The Assumption—A Dogma Revealed By God?
THE Assumption—the doctrine that Mary, the mother of Jesus, ascended to heaven in the flesh—is dear to the hearts of millions of Roman Catholics. Says historian George William Douglas: “The Assumption, or taking up into heaven, of the Virgin Mary has [long] been venerated as the greatest of her feasts and one of the chief solemnities of the Church year.”
Catholic theologians admit, though, that the Bible does not speak of Mary as making such an ascension to heaven. Indeed, few Catholics realize that this beloved doctrine has been a centuries-old subject of controversy and bitter debate. So just how did the church come to accept Mary’s Assumption as dogma?* Is there any reason to view it as divinely revealed? The answers to these questions are not merely academic. They have profound implications for any who are lovers of truth.
Evolution of a Dogma
It may surprise you to know that in the first centuries after Jesus’ death, the idea of Mary’s Assumption into heaven was completely foreign to the thinking of Christians. Writes Catholic theologian Jean Galot in L’Osservatore Romano: “In the beginning, no memory of the death of Mary was linked to the Christian community.”
After the Trinity teaching became official church doctrine, however, Mary began to be given an increasingly important role. Glowing terms, such as “Mother of God,” “conceived without sin,” “Mediatrix,” and “Queen of Heaven,” started to be applied to her. In time, reasons theologian Galot, “the silence of the primitive tradition with regard to the death of Mary could not fully satisfy those Christians who recognized the perfection of Mary and wanted to venerate her. Thus, descriptions of the Assumption, which were the product of popular imagination, took form.”
About the fourth century C.E., the so-called assumptionist apocrypha began to circulate. These texts gave fanciful accounts of Mary’s supposed ascent to heaven. Take, for example, the text called “The Falling Asleep of the Holy Mother of God.” It has been attributed to none other than the apostle John, but more likely it was composed nearly 400 years after John’s death. According to this spurious account, Christ’s apostles were miraculously gathered to Mary, where they saw her heal the blind, the deaf, and the lame. Finally, as here claimed, the apostles heard the Lord say to Mary: “Behold, henceforth shall thy precious body be translated unto paradise, and thine holy soul shall be in the heavens in the treasuries of my Father in surpassing brightness, where is peace and rejoicing of the holy angels, and continuance thereof.”
How did believers react to such writings? Mariologist René Laurentin explains: “The reactions were very diverse. The most credulous are taken in, without further reflection, by the glitter of the pretty story. Others despise these inconsistent accounts, which are often contradictory and without authority.” The Assumption theory thus had a struggle getting officially accepted. Adding to the confusion was the fact that supposed relics of Mary’s body were being venerated in some places. This was difficult to reconcile with the belief that her fleshly body had been assumed into heaven.
In the 13th century, Thomas Aquinas, like many other theologians, maintained that it was not possible to define the Assumption as dogma, inasmuch as “the Scripture does not teach it.” Still, the belief continued to grow in popularity, and portrayals of Mary’s supposed assumption by such noted artists as Raphael, Correggio, Titian, Carracci, and Rubens multiplied.
The issue remained unresolved until quite recently. According to Jesuit Giuseppe Filograssi, as late as the first half of our century, Catholic scholars continued to publish “studies and discussions not always favorable” to the Assumption theory. Even popes, such as Leo XIII, Pius X, and Benedict XV, “were rather reserved on the matter.” But on November 1, 1950, the church finally took a definite stand. Pope Pius XII announced: “We define it to be a dogma revealed by God that the Immaculate Mother of God, Mary ever Virgin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into the glory of heaven.”—Munificentissimus Deus.
Belief in Mary’s bodily journey to heaven was no longer optional among Catholics—it was now Church dogma. Pope Pius XII declared that “if anyone . . . dare to deny or voluntarily cast doubt on what We have defined, he should know that he has fallen short of the Divine and Catholic Faith.”
What the Scriptures Really Say
But on what basis did the church take this bold position? Pope Pius XII claimed that the Assumption dogma has “its ultimate foundation in the Holy Scripture.” Among the texts often cited as proof of Mary’s assumption is Luke 1:28, 42. These verses say of Mary: “Hail, full of grace, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women . . . , and blessed is the fruit of thy womb.” (Douay) The assumptionists reason that because Mary was “full of grace,” she must never have been overcome by death. And being “blessed” like the ‘fruit of her womb,’ she must have privileges equal to those of Jesus—including his heavenly ascension. Do you think that this is sound reasoning?
