Conceived by the Holy Spirit, Born of the Virgin Mary
A common critique of the Apostles’ Creed is that it doesn’t discuss Jesus’s life, as it moves straight from Jesus’s birth (“conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary”) to his death (“suffered under Pontius Pilate, crucified, died, and buried”). There is no mention of his miracles or teaching. While this observation is true, this critique could, unwittingly, undercut the significance of what the Creed does explicitly mention and affirm -- with the virgin birth a key Christian doctrine that we must remember and proclaim -- as well as the general purpose of the Creed.
Remembering the Purpose of the Creed
The Apostles’ Creed is not meant to be an exhaustive account of all things that Christians believe, but rather a guide to help us understand the teachings in the Bible. The Bible features four accounts of Jesus’s life (Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John), giving us the ability to learn many details of Jesus’s life. In many ways, the Creed assumes that by reading through the gospels, we are knowledgeable about Jesus and his life (or can become knowledgeable). In addition, by describing “Jesus Christ, His Only Son, Our Lord,” the Creed points back to the life and ministry of Jesus of Nazareth who shows himself to be the Christ through his actions and work. The Creed is a short summary, and therefore, cannot list all of the miracles performed by Jesus (if only some of the miracles were mentioned, which ones would make the cut?). We need to remember that even the Gospels don’t include every miracle (John 21:25).
Don’t Downplay the Details Included
This critique of the Creed not discussing the ministry of Jesus may at times, appear to be a way to try to downplay the importance of his birth and his death. While Jesus wasn’t always a popular figure, most people today think well of him; they believe he was a good teacher (though sometimes I wonder if they have really examined his teachings, as they can go against what we naturally like!) and a kind person who helped others. However, the Christian faith is not built on Jesus as a teacher or example, but rather Jesus as the Son of God who came to save us from our sins through his death and resurrection. Yes, his ministry is important, but his actions and teachings only make sense when we consider the nature of his birth and who he is.
Many people have trouble believing what the Bible teaches about Jesus’s birth. . Some people don’t accept or believe it because science shows us that a virgin birth is impossible. Since there are also other ancient religions that had stories of leaders being born of gods, so people say the virgin birth was an ancient myth borrowed from other religions and need not be viewed as literal. Included among those who reject or redefine the meaning of the virgin birth are pastors, church leaders, and denominations. In fact, many denominations were divided in the early 20th century over this teaching with some (often called modernists) denying the literalness of the virgin birth while others declared that it is a fundamental of the Christian faith, as the church has believed it and the Bible teaches it. Some churches today deny the historicity of the virgin birth, so if you are visiting a church or looking for a new church home, it is a good question to ask the leaders of the church.
Remembering the Significance of the Virgin Conception
A number of years ago, I read a book written by a pastor whose ministry I had been following with admiration. In this book, he raised the question of whether or not it was essential to believe in the virgin birth, or if it was a doctrine that could be set aside as non-essential. In addition to noting how this moved away from the historic Christian teaching, I wrote in the margin of that book a number of reasons why the virgin birth is important to believe in.
Some believe the virgin birth is essential to the Christian faith as it was needed to safeguard Jesus from the effects of sin that come upon every human born. However, such a view would seem to imply the sinful nature comes only from the father (which older scientific views might have supported, but we know a child features DNA of both mother and father). In addition, this is not what is found in the Scripture when discussing the virgin birth.
Rather than protecting Jesus from the sinful nature, the virgin birth was necessary to make Jesus just like every other human, but also different than other humans, in many ways illustrating the belief that he is fully human but also the Son of God in the flesh (see Heidelberg Catechism Q & A 15-18 on the need for the Savior to be true human and true God). Jesus is like other humans in that he goes through the life cycle that we all do; he does not appear out of heaven as an adult who comes to teach and heal, but grows up like everyone else. He is a real human and has a true human nature. While he is like everyone else, he is also different from everyone else in that he was not created like everyone else. The closest parallel is Adam, who was made out of the dust of the ground and then had the spirit of God bring him to life. Jesus is the second Adam, who undoes the work of Adam, in that Adam fell into sin while Jesus resisted temptation. His birth points to his identity as the pre-existent Son of God, as his birth was like no other. In fact, when we compare the story of the birth of Jesus with similar stories with other religions, we see that there are marked differences (see this article for more on that topic).
Therefore, we can have confidence that Jesus’s death is sufficient to cover our sins and that his life gives us the righteousness that God desired from us. This is what the Heidelberg Catechism notes in Q & A 36 in saying that the conception and birth of Jesus benefits us in that we have a mediator with innocence and perfect holiness who can remove our sin from God's sight. This wonderful truth explains what is found in passages like these:
Since therefore the children share in flesh and blood, he himself likewise partook of the same things … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people. For because he himself has suffered when tempted, he is able to help those who are being tempted
For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
A Perplexing but Profound, Essential Truth
The virgin birth is still hard to understand. For example, what was Jesus’s DNA? If it was half Mary’s who was the other half from? This mystery can draw us closer to a mysterious God and not cloud what is not mysterious -- the story of God taking on our flesh to save us from our sins, with the Son of God now a sympathetic high priest for us.
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