Vincent Torley on the Virgin Birth

Hi @swamidass,

I don’t know whether you’re interested, but I’ve written a blog article over at The Skeptical Zone on the virginal conception of Jesus. Cheers.


I conclude that in the absence of any prophetic or historical evidence for the doctrine of Jesus’ virginal conception, the only remaining grounds for holding it are theological ones. However, purely theological grounds , I shall argue, constitute an inadequate basis for belief in such an extraordinary miracle, and they are inadequate grounds for requiring other Christians to believe in it, as well. Christians would therefore be well-advised to cease making the doctrine a touchstone of orthodoxy , despite its almost universal acceptance within the Christian community since the early second century A.D. Those Christians who choose to believe in the miracle of Jesus’ virginal conception should acknowledge that they do so on the basis of faith alone , and not rational argumentation. Such Christians should also have the intellectual humility to acknowledge that they might be mistaken.

I was under the impression that most Christians believe the virgin birth based on faith, not on historical grounds that a non-Christian skeptic would agree to. I have rarely heard of Christian apologists trying to convince skeptics of the historicity of the virgin birth. (Perhaps they could defend it as not unreasonable given certain presuppositions such as that Jesus is the Son of God.) The Resurrection is a different matter since it is much more central to Christianity and in my opinion there is objectively more historical evidence for it. So I’m not sure of the premise of the article.

Regarding requiring other Christians to believe in it, well that goes into ecclesiology, the function of Christian creeds, and theories of doctrinal development. I believe you identify as a Roman Catholic, correct? It seems odd to me that you’re basically adopting a Protestant stance: “if one thinks that a doctrine is unreasonable (whether on theological, philosophical, historical, or biblical grounds), then it shouldn’t be part of Christian dogma”.


Yes, by believing in the inspired words of Matt 1, in unison with the orthodox confession (since the virgin birth is part of the creedal tradition). (Against most, I would even say theologically the virgin birth was not necessary for a sinless Savior. God chose it as a sign.)

So, yes, we might (all) be wrong. And denying the virgin birth is not at the level of denying the resurrection. But it does put one in a heterodox position, and I’d be curious on why one who believes in a sovereign, miracle-working God would deny this or any other miracle.


How does such a person determine that any claim whatsoever, no matter how much it defies natural laws, is not true? For instance, if four of my friends say I flew across the Atlantic Ocean by flapping my arms, do you have to conclude that it is likely true, because you also believe in a “sovereign, miracle-working God”?

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I think @deuteroKJ is mainly referring to miracles in the Bible, which are accorded a special status because Christians hold the Bible by faith to be divinely inspired. Regarding modern day miracle claims, Christians are less unified on how to assess them.

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That’s obviously nonsense, no?

What do you mean by nonsense? Can you clarify?

Do you mean your claim of flying across the Atlantic ocean is obviously nonsense? I suppose so, but we’d have to hear the full context of why you’re saying: whether you’re sincere, what kind of evidence you have to back up your claim, etc. To take a comparison, if I told a random person that 96% of the matter in the universe is invisible, they might think that’s obviously nonsense too. Yet most physicists in the world believe in this. But again, none of these things have nothing to do with the virgin birth.

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With all due respect, I don’t believe you. My guess is you would immediately dismiss my claim out of hand, because as a Physics PhD you know my claim is abject nonsense. And you would be right to do so.

Oh. So, as a graduate physics student, you think your skepticism regarding the claim that someone flew across the ocean by flapping his arms is in the same category as a layman’s skepticism regarding 96% of the matter in the universe being invisible?

Again, I am skeptical that that is your true position.

But to answer your original question: The nonsense to which I was referring was the position that the miracle claims of the Bible are to be given special consideration on the basis that the Bible is, itself, considered to be a miracle (“divinely inspired”).

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You can be as skeptical as much as you want. I’m just saying that scientists are not in the business of accepting or dismissing claims based on “common sense” without first hearing about what evidence is backing them. If that were our attitude then many advances in science would never have happened. For example, it was common sense back in the Renaissance era that geocentrism is true. It was common sense that disease was caused by “bad air”. And so on.

