…And in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the virgin Mary…
Written by Gerrit Dawson
Jesus, fully human
The Lord Jesus lived within a womb. God the eternal Son laid aside his glory to such a degree that he undertook the dangerous journey as a fertilized egg through the fallopian tubes of Mary until he was implanted in her uterus. There, he grew at the astounding rate that all embryos grow.
Genetically complete from the moment of conception, the hidden information within his chromosomes directed the intricate development of a person who would one day become a man who reached a particular height, who spoke in a recognizable tenor of voice, and left on whatever he touched fingerprints unique in all the world.
The fetal Jesus was affected by whatever happened to Mary, even by what she ate or felt. He was vulnerable to disease and distress as every fetus is.
Surviving through a gestation period within the normal range, Jesus then underwent another journey, a passage filled with blood and water, cries and anguish, until he emerged in birth into the daylight world.
The redeeming work of Jesus began with his conception!
Jesus: One of us
Such is what we affirm every time that we say the Apostle’s Creed, "he was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary." The words first make us think of what makes Jesus different from us: Mary gave birth to Jesus while still a virgin because the "father" of the child was not a man but the Holy Spirit. The Triune God is eternal, conceived by no one, born of no one. Father, Son and Spirit in eternal love simply are.
But in the incarnation, the Son allowed himself to be conceived, to become something he was not: a creature. God was taken up into Mary’s womb. No other person on the face of the earth has ever been conceived without the sperm of a father and the egg of a mother. He was different, because he is God. And yet, the Creed keeps the full humanity of Jesus firmly before us as well. Like us, he was conceived within a woman; like us, he was born of a woman. Jesus the Son of God became flesh of our flesh and bone of our bone in the moment of time that was his conception.
The implications for the church and abortion
What does that mean as we consider issues of life and abortion in the church? Professor Thomas Torrance, in a brilliant essay, makes it very clear:
….the virgin birth is crucial to our grasp of the nature and status in Christ’s eyes of the unborn child …He became what we are…Every child in the womb has been brothered by the Lord Jesus. In becoming a human being for us, he also became an embryo for the sake of all embryos, and for our Christian understanding of the being, nature and status in God’s eyes of the unborn child. So, to take no thought, or no proper thought, for the unborn child is to have no proper thought of Jesus himself as our Lord and Savior or to appreciate his relation as the incarnate Creator to every human being.1
In becoming what we are, the Son of God confirmed his love for us. Uniting himself to us forever, he declared the value he places on every life. Passing through the stages of our mortal existence, he gathers our humanity up in his train, sanctifying and healing, treasuring and redeeming. Jesus is the new Adam, the firstborn of a new race of humanity restored and even re-created.
Jesus’ humanity confers worth on humanity from conception
Elsewhere, Torrance writes that "in assuming flesh from fallen and sinful humanity, far from being contaminated by it, Christ redeemed and sanctified it at the same time—the very assumption of Adamic humanity was essentially redemptive from the moment of its conception in the Virgin Mary."2 The redeeming work of Jesus began with his conception! He did not turn aside from what we are, but embraced us even in our tiniest, most inchoate and vulnerable form. He was not then and is not now contaminated by our humanity, whether we are blighted by defects, poverty, and parental rejection or branded by a conception through incest or rape. He still gathers us up in love and brings transforming, forgiving power. Jesus’ taking of a humanity that began in conception within Mary confers the Creator’s own worth upon every child from the earliest beginning.
The church’s call
Jesus was potentially as vulnerable in the womb as any child. Had we known Mary, and known who was within her womb, would we not have done everything we could to protect her? Is this a family, then, we would have supported through pregnancy in spite of the questions surrounding his conception?
Is this a child we would have surrounded with love in childhood? When the church answers, "Yes! Of course!" we have our clear call before us. For Jesus has brothered every child in every womb, as Thomas Torrance put it. Jesus sends us to care, to protect, to nurture every embryo as if we were supporting him.
Whether conceived in violence or love, with health or dreadful abnormalities, no human person even in embryo falls outside the redeeming love of the one who became an embryo for us.
This is the theological foundation for the church whenever we consider how we will best love those given to our care.
The Rev. Gerrit Dawson is pastor of First Presbyterian Church, Lenoir, NC, and a member of the PPL Theological Advisory Board.
1. Thomas F. Torrance, The Being and Nature of the Unborn Child, Lenoir: Glen Lorien Books, 2000, p. 4.
2. Thomas F. Torrance, Scottish Theology, Edinburgh: T & T Clark, 1996, p. 270.