Moltmann on Christ’s Birth by the Spirit

"Adoration of the Shepherds" by Gerard van Honthorst
“Adoration of the Shepherds” by Gerard van Honthorst
I shared here before some selections from The Way of Jesus Christ that demonstrate the way that Moltmann wrestled with the historical question of the virgin birth (in a way that is not all that dissimilar from Wolfhart Pannenberg’s treatment of this topic). He follows this up with an excellent theological discussion of Christ’s birth by the Spirit.

Here Moltmann points out that there are two streams of tradition in the church: 1) Jesus was born of the virgin Mary. 2) Behind the human motherhood of Mary is the “motherhood of the Holy Spirit”.

But what is the theological intention of these claims? And what must we say theologically about Christ’s birth by the Spirit today?

First of all, these nativity stories are trying to say that God is bound up with Jesus of Nazareth not fortuitously but essentially. From the very beginning, God is ‘the Father of Jesus Christ’. His fatherhood does not merely extend to Christ’s consciousness and his ministry. It embraces his whole person and his very existence. Consequently, the messiah Jesus is essentially God’s Son. He does not become so at some point in history, from a particular moment in his life. He is from the very beginning the messianic Son, and his beginning is to be found in his birth from the Holy Spirit. Not only his consciousness but his physical being too bears the imprint of his divine sonship. This distinguishes the incarnation from or out of the Spirit from the indwelling of the Spirit in human beings. Incarnation has no presuppositions. Inhabitation presupposes human existence. If incarnation is identified with inhabitation, christology is dissolved in anthropology.

For the theologians of the patristic church, Christ’s virgin birth was a sign, not so much of his divinity, as of his true humanity. It was gnostic theologians who, for the sake of Christ’s divinity, allowed him only to ‘appear’ in the body, without really being there: the eternal Logos merely clothed himself in human form, in order to spiritualize human beings. Against this, the orthodox theologians of the ancient church stressed the reality of the incarnation of the Son of God by way of the virgin birth from Mary, just as they inserted ‘the resurrection of the body’ into the Apostles’ creed; for ‘what is not assumed cannot be redeemed either’. Consequently the eternal Logos assumed full and whole humanity and ‘became flesh’ through the Holy Spirit.

If we wished to bring out this intention of the nativity story today, we should have to stress the non-virginal character of Christ’s birth, so as to ‘draw Christ as deep as possible into the flesh’, as Luther said. He was a human being like us, and the addition ‘without sin’ in the Epistle to the Hebrews (4.15) does not refer to sexual reproduction. We find this unbiblical identification for the first time in Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. In this context a different aspect should be stressed today: if the Son of God became wholly and entirely human, and if he assumed full humanity, then this does not merely take a  human personhood; it includes human nature as well. It does not embrace adult humanity alone; it comprehends humanity diachronically, in all its phases of development – that is, it includes the being of the child, the being of the foetus and the embryo. The whole of humanity in all its natural forms is assumed by God in order that it may be healed. So it is ‘human’ and ‘holy’ in all its natural forms, and is prenatally by no means merely ‘human material’, or just the preliminary stage to huamanity. That is why theologically the true and real birth of Christ has to be stressed. According to today’s understanding of things, talk of Christ’s ‘virgin birth’ through Mary dangerously narrows down his humanity, if the virgin birth is taken to mean that a supernatural-human process takes the place of a human-natural one.  ‘We [cannot] see any longer why Jesus as Son of God should come into the world in a different way from anyone else.’ [Pannenberg] If according to John 1.12 the point of comparison with the birth of the Son of God is to be found in the rebirth of believers from the Spirit into divine sonship and daughterhood, then, and then especially, we do not have to assume any supernatural intervention. We should rather view the whole process of the human begetting, conception and birth of Jesus Christ as the work of the Holy Spirit. Christ’s birth from the Spirit is a statement about Christ’s relationship to God, or God’s relationship to Christ. It does not have to be linked with a genealogical assertion.


If we take the birth of Christ from the Spirit seriously, then much that the church has ascribed to ‘the Virgin Mary’ is transposed to God the Holy Spirit himself, and Mary can once again be that which she was and is: the Jewish mother of Jesus. The Holy Spirit, not Mary, is the source of life, the mother of believers, the divine Wisdom and the indwelling of the divine essence in creation, from which the face of the earth will be renewed. Mary is a witness, and in the form of the myth of Christ’s origin she also embodies the indwelling of the life-giving Spirit. The so-called ‘feminine’ side of God, and the ‘motherly mystery’ of the Trinity, is to be sought for, not in Mary but in the Spirit. It is only after that, in a second stage, that it can be discovered in the story told about Mary. If the ‘virgin birth’ reflects the life-giving and engendering mystery of the Holy Spirit, then any possible mariology has to be part of pneumatology. If in the history of Christ Mary has this ministering function, a function that points away from herself, then and then especially she will arrive at her full significance in the history of the indwelling of the Holy Spirit. It is the Holy Spirit, not Mary herself, who is coworker with the messianic Son of God, and who together with him will redeem the world. The history of Christ is a trinitarian history of the reciprocal relationships and mutual workings of the Father, the Spirit and the Son. Wide sectors of the church’s later mariology must be viewed as pneumatology narrowed down to the church. If we stop talking about Christ’s virgin birth, and talk instead about his birth from the Spirit, we can then say: without the Holy Spirit there is no Mary, and without pneumatology there is no mariology which is sufficiently related to Christ.

The Way of Jesus Christ, 84-87

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *