Moltmann on the Historicity of the Virgin Birth

Over at the postbarthian, my friend Wyatt has shared the famous section from Jesus- God and Man where Pannenberg (like Emil Brunner before him) denied the historicity of the virgin birth, while at the same time affirming the substance of the apostles creed (if you don’t think that is possible, please check out his post!). When I was reflecting on this, it occurred to me that I didn’t have a clue where Moltmann stood on this controversial subject. That Pannenberg denies the virgin birth was one of the first things I remember learning about him (probably because it was a feature in his first, and possibly most well-known, book!). But I’ve read many Moltmann books to date and couldn’t remember this issue coming up at all. I knew where to turn:  Jürgen Moltmann’s full christology, The Way of Jesus Christ, which I have not yet read.

Not surprisingly, the historicity of the virgin birth does not have a big role to play in Moltmann’s christology. Introducing his section on Christ’s Birth in the Spirit, Moltmann explains it this way: “In this section we shall not talk about Jesus’ virgin birth, as dogmatic tradition has done. We shall talk about the birth of Jesus Christ from the Holy Spirit; for what we are dealing with here is not a question of gynaecology; it is a theme of Christian pneumetology.

He continues…

In the New Testament, Christ’s ‘virgin birth’ is related only by Luke and Matthew. It was unknown, or considered unimportant, in wide areas of early Christian belief (the Pauline and Johannine sectors, for example). But from the third century onwards it became a firm component of the Christian creeds and theological christologies. There is no special theological teaching about Mary in the New Testament, and no acknowledgment of her as ‘mother of the Christ’. But when the christological conflicts began, mariology started to expand and to take on ever more elaborate frosm in the ancient church. At no other point is the difference between the doctrine of the Orthodox and Roman Catholic Churches and that of the New Testament as great as in the veneration of Mary, theological mariology, and the marian dogmas. As this gap widened, the distance between the church’s theology and Christianity’s Jewish tradition grew with it. What does the Madonna and the Child Jesus in her arms – ‘the Goddess and her hero’ – have to do with the Jewish mother Miriam and her independent, self-willed son Jesus, who dissociated himself from her? Are the roots of the church’s veneration of Mary and its mariology to be sought, not in Jewish Bethlehem, but in Ephesus, with its Diana cult?
The third-century Roman baptismal creed runs: ‘…born of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary…’ In the Nicene creed the birth is linked with the incarnation…. ‘incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary’. In the Apostles Creed we read… ‘conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary’ Are these confessional statements in accordance with the New Testament witness? Can they be shown to be a theologically necessary component of christology? Does this credal formula still have anything to say to us today? Is what it says today the same as what it once said?
The virgin birth is not one of the pillars that sustains the New Testament faith in Christ. The confession of faith in Jesus, the Son of God, the Lord, is independent of the virign birth, and is not based on it. As we know, the faith of the New Testament has its foundation in the testimony to Christ’s resurrection. It is only in Luke and Matthew that any link is forged with the nativity story. Moreover, we find the confession of faith in Christ in Christian traditions which know nothing of the virgin birth, or do not mention it. This indisputable fact alone allows us to draw the theological conclusion that the virgin birth does not provide the justification for confessing Christ. If there is a link at all, then the matter is reversed: the mariology does not sustain the christology; the christology sustains the mariology. It is for Christ’s sake that his mother Mary is remembered and venerated….

In the literary sense, the stories about the announcement of the virgin birth are legends. They are deliberately told in such a way that no mention is made of either witnesses or historical traditions. We are not told from whom the narrator heard the story. Neither Joseph nor Mary is named guarantor. This distinguishes these stories so sharply from the testimonies of the men and women who witnessed the Easter apperances of the risen Christ, that it is impossible to talk about comparable miracles at the beginning of Christ’s life-history and at its end. But it will be permissible for us to assume that the nativity stories are secondary, retroactive projections of the experiences of the Easter witnesses with the risen Christ who is present in the Spirit; for they transfer to the pre-natal beginnings of Christ precisely that which has become manifest in the risen One who is present in the Spirit. In this way the narrators follow the logic that future and origin must correspond. If Christ has ascended into heaven, then he must have come down from heaven; and if he is present in the Spirit of God, who is the giver of life (I Cor. 15.45), then he must have come into life from this divine Spirit.
Because these narrators make no distinction between history and legend in the modern sense, but intend to relate a ‘gospel’, no objection can be made to the modern designation ‘legend’ for the stories about Christ’s nativity. At that time the inherent truth of the nativity stories had to be expressed in the form of aetiological myth. The truth is to be found precisely in this mythical story about Christ’s origin, not in the biological facts. It is therefore factually inappropriate to call the virgin birth historical, let alone ‘biological’; and the modern positivist characterizations of this kind do anything but preserve the intention and truth of the story. In actual fact they destroy it. The narrators’ aim is not to report a gynecological miracle. Their aim is to confess Jesus as the messianic Son of God and to point at the very beginning of his life to the divine origin of his person.
The Way of Jesus Christ, p. 79-82




3 thoughts on “Moltmann on the Historicity of the Virgin Birth”

  1. No one today should believe that virgins magically have babies, that humans walk on water, or that dead men walk out of their graves to eat broiled fish sandwiches with their former fishing buddies. The whole Christian story is superstitious nonsense.

    If there is a Creator, he/she/it gave us a brain. Let’s use it! Trust in reason and science, not in the tall tales of ancient, middle-eastern holy books.

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