Mary’s Assumption: Patristic Analogy to Protestant Distinctives

Mary’s Assumption: Patristic Analogy to Protestant Distinctives August 15, 2020

Protestant anti-Catholic apologist Jason Engwer wrote the post, “Early Ignorance Of The Assumption Of Mary” (8-15-20). His words will be in blue below. Then I will make two arguments from analogy.

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Today is the Feast of the Assumption, commemorating Mary’s alleged bodily assumption to heaven. There’s a significant line of evidence that’s seldom discussed that suggests the early Christians had no concept of an assumption of Mary. Many early patristic sources cite Enoch, Elijah, and Paul as examples of people who didn’t die, were translated to heaven, etc., yet they never say any such thing about Mary or include her as an example [extensive patristic citations then provided] . . . Irenaeus, for instance, writes about the power of God to deliver people from death, and he cites Enoch, Elijah, and Paul (2 Corinthians 12:2) as illustrations of people who were “assumed” and “translated”, but he says nothing of Mary (Against Heresies, 5:5). How likely is it that all of these sources, commenting in so many different contexts, would all refrain from mentioning Mary’s assumption, even though they knew of it? They’re sometimes describing Christian beliefs in general, not just their own, which makes their failure to mention Mary even more significant. If these early Christians held as high a view of Mary as Roman Catholicism does, or even close to so high a view, you’d expect them to cite her more than anybody else. Instead, they don’t cite her at all.

Many patristic sources highly praise Scripture as God’s Word and provide extensive biblical texts in favor of the Christian doctrines that they defend. But no early patristic source says anything about the definition and exact nature of sola Scriptura as the rule of faith [as provided by, e.g., James White, Normal Geisler, and Keith Mathison*]. Yet this is the Protestant rule of faith, and entire basis of its self-understood authority. How likely is it that all of these sources, commenting in so many different contexts, would all refrain from mentioning the definition and exact nature of sola Scriptura as the rule of faith, even though they [so we are told, supposedly] knew of it, and believed it? If these early Christians held to sola Scriptura as the rule of faith as present-day Protestants do, or even close to so high a view, you’d expect them to cite its definition quite prominently. Instead, they don’t mention it at all.

[* Jason provides a slightly different and more succinct definition of sola Scriptura in a Facebook post from 5-12-20: “Sola scriptura could be explained in summary form by saying that scripture alone is our rule of faith. Or you could expand upon it by saying that scripture is the only special, public revelation that’s extant.”]

No early patristic source provides the complete list of the New Testament biblical canon until St. Athanasius in 367. Yet this is part and parcel of the Protestant rule of faith, sola Scriptura, [one can’t grant the Bible alone sole infallible authority unless one knows exactly what it is] and entire basis of its self-understood authority. How likely is it that all of these sources, commenting in so many different contexts, would all refrain [prior to 367] from mentioning the exact parameters of the canon of the New Testament, even though they [so we are told, supposedly] knew of it? If these early Christians held to the 27-book New Testament canon, as present-day Protestants do, or even close to such a view, you’d expect them to mention this quite prominently. Instead, they don’t mention it at all. And several of these fathers included books in the New Testament canon that no Christian today includes.

I made further such analogical arguments in a long article explaining my conversion to Catholicism, citing Cardinal Newman and his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine:

Newman proceeded to make brilliant specific analogies in order to bring home his point. The first had to do with the doctrine of purgatory, vis-a-vis the doctrine of original sin, which is, of course, accepted by Protestants as well:
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Some notion of suffering, or disadvantage, or punishment after this life, in the case of the faithful departed, or other vague forms of the doctrine of Purgatory, has in its favour almost a consensus of the first four ages of the Church. (16)

Newman then recounts no less than sixteen Fathers who hold the view in some form. But in comparing this consensus to the doctrine of original sin, we find a disjunction:
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No one will say that there is a testimony of the Fathers, equally strong, for the doctrine of Original Sin. (17) In spite of the forcible teaching of St. Paul on the subject, the doctrine of Original Sin appears neither in the Apostles’ nor the Nicene Creed. (18)

This is a crucial distinction. It is a serious problem for Protestantism that it by and large inconsistently rejects doctrines which have a consensus in the early Church, such as purgatory, the (still developing) papacy, bishops, the Real Presence, regenerative infant baptism, apostolic succession, and intercession of the saints, while accepting others with far less explicit early sanction, such as original sin. Even many of their own foundational and distinctive doctrines, such as the notion of Faith Alone (sola fide), or imputed, extrinsic, forensic justification, are well-nigh nonexistent all through Church history until Luther’s arrival on the scene, as, for example, prominent Protestant apologist Norman Geisler recently freely admitted:
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[T]hese valuable insights into the doctrine of justification had been largely lost throughout much of Christian history, and it was the Reformers who recovered this biblical truth . . .During the patristic, and especially the later medieval periods, forensic justification was largely lost . . . Still, the theological formulations of such figures as Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas did not preclude a rediscovery of this judicial element in the Pauline doctrine of justification . . .

