Divine Parthenogenesis: Reflections on the Incarnation and Virgin Conception
Every March 25th, Christians around the world celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation, commemorating the angel Gabriel’s announcement to the Virgin Mary that she would conceive the Son of God. Exactly nine months before Christmas, this festival is a time marked by reflection on the miracle of the Incarnation – the act by which Christians believe God entered creation as a human being – and the faith of Mary in giving her consent to carry God’s Son. This article, written in celebration of Annunciation 2022, will examine various questions pertaining to the Virgin Conception, with the hope of promoting the rationality of such belief. The discussion will focus first on reasons why God would become man, both in a general sense as well as in a sense specific to Christianity. Then, the attention turns to an exploration of how God could become man, addressing some of the objections leveled against the Virgin Conception. With that accomplished, this article will close by highlighting the significance of the Incarnation and Virgin Conception to the Christian faith, and the importance of Mary in the redemption of humanity.
Why God Would Become Man
God – if God exists – is unknowable.
That is to say: as the Creator of spacetime, God cannot exist within time or space, and therefore cannot be empirically perceived by any material creature within spatio-temporal boundaries. God might speak to the souls of men in order to give humanity some spiritual revelation or divine decree, but beyond the pages of scripture mankind is unable to see or know God. That is, of course, unless God were to insert the eternal godself into creation in such a way that spacetime-bound creatures could not only see God, but meet, converse with, and know their Creator. The twentieth-century Christian thinker CS Lewis offers the following analogy in his Surprised by Joy,
If Shakespeare and Hamlet could ever meet, it must be Shakespeare’s doing. Hamlet could initiate nothing.Surprised by Joy Ch. 14
Here Lewis compares God to Shakespeare, and conscious intelligent creatures to the character of Hamlet, suggesting that the two could never meet without a creative movement on behalf of the author. Lewis continues his thought in a footnote, expanding his analogy to argue that such a movement would require Shakespeare to write himself into the play as one of his own characters.
Shakespeare could, in principle, make himself appear as Author within the play, and write a dialogue between Hamlet and himself. The ‘Shakespeare’ within the play would of course be at once Shakespeare and one of Shakespeare’s creatures. .Surprised by Joy Ch. 14
Ensuring that his analogizing is not in vain, Lewis clarifies that Shakespeare’s creative movement reflects the movement of God in becoming man, continuing his footnote,
It would bear some analogy to Incarnation.Surprised by Joy Ch, 14
The analogy fully realized, Lewis contends that just as the characters in a play could have no knowledge of the Playwright unless he were written into the story, so creatures could have no knowledge of God unless the godself enters into creation as a fellow creature. Making a similar point in his On the Incarnation, fourth-century theologian Athanasius argues that because humans have historically looked for God in creation, fashioning idols for themselves out of created materials, God, wishing to be known by humanity, became man so that humans could find him in creation.
For since human beings, having rejected the contemplation of God and as though sunk in an abyss with their eyes held downwards, seeking God in creation and things perceptible, setting up for themselves mortal humans and demons for gods, for this reason the love of human beings and the common Savior of all, takes to himself a body and dwells as human among humans and draws to himself the perceptible senses of all human beings, so that those who think that God is in things corporeal might, from what the Lord wrought through the actions of the body, know the truth and through him might consider the Father.On the Incarnation 15
Athanasius contends that the work of Christ in becoming man was meant to make visible the invisible God, revealing the Creator to creation. It is not difficult to imagine Athanasius writing this passage with the words of Christ in mind,
Whoever has seen me has seen the Father.John 14:9
Taking into account the inability of material creatures to find or even look for God beyond material creation, it is enough to say that God would enter material creation simply so that creatures could know God and worship him. Recognizing that humanity rarely looks farther than the empirical senses, but wanting to be known by his creatures, God would have to make the godself available to the senses as a creature so created beings could at last find and know their Creator. However, Christian doctrine goes further, offering an ultimate reason why God would need to become man.
(God Can’t Get No) Satisfaction
Without exception, every human being can point to certain actions we have committed which we know to be wrong or immoral. If there is a God from whom our notions of morality are derived, such immoral actions – what Christians refer to as sins – are undoubtedly dishonoring to that divine Source of morality. In order for this dishonoring to be reversed, the honor that was taken away must be repaid. The eleventh century theologian Anselm of Canterbury refers to this repayment as ‘satisfaction,’ writing in Why God Became Man,
Thus, therefore, everyone who sins must pay to God the honor he has taken away, and this is satisfaction, which every sinner must make to God.Why God Became Man 1.11
Anselm argues elsewhere that, as man is the part of creation which willingly goes against the divine moral law, mankind is responsible for making satisfaction for its own fault. If there is to be satisfaction for mankind’s disobedience, it therefore must come from a descendant of mankind.
