Does It Matter that Jesus Christ Was Born of a Virgin?

In the Nicene Creed, one of the few documents adhered to by Roman Catholicism, Eastern Orthodoxy, and Protestantism alike, we find this statement: “We believe…in one Lord Jesus Christ…who…was incarnate by the Holy Spirit of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”  Likewise, the Apostles’ Creed, also accepted by the same three major branches of the Church of Jesus Christ, affirms, “I believe…in Jesus Christ (God’s) only Son our Lord; who was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.”  In this, the Creeds affirm only what is explicitly stated in the first chapter of both the Gospel According to Matthew and the Gospel According to Luke, namely, that Mary, the betrothed wife of Joseph, a poor carpenter of Nazareth in Galilee, when she conceived the Lord Jesus Christ in her womb, was a virgin, and the conception was nothing short of a miracle.  Luke tells us that,

In the sixth month (of Zechariah’s wife Elizabeth’s pregnancy with John the Baptist) the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin (Gk. παρθένος) betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”

And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin (lit., since I do not know a man)?”

And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.  And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren.  For nothing will be impossible with God.”  And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.”  And the angel departed from her. —Luke 1.26-38

Very shortly after Gabriel’s appearance and announcement to Mary, she left her home in Nazareth to visit her kinswoman (likely an aunt or older cousin) Elizabeth, who was six months pregnant with John the Baptist (Lk. 1.5-26,36), and stayed with her for three months.  As Elizabeth’s due date approached, Mary returned home (Lk. 1.39-56), and by this time it was quite likely that her own pregnancy was showing.  Joseph, her betrothed husband noticed this, and he knew that he was not the father of her child, from which fact he deduced that she had been unfaithful to him.  She might have told him about Gabriel’s appearance and announcement, but her testimony could not be corroborated if she had, and Joseph could not have been ignorant about how babies are conceived.  Then as the Apostle Matthew wrote,

Now the birth of Jesus Christ took place in this way.  When his mother Mary had been betrothed to Joseph, before they came together she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit.  And her husband Joseph, being a just man and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.  But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.  She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.”  All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet:

“Behold, the virgin (Gk. παρθένος) shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel” (quoted from Is. 7.14)

(which means, God with us.)  When Joseph woke from sleep, he did as the angel of the Lord commanded him: he took his wife, but knew her not until she had given birth to a son.  And he called his name Jesus. —Matthew 1.18-25

Under the Old Testament Law, a woman was required to remain a virgin until she was married (this is still an expectation of Christian women, as fornication, or sexual intercourse outside monogamous heterosexual marriage, is still classified as a sin against God).  If an Israelite man were to marry a woman, and if he “did not find in her evidence of virginity” (e.g., blood does not spill when the hymen is broken), and her parents were unable to produce “the evidence of her virginity” (i.e., the soiled bedsheets from her wedding night) before “the elders of the city in the gate”, then she was to be stoned to death, “because she has done an outrageous thing in Israel by whoring in her father’s house.” (Dt. 22.13-21)

Had he pressed his rights, Mary would have been stoned to death.  But “Joseph, being a just man (not to mention gracious and compassionate) and unwilling to put her to shame, resolved to divorce her quietly.”  Had he gone through with this, Mary’s life and that of her child would have been hard, and no just and upright man would have her as wife, but the two of them would still live.  But another angel (or possibly Gabriel once more; Matthew does not identify the angel by name) appeared to him in a dream and confirmed that Mary had not been unfaithful to him, that the child in her womb had been miraculously conceived and would somehow “save his people from their sins,” and asked him to continue with the betrothal and marry her.

This would have been a burden on Joseph, as marrying a pregnant woman tacitly meant that he was accepting the responsibility of fathering her child, for presumably no angel appeared to anyone else in Nazareth to clarify that the Lord Jesus had been conceived miraculously, without his earthly parents having had sexual intercourse.  It meant that he would be accepting the public shame for having treated a daughter of Israel dishonorably, and this would have had social repercussions, likely including the loss of business in his carpentry trade.  Nevertheless, Joseph did wed Mary, and they abstained from sexual intercourse until after Jesus was born.1

Isaiah’s Prophecy of the Virgin Birth

But why, then, was it necessary for the Lord Jesus to be born of a virgin?  Two complementary answers can be found in Scripture, the first of which is: To fulfill Old Testament prophecy.  In Matthew 1.23, the Apostle explicitly states, “All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had spoken by the prophet,” and then he quoted Isaiah 7.14, which states, “Therefore, the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.”

One of the most common objections to Matthew’s use of Isaiah 7.14 is that the Hebrew word commonly translated “virgin” in this passage is almah, which means “young woman”, rather than bethulah, the more common Hebrew word for “virgin”, for almah can be used also to refer to a young mother and does not specifically denote virginity.

For reference, the word almah appears seven times in the Old Testament.  The first of these appears in Genesis 24, where Abraham is sending his oldest servant to the city of Nahor in Mesopotamia, from which Abraham had emigrated with his father and nephew many years before (Gen. 11.31), in order to seek a bride for his son Isaac among his kindred.  In v. 14, the servant prays to the Lord, saying, “Let the young woman (Heb. naarah; also in vv. 16,28,55,57,61) to whom I shall say, ‘Please let down your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’—let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.  By this I shall know that you have shown steadfast love to my master.”  Then Rebekah, who would become Isaac’s wife at the end of the chapter, came out and replied exactly as the servant had asked the Lord that she should reply.  In vv. 42-44, where he was relating this to her father and brother, he said, “I came today to the spring and said, ‘O LORD, the God of my master Abraham, if now you are prospering the way that I go, behold, I am standing by the spring of water.  Let the virgin (Heb. almah) who comes out to draw water, to whom I shall say, ‘Please give me a little water from your jar to drink,’” etc.  Given Middle Eastern cultural standards, especially of prominent men like Abraham, the servant would certainly not be seeking a wife for his master’s son who was not a virgin.  And in any case, Scripture confirms that Rebekah was a virgin, saying, “The young woman (Heb. naarah) was very attractive in appearance, a maiden (Heb. bethulah) whom no man had known.” (v. 16)

The second appearance of the word almah occurs in Exodus 2.1-10, where Moses’ mother set him in an ark of bulrushes in the Nile River, from which Pharaoh’s daughter drew him out.  Moses’ sister Miriam then went up to Pharaoh’s daughter and asked if she should summon a Hebrew woman to serve as a wetnurse for Moses.  “And Pharaoh’s daughter said to her, ‘Go.’  So the girl (i.e., Miriam; Heb. almah) went and called the child’s mother.” (v. 8)  Given that Moses at the time was a three-month-old infant, and that their brother Aaron was only three years older than he (Ex. 7.7), Miriam was, in all likelihood, somewhere between five and ten years old and was hardly expected to be anything but a virgin.

