C. S. Lewis & the Doctrine of the Virgin Birth

Is the doctrine of the Virgin Birth of Christ important?  C.S. Lewis had some insights to that issue!

“Therefore the Lord Himself will give you a sign: Behold, a virgin will be with child and bear a son, and she will call His name Immanuel.” Isaiah 7:14  

Introduction 

Unafraid of dealing with controversial topics, C. S. Lewis tackles the virgin birth of Christ with the same clarity and strong rational arguments typical of his dealings with the problem of pain, the problem of hell, etc…  Although Lewis considered the miracle of the virgin birth to be, “…that miracle which for some reason proves hardest of all for the modern mind to accept”[1]  he deals with it rather briefly. The allocation of space to this topic is limited to a single paragraph in Mere Christianity and less than four pages in Miracles.   Yet, in spite of the brevity with which Lewis handles the topic, the problem is introduced, clarified, and resolved brilliantly.

 

In order to properly consider Lewis’s response to the controversy of the virgin birth of Christ, it is necessary to clarify some important factors that contribute to a clear understanding of it.  It is necessary to deal with the passage itself as it appears and is to be interpreted in Isaiah 7:14. It is necessary to establish the identity of the promised child. It is also very important to address the meaning of the Hebrew noun ‘almah’ that has been translated both as “virgin” and as “young woman.” Then we must proceed to incorporate the New Testament’s dealing with Isaiah 7:14 as it appears in Matthew 1:23. This provides a solid exegetical and theological framework from which to tackle Lewis’s arguments.

 

Once the background information is established, it is necessary to consider the importance of establishing the veracity of the virgin birth of Christ. Two key elements must be addressed. First, the reliability of the Bible is at stake when we question whether its prophecies are trustworthy. If it can be established that there was no virgin birth, than the entire text of the Bible, both Old and New Testaments, loses credibility. Second, the very nature of Christ is dependent on His virgin birth. Were it not for the virgin birth, Christ would have been born under the curse of sin, sinful, and unable to assume the role of ‘second Adam’ as described by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans.   

 

Finally, it is necessary to consider the specific objections raised against the virgin birth that Lewis responded to. He dealt with two major objections. First, he deals with the ethical objection of God’s involvement in the impregnation of Mary. Second, Lewis addresses the biological/ scientific objection to fertilization which would seem impossible without the genetic contribution of both a male and a female. To both of these objections Lewis’s response is devastatingly rational and simple.  

 

Identity of the promised child in Isaiah 7:14   

If one adheres to the inerrancy of the Bible and practices sound exegesis, there is little room for disagreement as to the identity of the child. Clearly, the promised child was referring to both a child in Isaiah’s day and to the future Messiah.  There is much debate as to who the specific child was during Isaiah’s days, but no debate as to the immediate fulfillment of the ‘sign’ (prophecy).  With regards to the fulfillment in the Messiah, the debate centers on Matthew’s use of the Old Testament. 

 

 If we consider the broad context of chapters 7-9 we find three passages referring to the birth of a promised child (7:14; 8:3; 9:6).  The three appear to be very closely related and use similar Hebrew expressions. The evidence for an immediate fulfillment is overwhelming, particularly with regards to a time table, “…the sign seems to be that before a child conceived at the time of the saying is twelve years of age, the two nations that so frighten the house of David will be destroyed…”[2]

 

  This sign would only qualify as a sign to Ahaz if he could see its fulfillment. Isaiah 8:3 uses the same language as 7:14 and thus is believed to be referring to the same event. [3] Oswalt confirms this, “The language of 8:3 (she conceived and bore a son) is similar to that of 7:14 except for the change of tenses. This suggests that the two verses may be referring to the same event.”

 

  Therefore, the immediate fulfillment is likely to be the birth of Isaiah’s own son Maher-Shalal-Hash-Baz. Although, the identity of the immediate fulfillment is debatable, the fact of an immediate fulfillment is not.  

