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The Virgin Birth

by Rev. Willard D. Pendleton

Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel. (Isaiah 7:14)

From the time of the fall it was known that someday the Lord would come into the world and redeem the human race. The evidence of this is found in the one direct prophecy which has come down to us from the Ancient Word. The reference is to the fifteenth verse of the third chapter of Genesis where, in addressing the serpent who had beguiled the woman, the Lord God said: "I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; He shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise His heel." (Gen.3:15) By the serpent is signified all evil from the love of self and the world; by the woman is signified the church; by He was to trample upon the head of the serpent is meant the Lord Himself. (AC 250) But although it was known that the Lord was to come, how He was to come, and what manner of Man He would be, was not yet revealed.

It was not until the days when Israel was chosen to serve as the matrix of the Divine descent that the voice of prophecy became definite. It was Jacob who in blessing Judah foretold that the Lord would come as a law giver. It was Moses who proclaimed that the Lord was to be a prophet. It was David, the greatest of Israel's kings, who in the twenty-fourth psalm announced that the Lord was to come as a King of glory and a Hero of war. It was not until the time of the divided kingdom, however, that the miraculous manner of the Lord's birth was revealed. Who can forget the immortal words of Isaiah, "A virgin shall conceive, and bear a Son, and shall call His name Immanuel," that is to say, God with us? Here was a sign by which all men might know that this Child was to be as no other. Yet the doctrine of the virgin birth, although once regarded as an essential of the Christian faith, is believed by few at this day.

We are living in an age of scientific materialism - an age in which men are prone to reject whatever cannot be verified by the senses. Like the serpent in the garden of Eden who persuaded the woman to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, the modern mind appropriates to itself the right to investigate the goods and truths of faith from sensual reasonings, in order to determine whether they are true. Hence it said in the Writings:

"In ancient times those were called serpents who had more confidence in sensuous things than in revealed ones. But it is still worse at the present day, for now there are persons who not only disbelieve everything they cannot see and feel, but who also confirm themselves in such incredulity by scientifics unknown to the ancients, and thus occasion in themselves a far greater degree of blindness." (AC 196)

If this was true of Swedenborg's time: What of the twentieth century? We have no difficulty, therefore, in understanding why modern translators, who are a product of the age, have chosen to refer to the virgin of our text as a young woman. It is one thing to say that a virgin shall conceive, and quite another to say that a young woman shall do so. While it is true that there are linguistic grounds for the modern translation it not only nullifies the import of the text, but it is not in keeping with the New Testament version where, according to Matthew, "All this was done, that it might be fulfilled which was spoken of the Lord by the prophet, saying, Behold a virgin shall be with Child. . . ." (Matt. 1: 22, 23) In this connection it is to be kept in mind that the translators of the earlier versions of the Bible were men who believed in the Divinity of the Word, whereas modern scholars are primarily concerned with the Bible as an historical document. There is a world of difference between these two perspectives, as is evident from the divergent translations of our text.

At this time of year our thoughts and affections are stirred by the remembrance of the miraculous manner of the Lord's birth; for it came to pass in those days that, "The angel Gabriel was sent from God . . . to a virgin ... whose name was Mary ... And the angel said unto her, fear not, Mary: For thou hast found favor with God. And, behold, thou shalt conceive in thy womb, and bring forth a Son, and shalt call His name Jesus. He shall be great, and shall be called the Son of the Highest: And the Lord God shall give unto Him the throne of His father David." (Luke 1: 27, 30-32)

In this annunciation of the Lord's birth, the word of the prophets from the beginning was about to be fulfilled. Here was the One for whom Israel had waited, the One who was to be the King of Glory in whom was the Divine seed. His kingdom was to be an everlasting kingdom, and of the increase of His government there would be no end. But Mary was a simple maid of Israel, and although she believed in her heart, she did not understand. Thus it was that she said to the angel, "How shall these things be, seeing that I know not a man?" (Luke 1: 34) But the angel answered her, saying, "The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: Therefore, also, that Holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God." (Luke 1: 35)

Mary's words to the angel imply a doubt which is echoed in our own thoughts when we reflect upon these things. In all matters of faith the question is, how can these things be? The very nature of man is to seek answers to that which he does not understand. Were this not so man would not be man, but would be as the beast of the field. It is the teaching of the Writings, however, that there are two kinds of doubt: the one negative, and the other affirmative. A negative doubt has its origin in self, that is, in the pride of one's own intelligence; but he who trusts in his own intelligence will not be convinced of anything unless it is first perceived by the senses. (AC 2568: 4) An affirmative doubt, on the other hand, is a state of obscurity which is induced upon the understanding by fallacies from the senses. If, in such states, man wills to believe and places his confidence in the Word, he will in time be enlightened. Thus it is that the Writings speak of "doubts in which there is affirmation." (AC 4638: 4)

It is then the will to believe which sustains man in states of obscurity. We are not speaking here of the native will, but of the new will which is formed by the Lord in the understanding. Here too, is a miracle; if by a miracle we mean that which cannot be explained by the natural sciences. After all, man is not man because he is formed of the dust of the ground; he is man because he can perceive what is true and, if he will, do what is good. As the Lord said to Nicodemus, "That which is born of the flesh is flesh; and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit." (John 3: 6) What we are speaking of here, therefore, is the miracle of spiritual life. This is effected by means of a virginal affection of truth, that is, by means of those remains of innocence which are implanted in the mind by the Lord during infancy and childhood. Were it not for these tender affections which receive the Lord at His coming, no man could enter into spiritual life.

