The Virgin Birth of Christ: Conciliar Affirmations and Sayings from the Fathers

+ His Eminence Archbishop Dmitri
(Nov. 2, 1923 – Aug. 28, 2011)

Archbishop Dmitri (Royster), founding hierarch of the Diocese of the South, Orthodox Church in America, served as the Diocese’s ruling bishop from 1978 until his retirement in 2009.  As a theologian and prolific author, he is known for his Scriptural commentaries and works concerning general aspects of Orthodoxy. The following are brief excerpts from his book entitled, “The Doctrine of Christ.” Published by the Diocese of the South in 1984 it was the end result of a series of articles printed in The Dawn Newspaper, a main vehicle of communication for the Diocese for over 30 years. In light of skepticism that sometimes arises outside the Orthodox Church concerning the miraculous in our Lord’s ministry, the following sources might prove helpful.    

That the Church has always expressed her belief in (the) virgin birth of the Saviour is evident from the creeds that she has used since the earliest times…The so-called Nicene Creed, for example, says that the Lord Jesus Christ, “was incarnate of the Holy Spirit and the Virgin Mary, and became man.”

The Ecumenical Councils served to formalize the doctrine of the virgin birth.  The Second Council, which met at Constantinople in 381, inserted these words into its own symbol or creed: “I believe in the Son of God, who was incarnate in the womb of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Spirit.”  And the acts of the Third Council (Ephesus 431) contain a discourse delivered at its close with this doxology to the Mother of God: “Thou art the crown of virginity…And who is capable of glorifying worthily the all-praised Virgin? – O Wonder! She is Mother and Virgin at the same time.”

Then again, the Fourth Council, meeting at Chalcedon in 451, in its famous definition of the two natures in Christ, teaches that the Son of God was begotten of the Father according to His divinity, and born for us of the Virgin Mary, according to His humanity.

It must be pointed out that this formalizing of the doctrine of the virgin birth in no way indicates the Church’s belief in the virgin birth is coterminous with the age of the Councils.  This is to say, the virgin birth has always been believed in by the Church, even though for several centuries she possessed no written doctrine of the same.

Ample testimony from the Fathers from the earliest centuries testify to this fundamental Christian belief.   For example, St. Ignatius of Antioch wrote, “The prince of this world was not aware of the virginity of Mary, the birth and the death of the Lord – these three great mysteries, which were accomplished in God’s silence.” (Epistle to the Ephesians, Ch. 19).

St. Justin Martyr defended the doctrine thus: “The divine power, having descended upon the Virgin, over-shadowed her and made her conceive, not by intercourse, but by power.” (Apology, 1, 33).

As well, St. Irenaeus wrote, “He was born of the Virgin, herself of the lineage of David.” (Against Heresies, III, 21, n. 5).

St. Gregory of Nyssa declared, “The one and the same is at the same time Mother and Virgin; nor did her virginity prevent her giving birth, nor did her giving birth do harm to her virginity.” (Oration on the Day of the Nativity of Christ).

Then again, St. Ambrose wrote, “She who said, ‘Behold the handmaid of the Lord; be it unto me according to thy word,’ was virgin both after having conceived and after having given birth, for the Prophet had said (Is. 7:14) not only that a virgin would conceive, but also that a virgin would give birth.” (Letter to Siricius).

In fact, all the great Fathers had the same doctrine.  Among them we find St. Gregory the Theologian, St. John Chrysostom, St. Ephraim the Syrian, St. Leo the Great, St. Cyril of Alexandria, as well as others.

Furthermore, the Fathers taught that the miraculous nature of the birth of Christ was not only possible because of the omnipotence of God, who overturns the order of nature when He wills to do so, but also that it was entirely consistent with the divine plan for man’s reconciliation with God.  They found such miracles as the bush that burned without being consumed (Ex. 3:2), and Christ’s entering through closed doors after His Resurrection (Jn. 20:19), not only illustrative of God’s lordship over nature, but even symbolic of Mary’s keeping her virginity in the birth of the Saviour.

In relation to the whole dispensation of Man’s salvation, St. Irenaeus wrote, “Just as Adam, the first created man, received his body from a virgin, uncultivated soil (Gn. 2:5) and was formed by the hand of God, that is, by the Divine Word, by whom ‘all things were made’ (Jn. 1:3), so, with the purpose of regenerating Adam in his person, God the Word was Himself born of the Virgin Mary, and truly chose a birth such as was necessary to regenerate Adam.” (Again Heresies, III,21, n. 10).

St. Cyril of Jerusalem expresses the same idea in these terms: “It was by a virgin named Eve that death came; it was also through the Virgin that life was to manifest itself, so that, as the first had been seduced by the serpent, in the same way, the second received the message of Gabriel.” (Catechetical Lectures, xii, 15).

Finally, we have this testimony from St. Gregory of Nyssa, “It was proper that He who entered into human life in order to recall all men to innocence should be born of the immaculate Virgin, in whose womb He was formed, for, ordinarily, she who is still a virgin is also called innocent and pure.” (Oration on the Day of the Nativity of Christ). 

…The Holy Fathers considered Mary’s perpetual virginity not only a fact but an essential part of the whole doctrine of the Incarnation.  In other words, that she was before, during and after the birth of Christ a virgin is a necessary part of our belief that our Lord was fully God and fully Man.  (Doctrine of Christ, pp. 32-35).