R. Fowler White


The question of whether the NT gift of prophecy continues in the life of the church today came again to the attention of the evangelical world as a recent cover story in a leading evangelical periodical spotlighted developments among advocates for the gift's continuation.1 In the midst of that article, Wayne Grudem's book, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today, was singled out as a standard reference among many leaders of the current prophecy movement.2 The work covers a large number of issues, but arguably none is more important than the treatment of the two principal texts related to the question of prophecy's duration, 1 Cor 13:10 and Eph 2:20. In a previous article,3 I compared Grudem's exegesis of 1 Cor 13:10 with that of cessationist Richard Gaffin and urged acceptance of Gaffin's contention that the question of the time of prophecy's cessation is not answered in that text, but will have to be settled by appeal to other passages and considerations. In this article, I turn again to Gaffin and Grudem, this time evaluating their positions on Eph 2:20, the passage that is chief among those "other" texts bearing on the question of prophecy's duration. This evaluation is warranted by the cruciality that the text has for each man's views and by the attention that each man has given to the other's exegesis of it.4 In addition, since Grudem's recent thought on the text moves beyond Gaffin's earlier discussion, a fresh assessment of Grudem's exegesis is in order. Our considerations begin with a review of Gaffin's interpretation.

I. Gaffin on Eph 2:20

If we wish to understand Gaffin's orientation to the interpretation of Eph 2:20, we must understand that for him this verse "ought to have a pivotal and governing role in seeking to understand other New Testament statements on prophecy."5 This role results from the fact that Eph 2:20 is part of a section that stands back, takes a sweeping and comprehensive look at the whole church-house, and notes the place of prophecy in its construction. Prophecy's place, of course, is in the foundation of the church, a place, according to Gaffin, occupied in association with but distinction from apostleship.6 Moreover, as foundational to the church, the prophets have a "temporary, noncontinuing function in [its] history, and so by God's design pass out of its life, along with the apostles."7

Before reaching this conclusion, Gaffin acknowledges that profhtwn in the text may describe the apostles and thus twn apostolwn kai profhtwn may express the meaning Grudem proposes, viz., "the apostles who are also prophets." This interpretation, Gaffin observes, "is possible grammatically and the apostles do exercise prophetic functions (e.g., Rom 11:25f.; I Cor. 15:51ff.; I Thess 4:15ff.; cf. I Cor 14:6)."8 Nevertheless, he urges that "a combination of considerations…is decisively against it."9 Those considerations may be summarized as follows.10

First, in Eph 4:11 Paul plainly distinguishes apostles and prophets as separate groups. Second, in 1 Cor 12:28, the only NT text outside Ephesians where apostles and prophets are mentioned together, Paul again clearly distinguishes between them. Third, Paul nowhere else designates the apostles, either individually or collectively, as "prophets," thus casting doubt on any proposal that he did so in Eph 2:20. Fourth and finally, since Paul nowhere else identifies apostles as prophets, an attempt on his part to do so in Eph 2:20 would have been lost on his readers "without at least some word of explanation, especially since he goes on in the same context (4:11) to reinforce the conventional usage."11

For these reasons, Gaffin contends that Grudem's proposed exegesis of Eph 2:20 is "unlikely, even forced."12 Instead, a decisive edge must belong to the view that these words refer to the NT prophets in association with but distinction from the apostles.

II. Grudem on Eph 2:20

To understand the contribution that Eph 2:20 makes to Grudem's case for prophecy's continuation, we must see that for him the critical phrase in the text, tw qemeliw twn apostolwn kai profhtwn, means "the foundation of the apostles who are also prophets."13 Accordingly, in the context of Paul's comprehensive historical metaphor of housebuilding in Eph 2:19-22,14 v. 20 teaches that the apostles represent the only gift whose addition to the church ceased once God completed its foundation; that is, apostleship is the only gift whose presence in the church will have ended long before Christ's return. By his exegesis of Eph 2:20, then, Grudem disassociates NT prophets who are not also apostles from the church's foundation and urges us to see prophecy as a gift that has a continuing function in the church's history and life.15 The points Grudem offers in support of his view may be summarized as follows.16

  • First, the semantic range of the article-noun-kai-noun construction in the NT, as well as the likely meaning of that construction in Eph 4:11, permits us to interpret twn apostolwn kai profhtwn as meaning "the apostles who are also prophets."
  • Second, the NT portrays the apostles alone, and not the prophets also, as the recipients of the foundational revelation of Gentile inclusion in the church.
  • Third, the foundation metaphor in Eph 2:20, which signifies something finished before a superstructure is begun, fits best with Grudem's exegesis, in that new Christians who received the gift of prophecy would not be added to the church's unfinished foundation after its superstructure is begun, but to the church's superstructure as it is built on the finished foundation of the apostles.
  • Fourth, and again in relation to the foundation metaphor, the foundational role attributed uniquely to the apostles in Rev 21:14 is consistent with Grudem's view of Eph 2:20.
  • Fifth, Paul's focus on the universal church in Ephesians 2-3 would have predisposed the peers of the prophets in the local churches not to link them with the apostles in the foundation of the universal church in 2:20.
  • Sixth, in Ephesians 2-3 Paul fails to cite the purported inclusion of Jewish and Gentile prophets in the church's foundation, even though that idea would have been most pertinent to his argument for the equality of Jews and Gentiles.
  • Seventh, the unambiguous evidence in 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 Thess 5:20-21, and several texts in Acts, according to which the non-apostolic prophets did not have a foundational role in the church, clarifies the apostolic identity of the foundational prophets in Eph 2:20.
  • Eighth, there is no record in either the NT or the post-apostolic writings indicating the existence of non-apostolic prophets who had a part in the universal church's foundation.
  • Ninth, as for Eph 4:11, the context and grammar make it clear that the prophets mentioned there relate to local churches, while those in Eph 2:20 relate to the universal church.
  • Tenth, as for 1 Cor 12:28, Paul does indeed distinguish between apostles and prophets there, but this one reference should not dictate the meaning of every reference, for example, Eph 2:20, where the words "apostles" and "prophets" appear.
  • Eleventh, though the apostles as a group are never designated prophets or any of the other distinct ministries in the church, there is no inherent reason why they could not be called "prophets" in Eph 2:20, provided the grammar and context favor this exegesis.
  • Finally, the grammar and context of Eph 2:20 provide clear signals of Paul's intention to identify the apostles as prophets, preventing any possible confusion with the prophets of Eph 4:11.

