Theological Mistakes #4: “Mark 16:16”

You may pick up from me that there is a tension between “systematic” theologians and “biblical” interpreters. This is a necessary thing, because we believe the Bible to have a unified message and don’t want texts in conflict.

That said, the desire of systematicians to have everything in its place has caused heartburn to biblical interpreters like me. One of the causes of this is the theological method sometimes referred to as “necessary inference.” This takes a text or multiple texts and draws conclusions from them that seem logical and consistent. However, this necessary inference often goes beyond what any one text says. A good example of this is the whole doctrine of the Trinity, but I will discuss this some time in the future.

Let me give this example, Mark 16:16:

Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned.” (NIV 2011).

There are two problems with this text. First, it is uncertain that it was an original part of the Gospel of Mark, since many of the earliest copies of this book do not have Mark 16:9-20, or have a different ending. Discussing that is also for another time, though.

The more important thing for this post is determining what the text says and what it doesn’t say. Here’s my take. There are two categories represented here. First we have those who are believers and who are baptized. They are given the promise of salvation (“will be saved”). Category two: those who do not believe. They are given the promise of condemnation (“will be condemned”).

And that’s it. What about those who believe and are not baptized? Don’t know anything about them from this text. Actually, there was no one like this in the early church, so the question did not come up. Equally true: what about those who are baptized and do not believe? Don’t know any thing about them from this text, although there were surely such folks in the early church. But to use this text to say that without baptism you are condemned is a conclusion not supported by the wording of the text. At best, it is a necessary inference. But necessary inferences are logical conclusions of human theologians. Even though it has gotten me in trouble many times, I am unwilling to do this. I guess I would be a failure if I ever tried to write a Systematic Theology textbook (which I have contemplated). 🙂

Mark Krause


13 thoughts on “Theological Mistakes #4: “Mark 16:16”

  1. Nicely put. I think the Scriptures indicate, when someone believed, they were baptized. They didn’t have to wait for a 6 week membership class. It would appear that this happened quickly after believing. I think if we practiced this in the church, the whole question of the necessity of baptism for salvation would be a moot point. I guess there would still be those who might argue about what would happen if they died first, however this is about as helpful as a discussion of how may angels could dance on the head of a needle.

  2. Actually there were unbaptized believers in the early church (atleast if we can agree that by early we mean ante-Nicene). both catechumens (a period that could last up to 3 years) and those who confessed Christ first in persecution and immediately suffered their death. both of these subjects are addressed by Augustine, and Augustine is a prime example as we see a divide in The Confessions between what it seems he believes to be his conversion in the garden and his Baptism by Ambrose some time later. He addresses these issues systematically because he is required to do so by his role as bishop of Hippo. Exegetical Theology is assuredly the foundation, but all of the college students you are training will face pastoral questions and situations that require their systematic convictions to be enunciated (we all operate cognitively from a system we believe to be coherent and it is usually not stated) Unless they are trained to operate responsibly in the systematic realm, their ability to operate pastorally will suffer. Augustine had to deal with situations where believers died before entering the laver as a pastor. I am an an Alumni and have had to deal with issues concerning Baptism which requires Systematic understanding – i.e. a 17 year old wanting to be baptized with non-consenting parents. I was extremely thankful that i studied under the mustache

    • Well, Joe, I am probably more in synch with you than you think. My plea here isn’t about baptism, but about not making texts say things they don’t say. This is where the systematic approach has not always served us well. I have been in pastoral ministry myself and faced real world questions like the 17 year old who wants to be baptized, but lacks parental consent. My point is that Mark 16:16 does not address this situation specifically, so let’s quit acting like it does. This does not rule out the possibility of other texts that do.
      I disagree, however, with your definition of early Christian as ante-Nicene. This would be akin to seeing myself as an early American. A lot can happen in three hundred years! All of the distortions of baptism that I know of were already flourishing by the time of Augustine, and (as you point out) he is a good example in this sense.

      • surely i never thought us that out of synch. I think that I understand your contention regarding biblical texts. It is an issue any Nebraska Christian College student naturally faces when they find both Smith and Jones on their semester schedule. There are challenges facing a purely exegetical theology that ‘refuses’ to make necessary inference.
        First, this is the theology of the ivory tower. the daily execution of piety and discipleship requires decision making that must be informed by the Word (we take captive every thought. . .) in situations that are not expressly addressed by the Biblical authors. Exegetical theology fits perfectly in the classroom and behind an often slumberous pulpit, but the execution of faith is necessarily interpersonal and occurs within the context of our present age, it requires us to take the model of teaching provided us in the text and use it responsibly in every aspect of life – as a system.
        secondly, a purely exegetical theology is impossible, and the idea that you refuse to make necessary inference and logical conclusion from the text of scripture make me wonder how you decide not to wear a bustier into the office one day. we all make instinctive decisions based on what we believe about the nature of reality, and nature of God daily, even down to each minute of our lives. we all possess a cognitive environment which we assume is coherent and it is what we use to make decisions. I remember a Smith class where we got an impassioned recounting of a time when he was approached by a congregant who wanted to start a certain ministry and requested the Church’s support. He communicated that it should be the other way around and the congregants should be serving the Church’s mission as opposed to dictating to the leadership of the church what their mission should be. At this moment it became clear that the exclusively exegetical theologian was operating from a system, and that system was operating theologically. We all have one! It is my opinion that the difference between a systematic theologian and a strictly exegetical theologian is that the systematician is courageous enough to try to tell someone else what his system is, while the exegetical martinet is busy conjugating verbs.

