10. The virginal conception of Jesus has been and continues to be in many circles an essential truth to affirm to counted among those faithful to the biblical story. Of course, I mean here the virginal conception of Jesus as a literal physical-historical event. Two matters deserve consideration.
a. First, is this teaching essential to the gospel. That is, can the story of Jesus be told be faithfully told without it. The answer has to be no, the story can and is told without this teaching in most of the New Testament! Two of the four gospels don’t have it, nor do Paul or any other New Testament writers. This is not to say they don’t believe in Jesus’ virginal conception. They might not have known about it. We don’t know. But at any rate they can preach the gospel of Jesus without it. So it seems hard to call it essential.
b. But it is essential to Matthew’s and John’s story of Jesus. That means we cannot ignore it or treat it as some primitive superstition that got into these two versions of Jesus’ story on the strength of parallels with pagan stories of heroes with peculiar births. Those parallels are not very strong. The charge of primitive superstition is often a disguised form of what C.S. Lewis called “chronological snobbery” based on our own superstition that these kinds of things simply cannot happen!
c. So, again, we have to grapple with the meaning of this biblical testimony to Christ. It’s not, I don’t believe, a litmus test for orthodoxy but neither is it unimportant. So what can we say about it. It seems appropriate to me to take it as a real event but also possible to take it as a symbolic account of the significance of Jesus. This is not something we should fight over. If all four gospels had the story (like the resurrection) or Paul or other New Testament writers used it the situation might be different.
d. It seems possible to me to work toward an affirmation of Jesus that carries the meaning of these stories (in concert with what the rest of the New Testament says about him) yet allow each other the freedom to determine how best to read these accounts. The PCUSA’s A Declaration of Faith offers just such an affirmation:
“We affirm that Jesus was born of woman as is every child, yet born of God's power as was no other child. In the person and work of Jesus, God himself and a human life are united but not confused, distinguished but not separated. The coming of Jesus was itself the coming of God's promised rule. Through his birth, life, death, and resurrection, he brings about the relationship between God and humanity that God always intended.” (ch.4, par.1)