“Christ, of the Substance of Mary” – A History of the Defence of the Doctrine

by Michael J. Penfold

Elsewhere on this website I have written defending the truth that, in His incarnation, the Lord Jesus took of the substance of the virgin Mary (See Did the Lord Take Anything from Mary?). I briefly referenced some ‘Church history’ in that article, but I intend now to give a much fuller account of the centuries-long battle that has been fought over this particular issue, in order to highlight and learn from the valiant and principled defence that preachers and theologians have given of the real, true and blessed humanity of our incarnate Lord Jesus Christ.

Throughout history, the heresy that Christ took nothing from Mary has surfaced on three notable occasions:

Occasion No. 1

The gnostic teacher Valentinus (100-160AD) was the first person to teach that the Lord took nothing from Mary. He spoke of Christ passing through Mary’s womb like water through a pipe. This is known from the writings of the church fathers who took up their pens to refute him. The ‘Valentinians’ held to a huge package of errors and came under fire from men like Ignatius, Iranaeus and Tertullian.

Ignatius (32-110AD), a student of the apostle John and friend of Polycarp, in his Epistle to the Trallians, written shortly before his martyrdom, called the idea that the Lord took nothing from Mary an “ungodly heresy”: “He who forms all men in the womb, was Himself really in the womb, and made for Himself a body of the seed of the virgin, but without any intercourse of man. He was carried in the womb, even as we are; and was in reality nourished with milk, and partook of common meat and drink even as we do”…”Do ye therefore flee from these ungodly heresies; for the inventions of the devil, that serpent who was the author of evil, and who by means of the woman deceived Adam, the father of our race.”[1]

Irenaeus (130-202AD) who also knew Polycarp, wrote a large work against the Valentinians called Against Heresies in which he said: “Some, however, make the assertion, that this dispensational Jesus did become incarnate, and suffered, whom they represent as having passed through Mary just as water through a tube.”[2] Irenaeus refuted this heresy by quoting and expounding the following verses:

  1. Psalm 132:11 “The LORD hath sworn in truth unto David; he will not turn from it; of the fruit of thy body [womb] will I set upon thy throne.”
  2. Luke 1:42 “Blessed art thou among women, and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.”
  3. Romans 1:3 “Jesus Christ our Lord, which was made of the seed of David according to the flesh.”
  4. Romans 9:5 “Whose are the fathers and of whom, as concerning the flesh Christ came…”
  5. Galatians 4:4 “God sent forth His Son, made of a woman.”[3]

Summarising his remarks, Irenaeus said: “Those, therefore, who allege that He took nothing from the virgin, do greatly err…”[4] and then makes the simple but powerful observation; “Superfluous too in that case is His descent into Mary; for why did He come down into her if He were to take nothing of her.”[5]

Tertullian (210 AD), who also exposed the Valentinians, made exactly the same point in Ch 19 of his Treatise on the Flesh of Christ: “Pray, tell me, why the Spirit of God [i.e. the Son of God] descended into a woman’s womb at all, if He did not do so for the purpose of partaking of flesh from the womb?”[6]

In his 20th Chapter, Tertullian discusses the prepositions used in the Bible’s incarnation passages because the gnostics were asserting that Christ came “through Mary” but was not “of Mary”. Says Tertullian, “But to what shifts you resort, in your attempt to rob the syllable ‘ek’ (‘of’) of its proper force as a preposition, and to substitute another for it in a sense not found throughout the Holy Scriptures! You say that He was born through a virgin, not of a virgin, and in a womb, not of a womb, because the angel in the dream said to Joseph, ‘That which is born in [Gk: en] her (not of [Gk: ek] her) is of the Holy Ghost’ (Matt 1:20). But the fact is, if he had meant ‘of her’, he must have said ‘in her’; for that which was of her, was also in her. The angel’s expression, therefore, ‘in her’, has precisely the same meaning as the phrase ‘of her’. It is, however, a fortunate circumstance that Matthew also, when tracing down the Lord’s descent from Abraham to Mary, says, ‘Jacob begot Joseph the husband of Mary, of [Gk: ek] whom was born Christ’ (Matt 1:16). But Paul, too, silences these critics when he says, ‘God sent forth His Son, made of [Gk: ek] a woman’ (Gal 4:4). Does he mean through a woman, or in a woman? Nay more, for the sake of greater emphasis, he uses the word ‘made’ rather than ‘born’, although the use of the latter expression would have been simpler. But by saying ‘made’, he not only confirmed the statement, ‘The Word was made flesh’ (John 1:14) but he also asserted the reality of the flesh which was made of a virgin. We shall have also the support of the Psalms on this point, not the Psalms indeed of Valentinus the apostate, and heretic, and Platonist, but the Psalms of David, the most illustrious saint and well-known prophet. He sings to us of Christ, and through his voice Christ indeed also sang concerning Himself. Hear, then, Christ the Lord speaking to God the Father: ‘You are He that drew me out of my mother’s womb’ (Psa 22:9-10). Here is the first point. ‘You are my hope from my mother’s breasts; upon You have I been cast from the womb’. Here is another point. ‘You are my God from my mother’s belly’. Here is a third point. Now let us carefully attend to the sense of these passages. ‘You drew me’, He says, ‘out of the womb’. Now what is it which is drawn, if it be not that which adheres, that which is firmly fastened to anything from which it is drawn in order to be sundered? If He clove not to the womb, how could He have been drawn from it? If He who clove thereto was drawn from it, how could He have adhered to it, if it were not that, all the while He was in the womb, He was tied to it, as to His origin, by the umbilical cord, which communicated growth to Him from the matrix?”[7]

