The news reports about the new book are interesting. According to Reuters, the pope insists on the truth of the virgin birth.
The pope is quoted as writing: "The accounts of Matthew and Luke are not myths taken a stage further. They are firmly rooted, in terms of their basic conception, in the biblical tradition of God the Creator and Redeemer."
He asks: "Is what we profess in the Creed (a Christian prayer that includes belief in the virgin birth) true?"
He answers: "The answer is an unequivocal yes."
On the other hand, the story of the magi is not necessarily factual.
The Reuters article says: "Benedict says that while he believes in the story of the adoration of the Magi, no foundation of faith would be shaken if it turned out to be an invention based on a theological idea."
So my question is how the pope decides which parts of the birth narratives are unequivocally true and which are possibly theological constructs.
I have said in sermons that I personally believe that almost all of the birth narratives, including the virgin birth, are theological stories intended to express post-resurrection faith convictions. I even preached a sermon once based on the argument that the magi being a later addition to the birth narratives is part of what makes it such a powerful story. I said pretty much the same thing in this essay.
I actually suspect that the early church may have disagreed about these stories. The reference to "cleverly devised myths" in Second Peter 1:16 may be about some of the birth narratives. Peter suggests that the heavenly announcement made at the transfiguration: "This is my Son, my Beloved, with whom I am well pleased," was the actual origin of Jesus' authority rather than the birth narratives.
The birth narratives are no less precious to me. They are the early church's expression of its faith in Christ, their savior, liberator and hope. They are wonderful, poetic expressions by early Christians of their experience of the unique power of Christ in their lives.
My question is how the pope decides which parts of the story are unequivocally true and which are possibly inventions based on theological ideas.
What is the principle that allows us to make this distinction? Based on the news articles, the distinction seems to be how much the pope considers a particular part of the story to be a central tenant of the faith. The virgin birth is in the creed so it must be unequivocally true while the magi story is more peripheral so it might be an invention.
This seems to me to be a mistake. Basing our evaluation of the truth of the story on our theology rather than on scholarship will, I think, eventually catch up with us. It is like saying this part of the story must be unequivocally true because I really, really want it to be. This other part of the story could be an invention based on a theological idea because I don't care as much if it is true.
I don't think this is a good way to understand the Bible.
But perhaps I shouldn't judge the pope's book based solely on newspaper reports.
Darn, I've painted myself into a corner. Now I guess I will need to add the pope's new book to my electronic stack and read it after all!