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The Pope, what a surprise, insists in his new book that the Virgin Birth is a core Christian belief: ‘This is,’ he says, ‘a scandal for the modern spirit’

Mary, says Newman, symbolises not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church, who have to draw the line between truth and heresy. This Pope is one of them

By on Wednesday, 28 November 2012

Pope Benedict XVI holds a copy of his book The Infancy Narratives (Photo: CNS)

Pope Benedict XVI holds a copy of his book The Infancy Narratives (Photo: CNS)

The Holy Father’s third and final meditation on the life of Christ, The Infancy Narratives (which he describes as being “not a third volume, but a kind of small ‘antechamber’ to the two earlier volumes”) has now been published, in time for Christmas. I have only just begun reading it (I have it so quickly thanks to my Kindle, how did I ever live without it?) but I can record from the secular press that Pope Benedict is being widely reported, with apparent amazement, as saying that the Virgin Birth is actually true. Jesus’s Virgin Birth and his Resurrection from the dead, writes Pope Benedict, are the two moments in the Gospels when “God intervenes directly into the material world”. In other words, both are events which actually happened: they are history and not myth. “This is a scandal for the modern spirit,” the Holy Father notes, since in today’s world God is “allowed to operate on thought and ideas but not on matter”. But for just this reason, he adds, Mary’s virginity is a “test” and a “fundamental element” of the Christian faith.

Absolutely. Ever since I was converted to the Christian religion in my early 30s after a lifetime of atheism, I have firmly believed (by which I mean known) that the infancy narratives were true, and that the notion that these were stories which were a kind of meditation on faith, so they could not be literally true as well, was meaningless. There is no necessary dichotomy between meditation and historicity: that very simple fact is conveyed most beautifully by the sublime sentence in Luke’s gospel which also reveals, surely, the evangelist’s source as being Our Lady herself: “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart.”

Similarly, it has always seemed to me one of the most transparently bogus propositions of liberal Protestant biblical criticism that since the fourth gospel is a great meditation on the meaning of the faith, it is therefore much less historically to be relied upon than the synoptic gospels. It’s quite clear that John is presenting his gospel as a historical record whose truth is to be believed in, and not as a meditation. That it is that, too, is the product of John’s sublime spiritual and literary genius: but he ends the gospel (ch 21) by declaring that he is “the disciple who testifies to these things and who wrote them down” and … ”that his testimony is true”. He also records (20: 30-31) that “Jesus did many … miraculous signs in the presence of his disciples, which are not recorded in this book. But these are written that you may believe that Jesus is the Christ, the Son of God, and that by believing you may have life in his name.” We are to believe, because it is true that these things happened.

Similarly with the Lucan infancy narratives. “But Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart” (Luke ii. 19). As vicar of St Mary’s, Newman preached one of his greatest sermons on this text (to which of course he returns in The Development of Christian Doctrine), in which he insists that simply knowing the historic narrative of God’s interventions in human history is not enough: they are to be pondered, ingested, truly understood:

“… Mary’s faith did not end in a mere acquiescence in Divine providences and revelations: as the text informs us, she ‘pondered’ them. When the shepherds came, and told of the vision of Angels which they had seen at the time of the Nativity, and how one of them announced that the Infant in her arms was ‘the Saviour, which is Christ the Lord’, while others did but wonder, ‘Mary kept all these things, and pondered them in her heart’. Again, when her Son and Saviour had come to the age of twelve years, and had left her for awhile for His Father’s service, and had been found, to her surprise, in the Temple, amid the doctors, both hearing them and asking them questions, and had, on her addressing Him, vouchsafed to justify His conduct, we are told, “His mother kept all these sayings in her heart…

“Thus St Mary is our pattern of Faith, both in the reception and in the study of Divine Truth. She does not think it enough to accept, she dwells upon it; not enough to possess, she uses it; not enough to assent, she develops it; not enough to submit the Reason, she reasons upon it; not indeed reasoning first, and believing afterwards, with Zacharias, yet first believing without reasoning, next from love and reverence, reasoning after believing.”

