Portions of this story appeared in the Atlantic by Karen Swallow Prior: https://www.theatlantic.com/sexes/archive/2012/12/let-it-be-marys-radical-declaration-of-consent/266616/.
In this era of #MeToo, Eric Sprankle, an associate professor of Clinical Psychology and Sexuality Studies at Minnesota State University Mankato, made an interesting assertion. He tweeted that he wasn’t quite sure if the Virgin Mary had given “consent” when an angel came down from the heavens and told her that she would conceive the Christ child.
On Monday, Sprankle wrote, “The virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen. There is no definition of consent that would include that scenario. Happy Holidays.”
The virgin birth story is about an all-knowing, all-powerful deity impregnating a human teen. There is no definition of consent that would include that scenario. Happy Holidays.
— Eric Sprankle, PsyD (@DrSprankle) December 3, 2018
Another Twitter user responded, “Sorry. LK 1 26:38 states clearly that the angel communicated God’s plan for Mary and in verse 38 she agreed. Whether you believe or disbelieve, it helps if you actually read the text.” The angel waits until Mary says, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord. May it be done to me according to your word.” Only then does the angel leave. This seems to indicate that Mary consented to God’s will.
Sprankle responded, “The biblical god regularly punished disobedience. The power difference (deity vs mortal) and the potential for violence for saying ‘no’ negates her ‘yes.’ To put someone in this position is an unethical abuse of power at best and grossly predatory at worst.”
Sprankle’s position is interesting but not does take into account other parts of the text. Scripture teaches that God created humans with freedom and that God respects human freedom. Jesus Christ is the basic proof that God respects human freedom. Jesus is “the image of the invisible God” (Col 1:15), and therefore is the one to whom we turn when we want to discover how God relates to people. Jesus did not force people to follow him or to do what was right. He chose Apostles, but he only invited them to follow, and when Judas turned against him, Jesus did not force him to choose the right thing. He allowed Judas to say no. When Jesus invited the rich young man to follow him, and the rich young man turned away, Jesus did not force him to change his mind (Mk 10:17-22). When Jesus said, “I am the bread of life,” and many of his disciples refused to believe him, Jesus did not force them to accept his word; he let them walk away (John 6:60-71). Therefore, Jesus, the image of the invisible God, teaches us that God respects human freedom.
If Mary did not consent, and she became pregnant by a miracle to which she did not freely consent, this would mean that the Son of God became a human being in the womb of a woman who did not want to become his Mother. This would mean that God completely disregarded human freedom and human choice in this one event. So, there are two possibilities: God either invited Mary to become the Mother of God’s Son and accepted her consent, or God simply made Mary the Mother of God’s Son without her consent. The first choice is consistent with scripture. The second presents an image of God which is pagan in its implications contradicts Scripture.
Here is the account of Mary learning that she’ll be the mother of Christ, as told in the first chapter of Luke’s gospel:
In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent from God to a city of Galilee named Nazareth, to a virgin betrothed to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. And the virgin’s name was Mary. And he came to her and said, “Greetings, O favored one, the Lord is with you!” But she was greatly troubled at the saying, and tried to discern what sort of greeting this might be. And the angel said to her, “Do not be afraid, Mary, for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High. And the Lord God will give to him the throne of his father David, and he will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and of his kingdom there will be no end.”
And Mary said to the angel, “How will this be, since I am a virgin?”
And the angel answered her, “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God. And behold, your relative Elizabeth in her old age has also conceived a son, and this is the sixth month with her who was called barren. For nothing will be impossible with God.” And Mary said, “Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word.” And the angel departed from her.
The text makes clear that the angel Gabriel’s words at the Annunciation convey to Mary what will happen, not what has happened, a future conception, not a past one. The Annunciation—which is celebrated in the Christian liturgical calendar nine months before Christmas, on March 25, is the commemoration of God’s choice of a woman to bear the Savior of the world and of her willing acceptance of that role.
We do not have Mary’s firsthand account of the events, only what is written in Luke. Luke is reported to have been a doctor and is characterized by modern scholars as among the most cultured writers of the New Testament, distinguished in his writings for his overriding concern for women, the poor, the sick, and the outcast.
Luke mentions Mary more than any other biblical author. Some scholars believe that Mary was one of Luke’s firsthand sources for his gospel, providing both textual and historical evidence. In the absence of a record of Mary’s own account, Luke is the definitive record of the event.