Summary: The third phrase of the Creed: "Who was conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary"
CONCEIVED BY THE HOLY SPIRIT
As we delve deeper into the ancient church document called the Apostles’ Creed, we come to a line representing an issue that has sparked debate across two thousand years. The line we talked about last week, “And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord” talks about the Christian doctrine that Jesus is both fully God and fully human. This next pair of phrases, “conceived by the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary,” gives emphasis to that. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit” brings in the divine aspect of Jesus’ nature, while having Jesus carried in a real woman’s womb and physically born to a historical mother in the usual way, speaks to his being fully human. But this section implies a whole lot more.
For one thing, it was addressing a controversy that was raging in the early centuries of the church...the controversy surrounding Gnosticism. Gnosticism is a big word for a group of people who believed that God was accessible through knowledge. The word for “knowledge” in Greek is “gnosis,” so the movement was called Gnosticism. When you see books on today’s bookshelves like “The Gnostic Gospels,” that is some of the literature that was important to this group.
Talking about that movement would be a whole sermon in itself, but only two things are really important to the question of Jesus’ conception and birth. The foundation to both issues was the gnostic belief that anything physical was basically corrupted. Matter was bad; Spirit was good. So, for the Gnostics, it was a goal of life to move our spiritual selves to a point where we could be free of our earthly bodies and thus, purified. We could do this, they believed, through knowledge.
What that meant for Christianity was that the Gnostics were starting to teach that Jesus could not really be God in the flesh, because taking on human flesh would be too base and lowly a thing for God to do. God would not submit to corruption...to say that God became human was, for them, to say that God stopped being Spirit and became Matter...that God stopped being good and became corrupted. That was beyond what they believed was possible for God, so the Gnostics denied the incarnation. God could not redeem flesh...the flesh would corrupt the divine nature, so God could not have become a real human being in Jesus.
That left the Gnostics with some difficulties, however, since Jesus certainly seemed to claim otherwise, and had some pretty nifty miracles to back it up. Their answer to that was that, when Jesus was baptized and the Spirit of God descended like a dove and the voice of God said, “This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased,” they believed THAT was the moment that the Spirit of God entered Jesus. They taught that there was a human being named Jesus who God decided to possess for a given period of time. That time began at Jesus’ baptism, and they also taught that the Holy Spirit left Jesus right before his death. They could not fathom a God who would be born or a God who would die.
You can imagine that the Church got nervous as such teachings spread without any formal statement from the Church to say what the Church really believed. The Gnostic movement was one of the main reasons that the Apostles’ Creed was written, and you can see it reflected in today’s phrase. The Holy Spirit didn’t just show up at Jesus’ baptism, according to the Church. It was involved in Jesus’ procreation. “Conceived by the Holy Spirit.” The Holy Spirit was with him at conception, and then he was born of a woman through a birth canal with the same blood, water, and mess that slides every other human baby into the world. “Born of the Virgin Mary.”
The other kind of controversy surrounding these lines is the “virgin” part of the Virgin Mary. It needs to be said that this became much more of an issue for the Western Church, based in Rome, than it was for the Eastern Christians in Constantinople. There are many who believe that the Western insistence on making people assent to the Virgin Birth has much more to do with negative attitudes about sexuality and women than it does adherence to Scripture. This seems especially likely given the Roman Catholic insistence that Mary remained a virgin all of her life, and their claim that the people the Bible plainly calls Jesus’ brothers and sisters were Joseph’s from a prior marriage or really cousins or other such things. The plain Biblical meaning has to apply for Mary’s virginity, but apparently can’t apply for Jesus’ siblings, making me wonder if there isn’t something else going on.