THE CROOK IN THE LOT by Philip Ryken

One of the first people that I hope to meet in heaven is the Scottish theologian Thomas Boston.[1]  I admire the man for the depth of his theology; Jonathan Edwards said that Boston’s work on the covenants distinguished him as a “truly great divine.”[2]I also admire for the breadth of his writing: twelve thick volumes on almost every doctrine of the Christian faith, taught from every book of the Bible. I admire Thomas Boston even more for his faithfulness as a pastor over twenty-five years in the same rural parish.  But I admire him most of all for his perseverance through suffering.

Thomas Boston was a melancholy man, prone to seasons of discouragement in the Christian life.  He was often in poor health, even though he never missed his turn in the pulpit.  His wife suffered from chronic illness of the body, and perhaps also the mind.  But perhaps the couple’s greatest trial was the death of their children: they lost six of their ten babies.

One loss was especially tragic.  Boston had already lost a son named Ebenezer, which in the Bible means “Hitherto hath the Lord helped us” (1 Sam. 7:12 KJV).  When his wife gave birth to another son, he considered naming the new child Ebenezer as well.  Yet the minister hesitated.  Naming the boy Ebenezer would be a testimony of hope in the faithfulness of God.  But what if this child died, too, and the family had to bury another Ebenezer?  That would be a loss too bitter to bear.  By faith Boston decided to name his son Ebenezer.  Yet the child was sickly, and despite the urgent prayers of his parents, he never recovered.  As the grieving father wrote in his Memoirs, “it pleased the Lord that he also was removed from me.”[3]

After suffering such a heavy loss, many people would be tempted to drop out of ministry, to argue with God, or to even abandon their faith. Thomas Boston did none of these; he continued believing in the goodness andthe sovereignty of God.  Rather than turning away from the Lord in times of trial, he turned towards the Lord for help and comfort.

Boston’s perseverance through suffering is worthy not only of our admiration, but also of our imitation.  One way to learn from his example is to read his classic sermon on the sovereignty of God, which is one of the last things he prepared for publication before he died. Boston called his sermon The Crook in the Lot.[4]It was based on the command and the question that we read in Ecclesiastes 7:13:

“Consider the work of God: who can make straight what he has made crooked?”

The command in this verse is a call to a careful observation of the way that God works.  The man who wrote Ecclesiastes—the Preacher who called himself Qoheleth and who may well have been King Solomon himself—took careful notice of the world around him. He studied the seasons of life, learning when it was time for this and time for that.  He watched the way people worked and played.  He saw how they lived and how they died.  Here in chapter seven he invites readers to consider God’s work in the world, and then he asks a rhetorical question.

So, how would we answer him? Who does have the power to straighten out what God has made crooked?  The answer, of course, is no one. Things are the way that God wants them to be; we do not have the ability to overrule the Almighty.

When the Preacher talks about something “crooked,” he is not referring to something that is morally out of line, as if God could ever be the author of evil.  Instead, he is talking about some trouble or difficulty in life we wish that we could change but cannot.  It happens to all of us.  We struggle with the physical limitations of our bodies.  We suffer the breakdown of personal or family relationships.  We have something that we wish we did not have, or do not have something that we wish we did.  Sooner or later, there is something in life that we wish to God had a different shape to it.  What is the one thing that you would change in your life, if you had the power to change it?

God has given each of us a different situation in life.  Thomas Boston explained it like this: “There is a certain train or course of events, by the providence of God, falling to every one of us during our life in this world: and that is our lot, as being allotted to us by the sovereign God.”  We all have our own lot in life, and we all have things in our lots which we wish that we could change:

In that train or course of events, some fall out cross to us, and against the grain; and these make the crook in our lot. While we are here, there will be cross events, as well as agreeable ones, in our lot and condition. Sometimes things are softly and agreeably gliding on; but, by and by, there is some incident which alters that course, grates us, and pains us… . Every body’s lot in this world has some crook in it… . There is no perfection here, no lot out of heaven without a crook.[5]

“What God sees meet to mar,” as Boston said, “we will not be able to mend… .”[6]But neither Boston nor the Preacher were fatalists! Instead, they sought to frame their situations in terms of the sovereignty of God. According to Boston, this view “is a proper means, at once to silence and satisfy men, and so to bring them unto a dutiful submission to their Maker and Governor, under the crook in their lot.”[7]

We are under the power of the sovereign and omnipotent Ruler of the universe.  We do not have the power to edit His plan for our lives. But far from driving us to despair, the sovereignty of God gives us hope through all the trials of life.  We do suffer the frustration of life in a fallen world.  But the Bible says that we suffer these things by the will of a God who is planning to set us free from all this futility, and who is working all things together for our good (Rom. 8:20, 28).


