There is a classic passage in the final chapter of Mark’s Gospel, where we read:

And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” [Mark 16:15-16].

Christians through the ages have seen in this passage a powerful statement of the importance of baptism. Taken at face value, it indicates that baptism is instrumental in salvation.

Or does it?

Some (though by no means all) in the Protestant community argue that this passage doesn’t do that. Let’s look at a few such arguments.

 

Jesus’ Statements and Logic

The first argument is based on the logical structure of what Jesus says. This will be clearer if we restate it more formally, using a few conventions of propositional logic.

In the example that follows, let us use the following conventions:

F = “John believes/John has faith.”

B = “John is baptized.”

S = “John will be saved.”

With these conventions in place, we can restate the relevant claims from Mark in the following form:

  1. If F and B then S
  2. If not-F then not-S

 

The Argument

Although many of our Protestant brethren, including Anglicans, Lutherans, Methodists, Church of Christ members, and many Presbyterians are prepared to acknowledge that baptism has a role in imparting salvation, others do not. This viewpoint is principally found in groups that are popular in American Evangelicalism, including Baptists and many non-denominational Christians.

When they consider the above statements based on Mark 16:15-16, they might argue this way:

  • Statement (1) does not prove that baptism has a role in salvation. Logically speaking, it names two conditions (F and B) and says that if these two conditions are fulfilled in the case of a particular person then that person will be saved (S). This does not mean, however, that the two conditions are both necessary.
  • It might be that one of these conditions is not necessary. In propositional logic, you can name non-necessary conditions without affecting the truth of a statement.
  • For example, let B represent “John bakes a chocolate cake.” Chocolate cake baking is in no way relevant to salvation, but the statement “If (John has faith) and (John bakes a chocolate cake) then (John will be saved)” is still true. Perhaps baptism is in the same category as chocolate cake baking with respect to salvation.
  • In fact, statement (2) indicates that having faith (F) is the necessary condition, because Jesus says that not having faith will result in not being saved. He does not say the same thing about baptism. Therefore, baptism is not necessary for salvation.

 

How Irrelevant Can You Get?

It is true that, in propositional logic, you can name non-necessary and even irrelevant conditions and not affect the truth value of a proposition. In fact, you can name nothing but irrelevant conditions and still have a true statement. For example:

If (it’s Thursday at 2:00 p.m.) and (it’s raining outside) then (2 + 2 = 4).

This proposition is quite true, but the conditions of it being Thursday at 2:00 p.m. and it raining outside have nothing to do with whether 2 + 2 = 4.

What this shows us is that, while propositional logic can be a useful tool, it doesn’t always model human discourse well. That’s one reason that philosophers have explored ideas like relevance logic.

 

The Relevance Rule

A key aspect of human discourse is the commonly unstated but nearly universal implication that what you are saying is relevant to the topic at hand.

That’s why statements like the one above about 2 + 2 = 4 seem bizarre to us. If someone makes a statement to you that begins by appealing to the day and time and then to the weather, you will expect the conclusion they draw to be relevant to the time and the weather. If they suddenly conclude that 2 + 2 = 4 then you will be jarred, because that’s not the way that human discourse normally works.

You may wonder whether they are joking with you, by breaking the rule about relevance in discourse, or you may wonder whether they have very eccentric notions about mathematics, but either way, you have an in-built expectation that what they are saying will be relevant to the conclusion they draw.

The example of John baking a chocolate cake is similar. It’s the kind of example that one would make in an abstract discussion about propositional logic, but to appeal to this kind of reasoning when looking at normal human discourse would be rightly regarded as logic chopping.

Jesus would not name irrelevant conditions when telling people how to be saved, and especially not in a solemn statement like the Great Commission. In this, of all places, one would expect the implication of relevance to be followed.

In fact, if Mark had recorded Jesus saying, “He who has faith and bakes a chocolate cake will be saved” then that would give us reason to think that chocolate cake baking is relevant to salvation, and Christians down through the ages would have understood accordingly.

 

No Mention of Baptism in the Second Statement?

What about Jesus’ statement that he who does not believe will be condemned? Does this show that baptism is not relevant to salvation?

Strictly speaking, no. All the statement establishes is that faith is a necessary condition for salvation. It does not mean that baptism is not also a necessary condition.

For example, consider this pair of propositions:

  • If (you have eggs) and (you break the eggs) then (you can make an omelet).
  • But if (you don’t have eggs) then (you can’t make an omelet).

Either not having eggs or not breaking the eggs would prevent one from making an omelet. They are both necessary conditions, and the mere fact that only one is mentioned in the second statement does not mean that the other is not also necessary.