Then in Chapter 21 Tertullian discusses the conception and the status of Mary as the Lord’s mother: “I should like to go more closely into this discussion. ‘Behold,’ says he, ‘a virgin shall conceive in the womb’. Conceive what? I ask. The Word of God, of course, and not the seed of man, and in order, certainly, to bring forth a son. ‘For,’ says he, ‘she shall bring forth a son.’ Therefore, as the act of conception was her own, so also what she brought forth was her own, also, although the cause of conception was not. If, on the other hand, the Word became flesh of Himself, then He both conceived and brought forth Himself, and the prophecy is stultified. For in that case virgin did not conceive, and did not bring forth; since whatever she brought forth from the conception of the Word, is not her own flesh. But is this the only statement of prophecy which will be frustrated? Will not the angel’s announcement also be subverted, that the virgin should ‘conceive in her womb and bring forth a son’ (Luke 1:31)? And will not in fact every scripture which declares that Christ had a mother? For how could she have been His mother, unless He had been in her womb? But then He received nothing from her womb which could make her a mother in whose womb He had been. Such a name as this a strange flesh ought not to assume. No flesh can speak of a mother’s womb but that which is itself the offspring of that womb; nor can any be the offspring of the said womb if it owe its birth solely to itself. Therefore even Elisabeth must be silent although she is carrying in her womb the prophetic babe, which was already conscious of his Lord, and is, moreover, filled with the Holy Ghost (Luke 1:41). For without reason does she say, ‘and whence is this to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me’? If it was not as her son, but only as a stranger that Mary carried Jesus in her womb, how is it she says, ‘Blessed is the fruit of your womb?’ What is this fruit of the womb, which received not its germ from the womb, which had not its root in the womb, which belongs not to her whose is the womb, and which is no doubt the real fruit of the womb – even Christ? Now, since He is the blossom of the stem which sprouts from the root of Jesse; since, moreover, the root of Jesse is the family of David, and the stem of the root is Mary descended from David, and the blossom of the stem is Mary’s son, who is called Jesus Christ, will not He also be the fruit? For the blossom is the fruit, because through the blossom and from the blossom every product advances from its rudimental condition to perfect fruit. What then? [These heretics] deny to the fruit its blossom, and to the blossom its stem, and to the stem its root; so that the root fails to secure for itself, by means of the stem, that special product which comes from the stem, even the blossom and the fruit; for every step indeed in a genealogy is traced from the latest up to the first, so that it is now a well-known fact that the flesh of Christ is inseparable, not merely from Mary, but also from David through Mary, and from Jesse through David. ‘This fruit’, therefore, ‘of David’s loins’, that is to say, of his posterity in the flesh, God swears to him that ‘He will raise up to sit upon his throne’ (Psa 132:11, Acts 2:30). If ‘of David’s loins’, how much rather is He of Mary’s loins, by virtue of whom He is in ‘the loins of David’?[8]

Then in Ch 22 Tertullian discusses Christ’s claim to be the son of David and Abraham and therefore necessarily of Mary’s flesh: “They may, then, obliterate the testimony of the devils which proclaimed Jesus ‘the son of David’; but whatever unworthiness there be in this testimony, that of the apostles they will never be able to efface. There is, first of all, Matthew, that most faithful chronicler of the Gospel, because the companion of the Lord; for no other reason in the world than to show us clearly the fleshly original of Christ, he thus begins [his Gospel]: ‘The book of the generation of Jesus Christ, the son of David, the son of Abraham’ (Matt 1:1). With a nature issuing from such fontal sources, and an order gradually descending to the birth of Christ, what else have we here described than the very flesh of Abraham and of David conveying itself down, step after step, to the very virgin, and at last introducing Christ, – nay, producing Christ Himself of the virgin? Then, again, there is Paul, who was at once both a disciple, and a master, and a witness of the selfsame Gospel; as an apostle of the same Christ, also, he affirms that Christ was made ‘of the seed of David, according to the flesh’ (Rom 1:3, 2 Tim 2:8), – which, therefore, was His own likewise. Christ’s flesh, then, is of David’s seed. Since He is of the seed of David in consequence of Mary’s flesh, He is therefore of Mary’s flesh because of the seed of David. In what way so ever you torture the statement, He is either of the flesh of Mary because of the seed of David, or He is of the seed of David because of the flesh of Mary. The whole discussion is terminated by the same apostle, when he declares Christ to be the seed of Abraham. And if of Abraham, how much more, to be sure, of David, as a more recent [progenitor]!”[9]

