Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Assumption About the Assumption, In Action.

A recent discussion I’ve been in shows definite “assumptions about the Assumption”- that is, belief in the Assumption rests on faith and private interpretation rather than Biblical proof and historical confirmation. Recall, Pope Gelasius condemned the earliest books that speak of Mary’s Assumption. A Roman Catholic said:

Gelasius condemned books, not necessarily specific doctrines, in the Decretum. That's the point. The books were apocryphal because they had dubious origins and authorship. And like most apocryphal writings, they contained some truth and some error.”

And then later:

You're asking me why someone would decree certain books to be apocryphal? Do you agree that the Deuterocanonicals have some truth in them - yet you consider them to be apocryphal? Now I could turn around and cherry pick any doctrine out of them (as Mr. Swan has done) and claim that it was that particular doctrine was the reason why you declared them apocryphal. Now do you see the flaw in that method?"

At least, Gelasius had the benefit of the 27-book New Testament which contained the testimony of eyewitnesses to Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Could it be, Gelasius had a rule of faith- the 27 book New Testament which contained the writings of eyewitnesses by which to judge purported New Testament books? It must have been something to this effect, unless Roman Catholics want to hold God simply told Gelasius certain books were not to be accepted. Recall though in the decree of Gelasius he sets forth a list of “accepted books’.

Does one find the teaching of Mary's Assumption in the New Testament? No. What about in the writings of the Church Fathers previous to Gelasius? No. What about in the authentic piety of decreed Roman Catholic festivals and observances? No.

So in the Bible, in the writings of the Church Fathers previous to Gelasius, and in the authentic decreed piety of the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of the Assumption is non-existant.

But yet this Roman Catholic says that Gelasius didn't condemn the Assumption when he condemned the Transitus Beatae Mariae of Pseudo–Melito. Well, on what basis could Gelasius have affirmed the Assumption? History shows no basis- not the Bible, not the writings of the ECF's, nor in official piety and festivals of the Roman Catholic Church.

This Roman Catholic’s point rests on two foundations:

1) Faith. He begins with the belief that the Assumption is a fact, so no amount of evidence showing it isn't will change his mind.

2) Private interpretation. When reading the decree of Gelasius, This Catholic invokes what Roman Catholics abhor: private interpretation. He interprets the decree to mean what it needs to mean in order for the Assumption to remain a 'fact' in his theological worldview. He’s not alone in this. Catholic apologist Robert Sungenis does the same thing, by use of his private interpretation he speculates the books were condemned because they gave “conflicting accounts” of the true fact of Mary’s Assumption.

Now, I grant that no amount of evidence will convince this roman Catholic that Gelasius condemned Mary’s assumption, and that no “tradition” of Mary’s Assumption was given by the apostles (the earliest ‘tradition’ suggests no one ‘knows’ what happened to Mary). I grant that the few wires he’s able to cross in his own theological electrical system gets him off the hook and allows his theological worldview to keep churning along like a car that needs a complete overhaul. But Roman Catholics should stop for a moment and consider the facts and logic I’ve just presented. Then read the condemnation by Gelasius. Then take into consideration this statement from William Webster:

"In 494 to 496 A.D. Pope Gelasius issued a decree entitled Decretum de Libris Canonicis Ecclesiasticis et Apocryphis. This decree officially set forth the writings which were considered to be canonical and those which were apocryphal and were to be rejected. He gives a list of apocryphal writings and makes the following statement regarding them:

The remaining writings which have been compiled or been recognised by heretics or schismatics the Catholic and Apostolic Roman Church does not in any way receive; of these we have thought it right to cite below some which have been handed down and which are to be avoided by catholics (New Testament Apocrypha, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, ed. (Cambridge: James Clarke, 1991), p. 38).

In the list of apocryphal writings which are to be rejected Gelasius signifies the following work: Liber qui apellatur Transitus, id est Assumptio Sanctae Mariae, Apocryphus (Pope Gelasius 1, Epistle 42, Migne Series, M.P.L. vol. 59, Col. 162). This specifically means the Transitus writing of the assumption of Mary. At the end of the decree he states that this and all the other listed literature is heretical and that their authors and teachings and all who adhere to them are condemned and placed under eternal anathema which is indissoluble. And he places the Transitus literature in the same category as the heretics and writings of Arius, Simon Magus, Marcion, Apollinaris, Valentinus and Pelagius.