For one thing, language scholars say that the expression “full of grace” is an imprecise translation and that the original Greek expression used by Luke is more accurately rendered “object of the favor of God.” The Catholic Jerusalem Bible thus renders Luke 1:28: “Rejoice, so highly favoured!” There is no reason to conclude that Mary was assumed bodily into heaven just because she was “highly favored” by God. The first Christian martyr, Stephen, was likewise spoken of in the Catholic Douay Bible as being highly favored, or “full of grace”—and no bodily resurrection has been ascribed to him.—Acts 6:8.
Yet, was not Mary blessed or favored? Yes, but interestingly, the woman named Jael back in the days of Israel’s judges was considered to be “blessed among women.” (Judges 5:24, Dy) Certainly no one would argue that Jael too was taken bodily into heaven. Besides, the whole idea of the Assumption is based on the premise that Jesus himself ascended to heaven in the flesh. However, the Bible says that Jesus was “enlivened,” or resurrected, “in the spirit.” (1 Peter 3:18, Dy; compare 1 Corinthians 15:45.) The apostle Paul further says that “flesh and blood cannot possess the kingdom of God.”—1 Corinthians 15:42-50, Dy.
True, the Bible does speak of a heavenly resurrection for faithful Christians anointed by the spirit. However, 1 Thessalonians 4:13-17 makes it plain that this resurrection would not begin until “the presence of the Lord,” during the last days of this wicked age. Until then, Mary would be asleep in death, along with thousands of other faithful Christians.—1 Corinthians 15:51, 52.
Mary—A Woman of Faith
Be assured that in saying the foregoing we mean no disrespect for Mary. Without doubt, Mary was an exemplary woman—one whose faith is worthy of imitation. She readily accepted the privileged responsibility of becoming the mother of Jesus, along with all the trials and sacrifices that would entail. (Luke 1:38; 2:34, 35) Together with Joseph, she raised Jesus in godly wisdom. (Luke 2:51, 52) She stayed with Jesus during his suffering on the stake. (John 19:25-27) And as a faithful disciple, she obediently remained in Jerusalem and experienced the outpouring of God’s spirit at Pentecost.—Acts 1:13, 14; 2:1-4.
A distorted view of Mary honors neither the Creator nor Mary. The Assumption dogma serves to reinforce the baseless claim that Mary is an intercessor with God. But did Jesus Christ ever endorse such a teaching? On the contrary, he said: “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. If you ask anything in my name, I will do it.” (John 14:6, 14; compare Acts 4:12.) Yes, Jesus Christ alone, not Mary, intercedes with the Creator. It is through Jesus—not Mary—that we should approach our Life-Giver for “help in time of need.”—Hebrews 4:16, Revised Standard Version, Catholic Edition.
Accepting the truth about Mary may be painful to some. At the very least, it may mean relinquishing some long-held beliefs and cherished notions. However, though painful at times, the truth ultimately ‘sets one free.’ (John 8:32) Jesus said that his Father was seeking those who would worship “in spirit and in truth.” (John 4:24, Dy) To sincere Catholics, these words stand as a challenge.
In Catholicism a dogma, unlike a simple belief, is said to be a truth solemnly formulated either by an ecumenical council or by the pope’s “infallible magisterium.” Among the doctrines thus defined by the Catholic Church, the most recent is the Assumption of Mary.
[Box on page 27]
DID MARY DIE?
Did Mary actually die before her supposed ascent to heaven? Catholic theologians find themselves on the horns of a theological dilemma on this issue. Nuovo dizionario di teologia points out that “it would be difficult to attribute to Mary the privilege of immunity from death, which not even Christ possessed.” On the other hand, saying that Mary did die raises an equally thorny issue. Theologian Kari Børresen notes that “death is the penalty for the original sin, which, according to [the doctrine of the “Immaculate Conception”], did not affect Mary.” On what basis, then, would she have died? Little wonder that Pope Pius XII carefully skirted the entire issue of Mary’s death when defining the dogma of the Assumption.
Fortunately, the Bible’s teaching is free from such confusion. Nowhere does it teach—or even hint—that Mary was the product of “immaculate conception.” On the contrary, it indicates that Mary was an imperfect human in need of redemption. For this reason, after the birth of Jesus, she went to the temple and made a sin offering to God. (Leviticus 12:1-8; Luke 2:22-24) Like all other imperfect humans, Mary eventually died.—Romans 3:23; 6:23.
This simple truth stands in stark contrast with the unanswerable questions raised by the dogma of the Assumption.
[Picture on page 26]
‘Assumption of the Virgin,’ painted by Titian (c.1488-1576)
Giraudon/Art Resource, N.Y.
[Picture on page 28]
By bringing a sin offering to the temple after Jesus’ birth, Mary proclaimed herself a sinner in need of redemption