The Assumption

Today, August 15, is celebrated by Catholics as the Feast of the Assumption of Mary. On the calendar for many centuries, it was only defined as a dogma in 1950 by Pope Pius XII. The key section of his Apostolic Constitution, Munificentissimus Deus, reads:

44. … by the authority of our Lord Jesus Christ, of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul, and by our own authority, we pronounce, declare, and define it to be a divinely revealed dogma: that the Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory.

This is followed by an anathema:

47. It is forbidden to any man to change this, our declaration, pronouncement, and definition or, by rash attempt, to oppose and counter it. If any man should presume to make such an attempt, let him know that he will incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul.

What proof is adduced? The existence of churches named after her and images of her, prayers to her and the calendar commemoration, words of ancient Catholic writers such as St. John Damascene (late 7th, early 8th century), etc. In short: TRADITION.

Using circular reasoning, the mere fact of the testimony of tradition on this point is cited as proof that it was revealed by God, since it isn’t in Scripture:

12. … Thus, from the universal agreement of the Church’s ordinary teaching authority we have a certain and firm proof, demonstrating that the Blessed Virgin Mary’s bodily Assumption into heaven- which surely no faculty of the human mind could know by its own natural powers, as far as the heavenly glorification of the virginal body of the loving Mother of God is concerned-is a truth that has been revealed by God and consequently something that must be firmly and faithfully believed by all children of the Church. For, as the Vatican Council asserts, “all those things are to be believed by divine and Catholic faith which are contained in the written Word of God or in Tradition, and which are proposed by the Church, either in solemn judgment or in its ordinary and universal teaching office, as divinely revealed truths which must be believed.”

The only Scriptural “evidence” cited consists of fanciful allegorical interpretations of some passages in Psalms and the Song of Solomon (Ps 131:8; Ps 44:10-14ff.; Song of Solomon 3:6; 4:8; 6:9). Appeal is also made to the image of the woman in Revelation 12.

But what says the Scripture itself? Not a word. The paucity of information about Mary in Scripture stands in stark contrast to the volumes of Catholic Mariology. Outside of the Gospels, she’s mentioned in only Acts 1:14. The Gospel of John mentions her only a couple of times (2:3-5; 6:42; 19:25-26). In the Synoptics she’s mentioned in connection with Jesus’ passion, and, in Matthew and Luke, infancy narratives. That’s it. Not a word about her after Pentecost. Nothing about where she went, what she did, what she said, or where she died. There is no speculation, nor curiosity, nor any reference even to her motherly role.

Where then did the traditions come from? It’s hard to tell. A late fourth century writer, Epiphanius of Salamis, said no one knew what became of her. Only later do stories start circulating. Why? Who knows. But once they started circulating, and had done so for some time, they suddenly became no longer rumor or speculation, but “Tradition.” The same thing happened with purgatory. It’s in Plato, and comes into Christianity through ghost stories, but once those stories had been told by enough people, they obtained the aura of “Tradition.”

It is interesting that the same year he defined the Assumption, Pope Pius XII endorsed evolution. In the first case, he claimed the authority to add to Scripture; in the second, he claimed the authority to negate Scripture. In doing so, he acted in accordance with longstanding teaching concerning the papacy (as documented in Lucius Ferraris, Prompta Bibliotheca, s.v., “Papa”; selections and commentary).

As in the case of the Sabbath, it comes down to a matter of authority: will you rest content with Scripture, or run after man-made tales? Will you trust the Word of God, or cling to another authority that condemns any who will not heed her teachings?

14 thoughts on “The Assumption

  1. Of course the ancient Eastern and Orthodox Churches believes alsmost the same thing. Which tends to show the validity of this belief.

  2. A billion Muslims say Jesus didn’t die on the cross. Nearly a billion Hindus say we are caught in the flow of samsara. Don’t give me numbers, give me a “Thus saith the Lord.”

  3. While the argument from numbers is not an argument at all, it is always frustrating for Roman Catholics when some of our very ancient traditions are made to seem as though they gained validity only through the office of the Pope.

    This is really a question of small “c” catholic Christianity versus that of the Reformation and afterwards, a dispute arising from divergences in in ecclessiology, theology, sacramentology, and the like.

    For Catholics the Assumption of the Virgin is seen almost as a necessity of sound theological reflection authenticated by its presence in tradition.

    The earliest traditions regarding the Virgin present her to us as the Second Eve (ie. Justin Martyr), obedient to the Word and bearing forth our Salvation (Christ) in contrast to obedience to the serpent and bearing forth sin.

