christ Himself and those who are, by God’s grace, in Christ by adoption. As you’re aware, the worship that Christians accord to Christ is that ‘God was manifested in the flesh, justified in the spirit, believed on in the world, and received up into glory’.

          The issue addressed by the gospel account of the virgin birth is not purity, but Jesus’ messianic identity as the pre-existent Son of God. Jesus alludes to this in questioning why King David referred to his messianic descendant as Lord.

          In his attempt to be provocative and iconoclastic, Giles misses making this central point by a mile!

        • Dear CM, I am glad that you advocate reading more carefully…as I think you need to do same!

          glad to hear you have no issue with the virgin birth, since Giles clearly does, as he thinks it is fundamentally at odds with the Christian message. (You did notice him saying that, didn’t you?). My piece was not offering a theology of the virgin birth, so it is not surprising that there is much that I don’t include.

          What I do address is the two main points in Giles’ piece: that a. Christianity ‘abolished’ purity and b. therefore the notion of a virgin birth, which the evangelists invented in response to criticism of the new faith, is theologically mistaken.

          (If you do subscribe to belief in the VB, presumably you too disagree with Giles on both these points…?)

          Contrary to your observations, Giles mentions nothing about ‘reconciling’ God with an unholy world. quite the opposite: he claims that the unholiness of the world simply no longer matters. ‘Or, in other words, God is perfectly at home in a human life, with all its ritualistic mess, from blood to semen.’

          If the unholiness of the world does not matter, then bridging the gap between the holy and the unholy is no longer costly, hence my citation of Neibuhr.

          I would agree with you that there has been some ‘disengaging of brain’—but I am not clear that it is present in my post.

          (If you were able to post under your real name, that would be great—I don’t normally permit anonymouse posting. Thanks.)

    • Mary’s own response to her pregnancy and motherhood was awe wonder, and praise that God should have chosen her as the vehicle of God’s intervention in the human story. “My soul doth magnify the Lord,..” The story in Luke highlights Mary’s faith and humility and gratitude.
      However, the greatest miracle of the virgin birth is not Mary’s purity, but that Jesus was born “sinless”, in the likeness of sinful flesh, and without the primal animal instincts that burden all other men. He came as the “sacrifice for sin”- the Savior the world so evidently needs.

  2. “I’m also curious that not a single person here, on the Premier blog, or on social media has actually engaged any of the substantive points I have raised.”
    Possibly nearly everyone who might comment got as far as their Christmas morning services and then, having been weary and heavy burdened, found rest, quietly snoozing ever since the last spoonful of Christmas pudding!
    (Or more seriously and sadly are dealing with floods.)

  3. I’m not actually trying to excuse anything. I’m grateful that Giles writes where he does and engages with a prety hostile crowd. Apologetics has a long and proud record is spite of its reception in some quarters. I doubt he’d remain if he didn’t write in the style he does, and clearly risking misunderstanding by both sides, in trying to make a positive case for the abiding importance of the Christian Faith.

    I do think he’s wrong about the purity thing. Yet there is an undoubtedly erroneous sense in which a later Christian distaste for sex has been projected back onto the doctrine of the Virginal Conception of Christ. Plenty of Evangelical theologians (eg Brunner & Thielicke) see the doctrine not as a ‘ground of faith’ but as a ‘concept of faith’ and regard its historical facticity as irrelevant. It can still serve as a metaphor of the divine origin of Jesus whatever the facts of Jesus’ conception (of which I am myself agnostic). In the Creeds I think it serves much more as a defence against the errors of adoptionism rather than anything else.

    • Thanks Drew. I would agree with you about the doctrine’s apologetic defence against adoptionism, and that historicity is a distinct question.

      But I don’t quite understand your point about Giles and apologetics. For what is he being an apologist in this piece?

      The central point he makes about purity is so badly wrong, I am not sure for what kind of Christianity he is offering an apologia. Most of the commentators who agree with him are sceptics, so it appears to most his comments are on a path to deconstructing any kind of Christian belief.

      In what way is that helping anyone?

      • On Giles’ main point. I agree that purity, if by that he means ‘ritual, or even moral, purity’, is certainly abolished as a requirement. I may be mistaken but I had interpreted his remarks in that sense.

        Surely as Reformed Christians we accept that God is unimpressed by those who claim to be pure. ‘Unless your righteousness exceedes that of the scribes and the Pharisee…’ etc.

        In Christ we are ‘counted as righteous’ – but not by virtue of our claimed, or attained, purity – ever!

