How Firm a Foundation is the Argument from Ephesians 2:20?

By Marv

Ephesians 2:20 is a verse sometimes cited in support of the assertion that prophecy has ceased–which in turn serves as partial evidence for a more general cessationist position. One problem I’ve had writing on some verses relevant to the cessationist controversy is that I have difficulty seeing an actual basis for argument in the text. I don’t want to say that cessationists’ use of this verse gives proof-texting a bad name, but I am frequently amazed at how cessationism seems to create straw men in defense of it’s own positions.

What I mean is that the argument based on this verse is so weak that I am surprised when cessationists bring it up. The reason I say it is weak is that it requires a string of questionable inferences to get from A to B. A chain with nothing but weak links is manifestly a weak chain, one I wouldn’t care to place much trust in, if I were you.

The verse reads as follows:

…built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone… (Ephesians 2:20)

The basic idea in the cessationist argument is that if prophets are said to be a component of the “foundation” that their function is limited to an initial stage of construction–a stage now completed–and therefore should no longer be expected to be present. It is, I suppose, satisfying to the already convinced, but is impeachable at multiple stages.

First inference: Paul is referring to contemporary–New Testament era–prophets.

If Paul is referring to the respective authoritaties in the Old Testament, the prophets, and the New Testament, the apostles, then the verse has no relevance to the question of people prophesying in the church. This understanding enjoys a healthy degree of probablity, in view of the context in which Paul is describing a new unity composed of formerly distinct elements:

 …at one time you Gentiles in the flesh…were at that time separated from Christ, alienated from the commonwealth of Israel and strangers to the covenants of promise… (Ephesians 2:11-12)

…that he might create in himself one new man in place of the two… (Ephesians 2:15)

It is reasonable then that Paul would be presenting a combo platter, one from column A and one from column B. I actually think this is what is going on, though I do not purport the sampling of data I have cited is sufficient to demonstrate it–only to put into question a cessationist use of the verse.

I should say something at this point about Grudem’s argument on this verse, which in my opinion misuses the Granville Sharp rule. I have to admit I had thought he had long since retracted this argument, since being better informed on the grammatical point by Daniel Wallace. However, though he edited his text to reflect Wallace’s objection, he does stick with it. I think he takes the wrong tack here, the grammar being against it.

To recap what is involved, in Greek, when two nouns share a single article it forms a structure like one box containing two objects. If–and only if–those two nouns are singular, this forces identity of referent, both nouns necessarily indicate the same entity. This does not work if the nouns are plural. And in Ephesians 2:20 the nouns are plural.

Paul’s two-objects-in-one-box grammar does seem to be consistent, however with his both-are-now-together theme:

 And he came and preached peace to you who were far off [Gentiles] and peace to those who were near [Jews]. (Ephesians 2:17)

Furthermore, Paul could well have in mind, by metonymy, the authoritative writings of the two eras, summarized as “the prophets” for the Old Testament, and “the apostles” for the New Testament. This is similar to other phrases which refer to the Scriptures.

  • the Law and the Prophets (Acts 13:15)
  • the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms (Luke 24:44)
  •  the teaching and to the testimony (Isaiah 8:20)

One objection to what I suggest is the order of the nouns, that if Paul meant the Old Testament prophets and New Testament apostles he would have said “prophets and apostles” (i.e. chronological order) rather than “apostles and prophets.” I don’t think this is necessarily so from a psychological viewpoint. True, if he’s picturing a historical timeline, he’ll likely say “prophets” before “apostles.” But if he’s picturing his image of a temple with a foundation, he could well be starting at level and working down: this level is the apostles and below them the prophets. Basement and sub-basement, still a natural order.

Second inference: that the metaphor of the foundation implies that prophecy is not used in further building.

Let’s grant for sake of argument at this point that Paul did have in mind people prophesying in the church. The cessationist argument extrapolates from a metaphor. Certainly, Paul would mean that prophecy is foundational to the church. Is it a valid implication of this metaphor that prophecy is only foundational and not useful for building beyond the foundation? What does Paul himself say?

He uses the imagery of foundation and building elsewhere as well. In Eph. 2:20 the word for “built on” is the verb epoikodomeo, the basic word oikodomeo “build” with the prefix epi- “upon.” Note that a different prefix occurs with the same basic form two verses later (v. 22): sunoikodomeo= sun “together” + oikodomeo “build.”

In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.(Ephesians 2:22)

We see similar language in 1 Corinthians 3:

 According to the grace of God given to me, like a skilled master builder I laid a foundation, and someone else is building upon it. Let each one take care how he builds upon it. For no one can lay a foundation other than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. Now if anyone builds on the foundation with gold, silver, precious stones, wood, hay, straw— (1 Corinthians 3:10-12 ESV)

Each instance of “builds upon/builds on” is epoikodomeo (likewise v. 14). Note also that the metaphor varies. Here Christ is said to be the only foundation, with nothing about apostles or prophets being part of the foundation, as in Eph. 2:20, where Christ is said to be the cornerstone. A metaphor is a metaphor, and serves its purpose in its context. Is there some reason to take Eph. 2:20 as the definitive description? Such an all-encompassing description of reality that we can draw inferences of cessation from it?

