Ephesians 2:20 and the “Foundational Gifts”
Cessationists support their view that the gift of prophecy is presently inoperative by their increasing appeal to an argument-by-analogy from Eph 2:20, namely, that since apostles and prophets appear as the "foundation" of the temple/Church, and since the “foundation” can only represent one generation of time, then these "foundation" gifts necessarily passed away before the second generation of Christianity. Non-cessationist Evangelicals so far have either failed to address this argument or have assumed the main premise of the cessationists.
This cessationist argument-by-analogy fails because: 1) "foundation" indicates a "pattern" to be replicated, not a “generation” frozen in time; 2) the “foundation” of Eph 2:20 represents both Christ Himself and the recurring apostolic and prophetically-inspired “foundational confession,” as Peter’s “great confession” (Mt 16:16-18), revealed to all Christians in every era; 3) the cessationist metaphor, in an illogical, question-begging move, confuses the death of early apostles and prophets with the death of their gifts; 4) the metaphor is destroyed if Christ the akrogone (“cornerstone”) is, as is likely, also the “capstone” or “long-high cornerstone” holding the walls together like interlacing fingers (2:21), who is also in contact with each stone; 5) this cessationist metaphor violates the clear teaching of Eph 4:11 and, 6) substitutes the “letter” of the New Testament for the Spirit-revealed experience of Christ Himself as the ultimate foundation.
Status of the Problem
One of the few remaining NT texts to which cessationists appeal for support of their position is Eph 2:20. The cessationist argument-by-analogy is that since apostles and prophets appear as the "foundation" of the "temple"/ church, and since each course of stones in this temple metaphorically represent successive generations of believers throughout church history, then these "foundation" gifts necessarily passed away before the second generation of Christianity.
From the frequency and extent this argument is made in cessationist circles, one would assume that there would be a serious reply from their theological dialogue partners, the Pentecostals and charismatics. Pentecostal or charismatic scholars generally have failed either to treat this cessationist argument to any significant degree, or if so, adequately.
This paper offers a biblical rebuttal to the cessationist use of Ephesians 2:20 as an argument for the cessation of prophecy, and, by extension, the other so-called “miraculous” gifts of the Holy Spirit. After a statement of the issue itself, this paper examines the only significant “anti-cessationist” response offered so far, that of Wayne Grudem, and then goes on to offer some alternative responses of its own.
Wayne Grudem’s Rebuttal to the Cessationist Use of Ephesians 2:20
Wayne Grudem is the only scholar I can discover who attacks the cessationist argument from Eph 2:20 in any detail, so quite reasonably, Grudem’s response stands as the default Pentecostal/charismatic position among cessationists, along with their perceptions about its strengths and weaknesses.
Though he presents his position as an attempt to mediate between charismatics and cessationists, it appears that Grudem’s defense on this point shares traditional cessationist presuppositions about the nature of apostles and of the “foundation” in Ephesians 2:20. Grudem seems to agree with cessationists who argue against the continuation of the gift of prophecy in that the gift is somehow identical with the first generation (“foundation level”) of Christian prophets: that necessarily when these particular prophets died, the gift of prophecy died with them.The same, he would also agree, would be true of apostles.
Grudem, however, ingeniously tries to deny the death of prophecy by claiming that only a special category of prophets is described in Eph. 2:20, namely, that they are “foundational,” and hence, cease because these particular prophets are in fact, apostles! He also offers an alternate possibility that perhaps these “foundational” prophets were an elite group that received and uttered apostolic-level revelation.He agrees, then, with cessationists that apostles, at least the original twelve (or thirteen, if we include Paul) stood to be unique in that they that they are seen as the authoritative bearers of foundational Christian doctrine, which they wrote into scripture. Accordingly, Grudem sees the apostle/prophets of Eph 2:20 as the equivalent of the canonical prophets of the Old Testament, whose pronouncements and writings also held ultimate religious authority in that they later became scripture.
On this view, and to preserve the continuation of Christian prophecy, Grudem must then define NT prophecy in two categories. 1) Agreeing with traditional cessationists, the first class of prophecy, which was to cease within the first generation, was a kind of interim canon awaiting its written form, while,2) the second class of prophecy was represented by the “less authoritative type of prophecy indicated in 1 Corinthians.”
