BORN OF A WOMAN
The Coherence of Preexistence and the Virgin Birth in Pauline Theology
For many, the doctrine of the virgin birth (VB) is a clear testimony found in the New Testament, but for others it is a conundrum—whether it is for scientific or doctrinal reasons. The theological issues continue when St. Paul’s affirmations of the preexistence (PE) of the Son of God arise in the New Testament. When many theologians view VB and PE side by side, both doctrines become remarkably difficult to embrace. This paper endeavors to explanation how the doctrine of PE and the VB are not at odds, but are rather coherent and compatible concepts within Pauline theology.
1. THE “PROBLEM” OF THE VB
The Nicene Creed manages to affirm both the PE of Jesus Christ and his VB. Although many scholars accept some form of PE in Paul’s writings, many are quick to point out that he does not affirm (or is silent about) the VB. Andrew T. Lincoln concedes St. Paul’s high Christology, “which includes the notion of the pre-existence of Christ,” but is quick to counter with “but a virginal conception plays no part in this and it is almost certain that he did not know of such a tradition.” Eminent theologian Wolfhart Pannenberg writes that the VB “stands in an irreconcilable contradiction to the Christology of the incarnation of the preexistent Son of God found in Paul and John.” Raymond Brown also mentions this tension. The belief is that the gospel ‘legends’ “Jesus first became God’s Son through Mary’s conception.” This is further compounded by Lincoln’s emphasis that the Pauline texts affirm Jesus’ humanity, not his VB. He writes, “all three passages [Gal. 4:4; Rom. 1:3; Phil. 2:7] simply assume Jesus’ full humanity in his birth and show no interest in the circumstances of the birth itself.” These are serious charges—coming as they do from serious Christians—and they help lay out the task before us: is the PE of the Son of God and the VB at odds with one another within the contours of Pauline theology?
2. ECHOES FROM THE GOSPELS
The Gospel of Matthew confirms that Joseph had not known Mary, as the phrase “but before they lived together” states (Matt. 1:18). This would imply that sexual activity would commence upon their living together, which is in the near future. Luke simply affirms her virginity and simultaneous engagements to Joseph (Luke 1:26-27). Pannenberg sees these accounts as presenting us with an adoptionistic Christology and seems to agree with Emil Brunner who should be quoted in full: “If it is true that Matthew and Luke are simply dealing with the question: how did the Person of the Redeemer come into existence? And not with the Incarnation of the eternal Son of God, this is a Christological view which the church cannot accept.” These objections are surely not benefitted by an either/or mentality. It is not immediately clear that Matthew and Luke are operating with adoptionistic tendencies, and it is also uncertain that one can completely bifurcate the ‘coming into existence’ and the ‘incarnation’ as two separate claims. Certainly Brunner is inconsistent in affirming the second point of the eternal Son (a phrase that nowhere occurs in the New Testament) while downplaying the ‘historical’ nature of the Gospel accounts, as both present themselves as history. He is indebted to history and simply seems to prefer one type to the other.
Pannenberg and Brunner’s welcomed concerns also face two additional objections: first, these accounts are chronologically post-Paul and Paul clearly affirmed the PE of the Son maybe 20 years before the completion of the Gospel of Mark. Thus, PE is an early theological concept and would rule out adoptionism as a major theological player in the arena. Whether or not Paul’s theology is compatible with the VB remains to be argued. Second, the accounts are of a different genre, intentionally so, and are working with a wider pool of historical accumulation. To dismiss these as ‘legendary’ is to ignore too much of Church history and to downplay the important witness of Paul’s material. It may even be possible that Matthew and Luke were aware of Paul’s writings and had data that fills in the gaps. Thus we have sufficient reasons to affirm the general historicity of the Gospel accounts. Now, we turn to the Apostle Paul.
3. PAUL AND THE ‘FORM’ OF THE VB
As already mentioned, Lincoln proposes three Pauline texts and rejects them as simply affirming the humanity of Christ. Although this is certainly not untrue, it overstates a key point of contention. The contention is this: Gal. 4:4 and Phil. 2:7 are far closer to an affirmation of the VB than they first appear. “But when the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman, born under the law.” Paul does not use the term for virgin, and uses the standard noun for a woman/wife (γυναικός). However, contextually, there is nothing to suggest that Paul did or did not have a VB in mind. Gal. 4:4 may include a nod to PE, as the phrase “fullness of time had come” indicates a prior interval before a birth where the Son existed.
