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First, some context ...

Ephesians 2:19-22 (ESV):

19 So then you are no longer strangers and aliens, but you are fellow citizens with the saints and members of the household of God, 20 built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Christ Jesus himself being the cornerstone, 21 in whom the whole structure, being joined together, grows into a holy temple in the Lord. 22 In him you also are being built together into a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.

I've seen cessationists cite this passage to argue that the offices of apostle and prophet were foundational in nature, and since once a foundation is laid one doesn't lay another, they conclude those offices have therefore ceased.

For example, David L. Allen, in his book Hebrews: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture, on page 198, when discussing the implications of Hebrews 2:4 (related question), he says (emphasis mine):

The implication of this would be that the sign gifts lasted only so long as the eyewitnesses-meaning apostles and perhaps others who heard the Lord-lived. In the New Testament, the work of Christ and the apostles was "confirmed" by "signs and wonders" (see Acts 2:22:14:3; Rom 15:18-20; 2 Cor 12:12). Jesus is the "cornerstone" of the church, and the apostles and prophets are the "foundation' (Eph 2:20). Apostolic ministry and miraculous gifts are linked together, and the significance of the latter is tied to the foundational nature of the former with respect to the church.'"

Sam Storms (a continuationist), in his blog post EPHESIANS 2:20 - THE CESSATIONIST'S "GO-TO" TEXT (AN ON-GOING RESPONSE TO STRANGE FIRE), quoted a similar cessationist argument:

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.

Question

I'm interested in the origins of the cessationist view on the offices of apostle and prophet. When was it claimed for the first time in Church history that the offices of apostle and prophet have ceased? Was this ever claimed in any patristic writing? Did the early Church ever record the moment of the cessation of these offices, indicating who was the last apostle and who was the last prophet?


Related question on BH.SE: Can Ephesians 2:20 be used as a proof-text for the cessation of the offices of apostle and prophet?

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  • It was never 'claimed'. It was God who gave to his own Son the revelation that concluded the canon of scripture which revelation concluded the apostolic writings. Jesus himself chose twelve. And twelve is the number documented in the concluding revelation. Thereafter, there is such as Timothy or Titus, neither of whom were called 'apostles' by Paul. Some recognised these facts. But no 'claim' needed to be made.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 16 at 16:32
  • @NigelJ - Perhaps you should turn that into an answer :-). Also, what about prophets? Sep 16 at 17:00
  • I would suggest, myself, to focus one question on apostles : and focus another question on the matter of prophets. The Christian ministry (as did Jesus' ministry) incorporates elements of apostolic teaching and elements of prophetic vision. But the foundations of the walls of the city, New Jerusalem, are supported by apostolic doctrine and no other, which can only be defined by the apostles themselves.
    – Nigel J
    Sep 16 at 17:10
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If you are looking at canonical prophets, it is said that "all the prophets prophesied until John." (Matthew 11:13)

In a similar manner to another question that was asked along this line, I will give a Lutheran response to the question. In short, it is that the prophetic office has merged in, with & under the apostolic office of the pastoral ministry. In this view, seminaries function as a "school for the prophets."

The question above is based upon a response to how some Reformed cessationists hold to what is called a "cascade" theology of spiritual gifts and offices. Reformed cessationists argue that if the apostolic office is no longer around than the other gifts and offices should not be either.

The answer to the question depends on what is meant by "apostle" in our current setting. Lutherans would view the canonical apostles (i.e. those who were with Jesus) as a unique group that oversaw & authorized the final formation of the New Testament canon. The gift of primary inspiration (John 14:26), that they received, enabled the church to have a doctrinal foundation. Once the last canonical apostle died, the canon was complete. Lutherans would reject the concept of modern apostles claiming to speak authoritatively apart from the Word of God.

However, Lutherans would also allow for another apostolic category. They would view the gift of apostleship in a broad symbolic missional sense (apostolos from apo = from + stello = send forth).

 For example, in the Lutheran Confessions, the natural reading of "A Treatise on the Power and Primacy of the Pope" (Treatise 26) is that the word "apostle" is used in a broad sense in reference to missional leaders. These missional leaders can be either ordained clergy or lay leaders that are involved in, historically, what has been called the apostolate.

Philip Melanchthon, the author of Treatise 26, once preached a memorial sermon based upon the fourfold ministry described in Ephesians 4. The published edition that we have is the one he gave to the students at the University of Wittenburg on the death of Luther (1546). He describes the text in terms of current church ministry modalities:

The Son of God, as Paul says, sits on the right hand of the Eternal Father, and gives gifts unto men; these gifts are the voice of the Gospel and of the Holy Spirit, with which, as He imparts them, He inspires Prophets, Apostles, Pastors and Teachers, and selects them from this our assembly, that is to say, from those who are yet in the rudiments of divine knowledge, who read, who hear, and who love the prophetic and apostolic writings; nor does he often call to this warfare those who are in the exercise of established power, but it even pleases him to wage war on these very men through leaders chosen from other ranks.

