Is There a Perpetual Apostolate?
Rev. Steve Schlissel - August 21, 2002
Dear Ned and Diane,
Thanks for your good question. Perhaps we should first say that we must not approach Scripture as if it is composed of 30,773 discrete verses which can be understood in isolation from each other. A gleg theologian once pointed out that some of us conceive of the Word of God as a set of “separate doctrinal statements…a collection of formulas.” It is not. It is the living Word of the living God. Many of its most precious and distinguishing “truths” are not found in any “verses” at all, the Trinity being the most oft-cited example: the word Trinity appears nowhere in Holy Writ, yet the Bible is not properly received if this, one of its most foundational disclosures, is denied.
But to get at your question—and speaking of “foundations”!—while the Bible contains no “verse” which says “no more apostles,” it does contain a verse which says that apostles belong to the foundational period of the New Israel. Gentiles, St. Paul tells us, “are no longer foreigners and aliens, but fellow citizens with God’s people and members of God’s household, built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, with Christ Jesus himself as the chief cornerstone” (Eph. 2:19,20).
The new administration of the covenant brought about by the completion of Christ’s earthly work included provision of a new foundation. Foundations are not laid one upon the other; rather, when the foundation is laid the superstructure is then built. That is how the Spirit directed Paul to see things. The foundation being laid meant that henceforth we would behold “the whole building [being] joined together and [rising] to become a holy temple in the Lord.” Christians are told that Jews and Gentiles “are being built together to become a dwelling in which God lives by his Spirit.”
Just as Christ’s earthly work belonged to the foundation period of the “New Temple” construction, so did the work of the apostles and prophets. Their collective work is not repeated, it is built upon. Call that the argument of foundations.
Next would be the related argument of generations, namely, that apostles belonged uniquely to the first generation of Christians. If this were true we would expect the second and third generations of Christian to bear witness to it. In fact, that is what we find: the early church unanimously testified that the apostles of our Lord were unique in function and ministry and belonged to the first generation only.
Further, we have the argument of qualifications. It seems reasonably clear from the New Testament that one requirement of an apostle is that he had seen Jesus the Lord (Acts 1:20-22; 1 Cor 9:1). Please look at these “verses” and see how striking they are together. A replacement for Judas had to have known Jesus personally (Acts 1:21). Thus when Paul rhetorically asks the Corinthians, “Am I not an apostle?,” he immediately adds, “Have I not seen Jesus our Lord?” An acid test of apostolicity was direct contact with the Lord, a contact that was not merely spiritual but visual, too.
Another authenticator of apostolic authority, another qualification, was the power to work signs and wonders. It is doubtful that Paul could have been clearer on this matter than he is in 2 Corinthians 12:12, especially because he there is simply assuming what he believes to be a well-known fact: “The things that mark an apostle—signs, wonders and miracles—were done among you with great perseverance.” Sign, wonders and miracles marked the apostles. The miracles performed by the apostles bear little resemblance to the fraudulent nonsense that is marketed today by pompadoured charlatans. The true apostolic signs included raising the dead, healings associated in the remotest ways with their persons (by shadows and handkerchiefs, e.g.), and they did not leave themselves the gratuitous “out” of blaming failure on a lack of faith in the audience. The apostles had power to “deal with” unbelief, when appropriate. Peter was the instrument of Ananias’s and Sapphira’s deaths, and theirs was a fractured faith; Elymas had no faith at all and was blinded by a word from Paul. We are not here saying that God has so bound Himself over to miracles in the first generation as to rule out any future miraculous activity: we merely insist that the manner of His abundant bestowal of miraculous powers on the apostles was unmistakable and unique.
Which leads to our last inferential proof, the one we could call expiration. In Hebrews we read of our “salvation, which was first announced by the Lord, [and] was confirmed to us by those who heard him.” We are then told that “God also testified to it by signs, wonders and various miracles, and gifts of the Holy Spirit distributed according to his will.” God had confirmed this message of salvation, and in fact had completed His testimony of authentication. Of this we are certain: there has been nothing like the miraculous attestation of the apostles, for matter or mass, since they have passed. The apostles—and the miracles which authenticated their message—belonged to a period that was being completed as the canon was being written.
Now none of this is bad news. The apostolic office belonged the foundation of the church, it is true; but that foundation belongs to all succeeding generations, even to us. Do we believe in the apostolate? Certainly. It’s in our Scripture. And do we believe in signs and wonders? Surely, every one recorded and implied in the Word of God. Who could ask for anything more?