Can a Christian Deny the Virgin Birth?

The following is an email correspondence I had with the late John Robbins. Dr. Robbins is the founder of the “Trinity Foundation” and publisher of many of Gordon Clark’s writings. For further information on the Trinity Foundation and those who endorse it see the following link

http://www.outsidethecamp.org/notf.htm

http://www.outsidethecamp.org/review101.htm

http://www.outsidethecamp.org/heterodoxy102.htm

This correspondence took place between October 7 and October 15, 2007. I, of course, am Chris Duncan.

Chris Duncan:

Hello, John-

I very recently came across an old article by Al Mohler. As you probably know, Al Mohler is a highly respected, well-known person in reformed circles. Mohler ends his article (that I’ve pasted below) with these words:

“Though the denial of this doctrine is now tragically common, the historical truth of Christ’s birth remains inviolate. No true
Christian can deny the virgin birth.”

And right before what is written above, Mohler also writes the following:

“Everyone admits that the Bible represents Jesus as having been conceived by the Holy Ghost and born of the Virgin Mary. The only question is whether in making that representation the Bible is true or false.” So declared J. Gresham Machen in his great work, The Virgin Birth of Christ. As Machen went on to argue, “if the Bible is regarded as being wrong in what it says about the birth of Christ, then obviously the authority of the Bible in any high sense, is gone.

Mohler quotes from Machen the above. Mohler should have also included this quote by Machen that would have given Mohler a gentle but stern rebuke:

“What then is our conclusion? Is belief in the virgin birth necessary to every man if he is to be a believer in the Lord Jesus Christ? The question is wrongly put when it is put in that way. Who can tell exactly how much knowledge of the facts about Christ is necessary if a man is to have saving faith? None but God can tell. Some knowledge is certainly required, but how much is required we cannot say. “Lord, I believe; help thou mine unbelief” said a man in the Gospel who was saved. Though today there are many men of little faith, many who are troubled by the voices that are heard on all sides…What right have we to say that full knowledge and full conviction are necessary before a man can put his trust in the crucified and risen Lord? What right have we to say that no man can be saved before he has come to a full conviction regarding the stupendous miracle narrated in the first chapters of Mathew and Luke?…

One thing at least is clear: even if the belief in the virgin birth is not necessary to every Christian, it is necessary to Christianity. And it is necessary to the corporate witness of the Church….Let it never be forgotten that the virgin birth is an integral part of the New Testament witness about Christ, and that that witness is strongest when it is taken as it stands….1

1. J. Gresham Machen, The Virgin Birth of Christ (Grand Rapids: Baker
Book House, 1930), pp. 395-396.

Chris: To the second question posed by Machen above, Mohler, in his article, answers in the affirmative. But Machen says that Mohler has no right to do this since who’s to say regarding the virgin birth that “full knowledge and full conviction are necessary before a man can put his trust in the crucified and risen Lord?” In his article below, Mohler mentions Albert Schweitzer, Rudolf Bultmann, and the “unabashed liberal,” Harry Emerson Fosdick. Crossan and Spong are also mentioned
among others who deny the virgin birth.

What Mohler says in his article and what Machen says in his book above are completely at odds. Both men’s words condemn the words of the other. Would you like to make any observations regarding this, John?

John Robbins replied:

Mohler is right. Machen is talking about something else. Mohler says “deny,” which implies that one knows the Bible teaches it and the person refuses to believe it. Machen is talking about how many facts one must know to be saved. People can be saved who do not believe it, if they are ignorant of what the Bible says about it, but if they know and deny it, they are not saved. Saving faith believes whatever the Bible says.

Chris Duncan:

Hello, John-

Machen, *in addition* to knowledge, speaks of a “full conviction,” which implies that one knows the Bible teaches it (the virgin birth) and the person has yet to come to a full conviction regarding the truth of it. Granted, that is not quite as blatant as “refus [ing] to believe it,” but it is unbelief just the same. For unbelief expresses itself in different ways than just explicit rejections that say, “I reject the virgin birth.” Unbelief is also expressed like this:

“I think that perhaps the virgin birth is true, but I still have lingering doubts about the truth of it, and so I have not yet reached a full conviction on the matter. I realize that the Bible teaches it, but I am troubled by the voices (Crossan, Machen, Fosdick, Mohler, etc.) heard on all sides of this issue, and so I have not yet come to a full conviction of the truth of this matter, etc.”

You wrote:

Mohler is right. Machen is talking about something else. Mohler says “deny,” which implies that one knows the Bible teaches it and the person refuses to believe it. Machen is talking about how many facts one must know to be saved. People can be saved who do not believe it, if they are ignorant of what the Bible says about it, but if they know and deny it, they are not saved. Saving faith believes whatever the Bible says.

One last question regarding this: What would you say about Machen’s view (provided in the quote below) that true Christians can deny plenary inspiration? These men that Machen spoke of definitely knew about said doctrine and denied it. And thus, I would agree with you that these “true Christian men” are not saved since they know and deny the doctrine of plenary inspiration. But from what Machen says here below, he would *not* agree with you that these men are not saved. You say in effect that:

P1 Saving faith believes whatever the Bible says.
P2 These men do not believe whatever the Bible says.
C1 Thus, these men do not have saving faith.

Machen would, from this quote below, say that the conclusion does not
follow. What say you about this quote below? Quite troubling is it not?