This passage from Newman’s sermon continues with the following, which I cannot help applying to the present Holy Father, a more recent great ponderer in his heart on the events surrounding our Lord’s birth. For, Newman thinks that it is not enough simply to immerse ourselves in the sublimity of this wonderful story; and neither does Joseph Ratzinger, a man of transparent simplicity of faith but also of great subtlety of mind and at the same time heroic pugnacity of spirit faced by the dangers of aggressive secularity, not only outside the Church but within it, too. The faith is to be both pondered and fought for: “And thus”, says Newman, Mary “symbolises to us, not only the faith of the unlearned, but of the doctors of the Church also, who have to investigate, and weigh, and define, as well as to profess the Gospel; to draw the line between truth and heresy; to anticipate or remedy the various aberrations of wrong reason; to combat pride and recklessness with their own arms; and thus to triumph over the sophist and the innovator.”

Thus, too, Newman himself; of whom, surely Pope Benedict (who knows his writings well and has acknowledged their influence) more and more shows himself to be one of his greatest successors as a defender of the faith, one who notably triumphs over the sophist and the innovator as well as being a true model of simple faith.

  • PauloVI

    Yes, well said, the Virgin Birth, the Resurrection of the physical body are absolutely basic to Christianity. Without believing in these one is simply not a Christian.

  • Kevin

    Of course, you could save money on the Pope’s book and look up the Apostle’s Creed.

  • Kevin

    Erratum: Apostles’ Creed.

  • GratefulCatholic

    Thank you Dr Oddie for the defence of the Gospel of St John.

  • W Oddie

    So, you think the apostle’s creed mean you don’t need to read the bible?

  • Alexander VI

    If the virgin birth is a “core belief” then why is it not mentioned in Mark’s or John’s gospel or in St Paul?

  • Isaac

    (If this is a rhetorical question: ) What makes you think that core beliefs should be mentioned either in a gospel or in St. Paul?

    (And perhaps St. Paul did mention it in his Epistle to the Laodiceans!)

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Because we need the whole of the Bible and the teaching authority of the Church rather than just whatever selections happen to suit a particular heresy.

  • NewMeena

    But all the Gospels are not used in constructing the New Testament.  The whole of this book is based on careful selection and quiet rejection – with several contradictions in the selection, probably passing unnoticed at the time. 

    Of Mathew, Mark, Luke and John, two talk of the Virgin birth and it is so important that the other two don’t even mention it.

    By the way (because it’s nearly Christmas) John also doesn’t believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem.  Do any of the other (brushed to one side and apparently superfluous) Gospels agree with him – and how many of the these do not even mention the Virgin birth?

    I’m asking. Does anyone know (I’m sure many do), who is also prepared to tell?

  • scary goat

    Very nice.  Thank you Dr. Oddie and thank you Pope Benedict.

  • Jon Brownridge

    Pope Benedict’s new look at the Virgin Birth story will please all the anti-VII Catholics of course, but it might have been wiser to leave it alone at this point in time. As a reader and admirer of Karl Rahner I have been quite influenced by his work, and the fact that Pope John XXIII appointed him “peritus” to the Second Vatican Council testifies to his influence on that body. “What an insult to sacred scripture,” Rahner said, “to ask if the virgin birth is literally true.” That is not what this story is about. The symbolism and implications for “men of goodwill” stretch far back into human history. The story itself – a virgin impregnated by one of the Gods brings forth a man-God who will save his people – can be traced back 5 millenia and more. Surely, with an educated populous in today’s world we can take an educated look at sacred scripture and benefit from its deep, soul-searing symbolism without thinking, like a child, that everything must be literally true.

  • Alexander VI

    We are a sophisticated theologian aren’t we?

