Is There Anything New to Say about the Christmas Story?

Biblical scholarship is essentially a lot of very careful reading of very old, very familiar stories—with the goal of discovering something new in them.

The well has not run dry. After two millennia, the Christmas story, for example, is still delivering fresh insights to Bible readers of all kinds—like a grandmother sending out packages to grandkids reliably every December.

Does the “greatest story ever told” have anything left to tell us? As you prepare your heart for the Christmas season, here are three reasons to turn back to the Christmas story in your Bible reading, three reasons (among others that could be mentioned) why this story keeps delivering new insights.

1. There is something new to see because the author is inexhaustible.

We American Christians are infamous for our kitschy Christmas consumerism; and it’s tempting to view that new Christmas book by a biblical scholar (timed for direct-to-stockings release) as a callous grab for cash.

I’m sure some books are, but some good ones also come out every year—because there’s always more to say about a book inspired by an infinite being of eternal power and divine nature. Is anyone ever going to plumb the full depths of a paradox like the Incarnation? One of the best “Christmas” sermons I ever heard drew implications from the Incarnation of God’s Son for Christian study of the liberal arts. That gifted preacher (who was a biblical scholar, professor, and pastor) found truth God put in Scripture that I’m sure most of his audience hadn’t seen before.

2. There is something new to see because the author’s Spirit sheds new light on it.

Not everyone involved in biblical studies is a believer, and it’s easy even for a believer to “secularize” his or her study in deference to a guild that would prefer to bracket (read: marginalize) truth claims about the supernatural world. But my most important academic mentor regularly drew deep insight from Scripture, insight relevant to his work, from his morning quiet time. That has always been the ideal I shoot—and pray—for.

The best biblical scholars out there, who have all the tools of the academy at their disposal to understand a passage, don’t rely on those tools alone for insight: they recognize that God’s Spirit plays a role. The same Spirit that indwells every believer.

The Westminster Confession says that “God in his ordinary providence maketh use of means, yet is free to work without, above and against them” (5:3). The Spirit is not a shortcut eliminating the need for “ordinary means” such as hard study; generally speaking, insight is earned and given. But God is free to give insight to the brand new Christian who hasn’t earned it. Go to Scripture, whoever you are, with hope that God’s Spirit will illuminate your reading.

3. There is something new to see because new backdrops provoke new views.

It is possible for your culture to make you see something in the Bible that isn’t there. I was surprised recently to learn, for example, that many early Protestant Reformers accepted the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary (the idea that she remained a virgin even after Christ’s birth). Historian Diarmaid MacCullouch observes that while they would normally have rejected such a doctrine (“gleefully,” MacCullouch says) because it is absent from the biblical text, they accepted it “because they wrote in the aftermath of the first radical assertions that Jesus Christ was no more than a prophet.” (The Reformation, 593) The perpetual virginity of Mary seemed like a good weapon against this false doctrine, so they reached for it—even though it has no real biblical support. Even the people most dedicated to sola scriptura can slip up under cultural pressure.

But I propose that culture can also help us see new things in Scripture that really are there—or at least to see them in helpfully new light, with new connections. Challenges to Christ’s deity are still present, but they’re no longer breaking news. Western culture isn’t fighting over the existence of a treasury of merit; we’re fighting over gender and sexuality. Are there new things to be seen in the story of a virgin birth in this era, truths that were always there but can only be seen with full clarity because they’re being challenged by the culture wars? Maybe, maybe.

New backdrops provoke new views.

Conclusion

Chances are that the new thing you’ll find in your study of the Christmas story in the Gospels is not exactly new; it has been seen for centuries. But not by you, and not in quite the combination of connections that you—given your setting and gifting—have seen.

So consider setting this pre-New-Year’s-Resolution goal for yourself: read the Christmas story in the Gospels until you see something new. Then share it—perhaps with us; we’d love to hear from you!


Mark L. Ward, Jr. received his PhD from Bob Jones University in 2012; he now serves the church as a Logos Pro. His most recent book is Authorized: The Use and Misuse of the King James Bible (forthcoming, Lexham Press).

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Comments

  1. What recent publications/articles would you recommend concerning the Christmas story?

  2. I do think that new insights from the Christmas story are significantly enriched by new experiences that we encounter.

  3. What would you say to the Brannon Howses and others of the world who vilify anyone claiming what they call “special revelation” – the application of scripture to personal situations, a prompting of the Holy Spirit regarding a life choice (e.g., career, marriage, mission field) or any “new” interpretation not already long-documented by the early Church Fathers or other prominent theologians? It seems that the prevailing thought is that God would not withhold a particular revelation from centuries of believers only to reveal it to me (or a select few), here and now. “If it’s new, it’s not true.”

    My thought is that if a) an interpretation does not violate or contradict the truth or inerrancy of scripture as a whole, b) it does not nullify the gospel, or c) it does not challenge the person or character of Christ, then it’s probably valid. Your comments are encouraging in that we might glean new truths from scripture that might have been obscured 100 or 200 years ago because the culture we live in has changed and new types of questions are being asked. When you think about it, it would actually be arrogant to think we’ve exhausted a bottomless well of truth and wisdom after only 2000 years (for most of which only a small fraction of the population could even read). And as you state, the Holy Spirit can reveal what He wants to whom He wants, at any time. I just wonder what kind of blowback you might expect from articles like this one.

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