Friday, August 12, 2022

A Lot Of Problems With The Assumption Of Mary

Cameron Bertuzzi just interviewed Gavin Ortlund about the Assumption of Mary. It's a good overview of the number, variety, and depth of problems with the claim that Mary was bodily assumed.

Some of the comments below the video bring up comparisons to sola scriptura, rejection of baptismal regeneration, or whatever other belief Catholics or those who sympathize with them allege to be comparable to or worse than an assumption of Mary. We have posts in our archives about those issues (e.g., here). And see here regarding the false reasoning about doctrinal development that often accompanies those kinds of comments.

In the video and in the comments below it, there are occasional references to how one or more of the documents referring to an assumption of Mary date or might date prior to the fourth century. Gavin addresses the subject in the video, but I want to add some other points. The New Testament authors address various false beliefs that existed in their day. Earliness is one of the factors we take into account when evaluating something, but it isn't the only factor. Gavin gave many examples of figures Catholics (and others) consider orthodox who rejected the assumption of Mary or discussed issues significantly relevant to an assumption of Mary without mentioning that she was assumed (e.g., church fathers referring to figures who were assumed into heaven without including Mary). Even if we were to accept the earliest dating being proposed for the earliest document to mention an assumption of Mary, we'd still have to take into account that the belief is coming from such a dubious source, it seems to be reflecting a view only held by a small minority at the time, and belief in an assumption seems to be absent and sometimes even contradicted in such a larger number and variety of sources who are of a more credible nature. Arguing for an earlier date for some highly problematic heretical or apocryphal documents doesn't do much to advance the argument for an assumption of Mary. As Gavin explains in the video, the problems with the belief are of such a nature that assigning an earlier date to something like a Gnostic document mentioning the assumption wouldn't do much to improve the Catholic argument. Remember, Catholicism has dogmatized the Assumption of Mary, and the Catholic Church claims to be the one true church founded by Christ, which allegedly is infallible and has maintained all apostolic teaching throughout church history. Catholics claim Mary is God's greatest creation, superior to all angels and other humans, the mother of the church, and so on. Pope Pius XII claimed that Mary's assumption is a belief "based on the Sacred Writings, which is thoroughly rooted in the minds of the faithful, which has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times" (Munificentissimus Deus, 41). He refers to the assumption as "a matter of such great moment and of such importance" (11) and claims that the arguments for the doctrine are so good that it "seems impossible" (38) to avoid the conclusion that Mary was bodily assumed.


  1. A good overview. Trent Horn just posted a response to Ortlund that I think would be worth your time dissecting, at least in summary form (since it's 1.5 hours long), particularly his very heavy reliance on "But atheists/muslims make arguments like this" as if it actually nullifies the truth of the argument, not to mention how he often makes a false comparison. Also his claim that pointing to multiple centuries of silence is "arbitrary", even tho that is the very foundation of claims about the novelty of teachings, let alone discerning any and all historical development for anything.

    1. My understanding is that Trent thinks the historicity of Mary's assumption is unclear by the standards with which we normally judge historical matters, but that we should accept it on the basis of church authority. I agree with him that it can make sense to accept something as historical by that sort of indirect means, whether by means of church authority, the authority of scripture, or whatever else. I don't think there's sufficient reason to accept the church authority in question, though, and I would go beyond saying that the historical evidence for an assumption is unclear. Belief in an assumption can't be traced back to the earliest generations of church history, it seems to have been the belief of a small minority during the earliest decades in which the belief did exist, and the apocryphal and heretical associations it had early on damage its credibility.

      And there are other issues involved. What does a Catholic, Trent or any other Catholic, make of the traditional Catholic claims about the church maintaining all apostolic tradition in unbroken succession throughout church history? What do you make of claims about the assumption in particular, like the ones from Pope Pius XII that I highlighted in my original post in this thread? If you qualify those claims in such a way that many people could be ignorant of an assumption or even deny it during the timeframe in question, then such qualifications need to be kept in mind. It's one thing to make unqualified claims about unbroken tradition over two thousand years, how it "seems impossible" to avoid the conclusion that Mary was assumed (as cited above from Pope Pius XII), how the assumption "has been approved in ecclesiastical worship from the most remote times" (as cited from the Pope), etc. It's something else to qualify such claims by allowing for the assumption to have been widely unknown to Christians or even denied by them for hundreds of years. The comments from Trent and others about how some apocryphal or heretical document or a tradition behind it might go back as early as the second century, how there are some fathers who refer to an assumption from the fourth century onward, etc. fall well short of the most natural interpretation of the claims Catholics have made in other contexts.

