The Age of the Apostles From Biblical, Extra-biblical, Theological, and Logical Perspectives
By W.E. Nunnally
Pentecostals are often asked to explain why they believe and practice the way they do. Unfortunately, most are not “prepared to make a defense to anyone who calls” on them (1 Peter 3:15, RSV).1 Often this is either because Pentecostals have not become grounded in the evidence or have not thought through the issues behind the content and practices of their faith. Instead, they usually respond with defensiveness, embarrassment, or an appeal to their personal experience. Their hearers easily dismiss these appeals as, “Okay for you but of no relevance to us.” Therefore, it is important that pastors better equip their members to share with others why Pentecostals trust God for the miraculous today.
One question frequently asked of Pentecostals is why they believe miracles, gifts of the Spirit, personal revelations, and divine interventions continue to happen today. Most Christians outside of Pentecostal/charismatic traditions believe these manifestations of the Spirit ceased when the last apostle died, commonly referred to as the end of the Age of the Apostles. This term represents the belief that the revelatory and miraculous power of God, having been absent for more than 400 years, was reinstated among men between circa A.D. 30 and A.D. 90. According to this theory, at the conclusion of the Apostolic Age, these powers were recalled to heaven once again, wherein they await the return of Christ.
Refuting Historical And Logical Arguments For An Age Of Apostles
The phrase Age of the Apostles is used among dispensationalists and covenant theologians who also link it to a related issue — the closure of the biblical canon. Both camps attempt to use the doctrine of the Age of the Apostles to protect and justify the closure and contents of the New Testament canon. Their rationale is that the end of this apostolic period in church history provided a natural and logical break in revelation. This, in turn, signaled the conclusion of the divinely inspired writings we call the New Testament. There is no need, however, to attribute the conclusion of the canonical process to men, whether by their vote (The New Testament canon had become a reality hundreds of years before any church council ever officially ratified it.), or by the death of all the apostles.
The phrase Age of the Apostles and the concept it represents cannot be found in the New Testament. This means the doctrine of the Age of the Apostles and its consequences — the end of revelation and the closure of the canon — are post-New Testament ideas (or revelations). If this is the case, we have a logical contradiction. One cannot logically claim cessation of revelation at the conclusion of the writing of the New Testament while at the same time claiming to receive additional revelation beyond the conclusion of this process.
The cessationist position rests solely on extra-biblical and postbiblical inference. This inference, however, appears to have achieved canonical status (authority equal with the Bible) by those who adhere to this position. This is evidenced by the fact the communities of faith that maintain a belief in the Age of Apostles have allowed this concept to inform their faith and conduct. Since matters of faith and conduct in Protestant Christianity are to be informed exclusively by divine revelation, this extra-biblical position can be said to have achieved a status previously reserved for the Bible alone. Ironically, in an attempt to preserve the unique status of the Scriptures, the individuals and communities who espouse the cessationist theory have themselves elevated their own extra-biblical revelation to the same status as the Bible, a charge usually leveled at Pentecostals/charismatics.
Proponents of the doctrine of the Age of the Apostles also attempt to buttress their belief by referencing the close of the Old Testament canon. They maintain that revelation and miracles ceased with the last prophet of the Old Testament — which to them is analogous to the relationship of the apostles to the New Testament, revelation, and miracles in the Church Age.
At first glance, this argument appears formidable. On greater scrutiny, however, it also appears to be poorly formulated. First, like the New Testament, the Old Testament canon was determined by usage within the community of faith, not the vote of an official body or the life span of any particular individual or individuals. Second, prophecy and miracles are well attested in literature related to the Intertestamental Period, such as Josephus, the Dead Sea Scrolls, early rabbinic literature, and the Apocrypha and Pseudepigrapha. Third, historical reports in the New Testament record events that occurred during the Intertestamental Period.