[1] Boston was actually the subject of my doctoral research in church history. See: Philip Graham Ryken, Thomas Boston as Preacher of the Fourfold State, Rutherford Studies in Historical Theology (Carlisle, UK: Paternoster, 1999).

[2] Jonathan Edwards, The Works of Jonathan Edwards, ed. John E. Smith (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1957), 2:489.

[3] Thomas Boston, The Complete Works of the Late Rev. Thomas Boston of Ettrick, ed. by Samuel M’Millan, 12 vols (London, 1853; repr. Wheaton, IL: Richard Owen Roberts, 1980), 12:205.

[4] Thomas Boston, “The Crook in the Lot,” in Complete Works, 3:495-590.

[5] Ibid., 3:499.

[6] Ibid., 3:498.

[7] Ibid., 3:498.

Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God’s Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture. 

This article was originally published on reformation21 in June 2009. 




The other day I was speaking with a friend who lives on the other side of the country. We were talking about his experience witnessing to co-workers. He was excited—still coming off the high of participating in the privilege of proclaiming the gospel of Jesus Christ and wondering aloud why we Christians don’t do this all the time. Suddenly his jubilation ceased, and his voice took on a serious tone. He asked me, “What ever happened to evangelism?” Without him needing to explain, I knew exactly what he meant. Churches do not emphasize evangelism like they once did.

Together we reminisced about how in our youth our churches frequently called us to “share our faith,” witness to our neighbors, and be about the work of the Great Commission. But today that kind of talk has fallen out of favor in many churches. The single-pointed, Great Commission focus of evangelicalism, in most quarters of the movement, seems to have surreptitiously forked into a grab-bag of various causes.

Certainly, much attention is given to being “gospel-centered,” but the hard work of doing and encouraging lifestyles of explicit verbal gospel proclamation has taken a back seat. But if “evangelical” means anything, it means the gospel always rides shotgun. The church has undergone a change in its relationship to evangelism, and I think something has been lost there. But in many ways these changes have been for the better.


We should be thankful for the demise of manipulative alter calls and the bare-bones, barely-there, gospel presentation methods which marked the second half of the 20th century. You simply do not see those methods being employed by churches in the same way they used to be—which is good. Slick evangelistic techniques are the illegitimate children of American revivalism; chimeras formed from melding the less-offensive ingredients of the gospel with pop-psychology and pragmatism. But in rightly burying sales-pitch evangelism, did we also inadvertently entomb evangelism itself alongside?

Evangelism doesn’t need to be entirely ignored to be sidelinedThe results of a survey by the Barna Group may give some credence that a trend away from an emphasis on evangelism in churches is indeed widespread. Though the deeper results of the study titled, “51% of Churchgoers Don’t Know of the Great Commission” are less alarming than the title first suggests. Evangelicals, as is to be expected, fared much better than other Christian groups. And the study was not really capable of telling whether the results were indicative of a decline in an emphasis on evangelism or simply of the use of the term “The Great Commission.” Researchers acknowledge this openly, “The data indicates that churches are using the phrase less, which may reveal a lack of prioritizing or focusing on the work of the Great Commission, but may also indicate that the phrase, rather than the scriptures or the labor, has simply fallen out of favor with some.” Nevertheless, something, even if it’s just in our language, has shifted in how Christians talk about evangelism.

Evangelism doesn’t need to be entirely ignored to be sidelined. It can be displaced more subtly. If churches champion less controversial causes as equal with gospel proclamation, honest biblical evangelism will always be the loser. If it’s just as important for Christians to feed the hungry as it is for them to spread the good news, I’m going to pick the one that gets me a pat on the back by society, not the one that gets me spat on.


We are in the midst of a mission drift, a digression toward greater emphasis on temporal social issues, inadvertendly at the cost of eternal concerns. Regardless of the importance you and your church ascribe to social causes, it is a foul spell you are under if you think any cause is more important than the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ. If you believe that the church possesses a gospel which is the only hope for the eternal salvation of souls, you must agree that it is the most important cause we could engage in. Eternal salvation versus temporal relief is objectively a lopsided equation. That is why the Great Commission is the primary mission of the church. And I think that many churches which have decreased their emphasis on evangelism actually still believe this is true.It is a foul spell you are under if you think any cause is more important than the proclamation of the gospel of Jesus Christ

But why would churches who explicitly affirm that gospel proclamation should not be pushed aside by other causes nevertheless allow such a mission-drift to occur in their churches? Why would they not place a greater emphasis on encouraging their members to be evangelists?

The primary blame, of course, must go to pastors and elders in their local congregations. Regardless of where the winds of the evangelical sub-culture blow, the elders of local congregations are the ones who will ultimately be held responsible for the under-shepherding care of their flocks, that includes teaching believers that they too are stewards of the gospel message. But this task for church leaders is made doubly difficult when they are being pushed about and diverted by the whims of the Christian zeitgeist.