      At 37:33, for example, Trent quotes an Anglican scholar referring to belief in the assumption as "universal" when discussing the origins of what's found in the relevant apocryphal and heretical documents. Does Trent think there was universal belief in the assumption among Christians prior to when the documents in question were written? This is a common problem in modern Catholicism. We get all of these high claims in certain places about Catholic tradition in general or a particular Catholic belief, but we get qualifications elsewhere that go against the most natural interpretation of those high claims, and the qualifications significantly weaken the seemingly high claims made elsewhere.

    2. At 1:13:50, Trent says, "I actually couldn't find a tradition that says Mary's body remained buried and decayed in the grave." I don't know why he's framing things that way. You could contradict the Catholic view without thinking Mary was buried, remained buried, or experienced decay in her body. See the examples I cite here of various sources over the centuries who contradicted the Catholic claim that Mary was assumed.

      At 1:00:52, Trent says he "admits" that the silence by Tertullian and others about an assumption of Mary when discussing relevant issues is "interesting", but goes on to say that it's not "fatal" to the Catholic claim. A lot depends on how the terms I've just quoted are being defined. We're making probability judgments. The evidence for Roman Catholic authority claims could be sufficient to outweigh the silence in question. But one of the points I've made, and which I think Gavin has been getting at, is that it would take a lot of evidence for the authority claims of Roman Catholicism for those authority claims to have the weight that's needed. We don't think there is such evidence for the authority claims, and we want people to be aware of how much evidence is needed to make up for what's lacking in contexts like Mary's assumption.

      I agree with you, Paul, that Trent makes some bad comparisons in the video. The one he makes right after the section I just cited, regarding Richard Carrier and Jesus mythicism, is an illustration. Trent gives the example of how Clement of Rome supposedly never refers to Jesus' miracles or earthly life. I've argued elsewhere that Jesus' miracles are referred to as early as the letters of Paul, including ones widely accepted as genuine. Jesus is widely referred to as a miracle worker by the early opponents of Christianity. And so on. It's not as though Gavin and other Protestants are singling out one source, like Clement, while ignoring or dismissing widespread attestation of the assumption of Mary by earlier and contemporary sources and ones who wrote shortly after Clement. Rather, Gavin has appealed to a lengthy pattern of patristic sources not mentioning an assumption of Mary while discussing relevant issues and citing other individuals they thought were resurrected, assumed, and so forth (Enoch, Elijah, Jesus, Paul, etc.). That's substantially different than the use of Clement that Trent attributes to Carrier. Then there are the problems with Carrier's argument (e.g., the fact that 1 Corinthians, which is cited positively by Clement, refers to Judas' betrayal of Jesus, though without naming Judas, in 11:23, refers to the crucifixion, refers to Jesus' having brothers, etc.). So, Carrier's argument is problematic and doesn't parallel Gavin's argument.

    3. I should note, also, that Gavin appeals to a larger number of patristic sources who are part of the pattern in question elsewhere, in the video linked in my original post in this thread. Trent is responding to an older video, in which Gavin appealed to fewer sources. But the argument, by its nature, increases in strength when more sources (and more contexts, etc.) are added. So, Trent was responding to a weaker form of Gavin's argument. I'm not faulting Trent for that in the sense that I'm criticizing him for not interacting with a different video. It makes sense for Trent to focus on the video he was responding to at the time. But it is worth noting that Gavin is aware of a larger number of patristic sources and has appealed to them elsewhere.

