While I took the opportunity to read some comments on Facebook which were a discussion on the historical veracity of the Catholic Church’s belief on the assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary, I thought I would write something about the Marian apologia that Catholics have to offer. But first, let me state some preliminary remarks.
Any Catholic who has been in dialogue with Protestants on the Marian doctrines (either, our Lady’s immaculate conception, perpetual virginity, assumption into heaven, and her maternity of God) will understand that, no matter what you say, it almost seems like none of it has any sway. As a former Protestant, I can empathize with how seemingly question-begging all the Marian apologetics were. It always seemed like whatever pile of evidence was being built, there still needed a whole mountain the size of Mt. Everest to accomplish something even just close to the level of holding persuasive power. I hope to explain why this is, and what, perhaps, may end up getting both the Catholic and the Protestant to at least look at the same sheet music, so as to at least understand the nature of the music that we are working with.
It truly has little to no sway with Protestants because of a difference in paradigm. Let me explain. Catholics read the New Testament and see where our Lord says to the Apostles, “on this rock I will build My Church and the gates of hell shall never prevail against it“, and “As the Father sent me, so I sent you“, and “He who hears you, hears me“, and “I will be with you always, even to the end of the age“, and we glean from these passages that our Lord intended to give His own mission of teaching, converting, and discipleship to the Apostolic Church which would carry his authority and protective assistance from Jerusalem to the ends of the earth. Therefore, even if all we have are late documents from, say, the 5th or 6th centuries which show, by then, the universality of Marian devotion, this would be good enough to convince the Catholic that this was the belief from the beginning of the Church up to that point! That is because, given the promise of our Lord to perpetual guidance and assistance, whatever the universal Church holds at late time X is good enough to convince the Catholic that the universal Church held to the same in early time Y. This is because we believe in the divine and apostolic institution of the Church, which cannot lead the world into heresy and false teaching. As Christ said, “the gates of hell shall never prevail” and “you will be My witnesses…to the ends of the earth“. Our Lord has a personal investment in this Christian mission, and He will see to it that His gospel is protected and kept pure until the end of time.
For some Protestants, only the Apostles (and when they wrote Scripture, only) were infallible, and therefore once the last Apostle died, all are capable of err, and the risk of heresy and apostasy are always present for everyone. Therefore, only appeals to the very earliest fathers would even potentially carry some level of credibility because they are more likely to carry the pristine truth. However, even during the Apostles there were heretics called out by name, and therefore who is to say whether Tertullian, Justin the Martyr, Irenaeus, Origen, etc,etc would not just be another heretic from the standpoint of the Apostles?
To other more conservative Reformed Protestants, God always upholds an invisible collection of “elect persons” who are infallible insofar as once they give confession to the gospel, cannot ever be overturned into heretics or apostates. But if one wanted to go this route, then it will hurt when we investigate what the universal beliefs of the Church were from the beginning up and unto the 16th century. If we do that, we will doubtlessly find that the universal church held to the Marian doctrines in question. Lastly, for those Reformed who absorb this fact, namely, that God the Holy Spirit, in the wisdom of His Holy Office as Teacher and Helper, permitted the Church to obtain these beliefs and practices that were gross and heretical, i.e. praying to Mary and the Saints, and that, for so many centuries, they would have to admit that these beliefs are compatible with divine election and salvation, in which case, at the very least, they couldn’t accuse Catholics of soul-destroying heresy….without reverberating the same condemnation retrospectively.
If, and this is a big “if”, you can manage to go through the New Testament and show that our Lord not only foresaw His own absence (John 14-17), but prepared the Apostles, and their successors, to carry on His very own mission of teaching, a new door may open up for the Protestant. In other words, Christ is indeed the Light of the world, and this Light was not meant to be shone merely in the few years of His earthly ministry. Our Lord intended His light to shine through the Church from Jerusalem and to the ends of the earth. Part of that light is the illumination of the true content of His gospel and the revelation He gave to the Apostles. Therefore, even from a bird’s eye view, if we can see a steady and constant trajectory of belief X even by the 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, or 12th centuries, we know that the Holy Spirit would not lead the Church of these times to uphold soul-destroying errors. With this conviction, I believe, you are now ready to begin speaking of a Marian apologetic which can make some sense to Protestants, and perhaps eve compel them to believe. Now, keep in mind that this apologia is less rigorous than what many of the more skeptical Protestants are going to want, but I think if you explore this paradigm more, you can find a whole treasure chest of reasons to make a strong antecedent probability argument for the Church’s teaching on Mary. It will require the Protestant to sort of kick back and give himself up to trusting the wisdom of the Church which Christ promised infallible protection. This entails unhinging his need to be able to obtain a plethora of material evidence from the earliest centuries for himself. But, I truly think that the former is far more reasonable than believing our Lord left it to the private reasoning and spontaneous discovery of material evidence as the foundation of the content of divine revelation. It is Scripture itself which teaches us that, as our Lord ascended into heaven, “He gave gifts to men….for the equipping of the saints for the work of ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ, till we all come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to a perfect man, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” in order that we may “grow up in all things into Him who is the head—Christ— from whom the whole body, joined and knit together by what every joint supplies, according to the effective working by which every part does its share, causes growth of the body for the edifying of itself in love” (Eph 4:7-16). If this supernatural influx of Christ’s Spirit was not there during all those centuries prior to the Protestant Reformation, then what are we worshiping?
In our Lord.