[O]ne can be saved without believing that imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) is an essential part of the true gospel. Otherwise, few people were saved between the time of the apostle Paul and the Reformation, since scarcely anyone taught imputed righteousness (or forensic justification) during that period! (19)

On the other hand, Protestants clearly accept developing doctrine on several fronts: the Canon of the New Testament is a clear example of such a (technically “non-biblical”) doctrine It wasn’t finalized until 397 A.D. The divinity of Christ was dogmatically proclaimed only at the “late” date of 325, the fully worked-out doctrine of the Holy Trinity in 381, and the Two Natures of Christ (God and Man) in 451, all in Ecumenical Councils which are accepted by most Protestants. So development is an unavoidable fact for both Protestants and Catholics.

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The trick for Protestants (granting Church history an important and legitimate role, whether it is considered normative and authoritative or not), is to determine a non-arbitrary rationale for accepting some doctrines while rejecting others. It will not do to simply say that certain doctrines are “unbiblical” and thus unworthy of Protestant allegiance, since it must immediately be explained why the majority of early Christians believed in them, and why beliefs such as the Canon of the New Testament and Scripture Alone are adopted despite the absence of biblical rationale, or why (chances are) many other strands of Protestantism disagree with the one making the claim, when Scripture is allegedly so “clear” and able to be interpreted in the main without difficulty by the layman.
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Newman writes, regarding the New Testament Canon:
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As regards the New Testament, Catholics and Protestants receive the same books as canonical and inspired; yet . . . the degrees of evidence are very various for one book and another . . . For instance, as to the Epistle of St. James . . . Origen, in the third century, is the first writer who distinctly mentions it among the Greeks and it is not quoted by name by any Latin till the fourth . . . Again: The Epistle to the Hebrews, though received in the East, was not received in the Latin Churches till St. Jerome’s time . . . Again, St. Jerome tells us, that in his day, towards A.D. 400, the Greek Church rejected the Apocalypse, but the Latin received it. Again: The New Testament consists of twenty-seven books . . . Of these, fourteen are not mentioned at all till from eighty to one hundred years after St. John’s death, in which number are the Acts, 2nd Corinthians, Galatians, Colossians, 1st and 2nd Thessalonians, and James. Of the other thirteen, five, viz. St. John’s Gospel, Philippians, 1st Timothy, Hebrews, and 1st John, are quoted but by one writer during the same period. On what ground, then, do we receive the Canon as it comes to us, but on the authority of the Church of the fourth and fifth centuries? . . . The fifth century acts as a comment on the obscure text of the centuries before it. (20)

FOOTNOTES

16. St. John Henry Cardinal Newman, An Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine: edition published by the University of Notre Dame Press, 1989, with a foreword by Ian Ker, from the 1878 edition of the original work of 1845; p. 21.
17. Ibid., p. 21.
18. Ibid., p. 23.
19. Norman L. Geisler and Ralph E. MacKenzie, Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, Grand Rapids, Michigan: Baker Books, 1995,  pp. 247-248, 503.
20. Newman, Essay, pp. 123-126.

In another paper of mine, I deal with many such instances of Protestant distinctives (as well as both Protestant and Catholic terminology) that never appear in the Bible:

[T]he New Testament never mentions an “altar call”. It never has the typical “sinner’s prayer” of evangelicals. It doesn’t mention church buildings. It never uses the word “Trinity.” It never uses the frequently mentioned evangelical terminology of “personal relationship with Jesus.” . . . 

Other beliefs or practices not explicitly mentioned in the Bible are Bible studies, separating young people during church services, and grape juice as an element to be consecrated for communion (rather than wine), “asking Jesus into one’s heart,” a “body of believers,” Scripture interpreting Scripture (the more clear helping to understand the less clear), agreeing on “essential” or “primary” doctrines and permitted relativism regarding “non-essential” or “secondary” doctrines, denominations (vs. the biblical “one Church”). Of course, this very idea that one must find explicit biblical proof for every doctrine or it can’t / mustn’t be believed (even with high selectivity or rank inconsistency) is not found in the Bible anywhere, either. It’s (irony of all ironies!) a mere tradition of men.

Some popular Protestant (and also often Catholic) words or phrases  that do not appear in the Bible are raptureinvisible church, incarnationvirgin birth, holy communionLord’s prayerBibleoriginal sinfall of mantheologygo[ing] to churchgrace alone[total] depravityunconditional electionlimited atonementirresistible graceperseverance of the saintsspiritualityScripture alone, pray for guidancepray for directionspiritual warfare, and sin natureFaith alone only appears once:

James 2:24 [RSV] You see that a man is justified by works and not by faith alone.

Protestants manage to believe all these things (or use these words) with no problem whatever. Why? Or, more specifically, why do they believe these things, which are absent from or non-explicit in the Bible, while giving Catholics misery for similar things, or else doctrines and practices with far more indication of various sorts than the things above, that Protestants accept? Why the double standard? Or is it just that the Protestants who sling these sorts of “arguments” about never think about them very deeply, or have never met a Catholic who can show that they are very weak arguments indeed?