In a similar way, Martin Luther in 1533 writes about the ministry:

For none of us is born as apostle, preacher, teacher, pastor through baptism, but we are all born simply as priests and clerics. Afterward, some are taken from the ranks of such born clerics and called or elected to these which they are to discharge on behalf of all of us. (Luther, The Private Mass and the Consecration of Priests, LW 38:189)

The above comment from Melanchthon is important. That's because many scholars believe that Lutheran Confessional church polity was intentionally set up, among other things, to facilitate an easy "docking" with the Bishop and Church of Rome at some point in the future. It is not insignificant that the Roman tradition still asserts:

The mission of the Church pertains to the salvation of men, which is to be achieved by belief in Christ and by His grace. The apostolate of the Church and of all its members is primarily designed to manifest Christ's message by words and deeds and to communicate His grace to the world. (Documents of Vatican II, Decree on the Apostolate of the Laity ch. 2, No. 6)

One popular Lutheran theologian of the 19th century explains the gift of apostleship this way:

The ordinary ministry (Predigtamt, preaching office) is the continuation, willed by God Himself, of the extraordinary apostolic office, and is in and with the apostolic office of divine institution. (A. Hoenecke, Evangelisch-Lutherische Dogmatik, IV:180); pp. 126,130,135)

In other words, the reference to “apostles” in 1 Corinthians 12:28 is connected to an "appointment” (εθετο) for a "mediated" ministry that parallels what is frequently mentioned as a church pastor or missional position (e.g. the Sendlinge in the European Lutheran missional tradition). This can also be seen in church history with Gregory Thaumaturgus, who was especially called an "Apostle." As Basil (329-379 A.D.) writes:

Shall we not place among Apostles and Prophets a man who walked by the same Spirit as they;... He too by Christ’s mighty name commanded even rivers to change their course, and caused a lake, which afforded a ground of quarrel to some covetous brethren, to dry up. Moreover his predictions of things to come were such as in no wise to fall short of those of the great prophets. To recount all his wonderful works in detail would be too long a task. By the superabundance of gifts, wrought in him by the Spirit in all power and in signs and in marvels, he was styled a second Moses by the very enemies of the Church.

Also, in modern missional categories there are such figures as St. Patrick, who is often described as an apostle to Ireland. Another example, might be C.S. Lewis - who is frequently described as an apostle to the skeptics.

The late Greek Orthodox theologian, Archimandrite Eusebius Stephanou, shared this ecumenical thought on the subject:

...we have forgotten the charismatic life of the Church with all the diversity of its gifts. Apart from being ordained to the priesthood, a person can be called to the work of an evangelist and teacher. We can be called to be apostles for missionary work either nearby or in distant places... - Archimandrite Eusebius Stephanou (Rediscovering the Lay Ministry in the Orthodox Church)

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    +1 About Lutherans's saying "Once the last canonical apostle died, the canon was complete", does it mean the canonical apostles (but most likely Apostle John who was alive the longest, to allow for post AD 66 date of composition) would have specifically approved Paul's letters, Deutero-Pauline letters, Book of Hebrews? How come this important "certification" wasn't recorded in any early church father writing, let alone in Eusebius's church history (unless I miss something)? Sep 16 at 21:40
  • Sure, if you want to look at it that way, John the son of Zebedee would have been the final living canonical apostle to authentic what is the New Testament. However, Paul due to his conversations with the risen Christ, was grafted in and included to be a core Apostle. But it appears his office was only given public recognition after being vetted in Jerusalem by Peter and the other core apostles. Galatians 2:2
    – Jess
    Sep 16 at 22:52
  • Technically speaking, Lutherans allow for an "open" canon. But in that there are no more canonical apostles left, the canon is functionally complete. To be sure, there have been some Lutherans that have taken out James, Revelation, etc. in their Bibles on the basis that those were not written by a core apostle. On the other hand, if the missing letter to the Corinthians is found in Herculaneum or variant readings of Scriptures (e.g. Matthew's oracles of Jesus in Hebrew - per Papias) are found in some ancient library, than the canon could be adjusted.
    – Jess
    Sep 16 at 23:00
  • Minor quibble. There is a difference between the words "then" and "than." Your paragraph number three and your second comment to the GratefulDisciple confuse the two words. In both instances, the correct word is "then." Good answer. Don Sep 17 at 10:44
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The first time it was mentioned apart from Scripture about the offices of OT prophets and NT apostles ceased was in the Muratorian Fragment circa 170AD.

it [Shepard of Hermas] cannot be read publicly to the people in church either among (79) the Prophets, whose number is complete, [8] or among (80) the Apostles, for it is after [their] time.

This is not to say, however, that the gifts of the Spirit ceased at the same time those offices ceased. Part of the confusion is understanding that the office of NT prophet post John's death (noted below) is different from the office of OT prophet.

For example as mentioned in Eusebius, in the early church after the death of John were prophets.

  1. Among those that were celebrated at that time was Quadratus,929 who, report says, was renowned along with the daughters of Philip for his prophetical gifts. -source-
  1. They [heretics] cannot show that one of the old or one of the new prophets was thus carried away in spirit. Neither can they boast of Agabus,1608 or Judas,1609 or Silas,1610 or the daughters of Philip,1611 or Ammia in Philadelphia, or Quadratus, or any others not belonging to them.” -source-

The office of OT prophet stretched from Abel to Malachi and then after the "quiet period" resurfaces with John the Baptist, herald of Messiah.

The law and the prophets were until John: since that time the kingdom of God is preached, and every man presseth into it. Luke 16:16

The office of NT apostle stretched from their initial calling by Jesus through the first apostle to die who was James Son of Zebedee to the last apostle to die who was John Son of Zebedee. Jesus had renamed them sons of Thunder as in the voice of God.

And James the son of Zebedee, and John the brother of James; and he surnamed them Boanerges, which is, The sons of thunder: Mark 3:17

Hast thou an arm like God? or canst thou thunder with a voice like him? Job 40:9

In both cases of OT prophet and NT apostle, the idea is clear enough that they spoke/wrote the communication of God. So, when John the Baptist died and John son of Zebedee died, those two "direct voice" offices ended.

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  • As you pointed out, the Muratorian fragment really denotes what went into the process of canonical selection. It does not really speak to continuationism or cessationism. The total number of Hebrew prophets is complete, as "all the prophets prophesied until John." And the core apostles, with the gift of total recall (John 14:26), who authorized Scripture have died.
    – Jess
    Sep 16 at 20:11

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