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The Virgin Birth & Naturalism

Tuesday, June 20th, 2017

“Christians believe in the virgin birth of Jesus. Materialists believe in the virgin birth of the cosmos. Choose your miracle.” Glen Scrivener, on his twitter feed, @glenscrivener, 5 January 2014.


“We find one virgin birth in the story of the Incarnation:

‘How will this be,’ Mary asked the angel, ‘since I am a virgin?’ The angel answered, ‘The Holy Spirit will come on you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you. So the holy one to be born will be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:38).

Admittedly, this is out of the ordinary. But criticism without alternative is empty; a hypothesis is only plausible or implausible relative to what alternative hypotheses present themselves. So what exactly is the alternative?

My colleague Professor John Lennox debated another Princeton professor, Peter Singer, one of the world’s most influential atheists. Lennox challenged him to answer this question: ‘Why are we here?’ And this was Professor Singer’s response:

We can assume that somehow in the primeval soup we got collections of molecules that became self-replicating; and I don’t think we need any miraculous or mysterious [explanation].1

Self-replicating molecules somehow emerging out of a primeval soup strikes me as leaving substantial room for mystery. In fact, without further clarification, this theory sounds not dissimilar to a virgin birth. Or take Cambridge physicist Stephen Hawking’s latest attempt to propose an atheistic explanation for our universe:

‘…the universe can and will create itself from nothing. Spontaneous creation is the reason there is something rather than nothing, why the universe exists, why we exist.’2

But physical matter doesn’t normally materialize out of nothing, so this account also presents itself as outside the realm of the ordinary. Is this a less miraculous birth than the story of Jesus?

Or, finally, consider the position of the prominent atheist philosopher Quentin Smith:

The fact of the matter is that the most reasonable belief is that we came from nothing, by nothing and for nothing . . . We should . . . acknowledge our foundation in nothingness and feel awe at the marvelous fact that we have a chance to participate briefly in this incredible sunburst that interrupts without reason the reign of non-being.’3

That is a refreshingly honest characterization, but again it is not at all clear why a foundation in nothingness should be viewed as comparatively more reasonable than a foundation in God.

The fact is, we live in a miraculous world. Regardless of a person’s worldview, the extraordinariness of the universe is evident to theists, atheists, and agnostics alike. It is therefore not a matter of whether we believe in a virgin birth, but which virgin birth we choose to accept.

We can believe in the virgin birth of an atheistic universe that is indifferent to us—a universe where ‘there is, at bottom, no design, no purpose, no evil and no good, nothing but blind pitiless indifference.’4

Alternatively, we can believe in the virgin birth of a God who loves us so deeply that he ‘became flesh and made his dwelling among us’ (John 1:14). Emmanuel, God with us.”

Ftnt.#1:“Is There a God,” Melbourne, Australia, 20 July 2011.

Ftnt.#2: Stephen Hawking, The Grand Design (New York: Bantam, 2010), 180.

Ftnt.#3: Quentin Smith, “The Metaphilosophy of Naturalism,” Philo 4.2., 2000.

Ftnt.#4: Richard Dawkins, A River Out of Eden (New York: Perseus, 1995), 133.

Vince Vitale, “Everyone Believes In A Virgin Birth,” 6/16/17, on the blog, A Slice of Infinity; electronic ed. accessed on 6/20/17 here: http://rzim.org/a-slice-of-infinity/everyone-believes-in-a-virgin-birth/ [Italics original.]

*Art: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Gabrielle_et_Jean,_by_Pierre-Auguste_Renoir,_from_C2RMF_cropped.jpg [Labelled for noncommercial reuse.]

Book review: The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption

Monday, March 28th, 2016

[Note: I received a complimentary review copy of the book in kindle format from the publisher.]

Vern Poythress, The Miracles of Jesus: How the Savior’s Mighty Acts Serve as Signs of Redemption. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2016.

  Given brother Poythress’ occupation and credentials – he teaches at Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA and possesses doctorates in mathematics and theology respectively – I expected this book to be somewhat highbrow. I could not have been more wrong! He writes in a lucid, everyday style that avoids technical jargon and sticks to analogies that any reader can understand. I also anticipated a philosophical discussion of miracles, somewhat on the order of a more modern version of C.S. Lewis’ classic Miracles. Once again I was mistaken. Brother Poythress focuses on direct exegesis of the text of the Bible, paying particular attention to the Lord’s miracles in the Gospels of John and Matthew. Along the way he gives a practical tutorial in using Edmund Clowney’s chart of interpreting miracles in their context, as well as looking at greater things pertaining to the gospel that are typologically shadowed in the different types of signs that Christ performed.