 

After the birth of Isaiah’s son there is an undisputed messianic prophecy in 9:6 of a child that will be born. There is little debate that this is a prophecy of the coming messiah. Oswalt is quick to point to the fact that this child (of 9:6) could not be Hezekiah, Isaiah’s son, nor any other human, “No Israelite or Judean king was ever identified as ‘Mighty God'” [4]  Thus, if the three passages are allusions to the same promised child as Oswalt argues, “…all three are expressions of Immanuel.” [5]

 

 Then the prophecy is clearly speaking of both an immediate and a future fulfillment in the coming messiah.

 

The meaning of the term ‘almah’ 

There is sound exegetical evidence that would suggest the word ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7:14 is best translated as “virgin.”  Contrary to Jerome, Calvin, and Fausset who find that ‘almah refers to hidden or concealed virgins, I agree with Clark, “A virgin was not called ‘almah  because she was concealed by being kept at home in her father’s house, which is not true; but literally and physically, because as a woman she had not been uncovered–she had not known man”  [6]   Wolf also concludes that, “It must mean ‘virgin’ as Ugaritic text 77 has proved by its parallelism of glmt and ltlt, equivalents to Hebrew ‘young woman’ and ‘virgin.’” [7]

 

  

Additional proof for this position is found in a careful analysis of the other uses of the word in the O.T. There are seven passages where the exact word used by Isaiah is used in the O.T. to refer to women.  These passages in which ‘almah is used in the sense of a ‘young woman’ are Genesis 24:43; Exodus 2:8; Psalm 68:25; Proverbs 30:19; Song of Solomon 1:3, 6:8; and Isaiah 7:14.  Upon analyzing each occurrence, Niessen concludes, “Of the six passages examined, apart from Isaiah 7:14, ‘almah is never used of a married woman. Quite to the contrary, the ‘almah is not only unmarried but is distinguished from the na’arah in that the former is presumed to be a virgin and the latter is not.” [8]

 

 

 

Matthew’s Interpretation of Isaiah’s prophecy 

When Matthew’s interpretation of Isaiah is considered, there is little room for debate.  Oswalt emphatically argues,  

 

“Suffice it to say here that if there was not intention to speak of the Messiah in Isaiah 7:14, then Matthew is guilty of misusing evidence in his claim that this proves Jesus of Nazareth was the promised Messiah of the Old Testament. If that is so, much of the New Testament claim for the identity of Jesus must be discarded.” [9]

 

 

Walton adds,

“When Matthew, endowed with inspiration and benefiting from hindsight, presents the details of the birth of Jesus, he cannot but notice how strikingly appropriate Isaiah’s words are to these details.” [10]

 

 

If one considers Matthew 1:23 is inspired, inerrant, Word of God, then the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14 is clearly understood as having both an immediate fulfillment and a later messianic fulfillment in Jesus.  

 

The Importance of the Virgin Birth

Having established the foundational issues of interpreting Isaiah 7:14 the obvious question becomes: what’s the big deal? Does it make any difference whether Jesus was born of a virgin or not? It is a big deal. If Jesus was not born of a virgin then the Bible must be dismissed as unreliable. Furthermore, without the miraculous intervention of God in the process, the very nature of Jesus’ divinity is lost.

 

Reliability of Scripture 

Christians argue for the inspiration and inerrancy of God’s Word. But can a book with mistakes be considered inerrant? Can a book be trusted whose prophecies don’t come true? Is a “god” who makes mistakes worthy of the title?  How does Lewis weigh in on the topic?  There appears to be some controversy as to whether Lewis considered the Bible to be inerrant. However, when one considers the long list of Bible affirming passages in Lewis’ writings, it is hard to believe he did not hold the Bible in the highest esteem.  Consider, for example, that much of Lewis’ book Miracles is devoted to an unequivocal and unapologetic defense of the miraculous content of the Bible, including the topic of this paper. Consider, furthermore, how Lewis defends the major (an even controversial) doctrines of the Bible, such as the trinity, hell, heaven, the incarnation, the deity and works of Christ, etc… Nowhere in Lewis’ writings do we find a derogatory treatment of the Bible.

 

It may be negotiable among the liberal theologians, for whom the Bible need not be inerrant nor inspired, but the doctrine of the virgin birth of Christ is non-negotiable for the conservative believer.  Either God is God and is able to predict the future through His prophets, or he is not God. Either God is perfect and inerrant himself and thus His word is inerrant, or He is not.   

