Are the Immaculate Conception and Assumption Post-Reformation Innovations?

Diego Velazquez,
Immaculate Conception (1618)

An Anglican reader with a love for Mary described her concerns about the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption:

I appreciate that Mariology grounds our understanding of Christ’s human nature, and that without her assent the incarnation could not have happened. We should call her blessed. 
Out of obedience to that call, I have given much time and thought to Marian devotion. I appreciate that doctrine develops over time from principles embryonically present in scripture. However, the post reformation doctrines of the immaculate conception and assumption puzzle me, not because they inherently contradict scripture, but because I cannot find their embryonic form. The barrier that this presents to Christian unity saddens me.

This is a reasonable question, and it deserves a straightforward answer. It’s also a question that I’m sure many Catholics have wondered as well: do we find a belief in the Immaculate Conception and the Assumption of Mary, at least in an embryonic form, in the early Church? Yes and yes. Let’s look at each doctrine in turn.

I. The Immaculate Conception of Mary

This is the doctrine that Mary was preserved from original and actual sin from the moment of her conception. I’ve written before on the way that Scripture depicts Mary as the New Eve, the Ark of the New Covenant, the Temple Gate, and the builder of the Temple.

All of these are images of purity and sinlessness, and total consecration to God:

  • Eve was without original or actual sin while she was still named “Woman,” 
  • the Ark and the Temple were made with the finest materials, and consecrated totally to the Lord, and
  • the builder of the Temple had to have hands free of blood (which is why David couldn’t build the Temple). 
Theotokos Panachranta (c. 1050)

This is also why Mary is a Virgin: her Virginity is a symbol of her sinlessness, and of her unadulterated devotion to God. Yesterday, I talked about another Marian image that the early Christians pointed to: that she’s an Icon of the Church, which is also a Virgin, Bride, and Mother.

The Church Fathers immediately pick up these things, as I’ve noted before in the context of the Eve imagery. By the time St. Augustine lays out the doctrine of original sin, he’s careful to exempt the Virgin Mary, and doesn’t feel any need to explain why. The early Church already knew she was sinless.

This was the universal belief of the Church, and hardly a post-Reformation development of some sort. Even Luther believed in Mary’s sinlessness (although he was contradictory on whether or not he believed in the Immaculate Conception). It would be much more accurate to say that the post-Reformation development was Protestantism diminishing Mary more and more. If you don’t believe me, read the immediate pre-Reformation writings on Mary, and tell me which Church would be comfortable proclaiming those things today.

Where, prior to the Reformation, there was resistance to the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception, much of it centered around two issues: (1) the doctrine of original sin, and (2) the point at which the soul enters the body. On the first of these, you’ll occasionally find those (like many Eastern Orthodox today) who admit that Mary never sinned, but believe she still suffered the taint of original sin. This raises broader questions about how the East and West tend to understand original sin. On the second, you’ll occasionally find those, like St. Thomas Aquinas, who believed that “the Blessed Virgin was sanctified before her birth from the womb,” but believed that this occurred after conception, at the moment of “ensoulment,” in which a rational soul was infused in her body.

This is all a far cry from Protestantism for two reasons. First, even these objections presuppose that Mary never sinned. But second, Protestants tend to agree with Catholics (rather than Orthodox) about original sin, and don’t believe in the idea of post-conception “ensoulment.”

II. The Assumption of Mary

Jean Fouquet, Death of the Virgin (c. 1455)

As for the Assumption, there are passages that are understood as prophetic of this event.  For example, in John 14:3, Jesus says of the Church, “if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am.” If Mary is the icon of the Church, as the early Christians believed, the Assumption is a fulfillment of this promise.

But it should be admitted up front that it’s true that Scripture doesn’t record it happening, in the sense of describing it as a historical event.  But this makes sense: it probably occurred after the Gospels and Acts were written, and was certainly outside of the time period covered by those writings.   This is true of other significant early-Christian events: namely, the Destruction of Jerusalem, which was of enormous impact for the Church, but which is never described (only prophesied). 
There’s a decent chance that the only Book of the New Testament written after the Assumption was the Book of Revelation.  In Revelation, we see what appears to be Mary, in her glorified body, enthroned in Heaven (Rev. 12:1). I don’t think it takes eisegesis to conclude that the woman of Revelation 12, depicted as the Mother of Jesus (Rev. 12:5), is Mary.

So Revelation 12 seems to assume the truth of the Assumption, although I can certainly see the ambiguity. In any case, we’re not believers in sola Scriptura. It’s enough to say that Scripture is consistent with the doctrine of the Assumption, and that the doctrine is of Apostolic origin. Within the early Church, the Feast of the Assumption (or Dormition) was celebrated in art and Liturgy throughout various parts of the global Church.  Again, it’s impossible to write this off a post-Reformation development, because the Feast is celebrated by Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts alike, and we haven’t been in a unified Church since the mid-400s.

Is it possible that the Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts are all wrong on this? I’d say no: to claim that every part of the Apostolic Church is in error is to simply cut oneself from the Apostolic Church.

There’s a common misunderstanding that because the Church didn’t dogmatically define the doctrines of the Immaculate Conception and Assumption until a later date (1854 and 1950).  But an honest examination of the evidence shows quite clearly that innumerable early Christians held firmly to these dogmas.  True, as with every Christian doctrine, there was occasional dissent.  The very reason it’s necessary for the Church to make the effort to settle a particular topic is precisely because dissent and confusion arises from time to time.  But the idea that these are some sort of post-Reformation innovations is historically false.

Update: I’m going to be on Son Rise Morning Show next week, talking about this post.  More details later.


  1. Hi Joe. I continue to read and enjoy all of your posts. I have a question.
    A pro life organization(NPLA)has asked me to sign a petition against the HHS mandate because abortifacients are included in the insurance. If contraception and sterilization are not included as objectionable, doesn’t that weaken our fight against the mandate? What if Obama gave in to only that one provision? Hasn’t contraception led to sterilization and abortion? Do protestants miss this point?

