A Protestant Reader Grappling with Mary Writes:

A Protestant Reader Grappling with Mary Writes: January 31, 2014

I was recently reading your three books on Mary, Mother of the Son.

Having a non-catholic background, being married to a catholic and raising our 5 children together, the issue of Mary has constantly troubled me.  Fortunately, my wife and I share common beliefs in terms of our faith on the vast majority of matters; however the position of Mary in the Christian Church remains once of constant disagreement.

I thought reading your books may address some of the concerns I have held.

While I found many aspects of your books compelling, such as your examination of the claim that Mary did not have children with Joseph after Jesus was born, I was disappointed with the lack of rigour given to proving the claims made by the catholic church about (1) Mary being without sin and (2) Mary’s assumption into Heaven.

On your approach to the claim of Mary being without sin, I found your attempted justification as to the validity of this claim through references to biblical passages in Luke, Romans and Psalms to be lacking.  Surely a claim of such magnitude requires extremely robust evidence to prove it is true or else it must be considered unproven and therefore likely to be untrue?   I found an interesting article in the link below which examines the catholic church’s claim of Mary being sinless and also addresses your dealing with this matter in your books:  http://aristophrenium.com/fisher/was-mary-sinless/

On your approach to the claim of Mary’s assumption into Heaven, it seemed to me that your “evidence” for this claim being true resides in the fact that there is nothing in the Bible to disprove it from having occurred.  Anyone with a sound mind would recognise the weakness of this position.  Intimating that something is or even could be true without strong evidence to demonstrate this being the case is the basis for a highly unsound argument.  As an example, many people claim that aliens are real and some even claim to have seen UFOs or to have been abducted by aliens.  There is nothing to disprove their claims; however most people would not actually believe their claims on the basis of a lack of compelling evidence.

Regrettably, on these two claims about Mary I was left believing that rather than searching for truth, you were simply trying to justify (albeit weakly) the unsubstantiated claims made by the catholic church.  In reality, this adds no weight to the validity of the claims and for most intelligent people, creates a lasting impression that they are in fact likely to be untrue.

I would greatly appreciate your considered response to these matters.

Thanking you in advance.

You’ve forgotten the point of Volume 1, Chapter 4.  The burden is not on the Church to prove its doctrine from Scripture.  That’s sola scriptura, which the Church does not and never has believed.  Rather, the burden is on the critic of the Church’s teaching to show that her doctrine is contrary to the teaching of scripture.  Neither the Immaculate Conception nor the Assumption are contrary to Scripture and both have abundant attestation in the Tradition.

Until you have really internalized that the teaching of the apostles is handed down by Tradition both written and unwritten (2 Thess 2:15) you will continue to make the mistake of assuming that all Christian doctrine is *derived from* and not simply *reflected by* the text of Scripture.  If you like, I can send you a couple of books that address this more fully.  One is called By What Authority?: An Evangelical Discovers Catholic Tradition and Making Senses Out of Scripture: Reading the Bible as the First Christians Did.

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  • capaxdei

    I wonder about this statement: “Fortunately, my wife and I share common beliefs in terms of our faith on
    the vast majority of matters; however the position of Mary in the
    Christian Church remains once of constant disagreement.”

    That the Catholic Church is the Church founded by Jesus is a prior truth than that Mary was conceived without sin. That the Eucharist is the Body, Blood, Soul, and Divinity of Jesus is a more central and much greater truth.

    If the writer doesn’t share his wife’s beliefs on these and similar primary matters — assuming she believes what the Church teaches — then of course he won’t get anywhere noodling the Marian dogmas about. That’s like trying to chop down a tree by taking a hand drill to the trunk.

  • HornOrSilk

    I believe there is a great deal of Scripture which points to the Assumption of Mary, especially the sign in heaven of the Apocalypse. However, it is easy to reject such readings if one is not predisposed to accept the Assumption — that’s the problem, Scripture without any authority can be interpreted so many ways, it really is impossible to prove anything with Scripture alone.

    Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book: http://www.svspress.com/on-the-dormition-of-mary/ It’s early homilies on the death and assumption of Mary, showing how the earliest writers understood it, and as such, should help see the Scriptural connection if one wants to see them

  • Obpoet

    I would also have to add that documentation of where Tradition supports the Assumption is tenuous and late at best. What IS the earliest reference we have to this?

    • HornOrSilk

      It’s somewhat difficult to know the earliest reference, because what we have, is not the full library of the ante-Nicene world. We know discussion on the topic is found in the 4th century, however, that doesn’t mean it came out of the fourth century. As I pointed out, the Apocalypse with the Sign in Heaven, by its existence, is an indication of the Assumption in Scripture . Mary is shown in heaven — assumption shown. The meaning of it, like much of Scripture, took time to fully appreciate, but that is a different story.

      • Obpoet

        Yes, but what is the earliest reference? Does anyone have a citation for that?

        • HornOrSilk

          http://ukcatalogue.oup.com/product/9780199210749.do this has the earliest known text to remain, which is an Ethiopian Translation from a 4th or possibly 3rd century text on this subject: Liber Requiei Mariae.

          • Obpoet

            Not the primary source citation. Does anyone have that?

            • HornOrSilk

              That is the primary source, it has it in the text. Which is why I recommended you get it.

              • Obpoet

                I will have to check my library. That is a pretty penny.

                I think many will look at the time gap between her assumption and the first recorded comment on it and struggle with the size of the gap. I’ve heard others say the first reference comes some 500 years later. This is not well documented in Mark’s 3 volume set. Perhaps he will add it later.

  • kev

    I’ve read many Catholic apologetics books over the last 14 years or so, and I must say that “By What Authority” is probably the best of them all, in my opinion. It explains the relationship between the Church and its Sacred Tradition–both oral and written (Scripture)–in a very lucid way, and offers the reader the foundational understanding of divine revelation that is essential to understanding Christianity. Right now I’m working on a dissertation that involves looking at the dissolution of authority during the protestant reformation–how it went from a universal, Catholic arbiter of belief (the pope) to a less universal, and more nationalized judge (the king–Henry VIII), and finally to an individual level (the individual, sectarianism)–and I’ve found Shea’s book very helpful in my thinking on these matters.

  • To ask whether (to what degree, in which sense) some catholic doctrine is rooted in the Bible is always a valid and important question for any christian, catholic or not. And this one is a good example. However, given your circumstances, given that you are struggling with “the issue of Mary”, I’m afraid that you ‘re taking a wrong approach. If you are conscious of not sharing the catholic marian devotion (how catholics regard Mary in our spiritual life) it makes sense that you ask yourself if you should embrace that – up to some point. But you can’t suppose that to reach there you should first take each catholic marian affirmation, in isolation, and bring it to some trial – (can this be proved or disproved from the Bible? if none, where is the burden of the proof?), and after then, eventually, if they pass the test, you’ll accept Mary. One doesn’t first “removes concerns” and afterwards embraces (though each thing can help, and each man has its ways). I think it rather works the other way.
    It’s neither the case that you first accept the authority of the catholic Church, and then you’ll believe blindly anything She teaches (I hope you don’t read Mark’s answer in that light) Our belief in Mary is not a consequence (something that comes after, as a deduction) of our belief in the catholic Church. In some broad (but not vague) sense, it’s the same belief: our differences (catholic vs protestant) in ecclesiology are somewhat mirrored in our differences in mariology, it all goes together, and it’s the full thing that that one embraces or rejects.
    Henri de Lubac says this better in the last chapter of “The Splendor of the Church”: http://goo.gl/bbX4bK

  • Bill

    I’ve always wondered why the Blessed Mother and the Saints presented such a hard time, more so than I would think more difficult dogmas like the True Presence.

    I’ve felt that it’s two things. 1. a really low Christology that emphasizes Christ as our brother, rather than God the Son. So human mediators become superfluous. Christ’s Humanity dominates; it’s the exact opposite not of Latin Catholicism, but Eastern Catholicism/Orthodoxy (that’s why the East gave us a lot of heresies, but not Protestantism… low Christology was weeded out). Protestantism is really a rejection first and foremost of the Sacrificial nature of the Mass, which is still an emphasis on Christ’s Humanity, rather than His Divinity.