The shimmer of each new social cause provides a new opportunity for mission-drift in the Church. Clean water, environmentalism, human-trafficking, immigration—Each month seems to trot out a new cause which we are quick to label “a gospel issue.” Don’t get me wrong, these issues do require Christian responses. Our people do need to be equipped to deal with them and function as believers in the face of complex problems. But hear this, no matter how many social issues we solve, none of them will save a man from dying in his trespasses. We must not become distracted. Important must never crowd out most important. The gospel must always be cause number one. And we must actively fight to keep it in that primary position.

Too often Christians and local pastors take their cues from those who are lauded as leaders of evangelicalism, even when they lead us away from Great Commission emphasis. We Protestants claim to have no Pope, yet we happily fall in line with famous evangelicals uttering bulls from their book deal bishoprics. But Christians have no master but Christ, and He has commissioned us with a crystal-clear objective: Make disciples. We must let no Johnny-come-lately generals with their new directives turn us aside from His mission. We have a message to deliver to a dying world and, come hell, high water, or even noble causes, we will not be turned aside from the primary objective.

But why would we listen to and be enchanted by these calls to lesser missions? What could possibly possess us, who believe gospel proclamation is our primary mission, to turn aside from it? How could we be so short-sighted? I’m sure we could point to many causes, but let’s be honest with ourselves and aim straight for the root. Evangelism is embarrassing and inconvenient and we would almost rather do anything than bear witness to the gospel to a friend or stranger. Social action done by Christians can show Christian love, but only the gospel can reconcile men to GodTelling someone that they are a sinner destined for hell unless they, in faith, make a complete surrender to Jesus Christ is the ultimate act of counter-culturalism. Of course, we would look for excuses not to do it.

This gospel shame manifests in a variety of ways among those who would verbally assent to its importance. We blunt the offensive parts of the message with strategic imprecision, “separated from God” instead of “hell,” “say yes to Jesus” instead of “repent and believe.” We tell ourselves that the important thing is that our lives demonstrate Christ. We are showing His love in how we act. People will see the difference and ask. Or we can look at all the good things we are doing in our churches—food pantries, medical missions, inter-city sports clubs—and say to ourselves “must we really evangelize, too? We can’t be expected to do it all!” Or we take these good causes and subsume them under the gospel in such a way that we tell ourselves that by doing these good things we are in some vague sense still the gospel. That’s the power of that amorphous term “gospel issue.”

There are a million ways to dodge our responsibility to proclaim the gospel, and our sinful hearts are clever in their self-deception. But it all comes back to the same place—we are ashamed. Which is precisely why churches and Christians must be about the business of constantly reminding one another of the centrality of the good news of the gospel, and the great privilege and mandate we have to take it to the world. Social action done by Christians can show Christian love, but only the gospel can reconcile men to God. We must take care not to confound the two.


Has your church stopped talking about being a witness for Christ? Is there encouragement from the pulpit and in your Bible studies to be about the work of proclaiming the good news of Jesus Christ—with words? If not, why? Where has the emphasis shifted? Ask yourself, seriously, are you ashamed of the gospel? Are you eager to serve Christ, just not in thatway?

We must be more than well-diggers and well-wishersI would entreat you to simply do the math. If staving off starvation is the end all be all of your church’s missions program, what have you accomplished in an ultimate sense? There is everything right about sacrificing to meet a physical need for a person, to right a societal injustice, or to point believers back to Christian compassion, but continually failing to take the opportunity to tell the world about the only way of salvation is not just insane, it’s callous.

We have the gospel! We don’t have the option of saying “The gospel isn’t really my pet issue.” Every other issue will be easier. You dig wells, the world will pat you on the back, you feed the hungry, the world will say “good job.” But if you proclaim Jesus Christ as the only way of salvation from sin and hell, you will face opposition. Naturally, we want to take on easier challenges. But we don’t have that option. The Buddhist, Muslim, and Atheist are all capable of helping the physical needs of the world, and they do. But the unique possession of Christianity is the gospel of Jesus Christ. So, let us never share the gospel’s seat of importance with any other cause, no matter how noble. And may the next generation never ask of us, “What ever happened to evangelism?”

Reagan Rose avatar

Reagan Rose serves as the Director of Operations at The Master’s Seminary. He is also the author of Redeeming Productivity, a blog about how Christians should approach getting things done. Reagan earned his Master of Divinity from TMS in 2017.

ENJOYING GOD IS A COMMAND by Sinclair Ferguson

While shaking hands at the church door, ministers are sometimes greeted with a spontaneous, “I really enjoyed that!”—which is immediately followed by, “Oh! I shouldn’t really say that, should I?” I usually grip tighter, hold the handshake a little longer, and say with a smile, “Doesn’t the catechism’s first question encourage us to do that? If we are to enjoy Him forever, why not begin now?”

