Few things are more staggering than the audacity of unbelief. The atheist hates God; therefore, there is no God; he finds miracles an offense; therefore, by definition miracles are an impossibility. And, in particular, as the atheist and agnostic approach the Biblical narrative of the virgin birth, they talk with pseudo-learnedness of myth and legendary accretions. But the narrative, from start to finish, is not only carefully historical, but it also affirms a philosophy of history which is the negation of myth.
The essence of the narrative is that the sovereign and ultimate being, God, became incarnate, was born of the Virgin Mary, in order to establish God's salvation and kingship in history and over history.
The Annunciation (Luke 1:26-38) declares that Jesus will be the Son of God, and the son of David, born very God of very God, and very man of very man. He is identified both as the eternal King, and as the promised messianic king. Therefore the purpose of His coming is not mythical, but also historical: it is to accomplish in history the purposes of God. The myth seeks an escape from history: it is offered as a means of overcoming and ending history. The Annunciation, however, declares the coming of Jesus as the One through whom history is to develop to its logical and necessary conclusion, the Kingdom of God. Hence the intensely historical perspective of both Matthew's and Luke's accounts of the virgin birth.
The problem for the critics is not in the narrative so much as in the God of the narrative, the sovereign God with whom "nothing shall be impossible" (Luke 1:37).
To continue with Luke's account, as the more detailed one, the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) is a triumphant affirmation of faith concerning history. Mary views the coming birth of her son as a triumph in history. She exalts the name of the Lord because He is fulfilling His promises made unto the forefathers. Through the Messiah, God is preparing to dethrone all His enemies, avenge His suffering saints, and show the strength of His arm. A reading of the Magnificat is instructive:
My soul doth magnify the Lord,
And my spirit hath rejoiced in God my Saviour.
For he hath regarded the low estate of his handmaiden: for, behold, from henceforth all generations shall call me blessed.
For he that is mighty hath done to me great things; and holy is his name.
And his mercy is on them that fear him from generation to generation.
He hath shewed strength with his arm; he hath scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He hath put down the mighty from their seats, and exalted them of low degree.
He hath filled the hungry with good things; and the rich he hath sent empty away.
He hath holpen his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy;
As he spake to our fathers, to Abraham, and to his seed for ever.
We have spoken of the audacity of unbelief. It is of two kinds. First, there are those who deny the virgin birth and all that it means. Second, there are those who affirm the virgin birth but not what it means.
To illustrate: Mary has described what the coming of the Son does to history: it is nothing less than the total overturning and redirection of all things. The major step in this overturning is the coming of the Son; after that, all things else follow inevitably in the course of time, so that they can be spoken of as in effect already accomplished. William Arndt admits that the Magnificat means that "through the Messiah, God will dethrone all enemies."1 This is well stated; the Magnificat can mean little else. Then what shall we say when Arndt adds later (with reference to 1:52), "In my opinion, the meaning of the words of Mary is exclusively spiritual," and adds as proof, "The coming of Jesus did not abolish political tyrannies and earthly poverty."2 Is this not likewise a form of unbelief, and a rejection of history? Does it not reduce Christ to the role of a mythical hero come to rescue man from history? What point then is there in the incarnation and in the bodily resurrection if the world is to be written off as the realm of the devil, as historically irrecoverable?
Martin Luther sees the Magnificat as describing six works of God in history: first, mercy; second, God breaks down spiritual pride; third, He puts down the mighty; fourth, He exalts the lowly; fifth and sixth, God fills the hungry with good things, and the rich He sends away empty. Commenting on the third, Luther says:
For He does not destroy the mighty as suddenly as they deserve, but lets them go for a season, until their might has reached its highest point. When it has done this, God does not support it, neither can it support itself; it breaks down of its own weight without any crash or sound, and the oppressed are raised up, also without any sound, for God's strength is in them, and it alone remains when the strength of the mighty has fallen.
Observe, however, that Mary does not say He breaks the seats, but He casts the mighty from their seats. Nor does she say He leaves those of low degree in their low degree, but He exalts them. For while the world stands, authority, rule, power, and seats must remain.3
In his "Epilog" to the Magnificat, Luther addresses John Frederick (1503-1554), the Elector's nephew, with these plain words:
Your Grace should reflect that in all the Scriptures God did not permit any heathen king or prince throughout the length or breadth of the world to be praised, but, contrariwise, to be punished; this is a mighty and terrible example to all rulers. Moreover, even in Israel, His chosen people, He never found a king worthy of praise and not rather of punishment ...
