Look one direction on the Manger Square in Bethlehem and what you will see is the Church of the Holy Nativity (the picture on the right). Look the other direction, and what you will see is the Minaret of a Mosque (the picture on the left).
On our recent pilgrimage to the Holy Land, on the day we visited Bethlehem, just as soon as we had made our way to the shrine where tradition says that Jesus Christ was born, as we were walking back across the plaza toward our bus, a Muslim call to prayer began to loudly sound from the Minaret at the Mosque across the way. This is a frequent and familiar sound in Israel starting before sunrise and going throughout the day. At all of the appointed hours the Muslim faithful are called to prayer by the voice of a man chanting verses from the Qur’an. It is not unpleasant. But it is loud, some would even say “jarring.” There is no mistaking when it is time for a Muslim to pray! And that was our experience on the Manger Square that day.
We had just come out of the shrine of one of the two places that most Christians go to the Holy Land to see – Bethlehem and Jerusalem – when our warm devotional thoughts and feelings of spiritual connection to the Gospel story were abruptly interrupted by the voice of a Muslim loudly calling his community of faith to prayer, and I could see it on the faces of my Christian friends that they would have preferred for it to have been left with their thoughts without this intrusion. They were having a “moment,” and the Muslim call to prayer was not supposed to be a part of it. They were reflecting on the Virgin Mary and the birth of her baby boy Jesus in that place, and I could see their clear displeasure at having to share it with the Muslims. And so, when we got back to the bus I reminded my friends that both Mary and Jesus belong to Islam as well as Christianity, in fact, the longest chapter in the Qur’an is the chapter named “Mary,” and in it the Virgin Birth of Jesus is explicitly affirmed.
Mary is not only the most important woman in the Koran – more important than Hagar – but she receives a kind of attention as a human being that even the Prophet (Muhammed) doesn’t have. So much so, that when the early Christian opponents of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries wanted to attack Islam and got translations of the Koran into Greek, they were astonished and somewhat nonplussed because here were these “infidels” who spoke in such glowing terms about Mary! (Jaroslav Pelikan)
I’ve been told by both Christian and Muslim scholars that because Muslims take whatever the Qur’an teaches literally, that when measured by the percentages of the faithful in their respective traditions who take the Virgin Birth literally, that there are actually more Muslims who believe in the Virgin Birth than there are Christians, especially mainline Protestant Christians like us who have tended to take the Virgin Birth symbolically.
At the beginning of his book Risen Indeed: Making Sense of the Resurrection (Eerdmans 1993) the Christian philosopher Stephen T. Davis who teaches at Claremont McKenna College in California critiqued this widespread “symbolic” interpretation of the events that the New Testament reports as historical.
A surprising number of Christians scholars believe that the question – “What does the Resurrection mean or should it mean to us?” – is more important than – “Did the resurrection really happen?” …For myself, I would not know how to judge which of these two questions is more important. I am not even sure that such a judgment would mean anything that could be coherently expressed. But I am convinced that the resurrection means little unless it really happened. If the resurrection of Jesus turns out to have been a fraud or a pious myth or even somehow an honest mistake, then there is little reason to think about it or see any meaning in it. Perhaps it would provide some lessons about courageously facing death, but that would be about all. …I agree that the New testament authors were interested in proclaiming the resurrection faith (“What does the Resurrection mean or should it mean to us?” )… But I am quite sure that they were (also) deeply interested in convincing people that Jesus really rose from the dead. And I am not sure how you go about convincing people that “X” rose from the dead without having to talk about “what really happened to “X” after “X’s” death. (viii-ix)
What this means is the Stephen Davis and I are more closely aligned spiritually with our Muslim cousins than we are with many of our Christian brothers and sisters on the question of the factuality of the Virgin Birth.
Now, the criticism that I sometimes hear about the Muslim belief in the Virgin Birth is that it’s an “empty” miracle, a miracle just for the sake of the miraculous. In Islam, the Virgin Birth doesn’t seem to establish anything other than the fact that God can do things like this. The same criticism has been leveled at my belief in it as well, and my first response is to say that this isn’t “nothing.”
