Virgin Conception

A review of Dustin Resch’s Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth

Advanced access to my review of Dustin Resch’s book, Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery, is now available via the Journal of Theological Studies website.

A review of ‘Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth’

Barth's Interpretation of the Virgin BirthBarth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth: A Sign of Mystery, by Dustin Resch. Farnham/Burlington: Ashgate, 2012. ix + 218pp; ISBN 978 1 4094 4117.

In Barth’s Interpretation of the Virgin Birth, Dustin Resch (Assistant Professor of Theology and Dean of the Seminary at Briercrest College and Seminary) offers us a clearly written introductory survey to Barth’s presentation of the doctrine of the virgin birth, unencumbered with detail and critical interaction.

With a view to setting Barth’s contribution in its theological context, the study begins, appropriately, with a brief overview of the doctrine in the Western tradition. Here, particular attention is given to treatments by Irenaeus, Augustine, Aquinas, Luther, Calvin, Schleiermacher, Strauss and Brunner, and to the ways that the pre-Reformation articulations of the tradition tended to evaluate the doctrine in terms of its ‘fittingness’ with the broader themes of christology, pneumatology and original sin. This emphasis, Resch argues, ‘slipped into the background during the Reformation, which aimed to chasten what the Reformers took to be undue speculation, particularly about Mary’ (p. 36), only to emerge again during the modern period, albeit in ways that argued for its fundamental un-fitness in the courtroom of critical biblical scholarship and modern biology, and therefore without any significant theological value. Resch proceeds to argue that Barth takes up the Augustinian heritage of the virgin birth, but revises it such that Barth believes he escapes the criticisms of its modern despisers. The success or otherwise of Barth’s efforts here are left largely untested by Resch.

In the second chapter, Resch offers an exposition of the methodological and exegetical features of Barth’s development of the doctrine from his early work at Göttingen and Münster up to the introductory volume of Die Kirkliche Dogmatik. Locating Barth’s unembarrassed claims on the virgin conception vis-à-vis the Augustinian, Schleiermacherian, Harnackian and modern Roman Catholic traditions, and as a dogmatic bookend to Jesus’ miraculous resurrection, Resch convincingly rehearses throughout the ways in which, for Barth (post-Münster), the virgin birth functions as a fitting theological ‘sign’ (Zeichen) of the mystery of the incarnation – rather than making any claims about the constitutive significance of Jesus’ person as the Logos incarnate or about biology and the wonders of parthenogenesis – which directs the church to a number of its basic dogmatic claims. As P.T. Forsyth – the so-called ‘Barthian before Barth’ (a great compliment to Barth!) – had earlier shown, the virgin birth is really a theological rather than a critical question. It is not a necessity created by the integrity and authority of Scripture per se but a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the gospel, and by the requirements of grace. In terms of epistemology, for example, it recalls that ‘the beginning of our knowledge of God … is not a beginning which we can make with God. It can be only the beginning which God has made with us’ (CD II/1, 190). For Barth, the Bible’s presentation of the miracle of the virgin birth has ‘no ontic but [only] noetic significance’ (Credo, p. 69), its concern being the mystery of God’s free grace. Hence the Bible evidences a complete lack of concern with scientific explanation and is wholly concerned with the question of the sheer mystery and grace of revelation, a mystery and grace which announce, among other things, the foundationless nature of all our presuppositions about, and our semi-Pelagian gropings for, God. It is, literally, to begin again at the beginning; i.e., with God’s self-giving in Jesus Christ. Ontology, in other words, for Barth, must always precede epistemology.

