The Science of the Virgin Birth

By the Rev. B. T. Stafford, D.D., Utica, N. Y.

 

SOME definition at the start will help to clarity and direction of thought. What is meant by science? What is it to be scientific? Both words are largely used: sometimes intelligently and frequently otherwise. The patient searcher after Law and the lines of its expression, uses both words cautiously and aggressively. The charlatan uses them to put over on the uncritical people his assumed superior knowledge. Strip this of assertive rhetoric and that left is purely personal opinion, which in no sense at all is scientific, nor any part of the body of science. To the mind functioning in the forms of the Middle Ages, these words are usually disturbing. The person speaking from the emotions and resting argument upon them is loath to see the more excellent way. Melancthon appealed constantly to the facts of Catholic antiquity, and so could not get on with Luther, who cared nothing at all for any other authority than that of his feelings and argued opinion. A class of honest thinkers define science as tabulated knowledge. People in a state of restricted mental culture possess tabulated knowledge, but no science. For example, the Greeks and the Romans had some tabulated knowledge of the heavenly bodies, but the lines of modern scientific astronomy were not in all their thinking. The fact is recorded that the Humboldt Current off the west coast of South America has recently moved far out in the Pacific Ocean: the science of the fact is unknown. A volcano in Hawaii poured forth a stream of lava so intensely hot as to melt a large and solid block of granite in a few seconds. There is no scientific explanation of how that heat was generated. A guyser in New Zealand becomes active when soap is cast into it. The science of this astonishing fact is unknown. There are racial facts a plenty of which the science has not been discovered. In all of their generations, the Irish and the Welsh have kept themselves cordially apart. Why? We do not possess the science. Italians and Negroes have been unable to work together. Possibly the traditions of Hannibal explain this fact, though it seems far-fetched.

And so, science is the explanation of the phenomena of the seen and unseen worlds in the terms of Law. What is Law? Law is the way Almighty God takes to do things. Because things are transacting all the time and in all places, the realm and reign of Law is universal. The expressions of Law are varied. There are diversities of operation, but it is the same God that worketh all in all.

The first account in history of the reign of Law in the physical world is the first chapter of Genesis. The first statement of the presence and operation of Law in character building is the second chapter (vv. 15–17). From this point on all through the Scriptures the science of moral character building by obedience to Law is stated and explained, while in the other religious literatures of the world it is not found. This reign of Law in the seen and unseen worlds, as expressive of the working of divine thought, power, and love, is above and distinct from speculative reasoning and its changes. It is now, as always, in conflict with the dominion of capricious demons and the tyranny of inexorable facts. It endures through the ages, and its product is, and ever will be, the victory of humanity. The words of Our Lord are clear and definite: Till heaven and earth pass, one jot or one tittle shall in no wise pass from the Law, till all be fulfilled.

Knowledge of this reign of Law was the originating source of the Hebrew mentality. The constant teaching of the prophets was for making it the constructive power in the thought and moral ambition of the people. Opinion was the supreme authority with the surrounding peoples: their feeling of opposition to the reign of Law is stated in the Second Psalm. In political consultative combinations, such as the Council of Vienna and the Potsdam Conference, there is something remarkably modern suggested by these verses (2–5): The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against His anointed, saying, Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us. He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision. How those having this mentality suffered, endured, and survived may be read in the eleventh chapter of the Hebrews. This mentality was that of Our Lord, for he confessed: I am not come to destroy the Law and the prophets: I am not come to destroy, but to fulfill. This is the scientific mentality, and its journey through the centuries is the intellectual tragedy of this Western world.

Like every constructive system of thought, science has its rules for work. One is this: “As it was in the beginning, (it) is now, and ever shall be, world without end.” To this formula, the scientific man fastens and will not budge an inch. A modern scientist is just as insistent on obedience to its mandates as was our Lord. He stoutly challenged the suggestion that He taught a new formula for moral character building. His teaching was that of Moses and all the prophets. Moreover, in the present day they are the standards of final judgment, for the words that I have spoken, the same shall judge him in the last day. In the perfected Kingdom of God, the principles of spiritual comradeship will be those of communion by sacrifice, the same as here. The scientist, as did Our Lord, makes the present the watershed of time, from which the streams of yesterday and to-morrow take their way.

