Progressive Revelation?

I’ve received a request to write a 1000 word essay on “progressive revelation” for the Global Wesleyan Dictionary of Biblical Theology, so I’m turning my thoughts to that topic.

For many Christians, “progressive revelation” has a sinister meaning, conjuring up images of Joseph Smith receiving the book of Mormon from the angel Moroni. The fear is that someone will come along with a teaching that claims to improve on or replace the Bible.

There is, however, a sense in which all Christians accept the notion of progressive revelation, for surely every Christian believes that the New Testament goes beyond the Old Testament–that the OT is incomplete without the NT (granting that the NT is incomplete without the OT) and that the complete revelation of God is not found until we get to the NT’s witness to Jesus.

This much is not controversial among Christians. But is there progressive revelation in the NT? Do parts of the NT express God’s revelation more profoundly than do others?

This consideration is forced on us for two reasons. First, on any given topic, the NT may well exhibit more than one view. Second, the moral teaching of some NT passages is problematic.

As to the first point (that on any given topic, the NT may well exhibit more than one view): Take, for instance, the NT attitudes toward women in ministry. Romans 16 mentions two women who seem to have responsible positions of authority in the church: Prisca (16:3) and Junia (16:7). We meet Prisca, with her husband Aquila, in Acts 18. Like Paul, they have an apostolic ministry–they travel and preach. In Romans 16, Paul calls them co-workers. Junia is likewise said to be prominent among the apostles. It seems, then, that in the circles in which Paul traveled, there were female apostles. But elsewhere in the NT, there is much less enthusiasm for women in authoritative ministry. 1 Timothy 2 most famously prohibits women from teaching or exercising authority over men. Considerable energy has been spent in recent years trying to show that this passage doesn’t really contain this prohibition (I’m thinking about groups like Christians for Biblical Equality), but I’m not convinced.

What is most likely happening is that, as the church moved into the late first and second centuries, there was a felt need to move the church in a socially conservative direction. There were, in the 2d century, varieties of Christianity that were socially radical, calling, for example, for Christians to be celibate and renounce marriage (as in the “Acts of Paul and Thecla”). These groups found support in Paul’s letters (notably 1 Cor. 7) and in the example of people like Prisca and Junia. For various reasons, mainstream Christianity felt the need to steer away from this radicalism and toward social values typical of Greco-Roman society–hence 1 Timothy’s prohibition of women having authority and various NT passages (such Ephesians and Colossians) trying earnestly to subordinate wives to husbands.

We thus have a multiplicity of teachings in the NT on this subject. This is just an example. Take the eating of food sacrificed to idols: We have Paul’s view in 1 Corinthians, which amounts to allowing such eating under certain conditions, and also the view of Revelation, which issues a categorical prohibition of such eating. The NT, then, often offers more than one view of a subject.

For Christians who want to take the Bible seriously as a witness to God’s revelation, this presents a puzzle. How can we do justice to the NT’s teaching if there is disagreement on a given point? As noted, some Christians have developed ingenious arguments to show that the NT really does uniformly allow women to teach and have authority. However, these arguments are quite strained and really result from the fervent desire to show that the NT has a single, uniform teaching in spite of its multiplicity of authors and contexts.

It seems to me to be more intellectually and spiritually honest to acknowledge that, in the NT, we see the early Christians trying to understand God’s revelation in a variety of situations. The second century conservative reaction to Christian radicalism (seen in Ephesians, Colossians, 1 Timothy and elsewhere) is perfectly understandable, given the fact that the Christian movement was increasingly receiving negative attention from the Roman Empire–Christians did not want to invite unnecessary scrutiny from imperial officials and thus wanted to appear as normal as possible.

For us today, trying to live Christianly, the question is, what should our attitude toward women and authority be? And, how do we honor the NT’s teaching(s)?

My suggestion is that we allow that, just as the NT represents a fuller revelation of God than does the OT, so some NT passages represent a fuller revelation of God than do some others. Paul’s favorable attitude toward female apostles is, I argue, more in tune with Galatians 3:28 (In Christ there is neither Jew nor Greek, slave nor free, they are not male and female) than is a passage like 1 Timothy 2, with its prohibition of women in positions of authority, even though we can honor 1 Timothy as a response to a particular situation in the late 1st/early 2d century.

In my next journal entry I’ll address the second point that I raised above (that the moral teaching of some NT passages is problematic) and perhaps also speak to the question, how do we determine that one NT passage is a fuller expression of revelation than is another.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s