  • TabBaMaMa

    It was a Celestial being from the sky, an alien, that impregnated Mary. He told her afterwards, did not ask her permission first. An abuse against women. The test was Joseph’s, and he stood by her. Hymen or no hymen, that’s not the point. It was impregnation by artificial means, without consent.
    Kindles are a rubbish waste of money. You can get it free on any Tablet or Android phone.

  • EndTimes101

    Er, so, what happened to your last blog post then Mr Oddie? Something about UKIP seems to guarantee censorship…..weird world we live in.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Rahner: one of the reasons the Church has gone wrong in the last fifty years. He, Congar and the others weren’t suspected of bad theology for nothing, as the FACTS of the post-Vatican II period conclusively show. 

    Your view of Scripture is un-Catholic. In fact, un-Christian. In the sense that if you believe Scripture to be “soul-searing symbolism” (what a line!) and nothing more, you ain’t either.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Prat

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    No, it’s Catholicism 101. You’re not even at first base.

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Let’s hope Archbishop Muller of the CDF buys a copy.

  • Potablepaj

     You’re right. Matthew and Luke don’t help that much either. In Matthew God talks only to Joseph, in Luke God talks only to Mary. Joseph and Mary do not appear to talk to one another at all. Quite how Joseph felt about ‘ever virgin’ is not on record. Post partum virginity is a meaningless miracle with a very unpleasant indication of catholicism’s attitude to married, child bearing women.

  • Parasum

    “The Pope, what a surprise, insists in his new
    book that the Virgin Birth is a core Christian belief: ‘This is,’ he
    says, ‘a scandal for the modern spirit’”

    ## Then it needs to be explained why it is that. People who have their POV, might have more patience with dogmatically-minded Christians if only it were explained to them why  what seems like wilful fantasising & closed-mindedness is not. STM that Christians do a rotten job of seeing how the other man thinks.

    Something can be a scandal by its very nature – like the Cross; or it can be a scandal because Christians don’t do anything like enough to try to explain why it is *within Christianity* entirely credible. STM they are very cruel to atheists – they expect them to believe things no atheist possibly can, by reason of his POV. Unbelievers deserve better than that.

  • http://cumlazaro.blogspot.com/ Lazarus

    Thank you!

  • GildasWiseman

    My thoughts exactly

  • GildasWiseman

    The virgin birth is dogma. St Thomas Aquinas made it quite clear; If a Catholic denies just one of the defined doctrines of the Church he is no longer in communion with the Catholic Church.
    In fact, he is in a state of heresy and needs to reconcile back to the Church if he wishes to be saved from his sins.
    As for Karl Rahner,  He was instrumental in having the schema on Our Blessed Lady, titled, ‘The Mother of the Church’ removed from the council documents and inserted into the schema on the Church. Many orthodox bishops were utterly opposed to this action. Archbishop Mingo of Monreale described the insertion as “absolutely and radically mutilated” This of course was done in the interest of ecumenism, so as not to offend the Protestants. Interestingly enough the Eastern rite bishops did their level best to oppose this disgraceful insertion.

  • Ronk

     Exactly how many times, and in how many different books, does God’s inerrant Word have to tell you something, before you actually believe it?

    Apart from the fact that St Mark’s and St John’s gospels and St Paul’s letters make no attempt to tell the story of our Lord’s birth, it’s hardly surprising that they don’t mention the circumstances of it.

  • Ronk

    Our secular media in Australia don’t seem surprised that the Pope reaffirmed the virgin birth. They headlined the story with the claims that the Pope says that “there were no animals present at Jesus’ birth” and that “the story of the angels singing ‘Glory to God …’ to the shepherds, never happened.”

    Now I concede that animals are not actually mentioned in the Gospels, although it seems perfectly reasonable to assume that animals would be present in a stable. But as for the angel choir, the Evangelist affirms that it positively didn happen, so the Pope’s alleged quote seems impossible.

    Would somebody who has read the book tell me what the Pope actually said on these two subjects?

