Our Lord's Incarnation and Virgin Birth
F. F. Bruce
‘What think ye of Christ?’ is the test
To try both your state and your scheme:
You cannot be right in the rest,
Unless you think rightly of Him.
John Newton was thinking primarily of a man or woman’s personal relationship to Christ when he wrote the verses which begin with these lines. But a right personal relationship to Christ and right thinking about Him, doctrinally speaking, cannot be dissociated from each other—as indeed Newton went on to point out.
The mystery of our Lord’s person filled His disciples with wonder. ‘What manner of man is this?’ they asked. And not until the Holy Spirit came to guide them into all the truth did they receive an adequate answer to their question. Even then the mystery was not removed; it remains as true today as it was when our Lord spoke the words ‘no man knoweth the Son, save the Father’, Matt. 11. 27. But the answer which they received to their question, under the Holy Spirit’s guidance, finds its ultimate expression in the opening words of John’s Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God … And the Word became flesh, and dwelt among us … No man hath seen God at any time; the only begotten Son, which is in the bosom of the Father, he hath declared him’, John 1. 1, 14, 18. In the light of this revelation, John and his fellow-disciples could look back with understanding on words and actions of their Lord which at the time they had utterly foiled to comprehend.
That our Lord Jesus Christ is the eternal Son of God, who became Man for our salvation, is the historic Christian faith going back to the apostolic witness itself. He is altogether God and altogether Man, His human nature is as perfect as His divine nature, and He unites Godhead and Manhood in one person. We cannot think of Him as a dual personality, and we should not yield to the temptation of saying that He did or said such-and-such as God, and did or said something else as Man. Such distinctions may seem to be effective in preaching, but they represent the thin end of a very dangerous wedge. Since His coming into the world, in all that He is as well as in all His actions and words, it is the God-Man, the Word become flesh, that we see, and seeing Him we see the Father.
When we speak of our Lord’s incarnation, we refer to the fact that He became Man—became Man without ceasing to be God. His Incarnation is a miracle, a unique miracle; nothing of the sort has ever happened before or since. It would not be surprising if something of its miraculous character were manifested in the means by which it took place. And the witness of the New Testament is that it did take place by miraculous means, for our Lord, as the ancient creed puts it, ‘was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary’.
We should indeed keep our Lord’s incarnation and His virgin birth distinct in our minds. His incarnation is the fact that He became Man; His virgin birth is the means by which He became Man. There are people who accept the incarnation but deny the virgin birth, just as there are others (Muslims, for example) who accept His virgin birth but deny the incarnation. God could, had He so willed, have adopted some other means for sending His Son into the world as Man. But the testimony of holy Scripture is that the virgin birth was the means which He adopted, and to accept the one while denying the other is to put asunder two things which God has joined together. And it may well be asked whether those who accept the incarnation while denying the virgin birth really believe in the same kind of incarnation as do those who accept both.
There is certainly a fitness in the virgin birth as the means of the incarnation. Our Lord came forth from God in a sense in which no one else ever did; does it not follow that He came forth from God in a way in which no one else ever did? (This way of putting it is not original; it comes from James Denney.) Besides, as we trace the Christian faith back to its foundations, we find the two doctrines—the fact of the incarnation and the virgin birth as the means of the incarnation—held side by side. The fact and the means alike are miraculous through and through. It is irrelevant, and indeed impossible, to give any explanation of the virgin birth in terms of biological parthenogenesis; it cannot be brought within the framework of any natural process. Here God is supremely at work, and the only human agency was that of the submissive maiden of Nazareth who said; ‘Behold, the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word’, Luke 1. 38.
But for those to whom the holy Scriptures are the ultimate authority, the virgin birth is amply attested as the means by which the eternal Word became flesh. Matthew and Luke both bear witness to it, and there is no alternative account in all the Scriptures. Matthew and Luke’s accounts of our Lord’s nativity are completely independent; there is no question of one having drawn upon the other. Indeed, so independent are they that well-known problems arise for those who try to dovetail the details of the two narratives together. All the more impressive, then, are those points on which the two agree. Of these points three demand special mention: a. our Lord was born in Bethlehem; b. He was born to Mary, who was betrothed to a member of the family of David named Joseph; c. He was conceived within her while she was yet a virgin, by the supernatural working of the Holy Spirit. Of these three points of agreement it is the third that constitutes the miracle.
The Scriptures testify to Christ. Apart from their testimony, our knowledge of Him would be infinitesimal, and our knowledge of the way of salvation through faith in Him would be non-existent. Moreover, their testimony concerning Him is one and self-consistent. The Christ to whom they bear witness as our Saviour and Lord is a supernatural Christ and yet an intensely human Christ, Son of God and Son of Man. None ever lived or died as He did; none ever rose from the dead as He did. The course of His life on earth was unique, the consummation of His life on earth was unique; it is but fitting that the beginning of His life on earth should have been unique. And unique it was, for the Christ to whom the Scriptures bear witness is the virgin-born Christ.
‘Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body, and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.’ - Westminster Shorter Catechism, Answer 22.