Series - Progressive Revelation

Progressive Revelation, Part 6

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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.

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 5

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In the first part of this series I referenced some things to which I should now like to return. Even before getting into what is meant when the two words “progressive revelation” are brought together, I said that we needed to settle on what revelation is. At bottom revelation is communication from God to man. The next question up is, how accessible a communication is it? Is it both constant and consistent? That is to say, does the revelation crop up repeatedly, and/or unequivocally? Does it have a character which is traceable backwards and forwards?

What did you expect?

I gave the examples of the Trinity and the Messianic prophecies to do with the first coming. I illustrated it by imagining tracking leopard tracks in the snow. One would expect the tracks to lead to a leopard. In the same way, a reliable progressive communication about a subject through time would produce an expectation based on the data contained in the words being revealed (unless the words were incompetent or deliberately misleading), just as one would not expect leopard tracks to lead to a bear, one would not expect OT predictions of Christ to be fulfilled in someone born in Jerusalem, from the tribe of Asher, begotten through an earthly father. Why? Because the those things were not part of what was communicated! And any “transformation” in the subject’s identity along the line of progression would manifestly terminate that progression!

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 4

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Revelation cannot be divorced from the character of the revealer.

Plain-speaking is usually thought to be a virtue. One should say what one means. On the other hand, it is not a virtue to use words which one knows beforehand may lead another person to conclude we mean one thing, when, in actuality, we mean something more obscure and inscrutable, or even utterly different.

To show how impactful this truth is, I’ll pick an example from another sphere. In his recent book against the false claims of Richard Dawkins, Jonathan Sarfati writes this:

It is…disingenuous for an ardent antitheist like Dawkins to profess concern about a creator’s alleged deception. However, biblical creationists respond that the real deception would be for a creator to use evolution then tell us in the Bible something diametrically opposed in every respect—the time frame, the method, the order of events, and the origin of death and suffering. (The Greatest Hoax On Earth?, 26)

The complaint against Dawkins stems from his blindness to his own presuppositions. However, the thrust of this statement is not against Dawkins, but against any “creator” who would employ language to beguile his creatures. Like a person who deceives a dog into running after a stick which she only pretends to throw, the kind of god who would “reveal” the creative work in the words of Genesis 1 and 2 when, as a matter of fact, he did it by evolution, would deserve to be labelled, as Sarfati says, “disingenuous.”

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 3

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We have seen that the idea of progressive revelation is connected to two things: the intent behind the communication, and the boundaries prescribed by previous revelation/communication. I have said that these two concerns, together with a definition of the adjective “progressive” as building or augmenting one thing upon another, necessitates an approach in which the picture does not change out of recognition, but is trackable both forwards and backwards from every point in the progression. This implies that the progressions are self-evident at every point along the line of revelation, even though the full picture may not be seen for what it is until the very end. This in turn produced the following definition:

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.

When “progressive revelation” becomes misleading

Notice that commonality and continuity of ideas are essential to this definition. If there is ambiguity there is always uncertainty about what is being revealed. This results in a “progression” which may not appear as a true advancement. If that is the case the terminology “progressive revelation” only refers at best to the completedrevelation, but not the process of revelation. This makes the adjective “progressive” misleading, for if one cannot trace the progression, then it hardly deserves to be called either “progressive,” nor “revelation.”

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 2: Toward a Definition

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Progressive revelation relies in the first instance upon the competence of how that revelation has been communicated. To deny this point is to cast doubt upon the utility of the modifier “progressive.” Revelation has to reveal or else it is not a revelation. Progressive revelation has to reveal progressively in a logically connectable way in order to be what it claims to be and to substantiate itself.

The example of the Trinity

Think about the doctrine of the Trinity. It is a classic illustration of progressive revelation. As it starts out, the Bible introduces God. Then it speaks about the Spirit of God who broods in contemplation over the unformed mass (Gen. 1:2). We get to the schema (Deut. 6:4), and we learn that the God who is “one” (echad, which can mean a plurality in unity as in Gen. 2:24) is perhaps just such a plurality in unity. Numbers 6:24-26 hints also at this, as of course do the inner discussions of God with Himself (the “let us” passages) in Genesis 1:26, and 10:7, and the occurrence of the Visitor to Abraham, who, as Yahweh called down fire and brimstone from Yahweh in heaven in Genesis 19:24. Then we read Psalm 110:1 and Proverbs 8:22-31 add to the picture of a Deity who is alone God but is not unitarian. Indeed, Messiah is given Divine attributes in Micah 5:2 and is called “Immanuel” in Isaiah 7:14 and “Mighty God” in Isaiah 9:6. Yahweh is betrayed for thirty pieces of silver in Zechariah 11:12-13.

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What is Progressive Revelation? Part 1

Introduction: the Bible as a communication

The Bible is one Book, not two. It should be read from front to back, not in reverse. Tracing the chronology of Scripture is, in general terms, an important part of Bible study. Everyone is aware that there are cases where specific time-slots cannot be allocated with certainty to some episodes in Judges or the historical vantage point of Obadiah. You will always find a more liberally inclined person ready to correct you about the date of Daniel or “Second Isaiah” or Matthew’s Gospel. But from the standpoint of someone who says he believes in the inspiration and inerrancy of Scripture, the Bible is a fundamentally divine Word to creatures formed in God’s image.

This Word from God, which we now have in the Bible, was produced over many hundreds of years. As the story of the Bible unfolds certain things are put in place which will relate to things that appear later on. In most cases these key things are initiated by God Himself, the Author both of the Book we’re reading, and of the circumstances we read about.

The Bible is not simply a storybook. The Bible is, as I like to call it, “a word from outside.” By this I mean that it comes from the One who made and sustains our reality, both now and in the future. And this One, the God of Creation, has done two things which are presupposed by the existence of the Bible. He has spoken truth to human beings, and He has enabled human beings to speak His truth to one another. Putting aside for the moment the problem of our common failure to reflect God’s truth in our every communication (something I’ll return to), the fact remains that communication—from God first and then to each other—is going on. So before we can get into our main subject of progressive revelation, we must initially ponder what makes for effective communication.

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