Both Matthew and Luke report revelations, angelic interventions, prophecy, and miracles that predate the conception, birth, and ministry of Jesus. Zechariah received revelation and uttered prophecy (Luke 1:11–20,67–79). Joseph received supernatural revelation and direction through dreams (Matthew 1:20–24; 2:13,19–22). Mary received revelation and uttered inspired song (Luke 1:26–38,46–55). Simeon had received a revelation long before the events surrounding the birth of Jesus and John the Baptist (Luke 2:25,26). Like the shepherds (Luke 2:8–16), Simeon had received divine direction (verse 27). Both Mary and Elizabeth experienced miraculous conceptions (Matthew 1:18,20; Luke 1:13,24,36,37,57). The wise men obtained divine guidance by means of a supernatural sign (Matthew 2:1,2,9,10) and a dream (verse 12). These and many other relevant supernatural events show that in the New Testament divine revelations and miracles were taking place before Jesus’ birth and ministry.
On the basis of these observations, it must be concluded that there was no cessation of the prophetic or the miraculous in the history of Israel prior to the coming of Jesus. This reconsideration of the relevant data not only removes the foundation of the argument for cessation based on Old Testament parallels, but it also argues the opposite.
The Immutability Of God, The Sacredness Of History, And The Difference Between Inspiration And Canonization
Our God — the God of the Bible, the historical God of Israel — is a God of consistency. He is not capricious or fickle, as pagan deities were often portrayed in ancient mythologies. The God of the Bible is a God of covenant faithfulness. He does not change (Psalm 55:19; 102:27; Isaiah 46:4; Malachi 3:6; Hebrews 1:12), and His Word does not change (Isaiah 40:8). He is the same yesterday, today, and forever (Hebrews 13:8). In Him there is “no shadow or change due to turning” (James 1:17, RSV). He deals with man consistently, and His dealings with man display continuity. The present matter is no exception. Since God’s miraculous dealings with His people continued between the Testaments, there is no precedent or logical necessity that requires us to believe He would act any differently at the end of the New Testament.
A discussion of intertestamental developments must also address some issues raised by referencing the Intertestamental Period. First, all of history is sacred. God was as involved in the lives of His creation during the Intertestamental Period the same way He was at other times. For example, many prophecies contained in the Book of Daniel were fulfilled in the Intertestamental Period. In addition, the New Testament gives examples (cited above) of God’s activity before the inauguration of the New Testament Period. Therefore, God had His hand on the Jewish nation, the tribe of Judah, the clan of Jesse, and a specific branch of the family of David.
It is also evident that God directed the development of this branch even during the Intertestamental Period, and that He eventually caused the Messiah to be born from this specific family tree. That God was at work controlling this process, even in the Intertestamental Period, is evidenced by the inclusion of names from this time in the genealogy of Jesus (Matthew 1:13–16; Luke 3:23–27). Evidently, the entirety of this history was important because the Holy Spirit orchestrated the telling of the whole story.
The Holy Spirit made no distinction between secular and sacred (or biblical) history in the genealogies of Jesus recorded by Matthew or Luke. Furthermore, the preservation of these verses by the Early Church and their attitude toward them suggests they believed that God’s activity in redemptive history (including divine orchestration of human history, revelation, and the miraculous) remained constant — from Creation to Incarnation to consummation. The Early Church was a truly Pentecostal church.
Second, we must make a distinction between prophetic activity and canonized Scripture. In many Pentecostal churches today, the authentic voice of prophecy is still heard. But these modern-day prophecies are not equal with Scripture. The biblical canon is no longer open, and such prophecies should not be included in the canon of Scripture. These messages from God to His people are for a particular time, place, and situation. They do not dictate matters of faith and conduct for all people, in all times, and in all places. Furthermore, their legitimacy is to be judged by the standard of the revealed Word of God, the Bible.