  2. Joe two points which you probably know, but I thought I’d bring up for clarity’s sake:

    1) The Orthodox position on the Immaculate Conception can be characterized as “not so much wrong, as unnecessary” due to the differences in the understanding of original sin, as you mention. For the Orthodox, mortality is the heritable consequence of original sin. To say that Mary was preserved from original sin would mean that she couldn’t have died, and since Christ got His human nature from her, it would mean that He couldn’t either.

    2. The Orthodox problem with the Assumption is the ambiguity (as they see it) regarding whether Mary actually died. That’s why they use the term “dormition” which means falling asleep. They are opposed to any suggestion that she didn’t die prior to being taken to heaven.

    An additional problem I have with the Immaculate Conception has to do with infinite regression. If Mary had to be preserved from original sin to avoid passing it on to Jesus, then wouldn’t Saints Joachin and Anna need to be preserved too? And their parents and so on? Conversely, if the immaculate Mary could be conceived in St. Anna’s non-immaculate womb, it stands to reason that Jesus could’ve been conceived immaculate even if the Theotokos wasn’t.

  3. “If Mary had to be preserved from original sin to avoid passing it on to Jesus…”

    Ah, that’s the bit that’s not quite right… It is best summed up in the following pithy bit of Latin:

    “Potuit, decuit, ergo fecit!”

    The translation of this is:

    “He could; it was fitting; therefore, He did it!”

    It’s not that Mary *had to* be sinless, it’s that it was *fitting*.

  4. Bill,

    Probably, NPLA didn’t want to tread into the debate over the morality of forcing churches to provide contraception, since forcing churches to provide abortion is so obviously wrong. That’s a strategic question. You can certainly sign the petition in good faith: we do want to see the HHS Mandate repealed because of its abortificant implications. That’s not the only reason, but it’s a worthy one. The fact that the Administration may seek to divide and conquer again is regrettable, but no reason not to sign.


    Great points, all, and it’s good to hear it from an Orthodox perspective.

    1) I think this does a good job of getting right to the heart of it.  Without wanting to put words in your mouth, would you say that Christ suffered from the consequences of original sin, too?

    2) I understand why the Orthodox would be frustrated with what they perceive as theological vagueness, since many Catholics are unclear on this point.  In fact, the West has a long tradition of holding that Mary did, in fact, die, and this seems to have been confirmed Magisterially by Pope Pius XII in Munificentissimus Deus.  Father Ryan Erlenbush has a good article on that here.

    3) Two points on the infinite regression argument.  First, I don’t think that the argument is that “Mary had to be preserved from original sin to avoid passing it on to Jesus.”  I think that the argument is that since Jesus is God, and can’t commune with sin (cf. Habakkuk 1:13; Hebrews 12:14; Rev. 21:17), and was in His Mother’s womb (not just in her presence, but bodily tied to her through the umbilical cord), she had to be sinless.  So it wouldn’t be about passing sin on to the sinless, but about Divinity communing with sinfulness.

    Second, whether or not the Immaculate Conception was necessary, for the reasons described above, it was certainly fitting (as Restless Pilgrim just pointed out).  Suffice it to say, then, that since He is God, it is fitting that His Mother is sinless, just as the Ark and the Temple had to be spotless, and the Temple builder had to have hands free of blood.  So even if He could occupy a sinful womb  In this case, the infinite regression objection doesn’t hold water.  After all, the Ark had to be spotless, but that doesn’t mean that the Ark had to be preserved in its own Ark (and so on, like a bunch of matryoshka dolls).



  5. Thanks Joe and RP. I have heard it from other catholics that it was necessary (and not merely fitting) that Mary be immaculate to avoid passing original sin to Jesus. Your explanation makes much more sense.

    Joe, in answer to your question (in my own terms as I’m not sure how the Orthodox would formulate it); I would say Jesus suffered the consequences of original sin to the extent that he could and did die. I do not believe he suffered from concupiscence.

  6. CJ,

    Whoops! As you may have noticed, I got you confused with one of the Orthodox guys who sometimes comments around these parts. Feel free to ignore the first sentence to my last comment, then.

  7. The thing I struggle with in believing Revelation 12 is hinting at the Assumption is that, as far as I know, none of the early church fathers understood the passage in this way. In fact, so far I haven’t been able to find any references in the patristic writings of the first 500 years to the Assumption of Mary. I still can’t figure out how to reconcile this silence as consistent with the Assumption being a historical event that was part of the beliefs of the Church in those 500 years. That’s become a major obstacle in my reconciling with the Church. Aside from burying my head and saying ‘the Church declared it to be true, therefore it must be’, any suggestions as to how to accept this glaring patristic silence?

  8. Tim,

    There are early writings describing the Assumption of Mary. For example, Pseudo – Melito and other apocryphal literature. But most of what we know about early belief in the Dormition / Assumption comes from early Christian art and the Liturgy. This is why I think it’s important that the Catholics, Orthodox, and Copts all have a shared belief here, and all celebrate the event on their respective Liturgical calendars. It’s also important that all of us have ancient traditions of depicting Mary’s Dormition and Assumption.

    The Assumption can also be supported through negation. Specifically, the Church has always taken relics very seriously (we see this as early as Acts 19:11-12). One of the major sources of scandal has been an over-abundance of relics — forgers pretending something was a relic that wasn’t. And we know that Mary was highly venerated. So the fact that forgers didn’t even attempt to pawn off bones as Mary’s suggests that the Christian laity were already convinced that her bones were nowhere to be found. Fr. Clifford Stevens explains.

    One final point. Patristic silence doesn’t equate to negation or even ignorance. For example, Luke 2:36 is the only reason we know that the Jews ever had female prophets. Somehow, the subject of whether prophets were all-male just never came up in Scripture before or since. Presumably, Anna wasn’t the only one, because Luke doesn’t treat it as anything unusual.

