Friday, April 05, 2013

Blomberg on the Virgin Birth and the problems with "a-confessional evangelicalism"

I’ve been working my way through Craig Blomberg’s Jesus and the Gospels, Second Ed. (B & H Academic, 2009) in the Life of Jesus class I’m teaching this semester.  Blomberg represents what are some of the best and worst aspects of evangelical scholarship which attempts to use all the modern historical-critical tools, while at the same time trying to maintain and defend various traditional, pre-critical perspectives (e. g., affirming purported authorship of the canonical Gospels, historicity of those Gospels, etc.).  For a critique of evangelical scholarly embrace of modern critical methods in Gospel research and a charge that this necessarily leads to compromise (including particular criticism of Blomberg), see Robert F. Thomas, Ed. The Jesus Crisis:  The Inroads of Historical Criticism into Evangelical Scholarship (Kregel, 1998).

My sense is that the difficulties with Blomberg arise not only from his embracing modern historical-critical method (e. g., embracing Markan priority and the two source theory) but also, and more significantly, from his lack of a clear confessional framework in approaching the Bible and Christian theology.  Like most evangelicals he seems to approach the NT with definite “conservative” doctrinal presuppositions but not from a clearly defined, historical, creedal perspective.  We might well describe this position as a-confessional evangelicalism.

This stands out in particular in his treatment of the virgin birth (i. e., virginal conception) in Jesus and the Gospels.  On one hand, Blomberg offers cautious but clear reasons why the virginal conception might be reasonably defended as historical.  He notes in particular that conclusions reached on the virgin bith, as with other supernatural aspects of the Gospels, depend on one’s presuppositions:  “Of course, if one rules out the supernatural a priori, there is much here [in Matthew and Luke’s teaching of the virginal conception] that will have to be dismissed or radically reinterpreted” (p. 243).  He notes that the Gospel descriptions of the virginal conception are given in a “straightforward” manner without “embellishments” (p. 243).  He argues that the Semitic style of the birth narratives in both Matthew and Luke suggests the use of early source material for this tradition.  He concludes that “early Christians would never have invented the narratives of the virginal conception itself” and notes that “Luke’s narrative shows remarkable restraint compared to various Greco-Roman myths of ‘virgin births’” (p. 244).  He adds: “Narrators creating pious legends usually go into much more detail than Luke does here” (p. 244).  He sums up:  “All of these observations make it highly unlikely that the church would have included these accounts unless there were strong historical reasons for doing so” (p. 244).

If left here, one might commend Blomberg for his thoughtful defense of the historicity of the virginal conception.  However, he then proceeds to offer reflections on the theological significance of the virginal conception.  He opens by downplaying the doctrine noting that “it neither proves the incarnation nor is demanded by it” (p. 244).  He  concludes:  “Given how little the New Testament and even the Gospels make of this doctrine it probably does not deserve to rank among the top five fundamentals of the faith [a footnote here references Dixon and Meyer’s The Fundamentals].  Yet it remains a cherished truth not to be glibly denied or explained away” (p. 245).

This conclusion follows an apologetic approach which Blomberg uses elsewhere in this work.  He defends the historical and critical plausibility of a traditional perspective but then concludes that even if the viewpoint is found to be untenable its loss would be inconsequential to an orthodox position.  For example, in his discussion of the authorship of the Gospel of Mark, Blomberg ably defends the traditional view that the Gospel was written by John Mark in consultation with the apostle Peter but then concludes:  “Little of interpretive significance depends on whether or not Mark was the author, but modern objections scarcely outweigh the unanimous testimony of the early church” (p. 140; he reaches similar conclusions on Matthew, p. 156; Luke, p. 174; and John, p. 201).

Whatever the apologetic reasoning, it is striking to read an evangelical scholar willing to abandon the virginal conception as a foundation (fundamental) Biblical doctrine.  Yes, as my daughter pointed out to me in a family devotion discussion of the resurrection over Easter weekend, Paul did not include the virgin birth in his summary of the gospel in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8, but still the virginal conception has long been affirmed as essential and foundational to Christian faith, particularly in its creedal tradition, based on its unequivocal presence in the Gospels (Matthew 1:18; Luke 1:26-27, 30-31, 34-35; cf. also subtle or ironic references to the virginal conception in the Gospels which do not include explicit birth narratives:  Mark 6:3; John 5:18; 6:42; 8:19, 41; 16:28); in addition, cf. a possible Pauline reference in Galatians 4:4).  The oldest post-canonical Christian symbol, the Apostles’ creed, originating in the mid second century affirms that Jesus was “conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary.” The doctrine then becomes firmly embedded in the confessional tradition, including, eventually, the Westminster/London Baptist Confessions.  Consider chapter eight, paragraph two of the London Confession on “Of Christ the Mediator” (emphasis added):

The Son of God, the second person in the Holy Trinity, being very and eternal God, the brightness of the Father's glory, of one substance and equal with him who made the world, who upholdeth and governeth all things he hath made, did, when the fullness of time was come, take upon him man's nature, with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin; being conceived by the Holy Spirit in the womb of the Virgin Mary, the Holy Spirit coming down upon her: and the power of the Most High overshadowing her; and so was made of a woman of the tribe of Judah, of the seed of Abraham and David according to the Scriptures; so that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion; which person is very God and very man, yet one Christ, the only mediator between God and man.

(John 1:14; Galatians 4;4; Romans 8:3; Hebrews 2:14, 16, 17; Hebrews 4:15; Matthew 1:22, 23; Luke 1:27, 31, 35; Romans 9:5; 1 Timothy 2:5)

Given the strong Biblical and confessional emphasis given to the doctrine of the virginal conception and its significance for understanding the person and nature of Christ, as emphasized especially in the creedal tradition, Blomberg’s conclusion that it does not rank among the cardinal Christian doctrines is incomprehensible.  It illustrates the dangers of joining evangelical Biblical scholarship to the historical-critical method without a clear confessional framework.



Victor Leonardo Barbosa said...

Important article pastor Riddle. A great problem, in the case of blomberg and others is the use o historical critical method, instead the use of the grammatical-historical method, used in the reformation and by the great christians of the past.

Norman Geisler wrote a good article about this subject, and particularly about Blomberg:

Jeffrey T. Riddle said...


Thanks for the post. I am not familiar with the Geisler article but will give it a look.