The word almah next appears in Psalm 68, in which David is singing of God routing His enemies.  About two-thirds of the way through, David writes,

Your (victory) procession is seen, O God,
the procession of my God, my King, into the sanctuary—
the singers in front, the musicians last,
between them virgins (Heb. almah) playing tambourines. (vv. 24-25)

There are only three examples of women playing tambourines in celebrations like this in the Old Testament.  The first was in Exodus 15.20-21, where Miriam led the women of Israel in playing tambourines, singing, and dancing, after the Lord had destroyed Pharaoh’s army in the midst of the sea.  Miriam by this time was in her late eighties and was no longer a virgin (unless she had never married; Scripture does not indicate one way or the other), and the Hebrew word used here for “women”, nashim, is commonly used in the Old Testament of women generally and is not restricted to virgins or even to young women.  The second was in Judges 11.34-40, when Jephthah’s only daughter came out of his house upon his return, after the Lord had given him victory over the Ammonites, after he had made his horrific vow to offer up whomever or whatever came out of his door upon his return: “Then Jephthah came home at Mizpah.  And behold, his daughter came out to meet him with tambourines and with dances.  She was his only child; beside her he had neither son nor daughter.” (v. 34)  And after he had grieved his vow and told her what he had promised to the Lord, she agreed that he had to follow through on it, asking only for two months to spend with her companions and bewail her virginity (Heb. bethulim).  In the third, women (Heb. nashim) were recounted singing, dancing, and playing the tambourine (I Sam. 18.6-7).  Elsewhere, prophets are mentioned playing the tambourine (along with other musical instruments; I Sam. 10.5), but most often when tambourines are mentioned in the Old Testament, no mention is made of who is playing them.  Thus, there is no cultural reason that almah in Psalm 68.25 must be restricted to unmarried women (i.e., virgins).

The fourth instance in which the word almah occurs is in the words of Agur in Proverbs 30, in which he writes, “Three things are too wonderful for me; four I do not understand: the way of an eagle in the sky, the way of a serpent on a rock, the way of a ship on the high seas, and the way of a man with a virgin (Heb. almah).” (vv. 18-19)  Although in this context, almah could certainly mean “young woman”, it has greater meaning if “virgin” is intended.

The fifth and sixth occurrences are found in the Song of Solomon.  In Song 1.2-3, the Bride says, “For your love is better than wine; your anointing oils are fragrant; your name is oil poured out; therefore, virgins (Heb. almah) love you.”  Likewise, the Beloved says in Song 6.8 after having praised the Bride’s beauty, “There are sixty queens and eighty concubines, and virgins (Heb. almah) without number.”  It would be highly improper, even in the erotic Song of Solomon, for the almah to include young married women among those who would aspire to be loved by (and thus wedded to) the Bride’s Beloved or whom the Beloved might consider adding to his harem.  Thus, in both of these passages, almah must mean “virgin”.

In Isaiah 7, the Lord through the prophet is assuring the wicked King Ahaz of Judah that the Lord will not permit the allied kings of Israel and Syria to conquer Jerusalem, although they were besieging it.  Indeed, He promised, “Within sixty-five years Ephraim (i.e., the northern kingdom of Israel) will be broken to pieces so that it will no longer be a people.” (v. 8)  Then Isaiah invited Ahaz to ask the Lord for a sign that He would accomplish what He promised, but Ahaz refused, saying, “I will not ask, and I will not put the LORD to the test.”  Then Isaiah replied,

Hear then, O house of David!  Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also?  Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign.  Behold, the virgin (Heb. almah) shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.  He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good.  For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted.  The LORD will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father’s house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria. (vv. 10-17)

At the Lord’s instruction, Isaiah had brought his young son Shear-jashub (whose name means, “a remnant shall return”) with him when he came to Ahaz, as a physical illustration of the prophecy.  To be sure, Shear-jashub was not the fulfillment of his father’s prophecy, for neither was he born of a virgin, nor was he God manifested in the flesh—Immanuel, God with us.  But he was a sign that pointed to that future reality that had to wait more than seven hundred years for its fulfillment.

The Immanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7.14 was a promise of deliverance from the Lord.  Temporally, the Lord fulfilled the prophecy in delivering Jerusalem from the besieging Israelite and Syrian armies.  But ultimately He fulfilled the prophecy in delivering His people from sin and death in the sacrificial death of Immanuel, the Lord Jesus Christ, who was born of a virgin, just as Isaiah had foretold.

Now some still charge Matthew with mistranslating almah as παρθένος, in order to find an Old Testament passage to corroborate his teaching that the mother of Jesus was a virgin.  However, Matthew did not translate this passage at all.  To be sure, the Church Father Papias claimed, “Matthew put together the oracles (of the Lord) in the Hebrew language, and each one interpreted them as best he could.”2  English New Testament scholar John W. Wenham similarly opined, “My own undogmatic view is that Matthew was written in Hebrew or Aramaic, between A.D. 33 and 42; Mark in about 44, followed shortly thereafter by a Greek translation of Matthew.”3  However, no texts of Matthew’s Gospel written in Hebrew or Aramaic have been found, and other New Testament scholars have noted that Matthew does not read like a translation from these languages.  Regardless of how he might have written the Gospel account bearing his name, he did not translate Isaiah 7.14 out of the original Hebrew.  The text of Matthew 1.23 in the United Bible Societies Greek New Testament matches the text in Isaiah 7.14 in the Greek Septuagint (LXX) word-for-word, and the Septuagint was translated from the Hebrew Scriptures by seventy Jewish scholars (according to tradition; hence its name) at Alexandria, Egypt, during the reign of Ptolemy Philadelphus (285-247 BC), thus predating Christ’s birth by more than two hundred years.