Having argued his case from grammatical and contextual factors and defended it against Gaffin's objections, Grudem urges, "it seems best to conclude that Ephesians 2:20 means that the church is 'built upon the foundation of the apostles who are also prophets'."17

III. A Critique of Grudem's Exegesis of Eph 2:20

The exegesis of Eph 2:20 is clearly crucial both to Grudem's argument for prophecy's continuation and to Gaffin's argument for prophecy's cessation. It is crucial for Grudem because, if Gaffin's exegesis of 1 Cor 13:10 does indeed shift the debate over prophecy's duration to other passages and considerations, then Grudem's case for prophecy's continuation stands or falls with the exegesis of Eph 2:20. It is crucial for Gaffin because, if Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20 proves persuasive, then Gaffin's case for prophecy's cessation confronts an insurmountable obstacle. With these observations in mind, I wish now to evaluate Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20 and in so doing defend Gaffin's exegesis. To complete this twofold task, I shall take up Grudem's argumentation point by point.

1. The Semantic Range of the Syntax in Eph 2:2018

Despite his claims to the contrary, Grudem's exegesis is not at all compelling from a grammatical point of view. For one thing, Grudem interprets the syntax of twn apostolwn kai profhtwn without due regard for the fact that this construction involves plural nouns. As odd as it may sound, with the exception of Eph 4:11 (on which I shall comment below), Grudem fails to cite a single example of the construction in question in Eph 2:20: every one of the texts he adduces in favor of his exegesis is an example of a construction involving something other than two plural nouns.19

Even if Grudem were to correct this problem, his case would have another serious obstacle to overcome. The obstacle is that Grudem interprets the syntax of the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction in Eph 2:20 in a way which, as D. B. Wallace20 has demonstrated, has neither clear nor ambiguous parallels in the NT. In addition, Wallace has shown that even the one true grammatical parallel that Grudem cites (Eph 4:11, tous de poimenas kai didaskalous) has been widely misunderstood because few exegetes have ever seriously investigated the semantic range of the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction. In fact, Wallace boldly challenges the exegesis of Eph 4:11 by Grudem and others, emphatically insisting "that such a view has no grammatical basis" in NT usage.21 According to Wallace's findings, the least likely interpretation of Eph 4:11 is that it means "the pastor-teachers, that is, the pastors who are also teachers"; more likely, it means "the pastors and other teachers."22

With the grammatical evidence favoring Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20 so noticeably lacking, we can give little or no credence to his conclusion that the translation "the apostles who are also prophets" is "just as valid [as the translation "the apostles and prophets"] and perhaps even more in keeping with New Testament usage."23 On the contrary, Wallace's study confirms that, while Grudem's exegesis is a theoretically possible meaning of the construction in question, it is nevertheless, statistically speaking, the least likely meaning of that construction. To be sure, non-statistical factors are relevant to this discussion and we shall consider them in the headings that follow. At this juncture, however, let us observe that the syntactical evidence is decidedly against Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20: statistically speaking, the most likely meaning of the text is that it represents apostles and prophets as two distinct groups united by their function as foundation stones,24 that is, as two distinct gifts united in foundational, revelatory witness to Christ and the mystery revealed in him.25

2. The Apostles and the Revelation of Gentile

Inclusion Grudem asserts that the apostles were the sole recipients of the revelation of Gentile inclusion. This observation is basically an argument from silence: since the NT clearly affirms the apostles' reception of the revelation but is silent on the prophets' reception of it, we must conclude that only the apostles received it.26 The validity of Grudem's claim depends on whether he has established a burden of proof. In my view, he has not because he fails to consider the relationship between the oracles of Agabus and the revelation of Gentile inclusion. Grudem's only interest in these prophecies is to establish their edifying function and to challenge the claim that they possessed absolute divine authority.27 The prophecies of Agabus however are profoundly relevant for evaluating the prophets' relation to the revelation mentioned in Ephesians 3. In Acts 11:28, an oracle from Agabus, a prophet in the Jerusalem church (11:27), prompts the Greek disciples at Antioch to contribute famine relief for their Judean brothers and sisters (11:29). In other words, the prophet reports a revelation pertaining directly to that aspect of the mystery of Christ mentioned in Eph 3:6: his prophecy in effect occasions a cementing of the newly-established, foundational bond of fellowship within the church between Jews and Gentiles. Likewise, in Acts 21:10-11, Agabus reports a revelation relating directly to the progress of Paul's apostolic ministry to the Gentiles—again, the aspect of the mystery discussed in Ephesians 3.28 For all their relevance then to specific life situations and concerns in the early church, the prophecies of Agabus are nevertheless revelations with an undeniably direct and integral connection to the mystery revealed in Christ. Grudem therefore appears quite mistaken in his claim that the NT is silent on the prophets' reception of revelation(s) pertaining to the issue of Gentile inclusion in the church.

3. The Foundation Metaphor

Grudem objects to Gaffin's view of Eph 2:20 because, insofar as it implies that prophets would be added to the church's foundation after its superstructure had been started, the foundation metaphor would no longer signify something finished before a superstructure is started, but something subject to change thereafter. This objection, however, overlooks the fact that even Grudem's own "foundation of the apostles who are also prophets" was subject to change after the superstructure was begun. Before Pentecost Matthias was added to the foundation begun with Christ (Acts 1), and well after Pentecost Paul was added to it (Acts 9). While the church's foundation awaited the additions of Matthias and Paul to it, the building of the rest of the church was not held up—as Grudem's analysis of the metaphor suggests—until God completed its foundation. On the contrary, the rest of the church was being built on the foundation such as God had constituted it to that point. If it were otherwise, the addition of literally thousands to the church between Pentecost and Paul's conversion (e.g., Acts 2:41; 5:14; 6:7) would have no significance in terms of God's housebuilding activity in Ephesians 2.29

The foundation metaphor, then, did not carry the implications Grudem assigns to it and God's housebuilding work proceeded on a foundation to which others could be added.30 This scenario could be followed no doubt because all those who bore the foundational witness spoke with one voice concerning Christ and the mystery revealed in him.

