Sunday, August 14, 2011

The Assumption: Not a Question of History

The Church's doctrine on the bodily Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary is usually treated with scorn by Protestants, who of course do not acknowledge the unique role of Mary in salvation history. There are many objections: the doctrine is "not biblical"; it was "invented" in 1950; in makes Mary into a rival of Christ for our affection, etc. We are all familiar with these standard canards. Before I came back to the Church, I used to be skeptical of this doctrine; "Assumption? It sure is one giant assumption, since the Bible says nothing about it," I used to say to myself.

When you really dig into it, it is not the concept of an Assumption that is so problematic - Protestants of course acknowledge that both Enoch and Elijah were assumed alive into heaven, as the Scriptures state. The problem is not with the concept of an assumption, as much as whether or not one specific individual - Our Lady - was in fact assumed body and soul into heaven.

This question of fact is where I think the only strong objection to Our Lady's Assumption is found (by strong I only mean that it is the only objection that is really intelligent). This is the fact that, when we look back on evidence for belief in the Assumption in the patristic period, the writings are silent for the first several centuries. St. Epiphanius around 377 suggests the Assumption as a possibility; the first clear references we have to it come from the mid-5th century. There are many apocryphal works purporting to be from the pre-Nicene era, but my understanding is that none of these can be established with certainty before the 5th century, or maybe even the 6th. But if we look to the pre-Nicene era, we find zero references to the doctrine of the Assumption.

This at least is a real objection; it is based upon actual history and the lack of reference to a doctrine that Catholics believe is part of the deposit of faith. How can we believe a doctrine is apostolic if it is not mentioned in the apostolic or pre-Nicene periods? Indeed, even from 400 to 500 references to it are scarce; it is only in the period from around 550 to 700 that the doctrine comes into full light. This begs the question: If Mary truly was assumed bodily into heaven, would not the apostles have known about it and told others? Wouldn't news of such a miraculous occurrence be spread abroad fairly early on throughout all the churches? Wouldn't we have a clear testimony to its historicity, like we do with regards to Peter's martyrdom in Rome? Wouldn't someone before the 5th century have mentioned something about it?

These objections may seem formidable until we call to mind one simple fact that dispels them all: Belief in the Assumption is not based on historical observation; it is not a question of history. Let's look at what I mean by this.

Of course, the act of the Assumption was historical; I wouldn't deny that for a moment. It has been declared as divinely revealed dogma, and this guarantees the historicity of the event. But what we need to understand is that the Church does not believe in the Assumption because of some historical observation that was passed on from generation to generation. In other words, our faith concerning this dogma does not depend upon that somewhere in mid-1st century Palestine or Ephesus, somebody actually saw Mary's body assume into heaven and then went and told others about it. It is not based on any historical witness or observation.

In this sense, it is quite different from the Church's belief in our Lord's Resurrection, which was believed by the early Church because it had in fact been witnessed by many. Our Lord took great pains to make sure that many witnessed His Resurrection because He wanted the faith of the primitive Church to draw its source from this one, clearly historic event that was seen by numerable eyewitnesses. Mary's Assumption, on the other hand, might very well have been witnessed by no one. Suppose she died and was buried, and then her body was taken into heaven - who would have witnessed that? We do have that old story about the twelve apostles coming together to look at Mary's body one last time and upon opening the tomb finding her body gone, but I don't know of any scholar who accepts these Transitus Mariae narratives as historical, though they do reflect the pious beliefs of Christians in the late patristic period, who though they acknowledged that Mary was Assumed into heaven, were unclear on the details. Were Mary assumed into heaven, as the Church believes, it most likely would have been in obscurity and secrecy, unwitnessed by anyone.

Rather than an historical event that was observed and related, the Assumption is related to our belief in  Mary's sinlessness. The doctrine of the Assumption is implied in the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception;  Corruption, of course, is part of the effects of sin, as we are told in Romans 6:23 and in the Psalms, where King David writes, "Therefore my heart hath been glad, and my tongue hath rejoiced: moreover, my flesh also shall rest in hope. Because thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; nor wilt thou give thy holy one to see corruption" (Ps. 16:9-10). This is quoted by St. Paul in Acts 13:34-35 with reference to the Lord's Resurrection, where the Lord's "holy one" who is blameless is justified in His words by being freed from the corruption common to the sons of Adam.

Mary, because of her sinlessness, also shares this prerogative; the fact of the Assumption is implied from the reality of her Immaculate Conception. The two doctrines are linked; the latter leads us to confess the former, just as the justice of the Messiah means His Resurrection, since death and corruption are punishment for sin. Therefore, we do not believe in the Assumption because some dude two thousand years ago witnessed it and ran around the ancient churches saying, "Man, you'll never believe what I just saw over in Ephesus!" No; rather, it is a teaching which logically flows from our belief in the Immaculate Conception - and Mary's freedom from sin is clearly and explicitly taught in the pre-Nicene period. There is no Father who at any time suggests that Mary was a sinner; they all clearly teach her freedom from sin.