Jesus Christ Had No Human Sire

It might seem overly obvious, but its profundity is not always understood: Jesus of Nazareth had no human sire; no man’s Y-chromosome was part of His physical makeup.

In the context of His excoriating criticism of the Pharisees in Matthew 23, He commanded, “And call no man your father on earth, for you have one Father, who is in heaven.” (v. 9)  Now in this, He was criticizing them for accepting the usage of pretentious titles, not forbidding anyone from addressing their earthly fathers by that title.  But at the same time, it is profoundly true in His case that He does have only one Father, who is in heaven.  Accordingly, we nowhere see Him in Scripture addressing or even referring to Joseph as His father.  To be sure, the Gospel writers refer to Him as Joseph’s son, but only to connect Him with His descent from David, and even then they do so only with qualification.  Matthew writes, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called Christ” (Mt. 1.16), rather than, “And Jacob the father of Joseph the father of Jesus, who is called Christ.”  Likewise, Luke writes, “Jesus, when he began his ministry, was about thirty years of age, being the son (as was supposed) of Joseph, the son of Heli.” (Lk. 3.23; emphasis added)  The men and women of Nazareth thought Him to be Joseph’s son (Mt. 13.55, Lk. 4.22), but they either were not aware of His virgin birth or did not believe it if they were.  And what is most striking is that when Mary said upon finding Him sitting in the Temple after He had been missing for several days, “Son, why have you treated us so?  Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress,”4 He answered, “Why were you looking for me?  Did you not know that I must be in my Father’s house (or about my Father’s business)?” (Lk. 2.48-49)  To be sure, Joseph functioned as Jesus’ father as He was growing up, but he was not actually His father.

In ancient mythologies, there were copious examples of gods coming to Earth in various forms and impregnating women.  But this was certainly not the case with the conception of the Lord Jesus.  As Gabriel told Mary, after she had asked how it could be that she could conceive a son when she was a virgin, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God.” (Lk. 2.35)  Again, “When Christ came into the world, he said, ‘Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body have you prepared for me.’” (Heb. 10.5; quoted from Ps. 40.6 LXX)  This body was created supernaturally by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, in the same manner in which the body of Adam was created supernaturally from the dust of the earth and the body of Eve was created supernaturally from the rib of Adam (Gen. 2.7,21-22).  And in this supernaturally created body, the Word that was with God in the beginning and was Himself God, the eternal Son of God, was made flesh (Jn. 1.14).  “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.” (Phil. 2.6-7)

Now as it is written, “For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead.  For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” (I Cor. 15.21-22)  And again, “Just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned. … For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners, so by the one man’s obedience the many will be made righteous.” (Rom. 5.12,19)  Yet despite the fact that all we who are born in Adam sin and therefore die, that we all were conceived in sin and born in iniquity (Ps. 51.5), Jesus Christ alone, out of all humanity, was born without sin (Heb. 4.15, I Pet. 2.22, I Jn. 3.5).  He was “born of woman” (Gal. 4.4), the fulfillment of the prophecy of the Seed of the woman who would crush the head of the Serpent (Gen. 3.15, Heb. 2.14), but He was begotten by no man.  Now both Adam and Eve disobeyed God’s prohibition of eating the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil (Gen. 3.6).  Yet it was Adam’s sin alone that was imputed to his posterity, for Scripture does not say, “As in Eve all die,” nor yet even, “By Adam’s and Eve’s disobedience the many were made sinners,” but, “As in Adam all die,” and, “By the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners.”  Thus, by being born of woman, He shares in Adam’s nature, but because He was begotten by no man, He does not share in Adam’s Original Sin.

Furthermore, Jesus Christ was conceived before Joseph and Mary had been married.  Thus, at the time He was conceived, had Mary engaged in sexual intercourse with a man, she would have been defiled by sexual immorality and adultery, regardless of whether she had been a willing participant or not.  In Genesis 34, we read how a prince of the Hivites either seduced or raped Dinah, the only daughter of the Patriarch Jacob named in Scripture, and afterward, “Jacob heard that (this prince) had defiled (Heb. tame) his daughter Dinah.” (v. 5; also vv. 13,27).  Similarly, the Prophet Ezekiel referred to the commission of the sin of adultery as a man “defiling (Heb. tame) his neighbor’s wife” (Ezek. 18.6,11,15, 22.11, 33.26).  The Angel Gabriel said that the Lord Jesus “will be called holy—the Son of God” (Lk. 1.35); but it would have been far less than holy—not to mention radically out of God’s character—had He been born of a defiled woman, to have been “born of sexual immorality” (as the scribes and Pharisees may have insinuated when they said this in Jn. 8.41).  Thus, to deny that the Lord Jesus Christ was born of a virgin, as the Scriptures teach, is tantamount to blaspheming the character of God.

Consequently, because He was born of a virgin, the Lord Jesus alone was suited to become “the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world” (Jn. 1.29).  For the lambs used in the Old Testament sacrifice were required to be “a male without blemish” (Ex. 12.5, Lev. 1.10, 22.19-25).  “But it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats (or lambs, for that matter) to take away sins” (Heb. 10.4), for they do not share in our human nature.  Only man ought to die to pay the penalty for his sin, but no one begotten by man can pay the penalty for man’s sin, because not one of them is “without blemish,” that is, without sin.  So then, Christ alone, because He was born of woman but begotten by God (Jn. 3.16) and not man, and thus sharing our nature but not our sin, is eminently suited to be the sacrifice that bears the wrath of God poured out in just penalty for the sin of the entire human race.  “Thus it is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living being’ (quoted from Gen. 2.7); the last Adam became a life-giving spirit.  But it is not the spiritual that is first but the natural, and then the spiritual.  The first man was from the earth, a man of dust; the second man is from heaven.” (I Cor. 15.45-47)

