The Jenkins controversies: Can you be a Christian and not believe in the Virgin Birth?

David Jenkins, the former Bishop of Durham who died yesterday aged 91, was famous for his trenchant criticisms of Margaret Thatcher and all her works. A withering description at the height of the miners' strike of coal boss Ian MacGregor as an "imported elderly American" was regarded as particularly unepiscopal language.

Clipstone Colliery was one of many closed under Margaret Thatcher in a policy that drew the wrath of Bishop David Jenkins.Reuters

It wasn't his politics that really upset most people, though, but his theology. Jenkins came to Durham from academia, and wanted to get the public thinking about things that might have been common enough in the common room but certainly weren't in the pew. Before his consecration at York Minster – which was followed two days later by a lightning strike and catastrophic fire that conservatives regarded as not quite a coincidence – he had given an interview for a BBC Credo programme in which he said that he doubted whether God would have arranged a virgin birth for Jesus, or allowed him to walk on water. Two months later he was recorded in an interview in the library at Auckland Castle saying: "To believe in a Christian way, you don't necessarily have to have a belief that Jesus was born from literally a virgin mother, nor a precise belief that the risen Jesus had a literally physical body."

Pressed on this, he said that the Resurrection was "real". "That's the point. All I said was 'literally physical'. I was very careful in the use of language. After all, a conjuring trick with bones proves only that somebody's very clever at a conjuring trick with bones."

In the tabloid press, Jenkins instantly became the bishop who had described the Resurrection as "a conjuring trick with bones", and never quite lived it down.

His views were, and remain, a long way away from orthodox Christianity. When in the Apostles' Creed we say we believe Christ was "born of the Virgin Mary" and "on the third day he rose again", we are expected to affirm these truths in the plain sense of the words. Jenkins outraged Christian opinion – and the opinion of many agnostics and atheists, too – because he appeared to be attempting to finesse the Creed to make it more palatable to a sceptical world.

But is there anything an orthodox believer can learn from his views?

Jenkins was absolutely clear that he believed in the Incarnation, once writing: "God is. God is as he is in Jesus. So there is hope." So there are two issues. One is about the Bible, and whether because the Bible says something is true, it is therefore true. The Virgin Birth isn't in Mark's or John's Gospel, and Matthew's Gospel is arguably a little ambiguous, but Luke is quite clear (1:34). So Jenkins didn't regard himself as bound by the literal sense of scripture, even when it came to such a core doctrine of the faith. The "literal sense of scripture", though, is itself a slippery concept. Most scholars, including conservative evangelical scholars with a high view of the inspiration of Scripture, acknowledge that language is used in different ways in the Bible, and it's very important to identify exactly what kind of thing is being said.

However, in this case, there's more at stake than whether the trees of the field really do clap their hands or whether Balaam's donkey spoke to him. The doctrine of the Virgin Birth is intimately connected with the doctrine of the incarnation. That Jesus had a human mother but no human father expresses and embodies the belief that he was both human and divine, a God-Man, with all the implications of that for our salvation and eternal destiny. Jenkins was cutting the link, and saying that the Incarnation had nothing to do with biology at all.

At one level, of course, he was perfectly right: there's no necessary connection between virgin conception and incarnation. But in cutting the doctrine loose from the witness of Scripture, his view also struck at the grounding of faith in history. He seemed to make belief in the supernatural optional, and his option was to take the path of least resistance. But though God could, if He wished, have chosen to be incarnate without a virgin birth, the witness of Scripture is that to express most completely his identification with human beings, he did not. And the sense among orthodox believers was that they wanted a bishop to believe what he said he believed, without any mental reservations.

It was the same with his comments about the Resurrection and old bones. Jenkins was trying to get people to think about the Resurrection as more than a totem, a sign of orthodoxy, which was fair enough. But again, he thought you could discard the sign and keep the thing signified. He did not believe in the empty tomb, but he would say with his hand on his heart that he believed in the Risen Christ, present and active in the life of the believer. Again, it's possible to argue that in principle this might work, theologically speaking. But the power of the Resurrection lies in its visible demonstration of the victory of God. Take that away, and it's difficult to see how anything other than a vague optimism remains.

David Jenkins was a subtle and thoughtful theologian who never regarded himself as having departed from orthodoxy. But the Church, on the whole, has decided that his version of two core doctrines is better left in the classroom than preached from the pulpit.

Follow Mark Woods on Twitter: @RevMarkWoods