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Debate on Mary’s Assumption & the Bible

Debate on Mary’s Assumption & the Bible November 17, 2020

vs. Matt Slick

 

This is a reply to Matt Slick: Presbyterian pastor and head of the large and influential anti-Catholic Protestant CARM discussion forum. I am responding to his article, “The Bodily Assumption of Mary.” His words will be in blue.

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For such a supremely important dogma of the Church that must be believed to be a faithful Christian, one would think that it would be found in God’s Inspired Word, the Bible.  But, it is not.  There isn’t a single mention in God’s word.  The Vatican admits as much: “the New Testament does not explicitly affirm Mary’s Assumption,” (General Audience, # 3, Pope John Paul II)

So, if it isn’t in the Bible, where did the Roman Catholic church get this teaching?

Pastor Slick claims that the Assumption is totally absent from Scripture. Then he quotes Pope st. John Paul II saying that it’s not “explicitly” in the Bible. These are, of course, two different things. After citing that, he goes right back to saying “it isn’t in the Bible.” This is shoddy and dishonest research: scandalous for a man of the cloth.

His own Reformed Protestant (Calvinist) tradition — and indeed other Protestant traditions —  draw the same distinction between implicit and explicit biblical teachings. The Westminster Confession of Faith (held by all or virtually all Reformed Protestants) states in 1:6:

The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for his own glory, man’s salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. Nevertheless, we acknowledge the inward illumination of the Spirit of God to be necessary for the saving understanding of such things as are revealed in the Word: and that there are some circumstances concerning the worship of God, and government of the church, common to human actions and societies, which are to be ordered by the light of nature, and Christian prudence, according to the general rules of the Word, which are always to be observed. (my italicized emphases)

Jeffrey Waddington, in his article, “Confession and Theology: Explicit and Implicit Scriptural Teaching” (Place for Truth, 6-22-16) elaborates:

Scripture is authoritative in what it expressly sets down and what can be deduced by good and necessary consequence. That is not to say that everything we think we can deduce from Scripture is authoritative but that what is deduced by good and necessary consequence is. We will have to build arguments to defend our understandings of Scripture and we will have to persuade the church. We will have to unpack our logic and the texts that come together to form the bedrock of our hermeneutical convictions. Maybe it would be nice if we had a proof text for everything. But I suspect not because God has chosen to give implicit authoritative teaching in the Bible. . . .

[W]e need to reckon with the fact that what the Bible teaches explicitly and implicitly is God’s Word. Period. End of discussion.

A version of this argument that I often use is to ask, “where in the Bible does it say that all true doctrines must be explicitly stated in Scripture?” There is no such passage. Therefore, to require this is to appeal to an unbiblical tradition and not to Scripture itself. How ironic! But as I just showed, most Protestants recognize the distinction between explicit and implicit biblical teaching.

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”). . . .

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?

Another argument I use is to challenge Protestants to show us where their fundamental doctrine of sola Scriptura is explicitly stated in Scripture. It’s not, and more sophisticated Protestants will readily acknowledge this and argue that it is, nevertheless, able to be deduced from several other Scriptures. I disagree with the latter contention, too, but it is a position stated by many respectable, renowned Protestant apologists and theologians. The full doctrine, as stated by its most zealous Protestant adherents, is that Scripture is the only supreme and infallible authority for Christian doctrine [which excludes the infallibility and binding authority of Church and tradition].”

The other example I give is the canonicity of biblical books. This is definitely not stated in the Bible itself, at all: not even implicitly. Yet Protestants believe in a 66-book canon (excluding seven deuterocanonical books that Catholics accept). Why? Well, they make various arguments about apostolicity, etc., but the fact remains that they had to accept authoritative apostolic tradition and Church proclamations in order to get to that point: in other words: principles of authority and the rule of faith that are expressly contradictory to sola Scriptura.

Catholic arguments for the bodily Assumption of Mary are of the same nature. We have no objection to authoritative tradition and an authoritative Church, so we are not — like Protestants — internally contradictory in our arguments for the Assumption. I have made several biblical arguments for it, that are implicit, deductive, and/or arguments from analogy:

Mary’s Bodily Assumption: Eleven Related Bible Passages [2009]

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

Is Mary’s Assumption Able to be Inferred from Scripture Alone? [8-14-15]

Bible on Mary’s Assumption [2015]

One argument I make (in a nutshell) is that Mary’s Immaculate Conception is able to be established from Scripture alone, on the basis of Luke 1:28 and the deeper meaning of “full of grace” and other passages on grace and its antithesis to sin. If that is established, then it would follow that Mary would not undergo decay after death, since this comes about through sin. It follows that she could be instantly resurrected, by God’s will.

She is simply the first of all of the saved and elect persons who will be resurrected or “raised” (see a host of New Testament passages on that; notably, 1 Corinthians ch. 15). Catholics contend: “who better to be the first to be raised, than the mother of Jesus: God the Son?” Tradition has determined that it was plausible and fitting for this to occur. It may not be explicit in Scripture, but it is harmonious with it, and contradicts nothing in it. Mary was simply the first Christian to be resurrected.

We also find analogies to such a thing in, for example, Enoch and Elijah being taken immediately to heaven.

Because the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary is not found in the Bible, it must be derived from what Roman Catholicism calls Sacred Tradition–the oral tradition handed down from the apostles that is equal in authority to the Bible.  Unfortunately, the first few hundred years of “tradition” make no mention whatsoever of the bodily assumption of Mary.  In fact, we find contradictory evidence in Early Church Tradition.

Again, Protestants themselves have no problem in holding doctrines that are not explicitly biblical (sola Scriptura), or not biblical at all (the canon of the biblical books), so why do they give us a hard time about the Assumption? It’s a double standard. Many doctrines that they hold were not readily apparent, and far from the consensus of the early Church and the Church fathers:

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.

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.

Obviously, such a dogma, such an all-important essential of the Christian church, would have been mentioned by at least some of the Church Fathers within the first few centuries.  But, it wasn’t.  Why?  Because it wasn’t taught, and it is not a true doctrine of Christianity.

Obviously, sola Scriptura and the canon of the biblical books, such all-important essentials of the Christian church, would have been mentioned by at least some of the Church Fathers within the first few centuries.  But, they weren’t.  Why?  Because they weren’t taught, and they are not  true doctrines of Christianity.

See how the “reasoning” works when applied to things that Protestants believe, too? If they reject the latter, then they ought to reject the silly and insubstantial arguments against Mary’s Assumption. Going down this road only raises innumerable difficulties for them, that they don’t want to grapple with (believe me, I know this firsthand, from thirty years of apologetics / theological dialogues with Protestants).

If Mary was sinless, why did she die?

I guess for the same reason that Jesus was sinless, yet died. If one is believed, then it is plausible or permissible or “fitting” to believe the latter as well.

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Photo credit: The Assumption of the Virgin, by Charles Le Brun (1619-1690) [public domain / Wikimedia Commons]

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