Friday, January 10, 2014

Why I rejected the Marian dogmas

Where Fiction is Truer than Fact
Where Fiction is Truer than Fact
For Protestants, what follows will be a no-brainer. But for Roman Catholics, it is an important issue.

I continue to take part in discussions with Roman Catholics over at Darryl Hart’s Old Life. The writer who goes by the handle “Cletus van Damme” seems to be very knowledgeable about Roman Catholicism, and interested in carrying on the discussions there.

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Cletus van Damme
Posted January 9, 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

In response to CVD’s claim that “Feast days of the Assumption were being celebrated by both east and west by 6th century”, I had said: “With absolutely no evidence at all for some of these beliefs in the first three centuries.”

CVD then said: First, a thing doesn’t become a universal feast day in west and east overnight (and without any recorded objections while we do have recorded affirmations and investigations of the practice).

I responded:

Your best scholar on the subject, Shoemaker, locates the earliest mentions of “the Assumption of Mary” with fifth-century Gnostic literature.

Tim Perry, one of the few Protestant scholars writing on the subject, while attempting to maintain “a theological method that most evangelical Protestant theologians would recognize as theirs”, confirms that “the two modern dogmas” about Mary “enshrine postbiblical legends about Mary’s beginning and end”. He suggests that this “[distracts] believers from the literary basis for beliefs in Mary’s sanctity”.

Regarding this topic specifically, I have several things to say.

First, Eric Svendsen’s exegetical study of Mary in the New Testament (and the mentions of Mary are very sparse) confirms that Mary was a fairly typical believer, not sinless (“He is out of his mind”), but she truly became one of the early believers. Jesus himself dismissed any special importance that may have been attached to her (“Who are my mother and my brothers?” he asked).

But “the Church” claims to have more and better information (“development”) than Jesus had in this matter.

Second, don’t miss the importance of the fact that the “Protoevangelium of James”, from which accounts of Mary’s origins derive, is a pure work of fiction. The history that it claims to recount is fiction. J.K. Elliott notes that the author is unknown, and “is not likely to have been a Jew: there is in PJ a great ignorance of Palestinian geography but also of Jewish customs” (“The Apocryphal New Testament”, pg. 49). The bulk of it is dated to the second half of the second century, although the document was subjected to “alteration, addition, and abridgement”.

So, for Mary’s “beginning and end”, we have fiction and the Gnostics. The process by which these “things”, as you put it, became “universal feast days” relies in tremendous measure on the popular piety of what essentially were the baptized pagans of the Roman empire.

While it is true that some early things said about Mary (i.e. “theotokos”) were truly intended to say things about Christ, Mary wouldn’t have been on the radar screen (from a Scriptural perspective) if these fictitious legends were not floating about the broader culture.

What we have here is the raising of pagan Rome’s popular piety raised, first through “tradition” and then failing that explanation, through “development”, to being of the same importance and having the same authority as the Scriptures.

Except for Svendsen, who was striving for accuracy, I’m not citing writers who are hostile to Roman Catholicism. The “late second century fiction” and “fifth century Gnostic” tags are the most favorable descriptors that can possibly be provided to the “literary origins” of these legends.

So we are not even talking about the kind of hostile “critical scholarship” that the New Testament has faced for the last 200 years.

You have two alternatives in support of these “dogmas”: You can try to say that “these things were believed from the most ancient of times, even though they were not written down”. But there you have a game of “telephone”, which is totally unverifiable (and it competes with the notion that the actual origins of these legends really do exist in or around their literary beginnings), or else, in attributing these beliefs to “development”, you are not even concerned about the fact that these beliefs are fictional.

So here are your “irreformable dogmas”. They take the Scripture “Thy word is truth” and very, very clearly, on the basis of Rome’s “authority”, flip that Scripture on its head to the point that “Thy word is fiction”.

The Roman Catholic epistemological proposition isn’t “we provide you with the Truth of God’s workings in the world”. It is rather, “We have authority and you must believe what we say, whether it is true or not”.

The fact that no one, by means of deductive logic, can provide 100% certainty that these various Roman Catholic claims are not true, does not mean that normal, thinking human beings cannot have full confidence in rejecting Rome’s claims. My own confidence level is at 100%, even though there’s not some “logical argument” that can deductively rule these things out.

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Cletus van Damme is fond of criticizing Protestantism because it has not dogmatically created any “unreformable dogmas”. Aside from the discussions of how “development” permits “unreformable dogmas” to be “reformulated”, the weakness of this argument is that it permits anyone claiming “infallibility” through a process of “deduction” to claim “you can’t 100% rule out our dogmas”.

I continued:

You cannot 100% deductively rule out that there are no blue men on Mars (living underground, of course). This underground Martian colony of blue men is, after all, the base of operations from which “the Chariots of the Gods” first seeded human beings onto the earth. They choose to remain invisible to us out of respect for a “prime directive” that forbids interference with indigenous cultures.

So your “test” of Protestant veracity, “irreformable dogma”, can be used to prove even “blue men on Mars”. In that way, it is meaningless.

Citing J. Gresham Machen:

The Bible contains a record of something that happened. What that something is is told us in Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John. It is the life and death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. “Jesus of Nazareth was not a product of the world, but a Savior come from outside the world. His birth was a mystery. His life was a life of perfect purity, of awful righteousness, and of gracious, sovereign power. His death was no mere holy martyrdom, but a sacrifice for the sins of the world. His resurrection was not an aspiration in the hearts of his disciples, but a mighty act of God. He is alive, and present at this hour to help us if we will turn to him. He is more than one of the sons of men; he is in mysterious union with the eternal God.” (“History and Faith,” first published in the “Princeton Theological Review 13” (1915), pgs 337-351, and cited here in D.G. Hart, “J. Gresham Machen, Selected Shorter Writings”, Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed Publishing, ©2004)

None of that requires the Roman account of things. The Roman account is distracting from that and harmful.


  1. Christotokos is way better.

    1. Better watch that, they will call you a Nestorian (nevermind that Nestorian is now viewed as not having been guilty of the "Nestorian" heresy that was attributed to him!)

  2. Excellent John! I quoted from your article just now over at Beggar's All.