All these things were foreordained by God in order to terrify those in authority, to keep them in fear, and to admonish them of their peril.4
Arndt calls himself Lutheran, but Martin Luther obviously sees no exclusively spiritual meaning in the Magnificat.
Similarly, John Calvin sees the Magnificat in terms of history, and he compares the worldly powers of the Christian era to the tower of Babel builders, whom God, through Mary, declared He would forever confound:
He hath scattered the proud in the thought of their heart. This expression is worthy of notice: for as their pride and ambition are outrageous, as their covetousness is insatiable, they pile up their deliberations to form an immense heap, and, to say all in a single word, they build the tower of Babel (Gen. xi.9). Not satisfied with having made one or another foolish attempt beyond their strength, or with their former schemes of mad presumption, they still add to their amount. When God has for a time looked down from heaven, in silent mockery, on their splendid preparations, he unexpectedly scatters the whole mass: just as when a building is overturned, and its parts, which had formerly been bound together by a strong and firm union, are widely scattered in every direction.5
Throughout his commentary, Calvin very plainly sees the Magnificat as a revelation concerning history, a declaration that God governs history absolutely, and the incarnation as a declaration of His sovereign and redeeming power.
Thus, when Mary says, that it is God who casteth down nobles from their thrones, and exalteth mean persons, she teaches us, that the world does not move and revolve by a blind impulse of Fortune, but that all the revolutions observed in it are brought about by the Providence of God, and that those judgments, which appear to us to disturb and overthrow the entire framework of society, are regulated by God with unerring justice. This is confirmed by the following verse, He hath filled the hungry with good things, and hath sent the rich away empty ... To such godly persons as feel poverty and almost famine, and lift up their cry to God, no small consolation is afforded by this doctrine, that he filleth the hungry with good things.6
As surely as we must beware of the atheists, so must we beware of the unbelief of sniveling preachers who reduce the relevance of the virgin birth to the spiritual realm, who deny its relevance to history, for the Magnificat declares that God has brought salvation to the whole world of man, material and spiritual, religious, political, and economic, and let those who deny this confess their unbelief. The joy of Mary is in the salvation of God, a mighty reversal of all things, of all human values, powers, and plans by God our Savior. The Old Testament promises to the faithful seed are being fulfilled.
In the Benedictus (Luke 1:67-80), this note of triumph in history is carried further. Zacharias rejoices in the fact that God keeps His promises, "as he spake by the mouth of his holy prophets" (Luke 1:70, 72-73). A kinsman redeemer has come, God incarnate as man's next-of-kin and redeemer (vv. 68, 72). We are "saved from our enemies, and from the hand of all that hate us" (v. 71); the meaning is obviously not "spiritual"! The religious salvation through this God-man is cited as being remission of sins and the mercy or grace of God.
Jesus Christ is called the "dayspring" in the Benedictus, i.e., the rising sun or Sun of righteousness (Mal. 4:2), who gives "light to them that sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:78f). The figure is a striking one. Prior to Jesus Christ, the movement of history was meager, and in the dark. The pilgrims of history were afraid to move; they could not move, having no direction in the dark. The movement of history was God's movement, the Biblical revelation. Now, with the fullness of the revelation, God's people move with Him in the light of Christ. According to the Benedictus, the great forward movement of man in history began in Christ and with Christ.
Much more could be said. Suffice it to say that every aspect of the nativity narrative is not only historical, but also directed toward the fulfillment of the historical process. Unbelievers will revert to the pagan cyclical view of history, which is in effect a denial of relevance to history. And Christians who fail to see the historical relevance of the nativity will find little relevance in history. The modern "spiritualizing" of the prophecies of the nativity is a witness to the impotence of the contemporary church. As has been noted, there is no such perversion of Scripture and surrender of history in the works of Luther and Calvin.
1. William F. Arndt, The Gospel According to St. Luke (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1956), 60.
2. Ibid., 62.
3. Jaroslav Pelikan, ed., Luther's Works, Vol. 21 (St. Louis, MI: Concordia, 1956), 343f.
4. Ibid., 356f.
5. John Calvin, Commentary on a Harmony of the Evangelists, I (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1949), 58.
6. Ibid., 60.