Controversy over the Virgin Birth in Early 20th Century American Presbyterianism

In the 1920s, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth figured somewhat prominently in the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (PCUSA).  The Theological Liberalism that had come to dominate the Protestant Church in Europe in the Nineteenth Century came to American shores in the decades following the Civil War, and its influence was soon being felt at the seminaries of the Mainline Protestant denominations.  In 1876, the PCUSA’s Union Theological Seminary in New York called as its Chair of Hebrew and Cognate Languages a young Presbyterian pastor named Charles Augustus Briggs.  Briggs, who had been educated at the University of Virginia, Union, and the University of Berlin, quickly became controversial for championing the Literary/Historical Critical Method.  Upon his appointment to the Edward Robinson Chair of Biblical Theology at Union on January 20, 1891, he delivered an inaugural address in which he declared, “We find there are errors of transmission.  There is nothing divine in the text—in its letters, words, or clauses. … I shall venture to affirm that, so far as I can see, there are errors in the Scriptures that no one has been able to explain away; and the theory that they were not in the original text is sheer assumption, upon which no mind can rest with certainty.”5  Then he proceeded to belligerently deny Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch, that Isaiah wrote all of the book attributed to him, and that Biblical prophecy was a genuine prediction of the future.  Subsequently, he was brought up on charges of heresy before the PCUSA General Assembly that year, which vetoed Union’s appointment of him to the Biblical Theology Chair.6  The following year, the General Assembly, meeting in Portland, Oregon, issued what has become known as the Portland Deliverance of 1892, which stated,

The General Assembly would remind all under its care that it is a fundamental doctrine that the Old and New Testaments are the inspired and infallible Word of God.  Our Church holds that the inspired Word, as it came from God, is without error.  The assertion of the contrary cannot but shake the confidence of the people in the sacred Books.  All who enter office in our Church solemnly profess to receive them as the only infallible rule of faith and practice.  If they change their belief on this point, Christian honor demands that they should withdraw from our ministry.  They have no right to use the pulpit or the chair of the professor for the dissemination of their errors until they are dealt with by the slow process of discipline.  But if any do so act, their Presbyteries should speedily interpose, and deal with them for violation of ordination vows.7

In October the same year, Union rescinded the General Assembly’s right to veto its faculty appointments, although it professed continued fidelity to the PCUSA.  Then in 1893, Briggs was brought before the General Assembly again, which overwhelmingly voted to suspend him from the ministry “for propagating ‘views, doctrines, and teachings’ contrary to the doctrine of Holy Scripture and standards of the church and in violation of his ordination vows.”8  Union subsequently disaffiliated from the PCUSA, although it still continued supplying graduates to fill Presbyterian pulpits.9

Despite the resolution of the Briggs heresy trial and the withdrawal of Union Theological Seminary, Theological Liberalism continued to plague the PCUSA, and the trouble only grew worse.  Soon, not only were the reliability and authority of the Bible being openly criticized, but many primary doctrines as well, including the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Although Briggs believed the Biblical accounts of the Virgin Birth,10 some of his students did not.  In 1910, a case came before the General Assembly in which three graduates of Union Seminary had been ordained to the ministry, despite having refused to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.  Because the PCUSA Book of Order allowed candidates to state scruples (or take exception) to the Westminster Standards, and because New York Presbytery accepted the men’s scruples against being required to affirm the Virgin Birth (as stated in the Westminster Shorter Catechism Q. 22), the Assembly dismissed the complaint and drafted and approved a Doctrinal Deliverance consisting of the following five articles, with which all candidates for the ministry would henceforth be required to affirm:

1. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of the Holy Scriptures as to keep them from error.  Our Confession says (Chapter I, Section 10): “The Supreme Judge, by whom all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men, and private spirits, are to be examined, and in whose sentence we are to rest, can be no other but the Holy Spirit speaking in the Scriptures.”

2. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that our Lord Jesus Christ was born of the Virgin Mary.  The Shorter Catechism states, Question 22: “Christ, the Son of God, became man, by taking to Himself a true body and a reasonable soul, being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, and born of her, yet without sin.”

3. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, that Christ offered up “himself a sacrifice to satisfy divine justice, and to reconcile us to God.”  The Scripture saith Christ “once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened in the Spirit.”  (Cf. the Westminster Shorter Catechism, Q. 25)

4. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards, concerning our Lord Jesus, that “on the third day he arose from the dead, with the same body in which he suffered; with which also he ascended into heaven, and there sitteth at the right hand of his Father, making intercession.” (Cf. the Westminster Confession of Faith, Chapter VIII, Section 4)

5. It is an essential doctrine of the Word of God as the supreme Standard of our faith, that the Lord Jesus showed his power and love by working mighty miracles.  This working was not contrary to nature, but superior to it.  “Jesus went about all the cities and villages, teaching in their synagogues, and preaching the gospel of the kingdom, and healing every sickness and every disease among the people” (Matthew 9:35).  These great wonders were signs of the divine power of our Lord, making changes in the order of nature.  They were equally examples, to his Church, of charity and good-will toward all mankind.

These five articles of faith are essential and necessary.  Others are equally so…

Resolved, That, reaffirming the advice of the Adopting Act of 1729, all the Presbyteries within our bounds shall always take care not to admit any candidate for the ministry into the exercise of the sacred function, unless he declares his agreement in opinion with all the essential and necessary articles of the Confession.11

The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 was reaffirmed by the General Assembly in 1916.12  Then on May 21, 1922, Theologically Liberal Baptist Harry Emerson Fosdick preached his most famous sermon, “Shall the Fundamentalists Win?”, in the pulpit of New York’s First Presbyterian Church, during his candidacy to become the church’s next senior pastor, in which he criticized the PCUSA for “shutting the doors of Christian fellowship” against those who held a different “point of view” of the doctrines enumerated in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Regarding the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, in his sermon

Fosdick allowed that many devout Christians believed that the virgin birth was an historical event, that “it actually happened; there was no other way for a personality like the Master to come into the world except by a special biological miracle.”  But, he argued, many others within the evangelical churches accepted another point of view.  These Christians held that “those first disciples adored Jesus—as we do; when they thought about his coming they were sure that he came specially from God—as we are; this adoration and conviction they associated with God’s special influence and intention in His birth—as we do; but they phrased it in terms of a biological miracle that our modern minds cannot use.”

