Home > Charismatic Theology > Continuation of the Apostolic Office

Continuation of the Apostolic Office

I originally wrote this paper for a course in missions, but reworked it for a Systematic Theology class. I included it as an appendix to a position paper on supernatural gifts of the Spirit. Also, see my continuing discussion of charismatic theology.

Contemporary Apostles
Gaffin provides four lines of reasoning that link the supernatural gifts to the office of apostle. If the apostolic office has passed away, then so have the gifts; if the gifts remain, so much the apostolic office. Though Gaffin’s four arguments are not all equally compelling, he has supported his overall case. As I have made a case for the charismatic view of supernatural gifts, I also contend that the apostolic office was never intended to pass away. Taylor states that “it is a linguistic quirk of history that the term for a missionary shifted from apostle to missionary.”
[1] The term “missionary” is not found in the Bible, but the Greek equivalent, found 80 times in the New Testament, is “apostelos.” From this, we get the term “apostle” and “apostolic.” Much of the current debate arises from a misunderstanding of the function of apostles and the creation of a new “missionary” office.
Wayne Grudem presents several arguments for apostolic cessation.
[2] First, the primary requirement for biblical apostleship was having seen Jesus, so there can be no modern apostles . Three main passages are brought as evidence of this requirement. In Acts 1.22, the replacement for Judas Iscariot was required to have been a witness of the resurrection. Paul implies the same thing in 1 Cor 9.1-2. Finally, in 1 Cor 15, Paul places himself on equal footing with the other apostles because he has witnessed the risen Jesus.
A second argument for the cessation of the apostolic office is that the apostles had the authority to speak and write the very words of God. Since the canon of scripture is closed, the apostolic office must now be obsolete.
[3] However the evidence that the apostles had this kind of authority is lacking. Grudem provides three examples. In Acts 5, lying to the apostles is equated with lying to the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 2.13, Paul asserts that his words were directly taught by the Holy Spirit. In 1 Corinthians 14.37 Paul says that the things that he writes are the Lord’s command.
Third, is the charge that anyone who takes the title apostle is probably doing so out of wrong motives. Only the arrogant would seek to apply the apostolic title to themselves.
Finally, Grudem notes that there was a non-technical usage of apostolos in the New Testament, referring simply to a messenger. This non-technical use differed from the primary use of the term, which was used to designate a special apostolic office. This non-technical usage may still be held today, though its meaning is somewhat different from the non-technical usage in the New Testament.
How shall we evaluate Grudem’s arguments? It seems appropriate to begin with an analysis of the way the New Testament uses the term, apostle. Out of 80 uses of apostle in the New Testament, 70 are found in Paul and Luke/Acts. The remaining ten usages refer specifically to the 12 apostles.
[4] Paul’s clearest passage on the subject of apostleship is found in 1 Corinthians 15.7-9, where he writes that the risen Jesus, “…appeared to James, then to all the apostles; and last of all, as to one untimely born, He appeared to me also. For I am the least of the apostles and not fit to be called an apostle, because I persecuted the church of God.” Several things are clear from this passage. First, there was a distinction between “Cephus (Peter) [and] the twelve,” and “James [and] all the apostles.” Paul does not limit the apostolic office to the original twelve apostles. For instance, Andronicus and Junia,[5] are named as apostles (Romans 16.7), though we know nothing else about them. Second, Paul seems to imply that he is not on equal footing with the twelve, but he is with the rest of the apostles. Third, Paul claims that he was the “last of all” to see the Lord, not that he was the last apostle of all.[6]
Luke, on the other hand, uses the term apostle quite often, but always in reference to the twelve. The only exceptions occur in Acts 14.4 and 14 where the term is applied to Paul and Barnabus. F.F. Bruce argues that Luke only uses the term here because he is quoting from another source, and his intention is that it be taken in the non-technical sense.[7]
From the perspective of a unified biblical canon, those whom Luke and the other biblical authors call apostles, Paul calls the twelve. Those whom Paul calls apostles are not called apostles in Luke (with the two exceptions already noted). So it is clear that the entire biblical witness reserves a special designation for the Twelve. Modern theologians, following non-Pauline usage, refer to the Twelve as Apostles (with a capital A). A second category is Paul’s non-technical use of apostle (with a small a). [8] The word apostolos was infrequently used before the New Testament period, and when it was, it was primarily for messengers sent by sea.[9] It is unlikely for the early Christians to coin a new technical use of the term only revive the non-technical usage in a small number of passages. Even if we allow this non-technical usage (apostle, small-a), Paul places himself (and James) in this category and not with the Twelve.[10] It is much more likely that there is no distinction between technical and non-technical usage, and the standard use was equivalent to our modern term missionary. Similarly, in Luke it seems likely that he made a decision as a writer to refer consistently to the twelve (and no one else) as apostles for narrative clarity.