        • I love the idea that Giles is defending the Reformation doctrine of salvation by grace through faith…but that would be a bit of a turn up.

          In what sense has the demand for moral purity been abolished? What does Paul mean by ‘acceptable to God’ in Romans 12? Yes, we are counted as righteous…in order to grow into that righteousness. What else can Paul mean when he tells the Romans ‘do not let sin rule your mortal bodies so that you obey their desires’ (Romans 6.12)?

          • Never mind Giles, he can answer for himself. However, if Paul didn’t really mean that we are saved by grace through the righteousness of Christ rather than our own moral purity then I for one don’t have a hope.

          • Pauls didn’t. Was that what Giles meant? I think it unlikely – but we can only second guess him since he didn’t define it.

  4. “In fact, what separates Christianity from other religions is not the abolition of purity, but accessibility to purity made available not by our own effort or religious activity, but by the costly gift of God’s grace.”
    Beautifully put.

  5. Is there not another issue here: does the Church of England have any kind of discipline for clerics who question basic creedal doctrine?

    The answer would appear to be negative since Fraser continues a long tradition of senior/well known C of E clerics publicly questioning basic tenets of the faith with impunity.

    • Questioning is hardly heresy. Is he denying the doctrine (intended meaning) of ‘Virgin Birth’ or merely suggesting it might not have a ‘historically factual’ basis – which is not a basic tenet of the faith to many Anglicans.

  6. I agree that Fraser’s almost certainly wrong about the Virgin Birth being a reaction to scurrilous rumors about Jesus’ paternity.

    A far likelier explanation is that it was created to fulfill the “born of a virgin” prophecy in Isaiah; perhaps helped along by the Hellenist fashion for attributing virgin births to great men, perhaps not. This is, of course, a thoroughly mainstream view in biblical scholarship.

    As for whether this is evidence of modern arrogance, well, that’s irrelevant to its truth, but I don’t believe it is: I’m sure the gospel authors (whoever they were) sincerely believed what they wrote. Critical scholarship simply has a different approach.

    • Thanks for the comment James. Interested to hear you think Giles wrong here.

      I think the argument that Matthew creates this to fulfil the Isaiah text implausible for four main reasons.

      1. It doesn’t fit all that well, since it is not an obvious meaning of the text. Like Matthew’s other uses, it seems rather more that Matthew gives us a rather forced match, which suggests he is working with the constraints of the facts.

      2. Is there evidence that this was a classic ‘Messianic’ text in second temple Judaism?

      3. The text of Matthew does not make all that much of it.

      4. The fuller account in Luke has independent wording, and does not refer to fulfilment of prophecy.

      • Matthew’s far more concerned with “fulfilling” prophecy than Luke, but that doesn’t mean that desire isn’t the origin for the Virgin Birth story. It is, admittedly, guesswork and inference: equally, it might be rooted in the Gentile trend for assigning virgin births to great men; or, yes, a miracle, something historiography is wholly unable to assess. It can assess the various material possibilities. The rest is faith.

        • I don’t think you are right that the miraculous is beyond historiography. If something happens (like, for example, a healing which cannot be explained scientifically or through natural causes) then any historian can record this.

          The explanation of the miracle is beyond the realms of historical investigation, but not the recounting of it.

  7. I’m not sure that ‘in advance’ the Isaiah text would have meant any more than ‘a young woman will conceive (in a normal way) and have a son’.

      • It’s complicated by the Septuagint’s translation of “young woman” as parthenos, which does stress virginity.

        In any case, since so much rests on this, disinterested analysis isn’t easy.

    • The problem with interpreting Isaiah as meaning “young woman” rather than a “virgin” is that for Isaiah to say that a “young woman” will have a child is really not a prophesy at all but an every day event.

  8. Thanks for this Ian. If I recall correctly, C.S. Lewis made the point in ‘Miracles’ that often the ancients are characterised by modern society as being ignorant and gullible – yet they knew full well that virgins did not give birth to children! If that’s what Matthew and Luke wrote, they must have had a good reason for writing it.

    It reminds me a bit of this imaginary conversation between the gospel writers:

    I do find Giles Fraser’s position somewhat self-defeating, and I think the Niebuhr quote you mention hits the nail on the head. Start cutting bits out of the Christian Faith and you pretty soon end up with nothing. As I believe Augustine said: “If you believe what you like in the Gospel, and reject what you don’t like, it is not the Gospel you believe, but yourself.”