Such being the nature and method of science, the question appears, Is the enduring explanation of the Virgin Birth furnished by the expressions of Law involved in the coming of personality into this world? There are two accounts of it in the New Testament. One is by a Hebrew called Matthew: the other is by a Greek named Luke. Like all other men, in doing their work, they were unconsciously controlled by their separate mentalities. Because the Hebrew mentality was rooted and grown in the conception of the reign of Law, the facts of the seen and unseen worlds were explained in the terms of Law. The present beneficial conditions of life have been produced by the operations of Law, and the same process of betterment will be continued through all the generations. The Hebrew prophets had a more or less clear knowledge of the line of action of some moral expression of Law and on this as a base its future movement was marked out. This is the very warp and woof, the body and soul, of Hebrew prophecy. The entire correctness of the position and method is verified by the evidence of the centuries. The same method is in constant use in astronomy, geology, chemistry, or any other science. Sometimes the prophets are classed with the sages and conjurors of that old pagan world. But they were neither stargazers, nor the keepers of shrines, like that of the witch of Endor or the priestess of Delphi. They were the teachers and preachers of the moral expressions of Law that bear the whole creation up; and in obedience to which human life moves steadily to its victorious end. This was the active intelligence in the mind of Matthew, when he said in explaining the Virgin Birth: All this was done that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet. And so, the whole matter comes down to this: Is there an inherent movement of moral Law that compelled the Virgin Birth? There most certainly is, and its formula is this: Moral truth carries the compulsion to give the highest and fullest expression of itself in personality. Whenever and wherever it is lodged, that compulsion begins work. It has been hindered many times, but never effectually prevented. All the Hebrew prophets from Abraham on, understood this inherent property of moral truth to personalize itself. Of the father of the faithful. Our Lord said he rejoiced to see my day: he saw it and was glad. With this in mind, it is easy to understand the steady conviction of all the prophets that Messiah would come to live among men. With them the precepts, commandments, and judgments were not final: they were the moral radios sent by the divine Personality from beyond the wall of mystery, separating the human and divine. Because of the compulsion of moral quality to reach its final expression in personalization, He would come through the wall of mystery to live among men. Their eyes should see Him, their ears should hear His wonderful words of truth, and His ambition for victory would energize their souls.

Just as equally important a matter to the Hebrew mentality was that the coming should be by obedience to the expressions of Law involved in the entrance of personality into this world. And so, Isaiah understandingly said: Behold a virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. Matthew gives his understanding of this event by adding: Which being interpreted is God with us.

The conclusion of the whole matter as given by Matthew is this: Two expressions of Law were involved: one in the moral realm, the other in the physical. The result of their action was that the divine Personality was made flesh, and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth. Because this resulted from obedience to the involved expressions of Law, it is scientific, just as is every other understood action of Law.

The account by Luke of the Virgin Birth was the product of an entirely different mentality. He was an Antiochian Greek, and had received the intellectual culture of that ancient educational centre. His religious culture, like that of the Hellenic world generally, had its roots in Homer—the pagan bible. In this literature there is neither moral quality nor the remotest conception of any moral expression of Law. And so it was impossible for him to explain the Virgin Birth in the terms of Matthew. Like all the trained intellects of his people, he had a mentality abundant in critical and analytical power, which he knew how to use. Naturally, in the background of his religious thought, were the traditions of the reputed coming of gods and goddesses. As an educated physician, he knew the expressions of Law involved in the entrance of personality into this world. It is easy to trace the working of his mind on the tradition of the reputed wonderful Birth at Bethlehem. Did it rest on substantial evidence, or was it another finely spun yarn, like those of his own people? If true, it probably was the answer to the soul-craving of Socrates that “the Voice would come and speak to us.” It is clear from his account of the Manifested Life, that other statements had been made of the great event. But with true critical quality of mind, he was set on getting at the physical and moral realities on which the tradition rested. And so, his essential point was that in the wonderful Birth, all the expressions of Law involved in any birth were present and obeyed. The establishment of that fact would separate the Birth from the religious myths and fancies of which the world was full. Before going further, it will help to remark that every scientific statement is brief. This is so, because Law when discovered is a very simple thing. The moment the zone of theory is entered, there is no end of words. Luke’s account is brief, as is that of Matthew. The literary delicacy of his statement is remarkable for that day of crass coarseness. It begins with the serious astonishment of the Virgin Mary, when told that she would give birth to a son: How can this thing be, seeing I have not known a man? The coming of the divine life upon and into her body is briefly told: The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, therefore also, the Holy thing which shall be born of thee, shall be called the Son of God. The last act in the world-coming of personality, is that at the end of gestation birth shall take place. And so, at the appointed time,