4. The Apostles and the Foundation in Rev 21:14

Grudem appeals also to Rev 21:14, where consistent with his exegesis of Eph 2:20, John apparently attributes a unique foundational role to the apostles. This observation, however, has a number of problems.31 Perhaps most obvious is the fact that John's assertion is not as consistent with Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20 as it first appears. John, after all, assigns a foundational role only to (the) twelve apostles. Even Grudem, however, would acknowledge that in Ephesians 2-3 Paul regards himself as a part of the church's foundation by virtue of his reception of the revelation of the mystery. So, on grounds other than Rev 21:14, Grudem knows of at least one apostle other than the Twelve who had a foundational role. I would take this concession a step further and contend on the basis of the considerations discussed in this essay that we know of still others who had a foundational role, that is, the NT prophets. Clearly, then, Rev 21:14 does not tell us the whole story about the church's foundation and therefore Grudem's appeal to it is inconclusive.

5. The Peers of Prophets in Their Local Churches

Grudem insists that Paul's focus on the universal church in Ephesians 2-3 would have prevented the peers of the prophets in local churches from associating them with the apostles in the foundation of Eph 2:20. But we must ask, why would the prophets' peers not make this association? Apparently, Grudem would have us simply presume that NT prophets would be linked with either the universal church or the local church; they could not be linked with both of these entities. Since Grudem's discussion at this point is more assertion than argument, one is left to surmise that this disjunction is rooted not only in what Grudem believes is Paul's exclusive focus on the universal church, but in what he insists is the non-foundational role of non-apostolic prophets in the rest of the NT. At any rate, as it stands here, Grudem's point resembles the argument that the apostles' correspondence cannot have perpetual importance for the universal church because it consisted of occasional writings addressed to local churches. Grudem would agree that such a view is based on a false disjunction. His discussion here, however, involves a similar false disjunction. At the same time, Grudem overlooks the fact that in Eph 2:19-22 Paul focuses not only on the universal church (in v. 21, pasa h oikodomh) but also on the local church (in v. 22, kai umeis [Gentile Christians, cf. vv. 13, 19]).32

6. The Missing Argument of Ephesians 2-3

Grudem claims that in Ephesians 2-3 Paul ignores the supposed inclusion of Gentile as well as Jewish prophets in the church's foundation, even though such an idea would have been most pertinent to his argument for the equality of Jews and Gentiles. Here again we find Grudem arguing from silence, and again the validity of his argument depends on whether he has established a burden of proof. I do not believe he has.

The chief difficulty with Grudem's analysis is that he fails to take adequate account of the relationship between Ephesians 2 and 3. To be sure, we can affirm with Grudem that Paul's concern in 2:11-22 is to demonstrate that through Christ God has brought about equality (fellowship) between Jews and Gentiles. But what is Paul's interest in 3:1-13? There Paul describes his ministry as a stewardship of preaching the mystery of Christ to the Gentiles, especially that aspect of the mystery which is the equality of Jews and Gentiles in Christ. Paul's interest then is in defining his ministry to the Gentiles as it relates to God's work through Christ, a discussion of no little importance to his Gentile readers.33

Taking full account of Paul's focus in Ephesians 3, we see quite clearly why he ignores the importance of Gentile prophets in the foundation while advancing his argument: Paul is evidently more concerned to define the relationship between his preaching and the equality of Jews and Gentiles than he is to demonstrate further the truth of that equality. Moreover, it is not, as Grudem suggests, that Paul inexplicably ignores the Gentile prophets in the foundation while pursuing his argument; rather, it is that Paul ignores everyone in the foundation other than himself, except to identify himself with them as those to whom God had revealed the mystery. Suffice it to say therefore that Paul's overriding concern to magnify his own ministry explains why he "fails" to cite the foundational Gentile prophets as proof of the equality of Jews and Gentiles in the church.

7. Explicit Passages on Prophecy by Non-Apostles

Grudem maintains that twn apostolwn kai profhtwn in Eph 2:20 must refer to one group since 1 Corinthians 12-14, 1 Thess 5:20-21, and certain Acts passages demonstrate clearly and explicitly that non-apostolic prophets did not have a foundational, that is, absolutely authoritative, role in the church. For this argument to have any force, we must first accept Grudem's assumption that Eph 2:20 is unclear and less explicit than other NT texts on prophecy. But, in view of our evaluation of Grudem's claims regarding Eph 2:20 in this essay, we can hardly accept his assumption. As for Grudem's exegesis of the passages in 1 Corinthians, 1 Thessalonians, and Acts, space does not permit a complete response, nor is there need to duplicate Gaffin's generally satisfactory discussion of that material.34 I would however add one point to Gaffin's consideration of the judging of prophecies.

According to Grudem, Paul's description of the judging of prophecies in 1 Cor 14:29 and 1 Thess 5:20-22 presupposes that each prophecy is a mixture of true and false elements. If this is the case, then clearly the judging process must involve sorting out the true and false elements in each oracle.35 This interpretation, however, is neither the only nor the best way to interpret the evidence.

Fundamentally, Grudem's exegesis turns on his assumption that the objects being judged (sorted) are the true and false elements in any one oracle. But let us take another look at what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5. In the Corinthians passage, the apostle looks at an individual meeting of the local church (14:26) and envisions a plurality of prophets speaking during any given meeting: "let two or three prophets speak" (14:29a). In the Thessalonians passage, Paul's commands are adaptable to an individual meeting of the local church or to the whole course of its meetings, but in any case he envisions a plurality of prophecies being heard: "do not despise prophecies" (5:20). Thus, whether Paul is contemplating the meetings of the local church individually or collectively, his instructions in 1 Corinthians 14 and 1 Thessalonians 5 presume that his readers would be hearing a plurality of prophets speaking their oracles.