  Of course, I don’t subscribe to every bit of interpretation that brother Poythress puts forth. As one would expect from a brother of Presbyterian affiliation, his soteriology and eschatology are thoroughly Reformed (I’m premillennial, dispensational, so some of our future chronology differs, as well as our approach to Israel and the Church!) Nevertheless, I enjoyed reading this book and recommend it as a good primer for studying the gospel miracles in their context. As always, be good Bereans (Acts 17:11) and prayerfully compare everything with the Scriptures themselves!

Condolences That Come True

Wednesday, July 11th, 2012

At funerals people tend to say all manner of things attempting to express sympathy, comfort, and love for the bereaved. The list of possible phrases ranges from the cliché to the genuinely heartfelt – and sometimes the theologically ridiculous, such as “I bet he is playing golf in heaven right now” and other similar absurdities (as if the ineffable realm of glory where God resides is a country club!) Sometimes it is better to follow the approach of Job’s friends who remained silent for seven days – if only they had stayed that way, they might have preserved their mourning friend from undue stress. Perhaps no more significant words were ever spoken at a funeral, however, than when the Lord Jesus Christ told a grieving widow to stop weeping.

A Seemingly Hopeless Scene

The Lord Jesus met the funeral procession coming out of the city of Nain in Galilee. In keeping with Jewish custom, it was probably led by the deceased young man’s widowed mother. Luke 7:12 succinctly sets the painful scene: “…Behold[1], a dead man was being carried out, the only son[2] of his mother; and she was a widow.” Ryle depicts the pathos of the situation in these words: “All funerals are mournful things, but it is difficult to imagine a funeral more mournful than the one here described. It was the funeral of a young man, and that young man the only son of his mother, and that mother a widow. There is not an item in the whole story, which is not full of misery.”[3] Another historian adds: “The fact that this youth was ‘the only son of his mother and she a widow’ would convey to Jewish notions a deeper sorrow than it even does to ours, for they regarded childlessness as a special calamity, and the loss of offspring as a direct punishment for sin (Jer. 6:26; Zech. 12:10; Amos 8:10).”[4] In addition to the emotional stress, this pitiable woman was economically vulnerable, given that her hope of financial support from her two male relatives was gone. There were few opportunities open to her as a means of making a living. She likely stared the wolf of destitution in the face.[5]

Busting Up A Funeral[6]

No one told the Lord of the needs of the widow. Her plight was evident to His all-searching eyes. As a Bible teacher of a former generation expressed it: “He was not indifferent to that widow’s bereavement. Power He could indeed put forth, the power of resurrection. Ere, however, doing that, He evidenced His tender pity. ‘Weep not,’ were the first words that He uttered.”[7] Dennett adds:

The Lord saw her, estimated as no other could the depth of her need, and thus, moved by His own heart, He went to her relief. We do not sufficiently understand this. All can comprehend that the Lord should listen to the cries of His people, but how many of us live in the power of the blessed remembrance of the fact, that our own griefs and sorrows find an answering response in His heart? ‘In all their affliction He was afflicted.’ (Isa.43: 9.) ‘We have not an high priest which cannot be touched with the feeling of our infirmities; but was in all points tempted like as we are — without sin’ (sin apart) (Heb. 4:15.) If a parent bends over his suffering child with yearning pity, ‘like as a father pitieth his children, so the Lord pitieth them that fear Him’ (Psalm 103: 13.) Some who read these lines may be lying on beds of pain and affliction; others, bereaved, may be weeping over their dead; and others again may be mourning over those who are dead in sins. Surely, then, it will be a comfort to all such to remember, that He who, when He saw the widow of Nain following the bier of her only son, had compassion on her, has the same heart for their griefs; that He stands by them with infinite tenderness, waiting both to succour and to console.[8]

   Under the circumstances, the Lord Jesus’ words must have seemed absurd to the point of brutality. Indeed, if anyone else had the temerity to say to the afflicted widow “Stop weeping” (v. 13, NASB mg.) one would reckon them to be foolish at best or sadistic at worst. Happily, Christ is neither cruel nor cunning. He sympathizes with human grief, instead of augmenting it. Of course, He could say this, because He was about to remove the source of this sorrowing woman’s tears. Only Christ can banish weeping in the face of death, for He is the one who vanquishes sin and its effects. While establishing His messianic identity, the miracle in Nain was also a harbinger of a better resurrection to come (1 Cor. 15:20-23.) What is more, it gives one insight into God’s heart. As one writer notes:

In view of such miracles, possibly we dwell too exclusively upon their purpose as authenticating the mission of Jesus, or as demonstrating his divine message. These purposes are real, but we must never forget that such works were also manifestations of the nature of the ministry of Jesus and revelations of the very heart of God. Such recitals dry the tears of mourners and bind up broken hearts and inspire the despondent with eternal hope. Surely Jesus is the Lord of life and he will yet wipe away all tears from the eyes of those that trust him.[9]

Who Can Cheer The Heart Like Jesus?