 

Nature of Christ 

The doctrine of the virgin birth also reveals a key element in God’s plan for redemption. Lewis addresses two important issues with regards to Jesus’ identity and divine nature.  In Mere Christianity he clarifies that the virgin birth is not a reference to the “only begotten” as if it were the creation of Christ itself,  

 

“One of the creeds says that Christ is the Son of God ‘begotten, not created’; and it adds ‘begotten by his Father before all worlds’. Will you please get it quite clear that this has nothing to do with the fact that when Christ was born on earth as a man, that man was the son of a virgin?  We are not now thinking about the Virgin Birth.  We are thinking about something that happened before Nature was created at all, before time began. ‘Before all the worlds’ Christ is begotten, not created.” [11]

 

 

While this is not the emphasis of his dealings in the topic, its importance cannot be overstated.  The second and more lengthy treatment of the association between the virgin birth and Jesus’ divine nature come from the passages in Miracles.  Lewis begins by arguing that fallen man’s genetic history is transferred from one generation to the next in the spermatozoon. While this is controversial, it is undeniable that much of the father is transferred to the child in the fertilization process. He states, “Behind every spermatozoon lies the whole history of the universe; locked within it lies no inconsiderable part of the world’s future.” [12]   He then goes on to argue that the impregnation of Mary was done in such a way as to purposely bypass this process. He selects his words very carefully as he states, “But once, and for a special purpose, He dispensed with that long line…His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events.” [13]

 

 Lest one questions the purpose of such interference, Lewis dons his theological hat and presents us with one of the most beautiful and reasonable arguments for the importance of the virgin birth.

 

“There was of course a unique reason for it. That time He was creating not simply a man but the Man who was to be Himself: was creating Man anew: was beginning, at this dive and human point, the New Creation of all things. The whole soiled and wear universe quivered at this direct injection of essential life— direct, uncontaminated, not drained through all the crowded history of Nature.” [14]

 

 

The virgin birth of Christ was essential in the process of the New Creation that was necessary for fallen man and represented by the new Adam. This is precisely what the Apostle Paul argued in his letter to the Romans chapter 5. The world, contaminated and fallen, needed a fresh start with a new creation that did not proceed from the loins of the first Adam. Hence, Adam was bypassed in one of the most incredible miracles in human history.  The denial of the virgin birth is the denial of the second Adam and thus the denial of the very divine nature of Christ that would redeem mankind.  

 

Objections to the Virgin Birth

While there are numerous objections to the virgin birth of Jesus, Lewis responded to what he considered the two most important ones. First, he dealt with the ethical objection which centered on the issue of a deity involving himself sexually with a human. Second, Lewis responded to the scientific arguments for the impossibility of procreation without intercourse.  

 

Ethical Objection 

In dealing with the ethical objection, Lewis is curt and dismisses it rather strongly. The objector he responded to had written a paper where the objection had been presented as, “Christians believe in a God who had committed adultery with the wife of a Jewish carpenter.” [15]

 

 In dismissing the argument, Lewis affirms that he cannot believe the author of said foolishness is serious. However, he responds by arguing that God is involved in the miracle of life wherever it occurs, whether among humans or even the animal kingdom. Therefore, if the intervention with Mary is considered adultery, then God must be accused of adultery with all women and even animals. This is a textbook example of using ‘reduction to absurdity’ to demonstrate the fallacy of the argument presented.

 

 

Biological Objection  

Much more serious consideration is afforded the scientific/ biological objection. Early on in Miracles, Lewis addressed the fallacy of Argumentum ab Annis, also known as “chronological snobbery” where belief in miracles like the virgin birth are dismissed as old ideas of an ancient and ignorant people. He states,  

 

“Thus you will hear people say, ‘The early Christians believed that Christ was the son of a virgin, but we know that this is a scientific impossibility’. Such people seem to have an idea that belief in miracles arose at a period when men were so ignorant of the course of nature that they did not perceive a miracle to be contrary to it. A moment’s thought shows this to be nonsense.” [16]

 

 

He quickly responds by pointing to the fact that Joseph did not initially believe it to be a miracle and was determined to leave his wife. Even they knew that virgins could not be pregnant. It wasn’t until God revealed himself to Joseph that he accepted it as a miracle.