    To me, it even absent the Church speaking ex cathedra on this topic, I find it rather plausible that the Assumption is like the prophetesses: a fact that people believe in, but didn’t happen to mention in most of the writings that we still have today. Certainly, I find it more plausible than the idea that the Assumption was a later tradition that somehow independently crept into the liturgical calendars of the Catholic, Orthodox, and Coptic Churches, misleading the best artists and theologians.



  9. Thank you for this thorough post.

    I would like to clarify that my original observation that the doctrines were formalized post-Reformation was not meant to imply “innovation” but to the lack of ecumenical representation when the doctrine was set. Perhaps I should also clarify that I am a “she”, not a “he”. I do think that my own experience of motherhood informs my love for Mary.

    I particularly appreciate your presenting the OT foreshadowing of Mary’s sinlessness. I do see the possibility that Jesus’ use of “Woman” when speaking to his mother could point to her similarity to Eve before the fall. I definitely see the parallel between the eternal significance of their choices. I am not certain whether the similarity extends to being free from original sin.

    At this point, I am still very sympathetic to the Orthodox position that formalizing the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception is not absolutely necessary. Fitting, yes, but I am not convinced by “He could; it was fitting; therefore, He did it!” God repeatedly reminds us that his ways are above our ways. Could grace alone give Mary, even if she was scarred as we are by original sin, the freedom to choose God?

    Couldn’t Mary’s sinlessness arise from the abundance of grace to which she gave her assent rather than from being cleansed from original sin without her consent? There are several passages in Scripture that seem to refer to Mary’s ongoing need to rely on sanctifying grace.

    First, there is the sword that is prophesied to pierce Mary’s heart. I find most OT references to the sword speak of judgement. For example, the judgement separating faithful from faithless Israelites in Ezekiel 14. Was Simeon preparing Mary for her ongoing need to rely on grace? To repeat “Let it be to me according to your word” her whole life long?

    Second, there is the question of Mary’s response to Jesus’ voluntary sacrifice. In studying the wedding at Cana I appreciate the lovely parallel to the seventh day in Genesis, but I find it difficult to accept that Mary was intentionally guiding Jesus to the cross.

    I have no difficulty in believing that Jesus knew the consequences of perfoming a miracle at Cana, and perhaps he was urging her to also recognize those consequences rather than being persuaded by her. This would be similar to his repeatedly asking those he healed not to tell of the miracle, where he alone grasps the significance of his acts.

    In Mark 3:21, when Jesus’ Sabbath healing heightens the tension with the Pharisees we read:

    ‘his family … went out to seize him, for they were saying, “He is out of his mind”‘ Although v 21 just mentions his “family”, Mk 3:31 specifically mentions his mother.

    I am not suggesting that this was actual sin on Mary’s part, but is it possible that she again needed to rely on grace to overcome original sin? Was this an example of the sword piercing her mother’s heart: separating the concupiscence of wanting to protect her child against harm from letting God choose the greater good?

    When Peter tried to stand between Jesus and the cross, we know how strongly he was rebuked.

    Finally, the Woman of Revelation 12 cries out in labour pains, a consequence of the fall, not actual sin on the woman’s part. To know that our mother has shared our frailty is so comforting.

    Could the immaculate conception be considered as an area of uncertainty in which we can be granted liberty?

  10. Good morning,

    I have found much to ponder in this helpful post. Two points in particular:

    First, I found it very helpful to see Jesus’ using the title “Woman” as his intentional linking of the first Woman’s choice with the the choice facing the woman before him. I went to the narrative of the Samaritan woman at the well in John Chapter 4. Sure enough, he addresses her as ‘you’ initially. Only in verse 21, when she is ready to discuss how to worship the one true God, does he address her as “woman” in verse 21: “Woman, believe me…” And so I do appreciate the hermeneutic of the “New Eve” but I am not convinced that it necessitates the immaculate conception.

    Second, I appreciate the opportunity to contemplate the question of whether Jesus could have allowed himself to be carried in the womb of a woman tainted by original sin. You drew a distinction between Jesus’ willingess to touch the unclean and his willingness to be connected by an umbilical cord. But is there a difference? In fact, we now know that the umbilical cord carries only the blood of the baby. The mother and baby’s circulation meet but do not mix in the placenta. Their blood is carried in separate vessels that interdigitate like fingers and so Jesus’ touch on his mother’s womb is actually very like his healing touch later in his ministry, but with the most vulnerable of fingers. What a miracle of intimate healing! Could this be what Paul meant by Eve being saved through childbearing, the months of healing touch in the womb, in 1 Timothy 2:15?

    Thanks again for a wonderful discussion, it is my joy to find new depths to Mary’s blessedness.

    Grace and Peace.

  11. Did I mention I really appreciate this opportunity to bless Mary? I would like to add that I find the teaching of the Dormition much more helpful than the Assumption. Again, because it affirms that Mary suffered the natural death consequent from the fall, her appearance in heaven is that much more hopeful a sign of our salvation. While Jesus is the first fruit of redemption, he will bring us where he has gone. Thanks be to God!

  12. For those who asked what the Orthodox believe about original sin, here is an interview with the Ecumenical Patriarch on both original sin and the immaculate conception:

    “The Catholic Church found that it needed to institute a new dogma for Christendom about one thousand and eight hundred years after the appearance of the Christianity, because it had accepted a perception of original sin – a mistaken one for us Orthodox – according to which original sin passes on a moral stain or a legal responsibility to the descendants of Adam, instead of that recognized as correct by the Orthodox faith – according to which the sin transmitted through inheritance the corruption, caused by the separation of mankind from the uncreated grace of God, which makes him live spiritually and in the flesh. Mankind shaped in the image of God, with the possibility and destiny of being like to God, by freely choosing love towards Him and obedience to His commandments, can even after the fall of Adam and Eve become friend of God according to intention; then God sanctifies them, as He sanctified many of the progenitors before Christ, even if the accomplishment of their ransom from corruption, that is their salvation, was achieved after the incarnation of Christ and through Him.