  • W Oddie

    About the animals, he says that though they’re not actually mentioned in the gospel, it’s difficult now to envisage the stables without them, and says that “prayerful reflection” on the scene pointed to Is !:3 “the ox knows its owner, and the ass its master’s crib”. Of the angel’s song, he says that the evangelist says the angels “said” “Glory to God in the highest”, but “Christianity has always understood that the speech of angels is actually song”

  • W Oddie

    I haven’t got either a tablet or android phone, both of which are very much more expensive. Waste of money yourself.

  • Jonathan West

    Which version of the virgin birth story does the Pope believe in? 

    Does he believe in Luke? i.e. the census, the visit to Bethlehem, the appearance of the angels to the shepherds, and the return to Nazareth?

    Or does he believe in Matthew? Matthew has an entirely different story: Jesus born in Bethlehem where Joseph and Mary were living, the visit of the Magi to Jerusalem following the star, the onward journey to Bethlehem after meeting Herod, the Magi’s dream and return to the east by another route, the flight to Egypt, the massacre of the innocents, and the subsequent return to Nazareth, because Bethlehem was still too dangerous because it was being ruled over by Herod’s son.

    And why were the gospel writers not able to agree on their story, since Mary was around for much of Jesus’ life and so would have been able to tell people how it really happened. How did two such radically different stories get about, unless they were independently made up?

    And which of the genealogies is right? Is it Matthew 1:1-16, in which Jesus is descended (via Joseph) from David through 27 generations? Or is it Luke 3:23-38, in which Jesus is descended (again via Joseph but otherwise by an almost entirely different route) from David through 42 generations? Or is Jesus not the Messiah in fulfilment of the Old Testament prophecies because he’s not descended from David at all, because Mary was impregnated by God, not by Joseph?

    Of course, there is every reason to think the stories were made up. Mark doesn’t address the early life of Jesus at all, and nor does John. John mentions at one point that people were surprised that the Messiah should come from Nazareth (and spoke with a Nazarene accent) when the prophecies stated he would be born in Bethlehem. This was clearly an issue in terms of accepting Jesus as the Messiah in the years after hid death, so I rather suspect that Matthew and Luke both decided that, despite appearances, Jesus must have been born in Bethlehem since they believed he was the Messiah, and each proceeded to write a birth narrative that would put him there and also explain how it was that Jesus spent most of his time in Galilee.

  • W Oddie

    Archbishop Mueller never denied the virgin birth: he simply elucidated that the DOCTRINE of the virgin birth  has less to do with its physical details (the hymen not being ruptured etc) than  “with the
    healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature.”   That is entirely orthodox, and nowhere denies Our Lady’s perpetual virginity: it explains its meaning. The Pope would hardly appoint a heretic to the CDF; don’t be SILLYs)He says that it is concerned rather “with the healing and saving influence of the grace of the Savior on human nature.” 

  • W Oddie

    Delete the final sentence (from “He says”), an involuntary repetition

  • W Oddie

    What ARE you talking about?

  • W Oddie

    Oh yes, now I remember

  • W Oddie

    And it was WITH consent: “be it unto me according to your word”. Stick that up your android

  • EndTimes101

     Glad you remembered. So why was your article removed from this website?

  • Fr Heythrop

    The infancy narratives are not empirical historical reports they are a particular literary form similar to jewish  Haggadic  midrash.     

  • Jonathan West

    If they are regarded as being literary rather than historical, then contrary to what the Pope has said, their historical truth of any aspect of them does not form a core Christian belief.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Mr West:  Please explain where there is any contradiction in the two different versions of the birth of Christ as set out in your comment.

  • Alexander VI

    “Without believing in these one is simply not a Christian….er…did St Paul believe in the virgin birth?

  • Lewispbuckingham

     The infancy narratives in the Gospels are a particular form of literature, and are not meant to be taken literally as a biography of Jesus’ early life. They are meant to place before the hearer particular religious truths. One of tese is that Jesus had no earthly father – you will notice that they all agree on this. Wherever He was historically born and by whomever He was visited, the central message of all Gospels is that Jesus was born of a virgin and that He was the messiah. The Gospe3l writers used different literary devices to bring out these truths in a way their different hearers could understand.I would be confident that being a theologian and aware of modern biblical criticism, this would be the pope’s position. It is certainly the position of all mainstream Catholic scholars.

