I have already discussed the fact that Origen* responded to a number of “modern” arguments long before our modern times.
For the skeptical arguments I have tried to include links or at least names. Sometimes they may be common enough that I think anyone could just do a Google search to discover the skeptical argument is made to this day. Also, some of the skeptical arguments are put forth by Celsus as coming from Jews attacking converts to Christianity. Several of these arguments will be covered here as well.
Origen’s answers I provide here are, and I must emphasize this, summaries of what he said, not his answer in its entirety. Interested readers should track down the original reference to see what he said. It should also be noted that Contra Celsum is written in a kind of challenge/response format that does not necessitate or entail lengthy discussions. Other thinkers–either modern or historic–provide longer answers than Origen did to pretty much every argument noted here.
Skeptical Argument: Faith is belief without evidence/pretending to know something you don’t know. [See Peter Boghossian]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I, Chapter 10- All systems of thought require some element of belief without evidence, including skepticism, Platonism, and the like.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus learned how to do tricks in Egypt/Jesus’ birth accounts made up to glorify him
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I, Chapter 28ff- Jesus’ birth account highlights the humility to which he is born rather than serving as a way to embellish or glorify his birth.
Skeptical Argument: Mary was not a virgin but had adultery with or was raped by a Roman soldier (named Panthera as argued by Celsus), as opposed to being a virgin[Suggested by a BBC documentary, among other modern and ancient sources]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter XXXII Had Christians wanted to make up something about Jesus’ birth, they could have just as easily said that Joseph was Jesus’ legitimate father rather than inviting speculation about rape or adultery
Skeptical Argument: The prophecy alluded to by Matthew in Isaiah does not refer to a virgin birth/Matthew and Luke themselves may not intend the reference to be to a virgin birth [See Bart Ehrman, for example]
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter XXXIV and XXXV- the Hebrew actually does seem to favor the notion of it referring to a virgin, moreover the prophecy doesn’t make sense were it but a young woman having a child, which would not have been remarkable enough to be a sign
Skeptical Argument: The suffering servant prophesies found in Isaiah 53 refers to the nation of Israel rather than Jesus.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LV- the passage in question is full of things which don’t make sense when applied broadly to a whole nation rather than single person. Moreover, the prophecy does not line up with Israel as well as it does to Jesus.
Skeptical Argument: The star of Bethlehem is an unexplained phenomenon made up to lend credence to the importance of Jesus’ birth in the narratives.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LVIII- The Star of Bethlehem was actually a comet and may have been reported by other ancients. See here for a book that has much more on this topic.
Objection: Comets are bad omens and so the Star wouldn’t have been a sign of the birth of the Messiah.
Origen’s Response: Comets are bad omens for those regimes which may be overthrown, but good signs for those whose regime may be rising.
Skeptical Argument: Certain portions of the Gospels show difficulties with Christian beliefs.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXIII- Skeptics like Celsus utilize the Gospels as historical where convenient, then reject whatever parts might answer their objections.
Skeptical Argument: Christianity allows for the worst sorts of people to get off free in the grand scheme of things. The worst people are simply forgiven.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXIII and following- The conversion of wrongdoers is not to be mocked or scorned but rather shows the power of Christianity to convince the wicked to reform.
Skeptical Argument: How could God die?
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXVI- God took on human flesh in the person of the Son.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus’ miracles in the Gospels can be mimicked or repeated by charlatans.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXVIII- Such allegations fail due to the context in which the miracles occur as well as the reasons behind the miracles/wonders.
Skeptical Argument: Jesus uses his voice and eats food–things gods need not do.
Origen’s Answer: Contra Celsum Book I Chapter LXX- Jesus was God clothed in human flesh and used his voice to convince others.
*It is worth noting that Origen was heterodox on a number of topics, including having a deficient view of the Trinity, specifically regarding the Father and the Son. However, Origen also pre-dated much of the debates over orthodox Christian theology. It is beneficial to read Origen to see the range of Christian thought in his own time period, as well as to see what kind of responses were being offered to non-Christians related to key issues.