For as it is right that man make satisfaction for the fault of man, so it is necessary that the one who makes satisfaction be the one who committed the fault, or a member of the same race. Otherwise, neither Adam nor his race will be making satisfaction for themselves. Therefore, as sin was transmitted to all men from Adam and Eve, so no one but themselves or someone descended from them is obliged to make satisfaction for human sin. Hence, since they themselves are unable to make it, the one who will make it must descend from them.Why God Became Man 2.8
According to Anslem, in order for there to be satisfaction for the dishonor mankind rendered to God on account of sin, a member of mankind must offer such satisfactory repayment. However, the thirteenth-century theologian Bonaventure appeals to the power, wisdom, and goodness of God to say that God himself ought to make such satisfaction in order demonstrate that power, wisdom, and goodness. As Bonaventure writes in the Breviloquium,
Because God made everything with complete power, wisdom, and goodness or benevolence, it was fitting that God should so restore all things as to display that same power, wisdom, and benevolence. Now what is more powerful than to combine within a single person two natures so widely disparate? What is wiser and more fitting than to bring the entire universe to full perfection by uniting the first and last, that is, the Word of God, which is the origin of all things, and human nature, which was the last of all creatures? What is more benevolent than for the master to redeem the slave by taking the form of a servant? Certainly this is a deed of such unfathomable goodness that no greater proof of mercy, kindness, and friendship can be conceived. Assuredly, then, this was the most appropriate way for God the Redeemer to demonstrate the divine power, wisdom, and benevolence.Breviloquium 4.1
Bonaventure highlights the previously discussed divide that exists between the immaterial God and material creation, in order to argue that there is no greater demonstration of the power of God than the crossing of that divide through the combining of those vastly different natures. For Bonaventure, God must become fully incarnate as a man – taking on mankind’s created, material flesh which is so vastly different from the uncreated, immaterial God – in order to most fittingly make satisfaction for mankind’s sin. Bonaventure writes,
Since the whole human race had fallen into sin and was corrupted, not only in spirit but also in flesh, the whole nature had to be assumed so that all of it might be cured. Now the flesh is the part of our being most evident to us as well as the most distant from God. And so, in order that this work might be designated in the most expressive manner, so as to indicate better the humiliation [of God] and more profoundly explain the exaltation [of our flesh], it is called, not ‘inanimation,’ but ‘incarnation’.Breviloquium 4.2
Here Bonaventure refers to the humiliation of God which leads to the exaltation of human flesh. Later in the Breviloquium, Bonaventure explains that this humiliation was necessary in order to repay to God the honor that was taken through human pride. In being obedient to this humiliation, the God-Man Christ repays the honor owed to God, thus returning human flesh to a state of obedience.
Because the work of restoration should respect the honor of God, Christ accomplished it by offering to the father a full satisfactory obedience… now the honor which humankind was bound to pay God was taken away through pride and disobedience. There could therefore be no better way to restore that honor than through humiliation and obedience by one who was not bound to render it. Now Christ Jesus, inasmuch as he was God, was equal to the Father in the form of God; as a human being, he was innocent, and hence undeserving of death, When, therefore, he emptied himself, … and became obedient unto death, he restored to God through a full satisfactory obedience that which he himself had not stolen, and thus offered for God’s appeasement a supremely pleasing sacrifice.Breviloquium 4.9
As through disobedience mankind took from God the honor which was due to the Creator, compensation could only be offered through a perfect obedience rendered unto the same. As men cannot offer any obedience greater than that which leads to death – for, indeed, no human has more to offer than their life entire – Christ could demonstrate no greater obedience than to willingly endure death for the sake of mankind to the glory of God. Bonaventure writes,
nothing could show humankind the path to virtue more clearly than the example of a death endured for the sake of divine justice and obedience… For nothing could move human beings to virtue more powerfully than the goodness with which the most high Son of God laid down his life for us, who were not only undeserving, but actually guilty of so many misdeeds.Breviloquium 4.9.
