A Physician Looks at the Virgin Birth

Reprinted by permission from Christianity Today, Dec. 9, 1957. Dr. Bell served many years as a medical missionary in China where his daughter Ruth, now wife of Evangelist Billy Graham, was born. He is now on the Editorial Council of Christianity Today.—Editors.

L. Nelson Bell, M.D., F.A.C.S. 

Our Christian faith and heritage holds certain doctrines to be essential, such as the deity of our Lord, his virgin birth, his atoning work, his bodily resurrection, and his return in glory.

Because of their impor­tance, Christians should show an intelligent understanding of these doctrines and, as occasion arises, be ready to "give an an­swer to every man that asketh," an answer that will be accurate and helpful.

In recent years it has become increas­ingly popular to discount the importance of the virgin birth, the usual excuse being that the doctrine is not "essential."

In one sense, it is true that faith in our Lord's virgin birth is not essential to salva­tion. But saving faith in Jesus Christ has to do with both his person and his work. Because the implications of the virgin birth bear an inextricable relationship to his person, it becomes a doctrine of great sig­nificance. For the person and work of our Lord can never be separated one from the other.

This being true, we are wise if we re­study some reasons why evangelical Chris­tians believe the virgin birth.

Some argue against the virgin birth be­cause of the silence of Mark, John and Paul. This seems more a subterfuge than an argument. Mark begins his Gospel with the commencement of Christ's public min­istry. John traces the divine descent of Jesus and tells us, "The Word became flesh"; but how this miracle was accomplished he does not say, for others had given these details and he took them for granted. Nor was Paul ignorant of this. He had had Luke as his close companion. He does not enter into this personal matter, but rather emphasizes the facts of our Lord's public ministry, death and resur­rection. His stress on the pre-existent Christ as the eternal Son of God would certainly imply a knowledge that when he "emptied" himself and was "born of a woman, born under the law," but "knew no sin," that this transition was a supernatural act made in a supernatural way. One wonders why some who argue from the silence of Paul on this subject seem so unwilling at the same time to accept Paul's clear teaching with reference to the Lord's return. Argu­ments must be logical and honest if they are to be effective.

We believe the virgin birth because the Bible states plainly and unequivocally that Jesus was born of a virgin. Both Matthew and Luke give the background and details of the event with wonderful delicacy and with unmistakable clarity. Luke is thought to have received his story directly from Mary. Matthew may have gotten his information from Joseph. Matthew states categorically that the virgin birth was a direct fulfilment of Isaiah's prophecy. To the evangelical these clear statements are sufficient.

We believe in the virgin birth because the doctrine has been held in unbroken sequence in the Church until the rise of the modern higher critical school characterized by its questioning, or denial, of the supernatural and the miraculous. This divergence from the evangelical faith be­gan in Germany during the past century and has continued down to our own day, English and American theological circles not escaping its influence. While tradition is not infallible, nevertheless the fact that belief in the virgin birth has come to us down through the centuries, from those who lived closest to those early events, carries great weight.

We believe in the virgin birth because it is the only logical explanation of the in­carnation, of the union of deity and hu­manity in one person. Dr. James Orr, noted Scottish professor, once wrote: "Among those who reject the virgin birth I do not know a single one who takes in, in other respects, an adequate view of the person and work of the Saviour." When one tam­pers with great doctrines of Christianity, particularly those relating to the person and work of our Lord, one does not pull out a doctrine here and there and leave an un­impaired Christ. A careful reading of God's Word makes it abundantly clear that these great truths hang together, and fit together perfectly.

We believe in the virgin birth because it is not one whit more remarkable than the bodily resurrection of our Lord, the key­stone of our hope of eternity and one of the best attested facts of history. Our faith does not stagger at the glorious truth that our Saviour died for our sins and arose for our justification. Nor should it hold back when faced with the record of how he came into the world. If we look at the life of Christ in retrospect—his life, miracles, teachings, claims, death, resurrection and ascension—his virgin birth fits the pic­ture as the only logical explanation of his entrance into the world.

We believe in the virgin birth because the one who was born was the Creator of the world, and he now comes back to redeem it for his own. It is no idle tale that, "In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God." We go on to learn, "All things were made by him and without him was not anything made that was made." In the supernatural course of events it is only logical that he should come in a supernatural way.

We are convinced of the virgin birth because no other explanation is possible of the psychology involved in the reac­tions of those intimately associated with the event. Internal evidences here are so overwhelming that this factor cannot be over­estimated. Remember the strict Jewish law with reference to espousal—as binding as marriage itself. Remember also the Jewish law with reference to adultery—a betrothed person to be punished with death, if found guilty, just as though the marriage had taken place.

What about Mary? It would have been impossible for her to hide the fact. Furthermore, she would have had to face the ac­cusation of her own relatives and acquaintances, and these would have had to be made before the responsible priest of that time, Zacharias himself. Rather than hide her condition, she went and with great joy told her cousin Elizabeth.

Furthermore, her own reaction shows the purity and innocency of her heart. She does not cringe at the announcement, but asks a searchingly pertinent question: How can this be biologically possible? "Then said Mary unto the angel, How shall this be, seeing I know not a man?"

Only God's Holy Spirit could have di­rected the reply of the angel, a statement so absolute in its clarity and meaning that any can understand, and yet so pure in implication that any young girl can read it without a blush: "And the angel answered and said unto her, the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God."

Mary's reaction to this statement, which she accepted but could not fully under­stand, was in itself a wonderful submis­sion to something which could have be­come an intolerable ordeal: "Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me ac­cording to Thy word." And later: "Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart."

But what about Joseph? Here too we see a miracle of grace. Through faith he accepted a situation he could not ap­prehend. God knew the perplexing and dis­tressing problem that he, the espoused hus­band of Mary, faced, and God spoke to him by a direct revelation, just as he had to Mary.

But, probably the crowning evidence is seen in Mary's behavior at the cross.

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L. Nelson Bell, M.D., F.A.C.S. 

December 1958

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