Friday, August 17, 2018

Is a foundation unrepeatable?

[God's household is] built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone (Eph 2:20). 

1. This may be the central prooftext for cessationism. Here's how a leading cessationist put it:

Ephesians 2:20, then, indicates that the apostles had a temporary, noncontinuing role in the life of the church. Their place was in the important foundation-laying phase of the church's history. Their function was to provide revelatory, infallibly authoritative, canonical witness to the consummation of salvation history in Christ's finished work. That function was fulfilled. It does not belong to the superstructure-building period to follow. It instead provides the completed foundation on which Christ continues to build the superstructure of the church...Ephesians 2:20 itself states one such implication—an important one. It affirms that the prophets, along with the apostles, have a foundational role...Ephesians 2:20 clearly implies that prophecy was a temporary gift, given for the foundation-laying period of the church. Therefore, along with the apostles, the New Testament prophets are no longer a present part of the church's life.

Here's one way to summarize the argument:

i) The canon is complete

ii) The canon is complete because there are no more prophets or apostles

iii) There are no more prophets and apostles because a foundation is laid once for all time. 

Here's another way:

i) Scripture is unrepeatable

ii) Scripture is unrepeatable because prophets and apostles are unrepeatable

iii) Prophets and apostles are unrepeatable because a foundation is unrepeatable

2. In my view, the argument is invalid. A fallacious argument is different from a false argument. A fallacious argument can have elements of truth, but the elements of the argument don't follow from each other by logical implication. For instance, I agree that the canon is complete. And I agree that there are no more apostles.

3. In fairness, I think there's a problem with how both sides (cessationists, charismatics) frame the issue. Revelation is separable from prophecy in the sense that, in principle, you don't have to be a prophet or have the gift of prophecy for God to reveal something to you. God could just speak to a Christian or send him a revelatory dream. It might be a once-in-a-lifetime experience. 

4. Although apostles and scripture intersect, they don't coincide. On the one hand, not all apostles wrote scripture. On the other hand, not all NT authors were apostles. So the argument comes apart at that point. 

5. There's some circularity to the argument because they're using foundation, apostles, prophets, and scripture as mutually defining. Scripture is unrepeatable because prophets and apostles are unrepeatable. Prophets and apostles are unrepeatable because they belong to the unrepeatable foundation. The foundational phase is defined by prophets and apostles. Prophets and apostles are foundational in principle. 

But to say scripture and/or prophets and apostles belong to the foundation doesn't imply that the foundation is inseparable from prophets and apostles. For instance, Chinese immigrants had a foundational role in the transcontinental railroad. But that doesn't mean you can't lay new railroad tracks unless you employ Chinese immigrants.

6. Is a foundation unrepeatable? There are cultures that used to be more Christian, but they've become increasingly secularized. The foundation which missionaries laid in that country has eroded. There are situations where you have to lay a new foundation for a new generation, because the old foundation is gone. So there are times where, in the very same place, it's necessary to re-lay the foundation–not because the original foundation was defective, but because cultural gains aren't static. What one generation believed or took for granted may be lost to a newer generation.

It may be objected that to lay the foundation again implies the continuation of apostleship and/or scripture. But that objection suffers from equivocation (4-5).

7. Foundations are geographically variable as well as chronologically variable. Just because a foundation was laid in once place doesn't entail that it can't be laid in another place. When missionaries move into virgin territory, they lay a Christian foundation for the first time in that area. The fact that a Christian foundation was laid in parts of the 1C Roman Empire doesn't mean it was laid in India, China, Japan, the Americans, &c. 

It may be objected that to lay a new foundation again implies the continuation of apostleship and/or scripture. But that objection suffers from equivocation (4-5).

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