Faith is Belief without Evidence? Origen Contra Boghossian (and others)– I delve deeper into one of the arguments Origen makes, while noting that it answers one of the modern skeptical attacks on Christianity.
Eclectic Theist– Check out my other blog for posts on Star Trek, science fiction, fantasy, books, sports, food, and more!
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I’ve seen a surprising amount of comments on this song each Christmas, but it seems like many of the comments have sever tensions built in from specific theological perspectives. One of the comments I saw recently, for example, complained about the backlash against the song and attributed it a bit conspiratorially to Catholicism allegedly making its way into evangelicalism.
Well, I’m a Lutheran, so I’ve found myself on the outside looking in when it comes to many allegedly evangelical discussions (see my posts on Bonhoeffer, for example), but I think that this kind of commentary is, frankly, silly. I decided to write a few quick comments about the song, without any allegations of conspiracy or heterodoxy included.
As you can see from the lyrics, the song is basically a list of rhetorical questions asked of Mary which basically imply that she could not have known just how great and marvelous and powerful Jesus was going to be. Strictly speaking, such an implication is not definitively false. After all, it doesn’t seem to be the case that Mary knew with certainty that Jesus was God, or that some specific miracles would be performed. On the other hand, the song also names some specific things that Mary may very well have known. How? Well, if she was familiar with the Old Testament, there are some passages that would inform her that, yes, she could know the answer to some of these questions. Let’s look at one example:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened and the ears of the deaf unstopped. – Isaiah 35:5
Contextually, this verse occurs within an eschatological promise of the blessings that will be brought to God’s chosen people. Now, if Mary was familiar with this, and we can’t definitively say one way or another, and if she interpreted the verses to refer to her own time with the coming Messiah, then it would seem she could say “Yeah, I did know that my baby boy would be curing the blind.” Of course, those are some big ifs. Can we get more specific?
More explicitly, there is the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55), the song which Mary sang in praise to God. Here are a few selections:
My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior… He has performed mighty deeds with his arm… He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.
Here are some much clearer statements made by Mary herself about what she did know. Specifically, she calls God her savior and says mighty deeds have been performed by God and that God has fulfilled the promise to her ancestors. So it seems that Mary at least did know that God was fulfilling the promise of the Messiah and that that would mean, well, salvation, mighty deeds, and mercy.
So Mary, did you know? Well, it seems that in some sense we could pretty easily say yes. She herself says of her unborn child that he is the fulfillment of God’s promises to the people of Israel. Such a fulfillment necessarily included mighty deeds (healing the blind, walking on water, etc.) and the salvation of the people. So you could argue she could answer yes to all of the questions. On the other hand, you could argue that the very specific nature of some of the lyrics (walking on water is one example) would undermine that; after all, she never says that her son will walk on water. So really, the answer to the question “Mary, did you know?” is “Through a mirror, dimly.”
Hello dear readers! Thanks for stopping in! Check out the latest round of “Really Recommended Posts,” brought to you by me! This week we have posts that argue against open theism–do the arguments work, though?, the Bourne movies, Mary and women in the church, objective truth for kids, and young earth creationism and geology of Egypt. As always, let me know what you think, and be sure to let the authors know as well!
The Open Future Precludes Present Motion– Alexander Pruss, one of the most interesting philosophers to follow, in my opinion, presents here an argument that open theism entails premises which mean present motion is impossible. I commented on the post arguing that most open theists allow for certain parts of the future to be knowable; just not those impacted by free will. I haven’t seen that comment pop up yet. Pruss followed with a post about how open theism eliminates the possibility to speak truthfully that is an even more intriguing argument. What do you think?
Surveillance and Revelation in the Bourne Movies– The Jason Bourne movies have much going on in them to reflect upon from a Christian perspective. Here’s a post exploring some of these dimensions.