He addressed the rest of the doctrines in the Deliverance similarly.13  Fosdick’s sermon set off a firestorm of controversy in the PCUSA.  Naturally, a complaint on the subject came before the General Assembly the next year.  Although many commissioners (including all but one of those serving on the Bills and Overtures Committee that first argued the case) wanted to take no action, since New York Presbytery was already investigating the complaint, the 1923 Assembly voted by 55% to reaffirm the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910 and “to take such action…as will require the preaching and teaching of the First Presbyterian Church of New York City to conform to the system of doctrines taught in the Confession of Faith.”14

Following the decision of the 1923 General Assembly, a committee of eleven Theological Liberals in the PCUSA drafted their own declaration, entitled, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America, more popularly known as The Auburn Affirmation,15 written in six articles, which took special aim at the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  The first article of the Affirmation attacked the first article of the Deliverance, denying the Doctrine of the Inerrancy of Scripture:

There is no assertion in the Scriptures that their writers were kept “from error.”  The Confession of Faith does not make this assertion; and it is significant that this assertion is not to be found in the Apostles’ Creed or the Nicene Creed or in any of the great Reformation confessions.  The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.  We hold that the General Assembly of 1923, in asserting that “the Holy Spirit did so inspire, guide and move the writers of Holy Scripture as to keep them from error,” spoke without warrant of the Scriptures or of the Confession of Faith.  We hold rather to the words of the Confession of Faith, that the Scriptures “are given by inspiration of God, to be the rule of faith and life” (Conf. I.ii).16

Likewise, the fourth article in The Auburn Affirmation explicitly rejected any attempt to identify any specific teaching—especially those in the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910—as “an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our Standards”:

The General Assembly of 1923 expressed the opinion concerning five doctrinal statements that each one “is an essential doctrine of the Word of God and our standards.”  On the constitutional grounds which we have before described, we are opposed to any attempt to elevate these five doctrinal statements, or any of them, to the position of test for ordination or for good standing in our church.

Furthermore, this opinion of the General Assembly attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible, and the Incarnation, the Atonement, the Resurrection, and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power of our Lord Jesus Christ.  We all hold most earnestly to these great facts and doctrines; we all believe from our hearts that the writers of the Bible were inspired of God; that Jesus Christ was God manifest in the flesh; that God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto Himself, and through Him we have our redemption; that having died for our sins He rose from the dead and is our ever-living Saviour; that in His earthly ministry He wrought many mighty works, and by His vicarious death and unfailing presence He is able to save to the uttermost.  Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the deliverance of the General Assembly of 1923 as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion, and that all who hold to these facts and doctrines, whatever theories they may employ to explain them, are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.17

The committee that drafted The Auburn Affirmation began seeking signatures in November 1923.  By May 5, 1924, when the second printing was produced, they had collected 1293 signatures.  Naturally, a complaint against the Affirmation was brought before the 1924 General Assembly, as were a complaint against two Union Seminary graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained the year before, despite their having denied the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, and a complaint that Fosdick should be removed from the pulpit of First Presbyterian Church of New York City.  But the Assembly voted to take no action against any of the three complaints and, in fact, invited Fosdick to join the PCUSA.18  However, as church historian George Marsden has pointed out, the invitation the Assembly extended to Fosdick was “in effect an invitation for him to let himself be tried for heresy.  This move, in fact, ensured Fosdick’s resignation from his New York pulpit.”19

Despite the tepid response of the 1924 General Assembly, matters came to a head at the General Assembly the following year.  Complaints against the ordination policies of New York Presbytery—and the two Union graduates whom New York Presbytery had ordained despite their denial of the Virgin Birth—were brought before the Assembly again.  The General Assembly Permanent Judicial Commission (PJC) ruled, “that inasmuch as these two could not affirm their belief in the virgin birth, a doctrine repeatedly affirmed by previous assemblies, the presbytery should have deferred their licensing.  As such, (the PJC) returned the matter to the presbytery for appropriate action.”  In response, Henry Sloane Coffin, pastor of the Madison Avenue Presbyterian Church in New York City, read a prepared statement at the invitation of the Assembly Moderator, saying, “The sixteen commissioners of the Presbytery of New York, on behalf of the said Presbytery, respectfully declare that the Presbytery of New York will stand firmly upon the constitution of the Church, reaffirmed in the reunions of 1870 and 1906, which forbids the Assembly to change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry, without submitting such amendment to the Presbyteries for concurrent action.”  By “change or add to the conditions for entrance upon or continuance in the holy ministry,” Coffin clearly meant the Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910.  Fearing a denominational schism, Moderator Charles Erdman proposed “that a Commission of Fifteen members be appointed to study the present spiritual condition of our Church and the causes making for unrest, and to report to the next General Assembly, to the end that the purity, peace, unity and progress of the Church may be assured.”  The Assembly passed the proposal unanimously.20  The Commission Erdman appointed presented an interim report the following year and a final report to the 1927 General Assembly, both of which were heavily influenced by The Auburn Affirmation.  The final report, which was approved by the Assembly, stated,

(I)t seems quite clear…that, granting for the moment the authority of the General Assembly, acting in any capacity, to declare broadly that an article is essential and necessary, it would be required to quote the exact language of the article as it appears in the Confession of Faith.  It could not paraphrase the language nor use other terms than those employed within the Constitution, much less could it erect into essential and necessary articles doctrines which are only derived as inferences from the statements of the Confession.21

In effect, the Doctrinal Deliverance approved by the 1910 PCUSA General Assembly, and reaffirmed by the 1916 and 1923 Assemblies, was rendered null and void by the 1927 Assembly, with no authority to prevent candidates for pastorates and professorships in the denomination who disagreed with any of its articles from being ordained and installed.  In 1967, the United Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (formed in 1958 by a merger of the PCUSA with the United Presbyterian Church in North America) abandoned all pretense of doctrinal conformity when it replaced the Westminster Standards with a Book of Confessions and removed its requirement that all officers in the denomination should promise to “sincerely receive and adopt the (Westminster) Confession of Faith and the Catechisms of this Church, as containing the system of doctrine taught in the Holy Scriptures”.  After 1967, officers in the UPCUSA (or the Presbyterian Church (USA) since the 1983 merger of the (Northern) UPCUSA with the (Southern) Presbyterian Church in the United States) are asked to do no more than to “sincerely receive and adopt the essential tenets of the Reformed faith as expressed in the confessions of our church as authentic and reliable expositions of what Scripture leads us to believe and do, and (to) be instructed and led by those confessions as you lead the people of God”.22  Today, the PC(USA) thinks nothing of ordaining officers who do not believe the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth.