That noted, I provide many articles that deal with the question of the alleged total “absence” of the Assumption of Mary from Holy Scripture. Again, I reiterate that there is more about Mary’s Assumption in Scripture than there is about the biblical canon and the definition and exact nature of sola Scriptura: that is, nothing at all in both cases; zip, zero, zilch.

Defending Mary (Revelation 12 & Her Assumption) [5-28-12]

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I don’t think the Assumption is biblically implausible in the least. All it’s saying is that Mary received her resurrected body first among the saints (all of whom will eventually do the same thing). The mother of Jesus our Lord and Savior didn’t have to undergo the decay of death.

The dogma doesn’t even require us to believe that she didn’t die (and I personally believe that she did, and this seems to be the consensus position). What in the world is implausible or objectionable about that? It’s not explicit in the Bible, but neither are many doctrines (as I argued and explained in many ways above), so that is not a “dealbreaker” at all.

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I posted notice of this reply on Triablogue, where Jason’s article was posted, but I am banned there, so it was deleted. Then I went over to his Facebook page and let him know I wrote it (which in most circles is regarded as rudimentary courtesy), along with a notice of my previous reply to one of his papers and mention of nine such replies  altogether since May. Here was his reply there:

Dave Armstrong posted a couple of links here. I’ve deleted both. One wasn’t relevant to the thread, and the other article links some posts he wrote on the assumption of Mary, but doesn’t interact with my argument . . . He does respond to some views held by Protestants on everything from the canon of scripture to imputed righteousness to altar calls to whether grape juice should be used in communion. Some of the beliefs he brings up are ones that I don’t hold, which makes his discussion even more irrelevant to my position.

Do you not want to be informed anymore when I respond to one of your articles? That’s what the second one was. I would say it is Christian courtesy. Many Protestants have a very dim understanding of how analogical argument works. I’m truly surprised that you are among them.

You’ve sometimes informed me when you’ve written a response to me and sometimes haven’t. Lately, until today, you had been sending me emails, but you posted a link in a Facebook thread on another topic this time. You don’t need to inform me when you write a response. 

I won’t bother anymore, then. Thanks for clarifying.

[Gene Bridges: an anti-Catholic polemicist I hadn’t heard from in a long time, then chimed in]

Still incapable of making a biblical argument for the Assumption of Mary, I see.

Of course, in the paper I linked to no less than nine papers regarding the Assumption and the Bible. I have always said there wasn’t much in the Bible about it (though there is some), but no biggie. The Bible never claims that this is a requirement, and sola Scriptura is completely absent from it, as is the canon, and almost (excepting just a very few passages), also the virgin birth and original sin.

Glad to hear you are still alive!

In other words, there is no biblical foundation for your heresy that doesn’t require supplemental material from you. I hope your sins find you out. You really are a second rate [sic]. May the efficacy of your baptism not be recognized in heaven. Seriously, you are admitting to working with an arbitrary epistemic warrant now. Well done! May Steve Hays [recently deceased colleague of his] laugh when you are in the judgment. Psalm 2 says God mocks His enemies. You know that, right?

You are a rare specimen of saintly Christian love, Gene.

All I hear when you write is false piety. Loving your enemies does not require irenic behavior. The Bible is full of taunt songs directed at people like you.

All I hear when you write is the loveless, blind Pharisees. 

I am not the one putting traditions of men over the Scriptures themselves like the Pharisees. You are the Pharisee here. 9 papers full of unbiblical Rigamorole to justify heresy. All I hear is witchcraft when you speak, Hymaneus Alexander ben apostasy ben heresy ben Revelation 17 ben dry bones ben picayune.

You always were a very colorful writer. Thanks for the entertainment.

You were always a hypocrite and heretic. This is hilarious. It’s been over a decade, and all I have to do to mock you is goad you into a reply.

The Lord is laughing at you, having seen this day coming. It won’t be long until Kim Jong Un here goes on another angry rant. Maybe he will sit down and churn out some Rigamorole to add to his grimoire – I mean apologetics page.

1 Timothy 2:1-4 (RSV) First of all, then, I urge that supplications, prayers, intercessions, and thanksgivings be made for all men, [2] for kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life, godly and respectful in every way. [3] This is good, and it is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, [4] who desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.

Matthew 23:37 “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, killing the prophets and stoning those who are sent to you! How often would I have gathered your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings, and you would not!”

1 Peter 2:17 Honor all men. Love the brotherhood. Fear God. Honor the emperor.

Matthew 5:11-12 “Blessed are you when men revile you and persecute you and utter all kinds of evil against you falsely on my account. [12] Rejoice and be glad, for your reward is great in heaven, for so men persecuted the prophets who were before you.”

Thanks for the abundant blessings, Gene! May God bless you with all good things, and open your eyes. He will, if you allow Him to.

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Photo credit: St. John Henry Cardinal Newman in 1879 [public domain]

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