My point in making this observation is that while Grudem reads Paul's words as preparing the churches to sort out the true and false elements in any one oracle, it is clearly more in keeping with Paul's very words to read them as preparing the churches to sort out the true and false oracles among the many oracles they would hear. To put it another way, while Grudem says that "[e]ach prophecy might have both true and false elements in it,"36 we should say that the many prophecies heard in the meetings of the local church might have both true and false prophecies among them.37

On the presupposition that the prophecies heard in the churches might have both true and false prophecies among them, Paul's instructions in 1 Cor 14:29 and 1 Thess 5:20-22 are manifestly consistent with the broader context of NT teaching on the subject of judging prophecies. According to that teaching, the churches judged prophecies in order to distinguish between true and false prophets (1 John 4:1-6; cf. Matt 7:15-20 with Matt 12:32-37 and 24:23-26). In line with this picture we find Paul citing standards by which the Corinthians and Thessalonians should judge oracles (1 Cor 12:3; 14:37; 1 Thess 5:21-22; 2 Thess 2:15).38 In fact, it is particularly noteworthy that Paul cites such standards for the Thessalonians at least in part to dispel the confusion caused among them by a deceiving prophetic spirit (pneuma, 2 Thess 2:2) from within their own number or the church at large.39

In the light of these factors, I would contend that for Paul, as for the rest of the NT, the judging of prophecies was a process of evaluating the prophets' words in order to pass judgment on the prophets themselves.40 Significantly, when interpreted in this way, the judging of NT prophets looks quite similar to the judging of OT prophets. To be sure, the preconsummate punishment applicable to false prophets in the NT differed from the death penalty prescribed for their OT counterparts.41 This difference aside, the NT criteria for sorting out true and false prophecy were identical to those in the OT. In sum, prophets in both Testaments were judged as to (1) their conduct (e.g., Jer 23:10-15; Matt 7:15-23); (2) the content of their prophecies (e.g., Deut 13:1-5; Matt 24:23-27); and (3) the means of revelation (e.g., Num 12:6-8; 1 Cor 13:2, 9, 12; 15:51).42 Used in conjunction with the gift of discerning the spirits (1 Cor 12:10),43 these criteria enabled the church, like ancient Israel, to determine the ultimate source of the prophecies they heard (the Holy Spirit or some other source). I would therefore argue that Grudem has fundamentally misunderstood Paul's teaching on the judging of prophecies, and has thus transformed a standard apostolic, even canonical, directive into a Pauline idiosyncracy.

8. The Vain Search for Foundational NT Prophets

Grudem claims that the search for Gaffin's foundational NT prophets is a vain one and that in the absence of evidence for their existence, we should take seriously alternatives to Gaffin's exegesis of Eph 2:20. Grudem's claim here is only as strong as the arguments he previously advanced. As I see it, those arguments are either inconclusive or refutable, and thus one could argue quite plausibly that the prophets for which Grudem searches are in fact in the NT. Consequently, even if this argument has confirmatory value for those who already accept Grudem's conclusions, it has no positive value for those who reject them.

9. Apostles and Prophets in Eph 4:11

Contrary to Gaffin's appeal to Eph 4:11, Grudem insists that the context and grammar of that text make it clear that the prophets mentioned there are different from those mentioned in 2:20: the prophets of 4:11 had a (non-foundational) role in local congregations, whereas those of 2:20 had a (foundational) role in the universal church. This difference is not as clear as Grudem contends.44

First of all, we have already seen that Grudem's argument concerning the syntax of Eph 2:20 is tenuous at best. Indeed, far from disclosing that the prophets in 4:11 and 2:20 are different, the men…de construction of 4:11 only makes explicit what the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction of 2:20 implied, viz., the prophets are distinct from the apostles. This point is strengthened by the fact that the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction in 4:11 (tous de poimenas kai didaskalous) does not function as Grudem says it does in 2:20.45

Second, what Grudem says about the contexts of 2:20 and 4:11 indicates that he has not seen the connection between the two. On the one hand, as I observed above (III. 5.), Grudem overlooks the fact that in 2:20-22 Paul assigns apostles and prophets a foundational role not just in the universal church (v. 21), but in local congregations as well (v. 22).46 On the other hand, Grudem really says nothing to counter Gaffin's observation that 2:20 and 4:11 are parts of a larger context, viz., 2:11-4:16, in which Paul discusses the church (universal and local) and its composition as the newly-created body of Christ.47 Within that larger unit, 4:7-16 expands on Paul's description of the church in 2:11-22 by pointing out the harmony of the differing gifts distributed by Christ in the body.48 Given this connection between the two sections, it is extremely unlikely that the prophets mentioned as foundation stones of the church in 2:20 are other than the prophets who contribute to its upbuilding in 4:11-12. In fact, in view of the larger context of 2:11-4:16, the prophets' specific role in the housebuilding work pictured in 4:7-16 would have to be none other than their foundational function described in 2:20.49

Clearly, then, contrary to Grudem's interpretation of the grammar and context of Eph 2:20 and 4:11, the prophets mentioned in those texts are the same, having a foundational role in the church universal and local.

10. Apostles and Prophets in 1 Cor 12:28

As for Gaffin's appeal to the distinction between apostles and prophets in 1 Cor 12:28, Grudem acknowledges that Paul does indeed distinguish between apostles and prophets there, but he protests Gaffin's appeal by saying that 1 Cor 12:28 should not dictate our exegesis of Eph 2:20 or any other passage where the words "apostles" and "prophets" appear. This response, however, overreacts to Gaffin's argument. Gaffin is not advocating the interpretive "tyranny" of 1 Cor 12:28 over other texts: he is simply saying that 1 Cor 12:28, together with Eph 4:11, establishes a burden of proof for those who like Grudem would see something other than a distinction between apostles and prophets in Eph 2:20. It remains for Grudem to produce the evidence that shifts the burden of proof from himself to those who differ with him.

11. No Reason Not to Designate Apostles as Prophets

In this connection, Grudem argues that if (as Gaffin acknowledges) the apostles performed prophetic functions, and if the apostles Paul and John spoke of their personal prophetic activity, then there is no inherent reason why the apostles as a group could not be called "prophets" in Eph 2:20, provided the grammar and the context favor that interpretation. There are two significant problems with Grudem's discussion at this point.