Understandably, this novel defense has received a heated response from cessationists, who wish to deny any “two-level” gift of prophecy that Grudem describes. Without going into their argument in detail, they seek to prove that all manifestations of the gift of prophecy in the first generation will cease together, since prophecy is divine revelation, and such revelation must necessarily be enscripturated.
Grudem therefore finds himself in an interesting dilemma: on the one hand, since he sees apostles (and this first class of NT prophets) as the New Testament counterparts of Old Testament prophets and therefore “were able to speak and write words that had absolute divine authority,” that is, in the canon of scripture, it is crucial to restrict this class of men to the “foundational” and unrepeatable. Because of the central apostolic role as scripture writers, and because the canon of the NT is closed, the gift or “office” of apostleship must necessarily cease. On the other hand, “apostleship” is seamlessly listed along with the other “miraculous” spiritual gifts in 1 Cor 12:28 and Eph 4:11, gifts which Grudem insists must continue in the church! In short, Grudem’s views of apostleship, prophecy, revelation and scripture leave him vulnerable to the charge that he is fatally inconsistent in his defense of continuing spiritual gifts.
But does scripture itself view the NT apostles and prophets as conscious repositories of unwritten or uncanonized scripture? Or is this notion of these biblical figures held by Grudem and his cessationist counterparts anachronistic and too narrow?
The Protestant Tradition and Its Bearing on the “Foundation of the Apostles and Prophets” in Evangelical Interpretation
While we may lay out several responses, a brief review of the historically conditioned origin of “foundational” cessationist doctrine may be illuminating. It appears that this Evangelical cessationist tradition underlying this view of Eph 2:20 has been uncritically passed down from the polemics of the Reformers against the Papacy.
To undercut Papal claims to ultimate religious authority via apostolic succession, the Reformers failed to examine adequately the NT roles of apostle and prophet. Rather they assumed the premises of Rome and simply transferred the crown and the authority of the 16th century Pope to the first century apostles! The apostles, then on this view, the receivers of unique divine revelation, canonized their ultimate ecclesiastical and doctrinal authority, not in papal encyclicals, but in the New Testament. The Reformers, and particularly the scholastic theologians who followed them, further protected the “Papal” authority of the New Testament by denying any additional divine revelation based implicitly on the “foundational” role of prophets in Eph 2:20.
In this context, then, to Protestants, the notion of a continuing gift of apostleship, or a gift of divine prophetic revelation, is anathema. The former represents the specter of apostolic succession and the Papacy, while the latter implies the claim to ultimate, but constantly evolving and increasingly contaminated, ex cathedra doctrinal authority over the Church. For this reason, and not for biblical reasons, have the cessation of apostles and prophets become a “foundational” doctrine for traditional Protestant theology. The application of this polemic, then, could be easily and uncritically transferred to anyone advocating the continuation of spiritual gifts, particularly explosive being those of apostles and prophets.
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.
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.
Apostles, Prophets and Scripture
The cessationist model of apostles and prophets as essentially serving as repositories of unwritten scripture is a caricature. The connection between these gifts and the NT canon is simply not as explicit in scripture itself as the cessationists would have us believe. For example, when one actually adds up the number of words in the NT written by apostles, as opposed to non-apostles, the ratio is an astonishing 49%-51% respectively! Apostles, even by the most conservative Evangelical attribution of NT authorship, have written less than one-half of the New Testament! Moreover, if the circle of apostleship is so closely guarded, remember that Paul who was not a member of the original twelve wrote 43 % of the “apostolic” 49 %! The Acts account records the heavy emphasis the eleven made on the physical presence with Jesus. The apostleship of Paul breaks this physical link, which by implication, tends to universalize the exclusive apostolic contact with Jesus. He insists that “we no longer know (experience) Christ according to the flesh (via weak, human capacities)” (2 Cor 5:16), but now according to the Spirit (2 Cor 3:17). The central point, here, however, is that NT scripture itself is unaware that a new “canon” is being produced by the apostles, and in no case is it stated that even one task of an apostle was to write scripture!