As some people like to say, extraordinary claims demand extraordinary evidence. But extraordinary claims should not be immediately dismissed without even given the opportunity to provide evidence.

Now, if a random person I don’t know told me that they flew over the Atlantic ocean without any further explanation, I would not be inclined to trust them, because 1) The event contradicts common experience, 2) The source of the information has unknown credibility, 3) I just don’t have time to investigate something that I honestly am not interested in.

But one could imagine situations where an extraordinary claim is made, but the above 3 conditions are not true, for example if an extraordinary claim is coming from a credible source with experimental evidence to back it up. I wouldn’t want to close myself epistemically towards such claims.

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I am not appealing to common sense.

As a physicist, you do not think there is good evidence that human beings cannot fly over the Atlantic Ocean by flapping their arms? Is that something that is still being questioned and investigated by your colleagues?

So what experimental evidence supports the resurrection of Jesus?


I think there is good evidence that humans cannot fly.

No. I don’t think I ever implied otherwise.

We’ve already debated on this topic before on this forum. I’m not in a habit of revisiting old arguments. It is frankly not a good use of my time.

OK, that’s cool.

I will just clarify my main point, which is that when you say this:

I presume you would agree that there is evidence that is at least equally good that dead people do not come back to life. And my position is that, with this in mind, you nonetheless accept that a resurrection happened from evidence that you would not accept if the claim was about a person flying in the present day. I know you disagree. I guess that’s where we have to leave it for now.


Hi @dga471,

You wrote:

I was under the impression that most Christians believe the virgin birth based on faith, not on historical grounds that a non-Christian skeptic would agree to. I have rarely heard of Christian apologists trying to convince skeptics of the historicity of the virgin birth.

I believe I was quite clear in my post that I was talking about arguments for the virgin birth that would convince Christians, not skeptics. As I wrote in my opening paragraph:

What I want to argue in today’s post is that even for someone who accepts the evidence for Jesus’ bodily resurrection, the evidence for Jesus’ virginal conception is unpersuasive and the arguments marshaled in support of it are riddled with fallacies.

You also wrote:

Regarding requiring other Christians to believe in it, well that goes into ecclesiology, the function of Christian creeds, and theories of doctrinal development. I believe you identify as a Roman Catholic, correct? It seems odd to me that you’re basically adopting a Protestant stance: “if one thinks that a doctrine is unreasonable (whether on theological, philosophical, historical, or biblical grounds), then it shouldn’t be part of Christian dogma”.

Yes, I am a Catholic. Three quick points in reply:

  1. The question of whether belief in the virginal conception of Jesus is an essential part of Catholicism is quite distinct from the question of whether it should be an essential part of Christianity. Catholics, like most of their Christian brethren, would regard the Resurrection, Trinity, Incarnation and Atonement as core Christian beliefs, but I don’t know of any Catholic who would regard papal infallibility in that manner, for instance. So even if a Catholic were to maintain that belief in Jesus’ virginal conception is a vital part of Catholic teaching, he/she could still consistently maintain that it isn’t essential to Christianity.

  2. Catholics don’t accept dogmas purely on faith, as if they’d fallen down from the sky overnight. Arguments (based on Scripture, tradition and/or theology) are typically advanced in order to show why the dogma makes sense. In the case of the virginal conception of Jesus, what I’m arguing is that all of these arguments are shot through with holes. Scripture, you say? To be sure, there are two Gospels which affirm the virginal conception, but they’re late, they’re historically unreliable and mutually contradictory, and they appear to have drawn on sources (e.g. the genealogies of Jesus) which took it for granted that Jesus had a human father. As for tradition: if one thing is fairly certain, it’s that the Gospel accounts of Jesus’ virginal conception and birth in Bethlehem were not handed down to us by either Mary of Joseph. Even conservative scholars now admit as much. As for prophecy: it turns out that the Jewish exegesis of Isaiah 7:14 was right all along, and that Christians have been wrong in their exegesis of this verse, ever since the time of Justin Martyr. As for theological arguments: while there are plenty of reasons why a virgin birth for our Redeemer might have been fitting, there are no arguments that show why a natural conception would have been unfitting for him. Now, at this point, a Catholic could legitimately point out that in the case of a dogma proclaimed by the Church, the object of belief is simply the dogma itself, and not the specific arguments put forward in its favor. But when the Church previously proposed several arguments in support of the dogma (especially the prophetic argument, as it did in the case of the virgin birth in the 18th century; see also this article on the virgin birth in The Catholic Encyclopedia) which its leading theologians are now saying are fallacious, that’s bound to shake the faith of rank-and-file Catholics. Had the Church simply declared at the outset, “Here’s what we believe. Just take it on faith, as a development of Christian doctrine” it would have saved itself a lot of trouble.

