Roman Catholicism

 

The Bodily Assumption, Scripture and Tradition

 


by James White

For a number of years now I have been presenting to audiences, classes, and just about anyone who would lend me their ear, the concept of the Marian dogmas (and the Bodily Assumption of Mary in particular) as the single best example of sola ecclesia I can find.

What is sola ecclesia? It is the concept that the Roman Church (exemplified in the Papacy especially) is the sole and final authority in all matters. Scripture and Tradition (whatever that is in particular) are subservient to the Church, despite Rome’s protests otherwise. A moment’s reflection demonstrates why this is: Rome claims to define both what Scripture is (the canon), and what Scripture says (interpretation of particular passages, as well as the message of Scripture en toto). Likewise, she claims to be able to determine what is "tradition" (Irenaeus’ statement that Mary is a parallel to Eve is "tradition," but his statement that Jesus lived to be more than 50, despite the fact he specifically claims this is a tradition passed on by the Apostle John, is not "tradition") and what this tradition then means. Hence, if you control the definition of both the content and meaning of both Scripture and Tradition and you claim to be infallible as well (meaning you cannot retract what you have decided these things teach and have officially defined these views in the past), the result is inevitable: sola ecclesia. The Church as the final authority in all things. And this is exactly what we see in the promulgation of "dogmas" such as the Immaculate Conception and the Bodily Assumption of Mary.

It is not my intention to discuss these dogmas specifically in this article. You will find a written discussion of them in my book, Mary---Another Redeemer? and an audio debate on them on our web site (click here for the section of the debate on the Immaculate Conception, and here for the section on the Bodily Assumption). Instead, I wish to use this dogma as an example of how Roman Catholic apologists use erroneous argumentation to press their cause.

My work as an apologist would be so much easier if everyone had to study debate and logic in school…or in life. J Politicians would be able to present only 3% of their current verbiage if the public was able to identify flaws in argumentation and reasoning and shoot them down in flames as soon as they were uttered. Public discourse would have a completely different character to it if, in fact, people held logic and rationality in high esteem, and strove to think in a clear, orderly fashion.

Unfortunately, bad arguments are often the most effective arguments, if by effectiveness we refer to convincing people you are right by whatever means you can. Advertising is normally based upon using logically invalid arguments to convince people they need your good or service. And, judging by the billions of dollars spent on advertising in our land, it obviously works. The same is true in religious debate: most often it is bad argumentation that carries the day. It is the argument that stirs the emotions (rather than the mind) that often wins the debate or gains the convert.

Technical errors in argumentation are not always easy to detect. If you speak with confidence and a sense of authority, you can often skate right past the need to substantiate your assertions, use proper argumentation, and no one will be the wiser.

A Recent Example

Let us take as an example a response given by Robert Sungenis in a book he edited titled Not By Scripture Alone. In his chapter "Point/Counterpoint: Protestant Objections and Catholic Answers," Mr. Sungenis provides responses to common arguments raised by Protestant apologists (myself included). At one point he attempts to respond to the assertion made by Norman Geisler and Ralph MacKenzie that the Bodily Assumption demonstrates that Rome’s dogmatic definitions are suspect. Specifically:

Second, support from tradition for the dogma of the bodily assumption of Mary is late and weak. Yet in spite of the lack of any real evidence from Scripture or any substantial evidence from the teachings of the early church fathers, Rome chose to pronounce this an infallible truth of the Catholic faith. In short, Roman Catholic dogmas are not the product of rationally weighing the evidence of tradition but rather of arbitrarily choosing which of the many conflicting traditions they wish to pronounce infallible (Roman Catholics and Evangelicals: Agreements and Differences, 1995, p. 198).(a)

Now, let us note the specifics of this assertion, one with which I would be in full agreement:

1) Historical or "traditional" support for the dogma of the assumption is late and weak. This is a fact beyond controversy. All reputable historians and theologians admit this.

2) There is no real scriptural evidence for the assumption, another thing admitted by reputable theologians.

3) Rome has defined this dogma as an infallible truth of the Catholic faith. It is not an "option," but is de fide, definitional of what it means to be Catholic.

4) Given the preceding facts, it follows that at least this Roman dogma was not forced upon the Church by the weight of evidence, but is, in fact, the result of an arbitrary process (i.e., sola ecclesia!).