Pope Gelasius explicitly condemns the authors as well as their writings and the teachings which they promote and all who follow them. And significantly, this entire decree and its condemnation was reaffirmed by Pope Hormisdas in the sixth century around A.D. 520. (Migne Vol. 62. Col. 537-542). These facts prove that the early Church viewed the assumption teaching, not as a legitimate expression of the pious belief of the faithful but as a heresy worthy of condemnation."

Source: William Webster, The Assumption of Mary

Of course, this appeal was denied by the Catholic I was discussing this issue with:

"Mr. Swan, I can be convinced. All you have to do is produce a magisterial document from the Roman synod of 494 A.D. that condemns Mary's Assumption. I will help you: look for a document that contains some kind of a formal statement or declaration along these lines: "If anyone says that the Mother of Our Lord was assumed bodily into heaven, or says that The Blessed Mother did not undergo the bodily corruption that is the destiny of all created beings, let him be anathema."My fictitious example here is the way formal doctrinal condemnations come in the Catholic Church. They do not come by way of routine blanket declarations regarding apocryphal literature like the Decretum Gelasianum. The fact is, you will never be able to produce an authentic magisterial document that contains the preceding statement, because such a document does not exist. The only thing you could do is used the one I just wrote and present it as authentic. But that wouldn't convince me either."

The books condmend by Gelasisus were condemned for what the taught, as well as their dubious origins: Gelasius says,

"These and the like, what Simon Magus, Nicolaus, Cerinthus, Marcion, Basilides, Ebion, Paul of Samosata, Photinus and Bonosus, who suffered from similar error, also Montanus with his detestable followers, Apollinaris, Valentinus the Manichaean, Faustus the African, Sabellius, Arius, Macedonius, Eunomius, Novatus, Sabbatius, Calistus, Donatus, Eustasius, Iovianus, Pelagius, Iulianus of ERclanum, Caelestius, Maximian, Priscillian from Spain, Nestorius of Constantinople, Maximus the Cynic, Lampetius,Dioscorus, Eutyches, Peter and the other Peter, of whom one besmirched Alexandria and the other Antioch, Acacius of Constantinople with his associates, and what also all disciples of heresy and of the heretics and schismatics, whose names we have scarcely preserved, have taught or compiled, we acknowledge is to be not merely rejected but excluded from the whole Roman Catholic and Apostolic Church and with its authors and the adherents of its authors to be damned in the inextricable shackles of anathema forever (New Testament Apocrypha, Wilhelm Schneemelcher, Ed., (Cambridge: James Clark, 1991)."

Big Question time: This Catholic claims that the Transitus material contained truth and error mixed together: "like most apocryphal writings, they contained some truth and some error." and also:

"Pope Gelasius rightly condemned this writing because it was obviously fictional, NOT because it contained an account of Mary's assumption, which it does. After all, other apocryphal writings condemned by early popes contain accounts of the resurrection and ascension of Christ. Does that mean the popes rejected the idea of the resurrection and ascension of Christ? No. It just means that errors and fabrications are usually mixed with truth in apocryphal writings."

I'll grant that apocryphal material can contain elements of truth. We could go through one of the stories on Mary's Assumption together and take a look. Now, since Gelasius in notes that the teaching of the Transitus material is condemned as well, can he show which standard Gelasius used as his rule of faith? Can he show which rule of faith he uses to determine what is true or false in the condemned book?Most importantly, show me which rule, or rules of faith Gelasius used. If he says it was "Tradition" that allowed him to affirm the Assumption in this material, show me that "Tradition." Show me something, please, anything historical that will prove the Assumption was a true belief at the time of the condemnation of Gelasius.

What he's asking me to grant is that a "tradition" of the Assumption exisited, Galasius knew it, and did not judge the Assumption in the transitus literature as heretical. All he needs to do is produce that "standard". Unless he does this, I can only conclude that Gelasius had a 27 book New Testament by which to judge truth from error by.


FM483 said...