Mary’s Truth– Women were the first evangelists. Mary was one of these first evangelists. We ought not to strip away the legacy such women left behind.
Truth in a Box– How might you discuss objective truth with kids? Here’s a way to use a concrete example to introduce the notion of truth no matter what anyone thinks about it.
Squeezing the Lost Grand Canyon of Egypt into the Young Earth Paradigm: An Impossible* Task– How do young earth creationists account for things like a canyon as large as the Grand Canyon that has been completely covered with sediment since its formation? Check out this post to see how YEC fails to account for certain physical realities.
Check out these posts from all over the web, collected for your own viewing pleasure by yours truly. If you enjoyed the posts, drop them a comment! Let me know what you think here. Thanks for stopping by, now go read!
The Least Popular Book in the Bible– I found this to be one of the most fun posts I have read in a long time. I really encourage you to check it out. But Don’t Cheat! Leave a guess as to which Bible book is least popular before you head over and find out! The post also gives reasons to read the book, so you may get some good reading in.
Is the Bible’s Definition of Faith Opposed to Logic and Evidence?– In light of the recent debate between Boghossian and McGrew on “Is Faith a False Epistemology?” (see my summary and analysis here), I found this post extremely insightful. What does the Bible say about faith? What kind of definitions does it give? Check out this great post on these questions.
Aquinas’ First Way (image)– Be sure to zoom in on this one! It’s a pictorial way to look at the “First Way” of Aquinas to reason to the existence of God. I think there are a couple problems with the exposition, particularly in speaking of water as only potentially cooling, but it is a good, basic introduction. Check it out.
Did Jesus Ride Two Animals Into Jerusalem?– How might we reconcile apparent differences in reports over how Jesus rode into Jerusalem? Check out this post to read up on a few ways, alongside some analysis. It’s well worth the time spent!
Book Review: The New Perspective on Mary and Martha– Drawing from Luke 10:38-42, Mary and Martha are often seen as quintessential examples of how to focus on Christ. But what message do we often get about/from them? Is there a corrective for some of the wrong pictures we may have? This review gives some insight into these and other questions.
“Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall call his name Immanuel”
(which means, God with us). Matthew 1:28 ESV.
Familiar words to most Christians, aren’t they? Along with His Death and Resurrection, the virgin birth of Jesus is among the most celebrated and unifying events in all of Christianity. Nativity scenes can be found in front of Roman Catholic, Lutheran, Baptist, Methodist, and all sorts of churches of all denominations. The virgin birth is counted as among the fundamental doctrines of Christianity, and was important enough to be counted as one of the twelve articles of the Apostolic Creed. For centuries, the account that Jesus Christ was born of a virgin woman, Mary of Nazareth, was undisputed, at least as far as any known challenges can be documented.
But, then, along came the Enlightenment. With it came the idea that science and reason were the test of Scripture and all truth, and not the reverse. Therefore, if Scripture says that Jesus was born of a virgin, and that is not logical nor scientifically provable, then it must be rejected. Thus, the Jefferson “Bible” excludes any reference to the virgin birth as well as Jesus’ miracles, Deity, resurrection, etc. As time went on, through the historical critical method and other destructive methods of using reason not to teach but to judge Scripture, the Enlightenment principle of reason and science over Scripture slowly infiltrated the thinking of many churches. Surveys confirm this infiltration.
1998: A poll of 7,441 Protestant clergy in the U.S. showed a wide variation in belief. The following ministers did not believe in the virgin birth:
2007-DEC: The Barna Group sampled 1,005 adults and found that 75% believed that Jesus was born to a virgin. 53% of the unchurched, and 15% of Agnostics and Atheists believe as well. Even among those who describe themselves as mostly liberal on political and social issues, 60% believe in the virgin birth. (Source for surveys.)