Occasion No 2

The refutations by Ignatius, Irenaeus and Tertullian put the Valentinian heresy to bed for a very long time. However, it resurfaced during the Reformation among the Anabaptists. Why? Because they wanted to counter the error of the “immaculate conception” taught by the Roman Catholic Church. Rome taught that for Christ to be sinless, Mary must have had an immaculate conception herself. The leading Anabaptist, Melchior Hoffmann (1495-1543), countered this error by positing another one; that Christ was preserved from inheriting a sin nature by taking nothing from the substance of Mary. Another leading Anabaptist Menno Simons (1496-1561) agreed. He said “He [Christ] did not become flesh of Mary but in Mary.”[10] Though Simons sought to defend his ideas from the Bible, the more likely source of his teaching was his familiarity with the unscientific ideas of Aristotle, who believed that a woman contributes nothing in human reproduction except the “nourishing” of the man’s seed.

Herman Bavinck (1854-1921) explains the motivation of these Anabaptists: “That [Christ’s] human nature did not exist beforehand. It was not brought down with Christ from heaven and borne into Mary from the outside and, so to speak, conducted through her body. The Anabaptists teach this in order to hold to the sinlessness of the human nature in Christ. But in taking this stand, they are following in the example of the ancient gnosticism, and proceed from the idea that flesh and matter are in themselves sinful. But in the incarnation, also, Scripture holds to the goodness of creation and to the Divine origin of matter. Christ took His human nature from Mary (Mt 1.20, Lu 2.7, Gal 4.4). So far as the flesh is concerned, He is from David and the fathers (Acts 2.30, Rom 1.3, 9.5). Therefore this nature in Him is a true and perfect human nature, like ours in all things, sin excepted (Heb 2.14, 17, 4:15). Nothing human was strange to Christ. The denial of the coming of Christ in the flesh is the beginning of the antichrist (1 John 2:22).”[11]

How did contemporary Reformed theologians respond to this resurrection of Valentinianism by the Anabaptists? Guido de Brès (1522-1567), a mighty reformer, hanged for his faith by the Spanish Inquisition, wrote in the The Belgic Confession of faith (1561) (Confession 18): “Therefore we confess (in opposition to the heresy of the Anabaptists, who deny that Christ assumed human flesh of his mother) that Christ is become a partaker of the flesh and blood of the children; that he is a fruit of the loins of David after the flesh; made of the seed of David according to the flesh; a fruit of the womb of the Virgin Mary, made of a woman, a branch of David; a shoot of the root of Jesse; sprung from the tribe of Judah; descended from the Jews according to the flesh; of the seed of Abraham, since he took on him the seed of Abraham, and became like unto his brethren in all things, sin excepted, so that in truth he is our Immanuel, that is to say, God with us.”

Then in 1565, Guido de Brès wrote a 903 page book called The Root, Source, and Foundation of the Anabaptists. 370 pages of the book were dedicated to a refutation of the Anabaptists’ error on the incarnation, both from Scripture and also from medical science (to refute Simons’s reliance on Aristotle). De Brès said: “We see that all those who have ever done anatomy on the female body, with all those who do it still today, show visibly to our eyes the spermatic tubes in the woman, as in the man…”[12] Guido de Brès’s incredible work was born of the conviction that if Christ had “heavenly flesh” then He was not truly human; and if not truly human, He is neither “the seed of the woman” nor a candidate for mediator between God and man, rendering salvation for the human race null and void.

Two quotes from authors who have researched the Anabaptist controversy confirm all of this:

  1. Dr. W Cunningham: “He [Christ] was conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the Virgin Mary, ‘of her substance’, as is said in the Confession of Faith and Larger Catechism; these words, ‘of her substance’, being intended as a negation of an old heresy, revived by some Anabaptists after the Reformation, to the effect that He was conceived in Mary, but not of her; and that He, as it were, passed through her body without deriving anything from her substance; and being intended to assert, in opposition to this notion., that she contributed to the formation of Christ’s human nature, just what mothers ordinarily contribute to the formation of their children.”[13]
  2. Ronald Hanko: “Christ was born of the flesh and blood of Mary, that he was a Jew of the line of David, of the seed of Abraham according to the flesh. So, too, he was a true son of Adam, our own flesh and blood. This seems self-evident, but it has been denied in church history. Some taught that Christ brought his human nature with him from heaven and that by his birth and conception he merely passed through Mary’s womb like water through a tap. Or they taught that his human nature was specially created in her womb, so that he was not genetically and physically her son. This was taught by some Anabaptists at the time of the Reformation, and more recently by the neo-orthodox theologian Karl Barth. Both Barth and the Anabaptists held such views in the interest of preserving Christ’s sinlessness. If Jesus was not born of human ancestry, they claimed, then there was no possibility that he was tainted with human depravity. It is not necessary to hold these views, however, in order to believe that Christ was wholly without sin. His conception by the Holy Spirit guaranteed his sinlessness, as Luke 1:35 teaches. Indeed to hold the view of the Anabaptists and of Barth is to deny that Christ was like us in all things except sin (Heb 2:14, 4:15), even in his conception and birth.”[14]