      And those patristic sources can't all be characterized the way Trent characterizes some of them just after his comments on Clement. The patristic sources in question frequently address categories broad enough to include Mary. They often include figures not primarily known for being assumed to heaven, like Habakkuk, Jesus, and Paul. Even though the assumption of Moses doesn't seem to have been widely accepted (and isn't implied by anything Jude says or the Mount of Transfiguration), even Moses' assumption occasionally gets mentioned while Mary's doesn't.

      Remember, it's Catholics who claim that Mary is God's greatest creation, superior to all angels and other humans, the mother of the church, etc. It's Catholics who keep telling us that the early Christians thought so highly of Mary. It's Ctaholics - such as Pope Pius XII, who referred to Mary's assumption as "a matter of such great moment and of such importance" - who tell us that the assumption is so important. And those Catholic claims don't sit well with a widespread pattern of patristic Christians choosing a large number and variety of people to cite as illustrations of assumptions, resurrections, etc. without ever citing Mary as an example for hundreds of years. Catholics can't have it both ways. They can't claim that Mary is so important, that her assumption is so important, and that the earliest Christians held such view, yet also claim that it's unsurprising under such a scenario that people for hundreds of years would refrain from mentioning Mary in these contexts while mentioning people like Enoch, Habakkuk, and Paul.

    4. At 52:23, Trent says he doesn't see the relevance of Gavin's citation of Isidore of Seville. Trent mentions that belief in Mary's assumption is known to already be in existence by the time we get to Isidore. But if some sources, like Isidore, continue to be ignorant of Mary's assumption, agnostic about it, or reject it, that shows a diversity of belief, not the sort of universal acceptance of apostolic tradition that Catholics appeal to. That's significant. So, yes, ongoing ignorance, agnosticism, or rejection in later centuries is important.

      As Gavin mentions in the clip Trent played just before commenting on Isidore, the most natural way to take comments about how nobody knows what happened at the end of Mary's life is that the issue of whether she was assumed is being included. So, when somebody like Epiphanius says that nobody knows Mary's "end", it's unnatural to limit that comment to an issue like whether she died. As I've documented elsewhere, Epiphanius refers to multiple issues pertaining to the end of Mary's life when addressing people's ignorance about what happened to Mary. He wasn't just addressing whether she died. And the term "end" is so broad as to make it unlikely that Epiphanius had as narrow a range of issues in mind as Catholics are suggesting. So, both the text and the context of Epiphanius make Trent's interpretation of him unlikely. And what Trent cites from Epiphanius' comments on Elijah at 48:56 is misleading. Epiphanius goes on to compare Mary to the apostle John and Thecla. He focuses on John's death, without mentioning an assumption, when commenting on John, and I'm not aware of any reason to think Epiphanius believed in an assumption of Thecla. As I've explained elsewhere, I think it's likely Epiphanius cited those three examples because of the agnosticism about the end of Mary's life he referred to earlier. He's citing multiple examples in order to allow for multiple scenarios. Not everything that happened in the lives of those three individuals happened in Mary's life. Epiphanius refers to how John leaned on Jesus' breast, for example. We have no reason to think Mary leaned on his breast in the same way. And we have no reason I'm aware of to think Epiphanius thought John or Thecla was assumed to heaven. Epiphanius says that Elijah never died, whereas John did die, so Epiphanius can't be saying that Mary is like these three individuals in every way. Since Epiphanius cites Elijah's having never died just after referring to his assumption, does it follow that Epiphanius was asserting that Mary never died? And if so, why did he profess ignorance of whether she died earlier, and why does he go on to compare Mary to John, who did die? Clearly, Epiphanius didn't intend to suggest that Mary is known to be like Elijah in every way mentioned. It's misleading for Trent to cite Epiphanius' comments on Elijah while ignoring what he goes on to say about John and Thecla. What all of this amounts to is that Epiphanius' testimony continues to be a major problem for Catholicism. According to Epiphanius, "nobody knows" what happened at the end of Mary's life, yet Catholics claim to know and have dogmatized their view.