    In consequence, according to the Orthodox faith, Mary the All-Holy Mother of God was not conceived exempt from the corruption of original sin, but loved God above all things and obeyed his commandments, and thus was sanctified by God through Jesus Christ who incarnated Himself of her. She obeyed Him like one of the faithful, and addressed herself to Him with a Mother’s trust. Her holiness and purity were not blemished by the corruption, handed on to her by original sin as to every man, precisely because she was reborn in Christ like all the saints, sanctified above every saint.

    Her reinstatement in the condition prior to the Fall did not necessarily take place at the moment of her conception. We believe that it happened afterwards, as consequence of the progress in her of the action of the uncreated divine grace through the visit of the Holy Spirit, which brought about the conception of the Lord within her, purifying her from every stain.

    As already said, original sin weighs on the descendants of Adam and of Eve as corruption, and not as legal responsibility or moral stain. The sin brought hereditary corruption and not a hereditary legal responsibility or a hereditary moral stain. In consequence the Panagia participated in the hereditary corruption, like all mankind, but with her love for God and her purity – understood as an imperturbable and unhesitating dedication of her love to God alone – she succeeded, through the grace of God, in sanctifying herself in Christ and making herself worthy of becoming the house of God, as God wants all us human beings to become. Therefore we in the Orthodox Church honor the All-Holy Mother of God above all the saints, albeit we don’t accept the new dogma of her Immaculate Conception. The non-acceptance of this dogma in no way diminishes our love and veneration of the All-Holy Mother of God.”

  13. Does the Catholic Church indeed teach that Original Sin passes on a moral stain/ legal responsibility? I’ve never understood it that way. I’ve always understood it to mean some sort of corruption. Death is the punishment for the Fall (Original Sin), and Hell is the punishment for sin (concupiscence).

    And the Orthodox, in the above statement, indirectly affirms the Immaculate Conception by illustrating that men and women who lived before the Incarnation already benefited from the grace of the Incarnation. So the Theotokos could have benefited from the Incarnation from the moment of her conception in light of her future fiat (which, like all good works, originates in the grace of God).

    But most importantly, from the perspective of the Orthodox Church, there doesn’t seem to be an inherent theological flaw in the dogma of the Immaculate Conception, but rather the claim that it is “unnecessary”. So really it boils down to authority. Does the Catholic Church (lead by the Bishop of Rome) have the legitimate authority or the Orthodox Church?

  14. From the above quote, the Orthodox position borders on Semi-Pelaginiasm, whereas the RCC leans more in the direction of “saved by grace alone”.

    But, I know next to nothing about Orthodox theology, so it’s a very uninformed opinion.

  15. I’m not an expert on this subject but what I’ve found is that too often Orthodox (and many Catholics) quote what they “think” the Catholic Church teaches on the IC instead of reading what’s actually in the Catechism. When I read the pertinent sections I find it very difficult to discern any real difference between RC & Orthodox. It seems to me that the biggest objection is that a Pope declared it infallible.

  16. It seems all traditions agree on the corruption inherited with original sin. Was it necessary for Mary to be cleansed of original sin in order for her to give her assent to the Annunciation, or could grace have enabled her fiat? Could the Immaculste Conception be understood as God’s response to her consent? The overshadowing of the Holy Spirit rendering the ‘Woman’s seed’ , foretold in Genesis, immaculate? As for why this doctrine was defined so recently, I am struck by the near timing of the vision at Lourdes and the ‘discovery’ of the ovum.

    The authiority, as opposed to infallibility, of Peter’s successor is not a stumbling block for me.

  17. I’ve often wondered why Marian apparitions have increased in frequency and impact over the last three centuries, and someone suggested that the closer we come to the End Times the more we’ll see of Mary since She will herald Christ, having “come before” Him the first time round. Since one of the four layers of meaning in Scripture is eschatological, I wouldn’t be surprised if the New Testament events were a “type” for what will unfold at the end of time. This is purely speculative theology obviously 😉

    Regarding Mary’s fiat, it WAS grace that enabled it. All good works have God’s grace as its cause. But this treads into the realm of Free Will vs. Divine Sovereignty and I leave it to those more intelligent than I to ponder the economy of Salvation.

    Was it necessary for Mary to have been Immaculately Conceived? No, and the Church is clear on this. But when you consider the significance of the ark of the covenant (which one could also consider “unnecessary”) in the OT or Christ as the New Adam and therefore Mary as the New Eve, etc. the typological symmetry this reveals transcends human imagination.

    And again, Mary is the Mother of Our Lord. Even though she is a created being, I think it still counts for something that she bore the Christ and raised Him and that because of this she would’ve been given a special grace.

  18. Thanks Joe for your response on Mary’s Assumption. Would you know where I could find any further info on early art work depicting Mary’s Assumption? I’ve read others who have make this statement in very general terms before, but there doesn’t seem to be anything I can find to substantiate the claim. Web search didn’t help, nothing in Pelikan’s Mary Through the Centuries, nor the Encyclopedia of Early Christianity, or in the Catholic Encyclopedia.

    The problem with Pseudo-Melito is that he’s the mid-6th century and the first true patristic reference is Gregory of Tours in the late 6th century, so that’s still over 500 years of patristic silence. The first records of liturgical celebration of the Assumption also aren’t until the 6th century. The reference of Epiphanius in the later part of the 4th century stating that no one knew the fate of Mary clearly shows that at that time there was still no fixed tradition regarding the end of Mary’s life. What I find more stunning is patristic silence in writings where you would expect mention of Mary’s Assumption if it were part of the deposit of faith. So for example, Irenaeus writes about the power of God to deliver people from death (Against Heresies – chapter 5, book 5), and mentions Enoch, Elijah, and Paul as examples of people who were assumed or translated to heaver, but doesn’t say anything about Mary. Augustine mentions that people sometimes ask where humans who have been bodily removed from earth would go (On The Grace Of Christ, And On Original Sin, 2:27). He mentions Enoch, Elijah, and Paul, but again Mary isn’t mentioned.