Here are 20 more quotations, given to show that theologians have been on guard against the error that Christ took nothing from Mary, all the way from Reformation up to the 20th Century:

The Heildelberg Catechism (1563) says: “Q. 35. What is the meaning of these words — “He was conceived by the Holy Ghost, born of the Virgin Mary”? A. That God’s eternal Son, who is and continueth true and eternal God, took upon Him the very nature of man, of the flesh and blood of the Virgin Mary, by the operation of the Holy Ghost; that He might also be the true seed of David, like unto His brethren in all things, sin excepted. 1 John 1:1, Col 1:15, Psa 2:7, Rom 9:5, 1 John 5:20, John 1:14, Gal 4:4, Matt 1:18, Luke 1:35, Psa 132:2, Acts 2:30, Rom 1:3, Phil 2:7, Heb 4:15.”

Theodore Beza (1519-1605): “He has a true human soul, and a true human body formed from the substance of the virgin Mary, and by the power of the Holy Spirit.”[15]

William Perkins (1558–1602): “Conception, by which his human nature was by the wonderful power and operation of God, both immediately, that is, without man’s help, and miraculously framed of the substance of the virgin Mary. Luke 1:35, “And the angel answered and said unto her, The Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God.”[16]

Thomas Watson (1620-1686): “Christ’s humiliation consists in his incarnation, his taking flesh, and being born. It was real flesh that Christ took; not the image of a body as the Manichees erroneously held, but a true body; therefore he is said to be ‘made of a woman.’ Gal 4:4. As bread is made of wheat, and wine is made of the grapes; so Christ is made of a woman: his body was part of the flesh and substance of the virgin.”[17]

Matthew Poole (1624-1679): “…His body was formed in the womb of the virgin, and he was flesh of her flesh.”[18]

Westminster Confession of Faith, that landmark document from 1647, says: “The Son of God, the second person in the Trinity, being very and eternal God, of one substance and equal with the Father, did, when the fulness of time was come, take upon Him man’s nature (Jn 1.1, 14, 1 Jn 5.20, Phil 2.6, Gal 4.4) with all the essential properties and common infirmities thereof, yet without sin (Heb 2.14, 16, 17, 4.15): being conceived by the power of the Holy Ghost, in the womb of the virgin Mary, of her substance (Lu 1.27, 31, 35, Gal 4.4). So that two whole, perfect, and distinct natures, the Godhead and the manhood, were inseparably joined together in one person, without conversion, composition, or confusion (Lu 1.35, Col 2.9, Rom 9.5, 1 Pet 3.18, 1 Tim 3.16). Which person is very God, and very man, yet one Christ, the only Mediator between God and man (Rom 1.3, 4, 1 Tim 2.5).[19]

In 1753 a book was published called The Westminster Assembly’s Shorter Catechism Explained, by James Fisher and other Ministers of the Gospel. It was widely used in Scotland for 100 years or more. Two of the questions and answers are pertinent to the issue in this paper:

Q 19. Why was not the human body created immediately out of nothing, or out of the dust of the earth, as Adam’s body was? A. Because, in that case, though he would have had a true body, yet it would not have been akin to us, bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh.

Q 20. Did Christ bring his human nature from heaven with him? A. No; for he was the “seed of the woman” (Gen 3:15).

Charles Hodge (1797-1878): “Christ had a true body. By a true body is meant a material body, composed of flesh and blood, in everything essential like the bodies of ordinary men. It was not a phantasm, or mere semblance of a body. Nor was it fashioned out of any heavenly or ethereal substance. This is plain because He was born of a woman. He was conceived in the womb of the Virgin Mary, nourished of her substance so as to be consubstantial with her”…”Some [gnostics] held that Christ had no real body or human soul. His earthly manifestation in human form was a phantasm, a mere appearance without substance or reality. Hence they were called Docetists, from the Greek verb (dokeo), which means to appear, to seem to be. According to this class of the Gnostics, Christ’s whole earthly life was an illusion. He was not born, nor did he suffer or die. Others admitted that he had a real body, but denied that it was material. They taught that it was formed of some ethereal or celestial substance, and brought by Christ into the world. Although born of the virgin Mary, it was not of her substance, but only through her as the mould in which this ethereal substance was cast. Hence in the ancient creeds it is said that Christ was born, not per, but ex Maria virgine, which is explained to mean ex substantia matris suce [out of the substance of His own mother]. It was also in opposition to this Gnostic heresy that the ancient creeds emphasized the declaration that Christ, as to his human nature, is consubstantial with us.”[20]

