We must except the holy Virgin Mary, concerning whom I wish to raise no question when it touches the subject of sins, out of honour to the Lord; for from Him we know what abundance of grace for overcoming sin in every particular was conferred upon her who had the merit to conceive and bear Him who undoubtedly had no sin.
- St. Augustine, "On Nature and Grace"
Does the Immaculate Conception of Mary Contradict Scripture?
Protestants sometimes accuse Catholic Tradition of contradicting Scripture. Here is one example from evangelical apologist Dr. Gregg Allison's book, Roman Catholic Theology and Practice: An Evangelical Assessment (Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2014), p. 90:
Without question, Scripture affirms the sinfulness of all human beings and does not allow for any exceptions; every human person, as a descendant of Adam, is conceived in sin, has a sinful nature, and sins in word, deed, thought, intention, and so forth. According to Catholic Tradition, however, there is one individual who was conceived without sin, did not possess a sinful nature, and never sinned in word, deed, thought, intention, or in any other way. In this clear case, Scripture and Tradition are diametrically opposed to each other; equally clearly, the Church has sided with Tradition over against Scripture and affirmed the immaculate conception of Mary.
Scripture verses Allison has in mind include ones like Romans 3:23--"For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God."-- and Ecclesiastes 7:20--"For there is not a just man upon earth, that doeth good, and sinneth not."--among several others. Certainly, it looks like Allison is correct. These passages do not acknowledge any exceptions. They seem to be universal and general. If we take them at face value, we will have to say that Mary, too, like the rest of the human race, committed sin. We will also have to say that Jesus committed sin. But Protestants will agree with Catholics that Jesus is an exception to these passages. No, the passages themselves do not say that Jesus is an exception, but other places in Scripture affirm that Jesus was sinless. Perhaps an argument from Scripture could have made against Jesus on this point during his earthly ministry--"You say that you do not sin, but the Bible (the Old Testament) says that there is no one who does not sin, so we know you're wrong." They would seem to have a point, except that we know from our acceptance of the New Testament revelation that such passages in the Old Testament were not meant to exclude the idea of a future sinless Messiah (even though they themselves do not even hint at such an exception). So we see the importance of interpreting Old Testament passages in their full context--including the context of the New Testament revelation--instead of trying to pit those passages against the wider context within which they are supposed to be interpreted. Likewise, with passages like Romans 3:23, we recognize the importance of interpreting New Testament passages in the light of and not against other New Testament passages. Though Paul says "all have sinned," and the New Testament elsewhere affirms that Jesus was sinless (Hebrews 4:15, etc.), we know not to interpret Romans 3:23 in such a way as to oppose Hebrews 4:15 but rather to allow Hebrews 4:15 to inform and alter what would otherwise most likely be our interpretation of Romans 3:23.
And, of course, Catholics would make a similar argument, but they would expand the appropriate context for the interpretation of Scripture to include not just Scripture but the Tradition of the Catholic Church, for the Catholic doctrine is that both Scripture and Tradition are the Word of God and authoritative as such, and that the Church is the divinely-guided and divinely-authorized interpreter and applier of Scripture and Tradition. (See, for example, Dei Verbum, Chapter II.) According to Catholic doctrine, it would be just as inappropriate to interpret Scripture in ways that are contrary to the Tradition of the Church as it would be to interpret Old Testament passages to be contrary to New Testament passages, or New Testament passages to be contrary to Old Testament passages or other New Testament passages, etc. Rather, Scripture should be interpreted in light of Tradition (and other Scripture). With regard to the Immaculate Conception of Mary, for example, though the Bible says that all have sinned and nowhere do we find any explicit exception made with regard to Mary (though we do with regard to Jesus), we know from Tradition that Mary was an exception. Catholic teaching holds that, unlike the rest of us, who were born with original sin and commit actual sin and are rescued from both by the atonement of Christ and the grace of God, Mary was rescued from sin by Christ in an even greater way--by being prevented by grace from falling into sin in the first place. It was not Mary's own native abilities that kept her out of sin, but the grace of God through the merits of Christ. Mary could rejoice in God her Savior in an extra-special way. So, in reading passages like Romans 3:23, Catholics will say that Paul is speaking generally, but not intending to address the special case of the Virgin Mary (or the special case of Christ). We could also say that, in a sense, Mary is included in the "all have sinned," in the sense that she too needed to be rescued from sin by the grace of Christ. All people besides Christ, including Mary, would be lost in sin forever without the atonement of Christ. He is the Savior of all. Nothing in this interpretation contradicts anything in Romans 3:23, though it goes beyond what Paul says there. Now, if Paul had said, "All have sinned, including Mary--she committed sin as well," then it's hard to see how we could escape a contradiction. But he didn't say that. He didn't address the question of Mary's sin, and we can make such an inference from Paul's general statement only by assuming what cannot actually be proven from the text.