Christ is the comforter par excellence. Ironside alludes to this with a poignant queston: “Who can dry tears like Jesus? Some day He will wipe away all tears from the eyes of His redeemed (Rev. 21:4), for He is God as well as Man. When He bade the widow dry her tears, He did not merely seek to soothe, but He was about to work a miracle that would fill her heart with unexpected joy.”[10] In the same vein, another writer comments: “The Lord’s words expressed His compassion, but they proved to be far from merely hollow words of encouragement. He would shortly give her reason not to weep but to rejoice.”[11] The Lord told her to stop weeping, knowing that moments later He would restore the dead man to life by His powerful word. A contemporary commentator elucidates the key words in the aftermath of this sign: “Notice the verb: he gave him to her. In that wonderful moment, no conditions were laid down, no promises extracted. The awesome gift of new, unexpected life was apparently an unconditional gift, an action of the unqualified grace of God.”[12]

The Lord Jesus triumphed over death at the cross by dying for sin. By removing the cause of death, He disarmed this feared weapon (Heb. 2:14; 1 Cor. 15:55-57.) A classic hymn poetically puts forth the stunning contrast:

Lord of life to death once subject,

Blesser yet a curse once made.

Of Thy Father’s heart the object,

Yet in depths of anguish laid.[13]

Christ tasted death for everyone, so that those who receive Him by faith could live eternally. It is this certain and unwavering hope that consoles the saints as they travel through the valley of death’s shadow. He draws alongside sickbeds and gravesides and says: “Stop weeping.” There is substance and power behind these words; true comfort that only the Lord Jesus offers.

[1] The word “behold” is emphatic in the original language, as Nolland notes: “An emphatic καὶ ἰδού…” John Nolland, Luke 1:1–9:20. Word Biblical Commentary, Vol. 35A. Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 2002, p. 320. Therefore, Luke is drawing the reader’s attention to the pathetic scene of the dead only son and his widowed mother.

[2] F.W. Farrar points out the emotional nuances of the Greek phrase that underlies “the only son of his mother,” saying: “The dative is here expressive of more tender feeling than the ordinary genitive would have been. It is the dative of advantage, and expresses the preciousness of the son to the mother.” F. W. Farrar, The Gospel According to St Luke, Cambridge Greek Testament for Schools and Colleges, (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1893), p. 198.

[3] J. C. Ryle, Expository Thoughts on Luke, Vol. 1, (New York: Robert Carter & Brothers, 1879), p. 208.

[4] Farrar, pp. 147-148.

[5] Hendriksen’s remarks are apposite: “With the death of this only son the woman’s final source of support and protection is gone and the hope of perpetuating the family line has vanished. Is this death, after the earlier death of her husband, also a severe trial for her faith in a God who loves and cares? Though the text does not indicate this, we must at least consider this possibility. Her condition is indeed tragic.”

William Hendriksen, Exposition of the Gospel According to Luke, New Testament Commentary, Vol. 11. (Grand Rapids: Baker Book House, 1978), p. 384.

[6] “Someone has said that He broke up every funeral He met.” J. Vernon McGee, Thru the Bible Commentary, electronic ed., Lk 7:16 (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1997).

[7] C.E. Stuart, From Advent To Advent (Luke), (Galaxie Software, 2004), p. 82.

[8] Edward Dennett, “The Three Raisings of the Dead.” Christian Friend, Vol. 7, 1880, p. 260. Electronic ed.: http://www.stempublishing.com/authors/dennett/3deadrai.html  Accessed on 7/10/12.

[9] Charles R. Erdman, The Gospel of Luke: An Exposition. Philadelphia: 1921, p. 75.

[10] H. A. Ironside, Addresses on the Gospel of Luke. (Neptune, NJ: Loizeaux Brothers, 1947), p. 218.

[11] Thomas Constable, Constable’s Notes: Luke. pdf., p. 85; accessible here: http://www.soniclight.com/constable/notes.htm Accessed on 7/11/12.

[12] David W. Gooding, According To Luke. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1987, pp. 132-133.

[13] Richard Holden, “Lord of glory, we adore thee”; accessed here: http://www.stempublishing.com/hymns/data/Dv1881_3.htm#134 On 7/11/12.

To download in pdf., click here: Condolences That Come True