Those ascended into Heaven
This past Tuesday my Roman Catholic friends celebrated the Assumption of Mary, the mother of Jesus; but I can’t find reference to her assumption in the Bible. I know we Protestants do not recognize the doctrine of Mary’s assumption, but is there biblical support for a doctrine of assumption?
There are two individuals in the Bible who were assumed (from the Latin ad, “to,” and sumere, “to take”) into heaven: Adam’s great grandson Enoch “walked with God: and he was not; for God took him” (Genesis 5:24); and Elijah, “As they were walking along and talking together, suddenly a chariot of fire and horses of fire appeared and separated the two of them, and Elijah went up to heaven in a whirlwind” (2 Kings 2:11).
Moreover, in the Septuagint version Elisha was also assumed into heaven. Thus, one may conclude there is biblical support for a doctrine of assumption — but not necessarily for the doctrine of “the assumption of Mary.”
Since there is no reference to the death of Mary nor of her assumption found in the Bible, we Protestants do not ascribe to Mary’s bodily assumption. Yet, both the Roman Catholic and the Eastern Orthodox Church teach that Mary was received directly into heaven and a special feast commemorates “The Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary” on Aug. 15.
The Assumption of Mary is the fourth and last Marian dogma of the Roman Catholic Church, having been decreed by the Pope in 1950. This lastly defined dogma concerning Mary is the only infallible pronouncement made by any pope after the doctrine of his infallibility was proclaimed at the First Vatican Council in 1870.
The first three Marian dogmas are known as the “Mother of God,” “Perpetual Virgin,” and the “Immaculate Conception.” Almost all the Protestant Reformers (including Luther and Calvin) held to the first two dogmas because they had more to do with Christ’s divine nature than with Mary and both were in place by the fourth century. The last two are strictly Marian dogmas and were not officially pronounced until some 1,500 years later.
The first written witness to Mary’s assumption appeared in the apocryphal gospel, Pseudo-Melito, written around the middle of the sixth century. The next witness was Gregory, who was Bishop of Tours in Gaul at the end of the six-century. He proposed no reasons for the privilege other than a vague reference to the holiness of her body. Nothing was said of when, where or in what manner the Assumption occurred. The death of Mary, together with her final state after death, was also treated in the apocryphal literature known as the Transitus Mariae.
Between 1854 and 1954 Mary’s importance in Roman Catholic thought and life grew almost uncontrollably. The period began with the definition of the third dogma in 1854, “The Immaculate Conception” (that Mary was herself conceived miraculously free of original sin). It ended just after the definition of the fourth dogma, “The Glorious Bodily Assumption of Mary” (in which it states Mary was translated into heaven in a glorious body and was seated next to Christ where she interceded for believers who prayed to her), in the Roman Catholic “Marian Year of 1954.”
To most it seemed obvious that since so many of the rank-and-file Roman Catholics already believed in Mary’s bodily assumption, it was only natural that the Roman Catholic Church would define this tenet as dogma. From Christology, Roman Catholics concluded that, on the basis of Jesus’ treatment of Mary, her glorification was to be expected.
Another line of reasoning was that since sin was the cause of mortal corruption, and Mary, per Rome’s third Marian dogma of her “Immaculate Conception” was without sin, then certainly her body could never have seen corruption. Lacking scriptural bases for arguing that the Assumption was a revealed truth, but wanting a scientific, objective basis for their decisions, Roman Catholic theologians appealed to a theological conclusion drawn from consideration of the already accepted dogmas.