Protestants are thus guilty of begging the question when they use this kind of argument against Catholicism. Romans 3:23 and similar passages only constitute proof against the Immaculate Conception of Mary if we assume that Scripture should not be interpreted in the light of Catholic Tradition (and should even be interpreted in opposition to it). But Catholics do not agree to that assumption, so the assumption must be proved before it can be used in an anti-Catholic argument. To simply assume without proof a Protestant principle of biblical interpretation in an argument with a Catholic is to commit the fallacy of begging the question.
Two More Examples
The principles and assumptions one brings to biblical interpretation often affect the outcome of such interpretation, as our examples above illustrate, and so what may seem to be proved may not be so proved once one's assumptions have been questioned and it is shown that one is leaving out important relevant contextual information. Here are a couple more examples to further illustrate this.
In John 1:19-23, we read this exchange between John the Baptist and the Jewish leaders:
And this is the record of John, when the Jews sent priests and Levites from Jerusalem to ask him, "Who art thou?" And he confessed, and denied not; but confessed, "I am not the Christ." And they asked him, "What then? Art thou Elijah?" And he saith, "I am not." "Art thou that prophet?" And he answered, "No." Then said they unto him, "Who art thou? that we may give an answer to them that sent us. What sayest thou of thyself?" He said, "I am the voice of one crying in the wilderness, Make straight the way of the Lord, as said the prophet Esaias."
John says here that he is not Elijah. The reference is clearly to Malachi 4:5-6:
Behold, I will send you Elijah the prophet before the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord: And he shall turn the heart of the fathers to the children, and the heart of the children to their fathers, lest I come and smite the earth with a curse.
From this, the Jews derived the idea that Elijah the prophet would come ahead of the Messiah. The Jewish leaders, in John 1, are asking John if he is Elijah the prophet come before the Messiah. His answer is that he is not. So we know from this that John the Baptist was not the Elijah prophesied in Malachi 4. He is not the fulfillment of that prophecy. It seems like a pretty watertight case.
However, then we have Matthew 17:10-13:
And his disciples asked him, saying, "Why then say the scribes that Elijah must first come?" And Jesus answered and said unto them, "Elijah truly shall first come, and restore all things. But I say unto you, that Elijah is come already, and they knew him not, but have done unto him whatsoever they listed. Likewise shall also the Son of man suffer of them." Then the disciples understood that he spake unto them of John the Baptist.
Wait a second! I thought that John the Baptist wasn't Elijah! We have a clear contradiction here between John 1 and Matthew 17, don't we?
Sure, it sounds like a contradiction. It could be taken as a contradiction. But it is not necessary that it be interpreted as a contradiction. Since we know that Matthew and John are both parts of the inerrant Word of God, we will go with a non-contradictory sense and not jump to the conclusion of contradiction where we do not have to. John the Baptist is not literally Elijah the prophet, for he is a different person. However, he is the fulfillment of Malachi 4, as he has come "in the spirit and power of Elijah, to turn the hearts of the fathers to the children, and the disobedient to the wisdom of the just; to make ready a people prepared for the Lord" (Luke 1:17). Why did John say he wasn't Elijah to the Jewish leaders? Perhaps he didn't want to identify himself with false ideas about the coming of Elijah they would have imputed to him if he had said yes. But at any rate, there is no necessary contradiction here. However, if we only believed in the Gospel of John, and we assumed that the synoptic gospels were not the Word of God, we would probably tend to interpret their difference as a contradiction and argue against the synoptic view on the ground of what St. John says--just as Protestants argue against the Immaculate Conception on the ground of Romans 3:23 and similar verses.