Moreover, the apostolic “authority” is far from clear. Most of Paul’s references to apostles are negative and critical (e.g., 2 Cor 10-12; Gal 1-2); he finds he must spend strenuous effort even to defend his own apostleship, which seems generally contested, and unrecognized even by some of his own churches! On the other hand, the “super-apostles” (2 Cor 11:5) opposed the major message of Ephesians, the reconciliation with the Gentiles by faith and not the law. Were these apostles from James in Jerusalem (Gal 2:12), who intimidated even Peter, the first Pope, to withdraw from his mission to the Gentiles! At least two of the three “pillars” of the Jerusalem church seem to have also turned against this mission! The pattern of apostolic commitment to sound doctrine, then, seems scattered at best. Certainly four apostles had a hand in writing the NT, but many more did not.
The relationship between NT prophets to the NT canon is even more obscure. It is true that the Spirit is seen to inspire prophetically the scriptures some ten times, the same Spirit reveals and causes prophetic utterances of other kinds 153 times! While one can show that the Revelator regarded his book as “prophecy” (Rev 22:18-19), it is a great leap to assume, therefore, that all NT prophecy must be oral scripture! Indeed, the specific functions of NT prophecy are explicitly written: to praise and glorify God (Acts 2:14), for edification, exhortation and consolation (1 Cor 14:3, cf. Acts 15:32) and the equipping of believers toward ultimate spiritual goals (Eph 4:12-13). One hypothetical case of prophecy offered by Paul (1 Cor 14:24-25) shows prophecy revealing the secrets of the heart to lead toward repentance. Certainly none of these explicit purposes of prophecy hints at the writing of a NT document!
Moreover, the examples of prophecy in Acts show utterly different purposes for their expression than that of accumulating an oral reservoir of scripture! Agabus informs the Antioch church of an impending famine, motivating a charitable contribution for needy believers in Judea (Acts 11:27-30). Antioch prophets commission Paul and Barnabas for a mission outreach (Acts 11:1-3). Judas and Silas “encouraged and strengthened” the Gentile churches with an unrecorded prophetic message after the Jerusalem Conference (Acts 15:32-33). Ephesian converts prophesied, but nothing is recorded of the content (Acts 19:6). The Tyrean disciples “through the Spirit” urged Paul not to go to Jerusalem (Acts 21:3-4). Philip had four virgin daughters who were prophetesses (Acts 21:9). Agabus prophetically warns Paul that he would be arrested and bound if he went to Jerusalem (Acts 21:10-11). In no case do any of these prophets or the narrator of these texts indicate that any prophetic utterance was intended as a “foundational doctrine” on which the Church would be built! Certainly and obviously these cases of prophecy were recorded in scripture, but there is no indication from these texts whatsoever that the essential function of prophecy was to serve as oral scripture until it could be reduced to writing. If, indeed, the function of the gifts determine their duration, then it is clear that demanding the cessation of apostles and prophets because of their input into the process of writing scripture is based on the most tenuous NT indications. The strong and explicit functions of these gifts seem to evidence, rather, their continuation until their tasks are complete at the parousia. Ephesians continues its description of apostles and prophets in 4:11-13 where it describes the gifts being given to the church until (mechri) we all enter the eschatological state of “attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ.”
The most unsettling premise of the 'foundational' argument is the notion employed of what ultimately is the 'foundation'—the most important element or core value—of the church. Some cessationists appear to be insisting that the 'foundation' is the established doctrine of the NT documents. As one committed to the infallibility and inerrancy of Scripture, I would never seek to minimize the central significance of the Bible for faith. Nevertheless, the Bible in general, and Ephesians in particular, does not identify itself as the foundational core of the church. Rather, the disclosure experience of Christ, although within its biblical framework, is truly the foundation of the church. St Paul was concerned that Christians' faith rested not on words, but on ‘a demonstration of the Spirit's power' (I Cor. 2.14).This strongly suggests that normatively, a system of propositions, however true they may be, is not the basis for faith; rather it is Christ himself, through the activity of the Spirit of Christ, with a strong overtone of revelation, that characterizes this foundation.
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