The gospel record in Matthew and Luke makes it clear that the early church embraced the idea of Jesus’ miraculous conception in the womb of Mary. But one of the chief criticisms of the doctrine of the miraculous conception is that the rest of the New Testament is silent about it. If the doctrine was important to the early church, why didn’t the apostle address the issue?
The answer to this question should be self-evident. Why retread something that is spelled out so plainly? Luke leaves absolutely no room for a variety of interpretations. The apostles could not improve on his direct statement. Jesus was conceived of the Holy Spirit in the virgin womb of Mary and was born naturally to her thereafter.
What more is there to add to it?
The problem lies not with the gospel record or the apostles but with the extraneous interpretations made by many in the medieval church. The miraculous conception was expanded to the virgin birth and then to the immaculate conception of Mary herself. This was done to theologically explain Christ’s sinlessness.
Remember that the medieval church, what we call today the Catholic traditions (and to a lesser extent the Orthodox traditions), viewed sexuality as inherently sinful. Thus, it was simple to render Jesus naturally sinlessness by amplifying the necessity of the miraculous conception. To do that, he had to become an asexual creature. I will simplify the thousand years or so of logic and philosophy to a simple syllogism:
- Sin passes from Adam
- Adam is male
- To not have sin, therefore, you must not have a human father
Up to this point of the syllogism, I really have no problem with it. I think it is somewhat extraneous, but it makes good sense. But the medieval theologians kept going.
- But women sin too
- Jesus’ mother must not have sin either
- Therefore, Mary must have been conceived without sin as well
Using logic and philosophy rather than Scripture, the medieval church eradicated any human nature for Jesus and made him logically sinless as well as practically. Jesus could not sin because there was nothing human about him.
This necessity to rid Jesus of his human ancestry descends from an ancient heresy called gnosticism, which was itself descended from a philosophical school called neo-platonism. The main tenet of gnosticism is that all material things are sinful and all spiritual things are righteous. Although not fully gnostic, the medieval church adopted this position concerning sex – which is physical and material, and therefore evil.
The miraculous conception thus became much more than it was originally. The gospel writers did not include the virgin birth so they could evolve a theology. It was included because it was true, and that was enough for them. The apostles did not expand upon it because they did not see it as a theological point. It simply was the way God chose to give Jesus to the world.
No theology hung on the virgin birth, and that is a good position to take even today. The apostles accepted that Jesus was without sin, without having to explain it. We would be wise to do the same, accepting the Scriptures at face value and not reading into them.
We might be able to look back into the record and make theological observations after the fact, but we must be cautious not to overreach the apostles in this endeavor and see things they did not.