“It must be admitted that there are many Christians who do not accept the doctrine of plenary inspiration. That doctrine is denied not only by liberal opponents of Christianity, but also by many true Christian men. There are many Christian men in the modern Church who find in the origin of Christianity no mere product of evolution but a real entrance of the creative power of God, who depend for their salvation, not at all upon their own efforts to lead the Christ life, but upon the atoning blood of Christ–there are many men in the modern Church who thus accept the central message of the Bible and yet believe that the message has come to us merely on the authority of trustworthy witnesses unaided in their literary work by any supernatural guidance of the Spirit of God. There are many who believe that the Bible is right at the central point, in its account of the redeeming work of Christ, and yet believe that it contains many errors. Such men are not really liberals, but Christians; because they have accepted as true the message upon which Christianity depends. A great gulf separates them from those who reject the supernatural act of God with which Christianity stands or falls” (Christianity and Liberalism, p. 75).

Sincerely,

Chris Duncan

John Robbins responded thusly:

I wish Machen had named some of these many men who say the Bible contains errors, is not inspired, and yet believe justification by faith alone. In the absence of names, I think it is a null class.

Then I, to John:

Hi, John-

At the risk of becoming a nuisance–since I am quite aware that you are a busy man and probably get a lot of e-mails, etc.–I must say/ask a couple more things.

You said this:

“Mohler is right. Machen is talking about something else. Mohler says “deny,” which implies that one knows the Bible teaches it and the person refuses to believe it. Machen is talking about how many facts one must know to be saved. People can be saved who do not believe it, if they are ignorant of what the Bible says about it, but if they know and deny it, they are not saved. Saving faith believes whatever the Bible says.”

And this:

“I wish Machen had named some of these many men who say the Bible contains errors, is not inspired, and yet believe justification by faith alone. In the absence of names, I think it is a null class.”

My response: There was a class of men in 1 Corinthians 15:12-17 who were saying that there was not a resurrection from the dead. This does not somehow become a null class just because there is an absence of names. 1 John 4 mentions nameless ones, and yet their class is not null, but antichristian. It doesn’t *necessarily* have to be a null class, does it?

But if you still say that Machen’s nameless men belong to a null class, then hypothetically, does denial (a knowing denial no less) of plenary inspiration *necessarily* mean denial of justification by faith alone? Or, could it just be another instance of a blessed, happy, felicitous inconsistency?

Thank you,

Chris Duncan

John Robbins responded:

Paul treats denial of the resurrection differently from denial of justification by faith alone, Compare Galatians 1 with the passage in 1 Corinthians. He also names names on several occasions. Machen did as well, but he does not seem to for this alleged group of people who say the Bible teaches error, is not inspired, and yet believe the Gospel. The absence of names does not imply that it is a null class, but Machen could have proved it was not null by naming a few. That is one reason I suspect it is null. I think Machen thought he had a lot more supporters in the PC than he did, and when he started the OPC (then PCA) he expected to see a mass exodus from the PCUS. Instead, he got 136 people to go with him.

Chris Duncan:

Hello, John-

Did you want to answer this question? You did not answer it.

Does denial (a knowing denial no less) of plenary inspiration *necessarily* mean denial of justification by faith alone? Or, could it just be another instance of a blessed, happy, felicitous inconsistency?

Thank you,

Chris Duncan

P.S. “I have come in the name of My Father, and you do not receive Me. If another comes in his own name, you will receive that one. How are you able to believe, you who receive glory from one another, and the glory which is from the only God you do not seek? Do not think that I will accuse you to the Father; there is one accusing you, Moses, in whom you have hoped. For if you were believing Moses, you would then believe Me; for that one wrote concerning Me. But if you do not believe his writings, how will you believe My Words?” (John 5:43-47).

Clark, in his book “God’s Hammer” (pp. 62, 184) spoke of men who used some other criterion to decide which portions of Scripture were correct, and which portions were in error. Of course, their criterion is themselves and they have put themselves in the place of God, by asserting what God did and did not say, and what God is, and is not in
error about.

On page 6 of the aforementioned book, Clark cites John 5:46-47. Obviously, those men who deny plenary inspiration are accused (judged) by those texts they say are correct, for if they were believing Moses (or whoever else in Scripture since all is inspired), they would believe Jesus.

Basically the question is, if one does not believe all of Scripture, then how can one believe any part of Scripture? If one says that the writings of Moses are in error, and at the same time says that all the teachings concerning justification by faith alone are true, then they are lost. They cannot truly believe Christ’s words in part, unless they believe Christ’s words in full. They will call Christ either a liar, or a truth-teller, when it happens to suit their fancy.

“And because of this we give thanks to God without ceasing, that having received the Word of hearing from us, you welcomed it as of God, not as a word of men, but as it is, truly the Word of God, which also works in you, the ones believing” (1 Thessalonians 2:13).

Those men who deny plenary inspiration accept it as a word of men.

P.P.S. I recall what you had said a while ago about universal atonement advocates — as long as they believe in “justification by faith alone,” they can also believe in universal atonement (with a happy, blessed inconsistency), and you will count them as brothers. So, why cannot a denial of plenary inspiration, be just another one of those “happy, blessed inconsistencies”?

John Robbins:

Chris,

You obviously answered your own question, and quite well, may add.

John Robbins, concluding the correspondence with me:

As for your question about universal atonement, I quite clearly made the distinction between denying and being ignorant of — the same distinction I made earlier in this email exchange. Of course, if you read Marc Carpenter’s rants, he cannot make that distinction.

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