    This provides us with, I would say, the grounding theological model.

    What God the Son acquires in the Incarnation which he did not have from eternity was his human nature. What was then exalted in Christ which he did not have from eternity was his human nature. Thus his human nature which “God therefore exalted” (Philippians 2) came to share in that “glory which he had before the world began” (John 17:5).

    Human nature is offered participation in the glory and sonship of Christ because through the Incarnation he incorporated human nature into his glory and sonship. The Virgin, being the principal means by which Christ entered into human nature by her singularly unique contribution of “flesh of her flesh”, is naturally the first to reap the exaltation of human nature as it exists now in Christ.

    The Assumption is thus the echo of the Resurrection, as we Catholics see it anyways.

  4. Yes, Jordan, you’re right in suggesting it wasn’t just the pope imposing it; the pope is confirming it because it was old and widely believed. Age isn’t a better ground for determining truth than numbers, however. Justin comes from a time when Christianity was trying to impress paganism with its teachings; he was a philosopher, not an exegete, and there are many things in his arguments that Christians of all kinds today would laugh or roll their eyes at. On the other hand, he does preserve some older teachings that Catholics since have rejected. For instance, in Dialogue with Trypho, 80:

    “[I]f you have fallen in with some who are called Christians, … who say there is no resurrection of the dead, and that their souls, when they die, are taken to heaven; do not imagine that they are Christians,”

    Scripture talks much about the fall, but never speaks of Mary as the second Eve–instead, it focuses on Christ as the Second Adam. He’s the one with the priority. He’s the only one Scripture says was without sin. He’s the one upon whom our salvation hinges. Your arguments build upon logic and inferences. The only guard for truth is to build upon Scripture.

  5. “Your arguments build upon logic and inferences. The only guard for truth is to build upon Scripture.”

    Yes, I suppose questions like this often boil down to sola scriptura.

    Just because Justin’s imagery for the Virgin is not explicitly derived from Scripture does not mean it is therefore untrue or not consonant with Scripture. The period of the Church Fathers yields much similar fruit, arising from their reflections and exegesis. Like Justin, neither do they indicate a sola scriptura approach to the text.

    Justin, and subsequently the whole Church, are pursuing the image of Christ as the Second Adam. Like any true Mariology, it is in the final analysis, an “anthropology of the Incarnation”.

    From the moment of Christ’s conception in her, the Virgin’s life is inextricably bound with the life of her Son. Human nature is now permanently bound up in the life of the Holy One. But we are not simply dealing in abstractions, the Virgin is the personal and “micro image” of human nature bonded with the Divine in Christ. She is also the first Christian, participating in the Trinitarian life: overshadowed by the Spirit, receiving the Son by divine faith, and obedient to the will of the Father.

    At the same time, she is then “Mother Israel”, the personal embodiment of Israel’s mission: a lowly woman, by grace she is freely chosen out of the matrix of human peoples and relations and elected to bear God’s light to the world, summarizing the convenantal relationship with her “be it done according to Thy word”.

    As Eve; in the New Creation now reversing sin, it is man, the Son of Man, who is taken from the flesh woman. And yet, Christ entering humanity through her means that she remains like rib, as it were, within his side.

    You said “we do not know what happened to the Virgin”. The presence of ancient tradition regarding these events, coupled with what (in my opinion) amounts to very sound theological exegesis and (yes) finally also my faith in Christ’s promise that the Holy Spirit will guide the Church (in context the “College of the Twelve”) “into all the truth” means that I believe the Church will correctly interpret Revelation. This, apart from tradition, being not merely the letter of Scripture, not just the plain text of it, but also the constellation of imagery delivered within it, dripping as it is with further theological implications.

  6. All good examples of the kind of allegories and analogies Catholics have used … but is that really a sound basis for a dogma whose doubters are to be condemned?

    And as shown, the “ancient tradition” isn’t all that ancient — writers as late as the late 4th century writers knew nothing of these “ancient traditions.” Where then did they come from? Private revelations? Ghost stories, as with purgatory?

    As you suggest in the last paragraph, and as I noted to begin with, it comes down to the authority of the papacy and the Catholic church. Is that an authority which is subject to no norm? That’s the Catholic option. And it’s contrary to the attitude of Paul, who was willing to oppose Peter to his face when he was wrong, and who commended those who searched the Scriptures to see whether the things he said were true.

