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The Extra-Biblical Marian Doctrines

Must we use only, or even primarily, the Bible to defend the Catholic take on Mary?

May is the month of Mary, and thus the perfect time to reflect on the Marian doctrines: her divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and assumption into heaven. Of these four, Catholics often share the first with Protestants, given that many Protestant denominations accept the Council of Ephesus (431), at which the Church declared Mary the theotokos, meaning “God-bearer,” since she did indeed give birth to Christ, who is both God and man. Even Mary’s perpetual virginity, though rejected by most Protestants today, was accepted by early Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Bullinger, Turretin, and Cranmer.

It is the latter three Marian doctrines that are often major obstacles to Protestants (like my former Presbyterian seminarian self), especially given historic Protestant antipathy to Marian devotion. All three doctrines do indeed have biblical support—though, as I argue in my new book The Obscurity of Scripture, Catholics need to be wary of how they employ such evidence, lest they imply to their Protestant interlocutors that only Scripture is an authoritative source for Christian doctrine. Doing so effectively gives rhetorical ground to Protestants, given that as Catholics, we do not accept sola scriptura. Moreover, doing so also elides the fact that even Protestants accept some traditions as authoritative, such as the formation of the biblical canon. And, as I’d like to argue below, the extra-biblical evidence for the Marian doctrines is substantial. 

Many other more capable apologists than myself have offered extensive treatment of the biblical support for Mary’s perpetual virginity, immaculate conception, and assumption, so I’ll be brief.

As Catholic apologist Dave Armstrong has noted, there are some passages in the New Testament that suggest that Jesus had no brothers. For example, when Mary and Joseph take Jesus to the Temple at the age of twelve (Luke 2:41-51), there is no mention of him having any siblings. Jesus on the cross commissions care of Mary to the apostle John, something he would not have done if he had had brothers (John 19:26-27). As for the passages that speak of Jesus’ brothers (e.g., Matt. 13:55), Hebrew and Greek have no word for cousin, and we discover in Matthew 27:56, Mark 15:40, and John 19:25 that at least two of these men, James and Joseph, are sons of Mary, the wife of Clopas, likely a cousin of Mary, mother of Jesus.

Let’s move on to some biblical evidence for the Immaculate Conception, the doctrine that Mary was conceived without sin and remained without sin throughout her life. Mary is revealed in Luke 1 to be “full of grace” and “more blessed than all other women. There are also many examples of Mary as a type or fulfillment of various Old Testament imagery and prophecies: the Ark of the Covenant (Luke 1:39-45), the New Eve (Luke 1:37-38; John 2:4, 19:26-27; Rev. 12), and the “daughter of Zion” (Isa. 12:1-6, Zeph. 3:14-16, Zech. 2:10).

Finally, let’s briefly consider the biblical support for the Assumption. As others have well argued, the book of Revelation refers to the Ark of the Covenant resting in God’s temple, which is immediately followed by a description of a woman “clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars . . . she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron” (Rev. 12:1,5). The implication, Catholic apologists argue, is that Mary is the Ark of the Covenant whom St. John perceived in the heavenly courts.

I hope you agree that the evidence cited above is not exactly overwhelming. Mary’s perpetual virginity, I’d wager, is the Marian doctrine with the best biblical evidence, whereas the evidence for the Immaculate Conception and Assumption is far from explicit. Certainly, there’s no biblical text that says Mary wasn’t conceived without sin or assumed into heaven, but a positive case is far from definitive.

But what is definitive is the pervasive belief in those two doctrines in the early Church.

Hippolytus and Origen in the third century; Ephraem the Syrian, Ambrose, and Athanasius in the fourth century; and Theodotus of Ancrya and Peter Chrysologus in the fifth century all affirmed the Immaculate Conception. Augustine, beloved by many Protestants, writes in Nature and Grace of

the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom, on account of the honor of the Lord, I wish to have absolutely no question when treating of sins—for how do we know what abundance of grace for the total overcoming of sin was conferred upon her, who merited to conceive and bear him in whom there was no sin?

Indeed, the Patristic support for the Immaculate Conception is so powerful that it’s no surprise that the early Reformers subscribed to it and that it required centuries of growing Protestant suspicion toward Catholic Marian devotional practices to obscure the fact.

Much the same can be said about the assumption of Mary. For starters, there’s the fact that there are no known (or even claimed) relics of the mother of God, which is pretty remarkable, given the proliferation of relics of so many other apostles and other early Church saints. Moreover, there are two tombs associated with Mary—one in Jerusalem and another in Ephesus—and both are empty. Epiphanius and Ephraem the Syrian, writing in the late fourth century, support the early Church’s belief in Mary’s assumption. Indeed, by the end of the fourth century, the Feast of the Dormition, or Koimesis, honoring Mary’s death and bodily assumption into heaven, was celebrated throughout the East. The consensus among the East and West (dormition and assumption referring to the same doctrine) also points to the historical legitimacy of this doctrine. Even post-Catholic Luther believed in the Assumption.

Yes, there are places in the Bible that hint and point to the doctrines of Mary’s immaculate conception and assumption, though neither is ever explicitly taught therein. But the extra-biblical, early Church historical evidence, including the patristic witness and archaeology, is quite strong, and much more difficult to refute. Catholics seeking to persuade their Protestant brothers and sisters of these two important dogmas would do well to make use of that evidence.

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