Now, how does Mr. Sungenis respond to this consistent, solid argument? His response is found on pages 256 and 257 of his book. Let’s look at it:

First, we cannot help but see a smoke screen in this apologist’s argument. Let’s say we agree, for the sake of argument, that documentation on the Assumption of Mary is "late and weak." But now let us turn the tables: documentation on Baptistmal Regeneration and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are two of the most thoroughly addressed and substantiated doctrines in the writings of the Church Fathers, yet this particular Protestant apologist believes in neither of them. So, is "documentation," whether early or late, the real issue for him? Obviously not. In effect, it is this apologist who is "arbitrarily choosing" which dogmas from the Church Fathers he wishes to believe, despite the overwhelming evidence of views contrary to his.

Second, we must insist that whether "late" or "weak" in this apologist’s opinion, the fact remains that the Church Fathers wrote enough, and Scripture said enough, to warrant the Church to investigate and judge whether the doctrine of the Assumption was valid. The issue is not the amount of evidence but the Church’s right to warrant a judgment on the available evidence, just as a judge in a court of law can call for a hearing and from this decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a trial and verdict. The issue is the authority of the Church, not the Assumption of Mary, per se. Second, Protestants have no evidence from either Church Fathers or Scripture that the Assumption of Mary is not true. If, as they claim, Scripture is silent on the issue, well, Scripture is silent on a lot of issues, but that does not make the particular issue untrue or non-existent. Third, the concept of being assumed into heaven is not foreign to Scripture (e.g., Enoch, Elijah, and possibly Moses). Fourth, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, since it is consistent with the concept of assumption in Scripture, is not in the least detrimental to the sensitivities and logic of the Christian faith.

Now, I hasten to point out that the mere act of giving a defense that sounds reasonable is half the battle for the Roman Catholic apologist. Why? Because of the ignorance of the Protestant listener regarding the fact that Rome has come up with arguments in favor of her beliefs. The very fact of any kind of argument is normally shocking to the Protestant who has never once considered the responses of the Roman camp. Whether those arguments are valid is, unfortunately, often a completely different issue. The fact that the Catholic doesn’t reply with, "Well, ask my priest" (as many a nominal Catholic does) is normally enough to fluster the Protestant who hasn’t done his or her homework.

But, the obvious question is, does the response hold? Let’s look closely at it and see.

Smoke Screens?

The first response provided is normally your strongest attempt at substantiating your position. And if you are going to attempt to shift the grounds of the debate, you will normally do so very quickly, so as to have time to convince the audience that you have given an answer, even when you have actually avoided the issue. This is exactly what Mr. Sungenis does here. Let’s look again at the first argument provided:

First, we cannot help but see a smoke screen in this apologist’s argument. Let’s say we agree, for the sake of argument, that documentation on the Assumption of Mary is "late and weak." But now let us turn the tables: documentation on Baptistmal Regeneration and the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist are two of the most thoroughly addressed and substantiated doctrines in the writings of the Church Fathers, yet this particular Protestant apologist believes in neither of them. So, is "documentation," whether early or late, the real issue for him? Obviously not. In effect, it is this apologist who is "arbitrarily choosing" which dogmas from the Church Fathers he wishes to believe, despite the overwhelming evidence of views contrary to his.

Let’s try to diagram this argument:

1) The Protestant apologist is using bad argumentation, a smoke-screen (assertion)

2) The Protestant’s argument is invalid because:

a) The early Fathers believed in baptismal regeneration and the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, (assertion) and

b) The Protestant does not believe in these dogmas (fact), therefore

c) The Protestant is guilty of arbitrarily choosing which dogmas he wishes to believe (conclusion)

But what, specifically, does this have to do with the assertion made by Geisler and MacKenzie? Neither would claim that their faith is, in fact, the ancient and constant faith of the "Church," nor that it represents a "unanimous consent" of the early Fathers. Nor would either writer claim that their church has been invested with the authority to define infallibly dogmas such as the assumption of Mary. Even if a person were to grant the assertion that the early Fathers believed in baptismal regeneration and the presence of Christ in the Eucharist as Sungenis asserts (and the second half of that is highly debatable), what does this logically have to do with the observation made by Geisler and MacKenzie? Obviously, nothing at all. This argument shifts the grounds away from examining the claim of Rome that she is able to define dogma infallibly and that she does so on the basis of Scripture and Tradition (the bodily assumption demonstrating this is untrue) to a polemic assertion that the Protestant is inconsistent to accept some of what the early Fathers taught but not all. Logically, Sungenis’ argument is invalid.

