In what sense is the Virgin Birth referring to reality?
‘The dignity of Mary as theotokos remains unaffected by historical investigations of the infancy stories and their findings, and especially by the thesis that the accounts in Luke and Matthew are legendary ... Even though rumors circulated by opponents regarding the strange circumstances of the origin and birth of Jesus might have played a part in the development of the story, the relevant findings do not permit us to insist on the historical facticity of the virginity of Mary after the conception and birth of Jesus, at least in a medical sense. If we try to make this the real theme of the story of the birth of Jesus (cf. Isa. 7:14 LXX), we are false to the purpose of the narrative. Gynecology is not the issue, but Christian pneumatology. If the story as a whole is legendary, we have to interpret the details in terms of the christological aim and not as facts isolated from the context or from the general interpretative frame. The case is different if historical facticity is at issue, as in the case of the statements about the resurrection in 1 Cor. 15:3ff.’
(Pannenberg, W., Systematic theology Vol. II, [Eerdmans, Grand Rapids, 1994], p. 318)
How do you respond to this line of reasoning?
I’m going to be honest with you; no ‘I’m a sophisticated theologian’ mask today. My default setting is simply this: ‘true’ must equal ‘absolutely historical’. I can’t help it, and a part of me doesn’t want to apologise. Perhaps it’s the remnants of a modernist upbringing, or my early association with a Fundamentalist expression of faith, casting its shadow over my automatic and internal hermeneutical procedure.
And yet another part of me is embarrased by such simplistic thinking, namely, the ‘foaming mouthed anything goes liberal’ part of me. This section of my brain had to read the passage above a few times to understand what was being said, but I get it now. The truth of the story is in its purpose, limited to its genre of expression, found in the symbolism, and says something about the identity of Christ as the Son of God without answering questions of gynaecology. And this makes a good deal of sense.
But the conservative in me reacts: ‘To bring into question the facticity of the virgin birth (here, its gynaecological aspect) calls its theological message into question (the pneumatological and christological), for the one is based on the other, and the result is to make the theological message a lie.
The funny thing is, I’m more than happy to do this with the creation narratives, but a part of me feels, with the virgin birth, that we are treading on sacred ground, and so I want to just take off my shoes and worship. At least, this is how the contemplative in me responds.
I know I’m probably far too theologically ‘unsophisticated’, but when I read a text like the one above, a struggle for power takes place inside.
What do you think? Is the historical facticity of the virgin birth essential to its ‘truth’, or merely a genre-bound contingent carrier of theological truth? Or have I formulated this question wrongly? Perhaps, my broad question is ‘In what sense is the Virgin Birth referring to reality?’