Read the series so far.
In this last post in the series I intend to do three things. First, I will be drawing the conclusion that there are two very different ideas, and hence definitions, of “progressive revelation” (PR), and both operative words (“progressive” and “revelation”) mean something very different both separately and together, depending on who is using them. Thus, there is no really agreed upon definition of this term within Evangelicalism (or, indeed, biblical studies generally). Second, I want to quickly address the straw man issue (I’ll call it Objection 2). This is in case someone says that I have misrepresented the position of covenant theologians. I have not, and I shall furnish a couple more examples to prove it. Finally, in line with my call for plain speech and good communication, I want to close by asking which position on progressive revelation really is what one would be led to think it is.
Two conflicting ideas, and the importance of recognizing fuzzy definitions
The definition of progressive revelation which I have been commending in this article is as follows.
Progressive Revelation is the view that supplemental disclosures about a particular subject are built upon and traceable back to an original grounding revelation. The combined witness to the subject must evidence enough commonality so as to present a comprehensible picture of the subject which can be cross-checked and verified against every instance of the progression.
From what I have written in support of this definition several things come out:
- Revelation is, for the most part, unambiguous clear communication or it is not good communication.
- The progressive revealing must be amenable to tracking so as to ensure it is cohesive and non-contradictory.
- The idea of progressive revelation, then, also carries the notion of expectancy, based on the content of what God revealed.
Corollaries to this include (based upon the alternative use):
- If what is declared to be the fulfillment of PR is not at all what one would be led to expect by what came before, then the revelation was not clear (at least until the very last), because the progress did not lead up to what was supposed. A kind of bait and switch was involved all along.
- This contradicts cases of PR which can be shown to exhibit clarity and coherence from start to finish (like prophecies of Messiah. or God’s triunity).
- The problem appears to enter in when the text is not driving some versions of PR, but rather is being used in the service of a more domineering theological perspective.
In light of these observations, we must conclude that versions of Progressive Revelation which allow, and even necessitate, unforeseeable “twists” at the end of the “progress,” make PR (especially in the OT) uncertain and unreliable, and render the whole concept practically meaningless. This is so since where the true meaning cannot be known till the “fulfillment” is declared, no gradual revealing has really occurred.
Hence, those who admit ambiguity into their idea of PR should define their terms better so as not to mislead people. And as I have had cause to show before, a theology which permits such equivocation also promotes equivocation in those who must defend it. How often has this writer had to point out to some brother that his theological arguments are riddled with ambiguous use of terms (e.g. “land,” “Israel,” “temple,” “throne,” “promise,” “love,” etc.). Surely, this is not the result of the biblical revelation itself, but of imposing human ideas on that revelation?
Since the Fall our default position has been to reason independently of God and His revelation. We, like Eve, want to assess the rationality of God’s words. If what He says seems reasonable to us, we will accept it. If it seems unreasonable, we will alter it. This is what happened with the disciples in John 21:21-23. Jesus stated to Peter concerning John, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you? You follow Me!”
But then what happened? The disciples allowed their reason a magisterial role in interpretation, and they came up with this:
Therefore this saying went out among the brethren that that disciple would not die (v.23a).
These were spiritual men, yet they still put reason above the words of Jesus and they came up with the wrong interpretation. To drive home this point the evangelist writes,
…yet Jesus did not say to him that he would not die, but only, “If I want him to remain until I come, what is that to you?” (v23b & c).
It is this problem which I believe is evident in the ambiguity of terms and definitions one meets with in some presentations of PR. Moreover, if covenant theology is to be believed, even after Jesus taught, “of things concerning the kingdom of God” (Acts 1:3), the PR up till then seems to have deceived Jesus’ own disciples. Their question, “Lord, is it at this time You are restoring the kingdom to Israel?” (1:6) was wholly mistaken according to Calvin, Goldsworthy, Beale and many others. Yet many of these men admit that previous revelation had encouraged this very expectation.
