The Dogmatization of the Bodily Assumption of Mary and the Appeal to History: A Brief Introduction to the Interpretative Differences between the Apostolic Churches and Protestant Skeptics

In my time spent observing the many Protestant critiques of Catholic or Orthodox Christianity, including my own which lasted just under 10 years, it is often thought by the Protestant skeptic that the founding credibility and verifiability of the faith contents of Catholicism or Orthodoxy (what I say below regarding Catholicism can, for all intents and purposes, be equally applied to Eastern/Oriental Orthodoxy) are fixed in what can be gleaned by investigating the surviving historical record. Practically, if we want to know what the grounds for belief in the bodily assumption of the Virgin Mary is, we turn ourselves to the historical documents and artifacts of the past and see if we can accumulate the evidence to warrant that it was a belief held by the earliest Christians and thereafter going forward in the Church’s history to the present. If a sufficient warrant is given, then the Protestant might say, “Ok, I don’t believe it is a binding doctrine for me (i.e., sola scriptura), but I can, at least, see that it has a basis in the historical record for Catholics and Orthodox.” On the other hand, if there is scant evidence in the available record, or worse, significant variance from one author to another in what records are available, then it is often thought that such circumstances indicate the non-Apostolic origin of the belief in question (i.e., the bodily Assumption of Mary). For if a belief was Apostolic in origin, it would have been known and accepted by everyone. Ergo, in this case, it is thought that a particular doctrine, such as the bodily of Assumption of Mary as our working example, is not even sustainable as a Apostolic doctrine, let alone a position even held by the early Church. The underlying assumption here is that Catholics and Orthodox have the burden to prove that all their dogmatic beliefs are in sufficiently exemplified in the historical record in order for her criteria to be met as to what qualifies as Apostolic doctrine.

However, the Catholic Church does not look at documentary texts in precisely that manner, nor do they share what the Protestant assumes about their own paradigms of authority. What I mean here is this: even if the first historical document detailing the celebration of the Dormition/Assumption of the Virgin Mary was from the 11th century, it would not thereby entail that the Catholic Church has no basis for upholding the teaching of the Assumption as an Apostolic teaching that is binding for all Christians. And binding in such a way that open dissent by members of the Catholic Church can result in excommunication. So this calls for a bit of a rehearsal of what counts as an authoritative standard for which to test the Catholic paradigm of authority. First and foremost, where does the right to teach Apostolic (or Dominical-Apostolic, i.e., directly from the Lord to the Apostles) doctrine come from? The origin of this right comes from Christ Himself in the ordination of the Apostles to the College of Governance that Christ established whilst he stood before men in the flesh. Christ Himself “sent” the Apostles to preach, teach, administer sacraments, manage, and discipline the society of Christ’s followers. This Apostolic College has within it the divine right to begin disseminating binding teaching. Theoretically, if there were no documents with which to read about the ministry of Jesus Christ, the Apostles, or the day of Pentecost (as came later with the record of St. Luke and was proved useful), the Apostles would still have the right to enter a city, proclaim the arrival of God’s kingdom through repentance and faith towards God and Jesus Christ, and require assent and baptism from all the inhabitants of that particular locate. Those who hear the Gospel and do not believe, Christ says, “will be condemned” (Mark 16:16). And this condemning law remains active with or without the benefit of the inhabitants of that particular realm verifying the authenticity of the claims of the Apostles through documentary verification. In other words, the Apostles were licensed to teach authoritatively because of their commission by Christ to do so.

When Christ sent out the Apostles, he did not send them out with a sheaf of papers that indicate who they were on historical grounds. He sent them out and told them to wait for the Holy Spirit who would empower them to preach and administer the sacraments. That proves that the Christian mission isn’t just a matter of learning the truth. The Apostles knew the truth on the day of the Lord’s ascension, but they were ordered to wait in Jerusalem for a Spiritual animator that would descend upon them and guide them in the mission of the Church. If the Christian mission were merely about factual truths, then the Apostles could have went out and preached in Jerusalem the very afternoon that Christ ascended into heaven. But Christ did not see His Church functioning this way.

After they received the Spirit from heaven they preached, taught, managed, and disciplined the Church wherever they went. Granted, he gave them His signature [akin to the way God gave Moses signature] through miracles. Nevertheless, those miracles do not form the base of the Apostolic authority itself.  Their right to do so was based upon their theocratic ordination directly from Christ (see how Paul gives his credentials, cf. Gal. 1:1-2). What is the practical significance of this distinction? Well, it is not as if disobedience to the word of an Apostle only became real disobedience if and when an Apostle failed to show forth a successful miracle. No, their right to coerce (spiritually) faith in Christ and baptism, on pain of damnation, is rooted in Christ’s theocratic ordination, and not on the ability to perform miracles. So their teaching was binding in the presence of miracles and in the absence of miracles.

Not receiving the Apostles was also not a failure to verify the authenticity of their claims by historical documents. Rather, failure to receive the Apostles was tantamount to not receiving Christ, and not receiving Christ was tantamount to not receiving God the Father. So, we see here that the divine vocation of the Apostles is first and foremost in ascertaining where the right to proclaim X or Y doctrine comes from. And Catholics/Orthodox see that right coming to the Apostolate of Jesus Christ which He formed with 12 men. The Catholic Church believes that the College of Governance that was the Apostolic College has been succeeded by the College of Bishops (or the Episcopal College), and the same vocation or ordination given to the Apostles is extended and continues in this Episcopal College. Their teaching task or mission we call the “Magisterium” (Teaching Office). When the College of Bishops enact to teach, they are based upon God’s own authority, and to fail to heed their word is the same as not listening to an Apostle. In turn, not listening to an Apostle was tantamount to not listening to Christ. And not listening to Christ is not listening to God who sent Christ as the primatial Apostle. From this, one can see that the Catholic Church looks to the Magisterial action of the Church as the locus of doctrinal authority, and it is from there that we should see, first and foremost, the faith contents of the Christian religion.

I picture the difference between the manner in which a Protestant skeptic will approach the Catholic/Orthodox claims versus the way that Catholics and Orthodox themselves approach their own claims is parallel to an archaeologist versus a family dynasty whose heritage is proprietary and maintained through successive transmission. The archaeologist comes and seeks to study ancient or historical material and rid themselves, as best as they can, of any assumptions that would prevent them from deducing only from what is intrinsic to the limited data that is found (surviving record). Moreover, they do not necessarily take the findings and opinions of their colleagues or their predecessors as if they must be held in principle. Scientific theory and explanation can be completely be revised and replaced by new data. Once all the data is collected, the scientist will attempt to polish out an explanation of what that data tells us about the past. It is a task of reconstruction: trying to reconstruct what happened and what was probably true. Now, any archaeologist knows that their reconstructions would severely differ from precisely what happened. In fact, if we were to have two books compared with one another, one book being the archaeological reconstruction and a book of what the contemporary scientists (of all fields) of the time (theoretically speaking) wrote about what existed in their times, it would be tremendously different. The difference is this: the contemporaries are in a position to know much more than the archaeologist who is limited by the fragmentary artifacts and remains that lie in the dirt or in geo-physical categories.  The contemporary witness is actually there to see and observe what is going on in its near fullness. The contemporary scientific community will have information that the archaeologist studying 1,000 years in the future simply does not have.

Taking from this analogical imagery, when a Protestant hears the claims about the Catholic Church being the “one true Church” that has, by necessity, “maintained the Apostolic deposit of faith delivered from Christ to the Apostles without wrinkle or blemish”, many of them are curious to test this claim by going into the available surviving record of history and see if such a claim can be sustained. Well, the first mistake made here is the presupposition that Catholic dogma is built from constructing the mass of historical documents and seeing what it clearly yields. I’ll give a real-world example here. Let’s say there is a Protestant skeptic who attends a Catholic Mass on the feast day of the Virgin Mary’s bodily assumption into heaven and hears the claims about the Virgin’s passage from bodily death to bodily resurrection into heaven and then the hears the priest speak of the witnesses from the ancient past. That might start with St. Epiphanius of Salamis, and then you’ve got transitus legends that are passed around, and then later we have records of it becoming a feast day in the East, and then the West, until it is a universal feast and confession by the 7th or 8th centuries. The Protestant skeptic might look to these evidences as if they are, quite literally, what the Catholic Church’s belief literally stands upon for its founding credibility. This is a mistake. The Catholic Church, as well as the Orthodox Church, holds that the Church’s faith was divinely established in Christ and handed on to the Apostles who handed it on to their successors in office. The transmission of the faith through the Church’s College of Governance is where the belief stands upon since it has the very vocation and commission from the King of Kings himself. Secondly, it is another common to think that the whole panorama of Christian literature serves as game for testing or gauging continuity between the past and current Catholic/Orthodox doctrine. It matters not, in this view, if the authors being observed are Origen, Tertullian, Arius, Novatian, or any obscure writer whose pen writes in relation to the faith of Christian society.