    2. A latent misogyny that exists. Protestantism rejected the frilly and “unmanly” Catholicism.

    • Rosemarie


      I agree about the “low Christology” playing a role. Our separated brethren sometimes say that, in Catholicism Mary “overshadows” Jesus. Anyone who thinks that a mere human can possibly “overshadow” God Incarnate must not have a high enough understanding of Him.

      I think one reason why Evangelicals looking into Catholicism may have a hard time with Mary and the Saints is fear of breaking the first commandment. While I was in it, Evangelicalism really drilled into me a fear of “Mariolatry.” After returning to the Church, it took me two years before I could fully embrace Marian devotion. When that happened, it became obvious to me that there’s no way a Catholic could replace Our Lord with Blessed Mother and remain Catholic. Mary is meaningless apart from Christ. All her prerogatives are dependent upon Him and her unique relationship to Him. Trying to put her “above” Him would obliterate that relationship, thus stripping away those prerogatives and rendering her unrecognizable – a strange “goddess” with no tie to the True God or Christian Faith.

      As for misogyny’s possible role, well, could be. I recall one Evangelical man objecting, “How could Mary be the highest mere human when her husband Joseph was her head?” Naturally, the answer is that headship does not equal superior sanctity. St. Joseph had authority over the Child Jesus yet was by no means greater than Him. Didn’t Christ say that, in the kingdom of God, “The last shall be first and the first last”? We see that with the Holy Family.

      During my five years in Evangelicalism, I did hear some sermons putting women down, and a few putting Mary down. I don’t remember hearing one that did both simultaneously. Yet a proper understanding of Our Lady does mute some misogynist sentiments. Blaming women for the Fall, for instance, loses its strength when one acknowledges that Mary is the New Eve, who undid the sin of the first Eve. Thus, a man making a big deal over Eve’s sin is carping about old news. Protestant beliefs can sometimes come across as, “A woman messed up the world so a Man had to fix it!” Catholic theology takes a more nuanced approach.

  • To the writer of the letter, what difference does it make if one doesn’t know the absolute precision of those two claims? Here’s what we do know. The blessed mother bore the son of God, was blessed with enormous Grace, a special grace that no other human was and is to have, is the new Eve that will destroy the serpent, is the Queen of heaven based on ancient Jewish tradition that the mother of the king is actually the queen, is a most gracious advocate to all our petitions, and is a model of how humans are to live their lives. If that isn’t enough for special reverence, then I don’t know what is. One day with God’s grace we will cross over to the other world and learn all the details we were not privildge to know in this world.

  • An Aaron, not The Aaron


    This is one of those rare instances where lack of evidence is actually compelling and expresses the operation of Christian Tradition perfectly. Although Jerusalem and maybe one other city (Ephesus?) claims her tomb, no one, ever, anywhere has claimed to possess her bones. Not even charlatans looking to make a quick buck have tried to peddle Marian relics (well, first class anyway). Given that the veneration of relics was a very early and common practice (e.g., the account of Polycarp’s martyrdom), isn’t it curious that there has been no interest whatsoever, at any time, in the bones of Mary? Only when later generations thought to ask, “Wait, where’s Mary?” do we see explicit presentations of this tradition. Before that, her Assumption was, well, assumed.

    One other thing, it’s not as if a human being taken up body and soul is unique to Mary. I doubt most Protestants would deny that Elijah was taken up. Neither would they deny that Jesus ascended. It’s not as if there is no precedent for this teaching. The real objection is simply that it is being applied to Mary. But, as Mark pointed out, and given the fact that the Assumption has always been held by the vast majority of Christians up to the Reformation, the onus is on the doubter to prove it didn’t happen.

    • Perhaps not “prove it didn’t happen,” but certainly provide a reason to reject Tradition.

    • Obpoet

      I understand that. I am just trying to nail down the time gap between her Assumption and the first written document to speak of it. Does anyone know what that citation is?

    • disqus_HXPuP9E9zS

      On a trip to Rome roughly twenty years ago, the priest leading my parents’ tour joked: “This is one of the two churches claiming to have the complete head of John the Baptist.”