From the above, it at least appears reasonable to conclude that God – if God exists- would enter creation for no other reason than to make the Creator accessible and knowable to sentient creatures. However, given that mankind is the part of creation which has willingly taken honor from the Creator through disobedience, it also seems reasonable that God would have to become man if that stolen honor is to be repaid. How can it be possible, however, for God to cross the great divide between the material and the immaterial? The answer to that question demands a shift in the discussion from why God would become man, to how God could become man.
How God Could Become Man
By nature, the discussion of how God could become man is from the outset purely speculative. Indeed, all inquiries into how God could do anything will eventually crumble under the weight of divine omnipotence. Nevertheless, both the Christian theological tradition and modern science offer some helpful parameters for identifying the most fitting way God could become man. Returning first to Anselm of Canterbury, who narrows down God’s options in making a human being to four.
God can make a human being in four ways. They are: from a man and woman, and that is the usual way; or neither from a man nor a woman, as He created Adam; or from a man without a woman, as He fashioned Eve; or from a woman without a man, a way that he had not yet used.Why God Became Man 2.8
While these four are helpful in evaluating the possible ways God could create a human being, one way can be eliminated immediately due to the requirements for satisfaction. In the previous section, it was argued that a human being – a descendant of Adam and Eve – must through obedience make satisfaction for human disobedience. If God is to become man in order to make satisfaction on behalf of humanity, God cannot fashion a new man out of the dust as he did with Adam, as this new human creature would bear no relation to humanity. As Anselm puts it,
It remains now, to inquire from what source and in what manner God will assume human nature. For either He will assume it from Adam, or He will create a new man, as he made Adam, without fashioning him from any other man. But if he creates a new man who is not of the race of Adam, this man will not belong to the human race which is descended from Adam. Hence he will not be obliged to make satisfaction for it, because he will not be its offspring.Why God Became Man 2.8
Writing in the second century, Irenaeus of Lyons suggests that had God only taken the appearance of a man – as was the case with the Greek gods when they would walk among mortals – there could be no certainty that he was really a human being. Without this certainty, his obedience unto death was of no value.
It comes to this, whether one say that He appeared but in shew as man, not being man; or that He was made a Man, taking to him nothing from mankind. For if He received not from man the substance of flesh, He was neither made Man, nor the Son of Man: and if he was not made the same that we were, He did no great thing in that He suffered and endured.Against Heresies 3.22.1
The demands of satisfaction preventing God from creating a second human from the dust, there remain three possible ways for God to become man. Anselm enumerates the remaining possibilities, arguing that each of them would be as easy for God as the others.
Let us now inquire whether God should assume a human nature from a father and mother, like other human beings, or from a man without a woman, or from a woman without a man. For in whichever of these three ways it may be assumed, it will be descended from Adam and Eve, from whom all human beings of both sexes originate; and no one of these three ways is easier for God than the others, so that He would have to choose one way rather than the others.Why God Became Man 2.8
In order to determine which of these three would be the most likely choice, an appeal must again be made to the previous section and the reasons God would become man. It was argued that God would become man in order to make the godself known to humanity. However, in the same way that God could not truly be said to be a man if he merely appeared in the form of a man, so humanity could not know that a man were truly God if his conception resembled that of every other man. Therefore, if God is to make the godself known to mankind, he must do it in a way that could leave no doubt that God truly had become man. The options remaining for how God could become man, then, are from a man alone, or from a woman alone. Before allowing the Christian tradition to weigh-in on which of these is the better option, modern science actually has much to contribute to this discussion.
The phenomenon known as parthenogenesis is a naturally occurring process whereby an ovum begins reproducing without paternal fertilization. This spontaneous biological activity is most commonly observed in some invertebrate and lower plant species, where parthenogenesis can lead to viable offspring. In mammals, including humans, parthenogenetic activity is relatively common; however, as the genetic information provided by the male parent through fertilization is necessary for viable mammalian reproduction, mammalian parthenogenesis – including in humans – usually results in little more than ovarian tumors or teratomas. No naturally occurring, viable mammalian parthenogenetic offspring have ever been recorded.
There is, however, the case of FD, a human child who in 1995 was determined to most likely be the product of paternal fertilization in the early stages of oocyte parthenogenesis. According to the study published in the October 1995 issue of Nature Genetics, FD’s blood leukocytes were found to be fully parthenogenetic, meaning FD’s blood had no biological father. As a result of this post-parthenogenetic fertilization, FD had underdeveloped sexual features, mild learning disabilities and behavior issues, and left-sided hemifacial microsomia, as seen in the underdeveloped left side of FD’s face.