Of course, we cannot enjoy God apart from glorifying Him. And the Westminster Shorter Catechism wisely goes on to ask, “What rule hath God given to direct us how we may glorify and enjoy him?” But notice that Scripture contains the “rule” for enjoying God as well as glorifying Him. We know it abounds in instructions for glorifying Him, but how does it instruct us to “enjoy him”?

Enjoying God is a command, not an optional extra: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4). But how? We cannot “rejoice to order,” can we?

True. Yet, Scripture shows that well-instructed believers develop a determination to rejoice. They will rejoice in the Lord. Habakkuk exemplified this in difficult days (see Hab. 3:17–18). He exercised what our forefathers called “acting faith”—a vigorous determination to experience whatever the Lord commands, including joy, and to use the God-given means to do so. Here are four of these means—in which, it should be noted, we also glorify God.

Joy in Salvation

Enjoying God means relishing the salvation He gives us in Jesus Christ. “I will take joy in the God of my salvation” (Hab. 3:18). God takes joy in our salvation (Luke 15:6–7, 9–10, 32). So should we. Here, Ephesians 1:3–14 provides a masterly delineation of this salvation in Christ. It is a gospel bath in which we should often luxuriate, rungs on a ladder we should frequently climb, in order to experience the joy of the Lord as our strength (Neh. 8:10). While we are commanded to have joy, the resources to do so are outside of ourselves, known only through union with Christ.

Joy in Revelation

Joy issues from devouring inscripturated revelation. Psalm 119 bears repeated witness to this. The psalmist “delights” in God’s testimonies “as much as in all riches” (Ps. 119:14; see also vv. 35, 47, 70, 77, 103, 162, 174). Think of Jesus’ words, “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (John 15:11). Does He mean He will find His joy in us, so that our joy may be full, or that His joy will be in us so that our joy may be full? Both, surely, are true. We find full joy in the Lord only when we know He finds His joy in us. The pathway to joy, then, is to give ourselves maximum exposure to His Word and to let it dwell in us richly (Col. 3:16). It is joy-food for the joy-hungry soul.

Joy in Communion

There is joy in the Lord to be tasted in the worship we enjoy in church communion. The church is the new Jerusalem, the city that cannot be hidden, the joy of the whole earth (Ps. 48:2). In the Spirit-led communion of praise and petition; soul pastoring; Word preaching; psalm, hymn, and spiritual song singing; and water, bread, and wine receiving, abundant joy is to be found. The Lord sings over us with joy (Zeph. 3:17). Our hearts sing for joy in return.

Joy in Tribulation

Here, indeed, is a divine paradox. There is joy to be known in the midst of and through affliction. Viewed biblically, tribulation is the Father’s chastising hand using life’s pain and darkness to mold us into the image of the One who endured for the sake of the joy set before Him (Heb. 12: 1–2, 5–11; see Rom. 8:29). We exult and rejoice in our sufferings, Paul says, because “suffering produces . . . hope” in us (Rom. 5:3–4). Peter and James echo the same principle (1 Peter 1:3–8; James 1:2–4). The knowledge of the sure hand of God in providence not only brings stability; it is also a joy-producer.

All of this adds up to exultation in God Himself. In Romans 5:1–11, Paul leads us from rejoicing in the hope of the glory of God (v. 2) to joy that comes in tribulation (v. 3) to exulting in God Himself (v. 11; see Ps. 43:4). The unbeliever finds this incredible, because he has been blinded by the joy-depriving lie of Satan that to glorify God is the high road to joylessness. Thankfully, Christ reveals that the reverse takes place in Him—because of our salvation, through His revelation, in worship’s blessed communion, and by means of tribulation.

Enjoy! Yes, indeed, may “everlasting joy . . . be upon [your] heads” (Isa. 51:11).


This post was originally published in Tabletalk magazine.


Shortly before college I read Mortimer Adler’s little classic How to Read a Book. That may sound like an odd title. After all, how could somebody read the book unless they already knew how to read? And if they did know how to read, then why would they need to read it at all?

How to Read a Book turned out to be one of the most important books I have ever read. Adler quickly convinced me that I didn’t know how to read a book after all–not really. I didn’t know how to ask the right questions while I was reading, how to analyze the book’s major arguments, or how to mark up my copy for later use.

I suspect that most people don’t how to listen to a sermon, either. I say this not as a preacher, primarily, but as a listener. During the past thirty-five years I have heard more than three thousand sermons. Since I have worshiped in Bible-teaching churches all my life, most of those sermons did me some spiritual good. Yet I wonder how many of them helped me as much as they should have. Frankly, I fear that far too many sermons passed through my eardrums without registering in my brain or reaching my heart.

So what is the right way to listen to a sermon? With a soul that is prepared, a mind that is alert, a Bible that is open, a heart that is receptive, and a life that is ready to spring into action.