Therefore the Assumption is implied in the Immaculate Conception. Just like we say that belief in the Trinity is part of the deposit of faith even though it was not taught explicitly as such by the apostolic fathers, likewise can we assert about the Assumption. The Trinity is inferred by Christ's declaration of equality with the Father in the Gospels (along with many other of His words and actions), and the Assumption is inferred by the primitive belief in Mary's sinlessness.

Pius XII, when defining the dogma in Munificentissimus Deus, after relating different evidences of late patristic liturgies, iconography, and statements of the later Fathers (St. John Damascene, et al), goes on to say that belief in the Assumption is ultimately based on Sacred Scripture: "All these proofs and considerations of the holy Fathers and the theologians are based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation" (MD, 38). Of course, Pius XII is here referring to a specifically typological reading of the Bible, though it he admits that sometimes theologians of the past were "rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption" (26). This is not a critique, however, but an endorsement of an interpretive method that wedded the mystical to the literal to gain insight into the truth.

The primary reason for belief in the Assumption, according to Pius, is "the filial love" of Christ for His mother (25). Note that it is a theological argument, not a historical one. He goes on to explain this filial love in terms of Mary's close unity with her Son:

"Hence the revered Mother of God, from all eternity joined in a hidden way with Jesus Christ in one and the same decree of predestination, immaculate in her conception, a most perfect virgin in her divine motherhood, the noble associate of the divine Redeemer who has won a complete triumph over sin and its consequences, finally obtained, as the supreme culmination of her privileges, that she should be preserved free from the corruption of the tomb and that, like her own Son, having overcome death, she might be taken up body and soul to the glory of heaven where, as Queen, she sits in splendor at the right hand of her Son, the immortal King of the Ages" (MD, 40).

All of this comes from the data of revelation as found in the Scriptures, and therefore does Pius say the pious beliefs about Mary's Assumption are "based upon the Sacred Writings as their ultimate foundation." Pius XII goes on to explain the importance of the later Fathers and early medieval liturgies as evidence for belief in the doctrine, but the doctrine itself is implied from the sinlessness of our Lady, which is found in the Scriptures and the pre-Nicene Fathers. It is part of divine revelation, albeit implicitly.

Of course, Protestants would not acknowledge this, as they read the Bible differently than we. But is important for us that we understand, and can explain that this doctrine does not depend upon a witness of history, although that does lend credence to a very ancient belief in the Assumption; rather, it exists in seed form along with the doctrine of Mary's sinlessness and is inferred from it. This is true whether or not there were Christians alive in the patristic age who could elaborate on it, and thus the lack of written evidence for the Assumption prior to the late 4th and early 5th centuries is not only not problematic but is actually irrelevant.


felapton said...

Could You please comment on this statement by pope Pius XII (6th reading of today's Matutinum):

,,Quóniam vero univérsa Ecclésia fidem in corpóream beátæ Maríæ Vírginis Assumptiónem per sæculórum decúrsum manifestávit (...) Pius duodécimus Póntifex Máximus, totíus Ecclésiæ votis ánnuens, státuit hoc Beátæ Maríæ Vírginis privilégium solémniter renuntiáre.''

How sholud we understand this, that 'the universal Church had at all times manifested faith in the bodily Assumption' while on the other side, as You say, there are no real references from first 3 or 4 centuries?

Boniface said...

It means what I said in the article - the Church implicitly believed in the Assumption even if the dogma was not worked out yet, just like she implicitly believed in the Hypostatic Union well before the dogmatic definitions, since all the dogmas of faith are united organically. For example, the Church always "believed" in the efficacy of indulgences, which began in the 3rd century but were implicit in the teaching on the necessity of doing penance.

I don't think the Pope's statement means that there is a clear line of written testimonies of belief in the Assumption going right back to the beginning, because even in his Bull proclaiming the dogma he does not cite any sources earlier than the early 5th century.

Clare Mulligan said...

I believe in the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary because it was revealed by God, who can neither deceive nor be deceived. This is how we must believe as Catholics. It is fine to examine the history of the dogma, or motives for credibility. However, it seems to me that you are operating on human faith, rather than divine and Catholic faith. Be careful about that. It's Protestant!

Boniface said...


Absolutely, but if it is revealed, then it is right to ask how? Is it something found in the Scriptures? Do we see it in Tradition? I am actually arguing with what you are saying. We do not believe the Assumption because of arguments from history, but because it is part of revelation as inferred by Mary's sinlessness.