If we return to the alternative manner of perceiving the authority of the Catholic Church, namely, the family dynasty of proprietary heritage, this method of simply plunging oneself into the vast world of early Christian literature and using all of it as fair game to test continuity between Catholicism and the recorded past simply does not recognize that the claim of the Catholic Church is not that every writer in ancient Christian history is inspired or manifests accurately the tradition of the family. That is reserved for the teaching office (magisterium) which is comprised of the Bishops in union with the successor of Peter. The family has a chamber within itself that is reserved as the department of education. It is to them that lie the final word on matters of faith and doctrine.

“Yeah, but I’m not just citing Tertullian or Origen. I’m citing great Saints and Theologians of the Church that have gone down in history as pillars of orthodoxy!”

Appeals to the Saints and Doctors of the Church certainly does penetrate into the family, but it still does not penetrate into the magisterium of the family just yet. As just said, the magisterium is a subset within the family. But it is not simply a subset. It also requires certain conditions of the subset. Magisterial activity occurs when the Bishops together with the Pope (or the Pope himself) fulfill certain teaching conditions. So, while it is a weighty thing to observe the statements of Saints and Doctors, many of which can be found recanting their prior positions (ex: Augustine), it is not a fatality when a Saint or a Doctor of the Church is found to be at variance with a teaching of the Magisterium of the family. For that matter, even Christian writers who are Bishops or Popes can err in general capacity.

Taking from these clarifications, where is fair game to find clear variance between the Catholic Church and the past? One would need to find a contradiction within the Magisterial doctrine of the Church. That is where we are in business to be challenged. If a Protestant can say, “Look! I’m citing Popes and Councils that outright contradict the teaching of later Popes and Councils!,” then we have a situation that deserves investigation to see if there really is a discontinuity that might successfully achieve a falsification of Catholicism or Orthodoxy. Some Protestants have brought the classical cases wherein this deserves serious consideration such as Pope Vigilius, Pope Honorius, the Council of Constance, certain Papal bulls and constitutions, and various other items that prove to be difficult to reconcile. But I’m not here addressing the case wherein a Protestant skeptic points to one of these examples. We are here describing something else.

Now, the reader might say: “Well, that’s quite convenient! You are excluded from the bar of history! You are not allowing yourself to be graded by the objective study of history! Therefore, it is a self-serving escape from falsifiability and not even worth giving a moment of objective consideration.”

This would be a hasty conclusion. Firstly, the magisterial acts of the Catholic Church are within history. That right there would remove the force of that unfounded conclusion. Secondly, the abundance of historical documentation providing instances of proof where doctrine A or B was believed at C or D time is accidental from the substance of the transmission of authoritative doctrine. Thirdly, while it is true that the faith of the Catholic Church rests upon the call and ordination of the Apostles by Christ as continued through the Episcopal College, it still remains that there should be a concurrence between the content of the magisterial teaching of the Church throughout time and what was received by the majority of orthodox Christian society. However, this probabilistic and accidental reality does not form the ground of the veracity of the content of Christian faith. What do I mean? I mean that whatever the Church’s magisterium has taught throughout each century from the 1st should coincide with the doctrine held by the majority of the Saints, Doctors, and general populace of Christian society. But the point here is that there can be a great deal of wiggle room that allows for acceptable variances between particular authors of the Patristic past and the dogmatic tradition of the Catholic Church.

Now, the Protestant reader might then say, “So what? You just expect me to believe in the bodily assumption of Mary without sufficient grounds to do so? A sort of fideistic assent without scrutiny? That is absurd.”