    • Phill, C.S. Lewis had zero advanced training in either history or theology. Outside English literature, he reverted to amateur status, and it shows in his resort to “common sense” statements that ignore awkward historical details.

      The ancients had no concept of a post-Newtonian self-regulated universe: there was no natural-supernatural split. They might know that virgins didn’t usually get pregnant, but as shown by their attributing virgin births to everyone from Alexander the Great to Augustus, they didn’t find the concept fantastical.

      It’s telling that Lewis, and not a professional historian or theologian, is the one appealed to. Only an amateur could make the arguments he does, but his accomplishments in a separate field vest those arguments with a bogus authority.

      • James, I’d say that sometimes having advanced training in history and theology actually makes one less able to see the truth!

        C.S. Lewis may not have been a theologian or a historian per se, but I think he was pretty well versed in them. He read myths every day, of the type you mention, and yet still thought that the Bible was not a myth – in fact, that it was recognisably not a myth.

        “I have been reading poems, romances, vision-literature, legends, myths all my life. I know what they are like. I know that not one of them is like this. Of this text there are only two possible views. Either this is reportage – though it may no doubt contain errors – pretty close up to the facts; nearly as close as Boswell. Or else, some unknown writer in the second century, without known predecessors, or successors, suddenly anticipated the whole technique of modern, novelistic, realistic narrative. If it is untrue, it must be narrative of that kind. The reader who doesn’t see this has simply not learned to read. I would recommend him to read Auerbach.” (From Fern seed and elephants).

        • Lewis is rebutting a straw man, Phill.

          The claim of the form critics isn’t that the gospels are “a myth,” but that they’re composed of layers of tradition. If Lewis thought that the often-fantastical gospel narratives, packed with parable, miracle, and symbolism, are “modern, novelistic, realistic narrative,” he can’t have read many realist novels.

          Are there any examples of Lewis rebutting professional exegetes?

          • Hi James, in that piece I linked to Lewis quotes (and disagrees with) Bultmann. He also seems to be familiar with the work of other 19th & 20th century textual critics of that ilk.

            “Myth” is perhaps the wrong word on my part, but the point stands: he was well versed in the ancient literature of the period, and to him the gospels were of a different class or category. I don’t know how many realist novels there were in the first century or before; I was under the impression that the gospels basically invented a new literary genre.

            What I find bizarre about all this is that this is the exact kind of conversation I might have expected to have with an atheist – not anyone who claims the label ‘Christian’. It seems to me that the basic problem most liberals, if I might generalise, have with the gospels is that you can’t possibly believe what is described in them actually happened. It’s a commitment to methodological naturalism. That’s a position i find utterly incomprehensible – being a follower of Christ and yet not really believing half the things that Christ was reported as saying or doing. God, if he even exists in the liberal worldview, seems pretty powerless and incapable of actually intervening in the world. That sounds to me more like Deism than Christianity. Or even some kind of humanism.

            This, incidentally, is why I think debates we have here and elsewhere on sexuality matter so much: the problem goes way deeper than that. The debates we have about marriage really mask the fact that we’re talking about what religion the church of England is. J Gresham Machen claimed nearly 100 years ago that liberalism is really a separate religion from Christianity. I think he’s right, and this is why we clash so much when it comes to marriage: it’s just the presenting issue of our day.

          • Sure Phill, Lewis namechecks Bulfmann, but he doesn’t begin to rebut him: this painful nationalistic harrumph is typical:-

            “So there is no personality of our Lord presented in the New Testament. Through what strange process has this learned German gone in order to make himself blind to what all men except him see? What evidence have we that he would recognize a personality if it were there? For it is Bultmann contra mundum.”

            Lewis is, simply, out his field and out of his depth, trying to tub-thump his way past one of the 20th century’s greatest theologians and exegetes. To be fair to him, he refers to himself as a layman in the article: it’s others who’ve cloaked him in an academic gown he never earned nor sought.

            As for whether liberalism can be framed as another religion, well sure, just as protestantism in general can be written off as an early modern heresy by the spikey. More helpful, I think, is accepting its integrity and purpose: to reconcile doctrine shaped in premodern terms with the next 2,000 years of discovery. If we want respect, we must in turn give it.

          • James, this is quite a bizarre argument. You’d easily find a host of eminent scholars, from many stables, who would not agree with a single major theory that Bultmann proposed. He might have been influential in his time, but a good number, probably the majority, think he was seriously mistaken.

