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The Virginal Conception of Jesus

This issue provides an opportunity to compare the work of Arthur Peacocke and John Polkinghorne (see Peacocke and Polkinghorne compared; Peacocke and Polkinghorne: comparison of models of divine action; the question of miracle; and the resurrection of Jesus.

Arthur Peacocke is very little disposed to accept the virginal conception of Jesus. In a careful analysis he points out how strange it would be if God’s action in the world amounted in this particular case to supplying a complete set of chromosomes as from a human father. The old images of God’s relation to living things: the pre-Darwinian specific designer of creatures (see Darwin’s challenge to theological positions), the pre-Humean cosmic tinkerer (see the question of miracle), would return with a vengeance in such a scenario. For Peacocke ‘it is theologically imperative that the birth stories and the doctrine of the virginal conception of Jesus be separated from the doctrine of the incarnation.’Peacocke, A, The Idreos Lectures (Oxford: Harris Manchester College, 1997) p38

Whereas John Polkinghorne, without concerning himself too much with the biological details, considers that ‘the dual origin of the X and Y chromosomes ... seems a possible physical expression of the belief, in the words of the Nicene creed, that Jesus “by the power of the Holy Spirit became incarnate of the Virgin Mary and was made man”. In other words, his conception was an act of divine-human co-operation.’Polkinghorne, 1996, 79

So two highly-trained scientist-theologians, both pursuing programmes of critical realism in science and theology, reveal how junctures arise when one has to accord one programme, the scientific or the theological, priority over the other. Both thinkers agree that the scientific data necessitate dispensing with an Edenic paradise from which humans ‘fell’ (see the doctrine of the Fall), but they disagree over miracle, empty tomb and virginal conception.

Email link | Feedback | Contributed by: Dr. Christopher Southgate
Source: God, Humanity and the Cosmos  (T&T Clark, 1999)

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