The Assumption of Mary: The Eclipse of the Ascended Lord
What is the Assumption?
To Protestant believers, Roman Catholic devotion to the Virgin Mary is astonishing. The titles ascribed to her (“Queen of Heaven,” “Mistress of the World,” “Mediator of the Mediator,” “Advocate for Sinners” and “Mary the Hope of All Mankind”) can only be regarded as sacrilegious. Devotion to Mary has been growing for nearly two millennia, but has reached a crescendo in the past 150 years. In 1854 Pope Pious IX decreed that Mary had been conceived free from all stain of original sin, otherwise known as “The Immaculate Conception.” Over the next hundred years, Marian piety became yet more excessive. In 1950, Pope Pious XII announced as infallible dogma “The Assumption of Mary.” The papal decree reads:
[I]t was her crowning glory to be preserved from the corruption of the tomb and, like her Son, to conquer death and to be raised body and soul to the glory of heaven to shine refulgent as Queen at the right hand of her Son...
Rome has applied the prophecy about Jesus Christ in Psalm 16 (David said to God in verse 10, “nor will you let your Holy One see decay”) to Mary. Like Christ, she did not see corruption in the grave. When she died, she was transported body and soul into heaven where she lives immortal to reign at her Son’s right hand.
Where does the Assumption come from?
Roman Catholic scholars admit that they have no direct source either in the Bible or even in the Apostolic Fathers, nor are there any serious historical sources describing Mary’s assumption. This doctrine is purely the product of tradition. Of course, not all tradition becomes infallible dogma. The Assumption of Mary has been promoted among other traditions because it is eminently ‘fitting’. This is a special process in Roman Catholic theology. It goes by the Latin words potuit, decuit, fecit; that is God could, it was fitting that He should, God did it. For a thousand years, many Roman theologians have been saying potuit (God could preserve Mary from the corruption of the tomb), and decuit, (it was fitting for Him to do so), but only recently has Rome announced officially fecit, (God did it).
The Gospel of the Ascension of Jesus Christ
There are many doctrinal persuasions of the Church of Rome that Protestants have found offensive, but the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary ranks among the worst. It is a point by point rejection of the glory of Christ’s ascension. What we believe about Christ’s ascension is summarized in the Heidelberg Catechism, in Question and Answer 94:
First: He is our advocate in heaven before His Father.
Second: we have our flesh in heaven as a sure pledge.
Third: He sends us His Holy Spirit as a counter-pledge.
It is shocking to discover that precisely these three glories of the ascended Christ have been eclipsed by the doctrine of the Assumption of Mary.
Mary as Advocate
Medieval theology pictured the Saviour as distant from His church. The righteous Christ was viewed as wrathful toward all people stained by the corruption of original sin. The idea grew that we need someone with maternal influence over God to reawaken love for His adopted children. Rome was in fact denying the basic good news that God is “for us.”
The Medieval theologian Gabriel Biel (died 1495) was not an original thinker, but, says Heiko Oberman, he gave the clearest expression to the Medieval faith. Biel makes the extraordinary statement that “Christ is not fully man but God-man.” He taught that Christ did not fully belong to the human race because of his union to the God-head. Although Christ as Mediator represents us before the Father, we still need a mediator to represent us to the Son. This is the function which Mary fills. In contrast to “the God-man” Jesus Christ, Mary is fully human. We have no reservations about Mary’s humanity. As one of us, she can be a fitting advocate for us in heaven. By her assumption into heaven, Mary bridged the gap between Christ and the church. Upon her arrival into heaven, Christ ceded the realm of mercy to Mary while retaining the realms of truth and justice for Himself. Mary thus became our mediator to the Mediator. She now exerts maternal influence on God as she implores her Son to show mercy to us. Oberman writes:
Mary holds a place of priority compared with her Son. There is only fiducia (confidence) in Christ in so far as one has fiducia in Mary and her merciful influence on her Son (italics in the original).
