The Dogma of the Assumption of Mary
In the Eastern Church, the dormition ("falling asleep") of Mary began to be commemorated in the 6th century. The observance gradually spread to the West, where it became known as the feast of the Assumption. By the 13th century most Catholic theologians accepted the belief of the Assumption. However this doctrine did not become an article of faith until recent times, when Pope Pius XII declared it a dogma of the Catholic faith: “The Immaculate Mother of God, the ever Virgin Mary, having completed the course of her earthly life, was assumed body and soul into heavenly glory” (Munificentissimus Deus, Pope Pius XII, 1950).
Not taught in Scripture
Catholic authors readily admit that the Assumption is not explicitly taught in Scripture.1 In the biblical narrative, Mary is last mentioned in Acts 1 where she is found praying with the other disciples before Pentecost. After that, the Bible is silent about her life and death.
Naturally Catholic writes refer to various scriptures to demonstrate the possibility of this doctrine, and that it is was ‘fitting’ that Mary should be assumed to heaven. These efforts fall short of biblical proof. Consider some examples:
§ Genesis 3:15 [And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel] It is argued that Mary, “most intimately associated with him in that struggle against the infernal foe which, as foretold in the protoevangelium, would finally result in that most complete victory over the sin and death.” We notice, however, that it is the seed, Jesus, rather that the woman, who bruised the serpent’s head. His resurrection is the sure sign of Messiah’s triumph over the Devil. Together with all Christians, Mary would also benefit from Christ’s victory according to God’s plan of salvation at the “resurrection of life.” That is still a future event.
§ Luke 1:28 [And the angel came in unto her, and said, Hail, thou that art highly favoured, the Lord is with thee: blessed art thou among women]. Bodily assumption is said to be the natural effect of being highly favoured or full of grace. However, the same word translated “full of grace” (Greek, charitoo) is applied to all believers in Ephesians 1:6. Yet, no-one suggests that every believer should be assumed bodily into heaven soon after death!
§ Revelation 12:1 [And there appeared a great wonder in heaven; a woman clothed with the sun, and the moon under her feet, and upon her head a crown of twelve stars]. A Catholic author writes: “Mary's coronation implies her preceding bodily assumption.” He wrongly assumes that this “woman” is Mary and ignores the problems of such interpretation. For example, the woman of Revelation, “being with child cried, travailing in birth, and pained to be delivered” (Revelation 12:2); whereas Catholics believe that Mary “gave birth to her Son without pain” (Pope Alexander III).
None of these and similar scriptures actually prove the bodily assumption. As Pope Pius XII commented, “Often there are theologians and preachers who, following in the footsteps of the holy Fathers, have been rather free in their use of events and expressions taken from Sacred Scripture to explain their belief in the Assumption.” Yet he still based his argument on these writings, thereby conceding that there is no genuine biblical proof of the Assumption.
Not taught by the Church Fathers
The Catholic Encyclopedia admits that the first “genuine” written references to the Assumption come from authors who lived in the sixth to the eight centuries:
“If we consult genuine writings in the East, it is mentioned in the sermons of St. Andrew of Crete, St. John Damascene, St. Modestus of Jerusalem and others. In the West, St. Gregory of Tours (De gloria mart., I, iv) mentions it first.”2
St. Gregory lived in the sixth century, while St John Damascene belongs to the eight. Thus for several centuries in the early Church, there is no mention by the church fathers of the bodily assumption of Mary. Ireneus, Jerome, Augustine, Ambrose and the others church fathers said nothing about it. Writing in 377 A.D., the church father Epiphanius states that no-one knows Mary’s end.3
First taught by heretics
So, how did this teaching originate, given that it is absent in the Sacred Scriptures and in the tradition of the early Church? The belief of the assumption is based on apocryphal and spurious writings.
“The belief in the corporeal assumption of Mary is founded on the apocryphal treatise De Obitu S. Dominae, bearing the name of St. John, which belongs however to the fourth or fifth century. It is also found in the book De Transitu Virginis, falsely ascribed to St. Melito of Sardis, and in a spurious letter attributed to St. Denis the Areopagite” (Catholic Encyclopaedia).
The first church author to speak on the assumption, Gregory of Tours, based his teaching on the Transitus, perhaps because he accepted it as genuine.4 However, in 459 A.D. Pope Gelasius issued a decree that officially condemned and rejected the Transitus along with several other heretical writings. Pope Hormisdas reaffirmed this decree in the sixth century.5 It is ironic that this heretical teaching was later promoted within the Catholic Church, until eventually it was proclaimed a dogma in the twentieth century.
a) The Roman Church solemnly warns anyone who “should dare willfully to deny or to call into doubt that which we have defined (i.e. the Assumption), let him know that he has fallen away completely from the divine and Catholic Faith (Munificentissimus Deus). How could this dogma be so important, seeing that it was unknown in the early Church, even condemned by some Popes, and more importantly, since it is absent from the Holy Scriptures? Some have indeed fallen from the catholic faith. The apostates are those who have invented this novel doctrine. The faithful are those who, together with the early Christians, have remained steadfast in upholding the faith of the New Testament.
b) In theory, the Roman Church teaches that:
1. The sacred deposit of the faith (the Word of God) is contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition.
2. The Magisterium gives an authentic interpretation to the Word of God but does not add to its contents.
"The apostles entrust the 'Sacred deposit' of the faith (the depositum fidei), contained in Sacred Scripture and Tradition, to the whole of the Church...[the Magisterium] teaches only what has been handed on to it...All that it proposes for belief as being divinely revealed is drawn from this single deposit of faith" (Catechism, 84-86).
In practice, Rome teaches doctrines that are not drawn from the deposit of faith. We have seen that the Assumption is neither found in Scripture nor in the early church tradition. Certainly, if this doctrine were transmitted by the apostles to the bishops of the early church, we would expect to find at least some references to it in the voluminous writings of the Fathers. But they are conspicuously silent about this subject.
If you are a Catholic, ask yourself whether your implicit trust in the Roman magisterium is warranted. The magisterium claims to explain the Word of God, but at least in this case, it has gone far beyond it's stated role. It is inventing novel doctrines beyond the Word of God. Be careful! You may feel convinced that your faith is built on a solid rock, when in fact, you are standing on sinking sand.
c) Catholic theology has exalted Mary to the heavens, and it is therefore natural for Catholics to look to her for their spiritual needs. “O most sweet Lady and our Mother, thou hast already left the earth and reached thy kingdom, where, as Queen, thou art enthroned … From the high throne, then, to which thou art exalted, turn, O Mary, thy compassionate eyes upon us, and pity us.” (Of the Assumption of Mary, St. Alphonsus de Liguori).
Despite their protestations to the contrary, the sad truth is that such Marian devotion detracts from that simple faith and devotion to the Lord Jesus Christ. The Scripture explicitly speaks of Jesus, who having lived a sinless life, died for sinners, was buried and raised from the death, and after forty days He ascended into Heaven, where He is reigning in glory, interceding for His people. Compassion and pity is found only when we have recourse to the Lord Jesus. “Wherefore he is able also to save them to the uttermost that come unto God by him, seeing he ever liveth to make intercession for them. For such an high priest became us, who is holy, harmless, undefiled, separate from sinners, and made higher than the heavens” (Hebrews 7:25,26).