We might note, just in passing, that his argument is also self-refuting. Rome does pick and choose between the conflicting teachings and traditions of the early Church. Rome does not embrace, for example, either of the two most popular theories of the atonement that predominated the first thousand years of Church history: the ransom to Satan theory and the recapitulation theory. Why not? If there is some inherent flaw in exercising discernment in reading the writings of ancient Christians (are we not to do the same thing today?), why doesn’t this likewise constitute a "smoke screen" when Rome does it?

So we see that the first part of Sungenis’ argument fails a basic examination for logical coherence. Let us move to the second argument.

Sola Ecclesia Illustrated

Second, we must insist that whether "late" or "weak" in this apologist’s opinion, the fact remains that the Church Fathers wrote enough, and Scripture said enough, to warrant the Church to investigate and judge whether the doctrine of the Assumption was valid. The issue is not the amount of evidence but the Church’s right to warrant a judgment on the available evidence, just as a judge in a court of law can call for a hearing and from this decide whether there is sufficient evidence for a trial and verdict. The issue is the authority of the Church, not the Assumption of Mary, per se.

Let us again attempt to diagram this argument:

1) There was sufficient scriptural and patristic evidence to "warrant" Rome’s investigation and judgment of the doctrine (assertion)

2) The issue is not evidence but ecclesiastical authority (assertion)

This is really the heart of the argument, and is, in fact, a clear statement of sola ecclesia. No evidence is offered regarding what scriptural and patristic evidence there was that led to an investigation and judgment of the doctrine. There is, in point of fact, no biblical evidence. Every attempt on Rome’s part to come up with any has always resulted in the most absurd eisegesis that her more scholarly proponents do not even make the attempt, admitting that express scriptural support is not to be had (see the discussion in Mary---Another Redeemer? pp. 51-55 and attached notes). The same is to be said about patristic sources. Roman historians admit that the first historical reference to the concept is not found in orthodox Christian writings, but in the writings of heretics, specifically, in the Transitus literature of the late fifth century. This literature was condemned as heretical by the bishop of Rome, Gelasius, in A.D. 495. Generations of Christians lived and died without ever once uttering a word about a dogma that is now defined infallibly by Rome. Clement of Rome, Ignatius, Tertullian, Irenaeus, Melito, Cyprian, Athanasius, Augustine, Theodoriet, Cyril of Jerusalem, Chrysostom—they all lived and died, wrote volume after volume of theology and preached thousands and thousands of sermons, but never once taught as a doctrine the idea of the bodily assumption of Mary. And so is it not logical that we ask the question: why should anyone today embrace as definitional of the Christian faith itself a doctrine unknown to the Scriptures and the earliest Christians?

Logically, then, the burden lies upon the Roman apologist. But does Mr. Sungenis shoulder this burden? No, he does not even try. He simply makes the assertion that there was "enough evidence." I deny the assertion. He now has to prove it. An assertion without proof has no logical validity as an argument. But in reality, Rome’s claim is not based upon Scripture or history: it is a claim based upon the authority Rome claims for herself as the infallible Church. Sola ecclesia. This is merely the statement of that claim. Whether the assumption took place or not is, in fact, epistemologically irrelevant for the faithful follower of sola ecclesia. The Church says it did, hence, it did, period. If the Church says you must believe it, you believe it. Period. The discussion is, in reality, closed at this point. There can be no rational discourse, because at its root, the doctrine is not held on that basis. It is held on the authority of the Roman Church. Appeals to things such as Scripture and Tradition are, in fact, unnecessary, and are far better candidates for the term ‘smoke-screen’ than anything else.

Thus far, then, we have no valid argumentation whatsoever in response to the assertion made by the Protestant apologist(s). In fact, we have verification: by saying the actual assumption is not the issue, but the Church’s authority, Sungenis has, unwittingly, confirmed what Geisler and MacKenzie had asserted: that the dogma is the arbitrary result of the Church’s authority, not the result of the preponderance of the scriptural and patristic evidence. Logically, Sungenis has just capitulated, all while making it look like he is giving an answer!