            At the root of his error is his attachment to a positivist modernity arising from the enlightenment i.e. with the philosophical commitments he brought to his theology, which he did not allow to be revised by the actual content of the texts.

            If C S Lewis did not agree with him, this is not a sign of being out of his depth or unqualified. He would rather have been ahead of his time.

            since theology has, for some centuries, been a discipline which borrows from others, such as history, theology and literary studies (often poorly and usually late), then Lewis was eminently qualified to comment in these areas.

          • Hi James, it’s interesting that you draw an analogy with Protestantism. I agree that Protestantism is very different to Roman Catholicism… which is why the CofE is not Roman Catholic. And not liberal. (Well, officially at least, although ‘on the ground’ depending on the actual church you went to, you would be forgiven for thinking it was either.) This is why the church cannot simply change its teaching on marriage – to do so would go to the heart of what the church actually is.

          • Ian, the issue’s not Bultmann’s merits, but the merits of Lewis’ argument against him, and how its glibness and superficiality points to his lack of qualifications in the field. He specifically says he’s approaching this as a layman, but others invest him with undue weight.

            As an aside, though, I would be interested so read any surveys of modern scholars’ views of Bultmann, and in particularly, how it ties to their own religious POV.

  9. Sorry James but that isn’t right because C S Lewis did study theology. It is true that he was mathematician but for many at Oxford that doesn’t preclude other studies so he probably read history as well but didn’t have a formal qualification in it.

  10. Dear James,

    Names of degrees and courses have changed since the 1920s

    At Oxford University, he received a First in Honour Moderations (Greek and Latin literature) and a First in Greats (Philosophy, Theology and Ancient History) in 1920 to 1922, and a First in English in 1923. In 1924 he became a philosophy tutor.

    I didn’t realise that “Greats” included Ancient History in the 1920s so maybe he did history as well.

  11. Rowan Williams, in the Introduction to ‘The Lion’s World’ has some fairly caustic things to say about the snobbery which refuses to credit Lewis as a theologian on the grounds that he wasn’t part of the academic guild … and, if memory serves, because he frequently came to more conservative conclusions than members of that (self-referencing) guild were comfortable with! Personally, I’m not convinced by all Lewis writes… But his thought is at least as sophisticated, and much much more clearly expressed, than the likes of Bultmann. Speaking as a fairly academic priest, give me a vicar well versed in Lewis a million times before you inflict a Bultmann fan on me!

    But we’re rather off the point, aren’t we…. I think the important thing here is that for about one hundred years (ever since Bishop Gore fought and lost this particular battle) the CoE has been reluctant to discipline clergy on the grounds of doubt/denial of the credal miracles. I wonder, Ian, whether you think that policy needs to be reversed (if indeed, it is even possible to do so?). And quite how big a part in the story of the church’s missional failure do you think it plays?

    • Would Williams also call it “snobbery” to dismiss an “architect” who’s never so much as submitted a portfolio, a “scientist” who learned their research skills off a skeptics’ website, or a “surgeon” who’s a dab-hand at a short-back-and-sides?

      Either theology is a serious academic discipline, in which case, Lewis’ amateur status (never denied by him) matters; or it isn’t, in which case, we can dismiss Williams’ own credentials, and declare him equal to a tent revivalist. Given some of his output, my greatest hesitation in doing that would be fairness to latter-day Billy Sundays.

      • I think there is an argument in universities just now which proposes that theology is *not* a serious academic discipline, since it is so dependant on other disciplines—which would rather support both Lewis and Williams.

        I won’t jump to agreeing with this immediately, but it would be interesting to consider what theology distinctively contributes beyond philosophy, phenomenology, historical study, rhetoric, literary theory, textual criticism, social scientific study and reflection on world view.

    • Peter, what fascinating questions!

      On Gore, from what little I know of him (and having recently visited CoR on retreat at Mirfield) I think my observation is that his project failed because he was insufficiently critical of *both* Catholic tradition *and* modern ‘scientific’ scholarship. I think I have ended up as a critical realist (more or less) because I am persuaded of Tom Wright’s vision of the importance of history, but also of the need to be sceptical of the sceptics, seeing that all ‘scientific’ stuff rests on some quite particular philosophical assumptions—and these themselves need theological and scriptural critique as part of the virtuous circle in our hermeneutic of reality.

      I am not a believer in theological autocracy nor of the kind of top-down control you find amongst both conservative catholic and conservative evangelicals—but I think that theological consensus must be found in a bounded diversity. The C of E has been good on the ‘diversity’ but rather poor on the ‘bounded’ bit.

