"All Have Sinned . . ." (Mary?)

Thursday, March 01, 2007

I wrote the following to an evangelical Protestant friend who has since converted to Catholicism. This is a classic Protestant objection which has in the past troubled me a little bit (even as a Catholic) as well.

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Romans 3:23: "...all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God." {NRSV}

I'm still looking for a good answer on the "for all have sinned" question in regards to Mary. The "all doesn't always mean all" answer is not satisfactory since I am sure there are references where all does mean all!

I don't follow. If the word "all" (pas in Greek) can indeed have different meanings (as it does in English), then it can have different meanings! It matters not if it means literally "every single one" in some places, if it can mean something less than "absolutely every" elsewhere in Scripture. As soon as this is admitted, then the Catholic exception for Mary cannot be said to be linguistically or exegetically impossible, any more thanadelphos ("brother") meaning "sibling" in one place rules out a meaning of "cousin" or other non-sibling somewhere else.

We find examples of a non-literal intent elsewhere in Romans. In verse 1:29 the KJV reads, "being filled with all unrighteousness.....," whereas NRSV adopts the more particular, specific meaning, ".....every kind of wickedness...." As another example in the same book, Paul writes that "all Israel will be saved," (11:26), but we know that many will not be saved. And in 15:14, Paul describes members of the Roman church as "....filled with all knowledge...." (cf. 1 Cor 1:5 in KJV), which clearly cannot be taken literally. Examples could be multiplied indefinitely, and are as accessible as the nearest Strong's Concordance.

The "exception" answer is not satisfactory either considering Adam and Eve were before there was original sin and Jesus was God!!

And Mary was freed from original sin! Again, I don't see how this is compelling at all. All you've shown is that there are exceptions indeed. Granted, Jesus is of course unique, but if He proves an exception to the rule here, is it utterly inconceivable that Mary could as well? Sure, Adam and Eve sinned, but they are used as examples of immaculate human beings however short-lived it was in their case! I agree that this verse could be regarded as a "difficulty," but I don't think it is insurmountable. What would be irrefutable would be a verse that read something like: "absolutely every human being who ever lived no exceptions - has sinned......" This would include Jesus since He is a human as we are - just that He is also God (a Divine Person), and Mary. But Romans 3:23 doesn't entail that logical conundrum.

One could also say that Mary was included in the "all" in the sense that she certainly would have been subject to original sin like all the rest of us but for God's special preventive act of grace - a "preemptive strike," so to speak. This is why she can rightly say that God was her Savior too (Lk 1:47). I don't think that is stretching it, considering that Hebrew idiom was not at all "scientific," "philosophical" nor excessively particularistic as to literal meanings, as English in our culture seems to be today. I myself - in my admittedly relative ignorance of technical exegesis - think that this "exception / original sin / Hebrew idiom" explanation is the most plausible. It allows one to take "all" here in its most straightforward, common sense meaning, but with the proviso that Mary was spared from inevitable sin by means of a direct, extraordinary intervention of God, and it is also in line with the thought of Luke 1:47, as interpreted by Catholic theology, in light of its acceptance of the Immaculate Conception.

That said, I go now to linguistic reference works. Kittel's Theological Dictionary of the New Testament (Abridged Ed.) states:

Pas can have different meanings according to its different uses . . . in many verses, pas is used in the NT simply to denote a great number, e.g., "all Jerusalem" in Mt 2:3 and "all the sick" in 4:24. {pp.796-7}

See also Mt 3:5, 21:10, 27:25, Mk 2:13, 9:15, etc., etc., esp. in KJV.

Likewise, Thayer's Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament gives "of every kind" as a possible meaning in some contexts {p.491, word #3956}. And Vine's Expository Dictionary of New Testament Words tells us it can mean "every kind or variety." {v.1, p.46, under "All"}.

Nevertheless, I am inclined to go with the "exception" interpretation I described above. My point here is simply to illustrate that pas doesn'tnecessarily have to mean "no exceptions, so that Mary's sinlessness is not a logical impossibility based on the meaning of pas alone.

We see Jewish idiom and hyperbole in passages of similar meaning. Jesus says:

No one is good but God alone. {Lk 18:19; cf. Mt 19:17}

Yet He also said:

The good person brings good things out of a good treasure.... {Mt 12:35; cf. 5:45, 7:17-20, 22:10}

Furthermore, in each instance in Matthew and Luke above of the English "good" the Greek word is the same: agatho.

Is this a contradiction? Of course not. Jesus is merely drawing a contrast between our righteousness and God's, but He doesn't deny that we can be "good" in a lesser sense.

We observe the same dynamic in the Psalms:

The Lord looks down from heaven on humankind to see if there are any who are wise, who seek after God. They have all gone astray, they are all alike perverse; there is no one who does good [Hebrew, tob] no not one. {Ps 14:2-3; cf. 53:1-3 / Paul cites these in Rom 3:10-12}

Yet in the immediately preceding Psalm, David proclaims I trusted in your steadfast love.... {13:5}, which certainly is "seeking" after God! And in the very next he refers to those who walk blamelessly, and do what is right...... {15:2}. Even two verses later he writes that ...God is with the company of the righteous. (!!!) So obviously his lament in 14:2-3 is an indignant hyperbole and not intended as a literal utterance. Such remarks are common to Jewish poetic idiom. The anonymous psalmist in 112:5 refers to a good man (Heb. tob), as does the book of Proverbs repeatedly (11:23, 12:2, 13:22, 14:14,19), using the same word, tob, which appears in Ps 14:2-3. And references to righteous men are innumerable (e.g., Job 17:9, 22:19, Ps 5:12, 32:11, 34:15, 37:16,32, Mt 9:13, 13:17, 25:37,46, Rom 5:19, Heb 11:4, Jas 5;16, 1 pet 3:12, 4:18, etc., etc.).

But us Catholics agree with Protestants on the universality of sin, with just the one lone exception of Mary among created human beings. That's not too incredible or implausible or unthinkable to imagine God doing, is it? To make sure that one solitary created person was kept from sin? And that because she was the Theotokos, the God-bearer? Newman said that it is far less difficult to hold that Mary was freed from original and actual sin than it is to accept the proposition that all men are subject to original sin. The real mystery is why God would allow the latter to happen, not that He willed to restore His Son's earthly mother to a state which - but for original sin - would have characterized every one of us.


One might also note 1 Corinthians 15:22: "As in Adam all die, so in Christ all will be made alive" {NIV}. As far as physical death is concerned (the context of 1 Cor 15), not "all" people have died (e.g., Enoch: Gen 5:24; cf. Heb 11:5, Elijah: 2 Kings 2:11). Likewise, "all" will not be made spiritually alive by Christ, as some will choose to suffer eternal spiritual death in hell.