    5. Regarding Revelation 12, Trent's appeal to multivalence doesn't accomplish much. Gavin and other Protestants wouldn't deny that Mary is part of the people of God. Yes, she's included in Revelation 12. But since so much of what's said in the passage is more reminiscent of the people of God than Mary in particular (e.g., the allusion to Genesis 37), and much of what the woman of Revelation 12 experiences isn't known to have occurred in Mary's life and/or seems unlikely to have occurred in her life, the primary referent seems to be the people of God, not Mary in particular. And if the people of God can be the primary referent without their having been assumed to heaven as Mary supposedly was, why think Mary was assumed that way? Even if we think of Mary being in heaven in Revelation 12, she can be there without an assumption. And if she's assumed, it doesn't have to occur at the end of her earthly life. There's no way to get the Catholic concept of an assumption of Mary as a probable conclusion to anything in Revelation 12.

      What about the reference to the ark of the covenant in heaven in Revelation 11:19? Again, Protestants agree that Mary is in heaven. It doesn't take a bodily assumption for her to be there. And even if she were to get there by means of an assumption, it doesn't follow that the assumption happened at the end of her earthly life. Furthermore, the passage goes on to mention lightning, a hailstorm, etc. Do those represent other individuals bodily assumed to heaven? James and John are referred to as sons of thunder (Mark 3:17). Maybe we should start believing in their assumption to heaven on the basis of Revelation 11:19, which mentions peals (notice the plural, which corresponds to both James and John) of thunder in heaven. There are problems with seeing Mary as the ark. Anybody who's interested can search our archives for posts discussing the subject. The earliest patristic sources refer to Jesus as the ark without saying Mary is also the ark. And which person or entity, if any, we think of as analogous to the ark depends on issues like what characteristics we have in mind and the manner in which we relate them. If you begin with a desire to find Mary in certain places, you can compare her to all sorts of entities. So what? The large number and variety of Biblical passages in which Catholics see alleged references to Mary should caution us against accepting those alleged references without further evidence.

    6. Trent mentions that Revelation 12 doesn't just refer to Mary's soul being in heaven, whereas other people in Revelation are referred to as only being in heaven as souls (6:9). But since Trent sees the woman of chapter 12 as involving more than Mary, does it follow that all of those individuals have also been bodily assumed to heaven? When chapter 12 refers to Satan in heaven without specifying a soul, does it follow that he's bodily there? What about the other figures in Revelation referred to as in heaven without a specification of only their souls (e.g., the elders in chapter 4)?

      It's unfortunate that Trent makes such an issue of later opposition to the canonicity of Revelation. The evidence for its acceptance among the earliest sources is strong. See my discussion of the subject in my post earlier this year on the significance of Ephesus in early Christianity, for example. Do a Ctrl F search for "Tertullian" and read that paragraph and the two that follow. That will give you some idea of how widely accepted Revelation was in the earliest generations. The later opposition to the book cited by Trent is less significant than that earlier support for it.

    7. By the way, the same reasoning Protestants are applying to the assumption of Mary is regularly applied elsewhere, including by Protestants. There are some late sources who refer to an assumption of John. I reject his assumption for reasons similar to why I reject an assumption of Mary. As far as arguments from silence in particular are concerned, the validity of an appeal to silence depends on the context (e.g., the difference between not seeing a fly in a room and not seeing an elephant there). For example, people rightly appeal to the likelihood that Jesus' being married would be mentioned in early sources if he was married. The silence of the early sources is significant. Likewise, the silence of the relevant sources about certain late documents (e.g., Gnostic and apocryphal gospels) is a significant line of evidence against those documents. We have to be careful about using arguments from silence, as we have to be careful about our use of other types of arguments. But rejecting arguments from silence altogether is a form of carelessness. You shouldn't avoid falling into a ditch on one side of the road by falling into the ditch on the other side.

