Enjoy the podcast:
Back when I was a Christian, god’s word was true, every word, not just the ones that came later. Not only were all bible passages containers of absolute truth, they were unchanging as was the god who inspired them. He is the same yesterday, today, and forever.
This idea was reinforced by passages such as the following:
The Preeminent One of Israel does not go back on his word or change his mind, for he is not a human being who changes his mind.” 1 Sam. 15:29
You might be tempted to cry that I am not being fair with the context. But the second-half of the passage is not particularly context sensitive. God is contrasted with humans who change their mind. The idea is that god is not equipped with the same ability or need. He is ontologically different enough that he says what he says and means what he means without error the first time. No correction is ever necessary as with silly humans.
With ideas like this dancing in my head, I simply had no room for the concept of progressive revelation. At this point, we have to take a look at what Christians mean by progressive revelation, and why I can’t make any room for it in my hermeneutics:
Progressive Revelation, Defined
First, I don’t like to be in the uncomfortable position of defining someone else’s term. I prefer to let them explain what they mean, then work with that explanation. The best I can do is explain how I understand progressive revelation. I will leave it to Randal to agree with my explanation, or provide an explanation of how he sees it.
As I understand it, progressive revelation is the idea of starting with a part of the truth, or plan, or concept, then adding more to that understanding as time goes on. It is not revealed all at once. It is revealed over a progression of revelations.
Perhaps god’s overall plan is to have me defeat my enemy. But what he tells me is that I need to surrender to my enemy and quietly watch him slaughter my family. From my perspective, I do not know that god wants my enemy defeated. I only know that god wants me to humbly surrender.
Now further imagine that the way god defeats my enemy happens two or three generations later after I have been killed by that enemy. But because of my surrender, it inspired another generation of fighters even more fierce than the ones when I was alive. And in that way, god reveals more of his plan to them and they defeat my enemy.
I die believing that god requires pacifism. Perhaps he even gave me a command that says something like, “Thou shalt not raise a hand in your own defense against thine enemy regardless of provocation.” So I write that down as doctrine.
Forty years later, god tells my heirs to suffer not my enemy to live by any means necessary. God has not changed his mind. He has simply revealed his will via progressive revelation. Now to the human eye and ear, it sounds like god gave a moral command to one person, then gave a contradictory command to another person. Progressive revelation saves the believer from that accusation.
This is even more clear when we use actual examples from the Bible. One of the clearest and most debated examples is slavery. God’s treatment of slavery in the Old Testament is pretty hard to deny or categorize as anything other than him endorsing slavery. And while the New Testament never rolls any of that back explicitly, the believer insists that slavery is a moral evil that god eliminated.
Did god’s moral intuition change from one time period to another? Of course not. He is not human that he should change his mind. Rather, god gave people commands he knew they could manage that helped to move the needle in the right direction. In the New Testament, he was slightly more direct, giving us what we could handle about slavery. Eventually, he fully revealed to his people that he was really against slavery all along. Progressive revelation.
That is how I understand it. Here is the problem:
One of the biggest problems with progressive revelation I have already hinted at is that it can be used to cover up any change or contradiction regardless of how blatant. If god says something like, “thous shalt not kill”, then awards a person the position of leader of his people because they committed an act of duplicitous murder for the sake of the people, the believer can just say that god’s command not to kill was just a partial revelation of what he meant and didn’t mean. His later command does not contradict it, but clarifies it.
One moment, god’s moral intuition is that his people should suffer not a witch to live. In another time and place, god would never consider such behavior to be justifiable. What changed? Nothing. We just didn’t understand what was behind the earlier command. Progressive revelation allows the believer to agree with god’s moral intuition regardless of what it is. Because even when it seems wrong to us, it is only because we do not yet have the complete revelation.
Not everyone is an academic or scholar. They cannot read and comprehend such a long and complex writing as scripture. And they certainly don’t have the tools to parse apparent contradictions. So if they read something in one place that seems to be saying that god demands circumcision as an everlasting covenant, and in another place, that it is unnecessary, that is confusing.
It is worse when it comes to moral issues and attitudes. Is homosexuality an abomination or isn’t it? Maybe it is like slavery. The book presents it as one way. But our current attitudes toward it reflect progressive revelation that god was never against it. See how it can work both ways? When progressive revelation is an option, we can’t say with certainty anything about what is or isn’t moral.
It Makes the Bible Incomprehensible
One of the escape hatches some believers use for difficult passages is that god didn’t change his attitudes or commands. It is just that the people who wrote about them got it wrong. They did not understand the revelation they were given, or mistook their own sinful hearts as providing messages from god. The point is they were wrong, not god.
