A Chalcedon Christmas #1

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In our denomination, all churches are required to adopt three creeds into their statement of faith. Those three are from the time of the early church, and are the Apostles Creed (2nd century), the Nicene Creed (4th century), and the Definition of Chalcedon (5th century).
If all the great figures of history were little pinpricks of light, small twinkling stars, Christ arrived 2,000 years ago as something of a supernova. His life, death, burial and resurrection transformed everything, and those who accepted the reality of that manifestation of divine grace still had to grapple with (and grapple with for centuries) how to talk about it. The basic outlines of the gospel story were set down in the Apostles Creed, but there were still questions. By the 4th century, the Church rightly insisted on the full deity of Jesus Christ (as well as His full humanity). But that created another question—what was the relationship of this deity to this humanity, and so that was addressed by Chalcedon.

This is why we recite the Definition of Chalcedon during Advent, and so this Advent season I am going to be showing the scriptural case for certain aspects of this Creed, as well as the importance of those elements. Today we are going to consider the crucial doctrine of the virgin birth— “as regards his manhood begotten, for us men and for our salvation, of Mary the Virgin” (Chalcedon).

The Text

“Therefore the Lord himself shall give you a sign; Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14).

“But while he thought on these things, behold, the angel of the Lord appeared unto him in a dream, saying, Joseph, thou son of David, fear not to take unto thee Mary thy wife: for that which is conceived in her is of the Holy Ghost. And she shall bring forth a son, and thou shalt call his name JESUS: for he shall save his people from their sins. Now all this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold, a virgin shall be with child, and shall bring forth a son, and they shall call his name Emmanuel, which being interpreted is, God with us. Then Joseph being raised from sleep did as the angel of the Lord had bidden him, and took unto him his wife: And knew her not till she had brought forth her firstborn son: and he called his name JESUS” (Matthew 1:20–25).

Summary of the Text

In the passage from Isaiah, the word rendered as virgin is almah, which can mean either virgin or young woman. And in Isaiah’s case, with regard to its immediate fulfillment, the sign that he was offering to King Ahaz was a sign that involved a young woman and her young child, not a virgin. Before this child (who was to be conceived and born in the ordinary way) was able to choose the good and refuse evil, the adversaries that Ahaz was worried about would be gone. That means this child was to be delivered by a young woman, and the sign would be what happened to the enemies of Ahaz. More than a few have pointed at this and said that it shows that the Christian insistence on a virgin birth for Christ is simply a pious superstition, tagged on later. But there was actually a double fulfillment involved, as Matthew shows us.

Joseph was betrothed to Mary and he was troubled about what to do. When she turned up pregnant, he knew as well as we do that this could not have happened unless Mary had been unfaithful to him. And yet, because Joseph was a righteous man, he was trying to figure out how to divorce her without humiliating her (Matt. 1:19). While he was mulling all this over, the angel of the Lord came to him in a dream and called him a son of David. Joseph’s genealogy is the one in Matthew, and he was descended from David through Solomon, which means that he was descended from Bathsheba also. And in Matthew’s genealogy, there are four women mentioned, all with reputation issues—Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba. This was perhaps to head off the temptation for Joseph to get on a high horse. “Listen, son of David and Bathsheba.”

The angel also told him of Mary’s innocence by assuring him that the child was conceived by the Holy Spirit (v. 20). The child was going to be a boy, and His name would be Jesus because He was going to save His people from their sins (v. 21). We are then told that this was in fulfillment of Isaiah’s prophecy, cited above (v. 22), but this passage was written in Greek, not Hebrew. Here the word virgin is the translation of parthenos, which means virgin, only virgin, and nothing but virgin. The result of such a remarkable conception and birth was Immanuel, which means God with us (v. 23). That God with us there has been the center of centuries of theological reflection and debate. When Joseph woke up, he obeyed the angel and took Mary as his wife—although he did not have relations with her until after Jesus was born (v. 25).

The Virgin Birth or the Virgin Mary?

We know from elsewhere in Scripture that Joseph and Mary had at least six other children (Matt. 13:55-56), and depending on the number of sisters, maybe more. Although they did not believe in Jesus initially (John 7:5), two of His brothers went on to write books of the Bible (James and Jude). In fact, James is mentioned as one of the witnesses of the resurrection (1 Cor. 15:7). This means that for faithful Protestants, our confessional issue is the virgin birth—meaning that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was born, but not a virgin afterwards. We do not hold to what is called the perpetual virginity of Mary, an understanding that makes his mentioned brothers and sisters into cousins or such like. But while we hold to the virgin birth simply, it is only fair to note that some of the Reformers did hold to Mary’s perpetual virginity (e.g. Luther, Calvin). But you will notice that in the Apostles’ Creed, as we recite it, there is a comma between Virgin and Mary.

But Why a Virgin Birth?

In order to be able to die for us as wayward sheep, the Lord had to be two things. He needed to be a true Lamb, because the sacrifice needed to be one of us. But the problem is that if He were one of us, would He not be corrupted also, like all of us are? The Lamb had to be one of our number, and yet the Lamb needed also to be spotless. This will likely come up later, but Gregory of Nazianzus once said this” “For that which He has not assumed He has not healed.” But how could He assume human nature, which needed to be redeemed, without being contaminated by the condition of the nature which needed to be redeemed?

We do not know precisely how, but it appears that the covenantal guilt for Adam’s sin descends to all of us through our human fathers. And this is how God arranged for our salvation, through a true man, but one who had no human father—“at once complete in Godhead and complete in manhood, truly God and truly man.” And apart from a virgin birth, this would not be possible.

“But when the fullness of the time had come, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law” (Galatians 4:4, NKJV). And why? So that you might redeemed from the curse of the law.

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