Four denominations have resulted from divisions in Mainline American Presbyterianism since the Fundamentalist/Modernist Controversy in the 1920s.  Of these, the Orthodox Presbyterian Church requires officers to strictly adhere to the Westminster Standards.  While most presbyteries in the Presbyterian Church in America allow candidates for office to declare a few more scruples than most presbyteries in the OPC, they also require officers to affirm the inerrancy of Scripture, which more generally ensures that unbelief masquerading as unique interpretations cannot be used as justification for scruples against doctrines such as the Virgin Birth.  And the Evangelical Presbyterian Church and ECO: A Covenant Order of Evangelical Presbyterians both have a document enumerating essential tenets with which all officers in the denomination must affirm without exception, and which tenets include the Virgin Birth.23

Is the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth Essential to Christianity?

In 1906, the great Presbyterian theologian Benjamin Breckinridge Warfield (1851-1921) of Princeton Theological Seminary was asked to answer the question, “Is the doctrine of the supernatural birth of Jesus essential to Christianity?”24  To put this question another way, “Would Christianity be substantially different if the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth were removed from the Bible?”  Dr. Warfield answered that it depends entirely on what “Christianity” means.  The Presbyterian Church in the United States of America determined for itself in 1927 that the Virgin Birth is not truly essential, and its present-day successor, the Presbyterian Church (USA), has not determined any differently.  But then again, the “Christianity” that is preached and taught from the majority of PC(USA) pulpits and seminary classroom podiums today is a far cry from the Christianity that the Bible proclaims.

The Christianity that the Bible proclaims is supernatural, revelational, and redemptive.  Christianity is supernatural, in that it comes from God and not from man (Mt. 16.15-17, 21.24-27, Gal. 1.15-16).  Christianity is revelational, in that it is God revealing Himself to men and women—through His creation of the physical world around us and in the moral nature of man (Ps. 19.1-6, Rom. 1.19-20, 2.14-15); through the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, which come from Him alone and not from the men who wrote them down (II Tim. 3.15-17, II Pet. 1.19-21); through His supernatural intervention in the natural world by way of miracles (Mk. 2.10-12, Jn. 5.36, 12.37-38, Acts 2.22); and chiefly through the incarnation of His eternal Son in the man Jesus Christ, the Word of God made flesh (Jn. 1.9,14,18, 3.31-36).  And Christianity is redemptive, in that it is God, through the ministrations of Jesus Christ, redeeming lost men and women from bondage to sin and death and reconciling them to Himself (Lk. 19.10, Jn. 12.32, II Cor. 5.18-21).

Now the Gospel accounts teach that Jesus Christ performed many miracles when He walked the Earth, as attested to by many who witnessed them (Mt. 4.23-25, Jn. 3.2, Jn. 6.10-14, Acts 2.22); that He was raised bodily from the dead and appeared afterward to many eyewitnesses (Mt. 28.9-10,16-20, Lk. 24.13-51, Jn. 20.11-23,26-29, 21.4-23, I Cor. 15.3-8); and that He ascended bodily into heaven in the presence of His disciples (Acts 1.6-11).  And the Gospel accounts also teach that Jesus Christ was conceived in the womb of a young woman from Nazareth in Galilee who had never had sexual intercourse with a man.  If one believes the supernatural accounts attested to by the eyewitnesses, then one should not have a problem believing that the God behind the miracles, resurrection, and ascension of Jesus Christ is also capable of creating a zygote in the womb of a virgin.  Yet the same men who objected in The Auburn Affirmation to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Incarnation…of our Lord Jesus Christ,” meaning efforts to commit the PCUSA to the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, also objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the (bodily) Resurrection and the Continuing Life and Supernatural Power (i.e., the “mighty miracles”) of our Lord Jesus Christ.”25  And although they claimed, “Some of us regard the particular theories contained in the (Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910) as satisfactory theories allowed by the Scriptures and our standards as explanations of these facts and doctrines of our religion,” they fully intended to persuade the denomination to open the office of teaching elder to men (and later women) who disbelieved the supernatural basis for Christianity, in their denial that God has ever intervened supernaturally in human history.

Likewise, it is the accounts recorded in Scripture that teach us that the Lord Jesus Christ was miraculously conceived in the womb of a virgin.  Yet The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they likewise objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning the inspiration of the Bible,” by which they meant the “assertion…that the writers (of the Scriptures) were kept ‘from error.’”  And further, they believed that, “The doctrine of inerrancy, intended to enhance the authority of the Scriptures, in fact impairs their supreme authority for faith and life, and weakens the testimony of the church to the power of God unto salvation through Jesus Christ.”  Thus, it stands to reason, that if the Scriptures can and do err, that if Matthew and Luke in particular were not supernaturally kept from error, despite having been “inspired of God,” then their claim that Mary was a virgin when the Lord Jesus was conceived in her womb might also be in error, and that “all who hold most earnestly to the great fact and doctrine” of “the Incarnation” and yet who disbelieve in the “particular theory” of the Virgin Birth, “are worthy of all confidence and fellowship.”

But what is overlooked here is the question that, if the Bible does, in fact, err, then in what meaningful sense can the Bible be considered to have been “inspired of God”?  Is not God omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and omnipotent?  If so, then He lacks not for knowledge, wisdom, or veracity—or for the capability of ensuring that the Bible communicated exactly what He wanted it to, if He did, in fact, inspire it.  And it says something derogatory about the character of God, if we confess that yes, He is omniscient, all-wise, absolutely trustworthy, and eminently capable of ensuring that the Bible communicates exactly what He wants it to, and yet that that same Bible contains errors.  Why, then, would He want it to err?  Furthermore, it takes an enormous amount of hubris to claim to be a Christian and then to turn around and claim that the Bible which the God and Father of the Lord Jesus Christ inspired contains errors, and then to use that claim as justification to disbelieve what the Bible teaches, including what it teaches about the Virgin Birth.  So again, not only does the “Christianity” that the Auburn Affirmationists want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural, it also denies that Christianity is revelational.