But all that means is that the Bible is full of wrong things written by people who unfaithfully transmitted god’s word. God never wanted those war crimes, genocides, or other atrocities that he supposedly commanded. So if that is the case, I cannot distinguish something in the Bible that accurately represents god and something that doesn’t. The bible becomes completely incomprehensible. At that point, I’m not sure why anyone should even bother.
Conclusion: An Open Question
At the end of the day, if god is dribbling out truth via progressive revelation, we have the challenge of ever knowing when or if something is fully revealed. Everything is still on the table. It is an open canon.
The Jews thought they knew what god’s plan was. But thanks to the magic of progressive revelation, the Christians can come along and snatch the rug out from under god’s chosen people. You see, they only thought they were god’s chosen with an everlasting covenant because that is what god clearly said. But they only got the first part of the revelation that progressed all the way to Christianity.
So what is to stop some other group from coming along and doing the same for Christianity? You think you understand the life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ultimate salvation Jesus offers? Progressive revelation could reveal that Jesus really saves everyone regardless of denomination or faith.
Everything is an open question. And no one can ever close those questions with definitive answers. The moment anyone gives progressive revelation as an answer to a biblical question, I stop listening.
I cannot distinguish progressive revelation from humans engaging in social evolution and natural ethical progress. The fact that many societies are recognizing the equality of women in all things cannot be put down to god’s progressive revelation. We fought hard and bled much for those insights.
Evolution is a slow process of successive approximation. And if that is the best god can do, then it seems we don’t really need him.
And that’s the view from the skeptic.
Making Sense of Progressive Revelation (Seeker’s View)
Thanks to David for raising his concerns about the important and challenging topic of progressive revelation. Let’s begin with the core of David’s definition:
“progressive revelation is the idea of starting with a part of the truth, or plan, or concept, then adding more to that understanding as time goes on. It is not revealed all at once. It is revealed over a progression of revelations.”
I am happy to work with this definition for our discussion. However, there is more to be said by way of general introduction. And to that end, I want to begin by explaining how the concept of progressive revelation is, in fact, a fitting description of education more generally.
Education as Revelation
In a teaching relationship, there is a teacher (the revealer), a student (the one revealed-to) and the knowledge to be acquired (the putative revelation). One important element of learning – particularly where it concerns challenging subject matter – is the so-called eureka moment. The term eureka is a transliteration of the Greek exclamation “I found it!” and it refers to the moment of discovery when a person suddenly grasps a subject matter. The eureka moment is an excellent example of revelation — a type of unveiling — as the student gains a new insight into reality.
Revelation as Progressive
Since education is a process, a journey, of intellectual and personal formation in the student, it follows that the revelatory experiences of this journey are fittingly described in the terms of progressive revelation.
One of the elements by which a teacher brings about this journey to understanding is the judicious use of technical falsehoods. Technical falsehoods are not lies for the intention is not to deceive. Rather, they are simplifications, something equivalent to shorthand.
For example, the English grammar teacher tells the student “‘I’ before ‘e’ except after ‘c’,” a simple, memorable principle which immediately yields insight into the bewildering landscape of English spelling. Later, the student will learn that this general rule of thumb has many exceptions (beginning with this qualification: “or when sounding like ‘a’ as in ‘neighbor’ and ‘weigh’”). Nonetheless, the initial rule serves its purpose until it can later be qualified.
To note one more example, the teacher of physics will initiate students into classical mechanics which ably describes the interactions of midsize to cosmic-sized entities. Only later will the teacher introduce students to the fact that classical mechanics breaks down at the subatomic level, thereby requiring the introduction of the field of quantum mechanics.
Progressive as borne by Accommodation
Finally, it is important to recognize that this gradual process of unveiling, often by way of technical falsehoods or simplifications, is all intended as a process of accommodation. I already referred to one type of accommodation: simplification. Accommodation refers to the practice of making concepts or ideas accessible to a particular audience through various teaching methods including simplification, story, analogy, and the communication of new ideas in a conceptual framework familiar to the student, even if that framework is itself incorrect.
So when the English teacher shares a simplified (and technically incorrect) rule for spelling, she does so as a form of accommodation, meeting the students where they are at so that they may be led into a deeper and fuller understanding of spelling and grammar.
All that we have said thus far can be applied to the Christian’s understanding of the means by which God reveals himself to us in progressive revelation. Thus, when the Christian appeals to progressive revelation, she is not appealing to some idiosyncratic feature unique to the Judeo-Christian tradition, but rather to a common, if not universal, pedagogical process by which people are inducted into a deeper understanding of a subject matter through a gradual revelatory process.
In the Christian tradition, that progressive revelation involves a gradual unveiling in several fields of knowledge. In what remains, I’ll briefly address three: our progressive understanding of nature, God, and ethics.