The first thing is for the soul to be prepared. Most churchgoers assume that the sermon starts when the pastor opens his mouth on Sunday. However, listening to a sermon actually starts the week before. It starts when we pray for the minister, asking God to bless the time he spends studying the Bible as he prepares to preach. In addition to helping the preacher, our prayers help create in us a sense of expectancy for the ministry of God’s Word. This is one of the reasons that when it comes to preaching, congregations generally get what they pray for.

The soul needs special preparation the night before worship. By Saturday evening our thoughts should begin turning towards the Lord’s Day. If possible, we should read through the Bible passage that is scheduled for preaching. We should also be sure to get enough sleep. Then in the morning our first prayers should be directed to public worship, and especially to the preaching of God’s Word.

If the body is well rested and the soul is well prepared, then the mind will be alert. Good preaching appeals first to the mind. After all, it is by the renewing of our minds that God does his transforming work in our lives (see Rom. 12:2). So when we listen to a sermon, our minds need to be fully engaged. Being attentive requires self-discipline. Our minds tend to wander when we worship; sometimes we daydream. But listening to sermons is part of the worship that we offer to God. It is also a prime opportunity for us to hear his voice. We should not insult his majesty by looking at the people around us, thinking about the coming week, or entertaining any of the thousands of other thoughts that crowd our minds. God is speaking, and we should listen.

To that end, many Christians find it helpful to listen to sermons with a pencil in hand. Although note taking is not required, it is an excellent way to stay focused during a sermon. It is also a valuable aid to memory. The physical act of writing something down helps to fix it in our minds. Then there is the added advantage of having the notes for future reference. We get extra benefit from a sermon when we read over, pray through, and talk about our sermon notes with someone else afterwards.

The most convenient place to take notes is in or on our Bibles, which should always be open during a sermon. Churchgoers sometimes pretend that they know the Bible so well that they do not need to look at the passage being preached. But this is folly. Even if we have the passage memorized, there are always new things we can learn by seeing the biblical text on the page. It only stands to reason that we profit most from sermons when our Bibles are open, not closed. This is why it is so encouraging for an expository preacher to hear the rustling of pages as his congregation turns to a passage in unison.

There is another reason to keep our Bibles open: we need to make sure that what the minister says is in keeping with Scripture. The Bible says, concerning the Bereans whom Paul met on his second missionary journey, “that they received the word with all readiness, and searched the Scriptures daily to find out whether these things were so” (Acts 17:11; NKJV). One might have expected the Bereans to be criticized for daring to scrutinize the teaching of the apostle Paul. On the contrary, they were commended for their commitment to testing every doctrine according to Scripture.

Listening to a sermon–really listening–takes more than our minds. It also requires hearts that are receptive to the influence of God’s Spirit. Something important happens when we hear a good sermon: God speaks to us. Through the inward ministry of his Holy Spirit, he uses his Word to calm our fear, comfort our sorrow, disturb our conscience, expose our sin, proclaim God’s grace, and reassure us in the faith. But these are all affairs of the heart, not just matters of the mind, so listening to a sermon can never be merely an intellectual exercise. We need to receive biblical truth in our hearts, allowing what God says to influence what we love, what we desire, and what we praise.

The last thing to say about listening to sermons is that we should be itching to put what we learn into practice. Good preaching always applies the Bible to daily life. It tells us what promises to believe, what sins to avoid, what divine attributes to praise, what virtues to cultivate, what goals to pursue, and what good works to perform. There is always something God wants us to do in response to the preaching of his Word. We are called to be “doers of the word, and not hearers only” (James 1:22; NKJV). And if we are not doers, then we were not hearers, and the sermon was wasted on us.

Do you know how to listen to a sermon? Listening–really listening–takes a prepared soul, an alert mind, an open Bible, and a receptive heart. But the best way to tell if we are listening is by the way that we live. Our lives should repeat the sermons that we have heard. As the apostle Paul wrote to some of the people who listened to his sermons, “You are our epistle written in our hearts, known and read by all men; clearly you are an epistle of Christ, ministered by us, written not with ink but by the Spirit of the living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of flesh, that is, of the heart” (2 Cor. 3:2-3; NKJV).


*This post was first published at Reformation21 in June of 2006 under the title, “How to Listen to a Sermon.”