I don't think there is anything Protestant about inquiring where in Divine Revelation certain dogmas are found.

Ben G said...

This is an excellent answer to the question I posed on your blog some while ago. Very useful in apologetics.

God bless you always.

P.S. what happened to that post on Judaism, I was looking for that diagram of OT feasts?

Boniface said...

Hmmm...try scrolling down the sidebar to the bottom and clicking the "Jews" tag. I didn't delete it, so it should still be up here.

Actually, no, that would take too long. Here is a link:

Unknown said...

The infallible teaching of the Roman Cathiolic Church is that the dogma of the Assumption is formally revealed, albeit implicitly. This is not the same as a theologocal conclusion; which is an inference arrived at by means of a revealed premise, and a premise of human reason, from which one infers a conclusion. Your article insinuates that this dogma "de fide Catholica definita," is merely a theological conclusion. If that were the case, the dogma of Mary's Assumption could not be believed by Divine and Catholic faith - but merely ecclesiastical faith - which is heresy. Please explain.

Unknown said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Boniface said...

I was not denying it was formally revealed. When I said it was a "conclusion", I only meant to deny it was based on historical testimony. I was not using the phrase "theological conclusion" in the formal sense. I will see if I can rework this to make it clearer.

Unknown said...

Thank you for the clarification.

Boniface said...

Okay Carl, I have reworked it. Would you mind reading it again? I have removed all the words about it being a "conclusion" or "deduced" and replaced them with saying it is "implied" and 'inferred" from, and made more explicit that the dogma is part of divine revelation.

Unknown said...

Your redaction is welcome and appreciated.

James said...

"It means what I said in the article - the Church implicitly believed in the Assumption even if the dogma was not worked out yet, just like she implicitly believed in the Hypostatic Union well before the dogmatic definitions, since all the dogmas of faith are united organically."

## That argument - if I don't misunderstand it - looks badly flawed :(

To take a deliberately ridiculous example, just for the sake of illustration: how do we know that in 10,000 AD (looking ahead a bit) there will not be a definition of the divinity of Harry Potter ?

The arguments for the divinity of Harry Potter may well be very impressive - the HP books are wildly popular, and a lot of us in the CC like them. Saints no more fabulous have been canonised - like St. Ursula of Cologne. I can easily imagine the canonisation of St Harry Potter, millennia hence, on the grounds of immemorial cultus - but that will not make him anything more the invention of a gifted authoress. But none of us will be around to blow the gaffe by pointing out that he has no more historical reality than Bilbo Baggins.

And anything could happen in the next 8,000 years to make this ridiculous idea seem plausible. But it will be false - it will just not be possible to say the Church has always believed it - even if one means the Church believed it implicitly.

Granted, I'm conflating definition of dogma with canonisation of Saints, but the point remains: one cannot simply attribute the beliefs of today to the past, as though the generations had held them. Not if there is no evidence of such belief in the past, and the only reason for such an attribute is a need to show that a belief is Apostolic.

I find this very troubling, because the Church is not entitled to try to create history - if belief X cannot be shown to have been held at all times, it should not be said to have been held at all times. That is surely basic honesty. The requirements of dogmatics cannot be allowed to bulldoze the realities of history, so far as these can be ascertained.

Just for the record, I believe the Assumption of the BVM to be a real fact & an Act of God - IOW, that it is as the Church has defined.

Boniface said...


I am not going to answer you point by point here, but I recommend you read Cardinal Newman's Essay on the Develpment of Dogma. We do indeed read the past based on what it turned into. It is not necessary that every doctrine be worked out and believed in its explicit detail; it is enough that the kernels are there, in which the doctrine rests implicitly. This is the Catholic understanding of how dogma develops. Read Newman.


James said...

Thanks - I have read it. I totally agree w/ your point that the Assumption is a reality, but not historical.

The "Essay" leaves a lot of issues untouched - the quoting of Fathers, though it has its uses, is of limited value.

Thanks for replying :)

Boniface said...

Well, I don't deny the Assumption is 'historical', but I do deny that the reason we believe it is because of historical proofs.

By the way, have you ever read the 1928 classic "Tradition and the Church" by Msgr. George Agius? He gives a great explanation about how there are many truths we believe that were not explicitly affirmed or sufficiently understood in the early centuries:

"There may be truths, then, contained in the Deposit of Faith which have not always nor everywhere been sufficiently known and proposed to the Faithful as a part of the faith. We might expect this, especially in the beginning of the Church. Add the political turmoil of the times, the persecutions, the unrest, and it becomes evident that an explicit belief about all elements of the Faith in all times and places was a moral impossibility."

-Msgr. Agius, "Tradition and the Church", TAN Books (2005), pg. 284