The Assumption of Mary is a centerpiece of Roman Catholic theology and life. To understand the doctrine correctly we need to listen before responding. There is a regrettable tendency among Christians of different opinions to speak past each other. Of course, we know how that works: when we are making the point with someone, even someone we love, we will often formulate our next thought as the person is speaking. Mostly, this behavior is a benign human impulse—benign but bothersome. So often, this is the way we communicate with each other in the body of Christ. And so we must consider the case of the doctrine of Mary with this tendency in mind.
This article will seek to establish a biblical response to the question of the Assumption of the Virgin Mary. Like so many theologians, I can’t seem to speak a simple answer to a simple question. I would be forever interrupting the main idea with caveats. “Well, no, I don’t hold to that. However, one must recall . . .” And so forth. So, let me try to answer the question about the “Assumption of Mary” with a scaffolding method, that is, building a response through a scaffolding of ideas. We begin with a question, “What is the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary and is it true?” We respond with three strands of scaffolding and a conclusion.
What Is the Assumption of Mary according to Roman Catholics?
The teaching is clearly articulated in the Catholic Catechism:
"Finally the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her Son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.’ The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death." (Byzantine Liturgy, Troparion, Feast of the Dormition, August 15th) (CCC 966)
There are numerous parts of this doctrinal assertion that leap from the page for Protestant Christians. Let us refrain from responding until we “listen” some more. The doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus, is necessarily understood within the larger framework of a theology of Mary. Roman Catholic doctrine expresses that theology in a fourfold formula. Each article of the doctrinal statement is dependent upon the other doctrine. One is justified in saying that to remove one article from the fourfold assertion is to invalidate the others.
Here is the Fourfold Doctrine of Mary:
Doctrine 1: The Immaculate Conception
The doctrine of Mary begins with the assertion of her immaculate conception. Those of you who are not familiar with that centerpiece of Roman Catholic theology need to understand that “immaculate conception” is not speaking of the conception of Jesus. Rather, this foundational statement supports the other statements in that it is asserting that Mary was born without sin. That is, she was born of immaculate conception. Her mother, therefore, likewise, was a recipient of God’s special dispensation concerning the birth of her daughter, Mary. At this point, we will not engage with the doctrine, but we will merely state it. But as you can see from the first of the fourfold doctrines about Mary it is impossible to disentangle one doctrine from the other. These doctrines stand together or fall together; they cannot be justified apart from one another.
Doctrine 2: Mary Is the Mother of God
There is no true believer who is a member of the body of Christ who will deny the virgin birth of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. For in the fullness of time, God gave his Son to us through a woman thus fulfilling the original gospel message of Genesis 3. In the birth of Jesus Christ, woman, without the help of a man, brings forth God in the flesh. However, when we speak about Mary being the mother of God and the Roman Catholic doctrine that is connected to her sinlessness, we must realize that these are two different understandings. While the Council of Ephesus, one of the great councils that most Christian communities recognize as authoritative, does, in fact, call Mary theotokos, the bearer of God, that is still quite distant from the title given to her in the Roman church.
Mary was the earthly mother of our Lord Jesus Christ, who is, and ever shall, be God in the flesh. When Christ died, the Lord Jesus lovingly recognized the Apostle John to be the “son” of Mary, and Mary to be the “mother” of John. Thus, in this glorious act of securing Mary’s earthly care, as he, her eldest son, is gone, the Lord demonstrated a human love that is both understood and, at once, given reverence for its depth of a son’s love. Jesus was commending the needs of the Mary to his close friend. John would provide for the earthly needs and the security that Mary would need as she aged. Church history tells us that John fulfilled this role even as he was the pastor of the Church of Ephesus. Yet, nowhere in antiquity, do we see evidence of her veneration while she was a parishioner at Ephesus under Pastor John. The Roman Catholic doctrine of Mary, however, bestows titles on Mary which her earthly pilgrimage could never bear: Mother of the Church, Immaculate, All Holy, Icon of the Church.