First, Grudem attaches a crucial—and fatal—proviso to his claim. He says the identification of the apostles as "prophets" is reasonable, "provided the grammar and context favour this interpretation."50 We have already seen above that neither the grammar nor the context of Eph 2:20 favors his exegesis. By the lack of merit in his proviso, then, Grudem robs his point here of its intended force.

Second, the warrant for our identification of the apostles as prophets turns on the criterion by which we identify someone as a prophet.51 Though I cannot argue the point fully here,52 I would contend that since the NT customarily links spiritual gifts to the ongoing ministries and stewardships of some believers in distinction to others (Rom 12:4-6; 1 Cor 12:5, 28-30; 1 Pet 4:10-11), we should understand that in the absence of evidence to the contrary the term prophet applies to those believers who by virtue of their ongoing engagement in prophetic activity are distinguished from other believers.53

Using this criterion in evaluating the apostles' prophesying, we would have to say that their identification, individually or collectively, as prophets is based more on conjecture than proof. For instance, Paul certainly alludes to his own prophetic activity (1 Cor 14:6), but the evidence for his identification as a prophet in the conventional sense is inconclusive, first, because his prophesying does not appear as an ongoing ministry that distinguished him from other believers, and second and more importantly, because Paul invariably distinguishes himself from others by identifying his "gift" ("stewardship," "ministry," or "grace") as that of apostleship or its non-prophetic correlates.54 Moreover, that John (and arguably Peter) engaged on occasion in prophetic activity (Rev 1:3; 22:7; Acts 10:9-29) fails to meet the criterion above for identifying him as a prophet in the customary sense. Finally, apart from considerations of the grammar and context of Eph 2:20, it is pure speculation to argue that any of the other apostles met the criterion and could therefore be called prophets.55

In light of these considerations, it would seem wisest to say that the prophesying by NT apostles illustrates how God could make an exception to his customary practice and enable those who were not otherwise prophets to exercise the gift of prophecy temporarily on particular occasions (cf. Acts 19:6).56 We do not have sufficient justification to follow Grudem in designating the apostles as prophets, that is, as those whose ministry and stewardship in the body of Christ was that of ongoing engagement in prophetic activity.

12. No Need for an Explanation to the Readers

Grudem insists lastly that grammar and context would have obviated any need for Paul to explain his identification of the apostles as prophets in Eph 2:20 vis-à-vis his distinction between the two groups in Eph 4:11. Our considerations of grammar and context, however, only corroborate Gaffin's conclusion: the sense Grudem attaches to the term "prophets" in Eph 2:20 would have been lost on Paul's readers without some word of explanation, especially since he goes on in Eph 4:11 to reinforce the term's conventional usage.57

IV. Conclusion

Wayne Grudem brought into focus just how important the exegesis of Eph 2:20 is to the debate over prophecy's duration when he wrote,

If [Eph 2:20 is] referring to all the prophets in all the local congregations in first century churches…then it would seem that they are portrayed in a unique 'foundational' role in the New Testament church, and we have to agree with Dr Gaffin—we would expect this gift to cease once the New Testament was complete.58

Of course, as it turns out, Grudem would persuade us to disagree with Gaffin. To this end, he offers counterarguments to Gaffin's interpretation, hoping that they will establish and defend his claim that tw'n ajpostovlwn kai profhtw'n in Eph 2:20 means "the apostles who are also prophets." But, as I have tried to show here, Grudem's case for his exegesis of Eph 2:20 is very weak. Virtually every facet of our examination either confirms or strengthens one's belief that Grudem's view is unlikely, even forced. In fact, given the serious flaws in Grudem's argumentation, we have every reason to endorse heartily Gaffin's conclusion that in Eph 2:20 the NT prophets are distinct from but united with the apostles in their function as foundation stones of the church. Indeed, recognizing the periodization of redemptive history implied in Eph 2:20 and its context, I would contend with Gaffin that the NT prophets had a "temporary, noncontinuing function in the church's history, and so by God's design pass[ed] out of its life, along with the apostles."59