The prophetic activity of the Intertestamental Period must be viewed in a similar way. These prophecies represent the needs and pious reflections of the individual communities from whence they were derived. The fact prophecy was one medium of communication is a matter of the historical record. Its literary status as noncanonical, which reflects the God-directed process whereby the canon took shape, is also a matter of historical record. All that remains is to prove that the relationship between the Old Testament and intertestamental prophecy is analogous to the relationship that exists between the New Testament and modern-day prophecy.
Old Testament and New Testament are canonized Scripture. As such, they represent the culmination of a process under the direct guidance of God. Scripture is normative — eternally relevant — and is our only rule for faith and conduct. Intertestamental prophecy was not, and modern-day prophecy is not, considered Scripture. Neither has undergone a divinely directed process of popular, universal usage. Neither is eternally relevant, or normative. Both are conditioned by time, place, and situation, and therefore do not have the intrinsic authority to dictate matters of faith and practice.
In the Intertestamental Period, the community of faith needed the voice of prophecy. Even though it had the Bible (the Old Testament), it needed to hear the prophetic voice of reproof, correction, challenge, hope, encouragement, and call to repentance as it addressed contemporary situations. God in His wisdom and consistency has instilled a similar dynamic in our community of faith. Although we have the Bible (both Old and New Testaments), God continues to invest His church with the voice of prophecy. He has an intimate knowledge of the nature of man (Genesis 6:5; Psalm 103:14; 139; Matthew 7:11; Romans 3:23).
Throughout the ages, man’s nature and his need to hear the prophetic voice of God has not changed. Similarly, the nature of God have not changed. He still loves His creation, has a plan for it, and desires to communicate His plan dynamically to every generation.
The Age Of The Apostles Versus The Teaching Of The New Testament
The New Testament testifies against the theory of an Age of the Apostles, and the cessation of prophecy and other supernatural phenomena. Ephesians 4:11 tells us that God has gifted the church with individuals who function as apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors, and teachers. Those who contend for an apostolic age and the cessation of the miraculous must be selective with this verse. On one hand, no one would argue that the offices of evangelist, pastor, and teacher have been rendered ineffective. On the other hand, cessationists must maintain that the offices of apostle and prophet no longer exist because of their charismatic and revelatory nature.
The problem with this position is its purely arbitrary approach. The human and divine authors of this passage intended this list to be taken as a whole. There are no indications that a distinction exists within the list concerning the duration of some gifts as opposed to others. To tamper with, truncate, or draw a line of distinction between any of the elements of this list violates the text.
Paul does, however, place temporal limitations on the entire list. The passage does indicate that all of these offices will ultimately pass away. The question is not, however, Which? but, When? Verses 12 and 13 clearly address this question. These offices are given “to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to:
- the unity of the faith
- and the knowledge of the Son of God,
- to mature manhood,
- to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ” (RSV).
No Christian has fully achieved all of these goals. Therefore, all the offices of Ephesians 4:11 are still needed to mature the church. It may be further suggested that the immaturity and inadequacy of the church in the past and present are directly related to the lack of respect and emphasis from which the charismatic gifts have suffered. “The parts of the body that seem to be weaker are indispensable. ... If one member suffers, all suffer” (1 Corinthians 12:22,26; note that the context refers specifically to the issue under discussion).
A second text to consider is Romans 11:29, “For the gifts and the calling of God are irrevocable.” Obviously, the “gifts” mentioned here are not the spiritual gifts of 1 Corinthians 12. In this sense, the immediate context of this passage is not related to the passages cited above. Nevertheless, the basic principle in operation is relevant. Romans 11:29 speaks of the faithfulness and consistency of God’s dealings with man. Not only does His immutable nature prevent Him from abrogating His promises to ethnic Israel, His nature also prevents Him from abrogating His promise to bestow the gifts of the Spirit on man throughout the Church Age.
