Virgin Birth, Really?

ALERT! This article may frustrate or even anger you.

If you fully embrace your religion and are happy with how well it’s working for you, please, read no further. If on the other hand you long for more from your faith system, please read on. Also, if you have pretty much left religion behind, I hope you will read this piece … atheists please take note.


Back in 1953 my father came home from seminary very frustrated.  His systematic theology professor had said something about how believing in the Virgin Birth was fine for Catholics but not so much for Protestants. My dad’s teacher had pointed out that the earliest gospels make no reference to the virgin birth. Neither does Paul in his letters to the young church. That was my first encounter with what I now know is common in so-called progressive churches. Back then, and still today, it’s generally OK in a “liberal” church to question many of the traditional belief systems of the conservative denominations.

Fast forward 10 years from 1953. By this time my father had preached several controversial sermons. For example, regarding the virgin birth my dad had said very clearly that most likely Joseph was Jesus’ father and the Holy Spirit had no more involvement with Jesus’ conception than with any sexual union between two people who are deeply in love. Preaching sermons like this my fairly conservative but theologically aggressive father had acquired a reputation for being a prophetic preacher; so much so that eventually he was forced to leave his congregation in Portland, Oregon! He was considered “too political” for that particular church. The defining fluff-up was in 1963, the result of his saying from the pulpit that perhaps we should all listen to Oregon’s politically incorrect Senator Wayne Morse. The good senator had shocked everyone. On the floor of the Senate he unflinchingly told his colleagues the build-up to war in Viet Nam was wrong and dangerous.

Move along another 10 years to 1973. Following Dad’s example of questioning religious norms I had decided I really didn’t believe in the resurrection. I knew, of course, this was a quantum leap from questioning the Virgin Birth. So I wasn’t about to go to my father and have a nice little chat with him on this subject. I did what I thought was the sensible thing. I wrote to one of his favorite theologians William Barclay for his thoughts on this issue. I was ready to hear back from Dr. Barclay that I was way off base. I was surprised and elated to get a quick response back. He said he agreed with me! He said, and I quote: “As a matter of fact, I don’t believe in a physical resurrection myself.” I have the original of that letter in my safe deposit box. 

Unfortunately my father did not take kindly to Barclay’s comment. I will write more about that soon. For now let me just say what followed was 20 years questioning much of what I’d learned in Sunday school classes and vacation bible school in a conservative Presbyterian church in Millwood, Washington. In my youth I’d also spent quite a few hours at the knee of my conservative and very loving paternal grandmother. In 1994, at age 52 I began my formal religious studies at San Francisco Theological Seminary, “the left seminary on the left coast.” Fortunately, during the next four years I found myself on a steep but most nourishing learning curve. At this point you’re probably thinking, so what? Please stay tuned.


  1. Richard Manhire says

    It sounds like are are an agent of change, or probably always have been. I commend you for diligently exploring your ideas and then being brave enough to share in the face of a couple thousand years of religious tradition.

    Jesus, also, was “an agent of change” —understood by some, misunderstood by others, a threat to probably most, if not all, in the political and religious establishment—ultimately he died for his beliefs.

    I believe there is a Prime Mover, I call him (maybe her, maybe asexual) God. And I believe he entered our world through his son Jesus, to speak to us, to accept us, and to loves and teach us to love and help others in return.

    The virgin birth is a nice, warm fuzzy, way to tell the manger scene story, but not a critical element in the reality of God intervening with man on earth, Joseph probably was the father. In my opinion, I don’t think that detracts from the God-Man relationship.

    I have more hesitancy understanding the resurrection. I know Jesus died a horrific death (not uncommon in those days, even today the Saudi killing of the Washington Post newsman shouts the barbaric nature of mankind). My hope is that after death we will go to heaven to live with God, our maker, and see our loving family members and friends again. Jesus said, “I go to prepare a place for you….”

    The Christmas season is the perfect time to re-evaluate our beliefs and celebrate the good things we have been given, and acknowledge and act upon the needs of others who have little. Matthew 10: 7 – 8–“freely you have received, freely give,”
    Luke 10: 30-37, also speaks loud and clear about the essence of the Christmas season in the parable of the Good Samaritan.

    Thanks again John for giving me a couple hours today to reflect and recharge my God/Jesus batteries. It’s been a wonderful way to spend an afternoon.

    We wish you all a wonderful God/Christ/ family time this Christmas season. Enjoy!


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