        and let me add that Smith is one of my favorite teachers ever, I in no way mean to be critical of him

      • I am glad you disagree with ante-Nicene as ‘early.’ It is refreshing. I am currently in an academic environment which often pretends that the earliest church fathers lived in 16th century Europe. and if they really want to get ancient they’ll go back to 5th century Augustine (not 4th century Augustine because his theology hadn’t been ‘corrected’ by the Pelagian heresy yet). But the practice of training catechumans far predates Augustine, many early fathers teach the delay of baptism for the believer. as, long as people have been writing about baptism, it is present. the two earliest sources on baptism do not address the issue (the Didache focused on the mode, the Epistle of Barnabas focused on the effect) But as early as the apologetic fathers, Delaying ones baptism is prescribed. Justin clearly describes it in his first apology and Tertullian (on the first full treatise on baptism in the history of the church) seems to allow immediate baptism of the convert, but advises the delay of baptism and offers assurance of salvation based on “sound faith” during the delay.

        For no less cause must the unwedded also be deferred—in whom the ground of temptation is prepared, alike in such as never were wedded195 by means of their maturity, and in the widowed by means of their freedom—until they either marry, or else be more fully strengthened for continence. If any understand the weighty import of baptism, they will fear its reception more than its delay: sound faith is secure of salvation.

        Alexander Roberts, James Donaldson and A. Cleveland Coxe, The Ante-Nicene Fathers Vol. III : Translations of the Writings of the Fathers Down to A.D. 325, 678

        all this to say that the early Church did have to deal with this issue

  3. Joel,
    First I think you owe Dr. Krause an apology for the reference to a bustier. That may be a joke but has no place in a public forum. It is insensitive and is not in keeping with how we are to speak as Christians. Secondly you seem to be diving deep into the topic of baptism and veering off the topic of discussion. Dr. Krause said there are other texts to use for baptism but Mark 16:16 is not the one. The point is don’t make more out of a particular verse than is there. Step back and see the forest from the trees. Yes we must make use of a systamatic theology to handle real world issues but it can only apply to a particular text where it is sustained by sound exegesis. We can’t use it to make more out of a text than is there. The Bible offers plenty of material to address real world problems.
    Tim Ross

  4. Can you really trust your English Bible to be God’s true Word?

    Have you ever had an evangelical or Reformed Christian say this to you:

    “THAT passage of the Bible, in the original Greek, does NOT mean what the simple, plain reading of the passage seems to say in English.”

    It happens to me all the time in my conversations with Baptists, evangelicals, and fundamentalists on my blog. They state: “Repent and be baptized…for the forgiveness of sins” was mistranslated. “This is my body…this is my blood” is a metaphorical expression, “Baptism does now save us” is figurative speech for what happens to us spiritually when we ask Christ into our hearts.

    What they are basically saying is that unless you speak ancient Hebrew, Aramaic, and Greek…you can’t read and really understand the Bible without the help of an educated Churchman!

    This morning I came across an excellent article on this subject, written by Jordan Cooper, a Lutheran pastor. I am going to give the link to his article below. I have copied a couple of his statements here:

    “So here is a question that we all need to ask ourselves when doing this (refusing to accept the simple, plain, English translation of a passage of Scripture): If a verse seems to disprove your theological beliefs, and you translate it in some way that doesn’t fit with any of the dozens of major English translations of the Bible, and that unique translation just happens to fit your own theological biases, could it be that it is in fact you who are in the wrong? Could you be reading your own preconceived theological convictions back into the text?”

    “I know it can be frustrating when you are constantly told that Scripture can’t be understood unless you learn (an ancient) language or read ancient documents that you don’t have either the time or the energy to study. Honestly, if you have a few good English translations at your side, and you take the time to compare them to one another, you have all the tools you need to understand the meaning of the Bible.”

    Link to Pastor Cooper’s original article:

    • Gary,

      Thanks for your comments. I’m not exactly sure how they relate to the post, but I pretty much agree with you.

      However, we cannot escape the fact that “translation always involves interpretation.” Rendering an ancient Greek text into modern English will always involves interpretive choices on the part of the translator. Does this mean that our major translations are unreliable? No, I don’t think we need to go there. But every translation will include theological biases on the part of the workers.

      I agree with your assessment of Acts 2:38. It is a very straightforward text that ties baptism to the forgiveness of sins. Mark 16:16 does not. That is the point I was making in this particular post. When we form doctrines, we need to consider Scripture as a whole, but what I object to is using our preconceived theology as the only grid by which we interpret and translate Scripture.


      • In Mark 16:16 Christ states that baptism is part of salvation, but that it is unbelief that damns, not the lack of baptism. The thief on the cross, all the OT saints, and many martyrs have died without baptism and are in heaven.

      • Gary, we are on the same page here. My point is that Mark 16:16 has nothing to say about believers who have not been baptized. Your conclusions about the thief on the cross, etc., are derived from other texts, not this one.


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