    I tentatively grant the argument regarding no one claiming to have any first-class relics of Mary, but it is an argument from silence. I also have to concede that logically there could be other plausible explanations as to why there were no relics. It is a useful argument to buttress the belief in the Assumption, but it isn’t positive evidence – it’s just that the lack of relics doesn’t go against belief in the Assumption. It is true that there was veneration for Mary, but this appears to have grown slowly over time and took several hundred years to really develop.

    However, I find the patristic silence for over 500 years even more difficult to deal with and it seems like it is also a powerful argument from silence. I keep thinking that if we applied the same criteria to the resurrection of Jesus (say if it hadn’t been mentioned for the first 500 years), we might concur with the skeptics who would be saying it was a later fabrication and not something that the first generations of Christians believed. I can’t come up with any good scenario to account for the 500 years of silence and as someone from the outside considering coming in, it feels fishy & makes me extremely hesitant.

  19. @AnglicanHobbit,

    🙂 You’re right, but Melchizedek (sp?) and Isaac and Joseph and David and the sacrificial lambs, etc. (all of whom were corrupted by the Fall) were pre-figures of Christ. Yet the imperfections of these Old Testament types don’t point to any imperfections in Christ.

    Some Church father, I forget who, reminds us that “the New is better than the Old”. And to house/bear the Word made flesh is a much greater honour and holier duty than housing manna, a rod and two stone tablets (sacred though they were).

  20. Tim,

    My source on that is Mark Shea’s Mother of the Son — I believe he talks about it in either Book I or Book II, but if I recall, he doesn’t go into a lot of depth.

    Additionally, there are early Coptic fragments, showing what appears to be an early sermon on the Dormition of Mary (these are the “Vienna fragments” in the above link). From what I can tell, scholars haven’t figured out who the author was, or how early it is, but it sounds as if it may be as old as the second century.

    Whatever the case, I don’t think we need to assume Patristic silence, just because we have an incomplete record.

    The reality is that we see widespread Coptic, Orthodox, and Catholic traditions regarding the Dormition / Assumption of Mary, and certainly long before the Reformation.

    What’s the quote you’re referring to from Epiphanius? As far as I know, his Panarion isn’t available online, and the only translation I can find is incredibly expensive. Do you have a copy of his work that you’re referencing?



  21. Correction: I found a copy of his Panarion here. In context, he’s explaining that there’s no clear reference to Mary’s death in Scripture, but that he suspects the answer is that she’s the Woman of Revelation 12.  (This is page 609 of the Google Book I linked to).  In other words, he seems to be affirming the Assumption, with caution about whether or not Mary died, saying of Revelation 12: “Perhaps this can be applied to her; I cannot decide for certain, and am not saying that she remained immortal.  But neither am I affirming that she died.”

    If there was no tradition of the Assumption, why would he be so hesitant to affirm her death?  After all, the death of most of the Apostles isn’t mentioned in Scripture, yet there’s no question that they died.  On the other hand, if the Assumption was an earlier tradition, this would explain the confusion over whether or not Mary died first.

  22. Anybody know how the assumption is even a coherent doctrine when coupled with the doctrine that Heaven isn’t a spacial “place”? I mean where was Mary’s body assumed to? Where is it now?

  23. Anglican Hobbit,

    I agree with what Georg said. I’d also add that the materials used to produce the Ark were natural, but it was sanctified and made so holy that it couldn’t be touched. Likewise, no one is suggesting that Joachim and Anne were Immaculate (this is the infinite regression argument that CJ raised). But from the first instance that Mary is conceived, she’s Immaculate, by virtue of the intervention of God.

    As for the connection between the Immaculate Conception and the apparitions at Lourdes, there’s definitely something there.  The Immaculate Conception was dogmatized in 1854.  In 1858, Mary began appearing at Lourdes to a fourteen year-old St. Bernadette.  When Bernadette asked who she was, Mary replied, “I am the Immaculate Conception.

    As Catholics, we believe in the Immaculate Conception primarily because this is an Apostolic doctrine.  That is, even if the pope was silent, the doctrine would still be true (and would still be widely believed).  But we’re infallibly confirmed in this belief by the pope’s 1854 dogmatic definition.  We’re also confirmed by this subsequent Marian apparitions.  Even today, you can go to the waters of Lourdes, which have been accredited with innumerable miraculous healings.  All of this, at least for me, fortifies a belief in the doctrine.

    We would never base a doctrine off of a private apparition. But the fact that multiple Marian apparitions have confirmed her Immaculate Conception is certainly good evidence of its truth.



  24. Jon Anthony,

    I think I missed your question the first time around. This is the same confusion that arises with the Ascension: where did Christ’s Body go to?

    Then again, we know that His glorified Body could materialized in a locked room (John 20:26). So suffice it to say that the glorified Body operates in ways we won’t fully grasp here.



    P.S. I was out of town all weekend — sorry to respond to so many comments all at once!

  25. JH

    thanks for responding. So we agree that the materials of the ark were not ‘immaculate’ until the Shekina glory overshadowed it.

    In my meditations on Mary I read that the overshadowing only happened after her fiat. I was also aware of the proximity of the dogmatization and the apparition of the Immaculate Conception. The discovery of the human ovum was first published by von Baer in Leipzig in 1827, before either development in the church.

    My question is, is there still room for doctrinal development? I want to affirm my respect for the authority of the successor of Peter. However could the current formulation of the Immaculate Conception, of Mary’s whole person at her conception rather than of her ‘seed’ at Jesus’ conception, benefit from further exploration?