  • Fr Heythrop

    I agree.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Thanks for that explanation.  It is truly amazing how some remark can be taken completely out of context.  The evangelist presumably took it for granted that if he mentioned a manger then it would be clear that there was a stable for where else do you have mangers?  Further a stable attached to an inn would presumably be provided for the transport means of its guests which I would presume were donkeys at that time.  If I look in the Michelin and see the symbol for a garage I assume that guests will park their cars in it despite the fact that no explicit mention is made of that!  As to an ox they are often kept to provide manure for the vegetable garden – at least in Portugal this is still the case.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Perhaps you could explain to a believer what POV and STM stand for.

  • Nicolas Bellord

    Where does St John the Evangelist say that he does not believe that Jesus was born in Bethlehem?

  • Dorotheus

    The virginal conception of Christ may be a scandal to the modern spirit, but that in itself does not make it an historical truth. There is a difference between meditation and historicity. The Pope’s thoughts on the meaning of the Christmas story are one thing, but the question of its historicity is something else. It cannot be only a matter of faith or believing, but must surely be based on historical study of the Gospel texts. The Pope’s writings do rather slide between these two in a way that shows little subtlety of mind. Many Christians today find it possible to believe in Christ as the Son of God, the incarnate Word, without the need for a miraculous supernatural intervention of the Spirit into the womb of the virginal Mary. They see the action of God not in this quasi-mechanical way, which is dependent on a set of assumptions about God and the physical world which probably few today really support, but as more subtle, mysterious, deeply interfused (as Wordsworth put it). In short they think that simple faith should not be merely simplistic.

  • Jonathan West

    I thought I already had. But to take one point, Luke has Mary & Joseph living in Nazareth and only visiting Bethlehem because of the census, with the birth occurring during the visit. Matthew has Mary and Joseph originally being from Bethlehem, but escaping to Egypt to escape Herod, and then returning not to Bethlehem but rather to Nazareth because Bethlemen was still too dangerous because Herod’s son ruled there.

    These are two entirely incompatible accounts of how Jesus came to be born in Bethlehem but brought up in Nazareth. They start from completely different premises – i.e. where Mary & Joseph used to live before Jesus’ birth. Is that enough of a contradiction for you?

  • Jonathan West

    So, to boil that down to essentials, they made up stories to illustrate what they had decided must be true.

  • Peter

    We should not be surprised by the Virgin Birth and the Resurrection.

    God operates on matter all the time.  If He did not, creation would cease to exist.  God keeps creation constantly in being from one instant to the next.  He operates on matter continuously, keeping it in existence.  The moment He stops doing so, the whole of creation will simply cease to be.  Our ongoing existence is testament to God’s continuous operation on matter.  

    “He sustains the universe with his command” (Heb 1:3)

  • http://profile.yahoo.com/PWZKI7JBARE4DDT3NQ22RWMOJE Benedict Carter

    Sorry Dr Oddie but you are wrong on this. 

    Various past Popes have written on this very matter that the doctrine of Our Lady’s perpetual virginity is to be held by Catholics in its WHOLENESS, viz. the physical aspects as well as the theological. 

    As to Muller being a heretic: I don’t think he is one. But some of his theology, like some of that of the Pope who appointed him, can rightly be considered “strange” at the least.

  • Jon Brownridge

     Me too!

  • Jon Brownridge

     That is rather like saying if you’re not Conservative, you’re not really British. As Catholics, we have managed to get a lot of things wrong. If we shoot down everyone who tries to re-think some of our erroneous beliefs we will be stuck forever in a culture of magic and make believe. Rahner certainly did rock the boat in many ways, but it was a boat that sure needed rocking.