I was born and raised in a loving and devout Roman Catholic family. Today I am a communicant member of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod. As I reflect back on my life I recall many obstacles I encountered in leaving Roman Catholicism. In general these impediments were unfounded fear of the unknown: I knew that Protestants believed in Christ but somehow lacked the “fullness” or more complete revelations of Christian faith. I looked upon the many and various facets of Roman Catholicism, such as the heavy emphasis upon the long traditions of the church, reverence for past saints, the beautiful liturgical services, etc…. The break with Roman Catholicism started when my young wife and I requested our youngest child be baptized. The young priest insulted us unknowingly by saying that members of his congregation would have to testify that we were not degenerates! To a young couple this was a total insult. Eventually we attended a Lutheran Church and began reading the bible. Over time the Word of God began to change our perspectives and thoughts – from looking outward at the church to looking inward at our sin and need for a Savior. Through the Word of God we became Christocentric rather than church-centered. It took time for my personal viewpoints on the virgin Mary to change. For the longest time I simply could not come to believe that Mary, although special in view of her child-the Christ, was similar to all human beings-a sinner in need of the Savior. Eventually my views on Mary changed and were also conformed by the Word of God to that of Christ-centered theological beliefs. But it took time. Looking back over the years, I liken this change to a person who has been deprogrammed from a cult. My initial reactions were those of tremendous animosity at having been deceived for so many years. Eventually my attitude mellowed and now I look at my Roman Catholic family and friends as fellow Christians, but carrying heavy baggage with them in the form of false teachings and myths and legends.

As a Lutheran, I consider myself catholic, in the historic sense of that word. All the beautiful liturgy and history of the church is part of my inheritance. As my Lutheran Confessions state, I am a member of the Holy Catholic Church, the Communion of Saints. Although the similarities with Roman Catholicism exist, such as vestments, liturgies, infant baptism, the True Presence of the Body and Blood of Christ in the Lord’s Supper, confession and absolution, the differences are striking. I am not a Protestant in the normal sense of the word. I am a Lutheran, an Evangelical Catholic. As Martin Luther and his fellow Reformers of the 16th century believed, we have retained the beautiful traditions and practices of the historic Christian Church and have eliminated only those contrary to Holy Scripture. We did not “throw out the baby with the bath water”. Erroneous beliefs in the virgin Mary were some of those myths and legends which were eliminated as unsupported in the Word of God.

Frank Marron

James Swan said...


i'm so glad to hear from you-

I would like to make your above comment a blog post here, and call it "There I Stood, Here I Stand" by Frank Marron. (FYI- this is the same title of a book of stories about Lutherans converting to the RCC)

It will not be edited in any way, and i'd also like to offer you this:

I like your writing and comments- if you ever would like to have some space here to have blog entries, I would be honored.


Robbie said...

That was very moving, Frank. It was very much a blessing to read. Thank you for posting it.


FM483 said...

James - I appreciate the fact you believe I have something to contribute to the discussions on your web site! My studies on the Word of God increasingly lead me to the following conclusion: the primary reason for disagreements within Christianity and rampant denominationalism, is the inability to properly distinguish Law and Gospel. As C.F.W. Walther, the first President of the Lutheran Church-Missouri Synod, said: "Rightly distinguishing the Law and the Gospel is the most difficult and the highest art of Christians in general and of theologians in particular. It is taught only by the Holy Spirit in the school of experience."

I would like to submit a 2-page document on this subject I recently wrote:

LAW & GOSPEL by Frank Marron

Lutheranism maintains that the Holy Scriptures distinguish two ways God speaks to people – Law and Gospel. “Law” refers to the commands and will of God and is presented in a variety of ways, the most obvious being the 10 commandments. The “Gospel” is God’s communication with humanity whenever the emphasis is upon the actions of Him on behalf of mankind, the most obvious being the incarnation, perfect life, suffering, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ as atonement for the sins of the entire world. Throughout the Scriptures the word “Law” often refers to the Penteteuch,or first 5 books of the bible, the “Torah”. When Jesus used the expression “the law and the prophets”(e.g. Matthew 22:40), this is the implication of the word. At other times “Law” refers to the 10 commandments specifically, or the will of God in general.

The Lutheran way of reading the Scriptures is that of a Christocentric approach: everything in the Holy Scriptures is somehow related to Jesus Christ, as substantiated by Christ Himself in the New Testament(e.g. Luke 24:25-27; John 5:39). Hence, even when someone who is relatively obscure in the Old Testament is mentioned, there is somehow a connection to the Christ. So when Rahab is mentioned in Joshua chapter 2, we see her significance primarily as an ancestor of Christ Himself in the flesh(Matthew 1:5).