It is a great travesty in the Church today that many clergy find themselves looking at their positions only as a job, and will say what they must to preserve their positions. From the source of the polls previously cited comes this quote:
“…one Hampshire vicar was typical: ‘There was nothing special about his birth or his childhood – it was his adult life that was extraordinary….I have a very traditional bishop and this is one of those topics I do not go public on. I need to keep the job I have got.’
Such hypocrisy and blatant deceit is unworthy of anyone, let alone one who claims to proclaim the Word of God and represent Him to the people. yet such is the state of much of the clergy, as indicated by the above polling figures. No wonder the Church is in such disarray, and seems so powerless in the world today!
If Christianity is only a “nice” way of life that is only about love and compassion, then I suppose the virgin birth is not so essential, But if Christianity is an intimate and personal relationship by faith with the Creator of the Universe, then Who that Creator is makes all the difference. And if being born of a virgin is something He says about himself, even once, in His Book, then it might be best if we believe it. After all, wouldn’t you like to know a bit about, say, the pedigree of a dog or horse that you were to buy, or even more so, wouldn’t you like to know all about a future spouse that you profess to love before marriage? (Please forgive the analogy, which is not meant to cheapen God, spouses, dogs, or horses).
The virgin birth of Christ—and I would say, the historical fact that Jesus was conceived by a miracle like unto creation itself—does not travel alone. It ties intimately into other doctrines-the Holy Trinity, the Deity of Christ, the substitutionary atonement, the inspiration, inerrancy, and infallibility of Scripture, and more. “Scripture cannot be broken”, Jesus said in John 10:35. Even so, the most basic teachings of the Christian faith cannot be broken off and accepted like items on a buffet table. They are all one. Accept all of them-or none of them. That is the challenge that the catechumen, the seeker, the growing disciple of Christ is faced with. Finally, you see, the importance of the virgin birth is found, like all things, bound in the Person and Work of Jesus Christ.
As far as the prophecy quoted by Matthew, namely Isaiah 7:14, much ink has been spilled on this by scholars with more degrees than I have. Some modern Bible translations, notably the NRSV, CEB, TEV and others use “young woman” to translate the Hebrew word almah. Others, such as the NASB, ESV, NKJB, TNIV (=NIV 2011), use the more traditional “virgin.” The LXX also translates the word “virgin.” While the matter is not as simple as some might make it, certainly I would think that the Septuagint scholars would have known Hebrew and Greek well enough to have chosen a different word besides the Greek word for “virgin” if “young woman” would have been indicated. They had no agenda to support a virgin birth or not. The same cannot be said of some modern translators. The sainted Dr. William Beck wrote a study on this subject, available at www.wlsessays.net/.
Human reason helps us put all of these things together systematically from Scripture; but human reason cannot accept and believe them itself. That, too, is a special creative work of the Holy Spirit. What a delight to know that God wants everyone to know Him as He reveals Himself in Scripture. It is through the very words of Scripture that God creates faith. Through those Holy Spirit given and empowered words He keeps one in the faith. As I stand in awe that God chose this supernatural way to join our human race, so I stand in awe that He created faith in my heart, and has kept that faith to this day. All glory and praise to Him forever!
Finally, though, the virgin birth is a matter of faith. For the individual, it is a matter of personal faith whether one accepts what Scripture says about the miraculous conception and birth of Jesus or not. But the virgin birth is also a matter of THE Faith; that is to say, it is an article of Christian doctrine that is beyond dispute. To accept it is to accept a fundamental, essential doctrine of all Christianity. To reject it is to put one outside the bounds of the Christian faith. I pray that this Advent and Christmas season you will join with me, and with all the Christian world, in celebrating the supernatural way that God chose to enter our human race to bear our sin and be our savior.
Rev. Kent Wartick is the pastor of Faith Lutheran Church in Kent, Ohio. He has been preaching for over 26 years in the Lutheran Church – Missouri Synod. He’s my dad, and an inspiration for the faithful.