No, that is not what the Catholic or the Orthodox is asking the Protestant skeptic to do. What we are asking the Protestant is to examine the case for the Apostolate of Jesus Christ as it is understood by Catholics and Orthodox. Secondly, locate the Apostolate that Jesus Christ created. And here, we would simply point to the Scriptures themselves which testify to the necessity of a College of Governance for the Christian Church that was created in such a way as to entail the necessity of an ongoing and visibly unitary government of teachers and disciplinarians that perpetuate the whole counsel of God.  We would ask the Protestant to locate that teaching ministry of Christ, literally the Magisterium of Jesus Christ. That is what we are asking. The visible Church militant governed by the Episcopal College, we argue, is the continuation of the authoritative ministry that began with Christ at the Jordan river subsequent to his triumph over Satan in the wilderness. The same Spirit that descended upon Jesus for the purpose of His mission is the Pentecostal Spirit that empowered the Church from the day of Pentecost and must animate the Church until the return of Christ. It is to the doctrine promulgated by this ministry that has divine sanction from God, whether or not we have the historical documentation to make an overwhelming case for that sanction.

Another consequence to this is that we would ask the Protestant to avoid investigating the merits of each and every single point of doctrine upheld by Catholicism or Orthodoxy prior to investigating the merits of the claims of Apostolic succession. We would ask the Protestant to look for the magisterial ministry of Jesus as perceived by Catholicism or Orthodoxy, and then re-orient the study of continuity based upon another paradigm that is not limited to an archaeological study that rids itself of the certain lights that the Catholic and Orthodox Church believes is provided for itself and no one else. Now, before we blurt out “fideism!” again, allow there to be a clarification. We realize this is not to be taken for granted, and so a case would be pending for the existence of this magisterial governance supposedly created by Jesus under the auspices of infallible protection. Nevertheless, that would be the first place to go in terms of making a persuasive case for a Protestant concerning Catholicism and Orthodoxy. For if it can be shown through Scripture itself that there needs to be a continuing magisterium, then a Protestant has no choice but to accept that or to reject Scripture altogether. So, the bottom line of this minor point is that there is a hierarchy of truths that should be investigated so that one’s assessment of the view of another is wholly fair to the respective dynamic of each group.

When the Protestant skeptic makes the above mistakes, it is no wonder that they find it simply dumbfounding that anyone could believe in the dogma of the = Assumption. If it were the case that this dogma rested on the questionable testimonies of the 4th and 5th centuries, then it would be unwise to believe in it, to say the least. It is not surprising, then, that the assumption of Mary is considered one of the most repugnant dogmas of the Catholic Church for Protestants. And so, I’d like to shift this document now to examine the historical record on the bodily assumption. Is it really the case that this belief can challenge the claims of continuity of the Catholic and Orthodox churches? Admittedly, history is quite concerning. Any Catholic, who is an objective thinker, can concede that it is a rather troubling that there are no more documents testifying to the Church’s acceptance of this teaching back to the first few centuries. Even though, as I have explained in the foregoing explanations, the founding support for the veracity of Catholic doctrine does not rest upon the accident of historical preponderance in the form of documents, it remains to be the case that a complete silence for centuries about a particular belief that is later declared to be a dogma of faith undoubtedly raises eye-brows. And that goes for anyone no matter what you think otherwise.

So, what can we say? We know that the Church expresses her belief in a variety of ways. One of the ways in which the apostolic deposit is known is to see what the whole body of baptized Catholics believe about a certain matter, both laity and cleric all the way up to the Apostolic See. The fundament here is that the Spirit inhabiting the people of God would not lead the whole body astray. Some Protestants might have this idea that Pope Pius XII delivered the ex-cathedra teaching on the Assumption of Mary simply out of whim and pleasure, as if it were something he felt he had the right to simply declare out of his own convictions. In fact, the impetus to get this doctrine declared as dogma precedes Pius XII by many years. Six years before Pius XII (Eugenio Maria Giuseppe Giovanni Pacelli) was born, the bishops at the 1st Vatican Council made a request to Pius IX in 1870 that the Virgin’s Assumption should be dogmatized. They argued that the holy Virgin triumphed over the ancient Serpent in conjunction with her Seed, Jesus Christ, and that this victory included victory over bodily corruption. Just like the new Adam was to be assumed into heaven, so also the new Eve should be likewise, in order to signify the joint victory over the serpent (c.f. The Vatican Council, Collectio Lacensis, VII, 860). It simply was not thinkable that the 2nd eve who shared in the mission with the 1st adam in not only undoing the sentence of death but paving the way to glory for her to be left to corrupt in the ground. From that time (1870) up to the year 1941, there had been requests sent into the Apostolic to declare the Assumption a dogma from “113 cardinals, over 300 archbishops and bishops, some 32,000 priests and brothers, 50,000 religious woman, and by more than 8, 000, 000 of the laity.” (Paul F. Palmer, S.J., Ph.D., Mary in the Documents of the Church (Westminster, MD: The Newman Press, 1952), 101). In 1946, Pius XII sent out a questionnaire to all the Bishops of the Catholic Church globally with the following question: “Do you, Venerable Brethren, in view of the wisdom and prudence that is yours, judge that the bodily Assumption of the most Blessed Virgin can be proposed and defined as a dogma of faith; and do you along with your clergy and people desire it?” We are told that the Catholic world, both clergy and laity, were unanimous in answering yes. In his Apostolic Constitution Munificentissimus Deus (1950), Pius XII appealed to the fact that this dogmatic utterance had been requested by the unanimous mind of the bishops, which is one of the indications that a doctrine is to be held as true. Pius XII says:

But those whom “the Holy Spirit has placed as bishops to rule the Church of God” gave an almost unanimous affirmative response to both these questions. This “outstanding agreement of the Catholic prelates and the faithful,” affirming that the bodily Assumption of God’s Mother into heaven can be defined as a dogma of faith, since it shows us the concordant teaching of the Church’s ordinary doctrinal authority and the concordant faith of the Christian people which the same doctrinal authority sustains and directs, thus by itself and in an entirely certain and infallible way, manifests this privilege as a truth revealed by God and contained in that divine deposit which Christ has delivered to his Spouse to be guarded faithfully and to be taught infallibly…. 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.

 One cannot fail to see that Pius XII is conscious of an ever-present providence, animation, and guidance of the Holy Spirit in the Church’s hierarchical government: the Episcopal College. An agreement that is unanimous amidst the bishops is a signature of the Holy Spirit, and thus a certain manifestation of the truth that is Apostolic. Now, there is no doubt that a Protestant skeptic will not accept this. Nevertheless, that Protestant skeptic should recognize that, per the rules and paradigms of authority in Catholic teaching, such a feature is  extremely revealing. Throughout the Constitution, Pius XII appeals to other signs such as the consensus of the faithful (para. 14), the Liturgical commemoration of the Virgin’s Assumption (para. 17), the special feast of the Roman Church (para. 19), the later Church Fathers such as St. Andrew of Crete and St. John of Damascus (para. 20), the typological witness from the Law and the Prophets (para. 25), the allusions in the New Testament (para. 27), and the office of the Mary as the 2nd Eve to the new glorified humanity.

We see then that Pius XII did not wake up one morning and decide to declare the Assumption a dogma because he felt like it. It had already been a unanimous consensus of the Catholic world for it to become a dogma. As we can see from his Constitution, Pius XII was deeply resting on centuries of historical witness going back at least to the universal practice of the Church in the 7th and 8th centuries. He was also resting on what he considered to be a fact: that the Spirit which inhabits the people of God will lead them into all truth. Since the Assumption was a universal confession, it was the signal for it to become a dogmatic pronouncement.

