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

But does scripture itself view the NT apostles and prophets this way? Did they themselves understand they were repositories of unwritten or uncanonized scripture? Or is this notion of these biblical figures held by Grudem and his cessationist counterparts a misrepresentation of scripture?

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,14 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.

Since this is the historical backdrop, it is not surprising that Protestants have rejected the notion of a continuing gift of apostleship, or a gift of divine prophetic revelation. The gift of apostleship represents the specter of apostolic succession and the Papacy. The latter has been thought to imply 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. Cessationistic Protestantism becomes particularly explosive when arguing against proponents who advocate contemporary 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 Christo-centric 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: what 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: vv. 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).

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Category: Biblical Studies, Pneuma Review, Winter 2002

About the Author: Jon M. Ruthven, Ph.D., passed away April 11, 2022. He 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 President and Dean of Pan Africa Christian College in Nairobi, Kenya, he ended up teaching theology in seminary for 18 years. Always interested in training and discipleship, Jon sought to develop a radically biblical approach to ministry training that seeks to replicate the discipling mission of Jesus in both content and method. Jon wrote 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 emphasized the biblical grounding for a practical ministry of healing, signs and wonders in the power of the Spirit. Facebook.

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