While I affirm the continuation of apostles and prophets in the Church today, I am convinced that Eph. 2:20 does not teach that apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church or churches. This conviction is based on an examination of the words “apostles” and “prophets” in this passage, the grammatical structure of the passage, and other New Testament passages which clearly point to Jesus Christ as the one and only foundation of the Church. Instead of referring to individual apostles and prophets, this passage is referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ that is found in the Old and New Testaments.
The passage in question, Eph. 2:20, reads, Having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets, Jesus Christ Himself being the chief cornerstone. With the current interest in contemporary apostles and prophets, this passage has become the proof text for the idea that apostles and prophets are the foundation of the Church and churches. However, It is never wise to build a doctrine, especially one of this importance, on one Scripture. What about 1 Cor. 3:10 where Paul says, For no foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ. This is a serious issue for if we replace the true foundation with a faulty one, then everything we build upon it will eventually fall. In the following essay I hope to convince you that there is only one solid and sure foundation for the Church, Jesus Christ our Lord.
The Prophets was a common way for both Jews and Christians to refer to the Old Testament Scriptures during the 1st century. We must remember that “Old Testament” was an unknown expression for the New Testament writers, all of whom, except for Luke, were Jewish. Sometimes the Old Testament Scriptures are referred to as the Law and the Prophets or Moses and the Prophets or in the more abbreviated form of simply the Prophets. There are many examples of this abbreviated usage in the New Testament.
In Luke 24:25, for example, Jesus chides two of His disciples for being slow of heart to believe in all that the prophets have spoken, an obvious reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. In Acts 13:27, Paul says that the Jewish leaders in Jerusalem crucified Christ because they did not know the voices of the prophets which are read every Sabbath day, another obvious reference to the Old Testament. In his defense before King Agrippa, Paul passionately implores, King Agrippa, do you believe the prophets?, another obvious reference to the Old Testament Scriptures. Because of its abbreviated form, the prophets became, perhaps, the most common way of referring to the Old Testament.
When Paul, therefore, uses the word prophets in Eph. 2:20 he is most likely referring to the Old Testament. The purpose of the Old Testament was to reveal the Messiah to God’s covenant people. This is borne out in Rom. 10:4 where Paul says, For Christ is the end of the law for righteousness to everyone who believes. The word “end” in this verse is a translation of the Greek word teleos and it means goal, purpose or destination. Christ is not the cessation of the law, but the destination or goal of the law. This is confirmed by Jesus Himself when, in Luke 24:27, 44, He refers to all the things written in the Old Testament Scriptures concerning Himself. In other words, the Old Testament is not about laws, rules and regulations; it is about a person–Jesus the Messiah. When Paul, therefore, speaks of the foundation of the prophets, he is referring to the Old Testament Scriptures and their witness of Jesus Christ.
Acts 2:42 says that the earliest believers continued steadfastly in the apostles doctrine, a reference to the oral teaching of the Twelve. This oral teaching included the message they had heard from Jesus and their eyewitness accounts of Jesus. This oral teaching of the Twelve and the later revelation of Paul were eventually written down and canonized in our New Testament. This whole canonization process became necessary for a variety of reasons, not least that a church leader in the 2nd century named Marcion created his own canon of Scripture. Marion’s canon, however, included only Luke’s gospel and ten of Paul’s thirteen epistles. The ones he excluded were condemned as too Jewish.
Since all four gospels, Acts and all thirteen of Paul’s epistles had been universally recognized by Christians from the beginning,  this was obviously something new and novel. Because many were being led astray by Marcion’s new canon, many church leaders felt it necessary to clarify what the churches had always believed by issuing their own list of New Testament books.
The inclusion of some books, however, was questioned, even among the orthodox. These questionable books included James, Jude, 2 Peter, 2 & 3 John and Revelation.  The number one criterion for determining if a questionable book (or any book) should be included in the canon was a positive answer to the question, “Is it apostolic?” That is, was it written by one of the original Twelve, by Paul or by one of their immediate associates? Only after an affirmative answer to this question, could a book be considered apostolic and worthy of being included in the canon.