J.C. Philpot (1802-1869): “He took the flesh of the virgin, or He could not have been the promised ‘seed of the woman’ which was to bruise the serpent’s head (Gen 3:15); or of ‘the seed of Abraham’, to which the promise was especially made (Gal 3:16), and from which the virgin Mary was lineally descended.”[21]

S.P. Tregelles (1813-1875): “The common doctrine of the Protestant Reformation is, that our Lord Jesus Christ, who was very and eternal God became man for our redemption: that He was conceived of the Holy Ghost, was made of the substance of His mother: and took the same flesh as His brethren, but without sin;”[22]

William G.T. Shedd (1820-1894): “Although the human nature of Christ was individualized and personalized by a miraculous conception, and not by ordinary generation, yet there was as really and truly a conception and birth as if it had been by ordinary generation. Jesus Christ was really and truly the Son of Mary. He was bone of her bone, and flesh of her flesh. He was of her substance and blood. He was consubstantial with her, in as full a sense as an ordinary child is consubstantial with an ordinary mother.”[23]

R.C.H. Lenski (1864-1936) – Commenting on Matt 1:20: “Jesus had not yet left the womb, hence to gennethen refers to the embryo and its conception: ‘that which was conceived’, the aorist pointing to the past act of conception; and this also the neuter article is used, leaving the sex unnamed.”[24]

Herman Hoeksema (1886-1965): “A real man is one who partakes of our human nature, soul and body. Christ must be a real man, that is, he must not assume a temporary appearance of a human being, for then he is not related to us. He must not come in a specially created human nature, for then he stands outside the scope of our race. He must be of us. He must subsist in the very human nature that was created in the beginning…Even though he was conceived without the ill of man and born of a virgin, his was not the strange or specially created human nature: but he took upon him our flesh and blood. He was organically connected with us. As to this human nature, he did not come from without, but was brought forth by us. He did not stand next to men, but among them, and was of them. He partook of the flesh and blood of the children. He was flesh of our flesh, blood of our blood, bone of our bone.”[25]

A.W. Pink (1886-1952): “Not only was it necessary for God the Son to assume a human nature, but also that His human nature should be derived from the common root of our first parents. It would not suitably have answered the Divine purpose that Christ’s humanity should be created immediately out of nothing, because there had then been no such alliance between Him and us as to lay a foundation of hope of salvation by His undertaking. No, it was essential that He should sustain the character and perform the work of a redeemer that He should be our Goel or near Kinsman for to Him alone belonged the right of redemption: see Lev 25:48-49, Ruth 2:20 and 3:9, margin. So it was declared at the beginning: He was to be the woman’s “seed” (Gen 3:15) and thus become our Kinsman. “For both He that sanctifieth, and they who are sanctified, are all of one (i.e. one stock): for which cause He is not ashamed to call them brethren” (Heb 2:11). Yet, it was absolutely necessary, notwithstanding, that the nature in which redemption was to be performed should not only be derived from its original root, but also by such derivation that it should not be tainted by sin, or partake in any degree of that moral defilement in which every child of Adam is conceived and born. It was requisite that our High Priest should be “holy, harmless, undefiled, and separate from sinners”…God brought a clean thing out of an unclean. The manhood of Christ was derived from the common stock of our humanity, yet was it neither begotten nor conceived by carnal concupiscence. Original sin is propagated by ordinary generation, but the Son of man was produced by extraordinary generation. It is by the father’s act that a child is begotten in the image and likeness of our first fallen and corrupted father. But though real Man, Christ was not begotten by a man. His humanity was produced from the substance of Mary by an extraordinary operation of the Holy Spirit above nature, and hence His miraculous and immaculate conception is far above the compass of human reason to either understand or express. Through the supernatural agency of the Holy Spirit, the humanity of Christ was conceived by a virgin who had never known a man. It was an act of Omnipotence to produce it; it was an act of Divine holiness to sanctify it; it was an act of Omniscience to unite it unto the person of the eternal Son of God”…”Now there were three distinct things which belonged to the Word’s becoming flesh: the actual production of His humanity, the sanctifying thereof, and His personal assumption of it. The production of it was by miraculous conception, whereby His human nature, was under the supernatural operation of God the Spirit framed of the substance of Mary, without man’s help: ‘The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee: therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). But let it here be pointed out that in no sense was the Spirit the ‘father’ of Jesus, for He contributed no matter to the making of His manhood, but only miraculously fashioned it out of the seed of His virgin mother.”[26]