    It would not diminish Mary’s sanctity and would affirm that indeed Jesus was incarnate from her, not just borne by her.

    The church has discovered before that the unimaginable beauty of creation has necessitated doctrinal development in the case of the heliocentric universe.

  26. Anglican Hobbit,

    1) I wouldn’t venture that the Ark, prior to the descent of the Shekina Glory was impure. On the contrary, I would suspect that the Ark was purified so that it could receive the Shekina Glory. But honestly, I don’t know a way of showing that one way or the other from Scripture.

    2) As for the Marian parallel, yes, it would seem that God could have waited until the Annunciation to purify her from all sin, original and actual. But to my knowledge, there is no such tradition within the Church. That is, this is more of an interesting counterfactual than an actual contrary theory to the Immaculate Conception. I don’t think that the proof of the Immaculate Conception (or any doctrine) requires showing that God couldn’t have done things any other way.

    3) If the Church suddenly retracted and reversed itself on the Immaculate Conception, that wouldn’t be a “development” of doctrine – it would be its destruction. Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today, and tomorrow. So is the Deposit of Faith. Doctrinal developments are neither rejections of what came before, nor innovations adding new content to the Faith.

    4) So there’s no parallel “doctrinal development in the case of the heliocentric universe.” The heliocentrism or geocentrism of the universe was never, and are not, doctrines of the Catholic Church. Since they’re not doctrines at all, they’re a bad example of doctrinal development. Without getting into the whole Galileo affair, people on both sides wrongly assumed the Bible required geocentrism, such that if geocentrism was true, the Bible was false. To the extent heliocentrism was tied to doctrinal development, it was only on this point, then: Catholic doctrines don’t depend upon a belief in a particular model of the universe.

    5) Sorry about assuming you were male. Corrected!



  27. But from the first instance that Mary is conceived, she’s Immaculate, by virtue of the intervention of God.

    I think this is the crux of the difference between Catholics and Orthodox on this. The Orthodox reject the idea that Mary had “a leg up” on the rest of humanity due to special circumstances at her conception. Rather, she completely took hold of the grace that is available to us all in a way no other creature has.

    I’d like to ask a question in order to avoid attributing thiings to you that you don’t believe. How much does Augustine’s idea that all sexual reproduction is tainted by concupiscence play into the “need” for the IC? I often see this in polemics against the doctrine of the IC, but is that actually part of the doctrine? Was it expressed that way before, only to be refined since?

  28. CJ,

    I’d reject the idea that it plays any role. We believe in original sin because of passages like Romans 5:12-14, and the broader themes of St. Paul’s writings (that all of us are born into sin, and aren’t worthy of Heaven, but are cleansed of sin and allowed into Heaven through the redemptive work of Christ).

    St. Augustine speculated about one reason why original sin may occur, or one mechanism by which it may be transmitted, but the doctrine of original sin doesn’t hinge on this in any way.

    Instead, I’d point you to the Second Council of Orange, which is quite clear about original sin and its effects.



  29. I agree on CJ’s “crux of the difference between Catholics and Orthodox”: that Mary did not need a “leg up” to give her assent to the annunciation.

    Doesn’t Jesus teach that we can all become his mother by hearing the word of God and doing it in Luke 8:21?

    On the other hand, I agree with the Catholic teaching that Mary’s ‘seed’ was made immaculate when the Holy Spirit overshadowed her, that Jesus might be fully human yet free of original sin.

    JH re: 2) in your response of Feb 21, 3:38pm

    I was not proposing a ‘contrary theory to the IC’, my hope is to find a way forward that would allow greater unity in the church. I understand that it does not represent the current tradition, that is why I hope for doctrinal development.

    re: 3) I am sorry you see development as destruction; again that is not my intent. Jesus talks about his Father the vine-dresser, he also taught the disciples to share the work of discerning what must be bound and loosed. I apply these metaphors to the development of doctrine.

    I understand that the IC is intended primarily to affirm Jesus’ fully human nature. We can obediently call Mary blessed and affirm her as the woman in Revelation 12 regardless of whether she was cleansed from original sin at her conception.

    re: 4)I admit I am not an expert in the distinction you are drawing between teaching and doctrine. Is your understanding that doctrine is infallible and unable to be developed?

    If so, I wonder if it would be helpful to study 1 Timothy 3:15 as it appears on your blog title. I have noticed that the translation you chose inserts the definite article “the” before the word pillar, although no article appears in the original Greek. The blog translation then chooses the word “foundation” for the word usually translated “buttress”.

    Although I am not a Greek scholar I do have access to a parallel and it seems the more accurate translation is

    “…the household of God, which is the church, pillar and buttress of truth”.

    Pillars and buttresses are not solitary supports in architecture. Similarly, God reveals truth through our increasing understanding of His creation, which is why I am intrigued by the discovery of the ovum just before the IC was dogmatized.

    I find this helpful since we as the Church need not worry about an unchanging formulation of truth beyond receiving the canon of Scripture, and conforming our doctrine to it. We are led by the Holy Spirit into all God’s truth; as the truth unfolds we may need to refine our doctrine.

  30. Hobbit,

    The absence of the defiite article isn’t necessarily definitive (no pun intended). The Jehovah’s Witnesses make the same assumption in John 1:1 to try to discredit Christ’s divinity. I’m not a Greek scholar and I cant remember the exact way it works, but in some cases it is proper to imply the definite article, even if it’s not there.

    For our Catholic brethren, some matters are open to individual interpretation. For instance you can be a young earth creationist or a theistic evolutionist and be a faithful Catholic, because there’s no infallible statement regarding the details of creation. However, once the Pope infallibly defines a doctrine, the faithful are required to believe it. The pope has defined the IC infallibly, and has clearly said that there was special intervention at the moment of conceptions, so they can’t backtrack on it.