If this is true, then there is no real distinction between apostle and missionary at all, and Jesus’ commission to the twelve was a missionary commission that applies to the entire missionary endeavor. There is no reason to believe that the apostolic-missionary office would ever “pass away”. It is notable that the same sort of reasoning used to deny the modern-day apostolic office was once used to defend our lack of missionary zeal – the apostolic mandate to reach the world with the gospel ended when the apostolic office passed away.
How, then, do we respond to the claim that one requirement for an apostle is having seen the risen Jesus? For the replacement of Judas, this was not the only requirement – he was also required to have been disciple from the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. These were fitting requirements to replace a member of the Twelve. Paul himself could not have met this requirement. This in fact, was probably the very kind of accusation that Paul had to respond to in 1 Corinthians 9.1-2. In chapters 8-10, Paul is building a case that we ought to lay down our rights in deference to one another. In chapter 9 he uses himself as an illustration of laying down one’s rights – the rights of an apostle to be supported financially by the community. He therefore takes verses 2 and 3 to briefly defend his apostleship: “Am I not free? Am I not an apostle? Have I not seen Jesus our Lord? Are you not my work in the Lord? If to others I am not an apostle, at least I am to you; for you are the seal of my apostleship in the Lord.” Nowhere does Paul make an explicit claim that an apostle is required to have seen the Lord. More likely, he is attempting to bolster his own claim to apostleship in order that the Corinthian church will continue to listen to him rather than being deceived by false teachings. In fact, Paul probably considered his encounter with Jesus to be the confirmation of his apostolic call, not a requirement for it.
In 1 Corinthians 15, cited above, Paul equates his sighting of Jesus with those of the other apostles. However we also noted that Paul was the last to see, not the last of the apostles in the sense that Mohammed claimed to be the last of the prophets. We must note that the apostolic office was will mentioned in the Didache (11.3-6) written as late at A.D. 150. That would mean that apostles continued to be sent out of churches for two, three, or even four more generations after Paul’s time.
Grudem’s second argument is generally the most troubling for evangelicals, who equate apostolic authority with scriptural authority. But this equation is misleading. No biblical text makes this explicit. In Acts 5, lying to the apostles is equated with lying to the Holy Spirit. However an examination of Luke’s understanding of the working of the Holy Spirit reveals that the Holy Spirit empowers the church corporately, not just the apostles. What is sinful is lying to the Spirit-empowered church represented by the apostles, not lying to the apostles qua apostles. In 1 Corinthians 2.13, Paul asserts that his words were directly taught by the Holy Spirit. But this argument cuts both ways. Paul is not here appealing to his apostolic authority, but to the fact the Holy Spirit inspired his message. By implication, the Corinthians should not listen to an uninspired apostle. In 1 Corinthians 14.37 Paul says that the things that he writes are the Lord’s command. But again, this is not an appeal to apostolic authority, but rather an appeal to authority outside of himself – the Lord’s authority. It is the content of the message rather than the position of the messenger that makes it true.
There are further problems with Grudem’s model of apostolic authority. The first is what to do with apostolic error (i.e. Peter, Galatians 2.11-14) or dispute (Paul and Barnabus, Acts 15.39). Second, this model only really works in hindsight, because the canon is closed. Traditionalists can argue for this position because it is a safe, unchangeable tradition. But there was a time in history when the apostles had not ceased to speak and canon was not yet closed. At that time the notion of apostolic authority was much riskier, especially to the traditionalist, because of the uncertainty of what they have not yet said. Third, even Paul claimed that it was his message, not his position, that made his words true (Galatians 1.8-9). Finally, five of the 27 books of the New Testament (almost 20%) were not written by apostles. On the other hand, only five of the 15 undisputed apostles
[12] (30%) wrote any portion of scripture. Scripture does not appear to be especially tied to apostolic infallibility.
What about the charge of wrong motives? While this may be true of some, the definition of apostle argued for here is one of function rather than status. The church does not need more “super-apostles” who exalt themselves, but she does need more apostolic missionaries who will lay down their lives for the Kingdom of God as Paul did.
Many men have functioned apostolically through history. A short list would include Augustine of Canterbury, Boniface, Martin Luther, Nikolaus Ludwig von Zinzendorf, John Wesley, Charles Finney, William Carey, and Hudson Taylor.
[13] While none of these men called himself an apostle, they all instinctively fulfilled the apostolic mandate. The modern apostolic movement can look to such men as spiritual fathers.Bibliography
Barnett, P.W. 1993. “Apostle” in Dictionary of Paul and His Letters. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press.
Bruce, F.F. 1988. The Book of the Acts, Revised Edition. Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company.
Grudem, Wayne A. 1994 (2000). Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: ZondervanPublishingHouse.
Taylor, William D. 1999. Introduction to World Christian Missions tapes and notes from the Institute of Theological Studies course. Grand Rapids: Outreach, Inc.
Walls, Andrew F. 1999. “Missionary Societies and the Fortunate Subversion of the Church” in Perspectives on the World Christian Movement, ed. Ralph D. Winter and Steven C. Hawthorne. Pasadena: William Carey Library.