Commenting on FD’s case in the same issue of Nature Genetics, M. Azim Surani highlights the unlikelihood that human parthenogenesis, though naturally occurring, will produce viable offspring.
Parthenogenetic activation and development by itself may be relatively common in man. For instance, certain ovarian tumours are parthenogenetic in origin… the probable fate of all parthenogenones is an important reminder that while life can begin in man by spontaneous activation of an oocyte, it cannot continue for very long.Parthenogenesis in Man in Nature Genetics Volume 11 Issue 2 October 1995, 112-113
It is here that modern science becomes surprisingly helpful in determining whether or not God ought to become man from man alone or from woman alone. Certainly, no matter how God is to become man, it must be accomplished through miraculous means. The very movement of the godself from immaterial to material can only be achieved through divine power. Nevertheless, as women already contain within themselves the requisite reproductive organs for growing, carrying, and delivering children, and evidently possess the ability for biological life to begin within those organs without male fertilization, women seem to uniquely equipped to provide the environment and circumstances through which God could miraculously join the immaterial godself to material creation. It remains only for God to exert the same power with which he created the universe to compensate for the missing paternal genetic material. As medieval theologian Thomas Aquinas writes in his Summa Theologica, through his infinite power God has the ability to fashion matter and alter it, allowing for the possibility of the miraculous viable parthenogenetic conception of Christ.
the Divine power, which is infinite, can transmute all matter into any form whatsoever. Consequently, just as it transmuted the slime of the earth into Adam’s body, so could it transmute the matter supplied by His Mother into Christ’s body, even though it were not sufficient matter for a natural conception.Summa Theologica 3.28.1
To reiterate, human parthenogenesis alone is not enough to produce a viable human being, and therefore must be coupled with a miraculous expression of divine power if God is to become man through a woman alone. Women can produce biologically living human matter, which God must then sustain through his infinite power if that matter is to grow into a viable human being. However, given the nature of human parthenogenesis, the miracle of the Incarnation seems to be more related to the joining of divinity to humanity and the immaterial to the material, than to spontaneous biological human life. As Bonaventure writes in the Breviloquium, it was through the power of the Holy Spirit that God enabled a complete conception to take place in Mary.
Thus, the Blessed Virgin Mary became a mother in the most complete sense, for without the assistance of man she conceived the Son of God by the working of the Holy Spirit. Because the love of the Holy Spirit burned in her soul in such a singular way, the power of the Holy Spirit did marvelous things in her flesh, by means of his grace prompting her, assisting her, and elevating her nature as demanded for that wondrous conception to take place.Breviloquium 4.3
To be sure, Mary’s nature was not so elevated that she was able to do what she could not do without a man. Indeed, in order for this conception to take place, God could utilize the natural process by which unfertilized life could begin in Mary, in order to accomplish the miraculous joining of the divine nature to that living human mass. It is here, with the help of the modern scientific understanding of parthenogenesis, that the question of whether God ought to become man through a man alone or a woman alone arrives at an answer. In the words of Anselm,
nothing was more fitting than that He assume that human nature which is the subject of our inquiry, from a woman without a man.Why God Became Man 2.8
However, before concluding this discussion regarding why and how God would become man, a final point of contention regarding how God could be man is worthy of consideration.
Born of a Virgin?
One common objection to the Virgin Conception has to do with the messianic prophecy in Isaiah 7:14, and the Jewish understanding of a keyword in that verse. According to Christian translations of Isaiah 7, incarnate God – Immanuel, God with us – is prophesied to be born of a virgin.
Behold, a virgin shall conceive, and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel.KJV
Behold, the virgin shall conceive…ESV
See, the virgin will conceive…CSB
However, Jewish translators have found in this passage not a virgin, but a young woman or maiden.
Behold, the maiden will become pregnant…Tanach
The operative hebrew word in this passage is עלמה, which the Brown-Driver-Briggs Hebrew and English lexicon (BDB) defines as,
Young woman (ripe sexually; maid or newly married).BDB 761
Comparing the word עלמה in Isaiah 7:14 with the word בתולה in Isaiah 62:5 only adds to the lexical mystery. For example, BDB defines בתולה as,
Virgin; one living apart in her father’s house as a virgin.BDB 143
However, both Christian and Jewish translators have defined בתולה in Isaiah 62:5 as a maiden or young woman.
