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Unpacking the Metaphor, “The Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets”
In what sense is the “foundation” comprised of apostles and prophets? For the cessationist argument to work it must prove that when this “foundation” group died, their scripture-creating authority and gifts necessarily died with them. Several responses are in order.
First, a general observation. Even if the parallel between the archetypal and paradigmatic Petrine confession to the Eph 2:20 passage is denied, and the apostles and prophets are seen as human deposits of Scripture, it remains to be proven that no one could replace them or that their revelatory gifts belong exclusively to them and not to the Holy Spirit. However, the fatal exception to the cessationist argument-by-analogy is the presence of Christ Jesus as the main element in the “foundation.”
Let us lay out the cessationist logic in this argument-by-analogy.
- Premise #1: The term, “foundation” is necessarily a descriptor of a limited period of time, i.e., a “generation.” Necessarily, then, this “foundation” cannot indicate an “archetypal event” shared by all believers, like a confession, nor can it refer to a normative, replicatable “pattern,” say, of ministry. Moreover, “foundation” cannot be a metonymy for the building as a whole.
- Premise #2: Anyone constituting this “foundation” necessarily cannot function past this “foundational” time-frame, either as a person, or as a class of activity that is essentially and characteristically associated with that person, e.g., apostleship or prophecy. The death of those constituting the “foundation” necessarily demands the death of their characteristic gifts, which then, in some sense, are transmuted into a body of enscripturated doctrine.
- Premise #3: Jesus Christ is a constituent part, as the “chief cornerstone,” indeed the very essence, of this “foundation (1 Cor 3:11).”
- Conclusion: Therefore, if the “foundation” is necessarily limited to the first century, then the life and the essential and characteristic “Jesus-class” activities, such as regeneration, justification and sanctification, perforce have ceased and have been reduced to a body of enscripturated doctrine. On the other hand, if Christ is alive and active in His ministry in the Holy Spirit, then the “foundation” must be stretched to include the present time. If either is the case, the cessationist interpretation of Eph 2:20 fails.
Two further difficulties derive from the cessationist argument-by-analogy.
- The “joining” of all elements of the building/temple in Christ who is the foundation.
- The clear references to Christ as being the last or final stone in the building/temple.
- If verses 21 and 22 are normative and canonical for all the Church, then the cessationist argument becomes untenable, in that the argument demands that whole Church is necessarily limited to the generation of the apostles and prophets. As the text states: “in whom [Christ the cornerstone] all the building is being fitted together (sunarmologoumene) and “in whom [Christ the cornerstone] you also are being built together (sunoikodomeisthe). The metaphor is about the connection of the building growing into a holy temple “in the Lord.” The “foundation,” then, cannot represent a limited time or a generation if “the whole building” is so categorically and individually “in Christ,” “in the Spirit.” If Christ is limited to the first-century “foundation,” then how can subsequent generations of Christians, indeed the whole Church, be so emphatically “in Christ” — a typical Pauline expression, which is a characteristic of each and every believer.
- This insight is further supported by the use of the term, “cornerstone” for Christ in this and in other contexts. Considerable debate continues over the placement of the cornerstone, whether as part of the foundation, as the cessationists would insist, or as the high “capstone”or “stringer” — a long stone at the corner of a building which holds two walls together as interlacing fingers, that is, the two “walls” of Jew and Gentile. Where the NT writers cite Ps 118:22, “The stone which the builders rejected has now become the head of the corner (kephale gonias)” (Mt 21:42//Mk 12:10//Lk 20:17; Acts 4:11; 1 Pt 4:7), it seems abundantly clear that the position is exalted or high and not a part of the “foundation.” The contrast is drawn, on the one hand, between a rejected stone, not included in the building, but likely lying undetectable, on the ground (perhaps hidden in weeds), as a “stone of stumbling” (Isa 8:14, cited in 1 Pt. 2:8, cf. Mt 21:44//Lk 20:18), and on the other hand, as later being chosen to be exalted at the “head of the corner.”
The cessationist metaphor is hereby faced with a difficulty. Even if we concede that Christ is the “foundation” of the Church in Eph 2:20 and 1 Cor 3:11, perhaps derived from Peter’s confession, we also have a Christ who is clearly placed as the “capstone” or “head of the corner.” Since the cessationist argument depends wholly on its understanding of the building stones as persons whose temporally-limited, characteristic gifts and activities die with them, what are we to make of Christ’s appearance at the very “end” of the Church’s time-span? Would not the cessationist “foundational” metaphor demand that Christ’s characteristic gifts and activities continue to the end of the Church period? If this is true, and if Christ is the most essential element of the “foundation,” then what does that say about the other members of the foundation? Does not this necessarily demand that their “foundational” gifts also continue until the same time? If not, why not?
- A final observation involves the historical point of view of the apostolic writer of this metaphor himself, St Paul, a fact which renders the cessationist interpretation of this passage impossible. In verse 20 Paul says that the Ephesian church was built upon the apostles and prophets, past tense. That being the case, according to this cessationist view, apostleship and prophecy, gifts that cessationists rigidly tie to the canon of scripture, could no longer be in operation at the time of Paul's writing to the Ephesians, for Paul is clear that the incorporation of the Jews and Gentiles has already taken place. At least one level of stones had been laid on the completed “foundation.” How, then can Paul continue to receive and transmit divine revelation, or even call himself an apostle? Even if we deny the Pauline authorship of Ephesians, someone with “scripture-level authority” wrote Ephesians after a generation of stones had been laid on the “foundation.” If the cessationist interpretation of Ephesians 2:20 is correct, Paul did not have the authority to say that apostleship and prophecy no longer existed, for he himself would no longer be an apostle.
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