Westminster Theological Seminary Philadelphia — WTJ 54 (Fall 1992) 321-330


  1. M. G. Maudlin, "Seers in the Heartland: Hot on the Trail of the Kansas City Prophets," Christianity Today, 14 January 1991, 18-22
  2. Ibid., 20.
  3. R. Fowler White, "Gaffin and Grudem on 1 Cor 13:10: A Comparison of Cessationist and Noncessationist Argumentation," JETS 35 (1992). After the acceptance of the 1 Cor 13:10 article and the present article for publication, at least three critiques of Grudem's views appeared: Kenneth L. Gentry, Jr., The Charismatic Gift of Prophecy: A Reformed Response to Wayne Grudem (Memphis: Footstool, 1989); F. David Farnell, "Fallible New Testament Prophecy/Prophets? A Critique of Wayne Grudem's Hypothesis," The Master's Seminary Journal 2 (1991) 157-79; and Robert L. Thomas, "Prophecy Rediscovered? A Review of The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today," BSac 149 (1992) 83-96. Working independently, Gentry, Farnell, and Thomas reached conclusions similar to my own at certain points, but at others they choose not to respond to Grudem or do not give as compelling a response as could be given.
  4. See R. B. Gaffin, Jr., Perspectives on Pentecost: New Testament Teaching on the Gifts of the Holy Spirit (Phillipsburg, NJ: Presbyterian and Reformed, 1979) 93-102, and W. A. Grudem, The Gift of Prophecy in the New Testament and Today (Westchester, IL: Crossway, 1988) 45-64. The importance each man attaches to the other's discussion of Eph 2:20 is seen in the following facts: (1) in personal conversation Gaffin has informed me that Grudem was a silent interlocutor of his (by means of Grudem's dissertation) during the writing of Perspectives; and (2) Grudem calls Gaffin's discussion "the most careful statement of the position that Ephesians 2:20 applies to all prophets in the New Testament churches and shows that the gift of prophecy has ceased" (ibid., 314 n. 7).
  5. Gaffin, Perspectives, 96.
  6. Ibid., 95. Strictly speaking, for Gaffin the foundation of the church consists of Christ (Eph 2:20b; 1 Cor 3:11) and the apostles and prophets. The laying of the foundation (Isa 28:16) began with Christ (e.g., Matt 21:42-44) and concluded with the apostles and prophets as witnesses to Christ (e.g., Luke 24:44-48). See ibid., 91-93, 107-8. On the meaning of the much debated term akrogwniaiou in Eph 2:20, see, for example, J. Jeremias, "gwniva," TDNT 1.791-93; N. Mundle, "Rock, Stone, Corner-stone, Pearl, Precious Stone," NIDNTT 3.388-90; H. Krämer, "gwniva, akrogwniaiou," Exegetical Dictionary of the New Testament 1.267-69; and J. P. Louw and E. A. Nida, eds., Greek-English Lexicon of the New Testament: Based on Semantic Domains (New York: United Bible Societies, 1988) 1.7.44. Despite the attempts to defend the "keystone" interpretation first propounded by Jeremias (see, e.g., the recent effort by A. T. Lincoln, Ephesians [WBC 42; Waco, TX: Word, 1990] 155-56), the aggregate of the evidence favors the "foundation stone" interpretation.
  7. Gaffin, Perspectives, 96.
  8. Ibid., 93.
  9. Ibid., 94.
  10. For the full account of Gaffin's argumentation, see ibid., 94-95.
  11. Ibid., 95. Gaffin acknowledges that "the gift [of prophecy] could be given temporarily on particular occasions to those who were not prophets (cf. Acts 19:6)" (ibid.). But he notes that the "usage in Acts and Revelation as well as Paul makes plain that 'prophets' designates those who in their frequent or regular exercise of the gift of prophecy are a distinct group within the church" (ibid.; cf. ibid., 59). For a similar distinction, see E. E. Ellis, "The Role of the Christian Prophet in Acts," in Apostolic History and the Gospel: Biblical and Historical Essays Presented to F. F. Bruce (ed. W. Ward Gasque and R. P. Martin; Exeter: Paternoster, 1970) 55-67.
  12. R. B. Gaffin, Jr., "The New Testament as Canon," in Inerrancy and Hermeneutic: A Tradition, A Challenge, A Debate (ed. H. M. Conn; Grand Rapids: Baker, 1988) 175.
  13. Grudem, Prophecy, 57-63.
  14. Ibid., 54. See also Gaffin, "The New Testament as Canon," 174.
  15. Grudem, Prophecy, passim.
  16. For the full account of Grudem's argumentation, see ibid., 49-62.
  17. Ibid., 62.
  18. Grudem's view of the syntax in Eph 2:20 is shared by D. Hill, New Testament Prophecy (London: Marshall, Morgan and Scott, 1979) 139; H. Sahlin, " 'Die Beschneidung Christi': Eine Interpretation von Eph 2, 11-22," SymBU 12 (1950) 18; and E. Cothenet, "Prophetisme dans le Nouveau Testament," DBSup 8.1306-09.
  19. Grudem, Prophecy, 50-51. The constructions in his examples involve either singular nouns, plural participles, plural adjectives, or a combination of a plural noun with a plural participle or adjective.
  20. D. B. Wallace, "The Semantic Range of the Article-Noun-KAI-Noun Plural Construction in the New Testament," Grace Theological Journal 4 (1983) 59-84, esp. 70-79, 82-83. Wallace restricts his discussion to constructions in which the plurals refer to persons and, at the same time, expands it to include all substantives under the title "noun" (ibid., 61). He considers the theoretical and actual semantic range of the construction in five categories: (1) two entirely distinct groups, though united; (2) two overlapping groups; (3) first group subset of second; (4) second group subset of first; and (5) two groups identical. By personal correspondence Wallace has also informed me that in other work involving the construction, he has broadened the scope of his research beyond the NT to include examples from the papyri. Among those examples, he reports that usage in the papyri is very much in step with that of the NT.
  21. Wallace, "Semantic Range," 83 (emphasis Wallace's). Recall also Wallace's additional work on usage in the papyri.
  22. Wallace argues that, if in the NT all pastors (= elders) were teachers but not all teachers were pastors, Eph 4:11 falls most probably under the well-attested category of "first subset of the second" and means "the pastors (= elders) and other teachers" ("Semantic Range," 83). Alternatively, we could look at 1 Tim 5:17 as a somewhat fuller picture of what Paul has in mind in Ephesians and explain Eph 4:11 as a shorthand reference to elders only: all elders rule (= are pastors), but not all elders earn their wages in the word and teaching (= are teachers; cf. G. W. Knight, III, "Two Offices and Two Orders of Elders," in Pressing Toward the Mark: Essays Commemorating Fifty Years of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church [ed. C. G. Dennison and R. C. Gamble; Philadelphia: The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church, 1986] 29-30). Eph 4:11 would then fit Wallace's "second group subset of first" category and mean "the pastors and in particular teachers." This category would reflect well the implications of the syntax in 1 Tim 5:17 (the adverb malista introducing v. 17b). Still, we could subsume this latter suggestion under Wallace's categorization as simply a further explanation of "the pastors (= elders)." On poimena and associated terms, see the informative comments on Eph 4:11 by Lincoln, Ephesians, 250-51.