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).”8Nevertheless, 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…deconstruction 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


  • M. G. Maudlin, “Seers in the Heartland: Hot on the Trail of the Kansas City Prophets,” Christianity Today, 14 January 1991, 18-22
  • Ibid., 20.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Gaffin, Perspectives, 96.
  • 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.
  • Gaffin, Perspectives, 96.
  • Ibid., 93.
  • Ibid., 94.
  • For the full account of Gaffin’s argumentation, see ibid., 94-95.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Grudem, Prophecy, 57-63.
  • Ibid., 54. See also Gaffin, “The New Testament as Canon,” 174.
  • Grudem, Prophecy, passim.
  • For the full account of Grudem’s argumentation, see ibid., 49-62.
  • Ibid., 62.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Wallace, “Semantic Range,” 83 (emphasis Wallace’s). Recall also Wallace’s additional work on usage in the papyri.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Cf. Gentry, The Charismatic Gift, 32.
  • 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).
  • 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).
  • Cf. Gentry, The Charismatic Gift, 33-35. See n. 6 above.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Cf. Lincoln, Ephesians, 170-72.
  • Gaffin, Perspectives, passim.
  • 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.
  • Grudem, Prophecy, 78.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • 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.
  • 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).
  • Cf. the conclusion reached independently by Farnell, “Critique,” 168.
  • Wallace, “Semantic Range,” 83. See n. 22 above.
  • 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.
  • Gaffin, Perspectives, 94.
  • 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.
  • Cf. Gaffin, Perspectives, 94.
  • Grudem, Prophecy, 61 (emphasis mine).
  • On the criterion for identifying people as prophets, see Gaffin, Perspectives, 59, 93-95, and Grudem, Prophecy, 197-98.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • 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.
  • Ibid., 95.
  • Grudem, Prophecy, 46.
  • Gaffin, Perspectives, 95-96.

R. Fowler White is Professor Emeritus at Knox Seminary in Ft. Lauderdale, Fl. This article first appeared in THE WESTMINSTER SEMINARY JOURNAL

in 1992.


DATEJuly 18, 2018
‘I will build my church,’ Jesus declared (Matthew 16:18). And what a magnificent and agonizing process has unfolded for two millennia. Essential to this work is the formation of living stones — men and women drawn from the quarry of sin, whose lives now testify to gospel grace.

But how does Christ construct his church? One answer is suggested inside the dome of St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome, in letters six feet tall, where Christ’s promise is written in Latin: ‘Thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church . . .’ Illumined by encircling windows, these words sit as a crown atop the crypt of the apostle himself, who is hidden far beneath the high altar, a reminder of the authority given to Peter’s heir who sits upon the papal throne.

Martin Luther was not the first to question papal authority, but his argument was especially incisive. When Luther’s ideas began to congeal in 1520, he articulated his concerns in a seminal work: To the Christian Nobility. This treatise was occasioned by attacks from the pope’s theologian, Sylvester Prierias, who asserted papal absolutism with such bravado that Luther called it a ‘hellish manifesto.’ Convinced of Scripture’s supreme authority, and believing German nobility to be sympathetic to his position, Luther, in light of historical precedent, urged nobles to embrace the responsibility of church reform.

Luther’s treatise laid an axe at the Roman institution — the social, political, legal, and religious conventions that undergirded Western Christendom. Of central concern was the papal claim (championed by Prierias) that only the pope can reliably interpret Scripture and speak without error. Luther viewed such traditions as religious accretions that threatened the church’s integrity if not eradicated.

Looking back, we sometimes wonder how the accumulation of Roman tradition developed from the Galilean’s fishing boat to Luther’s day; that is, from the day of Pentecost to the sixteenth century. While the story is protracted and complex, the following overview will attempt to offer some perspective, giving particular attention to the development of ecclesial authority in the papal office.


Our story begins with a reminder from Lord Acton who suggested the best way to ensure the cogency of one’s position is to make the best possible argument for those we believe are wrong. While the following narrative is not an argument per se, it is intended to demonstrate that the misguided trajectory of papal authority developed rather naturally in the scope and sequence of Western history, a development that cautions followers of Christ in every age.

Catholic historians typically acknowledge that there is no straight line from the current pope to the apostle Peter. In the words of Eamon Duffy, ‘There is, therefore, nothing directly approaching a papal theory in the pages of the New Testament,’ and from all indications, ‘there was no single bishop of Rome for almost a century after the deaths of the apostles.’

It was around 150 AD when the loose pattern of presbyterial authority began to give way to a single Roman bishop, an office that eventually developed into a monarchical position under Bishop Victor (189–198) and to a greater extent under Bishop Stephen I (254–257) who claimed some of the powers and honors attributed to the apostle Peter. Stephen’s invocation of Matthew 16 was the first instance of a bishop of Rome attempting to elevate himself over other bishops with an authority that was qualitatively superior.

The conversion of Constantine, and his subsequent investment in church institutions, placed Roman bishops at the center of imperial life. They soon became affluent and politically engaged potentates, acquiring the urbane trappings of aristocracy. The bishop’s political influence increased when Constantine transferred the capital of the empire to Constantinople in 330, a move that left Rome’s bishop as the single most important individual in the city. But which of these bishops should be considered the first pope?