For as a young man marries a young woman 62:5CSB, ESV
As a young man takes a maiden in marriageTanach
There seem to be a few interpretive considerations and decisions impacting whether or not certain Hebrew words are translated as virgin. Determining the meaning of עלמה in Isaiah 7:14 – and consequently the Jewish prophetic expectations for the messianic birth – is therefore difficult. By way of analogy, it could be that עלמה bears some linguistic similarity to the German word jungfrau. On the surface, jungfrau appears to mean literally ‘young woman.’ However, the lexical meaning can be either maiden or virgin, or can even refer to the constellation Virgo – the virgin. Regardless, the exact meaning of עלמה may be beside the point. Given BDB’s treatment of עלמה, it is enough for Mary to be a young woman, of the age when she could conceive of a child, and either a maiden or recently married at the time she gives birth in order for both her and her child to fulfill the Isaiah 7:14 prophecy. That said, there is no reason to assume the young Mary was not a virgin when she miraculously conceived, her virginity certainly adding to the assurity that the conception would have to be miraculous. With this in mind, Anselm’s words offer a final characteristic for how God could most fittingly become man,
Whether it was more worthy that it come from a virgin or a non-virgin, however, there is no need to discuss; but without any doubt we must assert that the God-Man ought to be born of a virgin.Why God Became Man 2.8
If men were to be convinced that God became man, we would have to see him born of a woman like all men. Yet if we were to be convinced that this man were truly God, he would have to be born of a woman without any male contribution, as is humanly impossible. If we were to be convinced that no male had contributed to the conception, this man would have to be born of a virgin. The most fitting way God could become man is therefore through divine parthenogenesis in a virgin’s womb.
Having considered the reasons God would become man and the ways in which God could become man, all that remains is to marvel at the Incarnation, and the faith of Mary to consent to carry God’s son. Before elaborating, it will be helpful to present the annunciation scene,
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.” And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?” And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God… And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed.Luke 1:26-38.
Mary, understandably initially terrified at the angel’s appearance, eventually responds with faithful obedience, allowing herself to be the vessel of incarnation. One has to imagine a flurry of thoughts and emotions racing through Mary’s mind when faced with this prospect. However, she chose to respond by declaring herself a servant of the Lord, giving her consent to conceive. It is this act of faith which elevates Mary in the eyes of all Christians as an example of servant-hearted obedience. Not only this, but Mary stands with Eve as a representative of humanity, the former fixing through obedience what the latter broke through disobedience. As Irenaeus puts it, Mary untangles the knot tied by Eve.
…as Eve I say proving disobedient became the cause of death both to herself and to all mankind; so also Mary having a husband fore-appointed, and nevertheless a virgin, being obedient, became both to herself and to all mankind the cause of salvation… since in no other way can that which is knotted be undone, but by bending the loops of the knot in a reverse order: that the first tie may be undone by the second, the second again disengage the first… the knot of Eve’s disobedience received its solution by the obedience of Mary. For what the Virgin Eve bound by unbelief, that the Virgin Mary loosed by faith.Against Heresies 3.22.4
In the same way that Christ makes satisfaction for Adam’s sin through obedience unto death, so Mary makes satisfaction for Eve’s sin through her willing consent. Annunciation is therefore a day to stand in awe of the Creator who willingly chose to become one of his creatures, returning to God the honor that was lost through creaturely disobedience; and to celebrate the woman in whom divinity was joined to human flesh, and whose faith reversed Eve’s doubt.
For those who may recite the Apostle’s or Nicene creeds today, may you be encouraged to boldly confess your belief that Christ,
…was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary…
And may we all forever find an example of faith in the words of the Blessed Virgin,
And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked on the humble estate of his handmaiden. For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name. And his mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts; he has brought down the mighty from their thrones and exalted those of humble estate; he has filled the hungry with good things, and the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, in remembrance of his mercy, as he spoke to our fathers, to Abraham and to his offspring forever.”Luke 1:46-55
Divine Parthenogenesis: Reflections on the Incarnation and Virgin Conception
Athanasius – On the Incarnation
Anselm – Why God Became Man
Aquinas – Summa Theologica
Bonaventure – Breviloquium
Irenaeus – Against Heresies
Lewis – Surprised by Joy
Brown-Driver- Briggs Hebrew and English Lexicon
Surani – Parthenogenesis in Man, Nature Genetics 11.2
Strain, Warner, Johnston, and Bonthron – A Human Parthenogenetic Chimaera, Nature Genetics 11.2
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