How Great the Agony of Reformation: T.F. Torrance (and Epiphanius) on the Deviant Dogma of Mary’s Bodily Assumption

Today, the 15th of August, is the feast day of the bodily assumption of Mary, formally promulgated as Roman Catholic dogma and necessary to saving faith by Pope Pius XII on 1 November 1950. While this dogma is an obligatory article of belief for roughly half of the world’s professing Christians, I, like my Reformation forebears, must ardently protest it as a deviation of the apostolic tradition delivered once for all to the saints in Holy Scripture. Indeed, as Reformed theologian T.F. Torrance explains below, the dogma celebrated today is so great a deviation that it calls into question, if not wholly obliterates, the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity. Torrance writes:

Perhaps the most stunning fact about the proclamation of the [dogma of the assumption of Mary] is the way in which the Roman Church has sought to justify it: on another foundation than that of the prophets and apostles upon which the whole Church is built…. Far from there being any Scriptural authority for the idea it is actually contrary to the unique eschatological character of Christ’s Resurrection and7f61a57a88511b972464b0e6c4abd654--catholic-saints-roman-catholic Ascension, and the unique relation this bears to the resurrection of all who will rise again at the Parousia; in fact it turns the assumption of Mary into one of the saving acts of God alongside the salvation-events of Christ Himself.

Far from there being any justification for the notion in the tradition of the Church, even after the sixth century the liturgy of the feast of the Assumption of Mary regularly speaks of her dormitiopausatio, and transitus animae, with never a word about a physical assumption…. In no sense therefore can the new dogma be said to fulfil the requirements of the Vincentian canon: [what has been believed everywhere, always, and by all] [for further justification of this point, see the quote from Epiphanius below]. The horrifying thing about this dogma therefore is not only that it has no biblical or apostolic foundation, but that here quite plainly the Roman Church claims to be able to produce at will “apostolic tradition” out of itself. In other words, here where the Pope exercises for the first time the authority given him by the Vatican Council of 1870, he both lays claim to be able to produce dogmatic truth, and to do that apart from apostolic legitimation….

This inevitably has the most far-reaching consequences for ecumenical discussions with Roman Catholics. The Evangelical Church takes its stand upon the words of the Lord in St. John’s Gospel which declare that the Spirit of Truth will not speak anything of Himself but recalls the Church to all things which Christ has said, and so leads it into all Truth. Bound thus to the Holy Spirit speaking through the Scriptures, the Evangelical Church can only be profoundly shocked both at the extent of Roman deviation from the apostolic teaching and at the fundamental renunciation of the apostolic foundation which this involves. Add to this the fact that the Vatican Council, which gave the Pope the authority he has used, declares also that such ex cathedra definitions of dogma are “in and from themselves irreformable”, and it becomes perfectly apparent that the Roman Church can never go back to the apostolic foundation for correction and reform.

The second important fact we must note about the new dogma is that it brings Roman Catholic Mariology to its crowning point. The Evangelical Church recognizes the unique place of Mary in the Gospel as the mother of Jesus Christ the Son of God, and will not separate its thought of her from the divine act of the Incarnation. But it recognizes also that Mary was a sinner who herself in the Magnificat acknowledged a Saviour, and it remembers that on the Cross Jesus gave Mary His earthly mother to be the mother of John, clearly declaring that with His death His relation to her was not to be continued as it was before. She stood there one with the other sinners whose sins He was bearing as the Lamb of God, and as such came under the judgment of the Cross as well as its redemption.

Roman theology has, however, for long been in the process of extracting Mary from the communion of the Church of redeemed sinners, and separating her from the fellowship of the faithful…. More significant still, however, is the fact that the Roman Church has, through some communicatio idiomatum, been transferring to Mary the uniqueness of Jesus Christ. The Scriptures teach us that there is salvation in none other than Jesus Christ, for there is none other name given among men whereby we must be saved. He only is Mediator, is Son of God, is King. But precisely parallel with these divine attributes we find the Roman Church speaking of Mary as Maria Mediatrix et Corredemptrix … Now that Mary is declared to have ascended into heaven like Christ, we have promulgated the last stage in this parallelism between Christ and the Virgin Mary.

Let us be quite fair. The Roman Catholic Church does not teach any absolute likeness or identity of being and work between Christ and Mary, for Mary is a creature who has received divine favour… If Christ is Lord and King in his own right, Mary is regarded as Queen on the ground of Christ’s work, and as His helper, but as such she so enters into the very redemptive work of Christ and so belongs to the great salvation-events that Mariology definitely becomes a part of Roman Christology. The physical assumption of the Virgin Mary means that she is taken up into the divine sphere, and that it is there that she belongs rather than to the Church that waits to see its Lord and become like Him. What confusion this brings to the apostolic faith!…

Here at last the Roman Church has taken a definite step which calls in question its apostolicity…. To be the One, Holy, Catholic Church means that throughout all the changes of history until the Second Advent of Jesus Christ the Church is and remains identical with itself … in that it maintains the teaching of the apostles in the obedience of faith, and does not alter its nature by changing its foundation, by subtracting from it or adding to it other than that which has already been laid. Therein lies the apostolicity of the Church of Jesus Christ. But now that the Roman Church has taken a step which inevitably calls in question its apostolicity, Protestants are aghast…. In our brotherly responsibility which as the Evangelical Church we bear toward them we pray for them, and pray the more earnestly knowing how great is the agony of Reformation.[1]

Like Torrance, the Reformers in the 16th century decried, rightly in my view, Catholic Mariology as heretical insofar as it is contrary to Scripture and foreign to the early catholic church of the fathers. This is nowhere more clearly seen than in the dogma of Mary’s bodily assumption. No doubt Catholics will counterprotest this claim. However, I would simply point them to what may be the earliest extant tradition on this issue written by the 4th century bishop of Salamis Epiphanius in his assault against heretical sects:

And there have been many such things to mislead the deluded, though the saints are not responsible for anyone’s stumbling; the human mind finds no rest, but is perverted to evils. The holy virgin may have died and been buried—her falling image1asleep was with honor, her death in purity, her crown in virginity. Or she may have been put to death—as the scripture says, “And a sword shall pierce through her soul”—her fame is among the martyrs and her holy body, by which light rose on the world, [rests] amid blessings. Or she may have remained alive, for God is not incapable of doing whatever he wills. No one knows her end.

But we must not honor the saints to excess; we must honor their Master. It is time for the error of those who have gone astray to cease. Mary is not God and does not have her body from heaven but by human conception, though, like Isaac, she was provided by promise. And no one should make offerings in her name, for he is destroying his own soul. But neither, in turn, should he be insolent and offer insult to the holy Virgin.[2]

There it is, clear testimony from the Catholic Church’s own revered tradition that, at the time of Epiphanius’s writing, Mary was neither honored “to excess” by receiving “offerings” nor was her bodily assumption part of the apostolic faith which Epiphanius had received, defended against heresy, and then handed on to future generations. Thus, Torrance is fundamentally right when he states that the bodily assumption of Mary does not meet the Vincentian criteria for catholic dogma, since it clearly was not, at least in Epiphanius’s day, believed everywhere, always, and by all. Hence, it should never have been declared such by Pope Pius XII, and the fact that it was throws the legitimacy of the Catholic Church’s claim to apostolicity into serious doubt.

And that’s putting it nicely.

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[1] T.F. Torrance, Conflict and Agreement in the Church, vol. 1: Order and Disorder (Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1996), 157-160, 162.

[2] Frank Williams, trans., The Panarion of Epiphanius of Salamis: Book II and III (Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1994), 635-636. Thanks to Beggars All for directing me to this source.

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