Notwithstanding the comments made above vis-à-vis Scripture, Resch suitably notes, however, that Barth’s treatment of the virgin birth as a sign relating to the mystery of the incarnation rather than as a constitutive element of Christ’s person was one that was ‘derived exegetically and was not a theological decision made simply to avoid the criticism of modern theology’ (p. 62). So Resch:

For Barth, the criteria by which the church should make its decision to adopt the biblical attestation of the virgin birth into its understanding of the biblical message should be the same as the criteria by which the New Testament authors themselves decided to incorporate the virgin birth into their witness. In both cases, questions of the age and source value of the tradition were not conclusive. Instead, the doctrine was accepted because of its ‘fit’ with the central elements of Christian faith. (pp. 73–74)

The Great PromiseThis theological reading of the Gospel texts, as Resch notes in a number of places, enabled Barth to avoid many of the charges often laid at Augustinian interpretations of the doctrine, and that while guarding the mystery of Christ’s person from being collapsed into a general truth or principal. That said, Resch is also concerned to map how, for Barth, the virgin birth functions as a ‘paradigm’ through which to understand not only the shape of God’s work upon human beings but also something about the corresponding posture of faith’s being-before-God, features borne out well by Resch not only in terms of Barth’s treatment of Mary but also, and perhaps especially, through his attendance to the largely ignored figure of Joseph who ‘clearly has no capacity for God, but rather is elected to serve Christ in the world as his guardian. Understood this way’, Resch notes in a later chapter, ‘Joseph becomes an excellent metaphor for Barth’s view of the church’ (p. 175). In Barth’s own words:

Though I am very averse to the development of ‘Mariology’, I am very inclined to ‘Josephology’, because in my eyes Joseph has played a role with respect to Christ which the church should adopt. I know that the Roman Church prefers to compare its role with the glorious role of Mary. It brings the Christian message to the world in the same way in which Mary has given us Christ. But the comparison deceives. The church cannot give birth to the Redeemer; but it can and must serve him with humble and discrete enthusiasm. And that was exactly the role that Joseph played, who always held himself in the background and left all fame to Jesus. Exactly that should be the role of the church, if we want the world to rediscover the glory of the Word of God. (‘Über die Annäherung der Kirchen: Ein Gesprach zwischen Karl Barth und Tanneguy de Quénétain’, Junge Kirche: protestantische Monatshefte 24 (1963): 309)

Chapter Three is concerned to examine Barth’s doctrine of the virgin birth in relation to his presentation of Christ’s sinless humanity and original sin in the Church Dogmatics. In particular, Resch maps the ways that, for Barth, Christ’s birth through the virgin Mary attests to both the ‘Yes’ of God’s grace to humanity and, because of the absence of a human father, to God’s ‘No’ of judgment against sinful human beings: ‘The natus ex Maria virgine unambiguously negates the possibility of viewing revelation and reconciliation as a possibility latent within human beings by describing the mystery of the sovereign act of God in the incarnation. It does this “by an express and extremely concrete negative”. This negative – symbolized by the removal of the man – indicates the limitation of human participation in the incarnation’ (p. 85).

In Chapter Four, Resch brings Jesus’ conception into conversation with Barth’s pneumatology, noting how the former, which remains sui generis, functions, for Barth, as a pattern for, and a heuristic tool – ‘a distinctive mark’ – to interpret, the work of the Spirit in the lives of those who ‘perceive and accept and receive [Jesus Christ] as the Reconciler of the world and therefore as their Reconciler’ (CD IV/1, 148). It is argued that, just as Mary was enabled by the Spirit to conceive Christ within her womb, so too are Christians enabled by the same Spirit to receive the revelation and reconciliation of God.

Mary’s role in Barth’s theology is given fuller attention in the final chapter where Resch helpfully outlines how Barth’s treatment of Mary’s ‘readiness’ (Bereitschaft) before God informs both his understanding of the relationship between divine grace and human agency, and his evaluation of Roman Catholic Mariology, noting the ways that Barth’s acceptance of the virgin birth happens by the same criteria by which he rejects Mariology; namely, with its fit with the mystery of the incarnation. ‘Barth’s main problem with Mariology’, Resch avers, ‘is simply that in it Mary is treated in relative independence from Christ. While never completely severed from Christ, Mary has come to have her own special dignity, merit and ministry. In contrast with the Councils of Ephesus and Chalcedon, and particularly the New Testament, according to Barth, Roman Catholic Mariology fails to use the term Theotokos as an exclusively Christological title … The Catholic Mary is, for Barth, the symbolic portrayal of the philosophical concept of the analogia entis’ (pp. 168–69, 177). Conversely, Barth will insist that human readiness for God – and God’s readiness for humanity – is found in, and is synonymous with, Christ alone.