Scripture Doesn’t Condemn It

The next section contains a typographical error. He had already said, "second," so the next should start with "third," instead of "second."

Second, Protestants have no evidence from either Church Fathers or Scripture that the Assumption of Mary is not true. If, as they claim, Scripture is silent on the issue, well, Scripture is silent on a lot of issues, but that does not make the particular issue untrue or non-existent.

Trying to outline this particular argument is difficult, it is so transparently invalid:

1) Scripture and Church history do not make the assertion that the assumption is untrue (assertion)

2) Scripture is silent on this, and many other issues. (fact)

3) Scriptural silence does not mean a particular unmentioned issue is untrue or non-existent (assertion).

This kind of argumentation truly strikes one as being desperate. There is no specific Scriptural condemnation of the Book of Mormon, the Watchtower Bible and Tract Society, Wookies, Gungans, the Men in Black, leprechauns, the Loch Ness Monster, and any number of other things. But, if someone were to come along and make belief in Wookies definitional of the Christian faith, we would have good reason to point to the utter lack of scriptural and patristic testimony as reason for rejection of the claim that such a doctrine is apostolic. This argument is fallacious on its face: it is Mr. Sungenis’ job to substantiate the positive assertion that the assumption is an apostolic doctrine binding upon Christians. Saying, "well, the Bible doesn’t condemn it" is not a logical argument.

It is Consistent

Mr. Sungenis concludes with two more statements:

Third, the concept of being assumed into heaven is not foreign to Scripture (e.g., Enoch, Elijah, and possibly Moses). Fourth, the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary, since it is consistent with the concept of assumption in Scripture, is not in the least detrimental to the sensitivities and logic of the Christian faith.

Again, let’s summarize:

1) People were assumed into heaven in Scripture (fact)

2) Mary’s assumption is therefore not inconsistent with the fact that others have been assumed into heaven. (assertion)

3) The doctrine is not detrimental to the Christian faith (conclusion)

There is no question that some few people were assumed into heaven by God. This is undisputed. Of course, nowhere in the statements of Geisler and MacKenzie do we see them saying that God could not have assumed Mary into heaven. No one makes that argument. Hence, we again see here the shifting of the grounds of the question. No one has asserted that assumption, per se, is inconsistent with the Christian faith. What has been said is that there is no basis, Scriptural or patristic, for the infallible definition of the assumption of Mary as a dogma of the Christian faith. Saying "it happened to Enoch, it could happen to Mary" is no more of a logical argument than if someone began teaching as an apostolic, dogmatic teaching that we should kill our enemies if they make fun of us by pointing to the incident when a bear killed children for mocking a prophet, and saying, "See, it is not inconsistent with Scripture."

Surely claiming infallible dogmatic status for something places a great burden of proof upon the defender of such a belief, and we can feel for Mr. Sungenis and his compatriots given the tremendous task that they must undertake. But it does not follow that the standard can be lowered just because they may not feel up to the task of defending Rome’s assertions. The bar is set by Rome, not by the Protestant apologist who responds to her claims.

Conclusion

So we see how again the Roman Catholic apologist is forced to use numerous invalid arguments and to in fact argue in a circle ("the assumption is true because Rome says it is") to defend Rome’s dogmatic assertions. Unfortunately, many do not wish to invest the effort to think through the arguments, outline the assertions, and discover for themselves the errors inherent in the system. But to the person who loves truth and values freedom from the bondage of tradition and man-made religious beliefs, such is the price that must be paid. We are called to "struggle" and "contend" for the faith once for all delivered to the saints. That faith delivered to the saints of which Jude spoke (Jude 3) did not include the bodily assumption of Mary.


(a) I note that Mr. Sungenis did not include at this point the rest of the citation from Geisler and MacKenzie.  It reads, "The so-called unanimous consent of the Fathers to which Trent commanded allegiance is a fiction; no such consent actually exists since the Fathers often held diametrically opposing views.  In fact, not even a majority, to say nothing of unanimous consent, can be found among the early fathers on some traditions that were later pronounced infallibly true."