Finally, Scripture teaches that man is dead in his trespasses and sins (Eph. 2.1), and this applies to all men and women.  “For we have charged that all, both Jews and Greeks, are under sin, as it is written: ‘None is righteous, no not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.’ (quoted from Ps. 14.1-3, 53.1-3)  ‘Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.’ (quoted from Ps. 5.9)  ‘The venom of asps is under their lips.’ (quoted from Ps. 140.3)  ‘Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.’ (quoted from Ps. 10.7 LXX)  ‘Their feet are swift to shed blood, in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.’ (quoted from Prov. 1.16, Is. 59.7-8)  ‘There is no fear of God before their eyes.’ (quoted from Ps. 36.1)” (Rom. 3.9-18)  Moreover, the penalty that we deserve for our sin is the wrath and fury of God, and death (Rom. 2.7, 6.23).

And worse than this, there is nothing whatsoever that we can do that will appease the wrath of God poured out justly on us for our wickedness.  The Law of God requires that we “must be perfect, as (our) heavenly Father is perfect” (Mt. 5.48), and He is “of purer eyes than to see evil and cannot look at wrong” (Hab. 1.13).  “The Judge of all the earth (must) do what is just” (Gen. 18.25), and what each of us has done deserves death.  “But as for the cowardly, the faithless, the detestable, as for murderers, the sexually immoral, sorcerers, idolaters, and all liars, their portion will be in the lake that burns with fire and sulfur, which is the second death.” (Rev. 21.8)  And if we think that we might escape His judgment because we have not committed any of these sins, we must remember that He counts hatred as murder, lust and divorce as adultery, and He requires us to fulfill everything we say we will do, to not retaliate against anyone who injures or maligns us, and to love our enemies.  “You therefore must be perfect, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” (Mt. 5.21-48)  We have nothing to offer the Lord in exchange to recompense for our sins against Him.

For our transgressions are multiplied before you,
and our sins testify against us;

for our transgressions are with us,
and we know our iniquities:

transgressing, and denying the LORD,
and turning back from following our God,

speaking oppression and revolt,
conceiving and uttering from the heart lying words.

Justice is turned back,
and righteousness stands afar off;

for truth has stumbled in the public squares,
and uprightness cannot enter.

Truth is lacking,
and he who departs from evil makes himself a prey. —Is. 59.12-15

“We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” (Is. 64.6)  We have no righteousness of our own that we can use to atone for even the smallest of our sins (Phil. 3.9).  As the Psalmist confessed, “If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand?” (Ps. 130.3)

This is the human condition, and we must grapple with it and understand it, before we can begin to appreciate the atonement that Jesus Christ has made on our behalf.  God is the potter, and every man, woman, and child is a vessel made by Him for one kind of use or the other—either a “vessel of wrath prepared for destruction,” or a “vessel of mercy, which he has prepared beforehand for glory” (Rom. 9.21-23).  But the vessels of mercy are no less guilty, no less sinful than the vessels of wrath, and therefore deserve the same fate.  In order to be used as vessels of mercy, they must first be washed clean, and they cannot wash themselves.

In the Old Testament, God provided His people with animal sacrifices—bulls, sheep, goats, turtledoves, and pigeons, all without spot or blemish—to offer up in atonement for their sins (Lev. 1-7, 16).  But these only “serve a copy and shadow of the heavenly things,” “a shadow of the good things to come instead of the true form of these realities” (Heb. 8.5,10.1), pointing to a better, more perfect sacrifice that could actually accomplish what the Old Testament sacrifices could not, “For it is impossible for the blood of bulls and goats to take away sins.” (Heb. 10.4)

Thus it was that “Christ Jesus…though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.” (Phil. 2.5-8)  “But he was wounded for our transgressions; he was crushed for our iniquities; upon him was the chastisement that brought us peace, and with his stripes we are healed.  All we like sheep have gone astray; we have turned every one to his own way; and the LORD has laid on him the iniquity of us all.” (Is. 53.5-6, I Pet. 2.24-25)  He drank to the bitter dregs the cup of His Father’s judgment and wrath, poured out for the sins of the world (Ps. 75.8, Is. 51.17,22), just as He said He would (Mt. 20.22-23, 26.39,42,44, Mk. 10.38,39, 14.36,39, Lk. 22.42, Jn. 18.11).

But when Christ appeared as a high priest of the good things that have come, then through the greater and more perfect tent (not made with hands, that is, not of this creation) he entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of his own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption.  For if the sprinkling of defiled persons with the blood of goats and bulls and with the ashes of a heifer sanctifies for the purification of the flesh, how much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.  Therefore, he is the mediator of a new covenant, so that those who are called may receive the promised eternal inheritance, since a death has occurred that redeems them from the transgressions committed under the first covenant.
—Hebrews 9.11-15

Christ made an atonement for sinful men and women when He died on Calvary’s tree, substituting Himself for the penalty richly deserved by filthy, unclean, wicked sinners like you and me.  “For our sake he made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.” (II Cor. 5.21)  And then God raised Him from the dead in glorious demonstration of His victory over sin and death.  “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. … Therefore he had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.” (Heb. 2.17)

And this is the Gospel: That Christ died on the Cross to bear the sins of many, making propitiation for the sins of all those whom God has chosen from before the beginning of the world, that whosoever believes in Him and trusts in His perfect, holy, sinless life, in His perfect atoning death on the Cross, and in His life-giving bodily resurrection from the dead will themselves be raised from the dead into a glorious new life when He returns at the end of human history to judge the living and the dead.

Yet again, all who endorsed The Auburn Affirmation not only objected to requiring PCUSA teaching elders to affirm the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth, they further objected to “attempts to commit our church to certain theories concerning…the Atonement (and) the Resurrection…of our Lord Jesus Christ.”  They thus denied the centrality of the Penal Substitutionary Atonement and Bodily Resurrection from the Dead of our Lord Jesus Christ in His Gospel.  Thus, not only does the “Christianity” that they want to affirm deny that Christianity is supernatural and revelational, it also denies that Christianity is redemptive in their rendering as optional the doctrines that are at the heart of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. The Virgin Birth is supernatural—it comes from God and not from man.  The Virgin Birth is revelational—through it the Son of God was made flesh and manifested among us.  And the Virgin Birth is redemptive—through it came the Lamb of God, who came to take away the sin of the world.  Therefore, the answer unequivocally is: Yes, the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth is absolutely essential to Christianity.