  7. Well, I would be cautious as to reducing the origins of Purgatory to ghost stories. (This is something I could look into more, admittedly) This again is not a merely “Roman” thing. The East, following the Church Fathers, permits a much more ambiguous and less speculative understanding of the process of purification after death, and the Orthodox obviously have a contention with the kind of “Purgatory-industry” that developed in the Medieval period. From what I understand however, the essential point is shared between East and Latin Church here. Perhaps ghost stories or folk-lore fueled the imagination and framed its expression, but the basic theological principle lies with the Fathers. I personally believe we are seeing regression of Purgatory in Catholicism, retaining of course the essential theological principle so that “Purgatory” will always have its acknowledged place in the Deposit of Faith. However, I think in general we are retreating from much of its Medieval imagery.

    As for what you said here:

    “All good examples of the kind of allegories and analogies Catholics have used … but is that really a sound basis for a dogma whose doubters are to be condemned?”

    I am inclined to agree with you to some extent here. Firstly, the Marian dogmas are Christ related. They don’t just say something about her, but also of Christ and the relationship between human beings and the divine, between nature and grace, as I believe I touched upon in my comments above. I don’t recall who said this, but there is an understanding [among some of us] that one can affirm a defined dogma pertaining to a historical event [ie. the Assumption] while essentially failing to grasp the underlying theological truths in which this event has its locus.

    In which case, the converse is also possible. One may hold to this theological truth while failing to affirm it as historical fact. In the case of the Assumption, I personally would consider there to be a kind of abstract or theological primacy, in which the historicity of the event is, in truth, secondary to what it indicates we should believe about God and his plan of salvation.

    I suppose what am I saying is that I, who hold to the historicity of the Assumption, might still find myself feeling in a comfortable degree of communion with a fellow Christian who can not bring himself to affirm it, contingent on other factors. In other words, he still might stand in the essential heart of the dogma.

    I wish I could make my comments shorter, lol, but this is in my nature!

  8. Harry, if you hold to the belief that the Assumption is a “divinely revealed truth which must be believed” and that denying it will “incur the wrath of Almighty God and of the Blessed Apostles Peter and Paul,” you are no Lutheran. The formal principle of Lutheranism is that all dogmas binding on the conscience of Christians must come from Scripture. The Lutheran position is that a Christian may believe in the Assumption, but he does not have to. We can never bind consciences to what God has not placed in his Word.

    I suppose what am I saying is that I, who hold to the historicity of the Assumption, might still find myself feeling in a comfortable degree of communion with a fellow Christian who can not bring himself to affirm it, contingent on other factors.

    Then you are not obedient to the mind of the Church. You should joyfully affirm with the whole Church that Sts Peter and Paul will personally visit wrath upon anyone who seeks to undermine this necessary article of faith.

  9. I’m a little late to this party, but at least Bill, are you aware of the Sub tuum praesidium prayer?

    A rather literal translation from the Greek:
    “Beneath your compassion,
    We take refuge, O Theotokos:
    do not despise our petitions in time of trouble:
    but rescue us from dangers,
    only pure, only blessed one.”

    The oldest known written version of this prayer is contained in an ancient Coptic liturgical text which dates to around A.D. 250.

    And if it shows up in a well-formed and specified set of texts that served as the formal public worship of an apostolic church, then you know it just didn’t pop out of someone’s pen in 250 — those texts matured slowly over many years through popular usage (that’s how it worked in those days, even slower than bishop’s committees). So it seems reasonable to think that the prayer can’t have come into early use any later than A.D. 190 ~ 200. But then that requires one to ask: “What popular sentiments, rooted in the common apostolic faith of the Church, were behind that prayer and its becoming a familiar part of liturgical and devotional among the Copts?” Now we’re going back farther in history . . . you get the idea. Any thoughts on this?

  10. There were lots of errors and false teachers in the apostolic times. Paul and John both warned about them. That a prayer goes back to that time, 200 years later, means nothing. Origen, prior to that, was endorsing the final restoration of Satan.

  11. How could someone assume some important position for Mary when Jesus didn’t give her any special treatment in life? I think if she had somehow gained a very special position in heaven he would have respected her a little more then saying anyone who believes in him is his brother, sister, and mother.

    Matthew 12:46-50 (New King James Version)

    Jesus’ Mother and Brothers Send for Him

    46 While He was still talking to the multitudes, behold, His mother and brothers stood outside, seeking to speak with Him. 47 Then one said to Him, “Look, Your mother and Your brothers are standing outside, seeking to speak with You.”
    48 But He answered and said to the one who told Him, “Who is My mother and who are My brothers?” 49 And He stretched out His hand toward His disciples and said, “Here are My mother and My brothers! 50 For whoever does the will of My Father in heaven is My brother and sister and mother.”

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