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A Point-by-Point Response to the Film, “Cessationist” (Part Six)

I often refer to Ephesians 2:20 as the cessationist’s “go-to” text. There we read that the “household of God,” that is, the Church, is “built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone.”

Although he does not appear in the film, my friend Tom Schreiner speaks for most (if not all) cessationists when he says that Ephesians 2:20 is a reference to all prophets and that they “have the same authority as the apostles” (Spiritual Gifts, 104). They then conclude that if prophecy still exists today, the foundation established by the apostles and prophets hasn’t been completed.

But does this text refer to all possible prophets? And do all who prophesy do so with apostolic authority that contributes to the foundation of the universal church? Do all who prophesy bind the conscience of all Christians in every age? A close look at the NT portrayal of how prophecy functioned in the early church requires that we answer, No.

Let me remind you again of the cessationist’s assertion, namely, that all prophetic revelation was inerrant and foundational to the universal church of Jesus Christ. Yet, we read in Acts 2 that when the Spirit is poured out on “all flesh” that “your sons and daughters shall prophesy,” which according to the cessationist means that every son and daughter who prophesied was contributing infallible revelation essential to the building up of the universal church of Christ. Likewise, we would conclude the same about the “young men” and “old men” and the “male servants” and “female servants.”

Do we really believe that all of the prophetic utterances that came forth from all God’s people listed here in Acts 2 are essential to the foundation of the universal body of Christ? Since you and I are a part of that body and are required by God to submit our lives to whatever theological and ethical truths are contained in that foundation, it would be quite helpful for us to know what they are. But nowhere in Scripture are any of these revelatory experiences recorded.

What about the prophets who “came down from Jerusalem to Antioch” (Acts 11:27)? They are anonymous and no prophetic utterance of theirs is recorded in the NT or known to anyone beyond those who encountered them in the first century. And yet the cessationist insists that they spoke with inerrant and apostolic authority that binds the conscience of all God’s people in all of history.

I would also like to know what was said by the prophets at Antioch (Acts 13:1), since all prophetic revelation is allegedly essential to the constitution and formation of the universal church. But neither I nor anyone else knows what they said in their prophetic utterances. Are we being asked to believe that the revelation they received was foundational to the beliefs and behavior of all Christians in every age? I find that hard to believe.

What about “Judas called Barsabbas” in Acts 15:22, 32. He is called a “prophet” but clearly was not an apostle. Did he also speak authoritatively into the foundation of the church?

It would also be extremely beneficial to my spiritual life to know what was prophesied by the unnamed disciples of John the Baptist in Acts 19. If their words were foundational and universally binding on the conscience of all Christians in every age, it would behoove us to know what they were. But nowhere in Scripture are we told anything they said.

And what about Philip’s four daughters who, according to Luke, “prophesied” (Acts 21:9). It would seem we are required to believe that these four single women spoke infallible truth into the foundation of the universal body of Christ. Aside from the fact that I find that quite implausible, how would complementarians feel about four young women speaking authoritative theological truth into the life of all men in the body of Christ?

What are we to do with all the women in the church at Corinth who prayed and prophesied publicly in the meeting of the church (1 Cor. 11:5)? Where are their prophetic utterances?

Are we to believe that when Paul urged all believers in Corinth to earnestly desire that they might prophesy (1 Cor. 14:1, 39) that he meant for them to desire and pray that they might minister with apostolic authority and contribute truth and ethical principles to the foundation of the church? I hardly think so.

And if Schreiner and other cessationists are correct, why does Paul insist that the prophets in Corinth submit to his authority as an apostle (1 Cor. 14:36-38)? If these prophets have apostolic authority and speak infallible, foundational truths into the church, could they not have pushed back against Paul and insisted that he submit to them?

I would also like to know what the prophets in the church at Rome (Rom. 12:6) had to say since according to cessationists everything they said constituted a contribution to the foundation of the church.

The same may be said of the numerous prophetic utterances described in 1 Corinthians 14 (see v. 26). And how could the encouragement, edification, and consolation of believers in first-century Corinth (1 Cor. 14:3), none of which I or anybody else knows about, serve to establish the theological parameters of the universal church of Jesus Christ?

I’m particularly curious how the disclosure of an unbeliever’s sin in 1 Corinthians 14:24-25 could be foundational to the universal church. The same could be said about the hundreds, if not thousands, of unrecorded prophetic utterances in the churches at Thessalonica (1 Thess. 5) and Ephesus (1 Timothy) and Caesarea (Acts 21) and Philippi and Colossae and elsewhere.

To be even more specific, are we being asked to believe that the “prophecies” given personally to Timothy, by which, says Paul, he is to “wage the good warfare, holding faith and a good conscience” (1 Tim. 1:18-19) are essential to the beliefs and behavior of all Christians in every age? If so, it would have been helpful if Paul or Timothy or anyone had recorded and preserved them for us. And how does the prophetic utterance over Timothy at his “ordination” (1 Tim. 4:14) serve to build the universal body of Christ? In what possible sense could that have been foundational to the church?

Thus to say that all prophetic revelation in the NT is infallible, inerrant, and served to establish the principles and practices of the universal church, simply does not measure up to the way the spiritual gift of prophecy actually functioned in the lives of God’s people.

Yes, some prophets functioned foundationally, but not all. Yes, some revelation that formed the basis and content of some prophecy was designed by God to constitute the theological and ethical foundation of the universal body of Christ. But by no means all. The way in which prophetic ministry is described in the many churches of the first century necessarily leads me to conclude that Ephesians 2:20 only speaks of those prophets who functioned foundationally. It certainly can in no way be inclusive of every other instance of prophetic ministry recorded for us in the New Testament.

There is nothing in the NT to suggest that “the prophets” in Ephesians 2:20 is an exhaustive reference to all possible prophets in the church. Why should we conclude that the only kind of prophetic activity is “foundational” in nature, especially in light of what we’ve just seen the NT says about the extent and effect of prophetic ministry?

Suffice it here to say that many (all?) cessationists seem to believe that once apostles and prophets ceased to function foundationally, they ceased to function altogether, as if the only purpose for apostles and prophets was to lay the foundation of the church. Nowhere does the NT say this, least of all in Ephesians 2:20. This text need say no more than that apostles and prophets laid the foundation once and for all and then ceased to function in that capacity. But nothing suggests that they ceased to function in other capacities, much less that they ceased to exist altogether. It is certainly true that only apostles and prophets lay the foundation of the church, but it is anything but certain that such is the only thing they do.

In a word, the portrayal in Acts and 1 Corinthians of who could prophesy and how it was to be done in the life of the church simply does not fit with the cessationist assertion that Ephesians 2:20 describes all possible prophets, every one of whom functioned as part of the once-for-all foundation of the church. Rather, Paul is there describing a limited group of prophets who were closely connected to the apostles, both of which groups spoke Scripture-quality words essential to the foundation of the church universal.

To be continued . . . (like the gifts!)

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