Progressive revelation in understanding nature
To begin with, the Hebrew Bible (i.e. the Old Testament) is written against the backdrop of the common Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) cosmology of a three-storied cosmos in which heaven is literally above, sheol (the place of the dead) is literally below, and a hard dome (raqia) holds an ocean above our heads. When God revealed himself to the ancient Israelites, he did so by accommodating to this conceptual framework, even though we now know it to be incorrect.
From the Judeo-Christian perspective, this is a prime example of progressive revelation in which God reveals himself by accommodation to the ANE cosmology. In the seventeenth century, Galileo famously quoted Cardinal Baronius: “The Bible tells us how to get to heaven, not how the heavens go.” While that aphorism may be a bit simplistic, it does capture well the fact that God adopted the ANE cosmology as a vehicle to communicate spiritual truths.
This understanding of accommodation allows the theologian to welcome further scientific advances – including the Copernicanism of Galileo’s day, the Neo-Darwinism of our day, and the hypothesized Grand Unified Theory of tomorrow – as further instances of the world progressively being revealed to us through the tools of natural science. None of this should present a problem for the Christian theologian.
Progressive revelation in understanding God
The earliest documents of the Hebrew scriptures are written in the milieu of ANE polytheism. (For example, many scholars believe the phrase “Let us make man in our image” (Gen. 1:26) reflects the ancient polytheistic notion of a council of the gods.) This is an example of accommodation to theological beliefs that we now know to be incorrect.
Over time, God moves the Israelites (and later the Christians) to a fuller understanding. In the later Hebrew scriptures (most notably Isaiah 40-48) the Hebrews begin to move toward an explicitly monotheistic position, a journey that is complete by the time of Jesus (cf. James 2:19). And so, when the church is led through the experience of Jesus to revisit the Jewish Shema (cf. 1 Cor. 8:6), these early Christians were simply following the logic of progressive revelation, a journey that would culminate ultimately in the articulation of the doctrine of the Trinity at Constantinople in 381.
Progressive revelation in understanding ethics
Our final example concerns ethics. One place where Jesus appears to make an explicit nod to accommodation pertains to divorce. When the Jewish leaders point out that the Torah allowed for divorce (Matthew 19:7), Jesus replies, “Moses permitted you to divorce your wives because your hearts were hard. But it was not this way from the beginning. I tell you that anyone who divorces his wife, except for sexual immorality, and marries another woman commits adultery.” (vv. 8-9)
Divorce is one thing, but what about other biblical ethical teaching which is more sharply at odds with contemporary ethical practice? Consider, for example, what may be the most extreme case of all: Yahweh war, a mode of warfare common in the ANE which included the targeting of civilian non-combatants (e.g. Deuteronomy 20:10-20). Could this teaching represent an accommodation to ANE practice and part of a journey to a more sophisticated and proper ethic?
Some scholars have suggested this approach. For example, here is Christopher Wright:
“Is it possible (and as I say, I am not convinced I can answer this one way or the other to my own satisfaction), that in a fallen world where struggle for land involves war, and if the only kind of war at the time was the kind described in the Old Testament texts, this was the way it had to be if the land-gift promise was to be fulfilled in due course? If anything along these lines can be entertained–that is to say, if herem-style warfare can be even contemplated in the same moral framework as slavery and divorce (and many might reject the thought outright)–then we might be dealing with something God chose to accommodate within the context of a wicked world, not something that represented his best will or preference.” (The God I Don’t Understand (Zondervan, 2008), p. 89)
While I respect Wright’s honest wrestling with the issue and the humility with which he presents this proposal, it seems to me that he has pressed the concept of accommodation too far. But we can perhaps defer further discussion of that matter until later.
To sum up, progressive revelation is a phenomenon that properly characterizes the journey to understanding generally. And this general phenomenon is reflected in Scripture in God’s accommodation to ideas now considered incorrect or obsolete in natural science, theology, and ethics.
In closing, let’s consider this question: if correct information about nature, God, and the ethical life are all important for human flourishing – as they presumably are – then why does God only release this information progressively over a long period of time?
My initial response to this important question is two-fold.
First, there is presumably inherent value in gradually acquiring information through a process of individual and corporate discovery which would not exist if that information were immediately infused in the human population. Think, by analogy, of the importance of climbing a mountain rather than riding a helicopter to the top. Perhaps there is inherent value in human beings undergoing a process of progressive revelation into the nature of the universe, God, and the ethical life.
Second, we should keep in mind that Scripture teaches that each individual is judged on the light we have been given (Rom. 2:14-15). Thus, God does not hold people responsible for acting on an inferior understanding of his nature. He judges all with perfect justice and mercy.