The Limitations of Universals
Oftentimes debates between Calvinists and Arminians pivot on the definition of a single word: All. Scripture clearly teaches that God” desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth.” How then can the Calvinist claim that God has chosen to save only his elect? The same conflict arises between Christians and universalist heretics. Scripture clearly teaches that through one man’s act of obedience “leads to justification and life for all men.” How then can Christians teach that any person is born, lives, dies and enters into eternity under the wrath of God? If all means all, and that’s all that all means, it would seem to be that we have a serious set of contradictory beliefs that are all derived from the Scriptures.
Thankfully, however, Scripture teaches us a simple logical rule. The word all is always class specific, denoting the totality of the members of a class of objects. Ironically, universals are always limited with respect to the objects to which they refer. It is only by sloppy, inattentive, or downright malicious misreadings of the “all” passages in Scripture that Arminianism and Universalism arise, therefore, given that the biblical contexts of the “all” passages clearly demarcate the word’s referential boundaries.
A clear example of this rule in practice can be found in 1st Cor 15:25-27, where we learn that Christ
…must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. The last enemy to be destroyed is death. For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him.
Paul says that it is plain to see that God is excepted from being subjected to the Son, but goes on to articulate how the all is referentially limited. All created beings will be put under the feet of Christ; therefore, God is excluded, since he is not a created being. This is an explicit instance of referential demarcation. There are other places, however, that are less explicit.
All Men Have Sinned
Christians believe that when Adam sinned, all humanity sinned with him. Adam, that is to say, was our representative under the covenant of works; therefore, God has imputed his guilt to all of his descendants. This means that no man, woman, or child is conceived without sin – not even Mary who carried the Son of God in her womb and then birthed him. Logically, the argument would be as follows:
All humans are sinners.
Mary is human.
Therefore, Mary is a sinner.
Roman Catholics have typically responded to this argument by pointing out that Jesus was/is human. The reply doesn’t refute the argument, but it does underscore the need to articulate what the “humans” refers to in the assertion “All humans are sinners.” Contextually, the phrase “All humans” refers to all humans under the federal headship of Adam. This implies the guilt of all humans but Jesus Christ, also implying that he alone is innocent, pure, holy, and righteous among the biological progeny of Adam and Eve. The reply from Roman Catholics, then, can be done away with from the start by wording our argument more precisely. For example:
All Adamically-represented humans are sinners.
Mary is an Adamically-represented human.
Therefore, Mary is a sinner.
All Adamically-represented humans are sinners.
Jesus Christ is not an Adamically-represented human.
Therefore, Jesus Christ is not a sinner.
This clearly states what the “all” has reference to in our original argument, thereby eliminating the possibility of the aforementioned rebuttal given by many Romanists.
Like His Brothers in Every Respect/Tempted in Every Respect
Among contemporary theologians there has been debate as to whether or not Jesus Christ had a fallen human nature. Critics of the correct doctrine which asserts that Christ was/is necessarily spotless and without blemish of any kind have typically pointed to Heb 2:17, which reveals that
…[Christ] had to be made like his brothers in every respect, so that he might become a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make propitiation for the sins of the people.
What is central to their utilization of this text is their misinterpretation of the universal every. The writer to the Hebrews identifies the ways in which Christ had to be made like his brothers in every respect.
Christ had to be human, suffer through temptation, and die in order to be a merciful high priest who is touched with the feelings of our infirmities. Having established the deity of Christ in the first chapter of his epistle, the author goes on to explain that Christ “tasted death” for his people, and had to “partake of flesh and blood,” in order not to help angels but “the offspring of Abraham” (i.e. human beings and, more specifically, the physical descendants of Abraham), and “suffer” while being tempted. What is mentioned in these verses is the necessity of Christ’s humanity, suffering and death for his role as our merciful and faithful high priest. What is not mentioned or alluded to is the idea that his human nature had to also be fallen. The phrase every way, therefore, refers to the ways the author mentions: humanity, finitude, vulnerability to attacks from the devil (who holds the power of death), suffering (through being tempted from without), and death.
Note that a simple misinterpretation of the phrase “every way” can lead to an egregious, blasphemous error that attributes to the perfect Lamb of God imperfections. Those who misinterpret Heb 4:15 as implying that Jesus’ being tempted was boundlessly universal, referring to each and every sin every human is tempted by, thereby imply that Christ is a sinner. This is not only blasphemous, but it renders the Scriptural proposition incoherent. For the Scripture states:
…we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.
If the temptations Christ faced imply that he was tempted from within his own human nature, then this implies that Christ is a sinner. Yet the Scripture tells us that Christ was tempted in every way yet without sin. If it is the case that Christ was tempted from within, then he was not sinless (for to desire sin is to desire what God has forbidden, and this is sin), and the latter portion of this verse contradicts the former portion. The phrase every way, therefore, necessarily refers to all the non-sinful ways in which we may be tempted (viz. from outside of ourselves, tested by the accuser, pushed and prodded by the devil to sin). There have been false teachers who have recently taught that Christ struggled against sin in the same way that Christians struggle against their internal disposition to sin against God. Men like these show their ignorance of Christ and his Word, and they indict themselves as blasphemers, seeing as the text of Hebrews implies no such things.
This article is by no means complete. What it accomplishes, I hope, is clarifying the nature of universals as limited in scope to the set of objects which they reference. Hopefully this will aid in the study of Scripture and help brothers and sisters better address the misinterpretations of such universals in Scripture, so that God’s Word may be proclaimed and his sheep come to repentant faith in the Gospel.
Soli Deo Gloria.
 1st Tim 2:4.
 Rom 5:18.
 Rom 5:12.
 1st Cor 11:3.
 Heb 2:14.
 Heb 2:18.
 Heb 2:14-15.