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

3) 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.24

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,25 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.26 The apostleship of Paul breaks this physical link,27 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 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,28 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!29 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.”

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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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