John Murray (1898-1975): “When we speak of the virgin birth we may not suppose, however, that the event of emerging from the virgin’s womb was supernatural, or that the process of foetal and embryonic development in the virgin’s womb was abnormal. It was when Mary’s full time came that she brought forth her son (cf. Luke 2:5-7). The supernatural is to be found in three considerations: (i) Supernatural begetting. Jesus was not conceived in the womb by the conjunction of male and female, by spermal communication from the man to the woman. He was begotten by the Holy Spirit, and the miraculous consisted in this supernatural begetting. It is the absence of human begetting that made the birth a virgin birth. In this connection it is not proper, strictly speaking, to say that Jesus was conceived by the Holy Spirit. Mary did conceive by the power of the Holy Spirit. But Mary conceived, and to say simply, ‘conceived by the Holy Ghost’, obscures the all-important truth that the function of Mary was to conceive and in this respect to participate in the event of Jesus’ incarnation. The relevant texts bear this out emphatically (Matt 1:20, Luke 1:35). Mary is expressly stated to have conceived (Luke 1:31). What is said of Elizabeth in reference to John (Luke 1:24, 26) is here said of Mary. The Holy Spirit begat, Mary conceived (cf. also Luke 2:21). (2) Supernatural Person. It was not a mere baby that was supernaturally begotten. It was the eternal Son of God in respect of his human nature. He was begotten of the Spirit and conceived by the virgin in human nature. The most stupendous fact of all is that this was the begetting, conception, embryonic development, and birth of a supernatural person.”[27]

Norman Geisler (1932-2019): “To deny [Christ’s] genetic connection with Adam is implicitly and logically to deny His humanity. Therefore, despite its appeal, the creation view is a grave mistake…Any denial that Mary’s genes were in Jesus is a denial of His true humanity and consequently our redeemability…Mary was not simply a conduit for something that, genetically, was totally foreign to her. Mary’s baby was ‘made’ from her (Gal 4:4), was ‘like’ her (Heb 2:17) and therefore shared her human nature, just as all physical descendants share the nature of their mothers.”[28]

Robert G. Gromaki, “How could Jesus be the seed of the woman (Gen 3:15) when the woman did not furnish the egg? How could it be said that a virgin conceived (Matt 1:23, cf. Luke 1:31)?”[29]

Dr Robert L. Reymond: “…Jesus’ conception in a human mother’s womb, although virginal in nature, followed by his normal development in that human mother’s womb, and his altogether normal passage from that human womb into the world at birth, as recorded in both Matthew and Luke, are features of his human origination which insure and guarantee to us that Jesus was and is truly and fully human.”[30]

Henry W. Holloman: “Although Jesus’ conception was supernatural, His gestation, birth, and physical and psychological development followed normal human processes (Lk 2:52, Phil 2:7-8).”[31]

Douglas Wilson: “The fact that He [Christ] was conceived by the Holy Ghost did not make Mary a ‘surrogate mother’. He was conceived without a human father, but was conceived ‘of her substance’. In other words, she was His mother in every sense of the word.”[32]

Occasion No 3

In the 19th and 20th Centuries, among those sometimes called “the Brethren”, there sadly arose some who held to the error that the Lord took nothing from Mary. The reason, as with the Anabaptists, usually centred around misguided attempts to guard the Lord’s sinlessness. Professor F.F. Bruce (1910-1990) explains:

“A weakness on the doctrine of our Lord’s humanity, verging at times on Docetism, has been endemic in certain phases of the Brethren movement.” He then relates the following history: “In October 1848 Henry Craik was severely criticised by G.V. Wigram for using language about our Lord’s humanity which, while not including the taboo word [mortal], emphasized that ‘He was in all things made like unto His brethren, sin only excepted; that the flesh which He assumed was the flesh and blood of the children; that the physical or chemical properties of His body were the same as ours’. The ‘necessary inference’ from his critics strictures, he said, ‘would be, that the Blessed One did not take our flesh, but flesh and blood essentially different from ours’. Darby knew very well that there was nothing heretical in what Craik had written, and is reported to have said that, when he received Wigram’s criticisms of Craik, he put them at the back of the fire. He must have seen, moreover, the docetic direction in which Wigram’s arguments tended. But for purposes of ecclesiastical politics Wigram was too useful a henchman to be disowned. One symptom of this docetic tendency appears in the description of our Lord’s manhood as ‘heavenly humanity’, found in the works of C. H. Mackintosh and others.[33] In His present exaltation He does indeed wear a heavenly humanity, but if the expression is used of the manhood of the historical Jesus, the natural conclusion would be that His humanity and ours were different. As quoted by W.B. Neatby, F.E. Raven used this expression in a context which makes its docetic intention plain. He remarked that one of his critics, Gladwell by name, appeared to be ‘in great ignorance of the true moral character of Christ’s humanity. He did not get that character by being born of a woman, though that was the way by which He took man’s form, but Manhood in Him takes its character from what He ever was divinely. The Word became flesh. He does not seem to me to have any idea of a real heavenly humanity’. These words, as Neatby says, are unintelligible unless they mean ‘that Christ was not man of the substance of His mother, but that He derived from her only the outward form of a man. It is hard to distinguish this from the doctrine that He was man in semblance only’. Raven’s critics charged him with Apollinarianism – the doctrine (condemned at Constantinople in A.D. 381) that in our Lord’s incarnate being the Divine Logos took the place that in other men is taken by the rational mind and spirit. Whether this is the proper label to attach to him is doubtful, because of the cloudiness of his language on this subject (as on many others). But he manifestly did not believe in our Lord’s personal humanity and would not subscribe to the affirmation of the Athanasian Creed that ‘God and man is one Christ’. When someone, at a discussion meeting in 1895, quoted Darby’s comment on Col 1:15f. (‘We say, Christ is God, Christ is man; but it is Christ who is the two’), Raven replied, ‘Yes; but you must be careful how you take up an expression like that. In Person He is God; in condition He is Man’. And again: ‘Unity is not a happy word as applied to the Lord. The teaching of Scripture is incarnation’. Raven was repeatedly urged to make his meaning plain, but on no occasion (so far as I am aware) did he make an unambiguous statement of our Lord’s perfect and unimpaired manhood, although it would have been easy for him to do so, had he been so minded. On the contrary, when, in the course of the same conversations, someone referred to man as comprising body, soul and spirit, and asked if this was true of our Lord – you do not contend against His manhood?’ – Raven replied: ‘No; but you might be near error there. You get on dangerous ground in applying such things to the Lord. He is a divine Person in manhood’. Raven’s christological eccentricity provoked a healthy reaction in the group which in 1890 withdrew from association with him, the Lowe party, which united in 1926 with the Kelly party. William Kelly’s followers (who had separated from the main stream of Darbyism in 1881) were fortunate in having as their leader a master of biblical and historical theology who held intelligently to the Chalcedonian definition of our Lord’s person and taught his disciples accordingly. Several years ago, in conversation with the late John Weston, a well-known leader in the Lowe-Kelly party, I mentioned that Apollinarianism was the besetting heresy of evangelical Christians. He expressed interest in my opinion, but added, ‘Not among us.’ But what could happen in the Raven succession was shown in 1927, when James Boyd of Brighouse, Yorkshire, not a ‘Taylorite’ but a ‘Glanton’ brother, published a pamphlet on The Incarnation of the Son in which he said, ‘That the Son was the spirit of His own body I have not the slightest question…The assertion that Christ has a human soul and spirit is in principle a denial of the incarnation of the Son’. These statements were made in a polemical context, and when the good man realised the furore which they created he withdrew them, but plainly he could not see what was wrong with them. It is better to remember Mr. Boyd gratefully as the author of the beautiful communion hymn, ‘O teach us, Lord, Thy searchless love to know’, than as one who inadvertently perpetrated a doctrinal deviation which occasioned a minor ecclesiastical cleavage. The fact is that, in certain strands of Brethrenism where the issues have not been clearly faced, views subversive of our Lord’s manhood find a measure of acquiescence such as would never be extended to views subversive of His deity. Have you, for example, ever come across in Brethren circles the Valentinian view that from conception to birth our Lord passed through the body of His mother ‘like water through a pipe’, deriving no part of His humanity from her? I have met it – not, of course, in a responsible teacher but in a local leader whose expression of opinion was regarded by some of his followers as doing honour to Christ.”[34]

Despite F.F. Bruce’s sad tale, it has nevertheless been correctly held by the majority of teachers and writers among “the brethren” through the 19th, 20th  and 21st centuries that the Lord Jesus was indeed conceived in Mary and was “of her substance”. Here are two early examples: 

William Kelly (1821-1906): “‘The angel answered, and said unto her [i.e., the Virgin Mary], the Holy Ghost shall come upon thee, and the power of the Highest shall overshadow thee; therefore also that holy thing which shall be born of thee shall be called [the] Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). It is evident, therefore, though truly born of a woman, though deriving human nature from His mother Mary, there was, even in respect to this, a divine action which distinguished our blessed Lord most signally and strongly from all others from His birth. What Rome has lyingly, and as a thing of but yesterday, decreed of Mary, is most true of Jesus: He, not she, was immaculate in His human nature; and this through the energy of the Holy Ghost (as even the most rudimentary symbols of Christendom confess, I thank God), the result of the overshadowing power of the Highest. Hence therefore ‘That Holy Thing’ could be its description from the first. He alone of all men was born ‘holy’; not made innocent and upright only, like Adam, still less – like Adam’s sons – conceived in sin and shapen in iniquity. He is designated ‘That Holy Thing’, it will be observed, when the question was not of what was simply divine (which indeed it would be wicked folly to doubt and needless to affirm here), but of what was human. ‘That holy thing which shall be born [of thee] shall be called the Son of God’.”[35]

C.H. Mackintosh (1820-1896): “But here is the angelic announcement as the mystery of His conception: ‘And the angel answered and said unto Mary, The Holy Spirit shall come upon thee, and the power of the highest shall overshadow thee; therefore that holy thing which shall; be born of thee shall be called the Son of God’ (Luke 1:35). Here we have a real man, but One without a single taint of sin or a single seed of mortality. He was made of the woman, of the substance of the virgin, a Man in every particular, just as we are, but wholly without sin and entirely free from any association which could have given sin or death a claim upon Him. Had our blessed Lord come as to His human nature, under the headship of Adam, He could not have been called the Second Man since He would have been a member of the first, like any other man.”[36]

To read a recent biblical exposition of the nature of Christ’s conception, with various Scripture proofs of the truth that the Lord took of the substance of His mother, see Did the Lord Take Anything from Mary?.