Again, upon first glance, this doctrine probably seems the most compatible with the views of Mary in non-Catholic Christian communities. However, Mary as the “mother of God” is connected to Mary as Mediatrix, a special role assigned to Mary by the Roman Church designating her intercessory position before God. Again, there is a great misunderstanding about this. Roman Catholics must understand that the mere mention of any intercessor other than Jesus Christ is anathema to the ears of Protestant believers. Protestant believers must recognize that the Roman Catholic Church is able to call Mary a mediator of prayer because of her proximity to Jesus. In the hierarchy of the intercession of saints before the throne of God, the Roman Church holds that Mary holds the highest position.
When the Catechism of the Catholic Church declared that Mary “cooperated through free faith and obedience in human salvation,” that her “yes,” to God was the “yes in the name of all human nature” we understand a creative, salvific quality in her that is quite alien to Protestant affirmation and Reformed thought and practice. Thus, we see in this outworking of the title, “Mother of God,” that Mary’s place as understood by Reformed believers (whether Anglican or Pentecostal or any community in-between) is something radically different from a Catholic confession of Mary.
Doctrine 3: Mary’s Perpetual Virginity
The Roman Catholic Catechism asserts that “The virginal motherhood [which miraculous intervention of God all true believers affirm] led the Church to confess Mary’s real and perpetual virginity . . .” Protestants will find this assertion to be puzzling. Doesn’t the Bible mention the siblings of Jesus? Yes, undeniably (see Matthew 12:46, Matthew 13:55-56; Luke 8:19; John 7:1-10; Mark 3:31; Acts 1:14; Galatians 1:19). The Roman Catholic Catechism addresses this by stating,
“Against this doctrine [I.e., the doctrine of the perpetual virginity of Mary] the objection is sometimes raised that the Bible mentions brothers and sisters of Jesus. The church is always understood these passages as not referring to other children of the Virgin Mary.”
For anyone reading this article who might be within the Roman Catholic community that response of the catechism is not only sufficient but compelling. For those reading this article who come from a Protestant community of the Christian faith, you will find any such avowal to be not merely unsupported but illogical and heretical. Once more, I ask you to be patient until we get to the golden hinges on which each of these doors of knowledge and understanding open.
Doctrine 4: The Assumption of Mary into Heaven
Some believers in non-Roman Catholic (and some Eastern Orthodox) communities think that the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary came about in the 20th century. This is not so. It is true that Pope Pius XII defined the doctrine in 1950. It is also so that the Catholic Catechism (2016) states,
“Finally, the Immaculate Virgin, preserved free from all stain of original sin, when the course of her earthly life was finished, was taken up body and soul into heavenly glory, and exalted by the Lord as Queen over all things, so that she might be the more fully conformed to her son, the Lord of lords and conqueror of sin and death.”
The early Church Fathers did not define Mary’s role or speak of her eschatological state (though Ignatius, and others, wrote and preached about the Virgin Mary). The late fourth century and early fifth-century bishop of Cyprus, Epiphanius of Salamis, composed a collection of heresies, legends, and other apocryphal, non-canonical traditions from around the Church. That book, called, Panarion (“The Breadbasket”), chronicled the legends that had attached themselves like barnacles to the biblically grounded stern of the Church. It was a sort of Martin’s Kingdom of the Cults in the 370s. Epiphanius’ investigations in the death of Mary met with little historical evidence and, of course, no biblical evidence. Epiphanius is the first to chronicle the Assumption of Mary cultus, though early believers had recorded such visions on the walls of catacombs. Accounts of Mary as a death in old age, death and assumption into heaven, death and ascension into heaven, or never died and assumed (like Enoch and Elisha) had not yet crystallized. Dr. Stephen J. Shoemaker, of the University of Oregon, described the situation succinctly:
“Despite years of research, the historical record has still yielded no clear witness to the Virgin’s Dormition [in Eastern Orthodoxy, the “falling asleep” of Mary, m.a.m.] and Assumption from the earliest church. Rather surprisingly, the early centuries of Christianity, as they are preserved for us today, maintain a profound silence regarding the end of Mary’s life.”
