In the on-going dialogue between cessationists and continuationists there is a passage that the former almost always mention. It is, in many instances, their go-to text, their trump card, so to speak. But a close look at Ephesians 2:20 will demonstrate that it fails to accomplish what the cessationist desires. Paul writes:
“So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19-20).
The cessationist inists that, according to the analogy Paul employs, apostles and prophets belong to the period of the foundation, not the superstructure. That is to say, these two groups and their respective gifts were designed by God to operate only during the early years of the church’s existence in order to lay the once-for-all foundation.
At the Strange Fire conference, in his session devoted to articulating arguments for cessationism, Tom Pennington stated that “once the apostles and prophets finished their role in laying the foundation of the church, their gifts were completed,” which is to say, they ceased to function and eventually ceased to exist altogether.
But several things must be noted.
The cessationist argument fails to take note of vv. 21-22 where Paul refers to the superstructure of the church as under construction, so to speak, as he speaks/writes (note the consistent use of the present tenses in vv. 21-22). In other words, the apostles and prophets of v. 20, among whom was Paul, were also contributing to the superstructure, of which the Ephesians were a contemporary part, simultaneous with their laying the foundation on which it was being built. We must be careful not to push the metaphor beyond what Paul intended by it.
To use an analogy, once a man establishes a company, writes its by-laws, articulates its vision, hires employees, and does all the work essential in laying the foundation for its future work and productivity, he does not necessarily cease to exist or to serve the company in other capacities. As Jack Deere points out, "the founding director of a company or corporation will always be unique in the sense that he or she was the founder, but that does not mean the company would not have future directors or presidents" (Surprised by the Power of the Spirit, 248).
Furthermore, on the cessationist’s view, all NT prophets functioned foundationally. But there is nothing 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 the NT says about the extent and effect of prophetic ministry? It simply isn't possible to believe that all prophetic utterances were part of the once-for-all foundation of the church. For one thing, the NT nowhere says they were. For another, it portrays prophetic ministry in an entirely different light from the one most cessationists attempt to deduce from Ephesians 2:20. Surely not everyone who ministered prophetically was apostolic. Therefore, the cessation of the latter is no argument for the cessation of the former.
To suggest that Ephesians 2:20 has in view all possible prophets active in the early church does not measure up to what we read about the gift of prophecy in the rest of the NT. Are we to believe that all those who prophesied on the day of Pentecost, "sons and daughters, young men, old men, bondslaves, both men and women," were laying the foundation of the church? Are we to believe that "all mankind" (Acts 2:17) in the early church were contributors to its once-for-all foundation?
The cessationist is asking us to believe that the long-awaited promise in Joel 2 of the unprecedented outpouring of the Holy Spirit on "all mankind", with its resultant revelatory activity of dreams, visions, and prophecy, was exhaustively fulfilled in only a handful of individuals whose gifting functioned in an exclusively foundational, initiatory, and therefore temporary fashion! Does this theory adequately explain the text? Is the revelatory and charismatic experience of the Spirit, foretold by Joel and cited by Peter, exhaustively fulfilled in a small minority of believers in a mere sixty-year span in only the first century of the church? It seems rather that Joel 2 and Acts 2 are describing normative Christian experience for the entire Christian community in the whole of the New Covenant age, called the "latter days".
Cessationism would also require us to believe that a group of anonymous disciples in Ephesus (Acts 19:1-7) who prophesied upon their conversion (none of which, be it noted, was ever recorded or mentioned again) did so with a view to laying the foundation of the church. It is no less a strain to think that the four daughters of Philip were a part of the once-for-all foundation of the church (Acts 21:9).
On the cessationist’s thesis, all prophetic activity is foundation-laying activity. But if it were, it seems unlikely that Paul would have spoken of prophecy as a gift bestowed to common people for the "common good" of the body of Christ (1 Cor. 12:7-10). Are we to believe that Paul exhorted all believers in every church to earnestly desire that they exercise foundational significance for the universal church (see 1 Cor. 14:1)? On the contrary, prophecy is to be desired because its purpose is to communicate revelation from God that will "encourage" those who are discouraged, "console" those who are disconsolate, and "edify" those who are weak and untaught (1 Cor. 14:3).
Again, I must ask, how does the exposure of an unbeliever's secret sins in the churches at Corinth and Thessalonica and Rome and Laodicea and throughout the inhabited earth, sins such as greed, lust, anger, selfishness, etc., function in laying the once-for-all foundation of the universal church of Jesus Christ? Yet, this is one of the primary purposes for the prophetic gift (1 Cor. 14:24-25).
Most cessationists believe that tongues is also a revelatory, and therefore prophetic, gift (this is a major contention of Reformed Cessationist Richard Gaffin, who contributed to the book for which I also wrote: Are Miraculous Gifts for Today? Four Views [Zondervan]). But if this were true we would have non-canonical revelation coming to individual Christians for their own personal edification, not to be shared with the church at large in the absence of an interpreter (1 Cor. 14:28). How could such private revelation in any way be conceived as contributing to the once-for-all foundation of the church at large?
Paul anticipated that every time Christians gathered for worship that, at least potentially, "each" believer would come with or contribute, among other things, a "revelation" (1 Cor. 14:26). He anticipated that a normal part of Christian experience was receiving revelatory data or insight from God. It is difficult to read his instruction for corporate worship and conclude that he viewed all revelatory, and thus prophetic, ministry as foundational for the universal church. There must have been thousands upon thousands of revelations and prophetic utterances throughout the hundreds of churches over the course of the years between Pentecost and the close of the NT canon. Are we to believe that this multitude of people and their even greater multitude of prophetic words constituted the once-for-all foundation of the church?
The cessationist seems 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. Certainly it is 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 exercised 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.
I conclude that nothing in Ephesians 2:20 (or any other biblical text) suggests, much less requires, that we believe the gift of prophecy ceased following the foundational period of NT church life.