One of the watersheds in the church since the beginning of the 20th century has been the split between naturalists and super naturalists. In his essay of “The Meaning of the Ascension for Christian Scholars” in Perspectives (April 2007), Stephen Davis explained the split like this –
Let us first admit that many people probably do find it hard to believe that Jesus ascended into heaven in the way Luke-Acts records. Especially for people who are naturalists, that does present a difficulty. Let’s define naturalist as someone who holds:
(1) The only reality is the physical universe;
(2) Everything that occurs can in principle be explained by methods similar to those used in the natural sciences; and accordingly
(3) There are no non-natural events.
A naturalist, then, is somebody who denies supernaturalism. Let’s say that a super naturalist is someone who holds:
(1) Something else besides the physical universe exists, viz., God (who created it);
(2) Some events cannot be explained naturalistically; and
(3) Non-natural events (e.g., miracles brought about by God) sometimes occur.
Let us grant that given naturalism, the Ascension of Jesus– at least as described in the New Testament — is hard to accept. But if one is a super naturalist, and especially a Christian super naturalist, one will accept the claim that God miraculously raised Jesus from the dead, as well as the claim that the Bible is reliable. For such a person, the idea that God raised Jesus into the sky does not seem so difficult to believe. This is especially true since the event is so widely attested to in the New Testament and appears not only to fit with the basic Christian scheme of salvation but to be crucial to it.
The Virgin Birth has been a bone of contention in the naturalist/super naturalist debate for more than 100 years now because “it is a wonderful test of our worldview” (Dan Waugh) – http://godentranced.blogspot.com). One’s belief in the Virgin Birth became a shorthand way of quickly assessing whether or not you believed in miracles. As theologian Donald Macleod in The Person of Christ, puts it –
The Virgin Birth is posted on guard at the door of the mystery of Christmas; and none of us must think of hurrying past it. It stands on the threshold of the New Testament, blatantly supernatural, defying our rationalism, informing us that all that follows belongs to the same order as itself and that if we find it offensive there is no point in proceeding further. (37)
But, as a Christian, my affirmation of the Virgin Birth is more than this. It is more than just an affirmation of belief that something happened in Mary, to Mary a long, long time ago. Yes, I think that it happened just as the Gospels of Matthew and Luke report, but more importantly, I think it matters. There are three beliefs that are crucially important to my faith that follow rather closely upon my affirmation of the Virgin Birth –
- The Reliability of Scripture – “It is clearly taught in the Bible. …As theologian Karl Barth concluded: ‘No one can dispute the existence of a biblical testimony to the Virgin Birth.’ …The only way to get around the Virgin Birth is to argue that the New Testament authors intentionally misled their readers and/or …felt compelled to create the virgin story” (Dan Waugh). Either way, what gets sacrificed is the reliability of what the Bible reports as having actually happened.
- The true identity of Jesus Christ – “God, in His wisdom, ordained a combination of human and divine influence in the birth of Christ, so that his full humanity would be evident to us from the fact of his ordinary human birth from a human mother, and his full deity would be evident from the fact of his conception in Mary’s womb by the powerful work of the Holy Spirit.” (Wayne Grudem)
- The Nature of Salvation – “The Virgin Birth shows that humanity needs redeeming that it can’t bring about for itself. The fact that the human race couldn’t produce its own redeemer implies that its sin and guilt are profound and that its savior must come from outside” (David Mathis). It makes clear that “Salvation is from God,” and it instructs us in the “active passivity” of salvation by grace through faith and not by works (Ephesians 2:8-9).
And so, rather than being upset by the Muslim call to prayer that intruded on us outside the Church of the Holy Nativity in Bethlehem, I actually welcomed it. Just as an affirmation of the Virgin Birth erects something of a wall between those Christians who regard what the Bible reports as being factually true and who can wholeheartedly affirm what the church’s historic creeds teach as belonging to the core of Christianity, and those who cannot, so I have found that the affirmation of the Virgin Birth constructs a kind of bridge between the Christian community of faith and the Muslim community of faith. As Andrew Harvey observes: “Mary (and the Virgin Birth) could be the place where Islam and Christianity might meet… where the hearts of the two faiths could be united.” DBS+