Subtractions and Additions
The Gospel of Matthew 20:29-34 records an event that happened as Jesus was leaving Jericho. Two blind men began to call upon Him, begging for mercy. When the crowd tried to silence them, they simply cried louder. Jesus was moved with compassion and touched their eyes, healing them so that they could see.
The same story is told in Mark 10:46-52 and Luke 18:35-43. Both Mark and Luke, however, present only a single blind man, whom Mark names as Bartimaeus. There are also other differences in the accounts. Neither Mark nor Luke mentions that Jesus touched the man. Mark alone specifies that Bartimaeus threw off his cloak, while Luke alone mentions that the man and the crowd gave praise to God. Both Matthew and Mark say that this episode occurred while Jesus was leaving Jericho, but Luke says that it happened as Jesus was approaching Jericho.
Not surprisingly, destructive critics of Scripture have treated these accounts as proof that the Bible contradicts itself. Particularly interesting is the contrast between the two blind men of Matthew and the one blind man of Mark and Luke. The critics insist that readers must choose: did Jesus heal two blind men, or was it only one? Whichever it was, they insist that the other account must be mistaken.
What this criticism overlooks is a literary phenomenon known as ellipsis. An ellipsis occurs when an author elects to mention certain facts but omits others because they are not germane to his point. An ellipsis is not an error or an untruth, but a selection of truths that are relevant for the reader to know.
In this instance, Matthew notes that two blind men were healed. Mark and Luke are more interested in one particular man, Bartimaeus. The fact that Mark names him indicates that he was probably known to the gospel writers, whereas the other blind man may have remained a stranger. In any event, the accounts hardly contradict each other: if two blind men were healed, then one of them certainly was. The authors are under no obligation to mention both men.
The opposite phenomenon occurs in Mark 16:16, where Jesus says that, “Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be damned.” Proponents of baptismal regeneration—particularly those in the Stone-Campbell movement—cite this verse as proof that water baptism is a necessary condition of salvation. That is not what the verse teaches, however.
Mark 16:16 clearly makes belief a necessary condition of salvation: whoever does not believe will face condemnation. The status of baptism is less clear. In the first half of the verse it might be functioning as a condition, or it might be functioning as an attendant circumstance. If it is an attendant circumstance, then the statement does not require baptism for salvation. In fact, other attendant circumstances could be added without doing any damage to the truth value of the statement. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved. Whoever believes and is baptized and lives in Minnesota will be saved. Whoever believes and is baptized and drives a Chevrolet will be saved. Any number of attendant circumstances could be inserted and, as long as they do not contradict the core statement, the sentence remains true.
What this means is that Mark 16:16 cannot serve as a proof text for baptismal regeneration. While the verse does not rule out baptismal regeneration, it does not require it, either. Whether or not baptism is a necessary condition of salvation will have to be decided on other grounds.
The critic who sees a contradiction between the accounts of Matthew, Mark, and Luke is not thinking clearly. He sees a subtraction as a contradiction. The Campbellite who sees baptismal regeneration in Mark 16:16 is also not thinking clearly. He assumes that an added circumstance constitutes a requirement. Such errors are not uncommon in a superficial reading of Scripture.
A similar error sometimes arises from a comparison of Acts 15:22 with Acts 16:4. The latter passage mentions the decisions that were reached by the apostles and elders in Jerusalem. The former, however, clearly specifies that the church participated in making the decision with the apostles and elders. So was the decision made by the apostles, elders, and church, or by the apostles and elders without the church?
One thing is clear. Any decision made by the apostles, elders, and church was certainly made by the apostles and elders. In other words, 16:4 is best taken as an elliptical description of the Jerusalem decision: of the three entities involved in the decision, Luke mentions two. He would, of course, assume that his readers would recall the participation of the church, which he mentioned only a few verses earlier. What was important for his purpose in 16:4, however, was that the apostles and elders ratified the decision in Jerusalem.
Acts 15:23 is ambiguous. The majority of manuscripts specify that the Jerusalem church’s letter was sent by the apostles, elders, and brothers. The older manuscripts specify that it was sent by “the apostles and the elders brothers” (this is a word-for-word translation). This reading is grammatically difficult and has to be ironed out somehow. Probably the majority manuscripts indicate how the early church understood the text, but some modern translations limit the letter to the “apostles and elders who are brothers” or similar wording. In short, verse 23 fails to provide any definite information about whether the congregation as a whole sent the letter, but in view of verse 22, it is probably best to understand that it did.
At any rate, there is no contradiction between Acts 15:22 and Acts 16:4. The two mentions supplement one another. In the face of a serious doctrinal difficulty, a decision was reached by the apostles, the elders, and the whole church at Jerusalem. When the decision was communicated to the gentile churches, the apostles and elders were singled out for special mention. The picture is one of a church being guided by its leadership toward a decision on an important doctrinal area.
This essay is by Kevin T. Bauder (Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary). Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that it expresses.
Now May the God of Peace and Love
Thomas Gibbons (1720–1785)
Now may the God of peace and love,
Who from the silent grave,
Brought back the Shepherd of the sheep,
Omnipotent to save,
Through the rich merits of that blood
Which He on Calvary spilt,
To make the gracious work secure,
On which our hopes are built—
Perfect our souls in every grace,
To do His blessed will,
And all that’s pleasing in His sight
Inspire us to fulfil.
For His, the risen Shepherd’s sake,
We every blessing pray;
With glory let His name be crowned
Through heaven’s eternal day.
About Kevin Bauder
Kevin T. Bauder is Research Professor of Historical and Systematic Theology at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Not every one of the professors, students, or alumni of Central Seminary necessarily agrees with every opinion that this post expresses.