Mary gets more attention than usual this time of year, at least in Protestant churches. But Richard A. Shenk points out in his new book, The Virgin Birth of Christ: The Rich Meaning of a Biblical Truth, that in Evangelical churches, the why of the virgin birth receives less attention than the fact of it. This, despite the fact that the Virgin Birth was one of the “Five Fundamentals” of the twentieth century’s modernist/fundamentalist debates. In response, Shenk, a pastor and seminary professor, focuses his short volume on the whys and wherefores.
Shenk considers how Jesus’s birth by the Virgin Mary helps to reveal his “full humanity” and “full divinity”; how it counteracts inclinations toward full-blown naturalism; how it provides one solution to the puzzle of the bestowal of the Kingdom upon Jesus in light of Jeremiah’s pronouncement against Jehoiachin’s seed ever sitting on David’s throne; and how it heralds a new creation.
What ties together Shenk’s different arguments is what I call the divine inversion—the many ways in which God acts contrary not merely to physical nature, but to what humans take to be the natural order of things in the social and political world. God inverts natural orders, both human and physical, to reveal that it is God himself who acts.
In the Magnificat, Mary exalts God for her miraculous pregnancy, but the implications expand. Reminiscent of Hannah’s song in 1 Samuel, the Magnificat proceeds from the inversion of ordinary physical processes in Mary’s miraculous conception to the inversion of the natural political and social world:
For He has had regard for the humble state of His bondslave;
For behold, from this time on all generations will count me blessed.
For the Mighty One has done great things for me; and holy is His name.
. . .
He has done mighty deeds with His arm;
He has scattered those who were proud in the thoughts of their heart.
He has brought down rulers from their thrones,
And has exalted those who were humble.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
And sent away the rich empty-handed.
He has given help to Israel His servant,
In remembrance of His mercy,
As He spoke to our fathers,
To Abraham and his descendants.
There are examples of the divine inversion throughout the Scriptures. Of particular note in the context of the Virgin Birth are the other miraculous conceptions. Mary’s virgin conception, as it were, is the telos of the conceptions by barren women in the Scriptures.
In response to Mary’s question how she, a virgin, could bear a child, Gabriel points to the miracle of Mary’s relative, Elizabeth, who “has also conceived a son in her old age; and she who was called barren is now in her sixth month. For nothing is impossible with God.”
Sarah, Rebekah, and Rachel (the first three generations of the promised line), Hannah, and others all crescendo to Mary. This is all counterintuitive. If one wants to create a people as numerous as the sand or the stars, one does not begin with Sarah, a barren woman well past child-bearing age, and Abraham, an old man whom God had commanded to scar his genitalia. One does not then select as matriarchs for two additional generations women who likewise seem unable to conceive, and whose husbands likewise have scarred genitalia. And, by definition, one does not choose a virgin to birth a child. All of this underscores that it is God who acts to bring about his promise. God confounds to show he is at work.
Like Mary in the Magnificat, Hannah, Samuel’s mother, begins her song with God’s work in allowing her to conceive, and generalizes to God’s other inversions:
He raises the poor from the dust,
He lifts the needy from the ash heap
To make them sit with nobles,
And inherit a seat of honor;
For the pillars of the earth are theLord’s,
And He set the world on them.
He keeps the feet of His godly ones,
But the wicked ones are silenced in darkness;
For not by might shall a man prevail.
A clue to understanding the Virgin Birth, the line of barren women, and the divine inversion more generally, comes in this line: “For not by might shall a man prevail.” This inversion challenges today as much as it challenged yesterday. For we all know instinctively and by observation that it is by might that people prevail. We see it every day, in small things and large.
But the Virgin Birth, like the Cross itself, confounds what we think we know; it confounds our belief that power, whether human power or the brute force of nature, prevails in the world. To be sure, the confounding calls immediately for theodicy: Why do we see power win so often and see divine inversion so seldom? But confound us it does. A virgin giving birth. A king—the King—lying in a manger. A dead God on a stick. These, along with the many other inversions in the Bible, both big and small, promise the possibility of a different world, a world in which God inverts the natural order of things, including the natural of the human world. “For not by might shall a man prevail.”
James R. Rogers is associate professor of political science at Texas A&M University.