Affirming that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit in Mary is to affirm something basic about an embryo’s personhood at conception.
Two days ago Christians all over the world gathered to celebrate the nativity of Jesus Christ our Lord. The eternal Word becoming flesh is fundamental to the Christian faith; we would not be able to receive salvation apart from it (Gal. 4:4-5). One important aspect of Christ’s incarnation is his birth from Mary, a virgin. We re-tell this historic event each year, though many of us neglect its significance. Why did Jesus have to be born of a virgin? There is more than one answer to this question, but today we’ll look at one that has profound implications in the debate on abortion and the personhood of the unborn.
Jesus had to be born of a virgin because he is not a human person. Kallistos Ware summarizes the traditional doctrine:
“…Christ’s birth from a virgin underlines that the incarnation did not involve the coming into being of a new person. When a child is born from two human parents in the usual fashion, a new person begins to exist. But the person of the incarnate Christ is none other than the second person of the Holy Trinity. At Christ’s birth, therefore, no new person came into existence, but the pre-existent person of the Son of God now began to live according to a human as well as a divine mode of being. So the virgin birth reflects Christ’s eternal pre-existence.” – The Orthodox Way, pg. 76-77
Christ’s personhood is divine and eternal. When he assumed human flesh he did not become a human person. Jesus Christ is a divine person who exists in a divine nature and a human nature simultaneously. The natures are never mixed and his divine personhood is never altered. In this context it would be improper to call Jesus a human person, for that would deny his deity. It would also be improper to call Jesus a divine-human person, for that implies a mixture of two persons. There is only one person of Christ, the second person of the Trinity, and it was that divine person who existed in the womb of Mary.
All of this proves that personhood begins at conception. If a fertilized egg merely created human nature void of personality, then there would have been no need for the virgin birth. Mary and Joseph could have had marital relations and Christ could have assumed the blob of tissue conceived from that union. But that is not how God wrote the story. The way he ordains history is not meaningless or random, it’s scientific: A) Jesus is a divine person from all eternity; a new person was not created at his conception. B) He had to be born of a virgin. C) Therefore, conception from marital relations creates a new person.
Many Christians who celebrate the virgin birth deny the personhood of the unborn. The Bible doesn’t give us a timeline of human development. There is no verse that says, “A zygote is a human person made in the image of God.” Thus, pro-choice Christians maintain that the unborn is not a person until a specific point in its development and that a woman may choose to have an abortion up to that time. But if the virgin birth is true, the unborn are persons from conception. To abort is to kill an innocent human being, which is a sin and a crime according to the Bible.
It’s contradictory to deny the personhood of the unborn and to affirm the virgin birth at the same time. The two beliefs are incompatible at every angle. Christians must choose one or the other. As you celebrate Christmas this year and years to come, how faithful will you be to the story?