Indeed, it is proverbial that you can’t make an omelet without breaking some eggs.

Why doesn’t the text say something like “He who does not believe or is not baptized will be condemned?”

Presumably for two reasons: First, the relevance of baptism for salvation has already been stressed in the previous statement. Second, in an evangelistic context, faith is naturally prior to baptism.

In the first century, the apostles and other evangelists were going out and preaching the gospel for the first time, and so the great majority of converts were adults. As a result, they first came to faith and then were baptized on the basis of their faith—the same way adult converts to Judaism first came to faith in the God of Israel and then were circumcised.

Failing to have faith was thus a conversion stopper. If someone didn’t come to faith then they would not go on to be baptized (or be circumcised). It thus wasn’t necessary to go into the second condition if the first was not fulfilled.

The situation is like our omelet example. You must first have eggs in order to break them, and so if you don’t have the eggs, that of itself means you can’t make an omelet. There is no need to mention that not breaking them will also result in the inability of make an omelet, because the importance of breaking them has already been established in the first statement.

 

Mark 16 and the Logic of Baptism

The passage on baptism in Mark 16 thus supports the idea that baptism is relevant for salvation:

First, given the implication of relevance that is present in normal human discourse, Jesus’ first statement indicates that baptism is relevant to salvation.

Second, given the presence of the first statement and the fact that faith is logically prior to baptism in this context, the fact that only faith is mentioned in Jesus’ statement does not mean that baptism is not relevant.

One could mount additional arguments against this passage, and some Evangelicals do.

 

The Hard Cases Argument

For example, one might ask about hard cases, where someone has faith but is unable to be baptized (e.g., because there is no one available to do it, as with a person who comes to Christian faith in the midst of a solidly Muslim society). Would these people automatically be damned?

Not according to the teaching of the Catholic Church, which acknowledges that there are exceptional cases.

The same thing would seem to be true about the condition of faith, though. Few if any Evangelicals would be willing to say that all dying infants are damned on the grounds that they don’t have faith in Jesus.

If it is possible for there to be exceptional cases with regard to faith, and yet this does not make faith irrelevant to salvation, then the same thing can be true of baptism.

 

The Canonical Argument

An argument that some Evangelicals might find appealing would be to point out that our early manuscript evidence suggests that the part of Mark 16 where the statements about baptism are found were not part of the original version of Mark’s Gospel.

The majority of New Testament scholars—Protestant and Catholic, conservative and liberal—hold that Mark 16:9-20 was written later than the rest of the Gospel—either in the late first century or in the second century.

There are good reasons for this view, which is supported by Benedict XVI in Jesus of Nazareth (see vol. 2, pp. 261-262).

If this passage was not in the original edition of Mark then one might argue that it does not belong in the canon and so does not have divine authority as Scripture.

 

Problems with the Canonical Argument

There are three problems with this view.

First, just because the passage doesn’t appear to have been part of the original version of Mark does not mean that it isn’t canonical. This is true regardless of whether Mark or someone else composed the passage.

Single authors can prepare longer and shorter editions of their own work. This happened, for example, when Jeremiah prepared a second edition of his own work, after an earlier, shorter version was destroyed by King Jehoiakim (Jer. 36:28). Similarly, some canonical books are the product of more than one hand, as illustrated by several of Paul’s epistles, which had input from other members of his circle (cf. 1 Cor. 1:1, 2 Cor. 1:1, Phil. 1:1, Col. 1:1, 1 Thess. 1:1, 2 Thess. 1:1).

From a Catholic perspective, the Magisterium of the Church can settle the canonicity of the longer ending of Mark, but this would not be authoritative for Evangelicals, which brings us to the second problem.

Second, even if one were to grant that the passage is non-canonical (something which I do not grant), it would still be an extraordinarily early testimony to what the early Christians thought about baptism.

On this view it might not be divinely inspired, but it would be a very impressive piece of patristic testimony dating from the first or second century showing that the early Church recognized the importance of baptism for salvation. This, then, would need to be taken into account when interpreting the New Testament teaching on baptism, which brings us to the third problem with the canonical argument.

Third, Mark 16:15-16 is far from the only New Testament text indicating the importance of baptism for salvation. In fact, there are too many to go into here, but let’s conclude by citing just one, which is as explicit as one might wish on the subject:

Baptism . . . now saves you, not as a removal of dirt from the body but as an appeal to God for a clear conscience, through the resurrection of Jesus Christ [1 Peter 3:21].

 

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