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Upon This Foundation: Ephesians 2:20 and the Gift of Prophecy, by Jon M. Ruthven

From Pneuma Review Winter 2002

Introduction

Cessationists,1 those who argue that certain gifts of the Spirit have ceased, are increasingly using an argument-from-analogy from Paul’s epistle to the believers in Ephesus.

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.

Ephesians 2:19-22 [NKJV]
Now, therefore, you are no longer strangers and foreigners, but fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone, in whom the whole building, being fitted together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord, in whom you also are being built together for a dwelling place of God in the Spirit.

Status of the Problem

One of the few remaining New Testament texts to which cessationists appeal for support of their position is Eph 2:20.2 The argument-by-analogy is along these lines: since apostles and prophets appear as the “foundation” of the “temple” or 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.3

From the frequency and extent this argument is made in cessationist circles,4 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 to adequately treat this cessationist argument to any significant degree.5

Wayne Grudem’s Rebuttal to the Cessationist Use of Ephesians 2:20

Wayne Grudem is the only non-cessationist scholar I can discover who deals with the cessationist argument from Eph 2:20 in any detail.6 Quite reasonably, then, Grudem’s response stands as the default Pentecostal/charismatic position recognized by cessationists,7 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, depending on how Paul is included) stood to be unique in 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.8

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.”9

Understandably, this novel defense has received a heated response from cessationists, who wish to deny any “two-level” gift of prophecy that Grudem describes.10 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.11

Grudem therefore finds himself in an interesting dilemma. On the one hand, it is crucial to restrict this class of men to the “foundational” and unrepeatable. This is because he sees apostles (and this first class of NT prophets) as the New Testament counterparts of Old Testament prophets. Therefore they “were able to speak and write words that had absolute divine authority,”12 that is, in the canon of scripture. 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.13 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.

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Winter 2002

About the Author: Jon M. Ruthven, Ph.D., spent his entire adult life in ministry, starting with David Wilkerson in Boston and New York City in the mid-60s. After spending a dozen years pastoring, a couple a years as a missionary in Africa as the head of Bible school, he ended up teaching theology in seminary for 18 years. Always interested in training and discipleship, Jon is developing a radically biblical approach to ministry training that seeks to replicate the discipling mission of Jesus in both content and method. Jon has written numerous scholarly papers and books including On the Cessation of the Charismata: The Protestant Polemic on Postbiblical Miracles (1993 and 2009) and What’s Wrong with Protestant Theology? Tradition vs. Biblical Emphasis (2013). He continues to emphasize the biblical grounding for a practical ministry of healing, signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit. Facebook.

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