[1] Taylor 1999, lecture 11.
[2]Grudem 1993, 905-911.
[3] Idem, 60-67. Grudem agrees with Gaffin (1996), who then turns the argument against him to reject all supernatural gifts.
[4] With the possible exception of John 13.16, mentioned above.
[5] Or possibly the masculine name “Junias.” The Greek is not certain.
[6] Even his sighting of Jesus as “last of all” should probably not be taken in an absolute sense. Paul’s main point was not that it could never occur again, but rather that his testimony about the resurrection was valid because he too had been an eyewitness of the risen Lord.
[7] Bruce 1988, p. 271, n.7; p.276, n.36.
[8] Examples usually given include 2 Corinthians 8.16-24, referring to Titus and another apostle; Philippians 2.25, to Epaphroditus. John 13.16, seems to support this view, referring non-specifically to a person sent by a sender.
[9] Barnett 1993, p.45.
[10] The only other option is that Paul developed a third category between the technical Apostle and non-technical apostle. This seems unlikely, as there are no indications that Paul held to a ‘hierarchy of aposticity.’
[11] Walls 1999, p.234.
[12] Grudem admits Paul, Barnabus, and James.
[13] Grudem himself partially concedes this point. “Today some people use the word apostle in a very broad sense, to refer to an effective church planter, or to a significant missionary pioneer (“William Carey was an apostle to India,” for example). If we use the word apostle in this broad sense, everyone would agree that there are still apostles today – for there are certainly effective missionaries and church planters today… But there is another sense for the word apostle. Much more frequently in the New Testament the word refers to a special office, ‘apostle of Jesus Christ.’ In this narrow sense of the term, there are no more apostles today, and we are to expect no more.” (906) It is difficult to understand why it is acceptable to refer to William Carey as “the apostle to India” but not as “the apostle of Jesus Christ to India.” Whose apostle was he?

Categories: Charismatic Theology
  1. godwatcher
    November 20, 2006 at 2:36 pm

    Interesting… I think you did a very thorough job of disproving Grudem’s ideas of apostolic cessation. I’m convinced that it doesn’t make any sense. However, I don’t think you made as convincing an argument for why apostle = missionary. I’d be interested to see you back up this particular point a little more thoroughly.

    If aposltes didn’t cease to exist, they have to still exist in one form or another, but what reasons do you have of saying that an apostle is basically the same as a modern missionary?

    One person I think of who doesn’t match that idea is James, who was an apostle to the Jews, and doesn’t seem to have ever left his own nation. I don’t think we’d call him a missionary in our modern world.

    I’d like to close my point with a quote. As I was told the other day, “If you insert quotes in your argument, it makes you sound smarter.” I think the case is closed.

  2. R.T. Jones
    November 21, 2006 at 8:21 pm

    The primary argument for apostle = missionary is linguistic. In Greek the verb apostello comes from apo (away from) and stello (I send). The latin cognate to apostello is mitto, which also means “I send away.” As a noun we can import the word from Greek (apostle) or Latin (missionary). The only other option is to find a similar English word, like “Sendee,” which just sounds strange.

    What I really need to develop here is what the function of an apostle/missionary is. I just didn’t have space to really explore that at all in my paper. In short I would insist on two points:
    1. It is an office, just as an elder/bishop is an office in a Presbyterian form of church government.
    2. The apostle must be sent. Your point about James is a good one, and we would have to take his ministry into account to determine just what it means to be sent.

    The main point I was trying to get at in my missions paper (which is only partially reproduced here) is that a missions team must be apostolic – that is, it needs the power and unction of the apostolic office.

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