I have been sitting on this post for a long time. My students have heard me make this argument in class, but I have been hesitant to post it. The main reason I haven’t posted until now is my great respect for the continuationists at Sovereign Grace Ministries. Those guys are among the most humble, godly, joyful, loving people I’ve ever met, and I don’t mean any disrespect to them in this post. I disagree with them, though, and I’m about to say why. Before I do, some caveats:
First, my argument for cessationism is exegetical, but it is not tied to any statements in 1 Corinthians 13.
Second, this argument is not tied to a particular form of either dispensational or covenant theology (I’m in that overlapping middle that is sympathetic with both Progressive Dispensationalism and New Covenant Theology).
Third, below I will lay out my argument. When I’m done, I’ll tell you what I think is the major defeater of my argument (in other words, I’ll tell you how I would argue against this position if I were a continuationist), and then I’ll tell you what (I think) defeats that defeater.
D. A. Carson has written,
“As long as ‘apostles’ are understood to refer to a select group (the Twelve plus Paul) whose positions or functions cannot be duplicated after their demise, there is a prima facie case for saying at least one of the cari,smata (charismata) passes away at the end of the first generation, a gift tightly tied to the locus of revelation that came with Jesus Messiah and related events” (Showing the Spirit, 88).
I would define The Apostles that Carson describes as those who saw the risen Lord Jesus and were commissioned by him. This would seem to mean that The Apostles were the 12, with Matthias replacing Judas (Acts 1:15–26), James the Lord’s brother (1 Cor 15:7; Gal 1:19), Paul (1 Cor 15:8-9), and maybe Barnabas (Acts 14:4, 14).
The word “apostle” is also used in the NT to describe those who were “sent out” from the churches, and these instances are generally translated along the lines of “messenger” (see, e.g, 2 Cor 8:23; Phil 2:25). If we were to follow the pattern of the NT on this point, we might call missionaries that we send out from our churches “apostles,” but we would always want to clarify that we don’t mean Apostle in the way that Paul and Peter were Apostles. All we would mean is “messenger,” or perhaps, “missionary.”
Dave Harvey has written the Sovereign Grace book on Polity (available free online here), which I think has beneficial information, but I don’t think the statement on “apostles” is helpful:
“While Sovereign Grace Ministries heartily agrees that ‘no one in the church today functions with the authority of the original apostles,’ let us not hastily extrapolate . . . to conclude that no one today functions as an apostle of any kind.”
I don’t think this is helpful because it clearly says, “We don’t mean Apostle in the sense of Paul and the 12, but we still want to use the word as though some people today have the gift.” The problem is, when Ephesians 4:11 says, “He gave some as apostles,” I think it’s really hard to make that mean something other than “Paul and the 12, James, Barnabas, and maybe Jude.” Ephesians 3:5 refers to The Apostles as those to whom the revelation of the mystery was given, which seems to refer to the guys who wrote the other parts of the New Testament. Right before that, Ephesians 2:20 refers to The Apostles as foundational for the church. So it seems to me that The Apostles that Paul describes Jesus giving to the church in Ephesians 4:11 are this closed circle of men who saw the risen Lord and were commissioned by him (the twelve and the few others added after the resurrection).
I understand the “gift” of “apostles” in both Ephesians 4:11 and 1 Corinthians 12:28 to be a gift of certain people. That is, I do not understand either verse to be referring to a “skill set” of apostleship, but to certain men who were given to the church as The Apostles.
It seems to me that, in the passage cited above, Harvey concedes that the gift of Apostle has ceased, but then wants to say that something similar to it continues. But if that’s what the gift means, we might all be continuationists!
But we’re not really continuationist on this point. The real continuationists are those who conduct themselves as though the gift of Apostle hasn’t ceased, and there are at least two groups who behave as though it does: Roman Catholics and Mormons. For the Roman Catholics, tradition and the Pope’s ex cathedra statements are as authoritative as Scripture. The Mormons also claim to have new revelation that is on the level of Scripture.
It seems to me that any group that holds to a closed canon thinks that the gift of Apostle has ceased (I have argued the same point regarding prophecy here). Those who think the canon is closed and call themselves “charismatic/continuationist” on this point can only do so because they have redefined the terms.
Perhaps an analogy would be helpful here. I think this would be like me re-defining what it means to be an Arminian and then claiming to be one–after all, I do think that people have free will! Let me put it in a way that corresponds with Harvey’s statement above: “While we agree that free will as the Arminian typically understands it does not exist, let us not hastily extrapolate that there is no such thing as free will of any kind.”
Would it work for me to announce, “Therefore, I believe in free will, and I will call myself an Arminian.” Is this helpful in the discussion? Wouldn’t a real Arminian object to the way that I have co-opted their language?
So it seems to me that everyone who thinks that there are no more Apostles like Peter and Paul thinks that at least one spiritual gift has ceased. It seems, then, that this discussion is simply over the degree of cessationism that we hold, because anyone who holds that there is no one in the church today with the same kind of authority possessed by Peter and Paul believes that the gift of Apostle has ceased. In conclusion, it appears to be the case that, at least as it regards the gift of Apostleship, all protestants are really cessationists. If they are not, they can, in principle, add to the New Testament.
One final tongue in cheek comment: if we had an apostle or a genuine prophet today, wouldn’t it be possible to settle some of the thorny issues that divide protestant Christians into denominations? For instance, wouldn’t an Apostle or a Prophet be able to tell those paedo-baptists to quit sprinkling their babies and join up with the Baptists!?
A Possible Defeater
If I wanted to maintain the continuationist position, I would argue that the term “Apostles” cannot be limited to this “closed circle of men” (the twelve minus Judas plus Matthias, Paul, Barnabas, James, and maybe Jude) described in the New Testament. One text (which my friend Denny Burk pointed out to me) that might open up the circle of The Apostles is 1 Corinthians 15:7, where after saying that Jesus appeared to the twelve in 15:5, Paul says that Jesus appeared to James and “all the apostles.” This text could be taken to mean that “The Apostles” refers to a broader group than those named above. Incidentally, those who think that Junia is both female and an Apostle (Rom 16:7) also think there are more apostles than those I have named.
Answering the Defeater
I think it likely that Paul mentions the twelve in 1 Corinthians 15:5 and then mentions “all the apostles” in 15:7 because The Apostles is a broader group than merely the twelve. One member of this broader group has been named in the previous phrase in 15:7, James. I am inclined to think that the reference to “all the apostles” in 1 Corinthians 15:7 is a reference to all those who make up this group of fifteen or sixteen men (the twelve including Matthias, James, Jude?, Barnabas, and according to 1 Corinthians 15:8, Paul). I think that Paul is saying that Jesus the Risen Lord appeared to them and commissioned them.
With D. A. Carson, I think that The Apostles are a closed circle and that when those men died the foundation of the church had been laid and the gift of Apostle ceased.