Lutherans see the entire concept of “Law” in a three-fold way:

1. God’s curb on evil in society
2. God revealing sin to mankind
3. As a reminder of His will to believers

The first use of the “Law” in Scripture is best illustrated in Romans chapter 13, where Paul emphasizes that the civil authorities are God’s instrument for peace and stability in society. The primary reason for the necessity of this stability is to enable the preaching of the Gospel. The second use of the “Law” is to magnify the existence of sin in the heart of man. Although all men are born with a conscience( Romans 2:15), the will of God is often obscured and unclear throughout various cultures. Without the “Law”, mankind would be ignorant of the extent of his sinfulness and need for salvation(e.g. Romans 7:7-12; Galatians 3:23-24). The third use of “Law” is to always remind believers what the will of God is in specific areas. For example, a new believer may be unaware that abortion is murder and violates the will of God as specified in the fifth commandment. Also, new converts may not completely understand that when a man and woman live together outside of marriage, this violates the sixth commandment.

Perhaps the most instructive way to understand Law and Gospel is as follows:

There are two basic types of people:

1. those who live under the Law
2. those who live under the Gospel

As mentioned earlier, "Law" does not merely refer to "Torah", the first 5 biblical books, nor merely the 10 commandments, but the will of God as found throughout the Scriptures. Certain people read passages of Scripture as commands or prescriptions for their lives-these are those who live under the Law, thinking that what they do makes a difference to God as to their salvation. The same verses of Scripture read by a person living under the Gospel are seen as a description of his status before God on account of the finished work of Christ. What a difference it makes! Since all men are born under the Law, there is a natural tendency to view everything from this perspective. However, continued bible study, hearing the Word and receiving the Sacraments, enlightens the mind to give men freedom and true abundant life(John 10:10) . Hence, we are free to love our neighbor through good works, whereas living under the Law commands us to do so. We live out of being saved and adopted by God as his child, not in order to please Him.

A couple of examples might help. The person living under the Law would read John 3:16 as something he must do in order to be saved: he must believe in Christ.

John 3:16
For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.

Hence, this verse would be read as a command of God, His will, what we should do. On the other hand, the person living under the Gospel sees this verse as a PROMISE of God which he trusts. This man knows that he is already saved by the finished work of Christ and that the Holy Spirit has created that saving faith within Him miraculously through hearing the Word(Romans 10:17).

Living under the Gospel is such a comfort and assurance, whereas the man who continually lives under the Law is never positive about his relationship with God. The first epistle of John is chocked full of apparent contradictions to the man living under the Law. 1John 1:6 says the man who sins walks in darkness with no life; verse 2:4 says we need to keep His commandments, and 3:10 says we must practice righteousness. These are plain commands of God to the man living under the Law. However, the man living under the Gospel reads the entire context of John's letter, seeing in verse 1:9 that even though we will always sin, God is pleased with our confession of sin because it always appeals to His Beloved Son's sacrifice as atonement for such. Also, in 3:23 we see that God's true will for us is to believe in His Son. To the person living under the Gospel, although he still sins while in this mortal body, he is not proud of it and confesses it. This man knows that he automatically produces fruits of the Holy Spirit because he is grafted into the true vine(Christ-John 15), and a good tree automatically produces good fruit. This man lives a life of continual repentance and faith in the finished work of Christ. This man understands that as long as he lives in the world, there are two natures within him: the Old Adam, as described by Paul in Romans 8, and the New Creation referred to throughout Paul's letters(e.g. Gal 3:28; 2Cor 5:17). The Old Adam always sins and is also referred to as the “flesh”, while the New Creation never sins and automatically loves, trusts, and obeys God. Hence, John's first epistle remains contradictory and confusing until we realize that John is at one place chastising the Old Adam and at another praising the New Creation within each believer.

James Swan said...


I've been thinking about having others have blog posts here- I appreciate the fact that you're Lutheran- which puts a different perspective on things.

If you have anything (like what you've posted here) it would probably be best to e-mail them to me at

I would like to begin with your testimony above, if that's ok, and then follow it up with your "Law and Gospel".

I've had a law and gospel thing to write in my head for a while- just too lazy to write it out.