It is by way of analogy, and only by way of analogy, that man can enter with perception into the doctrine of the virgin birth. This applies not only to the virgin birth, but to everything which is said concerning the Lord in the Word. So it is that in speaking of those states which the Lord sustained in the glorification of the Human the Writings repeatedly remind us that these states, "Do not fall into any human apprehension, not even into angelic (understanding), except by means of appearances; and by means of the states of man's regeneration; for the regeneration of man is an image of the Lord's glorification." (AC 4237; see also AC 3043, 3138, 3157, 3212, 3296, 4027, 4538, 6827) It follows from this that it is only by way of an analogy which serves as an image of the Divine conception that the miraculous manner of the Lord's birth can be understood; for even as the Lord was born of Mary, so the new, or regenerate, man is born of the affection of truth. As the Lord said unto Nicodemus, "Marvel not that I said unto thee, ye must be born again." (John 3: 7)

In the representative sense, therefore, the birth of our Lord is not an isolated instance in history; it is an ever recurring miracle which takes place in the hearts and minds of men. The evidence of this is found in the Book of Revelation where it speaks of a woman clothed with the sun who gave birth to the Man Child. The woman is the New Church; the Man Child is the doctrine of the Lord's Divine Human. He it is who is born to you this day in the city of Bethlehem, that is, in the spiritual sense of the Word. What is more, in each successive state in the life of regeneration, the word of the prophets is renewed; and we may perceive, as in an image, the miracle of the Divine birth among men.

In the Second Advent, however, as in the First, there are few to receive Him. The reason for this, as stated, is that men at this day think sensually concerning spiritual things. Concerning this, the Writings say,

"He who assumes as a principle that nothing is to be believed until it is seen and understood, can never believe, because spiritual things cannot be seen with the eyes, or conceived by the imagination. The true order is for man to be wise . . . from the Word, and then all things follow. It is by no means forbidden to learn the sciences, since they are useful ... but it must be from this principle - to believe in the Word . . . and, so far as possible, confirm spiritual truths . . . in terms familiar to the learned. The starting point must be the Lord, and not man himself; for the former is life, but the latter is death." (AC 129)

The ultimate issue in life comes down to the question of whether we are willing to be led by the Lord. But because all men are born natural, and not spiritual, our inclination is to subject the truths of faith to sensual reasonings to determine whether they are true. Yet, here a question arises: Does not the time come in the life of every man when he must determine for himself whether the Word is true? Were this not so man would not be in freedom. It is one thing, however, to determine for self what is true, and quite another to do so from self. To think and reason from self concerning the truths of faith, is to appropriate to oneself what is good and true. This is the error of an age in which preoccupation with self has become an obsession. Yet, as the Lord God said to the woman in the garden of Eden concerning the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, "Ye shall not eat of it, neither shall ye touch it, lest ye die." (Gen. 3: 3)

It is the faith of the New Church that the Lord Jesus Christ is the one God of heaven and earth. This, as stated, is a matter of faith, and it can not be anything else. But faith is not what many believe it to be; it is not a blind commitment to the truths of the Word; it is the sight of love, that is, the perception that a thing is true because the Lord has said it. In reflecting on the doctrine of the virgin birth we are reminded that this is the teaching of all Divine revelation, of the Old Testament, of the New Testament, and of the Writings where it is said, "It was necessary for (the Lord) to be born of a virgin. . . " (God the Savior 38) It was necessary because the Divine seed could not have been transmitted through the instrumentality of an earthly father. Thus it was that the Child who was born in Bethlehem of Judea was as no other. "In Him was life; and the life (is) the light of men," (John 1: 4) that is, the Word made flesh which was born "not of man ... but of God." (John 1: 13) In reflecting upon these things, therefore, may we say, as Mary said to the angel, "Be it unto me according to Thy Word."

* * * * * * * * *


The Human whereby God sent Himself into the world is the Son of God.... This was done by means of a human which He took on through the virgin Mary. Moreover, the Human is actually the Son of God, because it was conceived from Jehovah God the Father.... That "the son of Mary" means the mere human is clearly seen in the generation of man, in that the soul is from the father and the body from the mother; for the soul is contained in the seed of the father and is clothed with a body in the mother; or what is the same thing, all the spiritual that man has is from the father, and all the material from the mother. In regard to the Lord, the Divine that He had was from Jehovah the Father, and the human from the mother. These two united are the Son of God. (True Christian Religion 92)

New Church Life 1978;88:553-557

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The Virgin Birth

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