  31. Thanks Joe. I was at a roadblock and you’ve at least given me some things to mull over. The Epiphanius reference I was thinking of is quoted in Brian Daley’s collection of early patristic homilies on the Dormition of Mary found here: – but I couldn’t find it in the copy of the Panarion that you linked to. It still seems weird that Epiphanius didn’t mention the Assumption when he had ample opportunity in discussing the end of Mary’s life. The best conclusion I can reach from that silence is that there was no fixed tradition at that time. Likewise, it seems hard to accept that with all the patristic writings we do have that they simply forgot to mention the Assumption or that any patristic mentions of it have been merely lost to history. I’m not trying to be difficult about it, but I feel I could only ‘cross the Tiber’ if I can honestly confess with a clear conscience that I really do believe all that the Catholic Church teaches is true.

  32. Tim,

    You may find that there are certain issues which you can only give what’s called “religious assent” to, at least at first.

    Those are the doctrines which you believe because the Church tells you so, as opposed to the doctrines that you would have believed independently anyway.

    So one way of clearing your conscience is to simply examine the evidence about whether or not the Church is who She says She is. If She is, then all of the doctrines in question are true, whether we can understand why or not. If She’s not, then it wouldn’t matter if every other doctrine She taught were true — She’d be a false Church.

    Coming to the point that you can trust the Church, even if you can’t independently confirm each point She teaches, is certainly sufficient to become Catholic. It may be that over time, what starts as religious assent grows into something fuller.



  33. Joe,

    unfortunately, this sounds like the answer that most Catholics give when pressed on the issue of the Assumption: become convinced that the Catholic Church never falters in teaching the truth and then you’re all set – no need to really think about whether a particular doctrine is reasonable based on the usual criteria of history. I feel like I’m being asked to shut off my normal reasoning process ans suspend my disbelief. But if in the balance the Catholic Church doesn’t have reasonable historical grounds for this belief, then that would seem to exclude her from being who She says She is. The only other option would be to assent to what the Catholic Church teaches despite reason.

    The problem is that I’ve been through a few religious transitions in my life and each time I was asked to accept ‘the big picture’ and not get too picky about the details. Consequently I don’t want to get burned again because each time it’s psychologically and emotionally traumatic to realize you bought into a particular Christian group’s understanding of the faith, but in the end you were deceived (mind you, I think each group acted in good conscience). The other thing is that I know of a Catholic convert who deconverted from the Church when he started thinking too hard about the Assumption. So now it’s become a red flag – even more so when the reasoning I seem to be given is to become convinced of the Church’s authority and that will solve the issues.


  34. Tim,

    Let me be clear about two things:

    (1) I think that there are reasonable grounds for believing in the doctrine of the Assumption, even had the Church not said anything. I’ve laid out many of those reasons in the post, and in the comments. I’ll add only this: the doctrine was widely believed, for eons before the Church ever stepped in formally. Remember that immediately prior to the doctrine being dogmatized in 1950, the pope sought the advice of all of the world’s bishops; nearly every one supported dogmatically defining it. My point was simply that even if the evidence is ambiguous, the Church’s declaration certainly settles things.

    (2) I’m not asking you to focus on the big picture and ignore the details. Quite the contrary: I’m suggesting that you consider the question in a proper logical order. First, determine if the Church is a truth-telling agent. Then you know if you can believe it or not — even in the absence of external validating evidence. It’s the same thing that all conservative Christians do with Scripture. After all, we don’t withhold our belief that the Bible is the word of God on whether or not we can independently verify each datum.



  35. Tim,

    I totally understand where you’re coming from. If I convert (more likely Orthodox than RC, but still) there are things that I will have to give “religious assent” to as well. Mary’s sinlessness and icons don’t sit well at all.

    But part of the appeal is that I’m coming from a religious tradition that claims to know pretty much everything, down to minute details of interpreting Revelation. We even have “extra revelation” to cover stuff that’s not in the Bible! For me, it’s gotten to the point where it seems over done. I actually find it a comforting thought to say “we don’t know” or “it’s part of the wisdom passed on to us.” There’s a comfortable humility in knowing that everything doesn’t have to pass my personal litmus test.

  36. Sorry Joe, I guess I was speaking more out of my frustration at being unable to come to any certainty with this belief as well as being in a post-Protestant nether-world in which I can’t reconcile with the Catholic Church either because of honest intellectual obstacles. I do agree that there are reasonable grounds for believing in the doctrine of the Assumption as you’ve outlined. In addition, I could add that when the Transitus literature began to appear in the 5th century, there were no patristic writings protesting the core belief in the Assumption – even though these fanciful writings were considered apocryphal in themselves. Knowing that bishops were intent on preserving the faith and spoke out against innovation, it indicates that there was probably a generally accepted belief in the Assumption among many faithful Christians for some time before these writings began to appear. Thus historically I think we can establish that belief in the Assumption at least existed in the 4th century (perhaps earlier) which is at least 200 years before the first explicit patristic mention. However, my frustration is still that no one seems to have a plausible explanation for the patristic silence on the issue for hundreds of years before this. It’s the one nagging piece of the puzzle that makes absolutely no sense to me.

    I do hear what you’re saying about coming to terms with the Catholic Church being a truth-telling machine. That question has been haunting me the past 6 months. As an Evangelical I didn’t feel like I had to verify everything in Scripture before I accepted it. Instead, because I accepted the authority of Scripture, I took it that the freaky stuff in Scripture was true although it seems way out there. So I can understand the parallel idea of accepting the authority of the Catholic Church rather than trying to rebuild the Church and its beliefs brick by brick on my own. I simply don’t know how to get over that hurdle. It’s like there’s something stuck in my thinking process.

