Horatio

Horatio
[Photo by Jacquelyn Griffin)

Thursday, December 20, 2007

'Tis the Season for Mariology?

Oh, as usual, dear. The Archbishop of Canterbury has pointed out the lack of scriptural foundation for much of the Christmas Story as popularly retold, and in so doing has expressed some hesitation regarding the historicity of the Virgin Birth, and of its doctrinal importance:
He said he was committed to belief in the Virgin Birth “as part of what I have inherited”. But belief in the Virgin Birth should not be a “hurdle” over which new Christians had to jump before they were accepted.

He hinted that decades ago he was not “too fussed” with the literal truth of the doctrine of the Virgin Birth. But as time went on, he developed a “deeper sense” of what the Virgin Birth was all about.
The result? Consternation in the Conservative Anglican section of the blogosphere (especially in the comments).

To which I have to ask: Are you folks kidding me?

Let me quote Bishop N.T. Wright, who himself believes in the account of the virginal conception as a matter of faith, but acknowledges that it must, from a historical perspective, be placed in a "suspense account":
No one can prove, historically, that Mary was a virgin when Jesus was conceived. No one can prove, historically, that she wasn't. Science studies the repeatable; history bumps its nose against the unrepeatable. If the first two chapters of Matthew and the first two of Luke had never existed, I do not suppose that my own Christian faith, or that of the church to which I belong, would have been very different.
Roman Catholic historian Fr. John P. Meier, in volume 1 of his study A Marginal Jew: Rethinking the Historical Jesus (1991) at 220-222, punts, and comes to an entirely equivocal conclusion, that the virginal conception of Jesus is simply not susceptible to historical analysis, but turns rather on one's faith committments.

Father Meier, in particular, points out that the scriptural term translated "virgin" does not in fact carry the meaning in either Greek (Matthew and Luke)nor Hebrew (Isaiah) of one who has not yet had sexual intercourse. Like Wright, he points to conflicting texts, connotations and denotations of words, and the analogous stories of divine conception of emperors and heroes--and, rather more so than Wright, leaves these conflicts unresolved. (UPDATE: I am reminded by a commenter on Stand Firm of Raymond Brown's excellent study The Birth of the Messiah (1979) which likewise is inconclusive on the subject of historicity, but defends the tradition on theological grounds).

This position is hardly a new one; although Bishop Gore in his Dissertations (1895) mounts a theological and historical defense of the doctrine, the fact that he spent over sixty pages on it, and ends by adverting to the harm to the Church's teaching authority if so fundamental a creedal statement comes into general disbelief, illustrates how besieged Bishop Gore clearly feels on this point. (This is not to say that Bishop Gore's arguments are all at that level, or indeed that he is not persuasive on the questions of theological purpose to the doctrine. In fact, his views are not radically unlike those of Bishop Wright here, and, to the extent he relies on tradition and theology to justify his retention of the doctrine, Williams's views are a diluted version of a portion of those of Bishop Gore).

In other words, as the normally conservative Ruth Gledhill herself notes in the article summarizing Abp. William's interview,
Dr Williams was not saying anything that is not taught as a matter of course in even the most conservative theological colleges. His supporters would argue that it is a sign of a true man of faith that he can hold on to an orthodox faith while permitting honest intellectual scrutiny of fundamental biblical texts.
I think that Gledhill is clearly correct here--and that the heated response to Williams's comments is informative about the state of conservative Anglican thought today--reflexive, suspicious, close-minded, and profoundly out of touch with the Anglican tradition.

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