1     The Roman Catholic Church holds that Mary continued in a state of perpetual virginity even after the birth of the Lord Jesus, finding greater significance in her virginal motherhood than that which Scripture ascribes to it (Catechism of the Catholic Church [Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1994], 499-501,505-507).  In point of fact, apart from the first chapters of Matthew and Luke, Scripture does not refer to Mary’s virginity at all.  Moreover, by saying that Joseph “knew her not until she had given birth to a son” (Mt. 1.25, emphasis added), Matthew implies that Joseph did, in fact, have sexual relations with his wife after Jesus’ birth (although presumably not until after the forty days of her menstrual uncleanness had elapsed, as specified in Lev. 12; compare Lk. 2.22-24); after all, Joseph’s marriage to Mary would not be much of a marriage if he could never engage in sexual intercourse with his wife, especially when marriage is consummated by sexual intercourse.   And Scripture contradicts Rome’s doctrine of Mary’s perpetual virginity by referring to the Lord Jesus’ mother, brothers, and sisters (Mt. 12.46-50, 13.53-58, Mk. 3.31-35, 6.1-6, Lk. 8.19-21).  Rome counters this by claiming, “Against this doctrine is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus.  The Church has always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.  In fact, James and Joseph, ‘brothers of Jesus,’ are the sons of another Mary, a disciple of Christ, whom St. Matthew significantly calls ‘the other Mary.’  They are close relations of Jesus, according to an Old Testament expression.” (Catechism of the Catholic Church, 500)  However, this interpretation is forced, as the natural understanding of “brothers and sisters” are other children born of his parents, not children of “the other Mary”, whose familial relation with the Lord Jesus is pure conjecture on the part of Rome and is nowhere established in Scripture.  Moreover, in three of these passages, Jesus’ unnamed brothers are referenced alongside His mother, who is not named.  “But he replied to the man who told him, ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?’  And stretching out his hand toward his disciples, he said, ‘Here are my mother and my brothers!  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’” (Mt. 12.48-50, Mk. 3.33-35, Lk. 8.21)  The context of these passages does not suggest that these “brothers” are cousins, but rather the biological sons of Joseph and Mary, and thus Jesus’ half-brothers.

2     Papias, Fragment VI, in Alexander Roberts, D.D., James Donaldson, LL.D., and A. Cleveland Coxe, D.D., eds., Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol. I: The Apostolic Fathers, Justin Martyr, Irenaeus (Christian Literature Publishing, 1885; reprinted Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 1994), p. 155.

3     John W. Wenham, “Christ’s View of Scripture” in Norman L. Geisler, ed., Inerrancy (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1980), p. 449, n. 3.

4     This is the only instance in Scripture where Mary is recorded as referring to Joseph as Jesus’ father.

5     Charles Augustus Briggs, D.D., The Authority of Holy Scripture: An Inaugural Address (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1891), pp. 31,35.

6     Bradley J. Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy: Fundamentalists, Modernists, & Moderates (New York: Oxford University Press, 1991), p. 23.

7     Quoted in Christopher K. Lensch, “Presbyterianism in America, The Nineteeth Century: The Formative Years” in WRS Journal 13:2 (August 2006), p. 8; online at, accessed 16 Dec 2020.

8     Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

9     Paul Matzko, “Trial of Charles Augustus Briggs” (The Association of Religion Data Archives); online at; accessed 16 Dec 2020.

10   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 23.

11   “The Doctrinal Deliverance of 1910”, online at; accessed 16 Dec 2020.  See also George M. Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture: The Shaping of Twentieth-Century Evangelicalism 1870-1925 (New York: Oxford, 1980), p. 117; Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

12   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, p. 25.

13   Ibid., pp. 9-10.

14   Ibid., pp. 74-75.

15   The Auburn Affirmation received that name, not because it was drafted at Auburn Theological Seminary, but because its chief architect, Robert Hastings Nichols, was a professor at the school (Ibid., pp. 77-78).

16   Robert Hastings Nichols, et al, An Affirmation designed to safeguard the unity and liberty of the Presbyterian Church in the United States of America (1924), Article I; online at; accessed 18 Dec 2020.

17   Ibid., Article IV.

18   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 100,125-126.

19   Marsden, Fundamentalism and American Culture, p. 181.

20   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 151-152.

21   Longfield, The Presbyterian Controversy, pp. 158-161.

22   Book of Order 2019-2021, The Constitution of the Presbyterian Church (USA) Part II (Louisville, KY: The Office of the General Assembly, Presbyterian Church (USA), 2019) §W-4.4003.c.  It is especially telling that the PC(USA) moved its ordination vows in the early 2000s from the Form of Government section of its Book of Order to the Directory for Worship, as if ordination vows were not something inherent to the government of the church but merely formalities of ordination worship services.

23   Although the ECO does this by reiterating that “He is born of the virgin Mary” (ECO Essential Tenets I.B), the same phrasing used in the Apostles’ Creed, the EPC Essentials of Our Faith Article 2 declares, “Jesus Christ, the living Word, became flesh through His miraculous conception by the Holy Spirit and His virgin birth.”

24   Benjamin B. Warfield, “The Supernatural Birth of Jesus” in Ethelbert D. Warfield, William Park Armstrong, and Caspar Wistar Hodge, eds., The Works of Benjamin B. Warfield, Vol. III: Christology and Criticism (New York: Oxford, 1932; reprinted Grand Rapids: Baker, 2000), pp. 447-458.

25   Similarly, in the year before my previous home church, Colonial Presbyterian Church in Kansas City, disaffiliated from the PC(USA) and affiliated with the EPC, a gentleman on the staff of the church who had graduated with a Master of Divinity degree from the Trinity Evangelical Divinity School was seeking ordination in the PC(USA), so he might receive a call as an Associate Pastor at the church, and in his statement of faith, he said he believed in the bodily resurrection of the Lord Jesus Christ.  And one of the minister members of the presbytery with which Colonial was affiliated objected to this statement, saying that if he believed this, then he could not vote for him.