Besides this, there is a particular weight given to the liturgical solemnity of the Virgin’s Assumption. The history of this is quite informative. It was during the life of St. Juvenal (422-451) bishop of Jerusalem that we an institution of a festival in remembrance of the Theotokos (here and below I’m drawing from pages 263-265 of Andrew J. Ekonomou’s Byzantine Rome and the Greek Popes: Eastern Influences on Rome and the Papacy from Gregory the Great to Zacharias A.D. 590-752). At the latest, the 7th century figure Theoteknos created an “ecomium” on the Virgin Mary focused on her Assumption for the festival (Aug 15). These liturgical celebrations spread into monasteries all over the East, and eventually made their way to Constantinople and Rome. In 588, Byzantine Emperor Maurice officially adopted the feast of the Dormition. As for the West, the Churches of Gaul followed the liturgical practices of the Egyptian (Coptic) Church’s celebration which held Mary had a resurrection like Christ 216 after her death (Mark Marivalle, Mariology, 332). In the 7th century, writes Ekonomou, the East explodes with writings on the Dormition/Assumption. The same ended up flowering in the West with the Roman liturgy under the Pontificates of Pope Theodore I and Sergius I. According to well-known Mariologist Dr. Mark Marivalle, “Pope Sergius I (687-701) decreed that on the feast of the Dormition (as well as on the Annunciation and the Nativity of our Blessed Mother) there should be a procession from the Church of St. Adrian to the Church of St. Mary Major. Most likely it was this same pope who introduced the feast of the Dormition into the Roman Calendar. Pope Sergius was a Syrian by birth, and so well acquainted with the feast from his homeland. After Pope Sergius introduced the feast into Rome, thereafter it spread rapidly throughout Western Europe. The name of the feast was changed from Dormition to the Assumption of St. Mary in the eighth century, probably at the behest of Pope Hadrian I” (Mark Marivalle, Mariology, 332-333). Under the Pontificate of Pope Leo IV (847-55), the feast of the Assumption had a vigil and octave added to it (Donna Spivey Ellington, From Sacred Body to Angelic Soul, 104, fn. 4). And then, under Pope St. Nicholas I (858-867), it was declared that a fast should associate the feast of the Assumption which he said “the Holy Roman Church has received from antiquity and observes to this day” (Replies of Nicholas I to the Inquiries of the Bulgarians [Mansi, 15.403]; from Palmer, Mary in the Documents of the Church, 106).

None of this might sound very important to a Protestant, but Catholics and Orthodox look to the liturgy of the Church as her own prayer to God. What makes it into the liturgy is certainly a matter that shows it is held as a certain truth not to be questioned. It was not as if the feast was held as a questionable matter. It would simply have been unthinkable for the Church of the 7th and 8th centuries to think that feast days of the universal Church can be incorrect. Their consciousness of ecclesial infallibility and the supernatural animation of the Holy Spirit as manifested in the consensus of the body of Christ simply would not allow that.

The Protestant skeptic might look at this and say that a great many people were duped from incoherent and apocryphal legends. However, this might actually be an indication of another truth. Just because there are legendary stories that vary regarding to the end of the Virgin and her bodily assumption into heaven does not mean that the belief was hatched from these stories. It could very well have been the case that the general fact of the Virgin’s assumption is what spurred many folks to write about the manner in which it happened. We might compare this to the many flood stories. After all, there were also apocryphal works about Jesus and deeds we know that he did that match what is recorded in authentic sources. And seeing as there are different accounts, that might mean the general fact of the Virgin’s assumption was known far and wide, leaving it possible for eventual spurious accounts of it to emerge. This is a rather weak and minor observation.

Another point to bring out here is that, despite the origins of the Assumption of Mary being highly questionable from a historical point of view, the Churches of East and West never gave a serious instance of questioning the validity of the belief. If it was an innovation, where is the Episcopal protest against it? Are we to believe the 7th and 8th century Episcopal College to have just learned about the Assumption of Mary from strange Eastern sources whereupon they thrusted it into the Church’s solemn liturgy? That is very unlikely. What goes into the liturgy usually reflects what had always been believed. We saw above that Pope Nicholas saw the Assumption as an antique belief. What we are looking at here is a solemn and universal feast of the Virgin’s assumption accepted and promulgated as a liturgical action, a fast, a vigil, or an octave by the 9th century and remained so without serious Episcopal protest until the 16th century Reformation. Moreover, by the 18th and 20th centuries, the Catholic Church, rather than the Protestant Churches, continued the unanimous consensus of the belief in the Virgin’s bodily assumption, making its general belief recordable from the 7th century to the present day Catholic and Orthodox Church (that is 15 centuries).

And this gets to the crux of this article. From a Protestant lens, using the historicist archaeological method, the Assumption of Mary as a dogma is simply absurd. Full stop. Yet, from a Catholic/Orthodox lens, it is simply unthinkable to see it as a man made belief. Its unanimous acceptance is a sure sign of the Spirit’s seal. Now, that is not to suggest that the unanimous consent of the Church can create a new teaching. That is not what they held. They thought it went back to the beginning, as the Spirit cannot lead the Church astray. It would be the Protestant skeptic who would think it possible for the whole Church to go astray for several centuries. Such an idea, for Catholics/Orthodox, is not compatible with the nature of the New Testament’s teaching on the Church.