A third passage that requires attention in the present context is Acts 2:39. In this first Christian sermon, in an eschatologically charged situation, Peter declared that God’s promise to give the Holy Spirit — complete with the phenomena that accompany His residence within a human being — “is for you, for your children, and for all who are far away, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (RSV, italics added). This verse has been a locus classicus for the Pentecostal position. The text suggests that at the beginning of the Church Age, at the initial outpouring of the Holy Spirit and the manifestations He inspires, Peter declared that this experience is to be the norm for the entirety of the Church Age. By specifically mentioning, in sequence, the present generation, the next generation, and all future generations, Peter gives explicit apostolic evidence for a belief in the relevance of this promise for all generations.
A fourth but more obscure passage that is nonetheless important to a well-rounded biblical approach is 1 Corinthians 1:7. Paul noted that the members of the Corinthian church have been “enriched in Him, in all speech and all knowledge” (1 Corinthians 1:5, NASB).2 The truth of the gospel had been miraculously “confirmed” among them “so that you are not lacking in any [spiritual] gift” (verses 6,7, NASB). The end of verse 7 requires our attention. Paul said the Corinthians were being enriched, having the gospel miraculously confirmed among them, and enjoying every spiritual gift — but for a specific time period — “as you wait for the revealing of our Lord Jesus Christ” (RSV). What Paul has in view is the same eschatological timetable he put forth in Ephesians 4:13 and 1 Corinthians 13:10–12. (A discussion of this text is below.) The charismatic gifts of the Spirit will come to an end. This end is not at the conclusion of the Age of the Apostles or at any other point in human history. The cessation of the miraculous gifts of the Spirit will occur when time is no more — when the King returns and the present world order is brought to an end. At this time, evangelistic efforts will cease. Sin and sickness will be a part of the past. Revelatory gifts will not be needed because we will have immediate, unbroken fellowship with the divine — “face to face” (1 Corinthians 13:12; compare 1 John 3:2). Even the gifts of supernatural knowledge will lose their usefulness in this blessed state, because at the return of Christ, we “will know fully, even as [we] have been fully known” (1 Corinthians 13:12, RSV).
A final Pauline text that has possibly been the most neglected of all appears in 2 Corinthians 3:3–11. In this passage, the apostle is comparing the splendor of the dispensation of the law with that of the dispensation of the Spirit. He argues, “Now if the dispensation of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such splendor that the Israelites could not look at Moses’ face because of its brightness, fading as this was, will not the dispensation of the Spirit be attended with greater splendor? For if there was splendor in the dispensation of condemnation, the dispensation of righteousness must far exceed it in splendor. … For if what faded away came with splendor, what is permanent must have much more splendor” (2 Corinthians 3:7–9,11, RSV, italics added).
Paul draws several interesting parallels between the two dispensations. The only one of concern in the present discussion, however, is the distinction between the temporary or “fading” splendor of the dispensation of the law with the greater splendor of the dispensation of the Spirit, which he says is “permanent.” Again, Paul gives evidence of an eschatology/pneumatology that views the baptism in the Spirit, and the gifts that this brings, as being permanent fixtures in the church until the return of Christ.
Based on the statements of Peter and Paul, we can conclude that if there ever was an Age of the Apostles, the church must still be in it.
In this light, it is hard to imagine a scenario such as the one required by the Age of the Apostles theory. Consider Timothy. Paul charged Timothy with the responsibility of pastoring the church at Ephesus (1 Timothy 1:3). Timothy was specially empowered by God when Paul and the elders laid hands on him (1 Timothy 4:14; 2 Timothy 1:6). Imagine Timothy, busy fulfilling his pastoral duties, praying for a person’s healing or exorcising a demon from someone’s only child. Now imagine that in Ephesus (according to Early Church tradition), at that moment, the aged apostle John, the last of the inner circle, breathed his final breath and went to his heavenly reward. Would God arbitrarily revoke the power to work wonders that He had given to Timothy and stop a miracle in progress? Could Timothy give an acceptable, biblical explanation to this needy individual as to why the person he prayed for the moment before was healed or delivered but this second person was not? How would this affect the witness of the local church? Imagine how this would negatively impact the ministry God had entrusted to Timothy. On a personal level, he would no longer be able to respond in obedience to the command he was given by divine inspiration, “rekindle the gift of God that is within you through the laying on of my hands” (2 Timothy 1:6, RSV).
