The belief in the Immaculate Conception of Mary is a dogma unique to Catholicism. Catholics believe by a special act of God’s favor and grace in her role to become the mother of God, Mary was conceived without original sin. We also believed she remained sinless her entire life. The Orthodox churches often affirm they too believe Mary lived a sinless life, but they tend to reject the belief she was also conceived without original sin.
Even though the dogma of the Immaculate Conception had not yet been formalized, Martin Luther held to this teaching that had been professed by the early Church. But Protestantism in general after Luther widely rejected the Catholic understanding of the Immaculate Conception and most believe it to be quite contradicted by Sacred Scripture. The most common objection as Catholics we will hear to this belief is to quote Romans 3:22-24 – “For there is no distinction; since all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, they are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption which is in Christ Jesus.” For most Protestants this Scripture is clear and settles the issue – “all have sinned” should close any discussion that Mary could ever be viewed as sinless.
My first response when being presented with this argument is to ask the person if they have ever done a study on how the Bible uses the word “all.” To date, the answer has always been no. It is assumed when the Bible says “all have sinned” that is a reference to every individual who has ever lived. Taking the time however to study how the Bible uses the word “all” would seem to be important to understand exactly what St. Paul means when he says “all have sinned.”
The Bible often makes very strong statements about humanity in general, but it is rare there are not exceptions. For example, Hebrews 9:27 says “And just as it is appointed for men to die once, and after that comes judgment.” But do all men die once? For example, Christ raised Lazarus from the dead. We are not told specifically told what happened to him, but I think most assume he died a second time. We know Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Enoch (Hebrews 11:5) never die at all. And most Christians believe there will be a generation of Christians who never die, for St. Paul also tells us “Lo! I tell you a mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed” (1 Corinthians 15:51). Clearly there are exceptions to the statement that is it appointed for men to die “once.”
Earlier in his writing in Romans 3, Paul quoted Psalm 14 and says “None is righteous, no, not one” (Romans 3:10). Yet Scripture points us to several individuals who are indeed viewed as righteous such as Zechariah and Elizabeth (Luke 1:5-6), Simeon (Luke 2:25) and Joseph of Arimathea (Luke 23:50).
When we turn to Scripture to see how “all” is used, we can find many examples where it is clearly not speaking about all individual people with no exceptions but is rather making a generic statement about mankind. For example, in Matthew 10:22 Jesus tells the apostles “you will be hated by all for my name’s sake.” Does that mean every individual who ever lived hates the apostles? Of course not. In Matthew 21:26 the Jewish leaders say that “all” hold that John was a prophet, even though many of them did not. In Matthew 26:31 Jesus told the apostles they will “all” fall away that night, but we know John is faithful and makes it to the foot of the cross.
In Acts 4:21 the apostles are being threatened by the Jewish leaders, but they were released because “all” men glorified God for the signs they had seen the apostles perform. But evidently the Jewish leaders did not have that view. In Hebrews 12:9 we’re told we have “all” had human fathers who disciplined us, yet we know there are orphans we have never known a father at all.
And 1 Corinthians 15:22 St. Paul says “For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive.” If we interpret this verse to understand when the word “all” as used in the Bible is referring to every single individual, then we would be required to embrace a doctrine of universal salvation whereby all individuals are saved and no one would be in hell. But few Christians would profess that.
When we research the usage of the word “all” in the Bible, we see that Strong’s Concordance (Protestant) defines “all” as meaning – “all, the whole, every kind of.” The Blueletter Bible Lexicon (also Protestant) gives this definition:
A. each, every, any, all, the whole, everyone, all things, everything
A. some of all types
The use of the word “all” to mean “some of all types” rather than all individuals can be seen in this passage of Scripture – “John the baptizer appeared in the wilderness, preaching a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. And there went out to him all the country of Judea, and all the people of Jerusalem; and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.” (Mark 1:4-5)
Should we take this passage to mean every individual in Jerusalem and the surrounding area went out to be baptized by John? Herod too? All the Roman soldiers? Of course not. Fundamentalist preacher Charles Spurgeon explains this passage – “Was all Judea, or all Jerusalem baptized in Jordan? ‘Ye are of God, little children’, and ‘the whole world lieth in the wicked one.’ Does ‘the whole world’ there mean everybody? If so, how was it, then, that there were some who were ‘of God?‘ The words ‘world’ and ‘all’ are used in some seven or eight senses in Scripture; and it is very rarely that ‘all’ means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts—some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted his redemption to either Jew or Gentile.” (Charles H. Spurgeon, Particular Redemption, A Sermon, 28 Feb 1858).
According to this fundamentalist, Protestant preacher “It is very rarely that ‘all’ means all persons, taken individually. The words are generally used to signify that Christ has redeemed some of all sorts — some Jews, some Gentiles, some rich, some poor, and has not restricted his redemption to either Jew or Gentile.”
When we return to St. Paul’s famous “all have sinned” in Romans, isn’t that exactly what he’s talking about? He’s on one of his quite frequent rants in Scripture about how the Jews don’t have any reason to see themselves as somehow above the Gentiles. In Romans 3:9 he writes “Are we Jews any better off? No, not at all; for have already charged that all men, both Jews and Greeks, are under the power of sin.” When St. Paul says a few verses later there is “no distinction” and “all” have sinned, it is clear he is using “all” in the same manner Spurgeon speaks of – some of all “sorts,” both Jews and Gentiles have sinned. He is not making a definitive statement about each individual who has ever lived.
If one is still not convinced, they should continue to read. For in chapter 5 Paul writes this – “Therefore as sin came into the world through one man and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all men sinned” (Romans 5:12). Within the same context of “all men sinned,” St. Paul refers to the fact that “death spread to all men.” But we know from Scripture of at least two exceptions to all having died — Elijah (2 Kings 2) and Enoch (Hebrews 11:5). The idea that “all” is referring to every single individual simply isn’t supported by Scripture when the necessary study is done.
Some try to make the claim that while Elijah and Enoch left this earth without dying, they are the two witnesses referred to in Revelation 11:3 so they will die, leaving no exceptions. I think that is problematic because Hebrews 11:5 specifically says of Enoch that he was taken up so that he “should not see death,” not so that he could die at a later time. And St. Paul says death spread to all men, not death will spread to all men. And they are clearly two exceptions to his statement that death spread to all men. To try to get around this by making it a future proclamation will find only another exception as most Christians believe there will be a generation of Christians who will never die at all – which again shows his usage of the term “all” does not refer to every individual without exception.
St. Paul also confirms for us his “all have sinned” statement isn’t without exception because continuing in Romans 5:19 he says “For as by one man’s disobedience many were made sinners, so by one man’s obedience many will be made righteous.” St. Paul doesn’t see a conflict between professing “all” have sinned and “many” were made sinners, showing us that his reference to “all” was not intended to refer to all individuals.
So, does the fact that Scripture says “all have sinned” give us any reason to believe Mary could not have been an exception and did in fact remain sinless? When authentic study is done, the proposition that “all have sinned” proves Mary could not have been sinless is properly seen to be quite ill-considered. Perhaps more than any other, the standard argument that “all have sinned” against the Immaculate Conception dogma shows the problem of accepting a Biblical “proof-text” rather than taking the time and making the effort to place the phrase in proper context and a holistic understanding of Sacred Scripture.
While probably the most common, the response that “all have sinned” to the belief Mary remained sinless is not the only objection people can find within Scripture. My next post will address more of those thoughts.