    8. I was just thinking through recently how there's a difference between saying, "We don't have such-and-such evidence" being used as an argument from silence and its being used as pointing out the failure to overcome a low prior. There's an interesting epistemic difference here. A Protestant can, if he wishes, try to make an actual argument from silence in which the absence of the assumption in such a wide swathe of early literature actually *lowers* its probability. The point is especially well-taken that the Catholics are the ones emphasizing its importance, which in a way strengthens an actual argument from silence. But there is another way to point to that silence, which is not an argument from silence: Pointing it out draws attention to the fact that the proposition that she was assumed is highly substantive and that we have a right to ask for strong historical evidence from reliable, knowledgeable sources before we give assent to such a claim on historical grounds. The silence of the earlier documents can be merely pointing out that we don't have such evidence. Therefore, we are returned to the low prior probability of the event, based on its specificity. This is also bound up with refuting Catholic claims that this was universally believed. They can't support that; they don't have evidence for that. And pointing out the silence is just pointing out that they've made an unsubstantiated claim. Note that this use of silence to show that we are still stuck with the low prior (due to specificity) would apply even to a mundane claim. If someone insists that a Roman named Gaius Publius sneezed exactly three times on January 2, AD 63, while sitting outside his villa in Rome, but has no testimonial evidence for it, I'm justified in continuing not to believe that extremely specific claim.

  2. At 49:50 Trent cites Efrem in the following words: "I shall enter in a moment, the verdant gardens of paradise, and there I shall praise God, where Eve fell so ingloriously." which coincides with what catholic apologists after Juniper Carol use (see for example:, showing that Trent did not read Ephrem in his context.

    The words come from "Hymns on the Nativity" 2.7 where Mary says:

    “Most of all those healed, I rejoice, for I conceived Him; most of all those magnified by Him, He has magnified me, for I gave birth to Him. I am about to enter into His living Paradise, and in the place in which Eve succumbed, I shall glorify Him. For of all created women, He was most pleased with me,” [and] He willed that I should be mother to Him, and it pleased Him that He should be a child to me.” (Ephrem the Syrian, "Hymns", Paulist Press, New York 1989, p. 77).

    The context clearly shows that Mary was talking about the Incarnation not her death. Additionally instead of "verdant gardens of paradise", the text has "His living Paradise".

    Trent didn't know that because he relies on secondary sources. Moreover he links this quote with Shoemaker who (without saying anything about Ephrem and Mary's assumption), writes about Ephrem's eschatological view as such the saints will go to Paradise and be there in their bodies. Trent seeing here and there the word "Paradise" unjustly connected Juniper's citation with Shoemakers words, which allowed him to pull Ephrem on his side.

  3. "belief in an assumption seems to be absent and sometimes even contradicted in such a larger number and variety of sources who are of a more credible nature."

    But of course, that does not matter if your church Rome has presumed to infallibly declare she is and will be perpetually infallible whenever she speaks in accordance with her infallibly defined (scope and subject-based) formula, which renders her declaration that she is infallible, to be infallible, as well as all else she accordingly declares.

    For then you can claim your church "remembers" whatever is absent from Scripture and written history from the era it would be mentioned in. Meaning Rome can claim to "remember" what she wants.

    Which is the recourse of no less than Cardinal Ratzinger:

    Before Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven was defined, all theological faculties in the world were consulted for their opinion. Our teachers' answer was emphatically negative... Altaner, the patrologist from Wurzburg¦had proven in a scientifically persuasive manner that the doctrine of Mary's bodily Assumption into heaven was unknown before the 5C; this doctrine, therefore, he argued, could not belong to the "apostolic tradition. And this was his conclusion, which my teachers at Munich shared.

    But...subsequent "remembering" (cf. Jn 16:4, for instance) can come to recognize what it has not caught sight of previously ["caught sight of?" Because there was nothing to see in the earliest period where it should have been, before a fable developed] .." (Joseph Ratzinger, Milestones (Ignatius, n.d.), pp. 58-59).

    For history, tradition and Scripture only consists of and means what Rome says in any conflict, which reasoning Manning resorted to:

    It was the charge of the Reformers that the Catholic doctrines were not primitive, and their pretension was to revert to antiquity. But the appeal to antiquity is both a treason and a heresy. It is a treason because it rejects the Divine voice of the Church at this hour, and a heresy because it denies that voice to be Divine... I may say in strict truth that the Church has no antiquity....Primitive and modern are predicates, not of truth, but of ourselves...The only Divine evidence to us of what was primitive is the witness and voice of the Church at this hour. . — Dr. Henry Edward Cardinal Manning, Archbishop of Westminster, The Temporal Mission of the Holy Ghost: Or Reason and Revelation, , pp. 227-228.