[1] Ignatius, Epistle to the Trallians, Ch 10. Ante-Nicene Fathers, Vol 1 (Peabody, MA: Hebdrickson Publishers Inc., 1999), p. 71
[2] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 11, Paragraph 3 (Aeterna Press, 2016), p. 200
[3] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 16, Paragraphs 2 and ; Ch 21 Paragraph 5 (Aeterna Press, 2016), p. 224-225, 245
[4] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 22 Paragraph 1 (Aeterna Press, 2016), p. 247
[5] Irenaeus, Against Heresies, Book 3, Chapter 22 Paragraph 2 (Aeterna Press, 2016), p. 247
[6] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: The Writings of Tertullian Vol 2 (Miami, FL: HardPress, 2019), p. 204
[7] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: The Writings of Tertullian Vol 2 (Miami, FL: HardPress, 2019), p. 205-206
[8] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: The Writings of Tertullian Vol 2 (Miami, FL: HardPress, 2019), p. 207-209
[9] Tertullian, Ante-Nicene Christian Library: The Writings of Tertullian Vol 2 (Miami, FL: HardPress, 2019), p. 209-210
[10] Menno Simons, Brief Confession on the Incarnation (1544), in The Complete Works of Menno Simons, ed J.C. Wenger (Harrisonburg, VA: Herald Press, 1956), p 432 (italics added)”
[11] the-highway.com/Christ1_Bavinck.html
[12] Guido de Brès, La racine, source et fondement des Anabaptistes (Rouen: Abel Clemence, 1565), p. 209
[13] Dr. W. Cunningham D.D., Historical Theology, Vol 1, 2nd ed., (Edinburgh, T & T Clark, 1864), p. 311
[14] Ronald Hanko, Doctrine According to Godliness (Grand Rapids, MI: RFPA, 2004), p. 135
[15] Theodore Beza, Extract from The Christian Faith, translated into English by James Clark
[16] William Perkins,  The Order of Salvation and Damnation
[17] Thomas Watson, A Body of Divinity, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2008), p. 192
[18] Matthew Poole, Commentary on the Whole Bible, Vol 3, (Peabody, Hendrickson Publishers, No date), p. 598
[19] The Westminster Confession of Faith, London, 1647, Ch 8, Para 2
[20] Charles Hodge, Systematic Theology, Vol 2 (New York: Scribner, Armstrong & Co, 1876), p. 400
[21] J.C. Philpot, Meditations on the Sacred Humanity of the Blessed Redeemer (Harpenden, Gospel Standard Strict Baptist Trust Ltd., 1978), p. 8
[22] S.P. Tregelles, Five Letters, (London: Houlston & Wright, 1863), p. 2
[23] William G.T. Shedd, Dogmatic Theology, Vol 2 (New York: Charles Scribner & Sons, 1888), p. 305
[24] R.C.H. Lenski, Commentary on the New Testament, Matthew (Hendrickson Publishers, 2001), p. 47
[25] Herman Hoeksema, Reformed Dogmatics, (Grand Rapids: MI: RFPA, 2005), Vol 1, pp. 499, 505
[26] A.W. Pink, Studies in the Scriptures, 1934-1935, Vol 7, (Lafayette: Sovereign Grace Publishers, 2005), p. 149-150, 183
[27] John Murray, Collected Writings Vol 2 (Edinburgh: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), p. 134
[28] Dr. N. Geisler, Systematic Theology, Vol 3 (Bloomington, Bethany House Publishers, 2004), p. 572-573
[29] Robert Gromaki, The Virgin Birth (Grand Rapids, Kregel Publications, 2002), p 114
[30] Dr Robert L Reymond, A New Systematic Theology of the Christian Faith, (Nashville: Thomas Nelson Inc, 1998), p 552
[31] Henry W. Holloman, Kregel Dictionary of the Bible and Theology, (Grand Rapids: Kregel Publications, 2005), p. 567
[32] Douglas Wilson, Westminster Systematics, (Moscow, USA: Canon Press, 2014), p. 64
[33] In comments on the meal offering in the 1st edition of Notes on the Book of Leviticus (1860), C.H. Mackintosh caused some upset by referring the Lord’s manhood as “heavenly humanity”. Some leading brethren, including Mr Darby, rightly objected to Mr Mackintosh’s turn of phrase, so the words were removed from the 1861 edition.
[34] F.F. Bruce, The Humanity of the Lord Jesus, (Pinner: C.B.R.F., 1973), p. 8-9
[35] William Kelly, Christ Tempted and Sympathising, (London: Weston, nd.), p. 6
[36] C.H. Mackintosh, Short Papers, (Sunbury, PA: Believer’s Bookshelf, 1995), p. 311