Two chapters later we find similar language making a related point.

 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up [oikodome]the body of Christ (Ephesians 4:11-12)

from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up [oikodome] in love. (Ephesians 4:16)

And in the same context:

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up [oikodome], as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. (Ephesians 4:29)

Does Paul mean to say that prophecy is limited to foundation laying or does he recommend it for continued building? He makes himself clear on the subject elsewhere:

The one who speaks in a tongue builds up [oikodomeo] himself, but the one who prophesies builds up [oikodomeo] the church. Now I want you all to speak in tongues, but even more to prophesy. The one who prophesies is greater than the one who speaks in tongues, unless someone interprets, so that the church may be built up [oikodome]. (1 Corinthians 14:4-5)

The impact of these verses is often obscured by the rendering “edify” in some translations, but this is simply an anglicized form of the Latin aedificare, which means “to build,” like its Greek cousin oikodomeo, with both figurative and non-figurative uses. But at the very least 1 Corinthians 14 calls into serious question the limitations purported for prophecy based on Eph. 2:20.

Third inference: that the metaphor in Eph. 2:20 takes precedence over other Scriptural statements.

I have in mind chiefly Acts 2:17-18:

And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit, and they shall prophesy.

But also:

Pursue love, and earnestly desire the spiritual gifts, especially that you may prophesy. (1 Corinthians 14:1)


But if all prophesy, and an unbeliever or outsider enters, he is convicted by all, he is called to account by all, the secrets of his heart are disclosed, and so, falling on his face, he will worship God and declare that God is really among you. (1 Corinthians 14:24-25)

as well as

For you can all prophesy one by one, so that all may learn and all be encouraged (1 Corinthians 14:31 ESV)

Not to mention this pretty important statement:

 “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. (John 14:12)

Where’s the controlling center to be? In the one metaphor of Ephesians 2:20? Why?

Fourth inference: if prophecy has ceased, being foundational, it is reasonable to suggest that other gifts have ceased.

I’m not saying this one would be asserted in a careful argument, but I can testify to hearing Eph. 2:20 being tossed out as evidence for cessationism in general, though strictly speaking it refers only to apostles and prophets.

It certainly is not from this verse that we learn of the cessation of the gifts tongues, healing, miracles or any of the usual suspects. In fact, if anything the verse would imply that all other gifts continue. If the foundation consists of apostles and prophets, then everything else, including tongues, healing, and miracles are by definition non-foundational. They are building material. The verse then–if we grant the basic premise–is a subtantially useful one for the continuationist perspective.

In point of fact, whereas the foundation of the church is a solid one, Eph. 2:20 makes a poor foundation for a cessationist perspective. It simply cannot support the weight put on it by some who draw from it inferences without logical basis. Let each man be careful how he builds. The wise man does not build upon sand.


9 responses to “How Firm a Foundation is the Argument from Ephesians 2:20?

  1. You mentioned Grudem’s argument and said: “Note that he has long since retracted this argument, being better informed on the grammatical point. Nevertheless it still pops up in cessationist sights from time to time as if it were a valid target. But it is fish in a barrel, because Grudem was wrong on the grammar as he has avowed for decades now.”
    Where did Grudem admit he was wrong on this point. In his revised edition of “The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today” (Crossway, 2000) he still affirmed what he wrote in the original edition from 1988. In the revised edition he moved the discussion of the grammar of Eph. 2.20 to appendix 6. He even included a response to Dan Wallace’s criticisms of his argument based on the plurals in Eph. 2.20. He may have changed his view since 2000 but that is not an amount of time denoting “decades” as you state.

    • Huh. I’ll double check when I get home. Thanks for the note: I’ve said this several times, so I better make sure I’m right about it.

    • Richard, in fact you are correct. Grudem did not retract that argument at all. Merely mentions Wallace’s objection. I definitely remembered that wrong. Thanks for calling that to my attention, because I’ve been saying that and I’m sure I’d’ve kept on saying it. I’m going to edit the post. So your comment will reflect my older wording, but hopefully the post will be factual at that point. Thanks again.

  2. I should add that I found your discussion of inferences 2-4 quite compelling. Thank you for your work.

  3. There he is, my blogging colleague!

    At least something is now present that is more interesting than apostles today!