It is also worthy to note that Paul does not mention any of the sexual impropriety of the Son’s birth in any form, whereas the Gospel accounts may include various elements of such things. For example, the inclusion of various women such as Bathsheba (Matt. 1:6) may indicate some form of sexual indecency. Lincoln notes that early sources attempt to attribute ‘legitimate’ means of the Son’s birth, such as Mary committing adultery with a Roman soldier named Panthera. This is significant because illustrates the fact that Paul didn’t view Jesus’ birth as sexually licentious. Other forms of ancient Judaism held that sin was transmitted through women, as Sirach 25:24 suggests that sin came into the world through Eve. It reads: “From a woman sin had its beginning, and because of her we all die.” 1 Esdras 4:27 suggests that men have become sexual slaves to women, or sinned because of women, thus implying (coarsely) that it was sinful women who were the downfall of men. Some strands of Judaism held that sin entered the world through Eve (or women in general), and this may give us some perspective on women in Judaism around the time of Paul These concepts are curiously absent in Paul, who specifies that sin came into the world through Adam, not Eve.
Rather, Paul’s conclusion of the Son’s birth is the affirmation of his full and sinless humanity; in this he can affirm that Jesus was one who did not know sin (2 Cor. 5:21). If Christ was without sin for his entire human life—as Paul and other New Testament writers maintain—then it may be held that the Son was without sin and Paul did not envision Mary as being in sin within his conception. The sinlessness of the Son means that he was not affected by the sinfulness of the human race. This belief may be compounded in speculating about the nature of “taking” enacted by the Son in Phil. 2:7, where he took the form of a slave by being born in human likeness. The fact that the Son was without sin in his entire earthly life and in his previous state in eternity may indicate that this was a state he willingly entered into, and the belief that he assumed non-sinful flesh, being born through a sinless woman. Either he was unaffected biologically by the transmission of sin, or Mary, being a virgin, did not pass this onto him. Therefore, the continuity between PE and VB seems to be assumed in Paul, even though he never explicitly mentions the latter or fulfills our systematic concerns. His coherence may aide us in a further perspective found in the Old Testament.
4. OLD TESTAMENT AND SACRIFICE
Paul states in Romans 3:25 that Christ was the ἱλαστήριον (variously translated ‘place of atonement’ or ‘mercy seat’) by his death. This is an explicit Old Testament echo referring to the mercy seat of the Ark of the Covenant (Ex. 25:17-22). For Paul the sinless nature of Christ is what is important. What makes this interesting is that a female animal could be offered as a sin offering in the Torah. Leviticus 4:27-35 specifies that a female animal may be offered as a guilt or sin offering, where “the priest shall make atonement on your behalf” (v31). The specificity of an unblemished female animal is remarkable, since this is a section dedicated not to rulers or kings but to lay people—a social status that suits Mary perfectly. In order for atonement to be made, the Holy Spirit required a woman who had no blemish. This would include chastity. Without her being pure within that specific cultural context, one wonders to what extent God, who knows no sin, could produce the human and sinless Messiah. It seems that the Holy Spirit, in order to produce a human nature free from sin, needed a woman who knew no sin or blemish. Thus, there may be—and I stress the tentative nature of my proposal here—some Old Testament reasons to consider the non-blemished feminine emphasis in relation to the Virgin Mary as the one who bore the eternal Son of God. A person (or animal as “type”) without blemish is not a foreign concept in Paul’s Scriptures and his view of the atonement.
While Paul’s writings nowhere explicitly state that he affirmed the VB, his broader theological and cultural context does seem coherent with a view of the ‘fittingness’ of the birth of the Son of God. The Son was without sin his entire human life. The VB is a key and clear bridge between the eternal Son and Jesus the Messiah. This may be confirmed for two reasons: first, his sinlessness from PE to his assumption of humanity requires a perfect gateway in order to maintain his sinlessness in order for atonement. The VB fulfills this as it explicitly rules out sexual impurity and affirms Mary’s high standing as Θεοτόκος. The Son was sent in the likeness of “sinful flesh” (Rom. 8:3), though he was not himself sinful. The ontological nature of the Creedal phrase “light from light, true God from true God” may be invoked in this way: we affirm that the sinless may beget the sinless, but the sinful cannot beget the sinless.
