Very interesting article that Byron pointed me to available here.
A handful of quotations:
...this paper will be a critical examination of the significance given to the virgin birth in recent dogmatics. This approach is valid anyway as a partner to the exegetical approach but all the more so with a subject like the virgin birth. Undisputed direct reference to the virgin birth is confined to two brief New Testament passages (Matt. 1: 18-25; Lk. 1: 34f.). It follows therefore that the relation of this doctrine to other doctrines (the task of dogmatics) is at least as important as the exegesis of these two passages.
It is essential clearly to grasp the distinction between the Incarnation and the virgin birth. The virgin birth concerns the origins of the humanity of Christ. It states that Jesus, as man, had no human father. It does not state that God was his human father. The virgin birth is not like the stories of pagan gods mating with beautiful women. The miracle of the virgin birth is that of birth without a father, not of the mating of God and Mary. The doctrine of the Incarnation, on the other hand, concerns the deity of Christ. It states that this man Jesus was in fact God himself, the Logos, the Son of God come in the flesh. Jesus was divine not because he had no human father but because he is God become man. He is the Son of God (in the Trinitarian sense) not because of his human parentage (or lack of) but because he is the eternal Son of the Father, ‘begotten from the Father before all ages’. To summarise the distinction, the Incarnation means that Jesus is the Son of God become flesh, the virgin birth means that he had no human father. It is not hard to see how the two have come to be confused. The one states that God is his Father, the other that Joseph was not. It has been fatally easy to put these two together and to conclude that God was his father instead of Joseph, because Joseph was not.
When it is stated that Jesus did not need a human father because God was his Father the two levels are being confused. Such thinking, if pursued consistently, will lead to a grossly perverted form of either the virgin birth or the Incarnation or both.
The Incarnation would have been supernatural and miraculous even if the incarnate one had had an otherwise normal birth. His preexistence and his divinity would have been supernatural even if his humanity had had a purely natural origin.
The virgin birth teaches that the origin of his humanity was also supernatural.
But many today would not simply state that the virgin birth can coexist with such error. John Robinson, for instance, goes further and argues that the virgin birth must inevitably prejudice the genuineness of Jesus’ humanity and His solidarity with us. This claim can take two forms. First, it could be argued that the very fact of a virgin birth in itself removes Jesus from the arena of humanity. This charge is well answered by R. F. Aldwinkle who argues that ‘it is not the method by which a human being comes to be such which is decisive but the end product itself, namely a human being’. There is no ground for dogmatically asserting that the product of a virgin birth could not be fully human.
[SN: I think this is very weak]
Barth argues that the virgin birth points to the Incarnation in the same way as the empty tomb points to the resurrection. In each case the sign is less than the thing signified but points to it. The relation between them is that between sign and thing signified, not between cause and effect. The virgin birth did not cause the incarnation any more than the empty tomb caused the resurrection. Thus the virgin birth is to be seen not as the cause or the means of the Incarnation but rather as a sign pointing to it. The virgin birth, as a supernatural birth, is a sign of the importance and supernatural character of the One born. It is also a sign to us of God’s initiative in the Incarnation.
[SN: my argument is that the sign now points away from the incarnation]
As the Augustinian approach became orthodoxy it was naturally impossible to conceive of Christ being the product of sexual intercourse. The virgin birth thus became necessary for his sinlessness. Such a view of sex is certainly discredited today, and not only among Protestants.
Karl Barth saw in the virgin birth the expression of a wider truth that is fundamental to his theology. It shows that ‘human nature possesses no capacity for becoming the human nature of Jesus Christ, the place of divine revelation’. While it does become his nature, this is not because of any attributes that it already possesses but rather because of what it suffers and receives at the hand of God. The virgin birth, therefore, is a further denial of man’s natural capacity for God, a favourite theme with Barth.
[SN: this is the symbolic truth of the VB which I'd accept]
...‘lawless desire’ is unnecessary and [Jesus] did not submit to it but rather pointed forward to the future world where there will be no marriage. This ascetic teaching is based on the doctrine of the virgin birth. Such teaching became common in the following centuries. It is not surprising that this development occurred. The Gospel came to a world where the physical and sensual were despised and where asceticism was exalted. It was natural for such ideas to take root within the Church. It was also natural that the virgin birth should be used to support them. Here we have to acknowledge the truth of Barth’s comment that it might have been better for the Christian doctrine of marriage had there been no virgin birth. This does not mean that the virgin birth is untrue; it simply means that, like most doctrines, it is open to abuse.
Is it any more necessary for the virgin birth to have been a historical event than it is, say, for the Good Samaritan to have existed? There are two reasons why it is important for the virgin birth to be historical. The Matthaean narrative is specially inhospitable to a mythical interpretation. Matthew’s aim is apologetic ― to answer the charge of illegitimacy and to point to the fulfilment of prophecy. Neither of these concerns would be satisfied by a mythical, non-historical virgin birth. The appearance of a child before the consummation of marriage cannot be explained by a mythical sign. As Robinson argues, the alternative to the virgin birth is not conception within wedlock ‘for which there is no evidence at all’, but illegitimacy. Secondly, the role of the virgin birth as a sign goes if it did not happen...
If the virgin birth is a fitting sign rather than an absolute necessity does this mean that it is unimportant? It is true that the doctrine of the virgin birth is not as central as the Incarnation, the cross or the resurrection. It appears with these doctrines in the creeds, but it cannot be assumed that all of the doctrines of the creeds are of equal significance. The descent into hell is clearly less significant than the resurrection. That the virgin birth is less central is supported by the paucity of reference to it in the New Testament and by the fact that very little theological use is made of it there. But less central is not to be confused with unimportant. Its inclusion in the creeds clearly implies that it was felt to be important. The Church should proclaim the virgin birth because it happened, because it is scriptural and because it is a pointer to Christ and to his work.
Some closing remarks. The rigorous distinction Lane makes between VB and incarnation is helpful but he seems confused as to whether the VB indicates the humanity or divinity of Christ, and much of the article supports my wider point about the marginality of the doctrine, ie it is a stripping away of all the consequences, so that it loses the capacity to become 'weight-bearing'. His last paragraph (above) is a non sequitur - I want to ask why did the Fathers believe it to be important, what was it that they believed, and is it possible for us to affirm the same today?