While the early Church fathers did recognize the popular devotion to Mary that was beginning in Rome, particularly in frescos, the history surrounding Mary’s end of life is silent. No less than Monsignor Timothy Verdon, in his brilliant work, Mary in Western Art, admits that much of the catacomb art depicts paganism mixed with the person of Mary, the mother of Jesus. This admission hints at the ancient Southern European impulse for adoring goddesses (e.g., Diana of Ephesus). Thus, Joelle Mellon documented the syncretism of Mary devotion and goddess worship:
“Places long associated with goddess worship in many European countries were frequently transformed into sacred Marin sites . . . In France, Chartres Cathedral, a church particularly rich with Marian artistic imagery, was built over. Spring sacred to the Gallic Goddess in pre-Christian times. It was the Irish, however, who seemed to take to this idea with the greatest enthusiasm. In Ireland, 86 percent of all Christian shrines, including Our Lady of Knock, are based on wells once dedicated to the Celtic goddess Brigid. This deity was also transformed herself—into the still popular St. Brigid.”
How Did Mary Die Then?
Some have gleaned from scant evidence that Mary died in Ephesus where John was pastor. One archeologist claims a house where Mary lived. Benedict XIV declared that Mary died at Ephesus. One can, also, visit the Tomb of the Virgin Mary in the Kidron Valley.
Why Doesn't the Bible Mention Her Death?
Before moving on, we do well to ask, “Why?” “Why didn’t the early Church record the details of the passing of Mary from this life?” We do not know. Could it be that in God’s providence, the details of the Blessed Mary’s death are obscured by Providence? Remember the Transfiguration of our Lord Jesus: how Peter missed the point, as G. Campbell Morgan preached, and wanted to build a monument to Jesus, Moses, and Elijah (Matthew 17:1-9; Mark 9:1-10; and Luke 9:27-37)? God forbade the act of memorializing the event by localizing it to the Mount. The days of physical signs and symbols were passing (Hebrews 7:26-8:5). The day of “spirit and truth” had come (John 4:23-24).
As Jesus prevented the construction of a shrine at the Mount of Transfiguration (which would presumably lead to idolatry in the worst case, or confuse the shadow to substance motif of the New Covenant in the best case), it may be that the Lord clouded Mary’s last days—her death, and her burial—in order to preserve attention on the Ascension of Jesus. Thus, constructed.
The definition and meaning of the Assumption of Mary is necessarily connected to the fourfold dogma of the Blessed Virgin Mary in the Roman Catholic catechism. Having established the assertion of the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary we now move to what may be called, “the great epistemological question.”
How Do They Know? - The Roman Catholic Epistemology for the Doctrine of the Assumption of Mary
Epistemology means “the theory of knowledge.” While this may at first glance appear to be an unnecessary academic insertion, any serious discussion of the doctrine such as the Assumption of Mary requires an examination of “how one knows.” In the case of Protestantism, the great epistemological question, “how do we know,” is answered in the first of the “solas” of the Reformed faith: Sola Scriptura, translated “Scripture alone.” The Reformed understanding of any doctrine stands or falls upon the special revelation of Almighty God in the Holy Bible (for those interested in pursuing study on a Reformed epistemology of Scripture, I would commend the late Dr. Robert L. Reymond’s, The Justification of Knowledge). Therefore, any doctrine such as the Assumption of Mary would, by this definition, necessitate the testimony of Holy Scripture. The fourfold dogma of Mary cannot be substantiated in the Bible. Therefore, one must have another answer to “how do we know:” and that leads us to understanding a Roman Catholic epistemology for the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary.
The Three Great Pillars of Truth
For adherence to Roman Catholicism there are three great pillars of truth that provide knowledge and guidance. They include Scripture, tradition, and the magisterium. Most of us can understand Scripture and tradition but what is the magisterium? This latter term refers to the hierarchical system of governance in the Roman Catholic Church that includes the Bishop of Rome, that is, the Pope, the Cardinals, and the subordinate jurisdiction of archbishops, bishops, and priests. In the case of the Assumption of Mary, since there is no ground for the doctrine in the Bible (there are allegorical approaches which declare that the Assumption of Mary is found in, e.g., Revelation chapter 12 and “the woman clothed with the sun;” and in Psalm 131:8, “Arise, O Lord, into thy resting place: thou and the ark, which thou hast sanctified.”). The catechism of the Catholic Church states,
“The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin is a singular participation in her Son's Resurrection and an anticipation of the resurrection of other Christians: In giving birth you kept your virginity; in your Dormition you did not leave the world, O Mother of God, but were joined to the source of Life. You conceived the living God and, by your prayers, will deliver our souls from death. (Byzantine Liturgy, Troparion, Feast of the Dormition, August 15th) (CCC 966).”