  4. I think we should just declare you an apostle and submit and get it over with.

  5. Only if CMP agrees. 😉

  6. Pioneering Pilgrim

    There were ONLY 12 Apostles.
    Any MODERN claimants are “Charlatans”
    Ask them to raise someone from the dead in Bart’s Hospital or Guy’s Hospital or the Royal Marsden Hospital.
    If they do raise someone from the dead like Peter or Paul,
    then PANIC because they will NOT be an Apostle.
    In theory you could have come face to face with the Lord Himself –
    but HIS NEXT COMING will be seen by everyone (Revelation)
    Every eye will see Him.
    He will return to establish his KINGDOM.
    The Church is already established.
    The alternative is a devil!

    Peter – the Apostle – raised someone from the dead
    Paul – the Apostle – raised someone from the dead.
    They like their 10 fellow Apostles were given POWER & AUTHORITY from the Lord Jesus Christ. They were also commissioned to spread the WORD and establish the Church. They fulfilled their mission.
    The matter under debate on these posts is “pointless”
    See my post to earlier posts:

    We can definitely confirm that both Barnabas and James were apostles, but I believe there were others alive and well in those early decades – people like Apollos, Silas, Timothy, Titus, Epaphroditus, and probably a few others. It’s not so much that the word ‘apostle’ shows up next to their names (although it does in some cases). Rather, these people functioned in an apostolic ministry, what it meant practically and actually meant to be an apostle.

    With respect you are incorrect.
    (1) They had to have been appointed by JESUS himself in PERSON.
    (2) They had to have seen the RISEN Lord
    The GREEK WORD used to translate “APOSTLE” in the N.T. is:
    APOSTOLLOS which means “MESSENGER”
    A SHALIACH is the appointed emissary of someone – designated with SPECIFIC POWER and AUTHORITY.
    The nearest “equivalent” we have in the UK legal system is the appointment of a POWER of ATTORNEY.
    A person appointed with a strict POWER of ATTORNEY cannot pass on the delegated AUTHORITY to someone else. The AUTHORITY ends in one of 2 ways: (1) when the designated period ends – set by the emissary – the appointor
    and (2) on the DEATH of the appointee.
    The Lord Jesus Christ appointed 11 + 1 = 12 Apostles.
    Judas Iscariot was one of the 12 disciples.
    He did NOT see the RISEN CHRIST.
    He was NEVER appointed as a SHALIACH – APOSTLE
    He was sent out as a messenger but NOT as an Apostle.
    Only the RISEN CHRIST could appoint APOSTLES (SHALIACH office)
    Matthias was NEVER appointed by the LORD
    He was chosen by LOT to complete the number 12
    12 TRIBES Old Covenant
    12 APOSTLES New Covenant.
    The Bible (Acts chapter 1) says he was “numbered with the 11.
    Although they said let another take HIS (Judas’) place or office.
    Matthias was NOT appointed by the Lord Jesus.
    Judas NEVER received the office of Apostle.
    Jesus only “breathed” on the 11
    Judas was away – betraying the Lord.
    Matthias could NOT take the office that “never was” !!!!
    Please REFER to Revelation 21:14
    The wall of the city had 12 foundations,
    and on them were the names of the 12 apostles of the Lamb.
    Please NOTE – ONLY 12 (11 + 1)
    The original 11 + PAUL
    Paul saw the RISEN CHRIST and was appointed by Him as
    The Apostolic Office – SHALIACH – ceased to exist when the last Apostle died – believed to be John the brother of James who was killed by Herod.
    James the brother of Jesus and author of an Epistle was not an Apostle.
    In the Epistle he describes himself as a SERVANT.
    Likewise for all the others you care to mention.
    There were ONLY 12 Apostles (11+1)
    There were ONLY 12 Tribes
    The Church is BUILT on the FOUNDATION of these 12 Apostles.
    The Lord Jesus Christ is the CHIEF CORNERSTONE.
    Jesus as KING of KINGS also received the TITLES of APOSTLE and HIGH PRIEST at HIS CORONATION (Reference HEBREWS).
    I trust you will NOW check the FACTS and stop promoting the idea that the Apostle Office can be reinstated. Alan Hirsch has been promoting the supposed revival for a decade in Australia & the USA.
    He is also misguided.
    The Lord Jesus Christ said: The TRUTH will set you FREE.
    The 12 Apostles fulfilled their MISSION.
    We await the return of the Lord
    Until then please READ the BIBLE and OBEY it – Acts 2:42
    NB The Apostles’ Teaching – The WORD of God – The Bible
    Grace be with you
    As for me, I am merely obeying and promoting the Biblical Truth
    The Pioneering Pilgrim

  7. Pioneering Pilgrim –

    Thank you for stopping by to comment.

    You said from the beginning in your comment that there were only 12 apostles. You need to re-read the New Testament again. There were clearly more than 12, including Paul. You are, yourself, not reading Scripture correctly.

    I would encourage you to read more of the articles here on apostles today to deal with the other objections.

    Thank you

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