In its fourth line, the Apostles’ Creed declares an essential truth: that Jesus Christ was born of the virgin Mary. We may take this truth for granted, but such was not the case for those who composed the Creed. A myriad of false gnostic teachings threatened the Church. This declaration concerning our Lord’s birth is fundamental. Let’s discover why.
The Holy Spirit’s Mysterious Role
The exact nature of what occurred for Mary to become pregnant is a mystery. What we know for certain is that no sexual act took place. This may seem obvious, but it’s important to state explicitly because that’s exactly what Muslims think we believe! To them, the title “Son of God” conjures the image of a physical union between God the Father and Mary. This is one of the reasons our belief in the deity and Sonship of Christ is a stumbling block to them. But if Muslims believe that such an idea is blasphemous, we deny it just as vigorously.
While we do not know precisely what took place, Luke 1:35 tells us the following:
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.
This verse indicates the Holy Spirit’s operation in Christ’s incarnation. So, the first part of the third phrase of the Creed, “conceived by the Holy Spirit” underscores God’s role by his Spirit in the incarnation. And the second part of the phrase, “born of the Virgin Mary” emphasizes Jesus’ birth from a human perspective.
As a mother of a young adolescent, I can only imagine what Mary must have felt. She was likely 12-16 years of age and betrothed to Joseph. And just as she was anticipating their union, she learned from the heavenly messenger that she would soon be pregnant, out of wedlock, with the Saviour of the world. She naturally had some questions. How could she, a virgin, be with child? Such a conception, after all, was unprecedented in human history. Her question is not one of faithlessness, but a legitimate one, needing some clarification.
The sheer impossibility of Mary’s situation, humanly speaking, is precisely what makes it so foundational to our faith. It proves yet again that nothing is impossible to God, as Mary herself declares in humble submission to God’s will (Lk 1:37).
4 Reasons Why the Virgin Birth Matters
So, why is it essential to our faith that we affirm Christ’s virgin birth? I’d like to propose four reasons:
1. Because it fulfilled prophecy.
Certain church fathers believed that the prophecy of the virgin birth went back to the first promise of the gospel immediately after the Fall (Gn 3:13-15). This prophecy implied that the deliverer would be of unique origin. Otherwise, why was he called the seed of the woman and not the seed of the man? (Women, after all, don’t have seed, in biblical terms. Men do). For this reason, Justin and Irenaeus interpreted the woman of Genesis 3:15 to be Mary.
Moreover, Isaiah 7:14 foretold, “The virgin will conceive and give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel.” Some argue that the word translated “virgin” could have been translated “young woman.” Yet the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the AT which dates back 250 years before Jesus Christ) translates the term with an unambiguous word that could mean nothing but virgin. And this is the term that the evangelist employs in his citation of the prophecy in Matthew 1:23.
2. Because it affirms the inspiration and authority of Scripture.
Along similar lines as the previous point, if we deny the virgin birth, prophesied hundreds of years before, we deny the inerrancy of Scripture. And when we reject the authority of the Bible, we are compromising the very foundation of our faith.
3. Because it demonstrates that Jesus is truly human and truly divine.
Had Jesus been born in a purely supernatural way, with no human agent, we would have questioned his humanity. And had he been born by the normal agency of intercourse between a man and a woman, we would have questioned his divinity. But Jesus was indeed 100% man and 100% God. On this reality our faith stands or falls.
4. Because it was necessary to not transmit original sin.
For those of us who grew up Catholic, the term “original sin” might make us uncomfortable because of the Catholic Church’s teaching related to the subject (such as the necessity of infant baptism and the existence of purgatory, to name two). But the concept is at its core very biblical. Paul’s commentary on the fall in Romans 5 explains that sin came into the world through Adam, and through him to the entire human race. Sin is transmitted through the father to sons and daughters. This is why, in theological terms, Adam is called our “federal head.” But Jesus was born without sin, and this was made possible by the virgin birth. Ligon Duncan puts it this way:
The virgin birth explains how Jesus could be divine and human and sinless all at the same time. And that is what we have to have to be saved. We need a divine Savior, a human Savior, and a sinless Savior, to be saved.
One misconception we must clarify is that sexual intercourse itself is not sin. Throughout Church history, some theologians have had a negative view of sex, even within the context of marriage. They not only taught that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived, but that she remained a virgin in perpetuity. Her perpetual virginity is part of what makes her sinless in the eyes of those who venerate her. Yet Scripture attests to the fact that Mary and Joseph consummated their union following the birth of Jesus and had other sons as well as daughters (Mark 6:3). Moreover, nowhere does the Bible teach that sexual intercourse within marriage is sin. On the contrary, Hebrews 13:4 says, “Marriage is to be held in honor among all, and the marriage bed is to be undefiled.”
What These Truths Mean for Us
We have a sympathetic high priest. Because Jesus is fully human and fully divine, he understands our weakness, having himself been tempted in every way, yet without sin (He 4:15). But because he overcame every temptation, he could be the perfect sacrifice for our sins. And he can intercede for us before the Father (Heb 7:25).
We have comfort and hope. As daughters of Eve, we grieve for the role our first mother played in bringing sin into the world. But we can draw comfort from knowing that God chose another woman to bring salvation into the world. God redeems broken things, including us. If you’ve ever felt broken and useless, the Gospel offers hope and life.
God’s call is amazing. God often calls us to do hard things, perhaps even seemingly impossible things, humanly speaking. But he always qualifies those he calls. We see this not only in Mary, but on every page of the Bible. And he does the same with our lives.
God calls willing hearts. Mary chose to trust the Lord’s messenger. She agreed to do God’s will no matter the cost. What an example of faith this precious teenage girl was! Is it possible that in our fear of avoiding any veneration of Mary we’ve overlooked her as a role model? Let us draw inspiration from her declaration that nothing is impossible with God. When the Lord leads us to do hard things, let us say with Mary, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” (Lk 1:38).