Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Believe AND be baptized? Oh, and Sola Scriptura too.

I have a love-hate relationship with tough passages, such as:
Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned. Mark 16:16.
This is one troublesome passage. (Or maybe not. But let's run with at as it stands.)

Now it is not particularly relevant (although it is sometimes brought up in that context) for the infant baptism debate. For, as I have written many times, "whoever believes" and similar phrases cannot exclude infants (including those in the womb), if you expect that at least some infants are saved.

No, the trouble with Mark 16:16 is that the first phrase implies that baptism is absolutely required. Contrary to the gospel, it adds baptism to faith as necessary for salvation. The second half of the verse seems to step back from that position, but not necessarily, logically speaking. For if whoever believes AND is baptized is saved means, as it sure looks like, that both faith and baptism are required, then it is still true that that whoever doesn’t believe is lost—although you would expect the writer to add a similar warning for the non-baptized.

There is really no other way to interpret whoever believes AND is baptized will be saved. The reference to baptism can not be incidental. It simply can not be assumed that there is an omitted parenthetical qualifier:  whoever believes and is baptized (although that is not necessary) will be saved. That makes no sense and carries no more content than saying whoever believes and owns a Cadillac will be saved. True enough, but obviously not worth mentioning.

No, this passage teaches that you must be baptized, contrary to the rest of scripture, which is more along the lines of: you had better be baptized, barring extraordinary circumstances.

The answer, of course, is that Mark 16:16 (in fact Mark 16:9-20) is most likely not inspired and does not belong in the canon.

For those of you not familiar with this position, I will tell you that it has a wealth of scholarly support—and many bibles point out that the authenticity of Mark 16:9-20 is disputed. (This "Marcan Appendix" is also the place in Mark where the practice of snake-handling is derived.)

Some of the reasons are: 1
  • The earliest complete gospel manuscripts Codex Sinaiticus and Codex Vaticanus do not contain the passage.
  • While many early (but later than the two above) manuscripts contain the passage, almost all "asterisk" it as under dispute.
  • Early manuscripts in other languages omit the passage.
  • Eusebius and Jerome both doubted the authenticity.
  • Early theologians such as Clement of Alaxandria and Cyril of Jeusalem (and others) never refer to the passage.
  • Other early manuscripts agree up to Mark 16:8, but then have different endings. (Awesome!)
  • Scholars detect a difference in style and word-use when compared with the rest of Mark's gospel.
Can we ever be sure that Matt. 16:16 does not belong in the bible? Probably not. However, given that it is contested by serious conservative scholars, and given that it is seemingly at odds with other undisputed scripture, it would seem to prudent to avoid building or even supporting any theology on the basis of Mark 16:16.

The fact that virtually every bible contains at least two familiar passages (Mark 16:9-20) and the beloved John 7:53-8:11 that are probably not inspired is fascinating, and it points out that our Protestant rallying cry of Sola Scriptura is not as trivial as both Protestants and Catholics make it out to be. It is not synonymous with stating that we Protestants have no traditions—or even stating that we have only "unimportant" traditions. Our canon –the sixty six books of the bible—is a Protestant sacred tradition. I have hope that the Sprit guided the process, but the difference between that hope and the hope of Catholics, which sounds identical—that the Spirit guides the Catholics church in areas such as Marian doctrine—is not to be cavalierly side-stepped. "Sacred tradition"  is really a question of quantity, not substance; of minimal vs. expanding.

1 Summarized from The Case for Covenantal Infant Baptism, Gregg Strawbridge ed., P&R Publishing, pp. 44-48, 2003.

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