  3. In any case, the opinion of most Catholic theologians today is that while the virginal conception of Jesus has been affirmed (in passing) in several creeds, including the Apostles’ and Nicene Creeds, it has never been officially defined as a dogma of the faith by the Catholic Church, so it’s not part of the Church’s infallible extraordinary magisterium. (Magisterium means “teaching authority.”) Instead, it’s generally held to be part of the infallible ordinary magisterium of the Church: a doctrine that’s been taught unanimously by the Fathers down the ages, as something that’s part-and-parcel of the Catholic faith. Fr. Raymond Brown acknowledges that the doctrine seems to meet these criteria, but he also argues that we should leave the door open, citing the creation of Adam as an example of how our understanding of a dogma can change over time. I applaud Brown’s honesty on this point. Brown (who died in 1998) also suggests that a future council of the Church might choose to examine this issue, and adds that he would abide by its decision (as would I).

I hope that answers your questions.

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It seems to me that the Apostles’ and Nicene creeds are as close as one can get to textbook examples of things that are part of the infallible ordinary magisterium – and thus so is the virginal conception of Jesus (though I would say that the statement for the virginal conception of Jesus is less clear in the Nicene Creed). What are arguments against the creeds being part of the infallible ordinary magisterium?


Hi @PdotdQ,

Good question. In reply, let me quote a passage from Fr. Raymond Brown’s inaugural address, The Problem of the Virginal Conception of Jesus, delivered at Union Theological Seminary, New York, on November 28, 1971 (pp. 10-11; emphases are mine - VJT):

The evidence from Church authority reaches back into very old creedal tradition. An early elaboration of the Old Roman Baptismal Creed confesses “Christ Jesus, His only Son, our Lord” as “born from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The creed of Nicaea-Constantinople confesses Jesus Christ “who came down and became incarnate from the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary.” The Apostles’ Creed confesses “Jesus Christ, His only Son, our Lord, who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born from the Virgin Mary.” There can be no doubt that those who formulated these creedal affirmations believed in the bodily virginity of Mary. Yet many scholars are convinced that the real thrust of creedally reciting birth from the Virgin Mary involved the reality of Jesus’ birth and his humanity, not the exact how of his conception.[20] (Thus, “born of the Virgin Mary” would be descended in spirit from the Pauline formula in Gal 4:4, “God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the law”—a formula that gives expression to the radical historicity of Jesus and his mission by stressing the fact that he came from a woman’s womb, but without emphasizing the manner in which he was conceived in that womb.) More specifically, just before A.D. 200, in the Old Roman Creed the affirmation of belief in Christ Jesus was expanded by a reference to his birth from the Virgin Mary in order to counteract a docetism and gnosticism that questioned the reality of Jesus’ humanity.[21] Toward the end of the fourth century the Nicene creedal affirmation about the Incarnation was specified in the Constantinopolitan version in terms of incarnation from the Virgin Mary, an insertion seemingly aimed at the Apollinarians, who did not admit the completeness of Jesus’ humanity.[22] And so, if we judge the creedal affirmations from what they were meant to refute, it may be asked whether, in speaking of the virgin birth, they ever defined precisely as a matter of faith the virginal conception as I have been using that term, even though they certainly presupposed it. If I may resort to technical Roman Catholic theological terms, it may be asked whether the bodily virginity of Mary in conceiving Jesus has ever been infallibly defined by the extraordinary magisterium of the Church functioning through its creeds and ecumenical councils.[23]

I am no theologian, but it seems to me that Brown raises some legitimate questions here. Cheers.

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Very interesting, thanks for sharing.

Hi @thepalmhq,

Look forward to hearing from you. Merry Christmas.

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