 

Lewis’ main argument in response to the scientific objection centers on the conclusion that no birth is a human process; rather every birth is the result of divine intervention. Lewis argues,  

 

“In a normal act of generation the father has no creative function. A microscopic particle of matter from his body, and a microscopic particle from the woman’s body, meet…The human father is merely an instrument,…the last in a long line of carriers. That line is in God’s hand. It is the instrument by which He normally creates man…no woman ever conceived a child…without Him.” [17]

  

 

What makes the virgin birth of Christ different from every other birth is that God chose to bypass His traditional method of conception. God chose to intervene for a good reason, “But once, and for a special purpose, He dispensed with that long line…Once His life-giving finger touched a woman without passing through the ages of interlocked events.”

 

 God did not want a human carrier to carry the baggage of Adam into the conception of Christ and thus He performed one of the greatest miracles recorded in Scripture.  The concluding words of Lewis’ arguments are among his finest and most memorable on the subject.

 

“He is doing now, small and close, what He does in a different fashion for every woman who conceives. He does it this time without a line of human ancestors: but even where He uses human ancestors it is not the less He who gives life.” [19]

 

 

It is hard, if not impossible, to argue against Lewis on this issue, for even modern science marvels at the “miracle of life.”

 

Conclusion

The importance of understanding the prophecy of Isaiah 7:14, regarding the virgin birth, cannot be overstated.  Being among the most important doctrines with regards to Christ’s identity and mission, the objections to the virgin birth must be dealt with.  C. S. Lewis tackles the virgin birth of Christ with the same clarity and strong rational arguments typical of his dealings with other controversial and difficult topics. Although Lewis deals with it rather briefly, the problem is introduced, clarified, and resolved brilliantly.


1 C. S. Lewis, Miracles (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 223.

2 John N. Oswalt. Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003), 139.
3  Ibid., 149.
4  Ibid., 160.
5 Ibid. 
6 Richard Niessen, “The Virginity of the ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7:14.” Bibliotecha Sacra, 137.0546 (April-June, 1980): 134.
7 Herbert M. Wolf, “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 91.04 (1972): 455.   
8 Niessen, 141.
9 Oswalt, 143.
10 John H. Walton, “Isaiah 7:14- What’s in a name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 30/3 (September 1987): 300.
11  C. S. Lewis, Mere Christianity (San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001), 157. 
12 Lewis, Miracles, 224.
13 Ibid., 225.
14 Ibid.
15  Lewis, Miracles, 224.
16  Ibid., 73.
17 Ibid., 224-225.
18  Ibid., 225.  
19 Ibid. 
 
 
BIBLIOGRAPHY  
Lewis, C. S.  Mere Christianity. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.  
______ . Miracles. San Francisco: Harper San Francisco, 2001.  
Oswalt, John N.  Isaiah: The NIV Application Commentary. Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 2003.  
Niessen, Richard. “The Virginity of the ‘almah’ in Isaiah 7:14.” Bibliotecha Sacra, 137.0546 (April-June, 1980): 133-150.   
Walton, John H. “Isaiah 7:14- What’s in a name?” Journal of the Evangelical Theological Society, 30/3 (September 1987): 289-306.  
Wolf, Herbert M. “A Solution to the Immanuel Prophecy in Isaiah 7:14-8:22.” Journal of Biblical Literature, 91.04 (1972): 449-456.
Juan Valdes

<p>Dr. Juan Valdes is a bi-lingual speaker for Reasons for Hope (English and Spanish) and the senior pastor of a Spanish-speaking congregation in Miami, Florida. He has taught Theology, Bible and Apologetics at the seminary level in both English and Spanish and speaks regularly across the country and internationally at Pastor’s Conferences, Youth Conferences, Apologetics Conferences and local church events. Juan, his wife Daisy and their children, Juan Elias and Jessica serve in multiple areas of ministry in Miami, Florida.</p>