Wayne Grudem on Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5

by Scott

Many people who have spent time studying pneumatology and the gifts of the Spirit will probably be aware of Wayne Grudem and the works he has written around such topics. Grudem believes the charismata gifts of 1 Corinthians 12 still exist today. He is one of the many ‘theologically-minded’ and scholarly Christians now standing as advocates for these gifts of the Spirit. Others are Sam Storms, John Piper, Gordon Fee, Mark Driscoll, Jack Deere, and many other such people.

Though one can get a taster of his theological stance on the gifts of the Spirit in his Systematic Theology (pgs1016-1088), another of his writings, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, gives a much more in-depth treatment of the gift of prophecy, as you would expect from such a title.

Though the book definitely stands as an evangelical stalwart for study on the gift of prophecy, I believe the book fails to incorporate the full biblical teaching on prophecy, as well as the nature of apostles and prophets. I want to deal with one area where I believe his work has some shortcomings. This revolves around his discussion on New Testament apostles. With this specific matter, Grudem offers what I believe is faulty exegesis on the passages of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5. You can see his discussions in chapter 2 of the book (pgs45-47), as well as in his Appendix 6 (pgs329-436). Remember, this is in the revised edition from 2000. I don’t believe earlier copies have Appendix 6.

Before analysing some of his words, let’s quote the two biblical passages. I shall give a little bit of context around these verses up for discussion:

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit. (Eph 2:19-22)

4 When you read this, you can perceive my insight into the mystery of Christ, 5 which was not made known to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles and prophets by the Spirit. 6 This mystery is that the Gentiles are fellow heirs, members of the same body, and partakers of the promise in Christ Jesus through the gospel. (Eph 3:4-6)

What does Grudem teach about New Testament apostles and prophets by looking at these two Scriptures? The two bullet points below are a summary of his thoughts:

  • New Testament apostles are equal to the Old Testament prophets in their authority. Therefore, these two groups, NT apostles and OT prophets, are the authoritative recorders of Scripture.
  • Subsequently, New Testament prophets have much less authority than New Testament apostles.

In discussing the two Ephesians texts, Grudem gives four possibilities of how to understand the roles of apostles and prophets in the New Testament. Those possibilities are below, with the emphasis being his own:

  1. the apostles and the Old Testament prophets
  2. the teaching of the apostles and New Testament prophets
  3. the apostles and New Testament prophets themselves
  4. the apostle-prophets themselves (that is, the apostles who are also prophets)

His conclusion is that the best interpretation can be found with the fourth option. For Grudem, from a New Testament perspective, these two verses in Ephesians teach that apostles and prophets are mainly one joint ministry rather than two distinguishable ministries. Such helps maintain his viewpoint that New Testament apostles are the authoritative writers of the New Testament while the prophets of the Old Testament era were the authoritative writers of the Old Testament.

Grudem goes on to state:

After considering these views…it seems best to me to conclude that Ephesians 2:20 has meaning 4, that the church is “built upon the foundation of the apostles who are also prophets,” and Ephesians 3:5 should be understood to mean that the mystery of the Gentile inclusion in the church “was not made to the sons of men in other generations as it has now been revealed to his holy apostles who are also prophets by the Spirit.” (p46)

But such a view only seems contrived to prove one’s point rather than to be carefully founded in exegesis of the Scripture. For starters, in every other place outside of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5, apostles and prophets are actually distinguished from one another. The two main places we see this distinction are:

11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ (Eph 4:11-13)

28 And God has appointed in the church first apostles, second prophets, third teachers, then miracles, then gifts of healing, helping, administrating, and various kinds of tongues. 29 Are all apostles? Are all prophets? Are all teachers? Do all work miracles? (1 Cor 12:28-29)

One other major point Grudem brings up to try and prove that apostles and prophets are one group in both Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 is that, in both instances in, the definite article ‘the’ is found before the word apostle, but not before prophet. Thus, Paul is referring to one joint authoritative group, mainly apostle-prophets.

Theologian, Edmund Clowney, who oddly enough used to be Grudem’s seminary professor, and they maintain a great relationship to this day, answers Grudem in his own work:

The absence of the article before ‘prophets’ in Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5 indicates, then, not that prophets are identical with apostles, but that they are closely linked with them since they, too, receive and communicate revelation. (The Church, p261, italics mine)

This makes perfect sense, for we see prophets carrying a very unique and important ministry amongst the body of Christ within the New Testament. Some examples are:

  • Acts 13:1-3 – Prophets utilised in the apostolic commissioning of Paul and Barnabas together.
  • Acts 15:22-35 – Following the Jerusalem council, Judas and Silas, who were prophets, accompanied Paul and Barnabas on their trip to Antioch. We read that these two were ‘leading men among the brothers’ (vs22) and of their strengthening role they had to the church (vs32). Noting that in vs32 we are told these two are prophets, we can assume that the verse is not simply telling us they were simply doing a little encouraging. But it is highly probable the strength and encouragement came out of their prophetic ministry. Not to mention Silas’ continued role in Paul’s apostolic-ministry team.
  • 1 Cor 12:28 – Though I am not up for pyramid-like leadership structures, we still get a sense of the important role prophets had from reading this verse – first apostles, second prophets, third teachers…
  • Eph 4:11-13 – Prophets are part of a team of ministries that are given by Christ to the church to help equip and prepare them for ministry. They have quite a significant role, along with apostles, evangelists, teachers and shepherds.

I’m not negating the role of apostles, nor would I even look to negate their primary role within the New Testament. But apostles never replaced prophets in any sense. They both existed alongside each other, as we find in the testimony of the New Testament itself. Prophets were foundation layers, in conjunction with apostles (hence Eph 2:20 and 3:5). Prophets were revelatory communicators, and still are.

Therefore, my conclusion is that apostles and prophets are two distinguishable ministries, yet both working together in an all-important, authoritative role within Christ’s body. For practical purposes today, this does not mean we add to the biblical canon, making their words the rule of faith for the entire body of Christ for all time. But, by His Spirit, God still utilises these ministries in relaying revelation from God. And such would make sense, for God has always been communicating even outside the bounds of the biblical canon. This was even taking place in biblical times as Scripture was being authored and inspired by God.

So, when God speaks today, it doesn’t mean we write 4 John or 3 Thessalonians or 1 Brussels. It simply means that, as people speak forth revelation (or what they claim as revelation), we learn to weigh it against Scripture, keep it before the leaders we are connected to, keep it before the wider body we are in relationship with, and pray for discernment. It doesn’t make it easy. But it makes us move towards becoming the men and women God desires His body to be – hearers of His word. How amazing to hear the living God through both His written revelation and through His spoken revelation.

Thus, in all, though I do believe I understand the desire of Wayne Grudem to uphold the importance of the revelation of God as found in the trustworthy, God-breathed canon of Scripture, I do not believe that we faithfully accomplish this by somewhat watering down the role of prophets, claiming that apostles replaced prophets as the only authoritative revelatory communicators of the new covenant era. Nor can I agree with another major premise of his, mainly that God’s revelation can come to the mind (or spirit) with 100% accuracy, but by the time it is spoken from the mouth of humans today, it is no longer 100% accurate. But, hey, challenging that notion is for another day and another time. In all, I would call Grudem to rethink his exegesis of Ephesians 2:20 and 3:5

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