  23. Grudem, Prophecy, 51. Had Paul really intended to express the idea Grudem attributes to him, Wallace's study suggests that the article-noun-kai-noun plural construction would have most likely involved at least one participle or adjective functioning as a substantive (see "Semantic Range," 75-78). For additional discussion of constructions more consistent with Grudem's exegesis of Eph 2:20, see D. G. McCartney, review of The Gift of Prophecy in 1 Corinthians, by Wayne A. Grudem, WTJ 45 (1983) 196.
  24. As an alternative, we could follow Wallace here. He applies the category "first group subset of second" to twn apostolwn kai profhtwn, since certain apostles have prophetic activity attributed to them ("Semantic Range," 82, esp. n. 66). The phrase would then mean, "the apostles and other NT prophets." This understanding of the syntax is certainly statistically more likely than Grudem's, but in my view it is less likely than the "distinct, but united" category on the non-statistical grounds discussed below under III. 11.
  25. Gaffin, Perspectives, 95. Cf. F. F. Bruce, The Epistles to the Colossians, to Philemon, and to the Ephesians (NICNT; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1984) 304, 315 n. 29. D. A. Carson, one of Grudem's chief supporters, alleges that this exegesis results in "an anomalous use of 'prophets' in the New Testament" (Showing the Spirit: A Theological Exposition of 1 Corinthians 12-14 [Grand Rapids: Baker, 1987] 97). In response to this observation, we must first ask whether Carson would think the (non-apostolic) prophets' role in the church's foundation so problematic if he did not already accept Grudem's interpretation of their function elsewhere in the NT. We should note, secondly, that, unlike Carson's (Grudem's) alternative, at least our (Gaffin's) exegesis is not based on an anomalous understanding of the construction Paul employs in Eph 2:20.
  26. Cf. Gentry, The Charismatic Gift, 32.
  27. Grudem, Prophecy, 89-90, 96-102, 156. Curiously, nowhere in his discussion does Grudem deal with Gaffin's comments on the relationship between the oracles of Agabus and the revelation of Gentile inclusion (see Gaffin, Perspectives, 98-99). On the accuracy of Agabus's oracle in Acts 21, see, for example, D. S. McWilliams, "Something New Under the Sun? Wayne Grudem on Prophecy," WTJ 54 (1992).
  28. Gaffin, Perspectives, 99. The reference to the "one body" among the acclamations cited in Eph 4:4-6 may be a clue that the revelation of Gentile inclusion in the body in 3:6 (cf. 2:16) is but one aspect of a larger revelatory matrix (excerpted in Eph 4:4-6), whose unity is, in Gaffin's words (ibid., 95), "nothing less than Christ in all his saving fulness (Col. 2:2f.), the gospel in all its aspects (Eph. 6:19; cf. Rom. 16:25f.)." It is also interesting to note that the revelations to Agabus exemplify the truths of the mystery of the gospel in a way analogous to Paul's rebuke to Peter concerning his hypocritical withdrawal from association with the Gentiles at Antioch (Galatians 2).
  29. Cf. Gentry, The Charismatic Gift, 33-35. See n. 6 above.
  30. The claim that God's housebuilding work proceeded on a foundation to which others could be added does not necessitate the conclusion that his foundation-laying activity could continue as long as his work of building the superstructure (i.e., to the end of this age). On the contrary, as is clear from the case of Christ as the foundational cornerstone (Eph 2:20b; 1 Cor 3:11), foundationality applies to that which is both functionally determinative of the integrity of a house's superstructure and temporally (historically) initiatory and once-for-all, hence noncontinuing, in the course of a housebuilding work. By its very nature, then, the activity of laying the church's foundation could not continue as long as the work of building her superstructure, but must be preparatory to (at least the bulk of) that work. Moreover, once we grasp the epochal significance of the foundation-laying activity, attempts to identify its terminus ad quem become less important.
  31. For a complete discussion of the problems with Grudem's appeal to Rev 21:14, see Gentry, The Charismatic Gift, 31-32. Gentry and I arrived independently at a common assessment of the specific problem cited here.
  32. Cf., for example, R. J. McKelvey, The New Temple: The Church in the New Testament (London: Oxford University Press, 1969) 116; Lincoln, Ephesians, 156, 158; and Bruce, Epistles, 306-7.
  33. Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 170-72.
  34. Gaffin, Perspectives, passim.
  35. Grudem, Prophecy, 70-79, 104-5. See also Carson, Showing the Spirit, 95. M. M. B. Turner, on whom Carson is dependent, writes, "The presupposition [of 1 Cor 14:29] is that any one New Testament prophetic oracle is expected to be mixed in quality, and the wheat must be separated from the chaff" ("Spiritual Gifts Then and Now," Vox evangelica 15 [1985]:16 [emphasis Turner's]). A similar position is taken by D. Atkinson, Prophecy (Bramcote, England: Grove Books, 1977) 13-14, 16-17.
  36. Grudem, Prophecy, 78.
  37. This proposal bridges the gap between Grudem and Gaffin on the interpretation of 1 Cor 14:29. It does justice to the implications (of sorting or sifting things) that Grudem sees in Paul's use of the verb diakrinw in 14:29 (ibid., 76-78); it also does justice to the connection that Gaffin sees between the exercise of discernment (diakrinw) in 14:29 and the gift of discerning the spirits (diakriseis pneumatwn) in 12:10 (Perspectives, 70; according to Gaffin, those with the gift led the judging process, but did not monopolize it). In addition, this proposal supports Gaffin's overall representation of the judging process as an activity designed to determine the source of prophecies (ibid., 70-71). On this latter point, cf. Hill, Prophecy, 133-35.
  38. The confessional acclamations of Eph 4:4-6 may also be read as standards by which the Ephesians were to judge prophets and others with word gifts (2:20; 3:5; 4:11) and so distinguish between those who were speaking the truth (cf. 4:15) and those who were speaking false doctrine (4:14).
  39. Commentators have consistently interpreted pneuma in 2 Thess 2:2 in terms of spurious prophetic activity, whether they explain the word as a reference to a false prophet or to an oracle from a false prophet. Paul clearly implies that the pneuma is spurious by linking it with a deceitful source(s) (2:2, mh ti umas exapathvsh) and a threat of deception (2:3, mh tis umas ecapathsh). See the commentaries for more details.
  40. The summary here reflects the description of Gaffin's view by Carson, Showing the Spirit, 95. Grudem's alternative, in which the process consists of judging prophecies instead of prophets (Prophecy, 75), involves a false disjunction.