Throughout the essay, Resch successfully illustrates ways that Barth’s thinking on the virgin birth remains both broadly Augustinian insofar as the doctrine relates to that of original sin, and radically revisionist insofar as Barth departs from Augustine’s interpretation of the virgin birth as that which mysteriously preserves Christ from the tainting effects of concupiscence and original sin and conceives it instead as a symbol of the dialectic that the incarnation itself announces – the futility of all human willing, acting and striving for the grace of God, and the divine determination and gracious freedom to call into existence things that do not exist (Rom 4.17).

Readers (and I suspect Resch himself too) may well be left asking, however, whether Resch has bought too uncritically into Barth’s Protestant critique of Mariology, and whether his heavy reliance on a somewhat limited scope of Barth’s work (mainly The Great Promise and CD I/2) leaves his presentation less satisfying than it might be. More frustrating, however, is the exhausting repetition throughout the book. Where the reader may be hoping to find a new vista around the next corner, or an idea further developed in conversation with other themes pertaining to the subject (e.g., the doctrines of election and creation, the relationship between ‘sign’ and ‘ontology’ and between this particular ‘sign’ and other ‘signs’, the relationship between the objective basis and subjective experience of faith’s participation in the faithfulness of Christ as the vicarious human given by God, discipleship and prayer, how Mary’s and Joseph’s fittingness relates to that of other characters throughout the Bible, etc. are all left too uncooked) or with at least some significant secondary literature, the reader discovers instead that he is simply back where he has been numerous times before, and little the wiser for the effort. I suspect, nonetheless, that we are not here dealing with a case of an author who does not know where the real questions lie – indeed, he identifies some very worthwhile trajectories for further thought in his conclusion; Barth’s rather one-dimensional presentation of Mary divorced from her existential situation, for example – but perhaps with a matter of confidence and/or energy to traverse there within the bounds of this project. One hopes that in future work, he builds on the reliable foundation laid here.

[In due course, a version of this review will appear in The Journal of Theological Studies]


Advent IV: Weighing the virgin conception

Today’s New Zealand Herald ran this image and its accompanying story about an Auckland church’s (St Matthews’) new billboard. I’m not really interested here in engaging with the controversy around the offensiveness or cleverness or otherwise of the image, or about how I feel about its defacement some five hours after it was erected. I am interested, however, in taking up the image’s and St Matthews’ (both St Matthews in fact, the apostle’s and the Auckland church’s) invitation to enquire about the Christmas event of Mary’s virginal conception, and about the Church’s ongoing proclamation of that event as part of the Good News for which it exists to bear witness.

So here’s my response to that invitation: The miracle of the virgin conception is a judgement against the possibility of the creature producing its own word of revelation and reconciliation. It is a judgement against us thinking that we can know God apart from God’s initiative, and that we might save ourselves apart from God’s bloody intrusion into our situation. It is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to be God for us, to unveil for us, to reconcile us. And it is the proclamation of God’s gracious and free decision to save us, and that by becoming personally involved – literally enfleshed – in the deepest depths of creaturely experience. This is why it is Good News. In PT Forsyth’s words, ‘The Virgin birth is not a necessity created by the integrity and infallibility of the Bible; it is a necessity created (if at all) by the solidarity of the Gospel, and by the requirements of grace’. (Positive Preaching and the Modern Mind, 14).