So it turns out, in fact, that the historical pedigree of the Virgin’s Assumption is not as baseless from history as one might think. And, if we compile all the thoughts hitherto delivered, then we also need to exclude the Protestant archaeologist methodology which tries to suppose that Catholicism and Orthodoxy are burdened by the absence and obscurity of the origin of this doctrine in the survived historical documentation. This is not a valid test given the Catholic Church’s own perception of her authoritative paradigm. Again, that does not mean the appeal to or study of history is superfluous. Certainly not! The study of history is most useful, and it must be the case that there should be an overall agreement between history and Catholic dogma. However, it is not beholden to the absence of evidence nor even the presence of contradictory data. The right of dogmatic utterance is traced to the breath of Christ upon the Apostles, not the ability to prove something from the documents of history. But as we saw, the Assumption of Mary is unanimous for 15 centuries and so passes the general test of history according with dogma.

It is also most certainly the case, given the ecclesiologies of those figures who might be brought up as a witness against the Virgin’s Assumption, such as Augustine, Epiphanius, and many others, that they would have realized that they too must hold the Assumption of the Virgin. Augustine held that the unanimous belief of the Church is a sign of truth since the very infallible Scripture speaks of the Church as the mystical Christ, both head and members (totus Christus). There is no question that if Augustine saw himself in a setting such as in the 8th century where the feast of the Assumption was universal or even at Rome in the 1940s when the millions of Catholics were showing their eagerness to dogmatize the Assumption, that Augustine would have yielded to the view of the Church. The same with Epiphanius and others. These men would not have seen the opportunity to create a new formation of the Church based on their dissent from the magisterium. And here is where many Protestant inquirers will do well to remember: the Fathers of the Church who could be recalled for a variety of items that go contrary to later Catholic dogma all held that they would submit to the voice of the Church if it came down to it at the end of the day. None of them exhibit the ecclesiology of “renewal” or “restoration” beyond the permission of the Episcopal governance of the Church.

There is a note to be taken in response to the scandal and amazement of many Protestants when looking into this belief in our Lady’s Assumption. It might be worth reconsidering what truly calls for more scandal or amazement. I am trying to say this gently and with compassion for the readers, and so please, Protestant reader, take this with the utmost respect. What calls for greater amazement? The dogmatization of something that has the pedigree of being a universal confession of faith in East and West (Rome, Byzantium, Coptic Egypt, Syria, and the Assyrian Church of the East) consistently for 1,000 years OR the renewal effort emerging from the 16th reforms that reject a massive portion of the what was held dogmatic by the unbroken consensus of Christian society for 15 centuries?  By “consensus” I mean the overwhelming majority of Christian society which recognized the magisterium was the final court on doctrine in faith or morals. This is not to say you can’t compile volumes of contrary beliefs amidst theologians and Church fathers. What I mean is that the moral majority of these Saints and Doctors all held the Church’s magisterium, and the Roman Pontiff in particular, to be the final court on matters of doctrine. But what about the separated Eastern Churches that did not recognize the authority of the Apostolic See? Well, their example only proves more in the case of our Lady’s Assumption, and that is because the Oriental Orthodox and the Byzantine Orthodox accept, dogmatically, the Assumption of our Lady bodily into heaven. That means that the belief pre-dates the separations of these Churches, manifesting their uncontroversial acceptance universally prior to the arise of schisms.

Finally, this discussion might deserve a calibration by briefly taking the critical fire off the dogma of the Assumption and turning the same fire to Protestantism. The Protestant gathers some force to his arguments and objections against the Catholic/Orthodox dictum, “God will not allow his visible Church to turn away from authoritatively proclaiming the true faith.” To the Protestant, this looks like an unfounded fideistic a priori presupposition that is artificially created in order to suit the overall system of Catholic doctrine. One could, of course, turn this around and say the same thing to the Protestant who has replaced this unfounded a priori presupposition with, “Well, God would not allow the Scripture to be so difficult to understand such that plain reason and minimal intelligence cannot deduce from it the necessary means of salvation.” In other words, the Protestant sees the historical problems with continuity in the Catholic claims and thinks that sola scriptura is the safe harbor that we all fall back to (as Trent Horn has recently described).