Second and finally, the VB seems to rule out adoptionism. Rom. 1:3-4, while a difficult Christological text, seems to emphasize the kingship of Jesus by the reference to the “seed” (σπέρματος) of King David and Christ’s human nature. The mention of King David is meant to affirm Christ’s role in salvation history as King and Messiah, not explain his ontological orientation. Rom. 5:14 speaks of Death as King, and a possibly Pauline extrapolation is on the theme of kingship, the Human One coming to destroy the destroyer of life. Joshua Jipp of Trinity Evangelical Divinity School points out that several church fathers, including Athanasius, used Romans 1:3-4 to affirm Christ’s true humanity. If Jipp and the Fathers are correct, then the VB is certainly coordinate with Rom. 1:3-4. Adoptionism is thus ruled out because Mary’s relationship to King David’s genealogy emphasizes Jesus’ birth of a specific line of Kings, not that God adopted the eternal Son. Thus, the gospel accounts are consistent with Paul. Coupled with this, the VB is consistent with the sacrifice of atonement and with the humanness of Christ expressed in Romans 1, as flesh without blemish is required under the Old Testament sacrificial system.
Because of the VB we can lay claim to the miraculous nature of Son’s incarnation, as it affirms a main Pauline theme of Christ’s sinlessness. A miraculous birth demands our attention and is no more a scandal than the idea of a PE person becoming flesh, or that the immortal would dare to become mortal, to dwell among us. The VB presents us with a truly unique historical event that defies easy categories.
I have attempted to bring together two variegated threads in Pauline theology, as well as several wider Pauline and Old Testament themes. The sinlessness of Christ is upheld as a central pillar in Paul’s thought, and when coupled with the nature of a spotless atonement yields some surprising fruit. The VB is, I argued, is necessary to maintain Pauline coherence and does no damage to Christian theology. We have seen that the dismissal of the Pauline witness as regards the doctrine of the VB is unwarranted, and that when one brings the threads together a beautiful tapestry begins to form. It is because of Paul’s witness that we can confess:
“I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. Under Pontius Pilate, He was crucified, died, and was buried. He descended to the dead. On the third day He rose again.”Amen.
 Andrew T. Lincoln, Born of a Virgin? Reconceiving Jesus in the Bible, Tradition, and Theology (Grand Rapids, MI: W.B. Eerdmans, 2013), 22.
 Wolfhart Pannenberg, Jesus—God and Man, 2nd ed. (Philadelphia, PA: The Westminster Press, 1977), 143.
 Raymond Brown, The Virginal Conception & Bodily Resurrection of Jesus (New York, New York: Paulist Press, 1973), 45.
 Pannenberg, 143.
 Lincoln, 21.
 Pannenberg, 149.
 Quoted in Pannenberg 149 n.84.
 One cannot be both the eternal divine Son and yet adopted. The two seem contradictory.
 Gordon D. Fee concurs and believes PE is assumed here. Pauline Christology (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2007), 211-220.
 Lincoln, 153-154. However, given the polemical nature of many critics of Christianity, it is likely that such criticism itself has a biased edge.
 As remarkably sexist as some of this material is, we find none of this in Paul’s letters—a remarkable reversal is even found in 1 Cor. 11:11-12.
 Rom. 5:12-21; 1 Cor. 15:20-28.
 The author of Hebrews asserts that Jesus was like us in every way—except as regards sin. Heb. 4:15.
 Λαβών (taking) is an active participle. This shows the self-actualization of the preexistent Son who took a form he previously did not have—namely, flesh.
 Nobuyoshi Kiuchi, Leviticus (Downers Groves, IL: IVP Academic, 2007), 97-99.
 C.f. Oliver D. Crisp, God Incarnate: Explorations in Christology (New York, NY: T&T Clark, 2009), 77-102.
 It may also be noted that other New Testament writers speak of Christ as sinless: Heb. 4:15.
 “[The] Death reigned…” (ἐβασίλευσεν ὁ θάνατος), with the definite article seems to suggest Death’s kingship over humanity. Christ, as King and Messiah, gives us the gift of righteousness, which now reigns “in life” through Him.
 Joshua W. Jipp, “Ancient, Modern, and Future Interpretations of Romans 1:3-4: Reception History and Biblical Interpretation.” Journal of Theological Interpretation 3.2 (2009): 252.