The Apostles' Creed: Born of the Virgin Mary
December 25 is indelibly linked in most minds with celebrations of Jesus’ birth. What about March 25 (exactly nine months earlier)? That day has traditionally been associated with “the Annunciation”, the angel Gabriel’s announcement to a young Jewish woman that she would be the mother of her Lord. Both events are captured in the words of the Apostle’s Creed, “Conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary.” Having affirmed Jesus’ Divinity by calling him God’s “only Son”, the Creed goes on to assert his humanity.
Like his ancestor Isaac before him (Gen 18:10), Jesus’ conception and birth were divinely foretold to his mother. However, Mary’s shock at Gabriel’s message was not about age, but the fact she was a virgin (a young woman who had never been with a man). Gabriel answers her in Luke 1:35, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy – the Son of God.”[i]
He borrows the language of creation in Genesis 1:2 (emphasis added): “The earth was without form and void, and darkness was over the face of the deep. And the Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters.” The outcome of the Spirit’s hovering over a shapeless and empty original creation is displayed in the rest of the Bible’s first chapter as sky and water separate, earth emerges from water, and sea, land, and sky teem with creatures. So by the creative power of God’s Spirit, in the pitch-black emptiness of Mary’s virgin womb, the words of Psalm 139 came to pass: “For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother’s womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made.” (13-14a)
The words “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” indicate that the Spirit formed Jesus’ humanity. We may also say that God’s eternal Son “took” (Phil 2:7) a human nature to himself. However, the Spirit was the direct agent bringing that humanity into existence at the exact moment the Son took it as his humanity. This supernatural conception certainly does not mean that Jesus’ humanity is made of the same stuff as God’s Spirit.[ii] Creator and creature remain distinct.
“Born of the Virgin Mary,” on the other hand, does indicate that Jesus’ humanity is made of the same stuff as Mary, and that he is the same kind of creature as she – and as you and I! Mary’s humanity was the material for the Spirit’s creation. We share the same humanity with Jesus and Mary, only newly created in Jesus as a kind of second humanity. Both sources (maker and material) rule out sexual union. His humanity is “conceived by the Holy Spirit,” rather than by the ordinary means, and “born of the Virgin,” again excluding a sexual origin.
Why a miraculous conception and birth? First, as the author of the Heidelberg Catechism, Zacharias Ursinus, states: “that he might be a pure sacrifice.”[iii] Jesus could not be sinless if his humanity came about the ordinary way, since all those descending from the first man, Adam, “by ordinary generation” (to borrow language from the Westminster Shorter Catechism) inherit Adam’s sin and guilt (see Romans 5). To those who object that if Jesus’ humanity is “of” Mary, he would inherit her sin, Ursinus is again helpful (and brief): “The Holy Ghost knows best how to distinguish and separate sin from the nature of man.”[iv]
We need to know our Savior is sinless, otherwise he’d be stuck in our same bind. So also, Jesus is born of woman that he might share, and thereby rescue, our humanity. In his life, human life is touched by godliness from womb to tomb for the very first time, so that the whole of a believer’s life is washed clean. Finally, Jesus’ conception and birth fulfill a host of promises: to the devil, of “a seed of the woman” who would undo his work (Gen 3:15); to Abraham and David, of a descendant who would bring God’s blessing (Gen 22:18; 2Sa 7:12ff.; cf. Matt 1:1); and to a recalcitrant ruler over an abortive human kingdom: “The virgin shall conceive and bear a son.” (Isa 7:14; Matt 1:23)
Steven McCarthy is pastor of the Reformed Presbyterian Church, Walton, NY, a graduate of the Reformed Presbyterian Theological Seminary, Pittsburgh, PA, and a Th.M. student in Reformation and Post-Reformation Theology at Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary, Grand Rapids, MI. He lives with his wife and three children in the Catskill Mountains of Upstate New York.
[i] Scripture quotations from the The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016.
[ii] Zacharias Ursinus and G. W. Williard. The Commentary of Dr. Zacharias Ursinus on the Heidelberg Catechism (Cincinnati, OH: Elm Street Printing Company, 1888), 205.
[iii] Ibid., 206.