Likewise, consider Matthew 27:38-44:
Then were there two thieves crucified with him, one on the right hand, and another on the left. And they that passed by reviled him, wagging their heads, and saying, "Thou that destroyest the temple, and buildest it in three days, save thyself. If thou be the Son of God, come down from the cross." Likewise also the chief priests mocking him, with the scribes and elders, said, "He saved others; himself he cannot save. If he be the King of Israel, let him now come down from the cross, and we will believe him. He trusted in God; let him deliver him now, if he will have him: for he said, 'I am the Son of God.'" The thieves also, which were crucified with him, cast the same in his teeth.
How many thieves were crucified with Jesus? Two. How did they treat him? They mocked and reviled him. What if I said that only one of them did so, but the other one was humble and righteous towards him? You might respond by saying that I was contradicting what St. Matthew says, for he seems clearly to indicate that both thieves reviled and mocked Jesus. He says "the thieves," plural, "cast the same in his teeth." Since there were only two thieves, the plural must imply that both of them were involved.
Ah, but then we have Luke 23:39-43:
And one of the malefactors which were hanged railed on him, saying, "If thou be Christ, save thyself and us." But the other answering rebuked him, saying, "Dost not thou fear God, seeing thou art in the same condemnation? And we indeed justly; for we receive the due reward of our deeds: but this man hath done nothing amiss." And he said unto Jesus, "Lord, remember me when thou comest into thy kingdom." And Jesus said unto him, "Verily I say unto thee, Today shalt thou be with me in paradise."
Is this a contradiction? It could be seen as such. But not necessarily, because the two are harmonizable. We can say that Matthew was not intending to deny that one of the thieves was penitent, but he was also not interested in calling attention to that fact. He gave a more shorthanded version of the event, emphasizing how everyone around Jesus, even those crucified with him, mocked him. Luke expands on Matthew's shorthand account and fills in further details. If we didn't accept Luke as the Word of God, however, we might try to use Matthew to argue against him.
In all of these cases, we have passages that, on the surface, have some appearance of contradiction. They could be interpreted to be contradictory. But they do not necessarily have to be interpreted in a contradictory manner, for they can also be reasonably and plausibly understood to harmonize with each other. Whether we tend to want to interpret them as contradictory or as harmonized depends partly on our prior attitude towards the texts--whether we think they are the Word of God or simply human ideas, whether we are prone to be hostile and suspicious towards them or whether we are prone to think them reliable and accurate.
Do Romans 3:23 and similar texts contradict the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception of Mary? Only if we take the most hostile interpretation rather than a more favorable one. Both interpretations are possible and reasonably plausible in themselves, for the biblical texts are very general and do not directly address the question of Mary and whether she might be a special case in some ways. So why do Protestants often interpret these passages as contradictory to rather than as harmonizable with the Catholic doctrine of the Immaculate Conception? Because Protestants do not accept Catholic Tradition as divine but as only human, and because they are prone to be suspicious of Catholic Tradition and to see it as unreliable. Once these deeper assumptions and nuances are recognized, it will be seen that the Protestant objection to the Immaculate Conception from these verses is merely an exercise in question-begging, for the argument only works if we assume beforehand that the Protestant view of Scripture and Tradition is correct and the Catholic view is wrong (and that one should go with the Scriptural interpretation most hostile to Catholic Tradition). One has to assume already that Catholicism is wrong in order to use this argument against Catholicism.
For more on the Immaculate Conception, see here and here.