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What DNA Matter Did the Baby Jesus Have?

How was Jesus conceived? A theologian presents three possibilities.

What actually happened in the Incarnation—genetically, when the Holy Spirit brought about the miraculous conception of the Baby Jesus—is not simply a matter of curious speculation.

The authenticity of the humanity of Jesus is critical to the Gospel …

The point of view preferred by some of our evangelical forefathers (Menno Simons and perhaps Jonathan Edwards) is that the Holy Spirit created Jesus out of nothing (ex nihilo). Today we might say: God created a zygote out of nothing using a combination of genes never tried out before in human history.

This ex nihilo position stems from a proper desire to guard the doctrine of the sinlessness of the humanity of Christ. Proponents often interpret 1 Corinthians 15:47 very literally: "The first man was of the dust of the earth, the second man from heaven."

But this view has two problems. First, is seems to render meaningless the genealogy of Jesus carefully recorded by the Gospel writers. Second, it seems to prevent us from considering Jesus as truly one with humanity and be able to act representatively on behalf of humanity. So it seems out of sync with key doctrines about how the life, death and high priesthood of Jesus are vicarious for us, or about how in Christ a new community of humanity is formed.

(It also perpetuates the very same dualist Platonic philosophical categories that the Incarnation demolished: by the Incarnation the goodness of created matter was vindicated, all non-incarnational spiritualities were invalidated, and by the resurrection of that incarnate Man, the restoration of fallen creation was assured.)

An alternative position suggests that the Spirit did employ an ovum belonging to Mary, and that the Spirit also created or supernaturally transferred genetic material from Joseph and inserted this in Mary's ovum in a sort of in vitro fertilization method. This "theology of Spirit-IVF" may sound kooky but it avoids the difficulties of the ex nihilo option and still does justice to what Paul intended in 1 Corinthians 15?47.

However, it also seems out of sync with the doctrine of original sin, which basically teaches that sinfulness is inherent in human genes. John Calvin resolved this apparent problem by suggesting that during conception the Holy Spirit negated the influence of original sin in the genes of Jesus' earthly parents. Thus Jesus did authentically enter the human race, but with a human nature that was un-fallen, like that of Adam and Eve in the garden.

Calvin and other sympathetic theologians thus envisaged Jesus from conception onwards living a perfectly holy life in dependence on the Holy Spirit and in communion with the father. In this way Calvin safeguarded both the holiness of Jesus and the fact that He could truly be and act representatively and vicariously for the human race.

His view also rendered valid the notion made so much of by the author of Hebrews: that Jesus as our high priest can genuinely sympathize with our temptations and trials as human persons. His life was (and is) fully incarnational and inspirational for us.

There is at least one more alternative, the one embraced by Martin Luther, John Owen, Edward Irving and Karl Barth. They believed that, by the supernatural IVF work of the Spirit, Jesus did receive what we today would call fully human genes and that "fully" included the sinfulness of human nature.

They insisted that Jesus as a person stayed completely holy even with a sinful human nature, overcoming its influence by the power of the Spirit. The sinfulness of that nature was finally purged by His obedient suffering.

These theologians sought to honour a principle of the Church Fathers: "that which He has not assumed He has not healed" (originally Gregory of Nazianzus). If this seems to go too far for our comfort, let us not forget that Jesus certainly suffered the metaphysical consequences of a fallen humanity such as weakness, pain, sorrow and even death.

Ultimately, my own preference on this matter is Calvin's option. It safeguards this patristic notion and avoids the philosophical challenge of envisaging a holy person with a fallen nature.

The authenticity of the humanity of Jesus is critical to the Gospel and as such it certainly informs our ministry. As those who by the spirit are indwelt by Christ, we can minister incarnationally to whole persons—body, soul and spirit. Our ministry goal is thus the full restoration of human personhood in community—not only the "saving of souls."

Please send your questions to: or Faith Today, Ask a Theologian, M.I.P. box 3745, Markham, Ontario L3R 0Y4.

Ross Hastings is associate professor of mission studies at Regent College in Vancouver. Representatives of ten seminaries affiliated with the Evangelical Fellowship of Canada take turns writing for this column.

Originally published in Faith Today, November/December 2006.




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