This Medieval piety has only grown more bizarre over the past 500 years with the consequence that people in the Church of Rome will sooner flee to Mary as their advocate in heaven than to Jesus Christ, for she is the one who personally loves them, not Christ. Rome not only permits this betrayal of the glory of Christ as our Advocate; she recommends and teaches it! Thus Mary has come to bear the titles, “Mediator of the Mediator” and “Advocate for Sinners.”
Mary as Pledge
Medieval theology is also the source of the idea that Mary is the “pledge of our glorious resurrection.” If, as noted above, Christ is too distant for us to be our Advocate, then He is also too distant from us to be a meaningful pledge for us. We need someone closer to us. Hendrikus Berkhof states this directly.
He writes concerning Rome, “Jesus’ glorification functioned insufficiently as the guarantee of ours, since He was too little regarded as a man with and for men.”
Naturally, then, it is Mary who can function as a more sure pledge for us. Rome reasons in this way: While Christ has gained the victory over evil and death by rising from the dead and ascending into heaven, it is only Mary that brings this victory home to us. Oberman describes Biel as teaching thus:
Christ proves that a bodily resurrection is possible; Mary proves that this possibility can become reality ‘pro nobis’ (for us) (italics in the original).
When Pope Pious XII announced the Assumption of Mary in 1950, he explained that this dogma was intended to rekindle hope in the resurrection of the body. The modern Roman Catholic theologian, Karl Rahner writes along these same lines when he says, “The Church grants Mary as its own example, its own future in the resurrection of the flesh.”
For the second time, the glory of Christ ascension has been eclipsed and has been thrust into the background so that it is relevant to us only in a distant way. We do not raise our eyes any longer to Christ nor do we take comfort from His flesh in heaven; rather, we look up to Mary and take comfort in her flesh. It is Mary, not Christ, who gives mankind hope for the future. Hence Rome honours her with the title, “Mary, Hope of All Mankind.”
Mary as Counter-Pledge?
It must be acknowledged at the outset that there is less correspondence between Roman and Reformed doctrine on this third point than on the previous two. Yet, it is surprising to discover how the two correspond. G.C. Berkouwer observes that Christ’s salvation is so perfect and complete that there is room for only one co-worker: the Holy Spirit. But Rome has even made Mary to eclipse the glory of the Holy Spirit by assigning to Mary co-redemptive roles. It is not the Holy Spirit who is Christ’s co-worker, but Mary.
Once again, the notion that Mary can actually displace the Holy Spirit is rooted in Medieval theology. Biel taught that just as Christ is the Mediator from eternity, so Mary must be the Mediator of the Mediator from eternity. In fact, Biel sees Mary as parallel to the eternal Wisdom of God (referred to in Proverbs 8) who functioned as the Father’s assistant when He created the world. But this is not the only point where Mary cooperates in tasks usually assigned to the Holy Spirit. Biel also coordinates Mary with Eve, for while creation disintegrated through Eve’s selfish choice, it was made stable again through Mary’s selfless sacrifice. In both the doctrine of creation and recreation, the Holy Spirit has been pushed aside to make room for Mary.
The Ascension of Jesus Christ is a doctrine which has always been precious to the church. Believers experience the power of the ascended Lord when His Holy Spirit touches them through the preaching of the Gospel. When people wander from that Gospel and listen instead to the traditions of men, then they will be led by other spirits, evil spirits. Rome’s action by which she veiled the glory of Christ’s ascension with the doctrine of the assumption of Mary, demonstrates this. Therefore, a righteous celebration of Christ’s ascension will be marked by the renewal of the church’s pledge to adhere to what God has revealed in the Bible. It is only when we are led by the Bible that the power of the ascended Lord will touch His people to comfort them with the assurance that He is their advocate in heaven and that in Him we have our flesh in heaven; then too, the counter-pledge, the Holy Spirit, will renew the hearts and minds of God’s people so that they might seek the things that are above where Christ is.