Robert Jenson: Burns Lecture 4 – The Apostles’ Creed

robert jenson-014

© 2009. Photo taken by John Roxborogh, when Robert Jenson visited the Knox Centre for Ministry and Leadership in Dunedin. Used with permission.

Professor Jenson began the fourth of his six Burns Lectures by following up a question that arose after the previous lecture. The question concerned the Resurrection. He suggested that when we think of ‘living persons’ we must attend to two ‘aspects’:

  1. There is among us a voice which changes those to whom it is addressed. When the living voice of the gospel is heard – whether in liturgy, preaching, casual conversation, debate, etc. – then Christ is heard.
  2. A live human person is embodied. They are available. For this reason, a corpse is not a body. The Eucharistic elements are the body, as is the sound of the preachers’ voice, as is the touch of the baptiser. These are – in the conviction of the Church – actions of the body of Christ. Consequently, if one desires to see Christ, then one must look at the community of Christ, Christ’s body.

Jenson then turned more properly to the topic of The Apostles’ Creed, the Symbolum Apostolicum, which he described as the final deposit/version where the regula fidei ceases to be an intuition in the Church and ‘becomes a text’. He noted its relationship to baptism, and its shaping after the one name of the triune God in whose life the baptised participate. The triadic form, he suggested, represents the ‘internal structure’ of the one baptismal name according to the plot of God’s narrative with his people. This means that God’s history with his people is not only his people’s history but is also God’s own history.

Jenson proceeded to recall that it is precisely by their distinction from/relationship to one another that the three persons are one God. The Father is the Father of the Son, etc. Father, Son and Spirit (who is God’s ‘liveliness’) ‘mutually imply each other’. Moreover, and following Barth, Jenson contended that Father, Son and Spirit is ‘the Christian name for God’. (I have posted on this here). His defence of the position that it is ‘Father’ rather than ‘Mother’ was christologically determined: Jesus spoke of and addressed God as his ‘Father’ because Jesus was a Jew, and Christians address God as ‘Father’ – and not as ‘Mother’ – because we address God in Christ. Jenson described the Spirit as ‘the mutual love between the Father and the Son’. We live in this ‘mutual space’.

The remainder of the lecture returned to themes introduced in earlier lectures. Specifically, to arguing that the structure of the Creed is determined by the NT itself, and this in a two-fold sense:

(i) by its references to God. Jenson noted that the NT is full of ‘primary trinitarianism’, that there is a trinitarian logic that governs the NT, and that ‘with very few exceptions’ references to God in the NT imply a trinity of Persons.

(ii) by its prayers, particularly the so-called Lord’s Prayer. In giving the Church the prayer Jesus did, he invited us to ‘piggy back’ on his prayer to the Father, to participate with him (who alone has a native right to address God as ‘Father’) in his own praying to the Father. In this context, Jenson suggested that ‘if you know how to pray the Lord’s Prayer then you’ve got it [i.e. you’ve got the gospel in nuce]!’

Jenson reminded us that the Creed does not encourage the parsing out of God’s works among the three Persons. The first article’s focus is praise (grounded in and recalling Genesis 1 and the Psalms) and the second’s is God’s works. He also suggested that the Creed does not support the Church’s native way of reading the OT. By moving directly from creation to the incarnation the Creed avoids (dismisses?) 2/3 of the Bible. While the regula fidei saved the OT as Scripture for the Church it did not preserve the ongoing role of the OT. Why? Here Jenson suggested two reasons: (i) the influence of the Gentile Church; and (ii) Marcion. It was at this point that Jenson offered his first of two real criticisms of the Apostles’ Creed, arguing that it by itself is an inadequate witness to the Church’s faith. The first line of the Creed – the reference to God as ‘Maker of heaven and earth’ – recalls the ‘last vestige of the Old Testament’. His other reservation concerning the Creed is its basic omission of Jesus’ life. To paraphrase Jenson: ‘It wouldn’t have hurt the Church one bit to add a line or two about Jesus preaching the kingdom of God, and of his fellowship with publicans, etc’.

To Jenson’s surprise, the question time that followed elicited no discussion about the feminist objections to God’s proper naming as Father, Son and Spirit. (I’m not sure what this says about the audience). Instead, discussion followed two main trajectories:

(i) the relationship between Jenson’s notion of ‘living persons’ and its implications for the parousia. His response to this question was unsatisfying. He rightly noted that the apocalyptic scenarios Scripture presents ‘cannot be harmonised’ and that the parousia represents ‘the explosion of the fire of love, love which is perfect in itself’. He preferenced the scene from the Book of the Revelation (over those from say Thessalonians) where the redeemed worship the Father in the crucified Lamb. But he was decidedly unclear about the Son’s locus in the parousia, and of the form which believers might reasonably anticipate concerning Jesus, suggesting instead that the Son’s parousia happens, among other ways, in the liturgical action of the people of God.

(ii) the article in the Creed ‘born of the Virgin Mary’. On this Jenson suggested that this article refers primarily to the absence of the will of the flesh in Christ’s birth. He also reminded us that the Creed is the Church’s and not the individual’s. What the Church must confess always need not necessarily be what any particular individual believer feels they can confess at the time. This latter response seems to beg further justification. I wonder how the absence of Joseph’s biological contribution or action in Christ’s birth constitutes ‘the absence of the will of the flesh’ if Mary’s fleshly identity is involved in the birth of Christ. Does perhaps Scripture indicate a parallel eclipsing of the human will in the way Mary was ‘overshadowed’ by the Holy Spirit? Are, in fact, both the doctrine of the virgin conception and the overshadowing of Mary, simply, tentative, possibly clumsy, ways of affirming that in Jesus’ birth and whole life history, his origin in the will of the Father and the power of the Spirit overrides the generative processes of fallen humanity (whether they be biological or socio-cultural)?


Past Lectures:

1. Creed, Scripture, and Their Modern Alienation

2. The Tanakh as Christian Scripture

3. The New Testament and the Regula Fidei

Following Lectures:

5. The Creed as Critical Theory of Scripture

6. Genesis 1:1 and Luke 1:26-38


Notes by Bruce Hamill and Jason Goroncy

Journals out

New editions of The Heythrop Journal and New Blackfriars are now available (online), both including articles on the Virgin birth/conception, turning our gaze back to the sources in the inscripturated witness and its significance in the divine economy.

The Heythrop Journal (Volume 49, Issue 2, March 2008) includes the following articles:

In modern theology the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ, including the doctrine of his Virginal Conception, has been the subject of considerable scepticism. One line of criticism has been that the traditional doctrine of the Virgin Birth seems unnecessary to the Incarnation. In this essay I lay out one construal of the traditional argument for the doctrine and show that, although one can offer an account of the Incarnation without the Virgin Birth which, in other respects, is perfectly in accord with catholic Christianity, such a doctrine is still contrary to the plain teaching of Scripture and the Creeds on the question of the mode of the Incarnation. It might still be thought that the Incarnation was an ‘unfitting’ means of Incarnation. In a final section I draw upon Anselm’s arguments in defence of the Incarnation to show that this objection can also be overcome.

Also, New Blackfriars has announced the following articles in their latest edition:

In Jeffrey Archer’s The Gospel According to Judas, Judas dismisses the virginal conception of Jesus as no more than another example of ‘Greek myths that tell of gods in heaven who produce offspring following a union with women of this earth’. To attribute such a view to a first-century Jew like Judas seems strange, since the earliest evidence shows Jewish critics of the Christian movement rejecting the virginal conception as a case of illegitimacy. In any case such Greek myths do not provide plausible sources for the two Gospel accounts of the virginal conception. Yet such merely historical debate is insufficient. One should press on to illustrate the religious significance and theological importance of the virginal conception within the whole story of Jesus: for instance, the role of this conception in revealing the Trinity at work for human salvation.