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An Alternative View of the “Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets”
If this Evangelical tradition fails to reflect an adequate interpretation of Ephesians 2:20, then what alternative can be offered? We would argue that, “the foundation” of Eph 2:20 represents the recurring apostolic and prophetically-inspired “foundational confession,” as Peter’s “great confession” (Mt 16:16-19), which is revealed to and confessed by all Christians at all times. Peter’s confession is universally considered to be both paradigmatic and parenetic.
It is likely that the earlier Christian tradition of Peter’s confession shaped the Eph 2:20 metaphor in that both share at least four key elements: 1) the prophetic revelation from the Father was stressed as the means by which Peter knew that, 2) Jesus is the Christ, the Son of the living God (the central point of the discussion); 3) the “foundation” language of building Christ’s church “on this rock”; 4) the archetypal role of Peter results from his prophetic confession: a) the play on words for “rock,” connecting his prophetic confession to the “foundation” and building of the Church; b) the fact that he was given the keys to the kingdom: not only that he had access himself at that point, but also the role he had in unlocking the kingdom to the Christocentric prophetic experiences of the Samaritans in Acts 8 and Gentiles in Acts 10.
The debate on the precise meaning of this last phrase is historic: how does “rock” mean? Peter’s leadership? Peter’s confession, which somehow “unlocked” the kingdom to all, and could “bind” and “loose” sins? That Peter’s confession was a paradigm for all to confess, thereby unlocking the kingdom and being built into the church? Was the rock Christ himself (“this petra,” distinguished from Petros)? If the latter, then how are the revelation, the confession and the keys related to the rock/foundation and the building?
What seems clear from all of this, however, is that since this story is written in canonical scripture, it has some claim upon the reader other than to relay historical information. It would seem that Peter’s prophetic confession is in some sense paradigmatic and archetypal for all who would be believers in Christ. The pericope would also seem to suggest that this revealed confession unlocks the kingdom to the confessor, and that the whole assembly of confessors, the church, would rest and be built up on the rock — either this confession about Christ, or Christ himself (Rom 15:20; 1 Cor 3:11), or both.
Ephesians 2:20 relates to Peter’s confession along the four points above. 1) The “apostles and prophets” (those who receive and confess revelation) parallel “Peter” and the importance of his “revelation” about 2) Christ, the “cornerstone” (chief of the “foundation”). 3) The temple is then “built” upon this foundation “in Him” // “I [Christ] will build my church.” 4) The archetypal (“foundational”) roles of the apostles and prophets result from their prophetic confession: a) the play on words for “rock” (“cornerstone”), connecting their prophetic confession to the “foundation,” b) just as Peter now may unlock the kingdom because of his revelation, so now, also both Jew and Gentile have access “by one Spirit” (Eph 2:18). Note that the Gentiles once were “excluded from citizenship in Israel” (2:12) but now are “no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people” (2:19).
But how are both Jews and Gentiles brought into this citizenship/kingdom, or what activity is involved to enter? Through the work of Christ all have “access to the Father by one Spirit” (2:18. In the NT era “Spirit” was virtually synonymous with “prophecy”). The next verse continues on about inclusion into God’s household, which is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets (personifications of revelation, as Peter’s “foundational” confession), with Christ as the chief cornerstone” (also implied in the Peter’s confession pericope). Here the metaphor changes slightly where all are being built “in Him,” “in the Lord,” “in Him,” (thrice: vss. 21 and 22, clearly a “revelatory” state as we know Him “according to the Spirit”) and finally, “being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit” (another revelatory reference).
On this suggestion, then, that the “foundation” of apostles and prophets represents a parallel expression of Peter’s confession with the subsequent inclusion of the Gentiles, we offer an interpretation of Eph 2:20.Contrary to the cessationist or exclusivist notion that a certain type of revelation accredited the status of apostles and prophets, a much deeper dynamic is portrayed in this passage: that the “foundation of the apostles and prophets” symbolizes a way by which everyone on earth may enter into God’s temple/kingdom/covenant/citizenship/household, that is, by the Spirit-revealed confession of Christ Jesus.
The passage exists not to prove the Papal authority and uniqueness of the apostles and prophets, but rather to express the “foundational” means of entering divine fellowship: “No one can confess ‘Jesus is Lord!’ except by the Spirit.”This confession, then, is the “foundation of the apostles and prophets!”
Certainly this apostolic and prophetic revelation is not limited to this group in Eph 2:20, unless of course, Paul is speaking of all believers as being “foundational!” In 1:15-23 Paul’s goal for the reader (and not merely for first century Ephesians if this book is to be regarded as canonical for the Church), via his prayer, is that “the Father may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know [“experience first hand”] Him better.” Paul continues by further describing “wisdom and revelation”: “that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know [“experience first hand”] the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in the saints, and His incomparably great power [dunamis — most often in the NT, “miracle working power”],” which is like God’s resurrection power. Paul wishes the revelation to the reader to move to the extent that they know that Christ is exalted above all powers and nations using the language of Psalm 2. Paul then, seems to be setting the goal for revelation of the inclusion of all nations under Christ, who in the church “fills everything in every way.” In other words, it is clear that both canonically and therefore normatively, all believers are to share in the “revelation” of the Gentile inclusion in the Church. Paul does not pray that the reader be given the “New Testament” of “wisdom and revelation,” but the “Spirit of wisdom and revelation,” the content of which is both clear and propositional.
Another passage, 3:14-19, illustrates the normative, shared and continuing revelation expected for all believers. Again, Paul prays, indicating the ideal for the readers, that the Father “may strengthen you with power [dunamis, again] through His Spirit [of revelation and wisdom] in your inner being, so that Christ may dwell in your hearts [center of spiritual perception] through faith [not in this passage through the NT, but via a subjective awareness/assurance] . . . .that being rooted and established in love [for the Jews or Gentiles?] you may have power together with all the saints to grasp [the extent] of the love of Christ [again, the unity of Jew and Gentile?] . . . that you may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God.” Cessationists restrict this kind of outpouring only for the “foundation gifts” of apostles and prophets.
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