“While shepherds watched their flocks by night,” over in the hamlet of Bethlehem, the Christ was born. In other words, the God of Love came to us men for our salvation by rendering obedience to the expressions of Law established for the entrance of personality into this world.

The explanation of an event in the terms of Law, is the scientific explanation. Moreover, because Law is the only infallible thing we mortals know anything about, it is the infallible explanation and is absolutely reliable now, as it always has been and always will be, world without end.

But someone will ask: Is there, then, no mystery to the wonderful Birth. A plenty of mystery, just as there is to every scientific problem. The mystery part is always more than the explained. The unexplored territory is always more than the explored. Take one item of the involved mystery: How could Almighty God take upon Him our flesh? We have no intelligence to make answer. We accept the proved truth and worship as in His presence. Sometime

“When the clouds have rolled in grandeur
     From the circle of the hills,”

we shall be freed from physical limitations, and He will tell us all about it.

Critical remarks supporting the above positions seems called for, since the mentality which imagined into life the gods and goddesses of Greece, and of all pagan peoples, still lives and casts its baleful influence over us. .

1. Making the realm and reign of Law a distinctly Hebrew product will incur the severe strictures of the Hellenists. What are the facts? Homer does not make the remotest suggestion of moral Law. The moral sense of personal obligation and responsibility is not found in all the reasonings of Plato and the systems of his many disciples. Certainly Hannis Taylor is competent to speak of another zone of Law. He says: “The Greeks left behind them no complete or imposing legal monuments: they produced nothing which in any sense can be called a philosophy of Law.” Their high-court was opinion, and because opinion is ever in a state of flux, the fickleness and unreliability of the Greek character is explained. Its mentality through the centuries has produced after its kind. As carried by the Roman culture, it has been the source of all sorts of political and religious antagonisms. It has repeated many times the tragedy of Athens and of Sparta. On the other hand, the extension through the centuries of the realm and reign of Law, declared at Sinai and personalized at Bethlehem, has cultivated brotherhood among the peoples of the earth and is leaguing them together for obedience to Law, so that

“Freedom broadens slowly down
From precedent to precedent.”

2. There is a professed acceptance of the Deity of Our Lord and the rejection of the Virgin Birth. Those holding this position are disturbed when urged to give understandable definition. Is Almighty God a person or an influence? If a moral influence, the position contradicts itself, because a moral influence postulates a person. If a person, is Deity detachable from the Divine Personality? If so, how? And after the detachment what is left? Color, form, substance, and fragrance, make a rose. Detach one or more, and what is left? Certainly not a rose. Ask how Deity came to the tabernacle among men, apart from the Virgin Birth, and guess work begins. The final analysis of this position uncovers the mentality that produced the Olympian gods.