Obviously, this scenario is untenable. It goes against the nature of God, who is consistent, faithful, unchanging, and ever merciful to those in need. It runs contrary to the Word of God, which as we have argued, lends its exclusive support to the concept of continuation, while saying nothing in support of cessation. Thank God that the church relies not on the fleeting, fragile, physical condition of an apostle for its power, but on the eternal, resurrected Jesus, who “always lives to make intercession for” us (Hebrews 7:25, RSV).
New Testament Texts Used Inappropriately To Support The Age Of The Apostles/Cessationism
Proponents of cessation theories often refer to 1 Corinthians 13:10, “But when the perfect is come, the imperfect will pass away” (RSV). “The perfect” does not refer to the New Testament, as they claim, but to the return of Jesus, as is clear from verse 12. There is no need for further argument beyond that of context. It is interesting, however, to note that the gender of “the perfect” (teleion) is neuter, whereas the word translated “testament” (diatheke) in other places is feminine. Had Paul intended the reader to understand that this adjective-used-as-a-noun represented the New Testament, he would have placed “the perfect” in the same gender — feminine.
Likewise, 1 Corinthians 15:8, “Last of all, as to one untimely born, he appeared also to me” (RSV), does not indicate the end of revelation or the close of the canon. Paul continued to receive revelation after the Damascus Road experience. Others in the New Testament received revelation after Jesus appeared to Paul. Furthermore, the entire New Testament was inspired by the Holy Spirit after Paul’s Damascus Road encounter with Christ. To what, then, does this statement refer? Paul is only stating that of those men referred to as apostles, he was the last to see the resurrected Christ.
Hebrews 1:1,2 is another popular proof text for cessationists. One only needs, however, to point out that the “days” are “last,” not the revelation of Jesus in the flesh. Otherwise, the author would be breaking his own rule by attempting to communicate revelation after the earthly revelation of Christ.
Revelation 22:18,19 is a final proof text employed by proponents of cessation. In this verse believers are commanded not to add to or take away from “the words of the book of this prophecy” (RSV). Cessationists argue that since the Book of Revelation comes at the end of canonical revelation, this passage prohibits any further revelation. The problems with this interpretation are multiple. First, the author tells us specifically what this prohibition refers to. He is not speaking in general terms, but is referring to his words only — “this prophecy” (italics added). Second, the author could not have had the entire New Testament in mind, since it had yet to take shape. Thus, authorial intent rules out this line of reasoning. Third, other books include similar prohibitions. One example is Deuteronomy 12:32. Does this verse mean that further revelation beyond the Book of Deuteronomy is illegitimate? Let’s hope not.
Three important applications can be drawn from this article. First, no historical analogies or passages in the Bible offer a legitimate argument to support an Age of the Apostles or the cessation of the miraculous. Second, the nature of God, the unified message of Scripture, and the consistently needy nature of fallen man argue for continuation of the miraculous in today’s world. Third, today’s church is on firm biblical ground when it seeks empowerment for more effective service to God through the baptism in the Holy Spirit and the gifts of the Spirit. We have every reason to seek God for divine guidance, healing, protection, and provision. In this day of unprecedented need and opportunity, “Rekindle the gift of God that is within you” (2 Timothy 1:6).
1. The Bible text designated RSV is from The Holy Bible: Revised Standard Version. Copyright 1946, 1952, 1959, 1973 by the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. All rights reserved. Used by permission.
2. Scripture quotations marked NASB are taken from the New American Standard BibleÂ®, Copyright Â© 1960, 1962, 1963, 1968, 1971, 1972, 1973, 1975, 1977, 1995 by The Lockman Foundation. Used by permission (www.Lockman.org).