Protestants understand faith and life through the lens of Holy Scripture, the divine revelation of God through the prophets, evangelists, and apostles. Roman Catholic believers (or at least their official position in the Catholic Catechism) understand the truths of the Christian faith by the Bible, the sacred works of the Church through history (“Tradition”), and by the authority of the Magisterium. That is an important piece of scaffolding in our quest to come to terms with the Assumption of Mary doctrine. We are now ready to apply the final scaffolding which will help us get to the top of this question.
What Do Other Believers Say? - The Protestant and Reformed Response to the Doctrine of Mary
There are two things that I would say about Mary in the Protestant and Reformed compendium of thought and practice. Firstly, since Protestants rely upon the Bible as the only infallible witness to faith in life, and since there is no mention of the assumption of Mary into heaven in the Word of God, then, we understand that most Protestant believers would not accept the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary. Moreover, the fourfold doctrine of Mary, which is established on grounds other than, or to be most charitable in addition to, the Word of God, is a formulation alien to both faith and practice in the Protestant churches. Indeed, the very language such as “the queen of heaven,” “the queen of the universe,” or “immaculate conception of Mary” is not only foreign to the common vernacular of Protestant Christians but would be, in all honesty to our Roman Catholic readers, uncomfortable to the point of idolatrous. So, a Reformed theologian like myself would answer there is no Scriptural ground for the teaching of the assumption of Mary into heaven. There is something else that needs to be said.
Mary Is a Model of Faithfulness
When everyone responds to one doctrine there is the possibility if not the inevitability of reactionary belief and behavior. For instance, in the case of Mary, the Bible says that Mary will forever be called blessed. In responding to doctrine such as the Assumption of Mary we who are in the Protestant faith have a tendency to diminish the role of Mary in the life of the church. While we do not exalt, adore, venerate, or in any way look to Mary as intercessor or Redeemer, we should recall her as a model of faithfulness and as the woman chosen by God to bear the Son of God. It is through Mary that the ancient promise is fulfilled: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel” (Genesis 3:15, ESV). I remember one of my theology professors saying to us that the greatest theologian in the Bible is the Virgin Mary as she recognizes her place in the covenant of grace. Meditate upon these words from the Magnificat (the song of Mary):
“And Mary said: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, And my spirit has rejoiced in God my Savior. For He has regarded the lowly state of His maidservant; For behold, henceforth all generations will call me blessed. For He who is mighty has done great things for me, And holy is His name. And His mercy is on those who fear Him From generation to generation. He has shown strength with His arm; He has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts. He has put down the mighty from their thrones, And exalted the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, And the rich He has sent away empty. He has helped His servant Israel, In remembrance of His mercy, As He spoke to our fathers, To Abraham and to his seed forever’” (Luke 1:48, NKJV).
Mary Is Blessed because She Was Chosen
Mary, the mother of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, is to be called blessed. She is to be recalled as the highly favored one of God, who would become the human bearer of Almighty God in the flesh. The little girl who plays Mary in the Christmas play at your church this year reminds us of how very ordinary this little lass was. And yet—this girl was chosen of God to bring salvation to humankind. The inconceivable glory of God was conceived by divine power in the womb of a young woman; and the unconstrained love of El Shaddai became embodied in an infant. God has broken through our own fallen world to bring us good news. Mary’s Son, our Lord Jesus, has come in remembrance of all of the promises.
Surely, we can all call her blessed, not for herself, as godly and gracious as she was, but because she was chosen to bear God in the flesh. And in that sense, we come to know our own sense of blessedness. “Why me? Why did You choose me, Lord?” That is the enduring testimony of a girl who once lived.
Photo credit: ©GettyImages/VladyslavDanilin
Michael A. Milton, Ph.D. (University of Wales; MPA, UNC Chapel Hill; MDiv, Knox Seminary) Dr. Milton is a retired seminary chancellor and currently serves as the James Ragsdale Chair of Missions at Erskine Theological Seminary. He is the President of Faith for Living and the D. James Kennedy Institute a long-time Presbyterian minister, and Chaplain (Colonel) USA-R. Dr. Milton is the author of more than thirty books and a musician with five albums released. Mike and his wife, Mae, reside in North Carolina.