Progressive revelation opposing itself—and Objection 2
Here one can expect to hear, “But we do not believe progressive revelation is equivocal.” Often the argument is that just as redemption is historically conditioned, so revelation is historically conditioned. Hence, revelation is incremental and thus progressive. There is an underlying issue which cannot be gone into here. This is the matter of understanding Scripture as (rather than including), a history of redemption, and interpreting it in those terms. Usually tied to this is the notion of theological covenants, and the belief that the NT reinterprets the OT. Each of these dogmas involves arguments from silence to nullify expectations raised by PR up to that point, and prevarication over terms. For example,
In his book, God of Promise Michael Horton rightly ties the Davidic covenant in with the Abrahamic covenant and makes them incapable of annulment (44). This agrees with Galatians 3:15. But he then makes strategic terms typological (45), and wrongly ties the land grant given to Abraham’s seed to the Mosaic covenant and not the Abrahamic covenant (47). He does this because it seems he can see nothing in the Abrahamic covenant but the promise of redemption (48). Therefore, if there is any progressive revelation in the outworking of the Abrahamic covenant it is shrouded in types and is stripped of its very prominent land promise. This is done (in Horton’s case) by reinterpreting the OT covenants in terms of theological covenants inferred from a peculiar interpretation of the NT (e.g. 47, 48, 72-73). As is the case with covenant theologians, the record playing in the background is always their own set of NT interpretations. Even so,
Just as Israel had its book from God, so does the new Israel, the church, have its book, which is an already-not yet eschatological unpacking of the meaning of Israel’s book. (G. K. Beale, A New Testament Biblical Theology, 830)
Progressive revelation cannot flourish within such a “dysfunctional” outlook. For in this view Israel’s book contains in types major teachings discoverable only through the Church’s book. It does not do any good pointing to OT types in the sacrifices of Israel to bolster these claims. For one thing, the promise of the coming Redeemer was in place before these institutions were set up, and any types were conditioned by that prior revelation. For another, we must be somewhat careful not to get too elaborate in our typological schemes, and we must always realize that our typologies are too conveniently tied to our own systems to build doctrines upon. And so we end up with a non-progressive obfuscation. G. K. Beale can claim,
Mark 10:45 depicts Jesus as beginning to fulfill the Daniel prophecy [7:13]in an apparently different way than prophesied…in a hitherto unexpected manner. (Ibid., 195; my emphasis)
Perhaps one of the most striking features of Jesus’ kingdom is that it appears not to be the kind of kingdom prophesied in the OT and expected by Judaism. (Ibid., 431; my emphasis)
The word [musterion] elsewhere, when so linked with OT allusions, is used to indicate that prophecy is beginning fulfillment but in an unexpected manner in comparison to the way OT readers might have expected. (Ibid., 202; my emphasis)
Beale even thinks the OT believers were simply unable to comprehend the clearer revelation (643). But why, we may ask, was that? Surely because they had been conditioned what to expect by previous revelation?
Once again a dilemma is created for the conception of a progressive revelation. For “unexpected” outcomes of promises supposedly fulfilled, “in an apparently different way than prophesied,” upends the whole notion contained in either word in the term “progressive revelation,” flipping it on its head.
Making progressive revelation make sense
It appears that if we are going to preserve a concept of progressive revelation which does justice to the normal meaning of both words, we will have to accept a definition which incorporates the idea of traceability from A to Z and back again. This will require of us that we do not employ the term if we believe the revelation has been “subject to change” (Horton) in the OT, or once we have passed from the OT into the New. If we think any “transformation” (Beale) has taken place, we are better off adopting a different term so as to avoid confusing people. A “progression” which makes a bear spring up at the end of a series of leopard tracks belies the gradualism implicit in the word itself. In the same train, a “revelation” that fails to communicate what God had in mind all the time, until it is finally revised, is not really revealing anything until the revision occurs. As I have had cause to say elsewhere, “for covenant theologians, progressive revelation is not very progressive (as in one idea augmented by another), but is rather supercessive revelation (as in one idea being displaced by another).”
My main purpose in these posts is simply to demonstrate that the name “progressive revelation” has to point to what the words which are used would lead people to expect, for otherwise, good communication has not occurred.