Canon, of course, refers to a measure or rule. As such, the twenty-seven books of the New Testament are the rule against which all succeeding teachings and revelations must be measured. Why? Because the New Testament canon contains the original apostolic witness and teaching. Hans Kung, the well-known Roman Catholic theologian and reformer, says,
The preaching of the apostles, as it has come down to us in the writings of the New Testament, is the original, fundamental testimony of Jesus Christ, valid for all time; being unique, it cannot be replaced or made void by any later testimony. Later generations of the Church are dependent on the words, witness and ministry of the first “apostolic” generation. The apostles are and remain the original witnesses, their testimony is the original testimony and their mission the original mission.3
When Acts 2:42 says that the early Church continued steadfastly in the apostles teaching, it is referring to the oral teaching of the Twelve which is now canonized in our New Testament. Apostolic doctrine, therefore, is not the latest revelation touted by someone who calls himself or herself an apostle. Apostolic doctrine is the message and eyewitness accounts of those first followers of Jesus that are preserved for us in the New Testament.
When, therefore, Paul says in Ephesians 2:20, that believers are being built on the foundation of the apostles . . ., he is referring to the original apostolic testimony and teaching that is now preserved in our New Testament.
The phrase having been built on the foundation of the apostles and prophets is now clearly seen to be the Old and New Testament Scriptures and their revelation of Jesus Christ. The authors of The Formula of Concord also recognized this prophetic role of the Old Testament and apostolic role of the New Testament. Produced by Lutherans in 1577, this historic document contains the statement,
We believe, teach and confess that the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and New Testaments are the only rule and norm according to which all doctrines and teachers alike must be appraised and judged.
That Eph. 2:20 is referring to the revelation of Jesus Christ in the Old and New Testaments is also borne out by the fact that the phrase apostles and prophets is in the genitive case, the case that shows possession. It is like saying “the coat of John Doe.” Although the coat and John Doe are related, it does not follow that the coat is John Doe or that John Doe is the coat. In the same way, it does not follow that the foundation is identical with the apostles and prophets or that the apostles and prophets are identical with the foundation. This passage, as already demonstrated, is referring to the foundation of Jesus Christ that has been laid by the prophetic and apostolic witnesses of the Old and New Testaments.
This fact is further borne out in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthian Church. In 1 Cor. 3:10-11, Paul refers to his founding of the church in Corinth and says, I have laid the foundation and another builds on it. What foundation did Paul the apostle lay for the church in Corinth? It was not himself! He says in vs. 11, For no other foundation can anyone lay than that which is laid which is Jesus Christ. The foundation of Paul the apostle in Corinth was Jesus Christ. If contemporary apostles wish to be legitimate, they must follow the example of Paul and not preach themselves, but Jesus Christ.
This coincides with Jesus’ response to Peter’s revelation of Him as the Christ, the Son of the Living God in Matt. 16:13-18. Jesus commends Peter for his revelation, saying,
Blessed are you Simon, son of Jonah, for flesh and blood did not reveal this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I say to you that you are Peter (petros), and on this rock (petra) I will build My church, and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it.
The Greek word for “Peter” in this passage is petros, which means a little rock or pebble. The Greek word for “rock” is petra and refers to a large massive stone. With a play on these words, Matthew has Jesus saying, You are petros (a small rock or pebble), and on this petra (a large massive stone) I will build my Church. The foundation on which Jesus said he would build His Church was not a little rock like Peter, but the massive foundation stone that is the revelation of who He is, i.e., Himself.
Like the early church, the church today must also continue steadfastly in the apostles’ teaching. How? By hearing and adhering to the original apostolic message that has been preserved for us in the New Testament. This message belongs to the Church of every generation and every Christian has the privilege and responsibility of bearing witness to this original apostolic message of Jesus Christ. When presented in its purity and clarity this message will be as powerful and revolutionary today as it was in the 1st century. This is how we lay the foundation of the Church in the 21st century.
No church, therefore, can rightfully call itself apostolic if is preoccupied with its own power, prestige and importance. No church can call itself apostolic if it is continually distracted with novel and faddish teachings and trends. Only a people committed to proclaiming the original, apostolic message of Jesus preserved in the New Testament can rightfully be called apostolic today. An old hymn sums it up well:
The Church’s one foundation is Jesus Christ her Lord
She is His new creation by water and the word
From heaven He came and sought her to be His holy bride
With His own blood He bought her and for her life He died
1 Church fathers of the 2nd and 3rd centuries, such as Justin Martyr, Irenaeus, Tertullian and others, quote from the Gospels, Acts, and Paul’s epistles and refer to them as “Scripture.” This was many years before any so-called “official list was issued by church officials.
2 Eusebius, The History of the Church, trans. G. A. Williamson (New York: Dorset Press, 1965), 134.
3 Hans Kung, The Church (New York: Image Books, 1976), 456.