Most historians look to Leo I, who occupied the episcopal throne in Rome from 440 to 461. A spiritual leader and capable administrator, Leo famously persuaded Attila the Hun to leave the city of Rome alone, one of many acts to earn him the title ‘Great.’ He was fond of being called ‘Papa’ (father), from which the word pope is derived, a title that was typically used of bishops, but came to be confined to the bishop of Rome by the sixth century. Leo, who understood himself to be a channel of Peter’s apostolic authority, insisted that appeals to church courts be brought to him. As ‘pontifex maximus’ (the chief priest of a city), his decisions were to be heard as final.


With the collapse of Roman government in the West, and the influx of Germanic tribes during the fifth century, it was natural for the pope to serve as the principal ruler of Rome. He was increasingly called upon to promote justice, defense, and provisions during famine — functions that one might call ‘secular.’ Meanwhile, Christian rulers continued to grant estates and build large churches. The accumulation of these assets by the church was a natural function of the power vacuum left by the Roman Empire, but it required church leaders to manage large amounts of land and wealth, and practice the unsavory power brokering that went with them.

It was at this time when the theological self-understanding of the papacy took another significant step. Gelasius I (492–496) moved beyond Leo’s claim to jurisdiction above other bishops by asserting that the pope’s power was superior to kings. This distinction between papal power and temporal authority would prove significant in coming centuries when pope and emperor faced off over the question of who rightfully led Christendom. According to Gelasius, since popes would have to give an account to God for kings, their sacred power surpassed the imperial authority of any emperor or temporal ruler.

A host of significant persons and events belong to the years that follow: the legacy of Gregory I (540–604), especially his missiological theory; Pepin the Short’s donation of territory surrounding Rome in what would become the Papal States (756); the so-called Donation of Constantine; the iconic coronation of Charlemagne by Leo III on Christmas Day (800); the intervention of Henry III when there were three different claimants to the papal throne (1046); the reforms of Pope Leo IX (1049–1054), which prohibited priests from marriage, and his mobilization of the College of Cardinals; opposition to ‘lay investiture’ — the practice of secular rulers choosing bishops and investing them with the symbols of their authority; the Crusades (starting in 1095); and Gratian’s compilation of canon law (c. 1140). Varied as this brief sampling is, each event in some way contributed to the medieval papacy’s consolidated power and its complex relationship to emerging nation states.

The pontificate of Innocent III (1198–1216) is rightly seen as the height of papal power and prerogative. It was Innocent who saw himself as operating above man and below God, and specifically ‘believed that God had given the successor of Peter the task of “ruling the whole world” as well as the church.’ Identifying himself as the ‘Vicar of Christ,’ he claimed to have supreme power on earth and considered the authority of nation-states as deriving from his own. In 1215, he called the Fourth Lateran Council, which established the dogma of transubstantiation, among other doctrinal and pastoral reforms.

While papal power reached its zenith under Innocent III, it would soon begin to wane. A growing tension between the papacy and nation-states eventually led to a conflict between Boniface VIII (1294–1303) and the ruler of France, Philip the Fair. In a contest of powers that brings to mind Brussels’ Manneken Pis, Philip eventually emerged victorious. Having been bested, Boniface then issued the papal bull known as Unam Sanctam, where he claimed that ‘it is altogether necessary to salvation for every human creature to be subject to the Roman Pontiff.’ Boniface, however, could not support his claims with military force. Philip, therefore, made him a prisoner, a harbinger of what would come of the papacy in just a few short years.


When the newly elected pope, Clement V, was prevented from returning to Rome by the King of France in 1305, he eventually moved his papal court to Avignon. This began the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy, a period from 1309 to 1376, when seven successive popes lived in exile from Rome, just a stone’s throw from the French border. When Pope Gregory XI finally returned to Rome in 1377 and died there, the mostly French college of cardinals gathered in conclave amid angry crowds who demanded an Italian pope. The masses got their way in Urban VI, but the cardinals quickly felt buyer’s remorse and elected a French pope instead (claiming to have made their initial decision under duress). There were now two claimants to the papal throne.

The Great Western Schism lasted forty years. Nations assembled in support of one pope or the other, more or less on the basis of their relations with France. The Council of Pisa was called in 1408 and tried to settle the matter by calling a new pope, which they did in John XIII. This, however, only compounded the problem, for now there were three papal claimants. It took the Council of Constance in 1414 to clear the logjam by deposing all three popes before electing a new one in 1417, Martin V. As a way of subduing papal power, Constance also decreed to maintain a general council as the supreme ruling body of the church. But subsequent popes overturned this resolution and returned the papal office to its position of supremacy.

Our story ends just before the dawn of the Reformation, at the Fifth Lateran Council (1512–1517), where Pope Julius II dressed like a Roman emperor, donning a sword and yellow cape, abrogated the superiority of councils in favor of papal power. But ironically, it was in this very context where Giles of Viterbo asserted, ‘Men must be changed by religion, not religion by men.’