3. A more serious criticism rests on the assumption that all men have an innate knowledge of God, so that the Virgin Birth is unnecessary to sound and constructive religious thought. If this is a valid claim, a plenty of supporting evidence should be easily found. In the first place, it is clear that the ancient Greek teachers had an abundance of keen mental machinery which they knew how to use effectively. Their search after God, inside and outside themselves, resulted in carving on an altar this inscription: To the Unknown God. They never knew Him, but they had gods a plenty. The way they got the chief one uncovers the mental action which produced all the rest. A competent authority thus defines the mental process: “Those who first used the word Zeus—the bright one—went out into the world and looked abroad. They found themselves overarched by a blue and brilliant sky, a luminous something fraught with incalculable possibilities of weal or woe. It cheered them with its steady sunshine. It scared them with its flickering fires. It fanned their cheeks with its cool breezes, or set their knees atremble with reverberating thunder. . . . It paraded before men’s eyes a splendid succession of celestial phenomena, and underwent for all to see, the daily miracle of night and day.” The bright sky was personalized and called Zeus. The evidence of Euripides is to the same effect:

“Thou seest yon boundless ether overhead,
Clasping the earth in close and soft embrace.
That deem thou Zeus; that reckon thou god.”

After classical scholarship had shown the futility of this appeal of the religious intellectuals to pagan antiquity, support was sought in another quarter. There was the report of the Great Spirit being known among North American Indians. This was exploited to the full. It had been freely discussed in theological literature: its dissemination generally among the people was greatly desired. This desire gave birth to the poem, Hiawatha.

The hero of this poem—Hiawatha—was a real and important man. His native soil was that of Central New York, and not “the Land of the Dakotas,” as the poem repeatedly represents. Further, he was not a Sioux Indian, but an Iroquois. Tribally he was an Onondaga, and became a chief of the Mohawks. He was efficient in perfecting the confederacy of the five nations. This way of distorting physical facts to serve the ends of a religious theory, is characteristic of the constructive method of the entire poem. Long ago the scholars of Indian life and customs had concluded that the Jesuit Missionaries of the North and the Spanish Fathers of the South, had given the aborigines of this continent their knowledge of the Great Spirit. But these religious intellectuals kept on printing and preaching attractive expositions of their theory. Finality was reached with the findings of the scientists of the Smithsonian Institution. When those trained investigators tackle a subject, it is gone over thoroughly and down to the roots. The evidence thus gathered is abundant, and shows the total inadequacy of this theory to explain the origin of the knowledge of Almighty God among men. The Report of 1888-’89 has this: “The statement that the Indians worship, or ever have worshipped, One Great Spirit, or single overruling personal god, is erroneous. That conception is beyond the stage of culture reached by them, and was not found in any tribe previous to missionary influence.” The Report of 1889-’90 is to the same effect: “The evidence is wanting to show that the Dakotas embraced in their religious tenets the idea of one supreme existence, whose existence is expressed by the term Great Spirit.” Again, that “the Indians believed in a Great Spirit, who was superior to all superhuman forms, needs more evidence.” The Report of 1893-’94 contains an exhaustive presentation of the religious notions of the Souan Indians—the Dakotas of the poem. It says, that to affirm “that they had the spiritual idea which we have of the Creator is absurd.” “His cosmogony (explanation of creation) bears no evidence that he rose, in pre-Columbian times, to a belief in a Great Spirit.” And so on. Most certainly Francis Parkman was fully competent to speak with final authority on Indian religious thought. In one place he says: “There is no Iroquois word, which in its primitive meaning, can be interpreted, Great Spirit, or God.” In closing an exhaustive review of the religious ideas of the Red Man, he says: “The Indian yielding his untutored homage to One All-Pervading and Omnipotent Spirit, is a dream of poets, rhetoricians and sentimentalists.”

The moral-scientific explanation of this whole matter was given at Nicea in 325 A. D. and is this: “Who for us men and our salvation, came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

 

AUTHORITIES.

(Chiefly)

1. The Bible.

2. Lotze’s Microcosmus.

3. Hegel’s Comments on Greek Thought and Life.

4. Thomas George Tucker’s Life in the Roman World of Nero and St. Paul (chapter on “Roman Religion”).

5. Hannis Taylor’s Cicero.

6. Arthur Bernard Cook’s Zeus.

7. Thomas Day Seymour’s The Glorious Age of Zeus.

8. Add to the Smithsonian Reports quoted, Alice Cunningham Fletcher’s The Omaha Tribe.

9. Wilhelm Lbke’s History of Art, Vol. 1.

10. The various works of Francis Parkman on Indian Religious Thought and Custom.