  41. Grudem maintains that this difference is to be explained by distinguishing between the authority of OT and NT prophecy, ignoring an explanation in terms of the shift from the old covenant to the new (Prophecy, 77-78). Regarding the OT penalty for seduction to false worship by means of false prophecy and its NT application in the excommunication of the unrepentant prophet, see V. S. Poythress, The Shadow of Christ in the Law of Moses (Brentwood, TN: Wolgemuth & Hyatt, 1991) 139-53, 289-310. We should remember that, even if the NT penalty for false prophecy differed from the OT penalty, false prophets from the NT era will receive the consummate form of the OT penalty (Matt 7:23; cf. 25:41). We should also observe that the absence of explicit NT threats of excommunication for false prophecy is not an adequate argument against excommunication's applicability (pace Carson, Showing the Spirit, 95). In the first place, explicit threats of excommunication for specific offenses are very rare in the NT; if we must rely on implication in other cases, then we may do so in the case of false prophecy. Secondly, such threats are certainly implied for false prophecy when Christ and the apostles admonish the churches in the strongest terms not to tolerate prophets whose instruction is evil or false and thus threatens to lead them astray (1 John 4:1-6; 1 Thess 5:22; 2 Thess 2:3, 15; cf. Rev 2:20-23). In this connection, Grudem's claim that the churches weighed a prophet's statements on a relative (i.e., graded) scale including good and less good, helpful and unhelpful, true and false (Prophecy, 76-77) seriously misrepresents the absolute polarity in the biblical standards between good and evil (1 Thess 5:21-22), the Spirit of God and the spirit of antichrist (the world), the spirit of truth and the spirit of error (1 John 4:1-6).
  42. See, for example, R. B. Dillard, 2 Chronicles (WBC 15; Waco, TX: Word, 1987) 144-45. My thanks to Dr. Dillard for reminding me of these continuities between the OT and NT approaches to prophecy. Though Atkinson does not notice the OT-NT continuities, see also his discussion of discerning false prophets in the OT (Atkinson, Prophecy, 9-10). Farnell ("Critique," 170-76) also makes some valuable points about Grudem's discussion of the relationship between OT and NT prophets.
  43. Grudem may be right that the gift of discerning the spirits was not limited to testing the spirits of the prophets (Prophecy, 70-72). Still, his attempt to avoid a connection between that gift and the judging of prophecy in 1 Cor 14:29 is greatly overdrawn (D. E. Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity and the Ancient Mediterranean World [Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1983] 411 n. 185. Aune expressed this opinion in response to Grudem's article, "A Response to Gerhard Dautzenberg on 1 Cor 12:10," BZ 22 [1978] 253-70, but it remains relevant to Grudem's comments in Prophecy).
  44. Cf. the conclusion reached independently by Farnell, "Critique," 168.
  45. Wallace, "Semantic Range," 83. See n. 22 above.
  46. This portrayal is consistent with the role of the Twelve who, though they were foundation stones on which the church (universal and local) was built, were also elders in the local congregation at Jerusalem (Acts 6:1-6; cf. 1 Pet 5:1). A similar dual role for prophets is discernible insofar as the prophecies recorded in the NT pertained to localized, even individual, concerns and at the same time were integral to redemptive-historical developments involving the universal church. We have already seen these traits in the oracles of Agabus (see III. 3. above). The prophecies concerning Timothy (1 Tim 1:18; 4:14) are relevant here too. They were both fully binding on Timothy and providentially integral to the transition from the foundational era to the post-foundational era in the history of the church.
  47. Gaffin, Perspectives, 94.
  48. The verbal and conceptual parallels between 4:7-16 and 2:14-22 are apparent. For example, the themes of housebuilding (temple building) and Christ's redemptive victory, already linked in 2:14-22, are again linked in 4:7-16 as Paul connects the distribution of gifts by Christ the triumphant Divine Warrior (note the citation of the Divine Warrior victory hymn [Ps 68] in 4:8) with the building of his body, the dwelling place of his Spirit (cf. 2:16, 18, 21-22). For additional parallels, see, for example, Lincoln, Ephesians, 231, 249, 261.
  49. Cf. Gaffin, Perspectives, 94.
  50. Grudem, Prophecy, 61 (emphasis mine).
  51. On the criterion for identifying people as prophets, see Gaffin, Perspectives, 59, 93-95, and Grudem, Prophecy, 197-98.
  52. For instructive discussions of the relationship between gifts, ministry, and office, see Turner, "Spiritual Gifts," 33-37 and especially H. Ridderbos, Paul: An Outline of His Theology (trans. J. R. De Witt; Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1975) 438-46.
  53. Gaffin, Perspectives, 59, 95, and Grudem, Prophecy, 197, 212. Note that Gaffin speaks of "frequent or regular exercise of the gift of prophecy" (ibid., 95), whereas I speak of "ongoing engagement in prophetic activity." The difference between my description and Gaffin's is intended to be stylistic, not substantive.
  54. It is certainly beyond dispute that Paul consistently identifies his "gift" with functions other than prophecy (see Rom 1:5; 12:3; 1 Cor 3:5; Col 1:25; 1 Tim 2:7; 2 Tim 1:11). Even in Ephesians, as he refers (evidently) to an occasion on which he was involved in prophetic activity (3:3-4) and links himself with prophets and apostles (2:20; 3:5), Paul nevertheless describes his gift-stewardship-ministry-grace only in terms of apostleship and its non-prophetic correlates (1:1; 3:2, 7, 8). On the NT picture of Paul's prophetic experiences, see Hill, Prophecy, 111-18, and Aune, Prophecy in Early Christianity, 248-49. (The conclusion of Hill and Aune that Paul was a prophet is not inconsistent with my argument here [see n. 56]). It is worth pointing out that even if we were to conclude that Paul was a prophet in the customary sense, we would still be far from proving that this was so for all apostles.
  55. Lest Grudem be found arguing that only some of the apostles—those who were also prophets—were the foundation of the church, his exegesis of Eph 2:20 requires him to affirm that all apostles were prophets. Apart from his arguments from the grammar and context of Eph 2:20, there is no evidence to corroborate Grudem's conclusion.
  56. Gaffin, Perspectives, 59, 95. In personal conversation, R. B. Dillard has suggested that we may find OT examples of the occasional vis-à-vis ongoing exercise of the gift of prophecy in the patriarchs (Ps 105:15; Gen 20:7) and David (2 Sam 23:2; cf. Acts 2:30). The designation of, for example, Abraham as a prophet (Gen 20:7) clarifies the point being made here. The question is not whether Paul, John, and Peter could like Abraham be called prophets in the exceptional sense of those who once or from time to time engaged in prophetic activity, but whether they could be called prophets in the conventional sense of those whose stewardship or ministry was that of frequently or regularly engaging in prophetic activity.
  57. Ibid., 95.
  58. Grudem, Prophecy, 46.
  59. Gaffin, Perspectives, 95-96.

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