Having started with Lord Acton, let’s conclude with his most famous words, ‘Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.’ What’s often forgotten, however, is that Acton actually was speaking about papal absolutism, a concern that has motivated Christian reformers throughout the centuries.

But this danger is not unique to those who wear the papal ring or are inclined to kiss it. Deep down, the trajectory of every sinful heart is to be like Pope Julius II, flaunting our splendid yellow capes and looking for a throne on which to sit. But there is only one Lord who sits upon the throne, the Lamb to whom we give praise and honor and glory forever and ever.

Chris Castaldo (PhD, London School of Theology) serves as lead pastor of New Covenant Church in Naperville, Illinois. He is the author of Talking with Catholics about the Gospel and co-author of the recently released The Unfinished Reformation: What Unites and Divides Catholics and Protestants After 500 Years. Chris blogs at This article first appeared on Desiring God.

CHRIST THE BEST HUSBAND by George Whitefield

A couple of years ago, I took up the brilliant biography of George Whitefield by Thomas Kidd and was reminded afresh of the spiritual anointing that granted Whitefield unprecedented response to his simple gospel preaching.

When Whitefield preached, the crowds went crazy. Some came to heckle him. Some came to assault him. He had several attempts on his life. But many were ecstatically moved. He would preach, and people would cry out, fall down as though slain in the Spirit, scream, tear their clothes, fall sway to some kind of charismatic joy and conviction.

And though he was a dynamic preacher, it wasn’t just his preaching that caused such effect. Others would take Whitefield’s printed sermons and preach them in their own pulpits, and the resulting gospel havoc would be almost the same.

So as I was reading about all of this incredible response in Kidd’s biography, I thought to myself, I’m going to get some of these sermons. I wanted to see what might happen to me!
I ordered a two-volume collection of Whitefield sermons and began to dig into them straight away. I read one sermon, then two. I read a few more. Kept reading.

And . . . well, nothing happened. No screaming, no fainting. I didn’t rip my shirt off or anything. They are good sermons. Like the preaching of Spurgeon, Whitefield’s exposition is characteristically narrative, imagistic. He doesn’t do heady theology. He is faithfully showing Jesus in short texts and preaching to the “common man.”

I mean, they’re good. But nothing profoundly impressive happened to me. Until—

I came across one particular sermon called “Christ the Best Husband.” Now, I knew a little bit about this message from Kidd’s biography, because he spends a little bit of time recounting the circumstance and consequence of it. See, “Christ the Best Husband” was written for and directed to primarily young women—specifically, to young single women perhaps aspiring to marriage.

I was in a public place reading this selection, and as I sat there reading the sermon for the ladies, I began to weep in front of God and everybody. This is the part that did me in:

Consider who the Lord Jesus is, whom you are invited to espouse yourselves unto. He is the best husband. There is none comparable to Jesus Christ. Do you desire one that is great? He is of the highest dignity, he is the glory of heaven, the darling of eternity, admired by angels, dreaded by devils and adored by saints. For you to be espoused to so great a king, what honour will you have by this espousal?

Do you desire one that is rich? None is comparable to Christ, the fullness of the earth belongs to him. If you be espoused to Christ, you shall share in his unsearchable riches. You shall receive of his fullness, even grace for grace here and you shall hereafter be admitted to glory and shall live with this Jesus to all eternity.

Do you desire one that is wise? There is none comparable to Christ for wisdom. His knowledge is infinite and his wisdom is correspondent thereto. And if you are espoused to Christ, he will guide and counsel you and make you wise unto salvation.

Do you desire one that is strong, who may defend you against your enemies and all the insults and reproaches of the Pharisees of this generation? There is none that can equal Christ in power, for the Lord Jesus Christ hath all power.

Do you desire one that is good? There is none like unto Christ in this regard; others may have some goodness but it is imperfect. Christ’s goodness is complete and perfect, he is full of goodness and in him dwelleth no evil.

Do you desire one that is beautiful? His eyes are most sparkling, his looks and glances of love are ravishing, his smiles are most delightful and refreshing unto the soul. Christ is the most lovely person of all others in the world.

Do you desire one that can love you? None can love you like Christ: His love, my dear sisters, is incomprehensible; his love passeth all other loves: The love of the Lord Jesus is first, without beginning. His love is free without any motive. His love is great without any measure. His love is constant without any change and his love is everlasting.

Oh everything we look for everywhere else but God can only be found in God!

Every greatness, every wealth, every wisdom, every power, every goodness, every beauty, and every love we are longing for can only be found in him, and in him we find the apex of all these virtues and more. Even the best of all earthly versions of these virtues are but pale substitutes. Even the most joyous marriage, the most blessed parenthood, the most adorable of babies virtually disappears in the radiance of his most joyous of joys, most blessed of blessedness, most adorable of adorability as the stars disappear when the sun comes up.


by Jared Wilson (A version of this post appeared previously in Jared Wilson’s book The Imperfect Disciple.)