However, the lack of clarity in the Scripture as to meaning has always been an impetus for the recognition that the Church must have the authority to interpret the Scriptures infallibly. To this the Protestants have created the concept of the perspicuity of Scripture in order to accommodate the for the practical success of Christ’s project. However, upon what is the perspicuity of Scripture based? If it is anything but theory, then I’m still seeking to find the answer. The history of Protestantism does not show the perspicuity of Scripture. That doctrine is also called into question in theory, however. For instance, let us consider an example of a moral leader within Protestantism who knows New Testament ecclesiology. Let’s call him Richard Hooker or John Calvin. If Hooker or Calvin were with us today, either in Kent or Geneva, what would they recommend global Christianity to do in order to manage itself both theologically and ecclesiologically? Could either of these men give us a blueprint which might work? We don’t even need to answer this question. Just thinking of the question is enough to realize how utterly unworkable it is for either of these great thinking men to establish a Church for the global society of Christians because their theories were already put to the test for hundreds of years now, and we can see the Protestant world is not thriving off the classical Protestant confessions. These are all revisable, renewable, and subject to the overturning. In theory, the next 600 years of Protestant thinking might yield something drastically different than what either the Reformers or contemporary Protestant thought has developed altogether. This kind of potency is cooked into the interpretative paradigm. In contrast to this, Catholicism and Orthodoxy does not believe the Church can undergo that kind of revolution without completely manifesting the failure of Christ’s missional project in being the Light of the World through His Church until the end of time.

The 2nd a priori dictum from this has been to re-size the “essentials” every now and then in order to accommodate for the paralyzing diversity between Protestant communities, so as to make sure they retain their assemblage under the umbrella of “Christian”. But, once again, this comes across as an artificial presupposition that doesn’t appear convincing to Catholic or Orthodox thinkers. How can the essentials be re-sized over and over again to accommodate the nausea of Protestant disunity? It simply comes across as artificial, just like the Catholic explanations of why the Assumption dogma is justified comes across as artificial to the Protestant.

The last consequence of the Protestant paradigm is that they have to be open to admitting that communities who believe such things as the bodily Assumption of Mary, her immaculate conception, the sinlessness of Mary, Eucharistic transubstantiation, a propitiatory sacrifice renewed in every Mass, the Papacy, etc., etc., can all be sincere, true, and heaven-bound Christians. Those Protestants who admit the Church has existed throughout centuries prior to the 16th will have no other choice but to admit that the Holy Spirit was administrating the Church whilst the majority of the Churches were under these kinds of beliefs. A strong conviction of these kinds of beliefs , de facto, has to be consistent with the authentic spiritual life. And, in that case, we don’t really need to lose sleep over the critiques coming from these kinds of Protestant skeptics.

In any case, there is so much more to say on this topic, but so little space and time. Lest I leave the reader completely dying of thirst from reading this, I do think that the best way towards a solution is for a fresh study of the New Testament on whether the Protestant vision of the Lord’s plan for His Church actually fits with the prophetic teaching of Christ Himself on that subject. Protestants, Catholics, and Orthodox (Byzantine/Oriental) all hold to the New Testament. It would therefore be useful to go back to the issue of whether there Christ has a Magisterial Office which continued onward. If not, then we have the first step towards justifying a Protestant doctrine of ecclesiology. If yes, then Protestants will have to give serious thought to their critiques of Catholicism on scientific/archaeological grounds as well as review their own paradigms of authority.

5 thoughts on “The Dogmatization of the Bodily Assumption of Mary and the Appeal to History: A Brief Introduction to the Interpretative Differences between the Apostolic Churches and Protestant Skeptics

  1. This article so nicely captures some of the major things that have attracted me to Catholicism as well as things I’ve struggled with. On the one hand, it seems so odd that there is such an absence of attestation to the assumption doctrine. Yet, on the other hand, a historical-grammatical interpretative paradigm seems super problematic, in that all doctrines become based on evidential probabilities. Nice work Erick 🙂 Would be interested to know how the former was a challenge for you in converting.

  2. Erick, I am leaving a comment about the recent Orthodox Ethos video on Catholicism. I am wondering if you’ve had a chance to see it. Are you interested in making a response to it? Thank you so much for everything you do.

  3. Pingback: Magisterium & History: Friends or Foes? – Answering a Protestant Critic | Erick Ybarra

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