      Yes, this has had missional implications. Is it possible to reverse? I cannot envisage a merely managerial process that could deliver this, since like all theological discourse (for that is what it is) it must be relational.

      So in the first instance I think it depends on the orthodox theological renewal of the episcopate, and needs to spread from there. (I think there is a bottom-up process of renewal that must go with this as well).

      Does that all make sense…?

      • Ian, if you feel unwell, d’you first visit a doctor, or a faith healer? If it’s a doctor, even if you believe that God works through physicians, you’re putting more weight in science than you do theology. Why is that? Because science has an evidence base that other disciplines lack.

        Behind all this stuff about epistemology and “critical realism” is Wright’s need to reconcile miracles with the self-regulating universe discovered in the two millennia since the Bible was written. That he must go to these lengths is a backhanded complement to the strength of scientific discovery. I’ll bet his first port of call’s the local surgery, too.

        The really interesting question’s the psychology that drives this quest. That Wright’s been able to rise so high in academic theology without a willingness to challenge his own biases does, perhaps, call wider the discipline into question.

  12. Oh… And seeing as you wanted engagement on substance: what would you say to the claim that as John, Paul (really, the Galatians text is not a ‘hint’ at the virginal conception!), and Mark don’t mention the conception of Jesus, it can’t have been that important an element in the faith of early Christianity? And that perhaps it features in the Creeds not so much on the grounds of Jesus having been born of a virgin, but to underline the fact that he was indeed born… that he was truly human? I think there are fairly good grounds for suggesting the latter. Not that those who ‘wrote’ the creeds would for a moment have denied Mary’s virginity (I don’t either, btw) but that her key significance at this point in the church’s battles re heresy was not qua Virgin but qua woman. And if that’s right… Need we worry that much about people denying the virginity? I know I disagree with them, but am trying to figure out how crucial a disagreement it is.

    • Peter,

      You’re right. They don’t mention the miracle of the Virgin Birth. Instead, they move on to far more stupendous statements than any self-respecting monotheist could square with belief in divine transcendence above all creation: ‘God was revealed in the flesh’ (1 Tim. 3:16); ‘In Him dwells all the fullness of the Godhead bodily’ (Col. 2:9) ‘who being the effulgence of His glory’ (Heb. 1:3)

      After swallowing the whole camel of Jesus being both very God and fully human, intellectual difficulties with the Virgin Birth seem like straining a gnat.

    • There is a fascinating dynamic here, and it relates back to Giles’ mistaken suggestion that the virginal conception (for that is what we are considering) ‘goes against the grain’.

      As David Shepherd points out, it is far less theologically problematic if you are of orthodox belief about the incarnation—but I suspect the origins of scepticism about the VC lie with people who are sceptical about the theological status of the incarnation itself, and both arise from scepticism about the miraculous and hence about the possibility of the gospels as historically credible.

      It seems to me that (to borrow terminology from philosophical logic) the VC is sufficient but not necessary for belief in the incarnation—as the patchy testimony to the VC in the NT shows. This means, in terms of belief and scepticism, that you can question the VC and still believe in the incarnation, but if you are sceptical about the incarnation you must discount the VC.

      But, if all that is true, it really begs the question of why two of the evangelists would have ‘invented’ the VC when a. it is not a theological necessity b. is not made much of by them and c. does not appear to play a major part in early theological reflection on the incarnation.

      Does that make sense?

  13. Thanks for the responses…

    I’m intrigued Ian that you think Gore failed in part because he was insufficiently critical of the hidden (or not so) presuppositions of much of the biblical criticism of his day. I think he was actually very like NT Wright in calling attention to these and so coming to unfashionably conservative conclusions. I’d say if anything he was too resistant to critical scholarship on occasion. That would certainly be true of some of his views on Catholic tradition, and perhaps on some NT critical questions as well.

    Interestingly, he makes just the point you do that scepticism re. the VC is often really a cipher for more fundamental scepticism re. the doctrine of the Incarnation and the possibility of the miraculous. I’m sure both you and he are right… but there are also examples of people who seem, as David says, for some reason to strain at this particular gnat even when they have swallowed the more fundamental camels. The early William Temple or Jurgen Moltmann today spring to mind. So for me the interesting question is: in this theological renewal of the episcopate and whole church you speak of, how much importance we should be attaching to the VC question per se, as opposed to the bigger ones it may or may not lead into?

    Thanks for the blog, which always gives much food for thought. happy new year.


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