    • Obpoet

      But just because an idea is assumed does not mean people do not write about the idea. Take the idea of the Eucharist for example. It is written about in scripture, and the pretty much from the year 107 by St. Ignatius of Antioch on to the present day.

      It is the gap in time, from the date of Mary’s death/assumption (when?) to the first known documentation of the belief in her Assumption (when?) that gives Protestants pause. It doesn’t prove anything one way or the other. It is just a very large block of time that one has to acknowledge.

  • tteague

    Whether this is the issue for the reader or not, the question of Church authority played a big part in my dealing with Catholic teaching about Mary, and whether I would accept that teaching or not. So this is more of a personal response.

    Having been in Protestantland for a few decades, and only just recently come into the Church, I can say I feel the reader’s pain. And the “show me where in the Bible” response just makes so much sense. But then I wrestled with the issue of authority and the Church won (I’m deeply happy to say). However, the Church “winning” is not to set the Church against the scriptures, rather it is to finally place the scriptures in their proper place, neither above nor below, but as part of the Church. And, though it is my responsibility to use the rationality God gave me as I seek the Truth, it is not my place to decide doctrine apart from the Church established by Christ and animated by the Spirit.

    I’ve come to the conclusion that the best approach is to have an “I trust the Church, where else am I to go” attitude. This is not a blind, turn-off-my-brain approach, for it is also scriptural. Rather, it is about following Christ; it is about avoiding the “I refuse to believe unless I see it with my own eyes” attitude and, instead, to carefully and prayerfully trust. But that’s the issue isn’t it? The Church is full of sinners, has many troubling parts of its history (past and present), that to trust the Church seems like something only a fool would do – at least to someone on the outside looking in. I’ve been there.

    Mistrusting the Church often arises from a “you shall know them by their fruits” perspective, and to some this clearly damns the Church. It takes a lot for a Protestant to accept the authority of Christ propagated through His Church, through the bishops and popes, and through all that sinful detritus that seems to clog the works. I find myself clinging to the words of Chesterton: “The Church is justified, not because her children do not sin, but because they do.” If we cannot accept that, then we will not accept the Church as the authority, binding and loosing, preserving and carrying forward the gospel as handed down and developed from the beginning.

    But the authority of the Church is one of the great gifts of salvation history given to us. It is, in fact, a great relief. And if the Church has such authority then one should bow the knee to Christ by accepting what the Church declares as true in morals and doctrine – including its teaching on the Blessed Mother. Call me a fool, but I praise God for the Magisterium.

  • bob cratchit

    Well put. I was thinking of the same thing while reading this. While I already am a believer, I may just order this book, BWA, just for reference.

  • disqus_HXPuP9E9zS

    Is accepting the belief that Mary was assumed into heaven or conceived without sin any more difficult than accepting that a particular writing is canonical?

  • kevin

    I remember reading that one of the best proofs for Mary’s assumption is that no one in the Catholic Church claims to have bodily relics from her…when you think about the value that relics have always had in Catholicism, and the privileged status of Mary herself, it’s actually a pretty clever proof

    • Dave

      I was at a gathering where they had a lot of relics at one time, and there was actually one of St. Joseph and several of the Apostles. The St. Joseph relic really surprised me, and I have given the argument you mentioned more credence since then. Actually, even though Mary was assumed, there could have been 2nd or 3rd class relics of her, but I have never heard of any.

      • Rosemarie


        Some churches on Europe have very old hair samples that are allegedly Blessed Mother’s hair. If authentic, those would technically qualify as “first class relics,” but of course their existence would not contradict the Assumption. Early Christians could have acquired locks of her hair even while she was still alive.

        As for second class relics of Our Lady, Byzantine Christians venerate a garment and sash that are claimed to be hers. Various churches also claim to have a few veils, her purported betrothal and wedding rings, and there was a pair of shoes reputed to be hers but it was stolen and disappeared two centuries ago. Of course, I don’t know whether any of these are valid, but maybe they are.

  • W. Louis

    Very helpful. Thank you. This is an issue I bump into all the time. Actually, I had it myself at one time. God bless you for helping us over these hurdles.