    @ CJ
    It was reading Peter’s Gilquist’s story of conversion to Orthodoxy that first made me realize I needed to understand the role of Tradition and begin reading the church fathers. I appreciate the beauty of icons much more than Catholic statuary, and I love that the Orthodox seem more content to live with a sense of mystery regarding the faith as compared to the Western Christian mind which seems to want all doctrines explicit and ‘nailed down’. Although Orthodoxy is still a remote possibility in the back of my mind (kind of a fall-back position), I’ve found Catholicism overall makes more coherent sense. It seems to me that Catholicism can contain or hold all that is Orthodoxy, but Orthodoxy can’t hold within itself Catholicism. Orthodoxy has little room for an Augustine or an Aquinas, but Catholicism easily has the room for the most treasured of the Eastern fathers. In addition, although I haven’t studied it in detail yet, I haven’t found Orthodox arguments against the papacy convincing.


  37. The more I think about it, the more I realize that it is Mary as a type of the church that inspires the Immaculate Conception.

    I would find it helpful to understand the Scriptural basis for seeing the Church militant as immaculate. As Christ’s bride, we will one day be spotless and pure as depicted in Ephesians 5:25-27 and Revelation 21:9-11.

    But I do not understand why the church must be freed of original sin at its conception rather than through a lifetime of growth in grace. Christ’s work of sanctification, cleansing and presentation in Ephesians seems to imply that the the church begins in a fallen state. It is the new Jerusalem that is spotless.

    How does understanding the church’s immaculate conception, guide us in our pilgrimage?

  38. another thought on Mary and the Church Militant…

    In Revelation 12 she is not “enthroned in Heaven”, she flees into the wilderness immediately after giving birth in Rev 12:6 and is given wings in Rev 12:14 to escape the dragon on earth.

    I agree, eisegesis is not required to see Mary as the Woman in Revelation 12 but I question whether we see her enthroned as the Queen of Heaven.

    Again, our reading of the Assumption informs our ecclesiology as well as our Christology.

  39. Tim,

    I understand your frustration. But take heart. You seem to love Christ and recognize the impossibility of Protestantism being the structure Christ intended for the Church. In my experience, this ends well. Just gird yourself up for Lent.

    Regarding your point about Catholicism as a truth-telling machine, it sounds like you get the fundamental point. On certain issues, the most sensible reason to believe is because the Church says to. St. Augustine put it bluntly: “I would not believe the Gospel if I did not believe the Church.”

    I don’t think that this is the sign of a blind or dumb faith. I think it’s the more intelligent response. After all, the Church’s track record is incredible – Her ability to correctly define the minutiae of Trinitarian and Christological Doctrines, Her preservation and recognition of Scripture, Her consistent Gospel, Her dodging of scores of attractive heresies, etc. Is it more sensible to believe that a Church with that track record is the Divinely-protected Bride of Christ, or that She just got lucky for over 1900 years, until She guessed wrong on the Assumption of Mary?

    Regarding what you said about Orthodoxy in your comment to CJ, Amen. Eastern Orthodoxy today doesn’t just reject the Catholic Church of the eleventh century onwards. Rather, Orthodoxy rejects even greats like St. Augustine, from the fourth to fifth century. But if Augustine and those who believed as he did were heretics, why didn’t the East split off in the fourth or fifth century? Why wait half a millennium to protest Augustine?

    I should emphasize that this rejection of St. Augustine isn’t uniform: there’s debate over whether he’s a Saint, and the older Orthodox held a higher view of him. You can read about that from an Orthodox perspective here.

    In any case, as you noted, we Catholics love the early Church Fathers from both the East and West. We think that, in almost every case, they describe the same truths in different ways. So in that sense, it seems that a Catholic would be comfortable in the fourth century Church in a way that an anti-Augustinian Orthodox wouldn’t be.



  40. Anglican Hobbit,

    You say of Mary that “In Revelation 12 she is not “enthroned in Heaven” ,” but Revelation 12:1 specifically depicts her as both (a) crowned, and (b) in Heaven. Granted, she’s then depicted as undergoing various trials on Earth, while being supernaturally protected, but John specifies that she starts out in Heaven.

    As for the Church militant being sinless, St. Paul describes it as the Body of Christ in 1 Corinthians. It would be blasphemy to accuse Christ of having a sinful Body. So the Body qua Body is sinless, even if the members are not yet freed from sin.

    And the doctrine of the Immaculate Conception has huge implications for the life of Christ. It seems to touch on everything about how we understand Jesus, often in surprising ways. To take one example, yesterday’s Gospel was about Christ going into the desert. If the Immaculate Conception is true, this means that Christ (in leaving His Mother behind) was leaving behind something very much like Eden (Mary loved — and loves — Him sinlessly). Fr. Kelly pointed this out in his homily yesterday, explaining that Christ’s journey into the desert is in His role as the New Adam, leaving Eden. In other words, the Christological fulfillment is more perfect if the Immaculate Conception is true.

    Now that’s one admittedly tiny example, but it gets to my point. We believe in the Immaculate Conception not because of who Mary is, ultimately, but because of who Christ is.



  41. Hi Joe,

    yes, John does start with Mary in heaven but her son is ‘caught up to God and his throne’ but she is not. I am not disputing that she starts in heaven, but whether she reigns there. I am not convinced that a throne is a helpful picture of the nature of Mary’s ongoing work.

    I think we agree that when Christ appears, his body, his bride will be purified. I am questioning the timing: is the body immaculate at its conception as well as at its consummation?

    Paul uses two metaphors for the union between Christ and the Church: head and body, and groom and bride. Both metaphors communicate mysterious oneness and yet disctinctness.

    In Ephesians 5 Paul is using the groom and bride metaphor where the distinction is a little clearer. Christ the groom is depicted as sanctifying and cleansing his bride with water and word. Is it blasphemous to understand that his bride, the church, began as her individual members do, fallen and in need of redemption?

  42. Tim v,

    I just got back from Rome. In the second century church now in the crypt of saint Clements there is a fresco from the 3rd century, if I am remembering right, of the coronation of Mary, so there is at least one example.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *